The Variety of Meditation Experiences

The Variety of Meditation Experiences

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“One can have almost any type of physical sensation during meditation in any area of the body. . .  The ticklish sensation in your heart just means that some normalization is occurring there, allowing for a more full expression of your emotions. The sense of anxiety or fear is a by-product of that clearing process.” – Depak Chopra

 

Meditation is a wonderful practice that has many documented beneficial effects on mental, physical and spiritual health. For the most part, people have positive experiences during meditation, but it is not all positive. People begin meditation with the misconception that meditation will help them escape from their problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, meditation does the exact opposite, forcing the meditator to confront their issues. In meditation, the practitioner tries to quiet the mind. But, in that relaxed quiet state, powerful, highly emotionally charged thoughts and memories sometimes emerge.

 

Many practitioners never experience these issues or only experience very mild states. There are, however, few systematic studies of the extent of negative experiences. In general, the research has reported that unwanted (negative) experiences are quite common with meditators, but for the most part, are short-lived and mild. There is, however, a great need for more research into the nature of the experiences that occur during meditation.

 

In today’s Research News article “The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5443484/ ),

Lindahl and colleagues recruited experienced adult meditation practitioners and teachers from a variety of different traditions. Meditators were excluded if they had a history of unusual psychological experiences prior to learning meditation. They conducted extensive semi-structured interviews that consisted of open-ended questions regarding meditation-related experiences. Interviews with the participants were conducted either in person, by videoconferencing, or by telephone. Transcripts of the interviews were then subjected to qualitative data analysis focusing on challenging or difficult experiences.

 

They found that most practitioners had experienced at least some challenging experiences. 29% encountered challenges in their first year of practice while 45% encountered them in their first 10 years. For 73% of the practitioners, challenging experiences were associated with meditation retreats, while the rest were associated with daily practice. The more meditation per day the greater the likelihood of negative experiences with only 25% who practiced for 30-60 minutes per day having negative experiences, 34% who practiced 1-9 hours per day, and 41% who practiced over 10 hours per day. One of the most striking findings was the duration of negative experiences. They were not brief or fleeting. In fact, on average they were reported to persist from 1 to 3 years and as long as 10 years.

 

Thematic content analysis of the transcripts revealed 59 different categories of experiences that occurred in 7 higher order domains; cognitive, perceptual, affective, somatic, conative, sense of self, and social. 73% of practitioners had experiences falling into at least 6 domains.

 

The Cognitive Domain consisted in “Changes . . . to mental functioning, including the frequency, quality and content of thoughts, as well as . . . planning, decision-making and memory.” Most experiences in this domain were pleasant but unpleasant experiences also occurred including inability to concentrate for extended periods, problems with memory, the disintegration of conceptual meaning structures, “mind racing,” vivid imagery, and delusional, irrational, or paranormal beliefs.

 

The Perceptual domain consisted of ”changes to any of the five senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste and somatosensory processing” and interoception and proprioception. Unpleasant experiences in this domain included hypersensitivity to stimuli, illusions, hallucinations, dissolution of perceptual objects, distortions in time and space, and sensations appearing dreamlike, as if in a fog.

 

The Affective domain consisted of changes in the type, frequency, or intensity of emotions. For many the affective experiences were pleasant including bliss and euphoria, sometimes verging on mania. But, unpleasant experiences were very frequent and involved both increased and decreased emotionality including anxiety fear, panic, re-experiencing trauma, irritability, anger, and paranoia with 82% reporting it. For some flat affect occurred with a loss of swings in emotion.

 

The Somatic domain consisted of “changes in bodily functioning or physiological processes.” Unpleasant experiences in this domain included sleep disruption, feelings of pressure, tension, and hot and cold, electricity like voltages or currents through the body sometimes resulting in involuntary movements.

 

The Conative domain consisted of “changes in motivation or goal-directed behaviors.” Unpleasant experiences in this domain included loss of desire for previously enjoyed activities and loss of motivation to achieve goals.

 

The Sense of Self domain consisted of “changes in how a practitioner conceives of himself or herself over time.” Unpleasant experiences in this domain including a dissolution of boundaries between the individuals and others and the environment, loss of a sense of ownership of thoughts, emotions and agency (the doer), and loss of a sense of self entirely.

 

The Social domain consisted of “changes in interpersonal activities or functioning, including level of engagement, quality of relationships, or periods of conflict, isolation or withdrawal.” Unpleasant experiences in this domain included problems re-integrating into society after a retreat or intensive practice, impaired functioning at work or with family, and doubt and loss of faith. In fact, many of the negative experiences bled over into everyday life affecting all social interactions.

 

These findings need to be kept in perspective as most experience with meditation are pleasant and positive and even the negative experiences are mainly brief and manageable. But the results emphasize that it’s not all what people are led to believe. It can turn unpleasant or even ugly. It is important that this be taught and managed in the meditation community. In the monasteries this is well understood and managed. But in the secular world, these negative experiences are rarely taught, understood, reacted to properly, or managed. For many negative experiences can lead to stopping practice, but for others they can lead to grave psychological harm. It is important that the practitioner be made aware of these possible experiences before they begin, so they are better able to understand them a handle them astutely.

 

Meditation should not be engaged in blindly without proper instruction. It can produce great benefit but sometimes great harm. In order to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm proper education and management is needed.

 

Emotions that come up during meditation represent one of two things: 1) undigested past negative emotions that are rising up to be processed, or 2) a present-moment experience of raw emotion from something happening now, which can be positive or negative. Either way, it can make for an uncomfortable meditation and is one of the most common reasons people stop meditating.” – Trista Thorp

 

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Lindahl, J. R., Fisher, N. E., Cooper, D. J., Rosen, R. K., & Britton, W. B. (2017). The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE, 12(5), e0176239. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239

 

Abstract

Buddhist-derived meditation practices are currently being employed as a popular form of health promotion. While meditation programs draw inspiration from Buddhist textual sources for the benefits of meditation, these sources also acknowledge a wide range of other effects beyond health-related outcomes. The Varieties of Contemplative Experience study investigates meditation-related experiences that are typically underreported, particularly experiences that are described as challenging, difficult, distressing, functionally impairing, and/or requiring additional support. A mixed-methods approach featured qualitative interviews with Western Buddhist meditation practitioners and experts in Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan traditions. Interview questions probed meditation experiences and influencing factors, including interpretations and management strategies. A follow-up survey provided quantitative assessments of causality, impairment and other demographic and practice-related variables. The content-driven thematic analysis of interviews yielded a taxonomy of 59 meditation-related experiences across 7 domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective, somatic, conative, sense of self, and social. Even in cases where the phenomenology was similar across participants, interpretations of and responses to the experiences differed considerably. The associated valence ranged from very positive to very negative, and the associated level of distress and functional impairment ranged from minimal and transient to severe and enduring. In order to determine what factors may influence the valence, impact, and response to any given experience, the study also identified 26 categories of influencing factors across 4 domains: practitioner-level factors, practice-level factors, relationships, and health behaviors. By identifying a broader range of experiences associated with meditation, along with the factors that contribute to the presence and management of experiences reported as challenging, difficult, distressing or functionally impairing, this study aims to increase our understanding of the effects of contemplative practices and to provide resources for mediators, clinicians, meditation researchers, and meditation teachers.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5443484/

Meditation Can Produce Uncomfortable Effects

Meditation Can Produce Uncomfortable Effects

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“While the benefits of mediation are being recorded in scientific journals, what’s not discussed as often are the negative meditation side effects. It can be a frustrating, sometimes agonizing process that will bring you into contact with your limitations and inner conflicts. Rather than a metamorphosis, you can experience a setback.” – Linda Kaban

 

People begin meditation with the misconception that meditation will help them escape from their problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, meditation does the exact opposite, forcing the meditator to confront their issues. In meditation, the practitioner tries to quiet the mind. But, in that relaxed quiet state, powerful, highly emotionally charged thoughts and memories are likely to emerge. The strength here is that meditation is a wonderful occasion to begin to deal with these issues. But, often the thoughts or memories are overwhelming. At times, professional therapeutic intervention may be needed.

 

Meditation practice can also produce some troubling experiences beyond unmasking deep psychological issues. Not the least of these experiences are awakening experiences themselves. If they are not properly understood, they can lead to sometimes devastating consequences. These experiences are so powerful and unusual that they can be misinterpreted. Awakening experiences have been misdiagnosed as psychotic breaks and the individual placed on powerful drugs and/or institutionalized. At the very least, the individual may believe that they are losing their sanity or as one has said, “I just got used to the idea that occasionally I would have just one of those days.

 

Meditation practice can sometimes produce energetic states that can vary in intensity, location, and duration. If and when these occur, they are usually quite surprising and unexpected. They can be readily misinterpreted. They involve energy focused in specific parts of the body or overall. They can feel like nervousness, tension, or almost like electrical currents flowing through the body and can produce spontaneous and undirected movements. These energy states are usually found to be aversive and difficult to cope with.

 

Many practitioners never experience these issues or only experience very mild states. There are, however, no systematic studies of the extent of this problem. In today’s Research News article “Unwanted effects: Is there a negative side of meditation? A multicentre survey.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5584749/, Cebolla and colleagues conducted an on-line survey of meditation practitioners that engaged in a variety of different meditation techniques. They were asked if they had experienced any unwanted experiences. If they had, they were asked to describe the nature of these experiences. These incidents were categorized into 8 clusters; anxiety symptoms (including panic attacks), pain (stomach, headache, muscular, nausea), depersonalization and derealization, hypomania or depressive symptoms, emotional lability, visual focalization problems, loss of consciousness or dizziness, and other symptoms. They also completed a checklist of unwanted experiences.

 

They found that the incidence of negative events was quite high with 25.4% of the respondents reporting unwanted experiences. But most reported that the experiences were mild and transitory and most did not lead to the need for medical assistance or the cessation of meditation practice. These unwanted experiences occurred more frequently with individual rather than group practice and with focused meditation practice, particularly when practices was longer then 20 minutes. The most frequently described reactions were anxiety symptoms (including panic attacks) and depersonalization or derealization (“when I began to focus on my breath, a shift seemed to occur in my spatial awareness quite quickly. I felt like my awareness was becoming very close to me, and everything around me was becoming very distant.)

 

The results suggest that unwanted (negative) experiences are quite common with meditators, but for the most part are short-lived and mild. It should be kept in mind, however, that practitioners who had more severe and long lasting negative experience may well not continue meditation and not be included in the sample. So, the actual frequency and severity of unwanted (negative) experiences may actually be higher. There was also no comparison condition. It is possible that similar unwanted experiences occur over time in people who do not meditate.

 

The results suggest that better instruction is needed for beginning meditators regarding the types of experiences that meditators may have and resources provided for dealing with these experiences. In the West meditation has been promoted as a completely positive and beneficial practice. For the most part, it is. But, it can have significant, unpleasant, and potentially harmful consequences. It is important that practitioners be aware of this and have access to experienced teachers who can help them navigate through the difficulties if they appear.

 

It needs to be publicized that meditation can produce uncomfortable effects.

 

To put things in perspective, many millions of people have meditated, over the past several thousands of years, and written about it extensively – there is a vast literature. If you look at this history as a vast trial run of a new drug, there are remarkably few negative side effects for such a powerful process.” – Lorin Roche

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Cebolla, A., Demarzo, M., Martins, P., Soler, J., & Garcia-Campayo, J. (2017). Unwanted effects: Is there a negative side of meditation? A multicentre survey. PLoS ONE, 12(9), e0183137. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0183137

 

Abstract

Objectives

Despite the long-term use and evidence-based efficacy of meditation and mindfulness-based interventions, there is still a lack of data about the possible unwanted effects (UEs) of these practices. The aim of this study was to evaluate the occurrence of UEs among meditation practitioners, considering moderating factors such as the type, frequency, and lifetime duration of the meditation practices.

Methods

An online survey was developed and disseminated through several websites, such as Spanish-, English- and Portuguese-language scientific research portals related to mindfulness and meditation. After excluding people who did not answer the survey correctly or completely and those who had less than two months of meditation experience, a total of 342 people participated in the study. However, only 87 reported information about UEs.

Results

The majority of the practitioners were women from Spain who were married and had a University education level. Practices were more frequently informal, performed on a daily basis, and followed by focused attention (FA). Among the participants, 25.4% reported UEs, showing that severity varies considerably. The information requested indicated that most of the UEs were transitory and did not lead to discontinuing meditation practice or the need for medical assistance. They were more frequently reported in relation to individual practice, during focused attention meditation, and when practising for more than 20 minutes and alone. The practice of body awareness was associated with UEs to a lesser extent, whereas focused attention was associated more with UEs.

Conclusions

This is the first large-scale, multi-cultural study on the UEs of meditation. Despite its limitations, this study suggests that UEs are prevalent and transitory and should be further studied. We recommend the use of standardized questionnaires to assess the UEs of meditation practices.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5584749/

No Escape

No Escape

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

Contemplative practice is, for the most part, a wonderful, relaxing, and peaceful endeavor. Engaging in it makes us feel refreshed and rested. This is wonderful, but can be a trap. We can use it as another in our arsenal of tactics to escape from a reality. This is a mistake and a lost opportunity.

 

Our lives are generally full of problems, from work, to family, to relationships, to health, to the challenges of getting it all done in a 24-hour day. In addition, we bring baggage from the past in the form of unresolved issues from childhood, or traumatic experiences, or deep emotional hurts. We also are confronted with fears and anxieties about an uncertain future. The totality of all of these problems can be overwhelming.

 

A frequent response is to try to escape them through various distractions such as the media, the internet, sports, alcohol and drugs, etc. It is useful to give ourselves a break once in a while and relieve some of the stress. But, if this is all we do, then it prevents us from addressing the problems and these distractions become an additional problem.

 

Our contemplative practice should not be added to the list of escape tactics. Indeed, contemplative practice is not an escape. Many people believe that spiritual awakening, aka enlightenment, will be an escape from their human problems. That is simply not the case. After awakening, all our problems are still there.

 

Contemplative practice should be employed to quiet the mind and allow for space for the emotions to be fully and honestly experienced. This sets the stage for being able to confront our problems, contemplate resolutions, and work through unresolved issues with a calm clarity. With the mind’s incessant chatter at least slightly muted and the emotions reduced to manageable intensity, we have to opportunity to honestly address our problems.

 

Contemplative practice is not the time to try to address the problems. It is the time to set the stage for addressing the problems. So, do not enter contemplative practice with the intent of thinking about the issues. Enter it as a time to allow the mind and physiology to settle and to enter into a present moment mindset. Regardless, the mind will inevitably wander and our deepest issues will emerge.

 

This can be seen in the amplified context of a silent meditation retreat. Here we cannot escape from our problems. They frequently emerge with full force and we are forced to confront them. Retreat can be an emotionally wrenching experience. Most can deal with it and benefit greatly by bringing them into the light of day and confronting them. But others can be overwhelmed. Retreat must be entered into with caution and with the presence of an understanding and experienced staff, to help us when the emotions become too strong to handle.

 

Hence, contemplative practice is not another escape but a means to get us prepared to fully address our deepest issues.

 

So, engage in contemplative practice and engage in dealing with the problems of life. The two endeavors complement each other.

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch