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Meditation: Benefits…And Dangers?


958443_69690573C.R. writes: A friend of mine’s son left his home in Israel to travel through India and Nepal and returned shortly before the recent earthquake. He had trekked with his friends, searching for enlightenment, but returned home with a parasitic infection, feeling weak and also disillusioned.

He described what he saw as the hypocrisy of some of the gurus and yogis he met (he called them “cash-rakers”) and told how some of the Westerners who flocked to them seemed to magnify their worst personality traits after time spent following certain meditative practices.

His email to me said: “They become intolerant of anyone who disturbs their “bliss”, and they are like addicts being hooked on their drug,” he told me. “Nothing bothers them unless it messes with their personal comfort and they seem to become really short on compassion.”

Before he left home, my friend’s son was a big believer in meditation as the answer to both physical and mental health problems. When he returned, not so much.

Not one to rest on his own assumptions, he told me he had recently begun to read viewpoints opposing to the one he held previously. He also recommended several books, including one he described as “really well written and researched” book which explored the Americans who brought their own interpretation of Tibetan spirituality to America and declared themselves infallible (one American lama declared the other a “god”), and the destructive path they took. Meditation was a huge, if not central part of their practice.

He’s now considering writing a book himself about how we don’t have to export certain Eastern spiritual meditation-practices to find emotional dangers in them. You can find problems right in their home countries with what he calls “meditation cults” being problem number one.

“Perhaps if there were no tourists, these kinds of meditations would be just practiced by a certain portion of the population or those who had the cultural framework to deal with it, but I think some of those who teach Westerners succumb to greed and their own egos in many cases and in others, just don’t know how to deal with the fact that what is beneficial for some is bad for others.”

“If you take away people’s desire to do anything but meditate, Westerners especially, because during meditation is the one time they can “get away from it all”, they can kind of avoid relationships, not worry about lack of connecting with others or their lack of goals and achievements and they can even develop emotional problems because after all, nothing matters except merging with the Universe,” he said.

(I’ll let you know if his book gets published!)

Meditation Studies

As someone who daily employs a specific Jewish meditation called hisbodedus, which is both a contemplative as well as a prayer technique, I have long personally believed that while connecting to the Creator in personal prayer is an intensely therapeutic form of meditation, other types of meditation, even ones I disagree with, have been proven to offer health benefits, even mental-health benefits, such as stress management.

The author of A Death on Diamond Mountain, the book my friend’s son was telling me about, author, investigative journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney, calls my belief into question. He writes:

As a category, research on meditation almost always shares a certain selection bias. Positive results get attributed to the meditation practices while negative ones are reduced to the status of preexisting conditions. Indeed, almost all researchers who focus on meditation are themselves avid meditators or yogis. In many cases, spiritual institutions actually foot the bill for the studies in the first place.

Carney, who has spent time in India and speaks Hindi fluently, has more to say:

A 2014 study in the Jounral of the American Medical Association, found that out of 18,000 citations [of the terms meditation and yoga] in medical literature, only 47 (!) of them had a control group and were good enough to stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Okay, I’m pretty disappointed in myself.

For over five years, the Therapy Soup blog has (occasionally) been pointing out biased and otherwise flawed studies (Cheat Smarts, Fame and Money, Bias in Social Psychology, etc.) and other PsychCentral writers have commented and reported voluminously on this problem (Can You Believe This?, College Student Bias, Questions about Clinical Data, Doubtful Dolphin Therapy, and more).

So, why did I fall for the meditation studies?

Is it my own bias? Even where I profoundly disagree with the source and style of the meditation practice, I assumed that most had well-documented stress-reducing effects. Even towards the end of one post I write a sweeping positive statement about a meditation study, while I only parenthetically question the funding source of the study.

In a Scientific American article, John Horgan outright questions meditation studies:

Investigations of meditation’s therapeutic benefits have been equally inconclusive. Meditation has been linked to a dizzying array of benefits, including the alleviation of stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, substance abuse, hostility, pain, depression, asthma, premenstrual syndrome, infertility, insomnia, substance abuse and the side effects of chemotherapy. But many of these studies have been poorly designed, Andresen remarked, carried out with inadequate controls or no controls at all.

Andresen noted that meditation has been linked to adverse side effects, too, including suggestibility, neuroticism, depression, suicidal impulses, insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, psychosis and dysphoria. In an implicit reference to the cultish context within which meditation is often taught, Andresen added that meditators may become vulnerable to “manipulation and control by others,” including “unscrupulous or delusional teachers.”

And he even points to a peer-reviewed meta-study which shows numerous flawed studies are being used as reliable resources.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the comments section of the article where readers weigh in and defend or argue.

One of the issues that is confounds even serious research is that sometimes potential mental illness can occur when triggered by extremely stressful events (such as the use of drugs, or a trauma).

So, if meditation is generally helpful and stress-relieving, but some people are indeed developing emotional problems while meditating, is it because meditation itself is inherently flawed or dangerous or because these particular individuals shouldn’t be meditating in the first place? Also, can meditation exacerbate an emotional issue or personality issue?

And do we have to rethink what we believe because of flawed studies or funding bias? For example, the U.S. government paid more than 20 million dollars to the Maharishi’s organization (he’s the one who brought TM to the West) to do a study of…TM.*

So much settled science is not really settled…

*A Wikipedia article seems to suggest that the researchers were TM teachers and practitioners (who earned their living from teaching TM) and the subjects were TM students.

Meditation: Benefits…And Dangers?


Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.


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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2015). Meditation: Benefits…And Dangers?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/therapy-soup/2015/05/meditation-benefits-and-dangers/

 

Last updated: 4 May 2015
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