The Evil of Meditation: How Religious Studies Scholars Can Help
The first in a series examining what are often referred to today as “negative experiences of meditation” or the “sickness of meditation” – beginning with an exploration of the fascinating ways in which psychologists have turned to meditation. erudition of religious studies in their investigation and treatment of “distressed meditators.”
“I still have a hard time getting back to ‘normal’ after retirement.”
Five years to the day since I published this article, on May 30, 2017, Megan Vogt, a 25-year-old white woman from southern Pennsylvania, emailed the meditation center where she had recently completed a ten-day training at the Goenka. vipassana retreat.
Megan had previously written, in an email exchange originally published in a local newspaper, The New Patriotsthat she “ended up in the psychiatric ward for eight days directly afterwards” and, weeks later, “my mind lives in a continuous time loop reliving it over and over again. I know the purpose of the training is to let things go, but I have a lot of trouble.
A week after writing those words, Megan committed suicide. His story has since been told numerous times in the mainstream press (including quite recently with detailed reporting in Harper’s Magazine), expressing the shock and grief of Megan’s family and friends.
Megan and her community had every reason to believe that going on a meditation retreat would only benefit her. Media studies scholars like Sharon Lauricella have documented what might seem obvious even to the casual observer: that therapeutic meditation practices have received overwhelmingly positive treatment in popular media, portrayed as helpful in nearly every segment of society. .
Megan’s family was therefore very surprised to learn that the practice of meditation could end so badly that it could carry these kinds of risks.
Recently, in response, in part, to the media attention generated by Megan’s death, meditation teachers have pointed out that effects of meditation as intense as Megan’s are extremely rare. In, for example, an article by The lion’s roar (a periodical produced by and for the predominantly white “converted meditation-based Buddhist communities,” as Buddhist studies scholar Ann Gleig has called them), they point out that truly qualified meditation instructors have always known it was possible to have difficult meditation experiences and are equipped to help meditators to navigate through them.
In fact, some have argued that while it is true that without proper guidance meditation can indeed “go wrong”, discomfort during meditation practice is often an indication that “meditation is working”.
Prominent Buddhist teachers and scholars such as the German-born Theravadin monk Bhikkhu Anālayo perceived that there was now what he calls “negativity surrounding meditation in reaction to the hype around mindfulness”. “At first, the positive benefits were being touted,” Anālayo explained, “so now there’s a backlash of people exaggerating their criticisms.” These teachers might see me as part of the problem as I rehash, they might say, Megan’s story all over again here.
But as a practicing psychotherapist who has worked in the mental health field for over two decades now and, I will personally say, has lost more than one beloved family and friend to suicide, I firmly believe that it is essential to elevate Megan’s name and drive home how high the stakes can be for those who might be dismissive of the so-called harmful effects of meditation.
Cases like Megan’s may, perhaps, be rare – more research is needed to determine just how rare. But psychologists like, most importantly, Willoughby Britton have conducted rigorous qualitative research that has revealed that adverse meditation experiences can be anything but.
Researchers in a study published in PLOS One found that more than a quarter of meditators surveyed reported such negative experiences. And, for meditators describing sleep disturbances, hyperarousal, anxiety, or depersonalization, these difficulties seem far from exaggerated.
I conducted semi-structured oral history interviews with Britton and other psychologists on what they sometimes refer to as “meditation sickness” for my forthcoming new book on the subject (with a working title sick of meditation), a history of religious studies and (auto-)ethnography of how psychotherapists have responded to unsubstantiated meditative experiences.
In our interviews, psychologists like Britton and Miguel Farias expressed their commitment to, indeed, raising awareness of the ill effects of meditation in the face of celebrity endorsements from figures such as Arianna Huffington, who said that, when it comes to therapeutic meditation practices, “this panacea is real and there are no toxic side effects”. Britton and Farias expressed bewilderment at this kind of sentiment. “As if anything has Nope side effects,” an exasperated Britton told me in an interview.
Meanwhile, from my dual position as a clinician and religious studies researcher who teaches at Vanderbilt University, one aspect of this subject that first caught my attention nearly fifteen years ago was the central role that religious studies have played into psychotherapists’ approaches to disruptive meditative effects. .
As a historian of “religion and psychotherapy,” I am aware that for centuries meditators and other researchers have described experiences that might seem comparable to Megan’s. In fact, as a result, a psychologist like Britton brought religious studies scholars into her lab to examine ancient writings generally considered religious scripture for both diagnostic and therapeutic information.
Perhaps in response to the so-called meditation boom, scholars of Buddhist studies like Juhn Ahn and Melissa Curley are increasingly interested in what Asian Buddhist communities have called zenbyō Where to change. In recent years, however, a historian of “Buddhism and medicine” like Pierce Salguero has given public lectures in which he expressed his belief that translations of Buddhist texts by scholars like him, Eric Greene, and Susannah Deane could not only edifying Buddhist studies. scholars, but offer help to both contemporary psychotherapists and meditation teachers in the United States.
But, again, psychologists have already turned to the scholarship of religious studies in remarkable ways, and it would be useful to explore more in the future how my academic colleagues can be helpful in this process and how we might even potentially cause harm.
Issues related to this topic were in fact fundamental to the formation of talk therapy and religious studies as disciplines and are interconnected with larger histories of alternative medicine and alternative religiosity in the United States.
More importantly, however, it is important for us to listen more carefully to the psychotherapists who, day after day, respond to, as they are often called, “meditators in distress” like Megan Vogt. These clinicians continue to seek both effective and ethical; a culturally humble and decolonial way of caring for people who express deep suffering and who clearly need real support.
If you or someone you love is considering suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.