– The Dalai Lama, quoted in Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French
There are tens of thousands of different meditation techniques and if you want to benefit from meditation, pick the one or two or three that go with your individual nature and your daily life. You always have to ask, “Is this for me?” and “Was this practice designed for someone like me, a person with a job, a lover, friends, .... and maybe children, relatives, a dog or cat, and the need for a vacation.
The hazards of meditation are intimately connected with the benefits. Both the advocates of meditation and its critics are naive and misinformed about this. They simply do not spend enough time interviewing meditators about what actually happens. For example, when an office worker gets access to deep relaxation from meditation, she may realize that her boss is a bag of tension – abusive, toxic, and hopeless. There is no fix to the situation, no adaptation, because he makes people sick. So she may leave that job, or company, or even that profession. From the perspective of that company, meditation made her a bad employee. Her parents and friends will think she is strange. But the new company she joins, or starts, will think she is brilliant. It all depends on your perspective. As Krishna said in the Bhagavad-Gita, “Karma is unfathomable,” (gahanaa karmanah).
You are entitled to know whether the meditation practice you are doing will render you unable to cope with modern civilization. Many of the techniques out there are actually designed to make you dissociated from your natural desires, disgusted by sex, alienated from everyday life, and in search of a guru to surrender to. Of course they are – these teachings come from gurus, who tend to think that if you want to abandon your children, divorce your husband, quit your job, donate all your wealth to the guru, that this is wonderful and spiritual.
The dangers of meditation proceed from the fact that it works so well that you let your guard down and stop using your common sense. When you approach meditation, you listen to your instincts more than usual – that's why we call our work Instinctive Meditation.
Meditation is powerful. It's a way of tapping into the body's built-in healing and rejuvenation ability. During meditation, the relaxation is so intense that the body enters a rest deeper than deep sleep, and a lot happens in a few minutes. Twenty minutes of meditation is a lot. Meditation is a little like working out, doing athletic training. You are using your body, and that is natural, but you are also using your body in a specially focussed way. Properly done, this will make you healthier and stronger. You will feel better physically, emotionally and mentally.
There are millions of people in the modern West practicing meditation each day, but there is little information about how to deal with the challenges and avoid the dangers. A 2002 study by the CDC found that about 7.6% of adults in the United States practice meditation, and 5% practice yoga.
Everyone who works out, whether they run, swim, walk miles, goes to a gym, or does yoga, is a hair's breadth away from injury at all times. Runners have a long list of minor and major injuries they encounter, including knee and lower back soreness. Swimmers can get shoulder injuries. People who walk can get sore legs. In gyms, people are constantly getting minor injuries on the equipment, especially overtraining injuries. In every sport, there are injuries and many people know what they are. The magazines devoted to the sport talk realistically about injury.
In the field of yoga, over the past ten years, there has developed considerable attention to injuries and to prevention. This happened in part because people with yoga injuries were filling the waiting rooms of sports doctors and physical therapists across the United States. One physical therapist said, in the late 1990's, "Yoga is the best thing for my business since the jogging fad in the 70's."
By comparison with meditation, running is a very honest sport. There is good, accurate information about the types of injuries that occur, how to prevent them, and the best treatments to explore if you do get hurt. There is easy access to realistic information on what the dangers are and how to prevent them. Runners love their sport. They are passionate about it and want to minimize the time they spend sidelined by injuries. So why are yoga and meditation so dishonest?
The Taboo Against Honesty in Meditation
I don't know why meditation is such a deceptive field, so full of lies. Maybe it is because yoga and meditation come from Hinduism, and Yoga is "by definition" a perfect system, therefore if you get hurt, it's your bad karma. You must have been thinking impure thoughts. Perhaps you were criticizing the teacher in your mind, or not being respectful to the guru.
This quote by the Dalai Lama is the type of honest observation that is incredibly rare in meditation: "In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you? Homeless inside yourself." – The Dalai Lama, quoted in Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French.
Many of my friends are sort of homeless within their hearts, because they have been meditating in a Buddhist or Hindu tradition for the last twenty, thirty or more years. They seem lost. Meditators are always getting injured in subtle ways. It usually takes longer to come on than the sunburn or Achilles tendonitis runners get. Because meditation is powerful, it affects your body, nerves, muscles and senses. There are strong tendencies to be healthy and self-regulating in meditation. But any theory you have will probably throw you off balance. To stay in balance, you have to pay close attention to your senses. And to the extent you practice meditation in a religious mood, you will tend to not attend to your senses, and will override your inner wisdom.
For some reason or set of reasons, there is almost no information about the dangers of meditation. It is taboo to even think about it. Meditation is presented as an omni-beneficial activity. We are in the odd situation that the field that is supposed to be about truth, is presented in a deceptive manner. Discussion of the real obstacles and hazards of meditation is met with denial.
Runners get shin splints, sore knees and blisters; swimmers get shoulder injuries and ear infections; soccer players get head and neck injuries; volleyball players, tennis players, skiiers, weight lifters, and golfers all have their characteristic injuries. Coaches and sports doctors study these injuries, figure out how they happened, and how to prevent them. Then they revise the training to minimize injury and publish articles, and the information eventually gets out so that everyone can benefit from it.
This process of studying what works, where things break, and then modifying the training to make it better, is not going on in the field of meditation. It's not that people are lying. The lack of skill, and lack of observation demonstrated by meditation teachers is a manifestation of how denial itself is one of their main techniques.
By contrast, the process of noticing injuries and figuring out how to prevent them is going on in yoga. During the early 1970's, I noticed that quite a few of my friends had lower back, shoulder, and neck injuries from asana practice. By the late 70's, about a third of my meditating friends had more or less permanent injuries from yoga. In the early 1990's, I started meeting a lot of people with yoga injuries, and then I started to hear reports that orthopedic surgeon's offices, from Los Angeles to New York, will filled with yoga injuries and that the doctors were thanking the existence of yoga for paying for their Aspen ski condos. Then finally in the early 2000's, there started to be awareness of yoga injuries in the yoga journals and among yoga teachers. The last few years, my impression is that yoga is taught in a much more balanced and responsible way. I don't see as many new yoga injuries, and the students are encouraged to go at their own pace.
Of course, yoga injuries are similar to sports injuries and have to do with the joints and soft tissue. People know it when they are limping around, and get woken up by pain. They are motivated to go to a doctor.
Meditation injuries are usually very gradual and almost invisible, so they are harder to detect, impossible to x-ray, and difficult to gather data on. As a meditation teacher, it was not until after five years of teaching full-time that I began to see these injuries, because before that I wasn't experienced enough to be perceptive.
The Dilation Syndrome
In sports, injuries can result from being too flexible, or more flexible than you are strong. In meditation, a crucial balance seems to be sensitivity and strength. Meditation does tend to make you more sensitive, and if you meditate just the right amount for your daily activity, just living your life will make you stronger. But if you meditate too much, you may become too sensitive too fast. I am thinking of calling this The Dilation Syndrome, because it may be related to the chakras opening too rapidly. The analogy I am making is that opening the chakras is like learning to dilate your pupils – if they are too wide open, then they will not adapt to the light levels, and bright lights will hurt your eyes. You may then become afraid of the light or think "the light is hurting me." more . . .
Relaxation is Challenging
Oddly enough, it turns out that relaxation is challenging. When you relax deeply, you let go of stress. I know that sounds ridiculously obvious. Think about what happens as you let go of tension, what is this "letting go" process? As your muscles begin to relax, you become aware of what you were tense about: you see mental movies, replay conversations, and feel sensations of tension in your body. And then as you pay attention, these melt away. But you are probably not used to how this feels. The sensations of tension and tension release can be very intense, like rubbing your leg muscles when you have walked or hiked a long ways.
Every night you go through a process of letting go of tension – it's called sleep, and your body relaxes and rests. But the thing is, nature conks you out. You are unconscious. This means you can't resist the rejuvenation process. In meditation, you are conscious, so you can resist. And because you are conscious, you feel everything. The skill of meditation is learning how to not resist, how to cooperate consciously with this natural process.
Meditation is different from sleep in that you are awake inside AND you are resting more deeply than sleep. This takes getting used to, and for the first couple of months it is best to have a trained teacher you are in communication with and can get in touch with immediately, whenever a question arises. If you don't get an answer to your question by the end of the day, you will probably stop meditating soon. You won't know why – you just won't seem to find time to do it anymore. This happens to most people who start meditating. There was some key aspect of how to cooperate with their own process they did not learn in time, so they quit.
The odds are you won't find the right technique immediately. There are thousands of different techniques. This is because people are so different in their inner lives. Meditation is being intimate with your inner being, and you want to be respectful above all. Tender, gentle, respectful, and honest. If you do a technique that feels dishonest to you, you will probably fail. If you go in with an approach that is not yours, you'll feel uncomfortable with it, and you won't want to do it.
What happens if you give up in frustration and by far the most likely, is t because you are making meditation feel complicated or unnatural? You do some damage to yourself. If you try on shoes that do not fit and wear them for half an hour, they will make your feet sore. You may get blisters. Then, for some time after, any shoe, even one that fits, will hurt because your skin has been rubbed raw. So you not only lose the time you spent doing the wrong technique, or the right technique in the wrong way. You also spoil yourself for any technique. You have to allow your body and mind time to forget the insult.
But wait – time is precious. You had an inspiration, "Hey, I think I'll explore meditation!" And this is a precious impulse. It was a long time coming. If you fail, then how long will it be before you get up the nerve to go again?
Learning to Distrust Yourself
This will happen if you try to make yourself do a kind of technique that is not suited to your nature – it feels like trying on shoes that do not fit. Most meditation teachings, and self-improvement techniques in general seem to have about a 5% success rate. Maybe one person in twenty gets with the program, and the others try the process and say, "This isn't for me," or "I couldn't get into it." The 95% of people are right – that techique isn't for them.
The senses, the body, heart and mind are profoundly affected by meditation, and you need to be doing it in a way that these effects fit into your life and help you to thrive. Many meditation teachings are not designed to help you thrive, just the opposite. They want to break you down, break your ego, and train you to be disgusted or detached from daily life, so that the desire builds in you to give yourself to a nunnery or a monastery. The sacred traditions are looking for new recruits. If this is your dharma, great. If not, then you are like a healthy person who thought they were taking vitamins, but the pills turned out to cause brain damage.
Damage to Your Sexuality
This is covered it its own section. One of the problems of studying with gurus and spiritual teachers is that they usually have very strange and often diseased ideas about human sexuality. You absorb their way of thinking just by being around them, even if they don't talk about sex.
Damage to Your Ability to Bond
Many spiritual teachers whine continually about "attachments." Decoded, this is an attack on your attachment or bonding to anything or anyone other than the teacher.
This is actually a brilliant stratagem, because if a guru can get his followers to become alienated from their families and non-cult friends, they will become more and more dependent upon the guru and his circle. The term "detached" is beginning come into popular American idiom associated with spirituality.
Another damaging aspect of meditation teachers is that they do not have peer relationships. No one is their equal. This is true of many workshop leaders and spiritual leaders: they have one or two people "above" them, that they bow down to. Then everyone else is supposed to bow down to them. In the modern West, our whole experiment is with equality, and Asian systems and attitudes can poison us on deep levels, because they pretend to be deep truths.
The Challenge of Change
There are challenges and obstacles having to do with handling the benefits of meditation, even the famous clarity and top-of-the-mountain perspective. Change itself is a challenge to deal with – it's a bit like moving, or traveling. And because you are changing, you might benefit from doing a particular type of meditation for three months, and then you have changed, and so what you have been doing is no longer needed, it becomes too much of a good thing.
The Challenge of Ecstasy
When you meditate, if you find a way that matches your body type, personality, lifestyle, and daily routine, you will find yourself slipping into the greatest restfulness and relaxation you have ever known. This is the kind of inner elixir that people take drugs, drink alcohol, have sex, and move to Tahiti to experience, yet you have access to it by sitting in a chair in your living room and closing your eyes. Even if you only meditate for half an hour a day, the impact of this relaxation will undermine the suspicious, guarded aspects of your personality and lead you to be more open to life and to other human beings. When I started meditating, for example, I laughed for about two years, the kind of bubbling laughter that children exhibit when they are delighted by something they see, such as a caterpillar, dog, or a wave. I was laughing because my senses were so open to magic that I was seeing the whole world in a new light, and I was overwhelmed with fondness for whatever I was gazing at. Openness offers its own kind of protection, the kind that comes from being relaxed and alert, but this is a totally different way of moving through the world than being guarded and suspicious. It's a different world, and you will have to learn to navigate in it, day by day.
There are thousands of different types of meditation, and many of them were designed to shape specific changes in your body, emotions, neural pathways, and belief systems. The medtation traditions are strongly influenced by India, so some were designed to help you adapt to the cold in the mountains, others to loneliness, some are to help you become aloof and detached so you don't need anyone, and are in fact incapable of forming close relationships. Some are to help you to adapt to a life of total poverty, others to make you a compliant and unquestioning obeyer-of-orders, some are to help you to lose interest in life so all you want to do is sit in a cave and slowly die. So it is really quite a task to find or create a meditation practice that is designed to be supportive of the life you want to live. If you don't do that, then you won't proceed on to the next obstacle.
Not Getting the Help You Need
Over the next couple of years, through the late 60's, I met many people who were meditating and noticed that some of them were afraid to face what was coming up during meditation – they did not seem to trust their inner process, or were not getting the coaching or supervision they needed. Some of these people quit meditating, and others continued, but meditation was a bit of a struggle. By and large, those who don't get the feeling of how to ride their rhythms will quit meditating, and the inner uproar fades into the background.
So in general, my sense of meditation is that if you do it, you will have to face everything inside yourself. If you aren't willing to do that, then you are going to have problems meditating. The other thing I have noticed is that just regular people are totally capable of facing everything that comes up in meditation. Everyone who is not an addict has to do this anyway. If you love anyone, if you want to get married, if you have children, if you have friends, you will have to face every feeling in the world, just because of the intimacy of your relationships. Even if you live a charmed life, people you know and love will suffer from various vicissitudes.
In meditation, you pay attention, and this sometimes has the feeling tone of paying bills, it hurts a little. Or a lot, then you feel much better when you have done it. The debts we pay in meditation are our debts to the body, to the nervous system, and to life. Anything we ever said, "I'll deal with that later. I will feel that later. I will think about that later," will come up in meditation, because by meditating you are saying to life, "OK, later is NOW. Bring it on."
For one thing, meditation is in no way separate from anything you do during the day, all your relationships, and your whole purpose on Earth. In every meditation, you will have to sort through all the stuff in your mind and heart, and if anything is out of balance, you will feel it intensely. If you have wronged someone, or left an important conversation unfinished, you will find your attention going to it again and again. If you want to go any deeper in meditation, you will have to bring some resolution to your outer situations, otherwise your meditation will start to feel stalemated. So you'll find yourself adjusting your behavior in daily life to be more ethical, to minimize the amount of your meditation time that is taken up by processing the residue of the day. In other words, in meditation every day you will have a small degree of the insight people have on their deathbed, where they wish they had lived their lives differently.
The Total Lack of Useful Information
The next biggest danger is that no one thinks there are or can be any dangers to meditation, so there is almost no discussion and information-gathering on the subject. Everyone is just going blah blah about the benefits. As a consequence, meditators are constantly being blindsided and derailed by things that should be trivial hazards, easily dismissed or bypassed. If we compare meditation to a day at the beach, it is as if people are saying, "Oh, don't worry, you can never get enough direct sunlight. Just soak it up. You don't even need a hat. And swim out in the ocean as far as you want. It's a lake. With dolphins that will love you."
For something so powerful, meditation has relatively few truly negative side effects. This is because meditation is not a drug, it is a way of accessing your body's own built-in healing response. Your body, your nerves, your organs, your entire system has immense inner resources of adapting. Human beings have adapted to environments from the humid tropics to the frozen Arctic. Our bodies are geniuses at adapting to and mastering the world. When you meditate, you give life permission to fine-tune your adaptation to the world.
There is a weird set of problems here, having to do with the meditation traditions themselves, and what a good job they have done of preserving the teachings that were given in 100 BC, 500 BC, 100 AD, 1300 AD, and so on. Almost all teachings on meditation are slanted toward the needs of the monks who lived long, long ago in places far, far away. The traditional teachings are slanted toward how to adapt to life in 500 BC, IF you are a male, IF you are a Hindu, or Buddhist, IF you are a male-Hindu or Buddhist who wants to be celibate. Or how to adapt to life in a Tibetan lamasery in 1500 AD.
Furthermore, because the knowledge of how to meditate has been preserved by the sacred Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India, Tibet, China, and so on, they have framed the knowledge as part of religion. It's not a science in the Western sense, although it pretends to be. Western science is about questioning everything, and always searching for better formulations of principles. To religious thinkers, such questioning is iconoclasm, a breaking of idols, and as such is almost like murder. Ordinary mortals are not allowed to change a religion, or the meditation practices that go with a religion. From a religious outlook, it is forbidden, a great heresy, the deepest kind of treachery and betrayal to modify the teachings to suit the very different needs of all those low-lifes out there who have the bad karma to be born in the United States or Europe. People who are so degraded that they have not taken vows to abandon their families, to abandon working for money, and abandon their individuality. As a consequence, we have a huge literature on "meditation techniques to suit the needs of monks living in monasteries, if they are Hindu or Buddhist," but not much at all about how to meditate if you live in the modern West and have a family and job that you really don't want to abandon.
Many of the best, most brillant and articulate teachers working in the West are from Hindu and Buddhist lineages, and even when they are talking to women who have families, they tend to use language and techniques that were designed only for monks, such as: detachment, renunciation, silencing the mind. These attitudes are harmful to people who are not monks, because they injure one's ability to be intimate with another human being. You can see how monks need to learn techniques for killing off their sexual desire and creating distance, so they don't become too intimate with the monk in the next cell. But men and women who are married should no more internalize these attitudes than they should inject themselves with chemotherapy toxins.
It is very strange that such brilliant people have little sense of how to talk to the people who are actually there in front of them. Just because recluses and renunciates by definition have a sour grapes attitude toward the world, does not mean this is a universal truth. In fact, cultivating monk-like disgust toward bodies, the senses, sensual enjoyment, is very damaging to non-monks. It's like studying cooking with someone with an eating disorder, who conveys a conflicted, problem-laden attitude toward food with every look and word.
If meditation teachers were doctors, they would be prescribing that everyone take antibiotics all the time, because life is a disease. They would give healthy people massive doses of x-rays, just because tradition says that it is good to have a clear, ruthless view of the inside of the body, and to develop contempt for it.
To put things in perspective, many millions of people have meditated, over the past several thousand 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.
Meditation usually comes wrapped up in a religion and a set of superstitions from a traditional culture. So we can make a distinction between "the dangers of meditation itself" and the dangers of say, converting to Buddhism if you are a woman living in the midwest United States in 2006. There is not much going on in the world of meditation that is aimed at how people really live now. There are thousands of varieties of Buddhism-flavored meditation, Hindu-flavored meditation, and so on. So we have to distinguish the dangers of meditation itself, even if a woman could find a woman-friendly form to practice, from all the extra cultural baggage meditation tends to come with.
Overview of Meditation Dangers
If we take a brief tour of the Dangers, Hazards, Challenges, Obstacles, Enchantments, and Traps on the path of meditation, we see something like this:
The Dangers of Meditation ItselfThe challenge of finding the right kind of meditation.
The challenge of learning to face every thought and emotion.
Dangers of doing the wrong type of meditation for your body and personality.
Dangers of over-meditating.
Predictable crises in the life of a meditator.
Dangers of abandoning meditation because you are in a crisis.
Dangers of opening the chakras.
Enchantments and beguilements from opening the senses.
Dangers of stress release.
The Dangers of YogaYoga injuries to knees, back, feet, shoulders.
Yoga diets that weaken your health.
Yoga breath techniques with unexpected side-effects.
Yoga attitudes that resemble an eating disorder.
The Dangers of ReligionOrthodoxy. Fanaticism.
Passivity and the idea of karma.
Dangers of making meditation a work against nature.
Dangers of being a recent convert. vs. second or more generation.
Dangers of the Guru system with its master/slave dynamic.
Dangers of practicing repression of sexual desire.
Dangers of detachment, alienation, dissociation.
Dangers of developing a nauseous attitude toward money.
Dangers of New Age thinking.
The Hazards of Not Meditating
At the same time that meditation can be an intrinsically healthy process, there are many places to get stuck. In our outer life, each of us is always getting stuck, and then getting unstuck. The inner life has some parallels. Getting good information is hard, because almost all books were written for a different kind of person than you are.
There definitely are dangers or hazards to meditating, because you are opening a door to your inner life. It's good to know what these hazards are. And at the same time, the hazards of meditating have to be compared to the hazards of NOT meditating. What is the cost to you in your life of just jumping up and running out the door in the morning every day, without fully waking up? What is the hazard to you of walking in the door every day after work and NOT meditating, not fully relaxing and letting go of the stress of the day? The cost of not meditating can be really significant.
How to Deny Everything
The meditation traditions are OLD – like thousands of years old. You can't study meditation for long without being exposed to the way cultures were organized way back when. And thousands of years ago, in the ant-like organization of the Feudal system, everyone was specialized: there were farmer ants, warrior ants, breeder ants, and priest ants. Meditation was conceived of something that only specialized meditation-ants do. In the Feudal system, the deal was: "OK, if you promise to give up sex, and give up owning property, we will let you just sit in your room or cave and meditate, and we will bring you food and honor you, but otherwise leave you alone."
So back then, the fundamental stance of meditation was that you start out by denying everything. You deny the world, you turn your back on everything and every obligation. You deny your family. You abandon your family if you have one, like Buddha did. You deny your desire for sex. You deny your desire to have a home. You deny your desire for innovation or creativity, and take an oath to just accept things as they are. You deny your desire to be an individual, and surrender your will to whover is your superior in the religious order you have committed to.
The denial doesn't always work – often you just get people who are dead inside, and kind of drift around chanting and pretending to be spiritual. But sometimes there is a good match of inner and outer, and the denial serves to redirect the life force of the individual into the blossoming of special gifts. This is similar to what people do when they cultivate roses – they prune away at the bush so that there will be just a few big flowers, so that the rose bush will have no choice but to put all its vitality into a few big flowers, instead of many small ones.
When denial works, you get these brilliant, world-class blossoms of spiritual genius who seem to hold the world in the palm of their hand. Vyasa, Shukadeva, Gaudapada, Govinda, Shankara. Buddha, Padmasambhava. These are the people everyone reads about, and throughout history, it looks like more than 99% of all meditation teachers have been males on the path of denial. They took some sort of vow of renunciation, poverty, celibacy, and obedience. And they created the language and the images we use to think about meditation.
Also, it is forbidden to ever question anything they said, because it is holy, and they are better than you can ever hope to be. This is why meditation teaching remains stuck in the past – they are determined to preserve their traditions, that's their job. And tradition means no innovation. None. You keep saying the same chant, wearing the same robes, and reading the same books.
The traditional nature of meditation teaching has implications for modern people in the West who want to include meditation in their daily lives.
1. The Keepers of the Traditions may have no interest in adapting meditation so that it is appropriate for your circumstance. Within their own traditions, any teacher who did this would be despised for polluting the teachings.
2. They are totally unconcerned that you fail at meditation because they are giving you the wrong teachings for your type. The mental tools to even know what is good teaching barely exist in the meditation traditions.
3. They are in total denial about the dangers of meditating. the real challenges that Westerners face.
Perspective on The Hazards of Meditation
All human activities have their hazards and negative side-effects. Even if you just take a walk down the street, there may be dangers and obstacles such as dogs defending their turf or drivers distracted by their cell phones. If you walk for hours, there is sunburn to consider, and dehydration. It's good to know what the potential hazards are, and then go ahead anyway, well informed. Being knowledgable does not mean you are worried, scared, or overly cautious, it just means you have a a bit of an idea in advance of what you are getting into.
But you are investing your time in an activity that is supposed to have an influence on your mind and body. And in its own way, meditation is powerful. So let's look at some of the things that can go wrong, and some of the challenges you will face even when things go right.
Meditation is not dangerous in the way that, say, commuting to work or school each day has its dangers. Meditation is in general safer than just sitting and watching television for half an hour twice a day. Think about it - TV is a commercial medium and large corporations spend billions of dollars on the best hypnotic material the human mind can contrive, all of it cunningly designed to get inside your head and manipulate your beliefs and behaviors.
A Depressing Sense of Failure
What is the effect on a person of sincerely wanting to meditate, and investing time in learning, but failing? It's like a failed relationship – it hurts. There is loss, grief, and maybe some lasting damage. You do learn something – you learn you are "undisciplined" and that your self is defective.
A corollary hazard to simply wasting time is that your sense of yourself is somewhat lowered. You have added some judgments against yourself. I have spent years interviewing both those who continue and those who quit, and they tend to feel bad about themselves. Almost universally, they feel that there is something wrong with them, that they can't meditate. Most feel bad that they can't make their minds blank.
I think this is like feeling bad that your feet can't fit into size 4 shoes, or that your eyes are not blue. It's a kind of shame that you have learned, and it was unintentionally taught you. Meditation teachers, to the extent that they have been influenced by orthodox religion, whether it be Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity, tend to be disease carriers of bad attitudes toward life.
Some people go into meditation wanting to develop inner peace and perspective, and instead, get involved in the cult mentality that pervades most meditations schools. Years later, they realize that they learned a lot about the kinds of abuse gurus perpetuate, and how toxic a feudal system can be, but they didn't really get anywhere with their meditation.
A War on the Self
Let's do a thought-journey, what physicists call a gedanken experiment. Let's pretend you are a 18-year old male, whose parents have donated him to a Hindu or Buddhist monastery. The oldest son inherited the farm, and there is nowhere for you to live. So there you are. And there is no escape at all, ever. You are part of the Feudal system. If you leave the monastery, you will simply discredit yourself and your parents and will forever be known as a renegade or fallen monk. So really, there is no escape. There you are, a healthy 20-year old male, whose testicles produce five hundred million sperm each and every day, and who gets an erection at the slightest thought of sex, gets aroused just from the brushing of the cloth of the robe against his penis. Around you in the monastery is a range of males, aged 16 to 60, half of whom are sizing you up as a sexual partner or slave.
Your situation as a monk is probably that you are not there by choice. It is as if you have been drafted into the army. And even if you are there by choice, what is the choice? What would be going on in the mind of an 18-year old if he says, "I forever renounce sex. I renounce ever finding a mate. I renounce all personal relationship, forever. I swear to be in poverty for the rest of my life. I swear to completely and unquestioningly obey every monk who is senior to me, for the rest of my life, no matter what they say. I swear total and unquestioning obedience to my lineage." You may have just wanted to get out of town, get out of the house, and to do that, you entered a monastery.
So there you are, and guess what? All your life energies, that could go to doing work, starting a family, developing a craft, having friends, building a life for yourself, all these energies have to be redirected. You actually have to kill them off. Any impulse you might have, when given an insane order to comply with, to say, "Shove it," has to be broken utterly. And any desire you have for women has to be killed out, entirely. Say you are driven wild by lust and seduce a village girl, either taking her virginity or making her pregnant. She will be ruined – there is no possibilty of marrying her. She may commit suicide, her family will be totally dishonored, and her father and brothers will come and burn down the monastery, even though it has been there for hundreds of years. So you have to, at all costs, kill your sexual desire.
Meditation in such circumstances is part of a war on the self. The need is almost medical, in which amputation is called for. You need to amputate your desires, ambition, individuality.
The next most common hazard is that you do meditate for awhile, and what you do inside is conduct a war on yourself. Meditation books are full of negative judgments that monks and nuns have against householders: "You are doo materialistic, you move too fast, you think too many thoughts, you have passions, you are independent, you are rebellious, you are sexual, you have an identity, you love yourself and love your life."
Traditional meditation teachings have elements in them that are mildly harmful, by design – it is necessary to break the spirit of nuns and monks and make them submissive, kill their wildness.
If you want some examples, you might read A Tale of Two Paths.
Monks and nuns are called renunciates, because they take vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience: I renounce the desire to own anything, I renounce sex, I renounce my ego and independence and vow to obey whoever my superior is. These vows can be very liberating to someone whose destiny it is to be a monk or nun. The individual can even glow with an inner luminosity. But they also become radioactive in a way, and if you study with them you may get radiation poisoning, as if you got too many x-rays.
Monks and nuns tend to see everyday life as a disease. They suggest you internalize toxic attitudes toward yourself as medicine. Slow down, kill out your passion, become submissive, cultivate disgust instead of attraction, and dissolve your identity. These are medicinal attitudes that monks and nuns cultivate in themselves. However, if you are not a monk, these attitudes are simply toxic, like taking antibiotics if you do not have an infection, or drinking radioactive iodine to kill your thyroid gland. If you do not have a disease, they just weaken you. This weakening takes three forms, which are all by design:
Weakening of ambition and passion
Weakening of healthy desire and consequent weakening of the ability to form close relationships and attachments.
Weakening of the individual ego and will and of the ability to tolerate the uncertainty of following your individual path.
Most long-term meditators have been damaged to some extent by these monastic attitudes, because 4hey permeate the atmosphere of meditation. To a certain extent, this cancels out the benefits of meditation. Say a person has been meditating for 10 years. When they look back, they often see that for a year or two they were actually devolving, as they hacked away with their mental knifes at their "attachments," before realizing, "Hey, wait a minute, I am a householder, I work with attachments.
Anything you do in meditation that interferes with the simple joys of living, or with the flow of desire into action, is going to have vast and far-reaching implications for your life. If you spend a year practicing detachment in meditation, it may take you five years to recover your sense of zest and spontaneity in life. You may find yourself feeling detached emotionally and get divorced as a consequence, and this may be good or bad, who knows? In general, if you practice meditation as a war on the self, you will tend toward becoming broke, lonely, and weak. This is actually good from the point of view of the cult-like meditation schools: it means you are ready to take vows as a monk or nun.
The meditation traditions are very old and very well preserved. They have preserved tens of thousands of ancient texts, plus the oral traditions that go with them. In practice this means that you can talk to a Tibetan monk and come into contact with the energy and attitudes of the monasteries of 13th Century Tibet, and going back further, the dynamic and wild 8th Century founders of Tibetan Buddhism, and earlier still, the brilliant 6th and 3rd Century Hindu and Buddhist scholars of India and Nepal, and then on back to Buddha, who was a reformer of Hinduism.
This is a fantastic wealth of information, and the monks and nuns in the traditions are like walking museums. There is a dark side, though, because of this sheer brilliance of the ancient scholars and yogis. They make their way of life extremely appealing. Even the ancient, oppressive system of Masters and Slaves seem beautiful, necessary and inevitable. All of the meditative traditions over the millennia, until recently, lived in the open-air prison of the Feudal System, where people had very little choice in life. You couldn't move, change jobs, choose who to marry, or exercise much control over your life at all. Everything was karma, and everything that happened was karma. An attitude of total resignation and surrender was adaptive.
When meditation is conducted in the spirit of the feudal system, it is about killing individuality, killing out the creative impulse, and creating a submissive, dependent, pliant individual who always obeys. This is very good for nuns and monks, to help them adapt to life in a nunnery or monastery. But if you do not live in a religous order, cultivating surrender and resignation is about as beneficial as cutting off your hands.
Over the last 30 years that I have been doing in-depth interviews with meditators, I have met many who meditate regularly and have become depressed. When I ask them about their practice, they often reveal that they have interpreted the Buddhist or Hindu teachings they are studying in such a way as to detach themselves from their desires, their ego, their loves, and their passion. In other words, they have cut themselves off from everything interesting and thrilling in life.
Depression is a natural result of loss, and if you internalize teachings that poison you against the world, then you will of course become depressed. Detachment techniques were intended only for monks and nuns. Detachment is the DEFINITION of what defines a monk or nun: they take vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. In other words, they cut themselves off from the desire to make or acquire money, they cut themselves off from their sexual desire, and they cut themselves off from any rebelliousness and independence. This amputation can be a blessing for a soul who really is a monk or a nun, and needs to just go join an ashram. But if you are not a monk or nun, cutting yourself off from life is as depressing as cutting off your foot. It's a loss, and you will suffer grief over the loss.
Another aspect of the damage resulting from the War on the Self and Learned Helplessness is as cultural poisoning. In your outer life you are living one way – you are a citizen of the United States or France or England or Slovakia – and in your inner life, as part of your meditation, you are a low-caste serf in an 15th Century Hindu ashram, struggling to get a little bit of attention from the Master, and begging for permission to exist. It is a very different thing to be living in Tibet in 1120 A.D. and be practicing Tibetan Buddhism, or Japan in 1425 and practicing Zen, than to be living in New York in 2004 and practicing Tibetan Buddhism. There is a different process for fitting your personality and daily life into the teachings.
Consider medicine: almost all medications have a bit of a poisoning effect, no matter how needed they are. What the doctor decides, and perhaps discusses with you, is if the negative side effects of the medication are going to be worth it. This is what good medicine is.
Since you are mostly on your own when you do standardized meditation practices – teachers rarely spend the time to work out individual practices – you have to be your own "doctor," and carefully assess the costs and benefits of your approach to meditation. And one of the costs is to notice how much your meditation tradition alienates you from the society you are in. How insular do you get? How much contempt do you develop for your own culture, your family, your ancestors, and your job?
The Challenge of Successful Meditation
When meditation is successful, there is a whole universe of challenges that open up. In general, when you meditate your senses open up and your intuition becomes stronger. But many families and groups are built on denial and have effective mechanisms in place to squash any dissidents. When you get closer to your truth sense, then you will become more uncomfortabe if you betray your integrity. Then consider the notion of opening the chakras or energy centers, which yogis talk about. Say that you meditate and open up a chakra such as the 4th chakra, called the anahata or heart chakra. What then?
Think about how much trouble it caused in your life when your second chakra opened – the sexual center. It provoked a crisis in your development, the transition from being a child to being a teenager charged with hormones, ready and able to reproduce. You had all kinds of wild sensations you had not known before, and all of a sudden, new concerns, interests and fears. Each energy center, as it opens, provokes a crisis, a change in life such as that induced by the opening of the second chakra. You enter a kind of "puberty" of development of energy and perception pertaining to that chakra.
Each chakra opening evokes a different kind of crisis, a wonderful and challenging change in the way you metabolize the energy of the universe.
Note - some of the pages within the Dangers of Meditation sections are repetitive. I have taken sections that are very long, and have been up on this site for years, and duplicated them, then chopped them up into shorter sections, so that when people are searching for particular sentences or thoughts they will be easier to find.
If you are a woman, read Meditation Secrets for Women