Sep 23, 2015

The dangers of mindfulness rise up as the practice gains popularity

Douglas Perry
The Oregonian/OregonLive
September 21, 2015

Mindfulness. Everyone seems to be doing it and singing its praises. It might even have won Jon Hamm his long-overdue Emmy: the iconic closing scene of the AMC series "Mad Men" was of Hamm's tortured Don Draper striking the pose at a hippie retreat in 1970s California.

The lesson of mindfulness is clear: Through meditation and the Way of the Buddha, you too can become truly present and at one with the universe. You too can become happier and more fulfilled.

Many big corporations, such as Google, have embraced mindfulness. A cross-party group of legislators in Britain's Parliament is trying to increase awareness of it.

What you don't hear is that there's a possible dark side. Many, many people have found peace and satisfaction from meditation. But some practitioners end up tumbling off the well-lighted path to enlightenment and instead experience "twitching, trembling, panic, disorientation, hallucinations, terror, depression, mania and psychotic breakdown."

That's the conclusion of Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, authors of "The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Actually Change You?"

The Times of London put it this way: "Mindfulness: it can mess with your head."

People use meditation to "quiet the mind," ease physical pain and anxiety, and embrace their true emotions. "But happiness and de-stressing were not what meditation techniques, with their Buddhist and Hindu roots, were originally developed for," Farias and Wikholm wrote earlier this year in New Scientist magazine. "The purpose of meditation was much more radical: to challenge and rupture the idea of who you are, shaking one's sense of self to the core so you realize there is 'nothing there' (Buddhism)..."

That is indeed pretty radical -- especially for Americans, with our ingrained regard for individualism. Farias and Wikholm cite a study that concluded that 63 percent of people who meditate have had negative side effects of one sort or another, some of them quite serious.

Farias, an Oxford-educated psychologist who teaches at Coventry University in England, said this shouldn't surprise anyone. "How can a technique that allows you to look within and change your perception or reality of yourself be without potential adverse effects?" he told the Times.

None of which necessarily means you shouldn't practice mindfulness. Various small studies have indicated that it's helpful in alleviating depression.

"Properly done, it's the opposite of mindlessness," says Anthony Seldon, a British historian and educator. "It helps people to be self-aware, to collect themselves, to be thoughtful before they decide what to do."

We could all use a little more of that.

-- Douglas Perry

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