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Tipping a most sacred cow

By Marcus Santer

I tell ya, you ZEN+ readers are the greatest.

You’re always sending me links to interesting materials you’ve seen.

As a result I don’t think my reading/research list is ever going to run out.

Interestingly, one subject quite a few of you have contacted me about recently is a subject I never thought I’d see:

The possible harmful effects of meditation.

Because as sacred cows go, meditation is as sacred as it gets.

I mean meditation can only have a positive effect, right?

Everyone can benefit from meditation, right?

And the scientific backing for the merits to be had from regular meditation are without doubt, right?

Well, maybe not.

I was going to call this post: The dark side of meditation but couldn’t bring myself to.

I mean this is meditation, how can it have a dark side?

Well, thinking about it, I guess it’s just a question I’ve never considered.

So I’ve been mulling this subject over for the last few days, and here are my thoughts:

Thought 1 – I can recall a number of times I’ve heard 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat veterans tell me all kinds of stories about those folk who couldn’t take 10 days of silent meditation and left.

Often in spectacular ways.

Thought 2 – When I first started teaching Qigong I was advised to avoid encouraging depressed people to practice on their own.

Why?

Well Qigong is a very insular practice that encourages an inward focus. The kind of focus a depressed person might find harmful as they’re already painfully focused inward. And I’d wager the same could be said of meditation.

The practice of Qigong in a regular group setting is what I’ve always recommended to people with major depression.

Thought 3 – Let’s not forget what the original aim of meditation is.

It isn’t to:

  1. Benefit health
  2. Improve happiness
  3. Reduce stress.

Ugh, ugh.

It’s to strip away illusion and to see ourselves as we really are.

The fact that it can give these benefits is just a bonus.

Thought 4 – Meditation can be a powerful medicine and all medicines can have unwanted side effects in some people, but you never hear about any in the media when it comes to meditation.

Doesn’t that seem a little fishy to you?

With these thoughts in mind I followed up on the references your fellow ZEN Beasts gave me and found a few of my own.

To be honest it’s not as bad as may seem.

Researchers are simply calling for a more balanced view on meditation, which is fair enough because celebrities and media are always reporting on how incredible meditation is, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching Qigong it’s this:

“One man’s meat is another man’s poison”
Arnold Lazarus

And that must apply to meditation too.

Of all the articles I read my favourite was the one I found in The Guardian called:

Seven Common Myths About Meditation

And here they are:

  1. Myth 1: Meditation will only change you for the better
  2. Myth 2: Meditation can benefit everyone
  3. Myth 3: If everyone meditated the world would be a better place
  4. Myth 4: For personal change and growth meditating is as efficient – or more – than having therapy
  5. Myth 5: Meditation produces a unique state of consciousness that we can measure scientifically
  6. Myth 6: We can practice meditation as a purely scientific technique with no religious or spiritual leanings
  7. Myth 7: Science has unequivocally shown how meditation can change us and why

For the full story I recommend you read The Guardian article, it’s also got citation links to back up its point of view.

Definitely food for thought.

Conclusion

It seems to me it’s easy for meditation to be viewed through the same lens as Qigong.

A lens that believes meditation is a cure all and everyone can benefit from it’s practice.

When the truth is it works for some, but not for others.

Personally I believe meditation is still a powerful force for beneficial change. But better constructed studies needed to be carried out to find just how strong these benefits are and how long they last. Many of the studies already carried out suffer from methodological and theoretical limits or have been conducted by people with a biased view.

Plus more research specifically looking at understanding how meditation actually works would be of great value too.

Bye for now

Marcus

P.S. I’m not interested in being right.

My interest is in providing you with the most accurate information I can.

Information back up by repeatable science.

Information that will help you to stack the odds of a happier, healthier and longer life in your favour.

You can find out more in my book:

ZEN+ The Art and Science of Living Healthier for Longer