Is There a Dark Side to Meditation?

by | Meditation

The recent article in The Atlantic by Tomas Rocha, “The Dark Knight of the Soul,” brings up a much neglected but very important topic around a dark side to meditation. With hundreds of studies (over 500 a year) coming out showing the benefits of meditation, there are surprisingly few endeavors that point out the dark side. Wherever you find light you will find shadows, even with something as illuminating as meditation. It’s not for everybody, and it can be done improperly.

Here’s just one example of the shadow side. Because meditation cultivates a type of witness awareness (I’m witnessing my thoughts, I am not my thoughts), which if done properly can help us distance ourselves safely and beneficially from the contents of our mind, it can also exacerbate certain kinds of dissociative and depersonalization disorders. There’s a subtle but critical difference between differentiation and dissociation. Differentiation is good. It helps us gain perspective on our thoughts and emotions. The “near enemy” of differentiation is dissociation, and that’s not so good. (Every noble quality has an ignoble shadow side, a “near enemy.” The near enemy of compassion is pity, of confidence it’s arrogance etc.). Dissociation is a form of pathological distancing, even rejecting, of our thoughts and emotions. People who are prone to dissociative and depersonalization disorders should consult with a psychologist or psychiatrist, one familiar with meditation, to see if meditation is right for them.

Meditation can be a prescription for a richer and happier life, but only when “taken as directed.” Anything, even if it’s good for you, can be abused. Oxygen is healthy, but not if you hyperventilate. Water is healthy, but not if you overhydrate. It’s tempting and easy to edit meditation instruction, and actually do it wrong. There are dozens of ways to stray. This is why a good meditation instructor is so important. Not only can you waste years in meditation, but you can actually harm yourself.

The legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” We may not practice perfectly, even if we have a meditation instructor, but at least we can have someone point out our mistakes. Reaching perfect practice is a lifetime endeavor, a continual refinement. Without someone to guide you on your journey, it’s difficult to stay on track. This is why I wrote my first book, The Power and the Pain; Transforming Spiritual Hardship into Joy.

The Atlantic article made frequent reference to the remarkable work of Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School. In what she initially called “The Dark Night Project,” but recently renamed “Varieties of Contemplative Experience,”  Britton has brought scientific rigor to a muddied field. Everyone wants to tout the benefits of meditation (and get the funding to further prove it), few have the courage to play devil’s advocate. Britton has taken on that unpopular, but necessary, role. What is notable about her work is that it’s not just academic. Britton has established the Cheetah House, a place were recovering meditators can come to heal [insert link]. She puts her money where her mouth is.

Father Thomas Keating once said this about the promise and peril of meditation: “It’s much more dangerous not to meditate.” Meditation is extraordinarily helpful — if it’s done properly.