Unpleasant meditation-related experiences

A peer-reviewed paper published back in 2019 states that significant percentages of regular meditators may have negative meditation experiences:

“Surveying over one thousand regular meditators, this is the largest cross-sectional study to assess particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences to date. Approximately one quarter of participants reported that they had encountered particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences (e.g., anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world) in the past.” Schlosser M, Sparby T, Vörös S, Jones R, Marchant NL (2019) Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216643. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216643

I’m glad to see that this phenomenon is finally being studied. I meditated for years, but stopped because it became — well, unpleasant. As a minister, I’ve come across other people who don’t meditate for the same reason. Unfortunately, almost all of the recent scientific studies of meditation and mindfulness focus on the purported benefits of meditation and mindfulness; indeed, Schlosser et al. were only able to find two other studies that looked at the negative effects of meditating (both those studies also reported high percentages of people with unpleasant meditation-related experiences).

To my mind, there’s been a bias at work among scientists studying meditation and mindfulness, not unlike the biases in those scientific studies that purportedly prove the power of prayer. This bias is prevalent, not only among scientists engaged in studying “contemplative science,” but also among Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalists tend to be skeptical of prayer, and have tended to be skeptical of studies proving the power of prayer. Yet Unitarian Universalists seem to abandon their skepticism when it comes to mindfulness and meditation.

But back to the study of unpleasant meditation-related experiences. The authors of this study make the important point that these unpleasant experiences need additional study:

“The high prevalence reported here and previously points to the importance of expanding the scientific conception of meditation beyond that of a (mental) health-promoting, stress-reducing, attention-enhancing, self-regulating technique.”

I would add an important ethical warning to anyone who teaches or recommends meditation. Those who teach or recommend meditation or mindfulness have an ethical duty to acknowledge to potential students that meditation can result in unpleasant side effects. Schlosser et al. cite a study which outlines some of the unpleasant effects meditators may experience: “fear, anxiety, hallucinations, social impairment, and changes in motivation, worldviews, self-world boundaries, sleep”; some of these are not trivial.

Those who teach meditation and mindfulness to children have a special ethical burden. Not only do they need to recognize that as many as a quarter of their students may have unpleasant experiences from meditation, they need also figure out how they’re going to support vulnerable children who have these experiences.

I’m not saying that we should not teach meditation and mindfulness. But if you do teach these practices, do it ethically.

Mindfulness meditation is not religiously neutral

Recently I read a blog post by Amod Lee on mindfulness meditation and whether it might be problematic for Christians. Lee notes that some Christian groups have mounted legal challenges to teaching mindfulness meditation in public schools, on the basis that mindfulness meditation is a religious practice, not a secular technique. Lee goes on to say that he is “not particularly interested in the particular American legal issues involved,” but rather wants to consider this issue “as a philosopher, a Buddhist, and a practitioner of mindfulness meditation.” Coming from that perspective, Lee argues that mindfulness meditation could be problematic for Christians:

“A key element to mindfulness practice is disidentification: one notices one’s thoughts and emotions as they surface, and observes them from a distance. In so doing, one comes to observe one’s mind, one’s self, as a divided entity, reducible into parts. One takes an approach which Augustine would have associated with his Manichean foes: where the soul is not one thing but the battleground for a struggle between good and evil intentions.

“That doesn’t mean one can’t practise mindfulness meditation as a Christian — or even that mindfulness meditation must mean one ceases to believe in an immortal soul. But the mindfulness approach, which explicitly comes out of Buddhist non-self, is explicitly in tension with the unified immortal essence postulated by most Christians. I think Christians would do well to at least be cautious around it.”

I found this argument helpful for me personally: I meditated for years, and finally stopped because I hated it. In the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I never like meditation because I felt all the meditation techniques I was taught pushed me towards a negation of the self. By contrast, when I learned meditative techniques of self-inquiry while studying transcendental phenomenology in Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, I found those techniques deepened my self-understanding without negating the self. Husserl’s technique led me to an understanding of intersubjectivity — that is, awareness of the self as a node in an intersubjective web of many selves — and eventually this led me to a sense that awareness of intersubjectivity is a highly desirable spiritual outcome. Similarly, meditative practices of observing non-human organisms, inspired in part by Henry Thoreau’s journals, also led me an awareness of my (non-negated) self as part of a web of intersubjective selves, many of which are non-human selves. Rather than negating the self, my own spiritual exploration led me to understand my connection with other selves, an outcome I find personally more rewarding.

My personal spiritual exploration leads me to expand on Lee’s conclusion: mindfulness meditation carries distinctly Buddhist content that people other than traditional Christians might also be cautious of, and even actively dislike. It is, in short, not a neutral practice.

(One last note: I’ve been to Unitarian Universalist worship services and workshops where the minister or workshop leader leads some kind of mindfulness meditation exercise with the unspoken assumption that everyone present will want to do mindfulness meditation. It would be wise for Unitarian Universalists to realize that mindfulness meditation is a practice borrowed from another tradition, to be careful that we do not misappropriate it, and if we do use it to remember that some Unitarian Universalists will find it distasteful or unpleasant.)

Rules for prayer

Even though I’m the guy who wrote the essay “Why I Don’t Pray” in the pamphlet “UU Views of Prayer,” I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer recently. Not because I’ve started praying (I haven’t), but more because I’m sick of hearing about the alleged virtues of meditation and mindfulness. You see, meditation and mindfulness are being coopted by consumer capitalism: Meditation will improve worker productivity! Mindfulness will help your children get better grades! And if you work more, or get good grades and go to college, you will be able to buy more!

These are fairly recent developments for meditation and mindfulness. Prayer, on the other hand, got coopted by consumer capitalism a few decades ago. Prayer is an integral part of the “Prosperity Gospel,” a mutant offspring of Christianity and consumer capitalism which holds that if you believe in God and pray and give generously to your church then you will get rich. While I try to be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs, the Prosperity Gospel is bullshit. And it’s clear clear to me that meditation and mindfulness are on track to being coopted in the same way prayer was: soon we will faced with the spectre of the Prosperity Dharma.

Unitarian Universalists have developed some standards and best practices that have tended to insulate us from the worst excesses of the Prosperity Gospel. It is worth reviewing what those are:

1. Prayer is not going to make you rich; some people who pray might get rich, but that’s random chance. (In fact, the same can be said of religion in general.)

2. If prayer works for you, go for it. If prayer doesn’t work for you, then don’t — AND don’t be an asshole and make fun of people who find that prayer works for them.

3. Unitarian Universalists generally agree with Jesus when he says in the Bible, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray on the street corners to be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5). In other words, it’s fine if you pray but don’t be a show-off. In fact, don’t be a show-off with any spiritual practice.

4. We do not have to bow our heads during prayer (see previous point). If you want to, that’s fine, but you don’t have to.

Why is it worth reviewing these standards and best practices? Because they can also be applied to meditation and mindfulness. And meditation and mindfulness are coming ever closer to breeding their own mutant offspring with consumer capitalism. And the last thing we need is to be taken over by the Prosperity Dharma.