Please note: Meditation is not risk-free.
I'm convinced that nothing in the world changes your lived experience, or the lives of those around you, as dramatically as a regular and rugged contemplative practice. That said, it’s important to acknowledge that roughly 25% of the 36 million or so Americans who meditate will, at some point, experience UEs, or “unwanted effects,” as a result. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5584749/) These unwanted effects can include increased anxiety, depersonalization, and depression, for example. While these UEs are generally short-lived and don’t result in cessation of practice, for some number of people – especially those who have experienced trauma – meditation can result in episodes that are long-term and terrifying.
Despite this, meditation (generally in the form of “mindfulness”) is now found in nearly every corner of modern society. Mindfulness is taught in schools, at work, in hospitals and is generally presented as a one-size-fits-all-cure-all. Stressed out? Meditate. Sick? Meditate. Anxious? Definitely: meditate.
The reality, however, is that for anyone who has experienced trauma, meditation can exacerbate that trauma, and it can bring harm. Those of us who teach and/or evangelize about its benefits have an ethical obligation to understand the risks; to inform and equip ourselves. We must also understand that when it comes to mindfulness practice, all things are not equal. As David A Treleaven points out in his book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, “…an ongoing sense of threat is very real for people who are targeted by systems of oppression.” (116) Asking someone who experiences an ongoing sense of threat to pay close, sustained attention to their inner world, Treleaven reminds us, can be exceedingly risky.
All that to say: Meditation is not to be trifled with. If you teach meditation on any level, I recommend reading Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David A. Treleaven, and familiarizing yourself with the Work of Willoughby Britton Ph.D and Cheetah House.
My own contemplative, or “still” practice, turned me upside down, inside out, and changed my life for the better in ways that are hard to describe. I will spend a lifetime telling this story, on the one hand. But I hope to do so in an informed way while recognizing that there are very real risks, as well as benefits when it comes to meditation.
If you have had a bad experience resulting from meditation or mindfulness practice, you are not alone, and help is available at cheetahhouse.org.