A disturbance of the life-bearing wind that supports the mind
June 29, 2014 12:28 AM   Subscribe

Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to recommend meditation over on the green.

Buddhist traditions do acknowledge that people can experience a wide variety of problems when meditating. "Sokrlung, which means ‘a disturbance of the life-bearing wind that supports the mind’, is a mental disorder resulting from overzealous practise." Apparently the solution is not to practise solo but with the guidance of an experienced mentor.

But as Buddhist practitioner, clinical psychologist and neuroscientist Willoughby Britton points out, "the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in the modern West isn’t Buddhism; it is science, medicine, and schools".
posted by Athanassiel (48 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
News Flash: deep contemplation of reality and mindful investigation into one's own psychological state can provoke negative responses especially for those with psychological issues. Having experienced, ethical mentors helps but they can be challenging to find. Therapy from a licensed therapist is a good accompaniment to meditation. Full report at 11:00
posted by dubitable at 12:45 AM on June 29, 2014 [25 favorites]

The article from The Atlantic mentions some Christian texts in passing, but as an atheist who attended a Catholic college run by monks and had a friend who was a member of a cloistered order for many years, I have to say that many contemplative prayer and other ascetic practices among Catholics often look and sound, when described and discussed, quite similar to the Yoga, Sufi, and Buddhist practices mentioned. But when people in our society seek out this genre of experience and discipline, it seems like they almost universally choose to pursue Asian-derived traditions.

So I have to think there's a degree of Othering going on and a construction of a Yoda / Mr. Miyagi / "ancient wisdom" source that is put on a pedestal and transcendent of the mundane, that people would expect meditation to lack the complexities of other human activities to the point that the existence of negative aspects and experiences are a "myth" as title of the third link puts it.
posted by XMLicious at 2:04 AM on June 29, 2014 [33 favorites]

Well, this is timely and fascinating. Just this year, I've dumped 18% of my bodyweight, and my own mental gymnastics plaid a very important role. And I'm exhausted, as I did it with diet and exercise. LOTS of exercise. But the driving force was my mind.

I knew I was doing it. It worked! Only now, where the hell am I? Tired of a disorganized life where the majority of my time was spent burning calories. VERY tired of sore feet. No longer driven by mental machinations constructed for the purpose, without a lot of forethought. It wasn't a plan, it was jiggery and experimentation.

Also, it leaves me kind of scared I'll gain it all back. LOL. Not TOO worried.

But this is going to require some digestion, as it IS very relevant. Thanks for the post.
posted by Goofyy at 2:07 AM on June 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Most meditation paths are not designed to be traveled alone. There are too many traps, dead ends, and unskillful approaches to meditation for a beginner to undertake the practice by themself. In my practice, I have stumbled into deep pools of rage, sadness, and other emotions that could have been overwhelming if I didn't have the guidance of my teacher.

The best approach, in my opinion, is to find a meditation center that has an experienced and trustworthy teacher and go there regularly. That way, you'll have solid guidance through the rough patches and doldrums. It may be a challenge to find such a place, but it really is the best way to start.

Also, don't underestimate the power of your fellow meditators. There's a reason why Buddhism stresses the importance of the sangha (the community of Buddhists). I found a surprising amount of support in meditating with a bunch of other people; a comfort in knowing that you're with others who are struggling with the same problems you have. This is especially important when you're just starting out, as everybody starts off feeling like they're meditating the wrong way.

I have mixed feelings about non-Buddhist organizations promoting a very Buddhist form of meditation. Mindfulness can indeed bring health benefits, but, given the number of problems the solitary meditator can encounter, it's not a great idea. There are a number of psychiatrists and psychologists who regularly practice meditation, but they don't have the depth and subtlety of experience of someone who has devoted their life to Buddhism.

As with everything, your mileage may vary, but these are the things that I have found to be true.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 2:09 AM on June 29, 2014 [15 favorites]

This is a very bizarre thing to read after just watching Beyond the Black Rainbow.
posted by smidgen at 2:11 AM on June 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

I myself get touchy the moment religion enters the picture. Even calling it Buddhism makes me hesitant. Religion carries baggage. Baggage weighs things down.

And I say this even though I very happily describe myself as a Buddhist Christian. I am not anti-religion. I'm just extremely allergic to dogma. Buddhists are not free of this malady.
posted by Goofyy at 2:15 AM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I thought Brad Warner was interesting on the topic: http://hardcorezen.info/zen-freak-outs/2865
posted by curious_yellow at 2:41 AM on June 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I have to say that many contemplative prayer and other ascetic practices among Catholics often look and sound, when described and discussed, quite similar to the Yoga, Sufi, and Buddhist practices mentioned.

I can't speak to Yoga or Sufi practices but with regards to Buddhist meditation I would say the goal is pretty much the opposite of Christian meditation. The latter is about tightening up your connection with God, the former about loosening up your connections to just about everything.

In general I don't think meditation itself is a religious act any more than getting together for a Sunday morning sing-a-long. Context is key.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:56 AM on June 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

As my research is showing, along with this mass enthusiasm for meditation has come an epidemic of casualties.

In general I like what Britton has to say and I'm glad she's out to do some epidemiology around meditation side effects, but I wish she would hold off until she has some numbers before tossing around words like "epidemic."

(On the other hand she'll probably never get funding to do the studies if she can't sell this as a Pressing Public Health issue, so there's that.)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:18 AM on June 29, 2014

curious_yellow, that was the kind of article I was looking for to support the whole thing of if you have a teacher who knows what they're doing, they can help you through any dangerous bits. Thanks for the link! And I like the term "freak-outs", it might not be as poetic as "a disturbance of the life-bearing wind that supports the mind" but it's a lot shorter.
posted by Athanassiel at 3:26 AM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

The latter is about tightening up your connection with God, the former about loosening up your connections to just about everything.

I would have said the same thing in the past but having been close to someone who spent many years of their life in cloistered contemplative prayer 24 hours a day, it doesn't seem like a complete description. Yeah, there's lots of tightening up your connection with God, but it's not all that: there's something almost Taoist, it seems to me, in my friend's description of a life subordinated and subsumed in the rhythm of morning, mid-day, evening prayers, hoeing the next row, compassionately caring for the elderly members of the community; with a major objective on her part, and on the part of many of her fellows at the abbey, being to dwell in stillness and calmness and harmony with her surroundings to better perceive her internal self and work on making it well-ordered.

Yes, a Catholic conception of a well-ordered self is a different heuristic from deciding your self needs to be properly loosened from just about everything, but a Catholic monk fixed in introspection to nurture the optimum mental attitude towards her universe and a Buddhist monk fixed in introspection to nuture the optimum mental attitude towards his universe seem like things that are more similar to each other than either is to nearly any other human endeavor, rather than things that are polar opposites.
posted by XMLicious at 3:41 AM on June 29, 2014 [19 favorites]

I think the author of the article, as well as many of the subjects quoted in the article, have fallen into the trap of mistaking correlation for casualty. It is not possible to take one aspect of a person's life- meditation , in this example- and attributing deleterious effects when other human processes- social, developmental, and especially biological- are unfolding simultaneously. This "contamination" of the field confounds the study of human beings. As a psychiatrist I have seen troubled people drawn to meditation with mostly good results. But when things don't go so well, or worse, I'm more inclined to blame the relentless unfolding of biological or bio psychological processes than the toxic effects of the meditation. Even so, I don't know for sure. Dr. Britton, to her great credit, is doing the painstaking work of a series of case studies to sort this out.
posted by Jeff Dewey at 4:02 AM on June 29, 2014 [10 favorites]

Meditation is not a replacement for medication.
posted by parmanparman at 4:34 AM on June 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

"Psychological hell," is how he describes it. "It would come and go in waves. I’d be in the middle of practice and what would come to mind was everything I didn't want to think about, every feeling I didn't want to feel." David felt "pebble-sized" spasms emerge from inside a "dense knot" in his belly.
Most "dark nights of the soul" come from doing a lot of insight practice, which modern meditation teaching tends to over-emphasize and teach too early. In the context of Buddhism, it's important to keep in mind that there are two other aspects to the teaching, virtue and concentration. The three aspects all support each other, of course, and you can't push too far with development of insight unless you have a fairly solid foundation in the other two. For instance, before the Buddha took his seat under the Bodhi tree and mastered the four noble truths, which is an insight attainment, he had already mastered the highest level of concentration described in the suttas, which actually involves learning to turn the mind away from feelings you "don't want to feel."

One way to ensure stability of mind when insight practice kicks up disturbing material is to focus one's practice on developing a solid foundation in the other skills associated with meditation, as described in, for instance, The Fortress Sutta.
posted by fivebells at 5:00 AM on June 29, 2014 [19 favorites]

If this was the result of drugs, there would be outrage. It turns out that a bad trip is a bad trip no matter how you got there.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:13 AM on June 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

XMLicious: One of the first thoughts I had processing my early stages of meditative practice was that Martin Luther was absolutely wrong to completely abandon the monastic orders. I think there is something to the concern there is a lot of othering that goes on around discussion on meditation, but that may well be built into the fabric of western life. At least in the US, it is a protestant state, by far the majority, and there is little protestant monasticism or meditative practice. There has been some reintroduction of the ideas in younger variants like the Pentecostals, but genuine, fully realized monastic orders are not common here. Loss of monastic resources are a cost of secularization.
posted by Strange_Robinson at 5:23 AM on June 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I haven't read the articles yet, but this is interesting to me because I tried to start meditating last winter and had to stop because it felt like it was bringing up more bad than good. I thought it would be OK because I do yoga, and I have done meditation workshops before.

So I was talking about it yesterday with my yoga teacher (who I also happen to know from other areas of my life) and she recommended guided meditations, but I was skeptical because I'm always worried about cults and such...
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:36 AM on June 29, 2014

I'm a little sceptical about the current backlash against secular mindfulness stuff. We've already been told it'll make you submissive to The Man, and now the Buddhists it was appropriated from are objecting that it'll drive you crazy. Meanwhile, the literature reviews are suggesting that it doesn't actually do that much anyway...

To say that a technique is designed to bring about certain realisations doesn't mean that it will do if it is shorn of the cultural context that tells you what you're supposed to realise, so I do wonder whether some of this is like Christians warning about Ouija boards or the NLP believers who apparently live in fear of Derren Brown. To believe your system has access to great powers, you must also believe it is potentially dangerous.

Not very surprisingly, the mindfulness book I've been following is keen on getting you to see that thoughts are like internal weather and to get you to be able to concentrate on present sensations, but hasn't really gone into the "no self" stuff. I've had more dissocation from reading Peter Watts's books.
posted by pw201 at 6:14 AM on June 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Well this explains a lot. At a "wellness day" team building activity, there was a group meditation that left me in tears in front of forty of my co-workers :( The theme of the session was increased happiness through meditation, but instead I felt depressed for days afterwards.
posted by Calzephyr at 6:35 AM on June 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's hard enough to get most people in the West to sit still and silent for five minutes. Overzealous practice? I expect that some people might fall prey to that, but it wouldn't be very widespread.

I think it's important to be aware of the power of a spiritual practice like meditation, and that it can bring to light some very scary stuff. So it's good that there's some discussion of and public attention paid to the potential downside. A good teacher and community, and frequent, honest communication, are paramount in importance.

Getting "high" on a regular basis during meditation as described in the Atlantic article, to me, is a red flag. Meditation is not about pursuing "feeling good," although many people start out that way. With proper instruction, they learn that it's about sitting still with your thoughts and feelings and observing their ephemeral nature. At least that's the Buddhist view, which makes sense to me.

Full disclosure: I'm Budd-hish (Insight/Vipassana tradition, with a dash or two of Zen), have been meditating after a fashion for at least a year, and have seen some small fruits of practice. I also have a spiritual mentor whom I communicate with in depth at least once a week. Very important. She recommended that I (re)try meditation, but that, like everything else, I wear the meditation "like a loose garment" - meaning I'm not sitting for hours at a time. I also have a couple of spiritual communities with which I'm affiliated. Some stuff has come up that disturbed me, and I communicated about it. Still going on with the practice and I'm no crazier than I was a year ago. In fact, some good stuff is afoot which may well be tied to my increased ability to observe, not react.

All of the foregoing notwithstanding, I can say with a good deal of confidence that more people meditating for a few minutes a day on a regular basis, in our massively deluded cultural environment, would be a good thing, whether or not they go it alone. Most people will not run into the problems described in the Atlantic article: at worst, they'll fall asleep or get a Charlie horse in their calf.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 6:59 AM on June 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Not all meditation is the same. And just as a good acid trip depends on the right setting, the factors connected to the meditation experience are crucial. My first five years of meditation were connected with a quasi-Hindu cult, and although sometimes blissful and never dark, they had something in common with dissociative states, I think. The last 35 years I have had the benefit of a spiritual teacher who explains everything very precisely. (Sometimes linguistic difficulties - and mistranslations can get in the way of spiritual unfoldment: "ego," "mind," etc.) For most, meditation is good, even when done kinda wrong. Psychological pathology is not necessarily connected to meditation…this is a problematic issue to study quantitatively.
posted by kozad at 7:19 AM on June 29, 2014

So many come to the contemplative life with the idea and expectation that it's all "Oh, Peace!" and/or "Oh, Joy!" whereas the fact of the matter is that like as not it's going to be "Oh, Fuck!" at least as often as the Peace or Joy bits that're in it.

You just sit with it all.

At times I'm pouring sweat. Other times I'm totally at ease. Same-same. Sit.

I'm not waiting for the bell when I'm in Peace, when I'm in Joy; it's not waiting at all. It's just sitting, easily, stepped out of time, released. But I'm goddamn sure waiting for that fucking bell when it's roaring in there, when all is tumult and ache, when I'm looking dead-on at the pieces of myself that I do not want to see as being there in myself but there they are, big as Dallas.

Sit. Wait for the bell, or not.

But show up. And sit.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:34 AM on June 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

"All of man's trouble stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone" . That's what this post reminds me of. Some of the discussion about potential harm from meditative practices seems to be about the 'alarming void' that looms inside. I suppose that's true in some sense that there's a ton of un-wished for feelings, ideas and mental states inside the brain that can be triggered. The problems related in this article seem to me like issues waiting to surface. I don't think meditation causes these states to occur any more than poking a screwdriver into a rotted board causes the rot. It's just a way to see what's really there. It brings them into sharp focus.
Perhaps it's preferable for some to stay in their habitual modes of thinking. Simply sitting still in a room and doing nothing causes them to freak out and enter into a world of depressive fantasizing. The entire concept around meditation causing one to enter into some kind of emotional high is misguided and only leads to problems. Doing it in a context of guided groups is another fail for me as well, at least in the sense of various kinds of gurus doing this.
In my own anecdotal experience, meditation (vipassna) is a way to retrain the attention back to the present moment. It's slow, unremarkable and like chipping away at an iceberg with an ice pick. The iceberg representing all the habits of mind accumulated over a life time of not being particularly present in the moment.
I learned pretty much everything I know about meditation from this guy and it's served me well. I balance my practice with practices of loving kindness prayer and exercise. This serves me well. I don't particularly feel a need to join a community to be guided though I respect and value the tremendous body of knowledge the Buddhist path brings to this arena.
The problems I address through meditation for myself were ones that western medical tradition seems to have no analog that seems useful to me.
posted by diode at 7:55 AM on June 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

There are a few charlatans who have a community and take the unprepared on retreats. When I belonged to a zen temple many years ago you had to be a regular for well over a year before you were considered fit to attend a rigorous three day camp. Newcomers and intense meditation experience is like throwing non-swimmers into the deep end.

Is it really widespread? Does anybody have much more than friend of a friend bad experiences?
posted by bukvich at 8:04 AM on June 29, 2014

There is a huge difference between spending a few minutes each day with a quiet mind and going away to a silent retreat for weeks on end to plumb the depths of your soul. Just because can be relaxing to float in a pool for awhile, doesn't mean I'm terribly shocked that it's traumatizing to be left out in the ocean treading water for a few weeks.
posted by the jam at 8:18 AM on June 29, 2014 [10 favorites]

I think Britton's work is really important, but that it would be a pity if it became interpreted as a reason not to meditate. More just a reason not to treat meditation as a magical path to instant and permanent bliss. Nobody is surprised when being in therapy "feels worse before it feels better", and as I understand it the same can be true of antidepressants; wouldn't it would be strange if serious insight meditation were an exception to this?
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:22 AM on June 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

XMLicious: The specific kinds of meditation encouraged in Christian practice are known in meditation enthusiast circles as "flowing" meditation (if I'm remembering my terminology correctly), and are actually kind of the exact opposite of Buddhist mindfulness meditation in that they emphasize surrendering to the the flow of spiritual energy rather than self-observation. They may look similar on the outside, but their methods and intent are not at all the same from what I've read on the subject.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:40 AM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

We've already been told it'll make you submissive to The Man, and now the Buddhists it was appropriated from are objecting that it'll drive you crazy. Meanwhile, the literature reviews are suggesting that it doesn't actually do that much anyway...

The article, and many of the comments here, have a tendency to discuss meditation without questioning whether the implied model of human consciousness is accurate, and the result is basically an argument about who's doing it wrong, and how. I've only seen backhanded analyses that suggest that the repeated act of meditation is straightforwardly beneficial for some, not for others, and harmful in a minority of cases, because we simply aren't identical at the level at which meditation has an effect. Instead of analyzing these issues in terms of "are we Buddhist enough about it?", it would seem more useful to say "not going well after a few sessions? Try a float tank instead."

A lot of what's been discovered about the mind in the 20th century tends towards the conclusion that there is no coherent model of what it is to be conscious. It shouldn't surprise us that practices that aid a large number of people aren't universally appropriate.
posted by fatbird at 9:10 AM on June 29, 2014

"Psychological hell," is how he describes it. "It would come and go in waves. I’d be in the middle of practice and what would come to mind was everything I didn't want to think about, every feeling I didn't want to feel."

Incidentally, this is the main reason (of many) talk therapy is completely counterproductive for me. Hey, let's just keep picking that scab!
posted by Sys Rq at 9:14 AM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

(I wrote this and it turned rather long.. I thought about attempting to make it short since I knew lengthy posts are not the ideal posting method, but I think I have had a pretty long journey of working through buddhist ideas and meditative practices for healing and might as well share it in long form... this is your warning to skip if you don't like super long posts!!)

Letting go of all attachment means entering the realm of the dead. If you cease to consume you cease to exist. I feel like most religions have their own pathologies that could use criticism from outside the practitioners themselves. When I embarked on buddhist studies at 19 I went very deeply into some very intensive practices, all following some intensive trauma.

I don't share a belief in psychopharmacology for emotional wellness, I think even those marks of trauma that we carry within our biology are things that can be worked on within the self. For brain damage, neurologists should be handling the work of identifying and treating brain damage. Pharmacology may be needed to treat a damaged brain but emotional symptoms are not proof of a damaged brain and I hope that researchers into this field who have found that much of current psychiatric dogma is pseudoscience, will help to educate a mislead public in the near future.

In the ayurvedic tradition working on the traumas and damage your ancestors have accumulated is part of ones path to cultivating health and wellness and the more we learn about our connection to our ancestors health the more these practices are not as sensational as they sound. Ayurveda is not something exotic, is the is the science of using an understanding of the variables that effect our health to cultivate healthy lives for ourselves.

Western science is not in opposition to this concept but I think it is lacking when it fails to see cultivating health as a complex set of cultural and personal practices that can help us combat disease and promote physical and emotional wellness. Drugs that have side effects (or even intensive herb regimens or obsessions with super food diets that rely heavily on trade to "exotic" regions of the world) these are not ideal long term solutions to balancing health and if you never learn how the diseases originate you're missing huge pieces of information.

Waiting until disease comes is not looking to create balanced health and unfortunately how communities function can cause disease to innocent people who become disenfranchised, hated, disconnected form resources, and our children who pick up where we left off in cultivating healthy lives or facilitating disease process. Since disease is a complicated process, using logic, factual knowledge, and science to understand health is vital, however the idea this process needs to involve pharmaceutical drugs is extremely limited thinking.

Many meditative practices are designed not to facilitate health but to facilitate the process of discarding the body to enter the spiritual realm or nirvana. If you are a strict atheist, this is a practice you might want to reconsider because for you, you are simply preparing to enter into the abyss or to be at one with an abyss. For many buddhists, nirvana is not quite the same thing as the nothingness western athiests are often equating it with. It's a spiritual belief with mythic connotations and often connections to spiritual concepts that are beyond the physical world.

I have read from certain buddhist practitioner from the east, that westerners often seek out exotic and spiritually ecstatic forms of spiritual practice that are often very harmful to them. A better practice is one that reflects a simple life of service to others and deep understanding of your emotional self and connection to your history, family, society, food sources, ecosystem, environment, and internal landscape. For people who are young or in middle age, cultivating a full actively participating life in harmony with your world will provide a deeper spiritual wellness than ascetic practice of intensive meditations, fasting, and extensive asana work. Much of the beauty of eastern religions comes from strict and somewhat oppressive practices of preserving cultural behaviors in ritual and culture, and interestingly westerners want to rebel against participating in that force in their own culture and then use the benefits of the gifts other subjecting themselves to a very restricted life can offer them without being forced to do the restrictive practices actual buddhist monks are required to do (and see the realities that sexual abuse, sexual repression, oppressive living conditions and many of the things westerners were rebelling against in their own christian religions are present in other world religions as well even if you find a religion without a clear deity).

Also in many ways the desire to have no self could be considered an injury to the self and the beliefs promoting it somewhat pathological in terms of benefiting vs harming human health. Yes if you disconnect from all needs you might stop noticing your stomach is eating itself from hunger and you may well feel euphoria but you may be facilitate the disease process rather than actually promoting health in disconnecting from your bodies ability to tell you what is healthy or unhealthy within you or in your environment. Pain gives us information, it is useful. Attempting to transcend it can deregulate your bodies healthy process of achieve homeostasis, or the state it knows is healthy for itself. Many things can alter the bodies ability to know it's own ideal healthy state and we can pass on incorrect self knowledge about achieving a healthy state in our cells to our children. Repairing this kind of damage is intense stuff because the window of pregnancy and early childhood have the greatest flexibility and passing certain developmental windows or injuries that happen during that time can be very difficult for the body to repair, and can easily get set at normalizing and accepting an unhealthy state.

People who teach mediation are just guessing, and as we can see in various societies, cultures, and families, pathological, false and unhealthy behavior that promotes disease can just as easily get imprinted into populations as beneficial ones. Granted, there may have been environmental pressures that lead that practice to be more favorable to survival at the time, but the environmental conditions that created a need for such practices or the beliefs around why the practices can be totally false, and the reality that much more healthy practice could work even better is always a possibility. We have the ability to chew through huge amounts of data from various cultures in a way that never could have been done before, to understand the cellular environment that builds our physical bodies and the atomic level that facilitates that cellular environment giving us new possibilities to see details about these processes that never could have been seen before.

Also consider this-- when we are healthy, being in touch with our internal world can increase our health and happiness and self understanding. If we are enduring very unhealthy circumstances, becoming aware of that is going to be painful. The body tends toward shutting down chronic pain it can't heal properly so getting more in touch with that inner damage can both offer opportunity to bring circulation and healing to parts of the body/brain shut off, and it can also cause anguish in showing an amount of damage that there are not enough positive variables or support to sustain the healing of in which case leaving that knowledge alone would be more beneficial for survival and sense of well being. It can be better for some not to spend much time at all awakening this kind of awareness. Some people are in multiple generations of enduring damaging environments and learning to accept that damage and waking up to the bodies self knowledge that once the environment was better (and our cells do have access to the information of what environmental variables have worked out best for us... think how universal depictions of heaven are across cultures... there is plenty, less work, water, sun, vegetation, crafts created by humans..people are treated kindly and gently and with attention and affection.) if we have been living in a wasteland and may have to for many more generations feeling the full impact of how undesirable our conditions are may cause a collapse rather than inspiring the work of changing the environment and the culture.

This information is valuable as a guide, a template... some amount of meditation is usually good even for those with unhealthy histories or ancestral histories, but balancing new understandings is a difficult task that requires a lot of support.

Also westerners tend to undervalue the deep need to have our pains witnessed by others, to grow emotional in connection to other people, and create spiritual practices with a heavy focus on isolation that may not facilitate emotional wellness well. When you enhance empathetic capacity you can feel the pain of yourself, the cells in your body, and in the world around you. You can see the tree that is thirsty, you can see the plant that is sick. You can see the wounds in your fellow humans that they are blind to because it's too painful to feel.

This knowledge can be agony if you don't enter this practice prepared with supports and guidance and ready to use that information to alleviate the suffering of the self and others, to form alliances with others working for the same goal, and to create as many symbiotic relationships as possible to combat the forces of a merciless world that brings disease, suffering and death as easily as it can bring positive environmental forces.

Being opposed to the idea of an ego is very anti-human. We'll have plenty of time to have no self when we're dead. Unless you believe in re-incarnation but if you're going to believe in nonsense you'd do well to question why you're choosing the nonsense you're choosing and not say, christianity, or judaism, or the early european pagan religions.... why out of all the unlimited possibilities would you gravitate towards one in which the goal is total non-existance?

Yeesh, I'd rather like to employ my sense of beauty and love and existence when I think of the divine that is potentially beyond this realm. And why NOT a deity of compassion if we're imagining the fantastically is possible? If I am to believe in the divine I go towards that which sustains life, which loves life, which seeks an eternally flowering and abundant divine realm full of beings and delight. I have very little patience for the superiority complexes some of my buddhist friends fell into, of loving to watch others squirm over the idea of nothingness and then to proclaim how others might simply not be ready to face the dark abyss that is the divine realm.

If there is divine purpose that is trying to turn all that is into an abyss I am opposed to that force as I see it as a very destructive force.

Religious activities and rituals may very well stimulate biological processes within us, healing processes, the motivations for great deeds in war, the nurturing mother spirit.... praying with the intent of a deity, or meditating with the intent of cultivating love or compassion, these kinds of things may indeed bring out these traits and processes in us... there is something powerful about religious ritual whether as a connection to spiritual forces within us or simply a tool to help humans cope with a brutal world (one in which there is no deity or aid that will come from above and that which we can find in ourselves in our only hope). I am looking forward to science expanding our understanding of what can be done with these tools, what applications they may have in our development and well being and in how we understand the world we are part of and the consciousness of ourselves and other beings within it.

I am no longer impressed with people's claims that if I were as advanced as them I would see that nothingness is the purpose of the universe or the great truth of the universe. These sorts of claims, from a logical standpoint, are not substantiated by any evidence, nor are they proven by any objective measure of what wisdom is or should be. I gave up all attachments in my life over a grueling process... I gave up meat eating, when a friend who was abusive needed aid I allowed my psychological destruction to be there for him, when I realized there was nothing more I could do for him and that allowing him to hurt me would not only injure myself and a potential child but was hurting him, I gave up that relationship with him even though it was (sadly) the most intimate relationship I had or ever had and even though I maintained (and still maintain) a dedicated desire to care for him and ensure his welfare in the aftermath of an extremely abusive and neglectful childhood he endured and complete lack of familial and social supports to heal. When I was left with my child and all the trauma and damage and no social support and financial difficulties to care for my daughter I gave up my very child despite that she meant more to me than anyone or anything I had ever experienced and despite that I knew it would leave me utterly destroyed.

In that aftermath I felt ready to stop eating, to stop perpetuating the harmful cycle of killing other beings to live.. to peacefully fade into the abyss. And I did stop eating and was ready to enter death and it was comforting and ok.Until days after not eating and realizing I was in fact very close to leaving this realm I went in and out of consciousness... and I could see the impact that my death would cause onto many others, my parents would never recover, the people who were standing around me that day while I was in and out of consciousness, my limbs going ice cold, calling the EMS for me, and even myself....strange how deeply it felt... I never even got to fall in love...not outside of an abusive and traumatic circumstance. I could feel myself above my body--- I could see things in those around me in myself and the universe and others that I can't describe in words. I felt compelled to call myself back into my body and fought as hard as I could to push the circulation to move my fingers back and forth and back and forth until the cold yielded.

It did not at all prove anything to me about whether there is or isn't a divine realm or a "spirit". If anything that is exactly the reason we must never assume there is a spirit or spirit realm with any certainty, to do so damages that deep rooted knowledge we have that we must stay alive or we will disappear and we have NO evidence that we will be going into any other life or realm. Many hyper-religious people lead others into death cults.... because they become some comfortable with the idea of a divine realm they don't mind discarding their bodies. If there is a divine realm, this makes sense, assuming you don't believe there are duties and reasons to remain in a suffering world to serve those in need rather than enter the divine ASAP. Reasons that may be as simple as to know what it means for others to be there for you when they AREN'T invincible.. to know what it is like to need and to feel the depth of anothers compassion for you through all the adversities of this realm. The realm of non-existance awaits us all, there is no rush--- in the meantime... we are HERE, we can feel the hand of a loved one, we can nurture one in need, we can see a smile returned to us, we can feel our hearts swell with the love of another, we can embrace the sun on our skin and wind flowing around us, if we are lucky we can see colors dance around us and music fill us emotion... these experience they are part of embracing our humanity rather than destroying it. Cultivating a wonderful experience of being for ourselves and those around us, as best we can in a difficult and often painful world, this is more powerful than attempting to achieve eternal bliss through purging ones self of all urges to achieve this "nirvana" state on non-being. (And it's funny because my buddhist friends often quickly correct, 'OH nothingness is the same as somethingness!!' In which case, why use the more negative connotation? This is like people in the church of satan emphasis their whole religion is not about satan. Then why use the word if you don't mean it? Why not find a word that actually calls forth the meaning you intend?)

Who knows why we're here, and I don't think the buddhists know this any better than anyone else. Meditation, like other rituals, may indeed stimulate different things depending on what you're trying to cultivate with it and depending on what internal and external battles you are working through. I think all cultures have many things to learn from each others practices and through careful observation and research about the differing effects of those practices on different types of people in different types of circumstances and over various lengths of time.

I enjoyed this post and hope that much more research is done on this topic because I think what we are learning with techniques like somatic experiencing and EMDR is that the use of guided imagery, body awareness, and ritualized physical techniques to bring about stronger and deeper emotional reactions to do deeper work can have a powerful impact on people working through deep rooted traumas and even physical problems that we are holding in our bodies from emotional or physical injuries of the past (and even from our ancestors pasts). The ability to do this kind of work within the body and mind is very powerful and I think useful, but the ideologies around it's use and how it's employed is likely very important. Hopefully the research mentioned in the tricycle article (and more like it) will help us learn in what ways these techniques may be beneficial for specific individuals to enhance self understand, health, and well being. We can be holding on to false or less than healthful ideologies and those ideologies themselves may be generated from our past and our ancestors pasts and our bodies attempt to generate an understanding of world where such things can happen and how to grapple with them. We may be more or less shut down to empathy or emotion or self awareness of what our own need are based on how safe it was to be in touch with these things in our childhoods or our parents and grandparents environments.
posted by xarnop at 9:19 AM on June 29, 2014 [16 favorites]

XMLicious: The specific kinds of meditation encouraged in Christian practice are known in meditation enthusiast circles as "flowing" meditation (if I'm remembering my terminology correctly), and are actually kind of the exact opposite of Buddhist mindfulness meditation in that they emphasize surrendering to the the flow of spiritual energy rather than self-observation. They may look similar on the outside, but their methods and intent are not at all the same from what I've read on the subject.

I've only had limited exposure to Catholicism, and they certainly do kooky things like eat human flesh and drink human blood, but "surrendering to the the flow of spiritual energy" does not sound like anything the monks at my college or the people at my friend's abbey used to describe their contemplative and introspective practices. Self-observation seems like something they did a great deal of; but you may be right that none of it would count as meditation.
posted by XMLicious at 9:21 AM on June 29, 2014

It's the same idea as speaking in tongues. The spirit takes you over--it's an external thing that enters and moves you, is the idea, rather than an act of self reflection.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:41 AM on June 29, 2014

Funny timing - I'm thinking very strongly about trying to take up regular meditation at the moment, to help with my depression symptom of an incredibly short attention span. Making myself practice sitting still seems like a good idea right now. Solo practice? Check. Secular/medical goals? Check.

On the other hand, it sounds like a lot of the bad effects are from the intensive retreats. I can understand them as a next step for people looking to deepen their practice, but I've never really understood why someone without a lot of existing experience would want to go to those anyway. It sound pretty terrible to me, even without the possible bad effects. I was thinking of stealing Transcendental Meditation's schedule of 15 minutes, twice a day.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:58 AM on June 29, 2014

We've been taking our first steps at meditation during my Monday yoga class. The first few attempts were painful, leg or foot fell asleep, brain wouldn't shut down etc. The first five minutes felt like an hour, now twenty mins feels like five minutes. Somedays it flies by, other days it's a struggle as my thoughts refuse to comply. I'm learning to go with the flow and it gets easier, but I'm glad that I'm doing it in a group, somehow having everyone there struggling with varying levels of success is comforting.
posted by arcticseal at 10:17 AM on June 29, 2014

Also, there is actually some evidence that prayer practice has health benefits as well, that people who identify as being close to god have worse health, those who practice religion in the form of church attendance and private prayer however have better health outcomes. Those who have a lengthy history of attending church have better health than those who have less history with church attendance or who are recently joined to the church.

People who claim high spirituality and no church attendance have the worse mental health. From this I would imagine people who do not believe in god or claim to be highly spiritual but attend church and practice private meditation might have the best health outcomes.

However it could actually be that humans who are more isolated are dealing with worse health effects and the religiosity/spirituality they increase to cope with it is in fact a positive coping mechanism to addressing the physical damage in the brains of people who do not find meaningful connections at church. As could be indicated by research that reports kids with higher sense of spiritual connectedness had less irritable bowel syndrome issues. Also the accuracy and conclusions of all these studies are pretty suspect since this is a pretty small body of research from what I can tell so far and I have no ability to evaluate the research quality. I wonder how these implication factor into the types of westerners who are attracted to meditation though and what they bring to the practice.
posted by xarnop at 10:34 AM on June 29, 2014

There's little that I can specifically articulate on the subject that hasn't already been touched on in the discussion here, but this whole thing has the needle on my woo-meter spinning circles. There's also a lot of No True Scottman assertions flying around, as well as a sort of general acceptance of an East/West dichotomy.

I can specifically say that "mindfulness" as generally practiced by certified mental health practitioners is a far cry from emulating religious meditative techniques in both aim and execution. Gurus and their marketshare have nothing to fear from psychologists and social workers until the public conversion on mental health dramatically shifts to place more emphasis on measurable efficacy.
posted by WCWedin at 10:40 AM on June 29, 2014

completely by coincidence, I arrived at a Catholic monastery during a time of deep trouble. I was then and I remain an atheist, but the guided meditation I did there was very healing.
Some things relevant to the article and the discussion: at the monastery, they were very aware and open about the fact that lay-people should at all times be able to reconcile their meditation practice with everyday life. There were a lot of practical ways to deal with that.
Also, as an atheist, I was at no instance asked to participate in prayer or thanksgiving. I was accepted and respected fully as the person I am. I know this is what many friends have experienced at Buddhist retreats as well, and that is obviously a fine thing. But for me it was very good to learn meditation within my own cultural sphere (I have both Christian and Jewish roots)
posted by mumimor at 10:45 AM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

"a sort of general acceptance of an East/West dichotomy" I actually agree with you strongly and originally had used the term americans instead of westerners but then thought, well it's a big continent, so then I was like um europeans? US-ians? I went with westerner simply because I thought it would be the most understandable term for what I was trying to say but I agree there is really no dichotomy, there is just people from cultures surviving and the beliefs and practices that have grown around that in various regions.
posted by xarnop at 10:48 AM on June 29, 2014

It's the same idea as speaking in tongues. The spirit takes you over--it's an external thing that enters and moves you, is the idea, rather than an act of self reflection.

My understanding is that for Catholics, speaking in tongues is a virtually unique event that is described in the Bible, rather than something that would theologically underpin day-to-day events... it might be helpful if you provided a link to the sort of thing that is making you think this. You aren't confusing Catholicism with Pentecostalism, are you?

...so for the record, via Wikipedia, here's something the current Catechism in English says about meditation:
2723 Meditation is a prayerful quest engaging thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. Its goal is to make our own in faith the subject considered, by confronting it with the reality of our own life.
I've actually very directly asked many Catholics (as well as people of other faiths) what it is they're doing when they're praying or what prayer means to them, and although I've gotten lots of answers that sound like self-reflection I've never gotten "the Holy Spirit is entering and moving in me".

One of the questions I've specifically asked sometimes is "Is prayer a kind of communication with God?" and I've been surprised to find that (in my entirely tiny sample size of lay Christians and Catholics, so YMMV) people have more frequently said "no" rather than "yes", given the way it's described in books and the wording of standardized traditional prayers.
posted by XMLicious at 10:57 AM on June 29, 2014

It was pretty funny and surprising that when I was studying peaceful Buddhist meditation, a lot of raw RAGE boiled up to the surface. Which turned out to be a good thing, because I was tolerating a lot of crap in my life that I really should have been working to change instead. So there's that.
posted by ovvl at 11:08 AM on June 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

From Brad Warner's Zen Freak Outs essay linked above:

The push to promote meditation has resulted in a situation in which all too often even those who are teaching meditation these days lack proper training. Many of these teachers are beginners in meditation, and some don’t practice it themselves. They may not even be aware of this darker aspect at all. So they’re blindsided when their clients start freaking out.

People could do worse than to read Warner's Hardcore Zen, because he covers so many of the practical difficulties around starting a daily meditation practice, and what does being involved with "religion" even mean, especially if you want to keep your Punk attitude?
posted by sneebler at 11:22 AM on June 29, 2014

Interesting. When I first started a sitting meditation practice, I experienced heart palpitations and anxiety while attempting to meditate. It went away after a few sittings, but almost as soon as it went away, I started remembering sexual abuse I had experienced and had repressed (and so started the beginnings of what is/was likely PTSD). I thought it was some kind of anomaly; there really is not a lot of literature out there on the adverse effects of meditation. It is so touted as a remedy for lack of focus and the everyday suffering of life that it was hard for me to imagine that this unleashing of my repressed memories might be connected to my new habit of meditation. I had done walking meditation before, but sitting meditation is a very different thing as you are literally sitting there with your mind; the scenery does not change, the only thing that changes is your own internal landscape. I guess it should not be a surprise that thoughts, memories, and experiences that one was trying to drown might float to the surface at such a time.

(Additionally, when I was sixteen, I read Krishnamurti's Freedom from the Known and it was like a spiritual smack down. I was left feeling weightless and airy, but totally untethered, for the few days after I finished it. At that time, I could NOT contemplate the fact that everything we know may be just perception, that everything that exists to you is just one perception bouncing off another - even who you are is not really who you are - you do not exist with any kind of absoluteness. Or maybe I understood the concept only to well. I shook it off and snapped back to reality quickly, but I can definitely understand how psychosis or other strange or delusional beliefs could come out of trying to reconcile "non-self" with the fact that we unabashedly "exist" in all our pain and humanity.)

My meditation practice came along with an interest in the Buddhist religion. I have read a lot on the religion and have really struggled with the concepts of Buddhism, in much the same way xarnop mentioned above. In fact, this article has been really timely as lately I have found it really hard to reconcile the tenets of Buddhism with the reality of our everyday life. How can we reconcile things like the criminal justice system and the concept of justice with Buddhist thought? If we are to believe in non-self and impermanence, that may lighten our spiritual and psychological load, but what about those who are still suffering with their very real ails and by the very real injustices they have suffered? Are we just supposed to tell those people "you were harmed, your family and friends have been harmed - but don't worry, it doesn't really matter because once you get past it you can reach Nirvana"? I feel like Buddhism is not rooted in reality. And while I realize religion necessitates a leap of faith, I cannot take a leap into something that seems so blindly idealistic.

I realize I am probably "doing Buddhism wrong." I belong to no sangha (community) at the moment, but have thought of joining one in my area. I am not sure if it would be worth it though, due to my reasons above, but maybe if I had someone to ask my questions to, I would see that maybe I was understanding it wrong. As of now, I am frustrated with Buddhism. I have been searching for a belief system for almost all my life and I seem to have exhausted my options. I think the only thing left I can believe in is what is concrete. That I am responsible for my actions. That people do things that harm others while other people do things that help others and we can never truly, exactly know why they chose to hurt rather than help, but can only get closer and closer to a probable guess. (I used to think the harms one does to others are, after a pattern of such decisions, a choice, and in my heart, I believe it is true - no matter one's brain chemistry - but the science right now is inconclusive and I cannot think what I do not have evidence of). That it is easier and simpler to be kind than unkind. Maybe there is no abstract concept we can apply to reality or our system of values, maybe all there is is what we can sense before us.
posted by sevenofspades at 11:26 AM on June 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

What an incredibly great thread! My thanks to everyone participating.

And xarnop, you are a true synthetic religious thinker.
posted by jamjam at 12:21 PM on June 29, 2014

people can experience a wide variety of problems when meditating.

True, but that may or may not be related to "meditation". Problems can arise while doing anything. Playing videogames, reading comic books, climbing mountains. Your state of health may be more implicated than the activity itself.

"Meditation" is such a vagueword, like "God", "soul", "enlightenment" that -bare- it means nothing really. The meaning may be somewhat distinguished as part of some traditional 'path' or 'way', distinguished as a particular method, distinguished by the question "meditating on what?", distinguished by the goal one hopes to reach.

I maybe be "meditating" on clouds, flowers, stars, benzene rings, my life history, or the best algorithm for some end. Or maybe I'm just reflecting. Meditation may be an attempt to focus, or an attempt to free oneself from focus.

Old joke:
"Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
"Don't do that."

We need to be alert to our inner reactions to whatever we practice. Gurdjieff recommended "remembering yourself" as as a very useful practice that can take a long time to develop. While you're sensing the world, experiencing something new, trying out new methods, you remain aware of your reactions to those experiences. Not "getting lost". Believing nothing, testing everything. Gurdjieff also taught that you may make little progress, or none, unless you find a school.

For those without access to trustworthy teachers, there are very many famous books that have proven their worth over decades and centuries. Like travel, getting beyond the limitations of the spiritual mileau you were born into can be very broadening. Living (or recently living) teachers also write books you can check out that speak better to modern sensibilities. For one example, "Zen: The Perfect Companion" (Seung Sahn) is a small book which certainly spells out the many "follies of the way".

Getting away from mainstream living, consuming, thinking is certainly essential in 'the way'. Why else would you leave home? All of the mystical traditions are full of admonitions about the dangers, this is hardly new ground. If you really want to 'lose your self' to 'find your Self' ?? moving slllllooooooowwwwwwllllllyyyy is the only option. There's no royal road, no instant gratification. Monks spend a lifetime on this stuff. Practice compassion on yourself first.
posted by Twang at 2:08 PM on June 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

You aren't confusing Catholicism with Pentecostalism, are you?

I didn't get that at all; he was comparing two different things, which can be done even if they are from two different branches of the same basic faith.

But don't let that stop you from imaging a huge gap between "normal religion A" and "cray-cray religion B" because they're all pretty much full of performative kookiness.
posted by aydeejones at 2:53 PM on July 1, 2014

Buddhism to me is not a religion and is not full of performative kookiness, and Jesus himself certainly wasn't a fan of "you hypocrites praying on street corners," but the perfomance art is more visible in Western faiths probably because I live here and also probably because Western cultures are more egocentric and hedonic, and performance and proving your direct connect to god is hella strong yo makes people feel teh awezom
posted by aydeejones at 2:56 PM on July 1, 2014

Got Jesus on that speed dial
Got them Cali Meds and a weed smile
When I call him up
Jesus don't stall bruh

He call me right quick 'cause I'm a baller bruh
posted by aydeejones at 2:58 PM on July 1, 2014

> You aren't confusing Catholicism with Pentecostalism, are you?

I didn't get that at all; he was comparing two different things, which can be done even if they are from two different branches of the same basic faith.

But don't let that stop you from imaging a huge gap between "normal religion A" and "cray-cray religion B" because they're all pretty much full of performative kookiness.

The reason why I mentioned Pentecostalism is that speaking in tongues, which saulgoodman brought up, in my understanding derives from a Biblical event in Christianity called the Pentecost. (Or I guess from reading that Wikipedia entry, the events of a particular celebration of the Jewish holy festival which Christians refer to as "Pentecost", a celebration which occurred during Jesus's lifetime.)

My impression is that speaking in tongues being a day-to-day event or something that happens during regular weekly communal worship, as well as phenomena being explained as the result of people being filled with the Holy Spirit, is much more prevalent in some strains of Protestant Christianity. I have only witnessed people speaking in tongues during a very small handful of Protestant church services I've attended, not during Catholic or Orthodox services.

I don't know why you would think that I'm placing Catholicism in a "normal religion" category and Pentecostalism in a kooky religion category, especially since when I used the word "kooky" above I was specifically referencing Catholic theology and ritual. As I said I'm an atheist, all religions look pretty kooky to me; if you think kooky stuff is absent from Buddhism or that Buddhism is not a religion (!?!) I'd respectfully submit that you may only have been exposed to sanitized versions of Buddhism targeted to the tastes of a Western audience. If you read some works by the current Dalai Lama about Buddhist theology, especially stuff mentioning the presence and interaction of various gods and goddesses, I mean he's a brilliant and amazing and even genuinely saintly guy and all but kookiness—if speaking in tongues and explaining things in terms of being filled with the Holy Spirit is an example of what you consider kookiness—does not by any means appear to be absent from Buddhism.
posted by XMLicious at 5:09 PM on July 1, 2014

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