It seems like almost every day a new study is released on the health and psychological benefits of meditation. While this may lead to more acceptance within the mainstream medical establishment, it also means that the shadow side of meditation is overlooked and negated.
In this short video clip, neuroscientist Willoughby Britton and yoga/Buddhist Teacher Michael Stone discuss the “dark side of meditation.” As Britton notes, in meditation studies there is a bias towards portraying meditation in a positive light, and it’s not representative of the full breadth of the practice.
In her research, she interviewed teachers about the difficulties they’ve encountered (in themselves and students) on the path, including cognitive challenges, changes in sense of self, hyperactive emotions and resurfacing of traumatic memories. In his teaching practice, Stone has also observed meditation-related difficulties and adverse responses.
Willoughby Britton, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, neuroscientist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Brown Medical School. She has taught meditation to prisoners, the terminally ill, distressed adolescents, and anxious, depressed and stressed adults. She has studied the effects of meditation for more than 15 years and lectured internationally on the neurobiological and psychological effects.
Britton talks more about her work and The Dark Night Project in this Buddhist Geeks podcast.
IAYB reader Bethania (from Yoga In The Sky) transcribed part of the conversation. Here are her notes:
BRITTON: [During interviews, the experiences noted fall into categories she identifies.]
…So we have cognitive perceptual and sensory aberrations, emotional difficulties or challenges or just changes that are very disturbing to people, changes in sense of self was one of the categories; and then, any kind of physiological manifestation.
So those were the four categories
that the different experiences seem to fall into.
And actually as we were going through there was a fifth one,
which was sort of impairment in social relationships.
So they’re coping with a lot of this, high sensitivity to stimuli; very strong emotional reactions, almost hyper reactive emotion; a lot of times traumatic memories can start to erupt through the body, and again, aren’t turned off just because the bell rang.
STONE: It’s really important. Because I have a psychotherapy background and was also trained as a vipassana teacher, once a month I would get a phone call or an email from somebody who has come off a retreat, from whatever tradition, and they were falling apart.
At first, when I started meeting them and learning about the physical stuff that was going on for them or the splitting that was happening or psychosis.
I was trained in a kind of psychological paradigm that what was coming up for them was old memories of trauma or something from their childhood
….the more people who I started working with the more I realized that actually wasn’t what was coming up
They were people who were really balanced…. hadn’t had a lot of trauma [or had worked through it maturely] …. and they were having explosive, sometimes, temperatures, [describes physical pains, sensations]
In our training as meditation teachers we need to learn more not about just recognizing trauma, but also how to work with these movements and sensations that are so overwhelming for people.