The popularity of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, or MBCT, has focussed attention on the benefits of meditation and cultivating a quiet mind. But if meditation is as powerful as it’s described, can it also be capable of harm?
MBCT and mindfulness based stress reduction are both based upon the beneficial effects of meditation. They’re variously claimed amongst other things to increase wellbeing by 65%: reduce depression by 75% and anxiety by 30%; increase mental focus ten-fold; boost the body’s immune response to a point where disease is halved; improve memory retention and recall; increase resilience to pain; reduce blood pressure and inflammation; and even help to prevent arthritis, fibromyalgia, and HIV.
But just as a medication this powerful would be subject to warnings about unwanted or unwelcome side effects so meditation can have a flip-side as well. In fact Albert Ellis, who pioneered cognitive behavioural therapies in America in the late 1950s, spoke against the use of meditation in therapy. His belief was that it was at best a “thought-distracting” technique, and one that may have the “harmful result of encouraging people to look away from their problems”.
Ellis’ contemporary, the South African psychologist Arnold Lazarus, went further, counselling that meditation was not suitable for everyone. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” he wrote, in describing the serious psychological disturbance that some of his patients had endured.
Given the fundamental nature of meditation the existence and strengths of some of these adverse effects shouldn’t be unexpected. It’s Buddhist and Hindu roots were not based around the search for a quiet mind, or to manage stress, but to help adherents challenge and transform their sense of self. Through this one could achieve the eradication of the sense of self, and so feel fully at one with the universe.
The ability of meditation to challenge and alter the sense of self can lead to positive changes in self-perception, but equally can lead to states from depersonalisation to dissociation. The effect of such detached states may not be beneficial at all, a fact which has been used by the military to train soldiers to enter these states to become more obedient and more removed from emotional engagement.
There are also studies that show meditation is not be entirely positive or neutral in its physical effect. One has shown that people who meditate for 20 minutes a day, although reporting subjectively lower feelings of stress, actually have increased levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”.
Whatever the final verdict on the effects of meditation one thing seems clear – that any technique that can have such powerful effects cannot sensibly be regarded as universally positive for all people and all situations. Just as anti-depressants, or engagement with a talking therapy solely for an hour a week, would not be seen as answers on their own neither can meditation nor mindfulness. We should also remain aware of the potential risks of meditation, and ensure that its use is appropriate, proportionate, and supports continued good mental health.
If you’ve been surprised at the flip-side of meditation then you might be equally taken aback at the popularity of videos showing people folding towels – find out more about that on my blog post about ASMR.
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