Meditation’s unpleasant downside hits a quarter of us

Over a quarter of people who regularly meditate have had a particularly unpleasant psychological experience related to the practice.

A new University College London study involving an international online survey of 1,232 people with at least two months’ meditation experience found 315 reported feelings of fear and distorted emotions.

Female participants and those with religious beliefs were less likely to have had a ‘particularly unpleasant’ experience.

The study was called the “Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations”.

The mean age of the respondents was about 45 and over half who answered the questionnaire were female. Nearly three quarters had a university degree, six in 10 were religious and on average they had been meditating for six years.

Of the people included in the study, some had attended a meditation retreat, others had practised only deconstructive types of meditation such as Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice (used in Zen Buddhism), and others had practised only with higher levels of repetitive negative thinking.

The researchers say meditation’s downside is under-reported, which is a concern for individual practitioners and for public health in general.

“The high prevalence of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences reported here points to the importance of expanding the scientific conception of meditation beyond that of a (mental) health-promoting and self-regulating technique,” the study says.

“We propose that understanding when these experiences are constitutive elements of meditative practice rather than merely negative effects could advance the field and, to that end, we conclude with an overview of methodological and conceptual considerations that could be used to inform future research.”

The researchers say understanding the full range of meditative effects has been hindered not only by a lack of empirical research but also by the conflicting ways that meditators make sense of their experiences.

“Traditional Buddhist textual sources indeed contain vivid accounts of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences and elaborate interpretative frameworks to help meditators understand them; yet these accounts vary widely, are couched in tradition-specific terms, and often revert to polemic and prescription,” they say.

“Consequently, no single authoritative Buddhist account of what constitutes particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences can be straightforwardly extracted from historical sources to be conveniently operationalised in contemporary empirical research.”

The researchers also say “In the context of 18 million meditators in the United States alone, even low rates of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences – comparable, for instance, to the rate of severe side effects during psychotherapy – become an important concern not only for the nascent field of contemplative science but for public health more generally”.



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