What if meditation was killing us?

There is a rather formidable industry of presenting meditation as healthy for the brain and the body.  (See Huffpost article)  The studies usually cite research that demonstrates the effectiveness of the ways in which yoga and meditation can act as methods to alleviate stress or other negative psychological affects we experience on a daily basis.  

Intriguingly, there is also some who argue that meditation can have a negative psychological impact, and should be minimized or eliminated as a practice.  (Examples include depersonalization and reliving traumatic events, see Guardian article)

What if the opposition camp were right about the evidence?  What if we found out that every downward dog we did shortened our lives by a couple of minutes?  What if we discovered seated meditation, rather than bringing emotional stillness, in actuality caused a flurry of unpleasant mental states that did not bring about long term benefits?

It's true that seated meditation does generate discomfort.  One occasionally is within company the simply extols the values and the insights gained from the practice, the people who have found that in practicing meditation many of the problems they deal with in life start to slip away with a profound serenity replacing the anxiety that they once clung to.  That may be, but for many, sitting on a cushion with an upright spine and staring at a wall or with one's eyes closed is difficult, especially considering many of the prescriptions we place on our mental states during meditation, such as do not judge your thoughts, simply observe your thoughts and feelings, et cetera, are nigh impossible when we are caught up in the swirl of our preoccupations.  Consciousness prefers to be directed, so telling it to release that directedness generates discomfort. 

In fact, it's so difficult that some meditation practices try to eliminate the discomfort from meditation.  They do so by allowing practitioners to enter what is in practice a kind of unconscious state by relaxing to the point of letting their head as well as their eyes droop, and take a kind of seated nap.  This is not what I mean by meditation.  Mindfulness that helps people fall asleep, although to be celebrated, is not what I have in my when I discuss meditation here. 

The pointlessness of meditation challenges the notion of seeking benefits from meditation.  As a matter of fact, Zen, among other schools, teaches its practitioners to concentrate on the goal-less nature of meditation.  You are not to be cognizing any objects at all, even the command that you stop cognizing objects.  This kind of mindfulness does not have mantras nor imagery as its ground.  We sit on cushions and relinquish that which characterizes our daily life of the mind, suggesting that sitting with any desires whatsoever, even those to make things better, is contrary to the practice.  This picture frustrates the very notion that you should be sitting in the first place.  I won't discuss the reasons for sitting without sitting for any reason, but we should consider this is an unusual request, indeed.  

The answer to the question of what should meditation bring lies in the observation that, in addition to meditation being something that absolves the mind of intentionally contemplating or relinquishing the directed nature of contemplation, we seek physical health and psychic harmony.

Thereto, what if even this goal-less sitting practice were discovered to be causing cancer within practitioners, would they be told to stop by teachers?  And what of the possibility that for the majority of practitioners, they could be disposed to psychic disharmony rather than harmony from the practice?

The first should be patently obvious.  If meditation, a practice that organizations ranging from Buddhists to the secularized world of mindfulness, were discovered to be physically harmful, neither of them would have a ground to stand on.  If we were told there was an ancient philosophy that instructed its adherents to bash their skulls against a concrete wall in successions of three for five minutes a day in order to find oneness in the universe, we would dismiss it outright.  Buddhists believe that their practices and beliefs are aimed at the absolution of suffering, so were one of its practices to spur more on, it would run counter to the ends of the Buddhist world.  Similarly, secular practitioners of meditation would lose their health benefits.

The second concern over psychological health is more complicated.  Meditation causes distress; that is a fact of the practice.  Sometimes the dissociative feeling one has with their own body and experience while sitting can instigate the fight or flight mechanism, which resisting in order to stay seated can spend far more energy than letting it drive you off the cushion and out the door.  Practitioners, however, take it that this should be part of an initial or at least seldom reoccurring feature of our mental life; keep up meditation and the dividends will appear after the initial period of discomfort.  Some questions we should have for this consideration should be cashed out in several ways.  Firstly, how long should we be sitting?  There is no research available at present (that I know of) that gives a good answer to this question.  Ascetic practitioners may boast of meditating for hours everyday, but if meditation is to be available to lay practitioners, the question of how often needs a better answer than what it currently available.  Secondly, are there genuinely periods in one's life when meditation is harmful?  That is, can we generalize situations in which is it better not to meditate?

The long term effort, therefore, is the only rationalization that can make sense of the unpleasant facts associated with meditation.  If meditation simply gave us unpleasant psychological experiences, that would be enough reason to abandon it.  As discussed above, the difficulty is in acknowledging that meditation is meant to give us no psychological experience as at all, yet still recognizing positive or neutral impacts being why we would be able to continue the practice in the face of those facts.

We should welcome further neuroscientific and psychological research into meditation.  It seems safe to say that meditation is not in jeopardy of suffering extinction based on the aforementioned worries, but it is nonetheless of interest to see how genuinely enthusiastic we should be able sitting without purpose.


Comments