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 and the elite

From my files: Three years ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Virginia Heffernan on the craze for mindfulness (“Mind the Gap,” 19 April 2015, pp. 13-15). Citing a Time magazine cover story that called the craze a “revolution,” Heffernan comments:

“If it’s a revolution, it’s not a grass-roots one. Although mindfulness teachers regularly offer the practice in disenfranchised communities in the United States and abroad, the powerful have really made mindfulness their own, exacting from the delicate idea concrete promises of longer lives and greater productivity. In January [2015], during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, [mindfulness popularizer Jon] Kabat-Zinn led executives and 1 percenters in a mindfulness meditation meant to promote general well-being.” But, notes Heffernan, “what commercial mindfulness may have lost from the most rigorous Buddhist tenets it replaced: the implication that suffering cannot be escaped but must be faced.”

Three years on, mindfulness is even more firmly entrenched among the elites. I recognize that there are serious Buddhist practitioners out there who teach authentic Buddhist mindfulness practices, and I also recognize that there are those who use mindfulness-stripped-of-Buddhism for benign ends. But when I think about how the 1 percenters have adopted mindfulness, I am curious about how it became so widespread among the “cultured despisers of religion.” Is the ongoing craze for mindfulness an example of how consumer capitalism can strip all the authentic weirdness out of religion, turning authentic religious practices into “opiates for the masses”? Or is mindfulness similar to the Christian “Prosperity Gospel,” that is, authentic religious teachings co-opted to promote consumer capitalism? except where the Prosperity Gospel is used to control lower middle class suckers, Prosperity Mindfulness is to control professional class suckers.

I am also curious whether authentic Buddhist mindfulness will survive being co-opted by the 1 percenters and consumer capitalism. What Heffernan calls “commercial mindfulness” really is nothing but an opiate: a pill that numbs us to the stress and horror and absurdity of an increasingly unjust economic system, but doesn’t actually cure the underlying illness of injustice.

To paraphrase Morpheus in the movie The Matrix: “If you swallow the blue pill of mindfulness, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe; but if you take the red pill of skepticism, you can see the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth….”

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.