The short answer is yes it can. I know this sounds strange, but I am very excited about this episode because. It’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time. It’s very important and most people don’t hear this message very much.
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Before I start talking about how meditation can be really bad I should talk about why I love meditation and why I thinks it’s great.
I do love meditation and that’s why I waited to talk about it’s potentially harmful outcomes until Episode 15. But I did seriously contemplate making the problems with meditation as the very first episode.
This message deserves to be heard when people first start meditating o even though this is Episode 15, I’m will be placing a button for it in a prominent place on the website.
I’m going to go about describing the ways in which meditation actually can be bad for us but I obviously want to make it clear I’m a cheerleader for meditation. I’ve been meditating for over 40 years. And I’m going to continue doing it. I have a daily meditation practice. I am continually learning meditation various techniques and I’m continually reading the ancient meditation texts because it’s what I love doing. I get a lot of joy and value out of them.
Before we start talking about the ways in which meditation can be bad for you, there’s a few main points we should acknowledge.
First thing we have to be clear on meditation does not make someone a better person. It just makes them more of who they already are. Becoming a better person, and the way I define better person is someone who is more open, someone who is more thoughtful, someone who’s more caring, values, fairness and equity, becoming that kind of person involves wanting to be more open, more, thoughtful, more caring, valuing fairness and equity more. This can be done with or without meditation. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing we have to keep in mind is that we can hurt ourselves doing almost anything if we do too much of it or if we do it incorrectly.
A great example is sports injuries. Getting injured through meditation is just like getting injured during a sport activity that you might not have experience in or that you might be doing incorrectly and can result in pulled muscles and broken bones and concussions. I know those are very hard things to hear, I only bring them up because I’ve had all of those experiences playing sports. So I’m well aware of the dangers.
I’m not a musician but I have lots of friends who are musicians and I know playing music can lead to all kinds of injuries too. You could damage your voice. You could pull a muscle. I’ve heard of musicians who have accidentally walked right off the stage. Musician injuries are common. The repetitive strain by a particular emotion is common.
Another example, you could get injured, doing a simple thing like gardening. I know people who have ended up pulling a back muscle while picking up something heavy. Or you could end up with joint pain from bending over or squatting too much.
And the most extreme example of all, I have hurt myself with a papercut while reading!
So almost anything can lead to an injury and we want to do it safely and sensibly.
Getting back to meditation. Can meditation be bad for you?
Yes. Meditation can be bad for you in a very special way: mentally.
What happens in meditation is that we bring our awareness to our thinking and to our feeling. And for some people that’s not a big deal. They enjoy this awareness and they like reflecting on their behaviour. They like bringing awareness to their mental world.
But for others, especially those with a history of trauma or a history with anxiety or obsessive thoughts, meditation can bring too much focus and awareness and attention to their thinking and being.
For those who don’t have experience or support in managing these issues, and when I say support I mean professional support, it can result in very bad outcomes.
Physical activities can lead to physical injuries and mental activities can lead to mental issues.
The important thing is that with physical injuries, you’re still grounded mentally. Of course, anyone who’s had back pain knows that it can possess your mind and it can be very, very hard to do anything or think anything. So certainly physical injuries also affect our mind, but for the most part, with physical injuries, you can still think and act and be social and be involved with your environment.
But with when meditation results in serious problems, both emotionally and mentally, we become disengaged from the world or we might end up acting in a very harmful manner in the world.
Common undesirable outcomes from meditation include becoming more narcissistic or developing a sense of spiritual superiority.
Too much meditation can result in spiritual bypassing. This is a more recent term, but it’s a really important one. Spiritual bypassing is when bad things happen to you, you bypass their badness and think
“Oh, it’s all for the good” or
“Oh, it’s all because of this amazing practice I’m doing and everything will be taken care of I don’t need to address whatever harm is coming my way or negative experiences are coming my way. I don’t need to address them. Just my being spiritual will solve them on their own.
Meditation leading to spiritual bypassing is a huge problem.
Another way meditation can be problematic is a resurgence of traumatic memories.
I also know situations in which people who start meditating become overly sensitive. Because they’re bringing so much attention to their sensations and their thinking they can become too sensitive to everyday events. Someone else might handle a difficult everyday event without any issues whatsoever but for the meditator the event may become very upsetting.
The opposite is true as well. Some people can become under sensitive by meditating too much where life events just don’t mean much. They don’t affect the person in a deep, emotional way. And everything feels kind of dull and boring.
Last episode I said meditation will not make you dull or lacking any emotion and I still stick by that. I’ve been a part of various meditation communities and I’ve seen firsthand how meditation really opens people up emotionally allowing them to express themselves more fully.
But there is this one exception. For some people, mindfulness can lead to a dulling of emotions. It can lead to a numbing of feeling. They feel like everything should be on an even keel that they shouldn’t judge something good or bad. They feel they should have a flat emotional response to everything.
If you are experiencing this with mindfulness meditation, you should stop meditating. It’s time to begin to participate in activities that engage you with the world.
It could be physical activities like sports or it could be social activities like going for a walk with friends or doing something fun and goofy like karaoke. Whatever activities or hobbies it is, you can choose the ones that suit your personality and do more of those.
The idea is to participate in something that brings meaning and purpose and emotional and social connection to your life.
After my morning meditation, I go down to the kitchen. Make a cup of tea and watch the sunrise. These few minutes are as valuable and healing for me as the time I spend sitting in meditation
I live with my father who’s in his eighties and every day I try to sit with him and have an ordinary conversation. Just sit and chat about whatever’s happening with him, whatever he’s interested in. Whether that’s something on the news or some memory from his childhood or even some random thing that he might be thinking about.
Both of these things, drinking the cup of tea while watching the sunrise and talking with my father, are as valuable to me as meditating. They’re as important. Meditation helps me be in those moments more fully and be more emotionally engaged in them, be more mentally engaged in them.
Meditation should be a boon in your life. It should not be a curse. If it feels like a curse then it’s time to put meditation aside for a while and turn to something else.
The meditation practices of the agents were not isolated self-help or business success techniques. They were developed as practices for becoming a caring, thoughtful, ethical acting member in a community in a sangha. We talked about this term sangha in the episode about Do I need to meditate with others?
Sangha is the Sanskrit word for community be that a spiritual community or a meditation community. The idea for meditation is that we’re trying to make ourselves better for ourselves, better for our family, better for our community and better for the world. And this means cultivating certain virtues, compassion, humility, generosity, sacrifice for the good of the self and the good of the community.
Once these social aims are removed from meditation, it’s easy for meditation to result in adverse personality traits. Meditation that is divorced from the ethical quickly leads to narcissism.
As we said at the beginning of this episode the only way to be a better person is to want to be a better person. Whether you meditate or not, it doesn’t make a difference.
You can be the most incredible meditator in the world. And still be not a good person. And there are hundreds of examples of this of very famous spiritual leaders that we can turn to as evidence.
If you are a beginner meditator, I highly recommend integrating meditation into your life slowly.
In my thirties I learned to skate and play ice hockey. I joined a hockey league where everyone else also was in their twenties and up who did not know how to skate and play ice hockey.
This adult beginner’s league took safety seriously. If you’re familiar with ice hockey you probably know it can be an extremely violent contact sport. That’s not what I was looking for. I wanted to learn to skate and have some fun on the ice.
This beginner’s league I joined was a non-contact league meaning we didn’t hit each other. We didn’t try to push each other out of the way. We just used our sticks to get the puck. And we did not start playing with experienced players who knew how to skate and hit and shoot the puck at life threatening speeds. We played it safe and fun.
If you’re not familiar with ice hockey, think of swimming.
I don’t really know how to swim. I’ve tried to learn as an adult and I haven’t become successful yet. Maybe one day I will. But what I do know is when you learn to swim as an adult, you don’t want to jump into the deep end with no idea of how to tread water and no idea of how to stay afloat.
What you want to do is start in the shallow end until you have experience floating and staying above water. Then you can go into the deep end.
It’s the same with meditation.
It’s just not wise to do it too much at the beginning, especially if you’re learning from an app. Once you become experienced in meditation you’re ready to go deeper it’s best to have social support. It’s best to have a sangha, a community of meditators you can connect who understand what’s happening with you.
It can also help to have instructor support and an experienced meditation teacher who has your best interest in mind and not their best interest in mind.
The most important thing to keep in mind is it’s okay if you don’t like meditation. Meditation might not be the right thing for you.
If you start to have mental or emotional issues with meditation, you should stop meditating. When I damaged my knee accidentally in ice hockey, I stopped playing ice hockey for a few years. I waited until my knee was back to full strength.
If your meditation is leading to mental or emotional issues, stop meditating. Seek out other means of helping yourself emotionally and mentally.
You might be thinking, this is not a very enthusiastic endorsement of meditation. No, it’s not. You’re right. The rest of the podcast episodes are the enthusiastic endorsement of meditation.
I might end up making 500 podcast episodes and 499 of them will talk about how amazing meditation is.
But this one might be the most important one because it’s making everyone unaware that meditation is not for everyone. It’s for me, I’m a huge cheerleader for meditation, but it might not be for you.
You might be better off reading or gardening or knitting or cooking or participating in social activities like sports or singing or playing board games or hiking.
If meditation is not working for you, then I encourage you to go on a journey of self-discovery to find the activity that gives you the most joy and emotional well-being. It just might be a cup of tea and a sunrise away.