What is the point of meditation? Is it designed to relax and sooth us, or is there a higher purpose to it? Is meditation safe, or is it a door into something vastly incomprehensible and potentially dangerous?
Lately, a study has been circulating in the news. The study is reported to claim that a significant percentage of people attending meditation retreats suffered “unpleasant episodes” — about 25% overall, rising to almost 29% if only men are considered.
This one article, reporting on the study I just mentioned, starts with saying that “meditation retreats may be bad for participants’ mental health”. Another article begins with claiming that “meditation is meant to make you feel calm and enlightened”.
What’s the truth, then? What does this all mean? Is meditation really unsafe?
Before we go any further, I feel it’s important to debunk a rather popular but incorrect belief about the nature of meditation: meditation isn’t about relaxation, nor it is about relieving stress.
Meditation is a spiritual practice used to open ourselves to the true nature of reality. It’s in sorts a scientific process of introspection, set with an intention of looking at the world in a manner as objective as possible — free of judgments, free of the mind which would judge and categorize anything and everything.
Meditation is not about feeling calm and enlightened — although it can bring about these two experiences as very welcomed side-effects. But if one chooses to practice meditation, in a serious and profound manner as would be the case in a week-long Vipassana or Zen retreat, with the sole intention of relaxing as in a glorified form of vacation — then one may have a bad surprise.
Is Meditation Relaxation?
If meditation is to be relaxation, it may be so but not in the way relaxation is generally understood by us all. In meditation, we relax the mind: the thoughts, the ego, the judgments, the walls and barriers we set up as means of protecting ourselves from the spiritual and emotional hostility of the world.
When we are traumatized, you see — and this is even truer of any trauma that occurs during early childhood — our minds naturally and instinctively learn to protect themselves. They do this first by learning to avoid whatever behaviour caused harm to come to pass. If a child should put their hand in the fire, for example, a sharp and traumatic pain will cause the child to forever retain from putting their hands in the fire again. This seems rather healthy in all accounts, right?
Yet not everything we learn through this sort of mechanism serves us in the long run. If a child should accidentally spill some water on the floor, and their parents start to scream at them violently just because they’ve had a bad day, then the child might experience a trauma that’s very similar to that their hand in the fire.
When a behaviour results in pain, whether the pain be physical or emotional, the mind naturally learns to label the behaviour as bad and to be avoided. What follows is the installation of judgment in the mind: from now on, the mind will label this behaviour as something it doesn’t want.
These judgments, we won’t only have for ourselves — but also for others. If I’m traumatized by my parents at spilling water on the floor, then not only will some of that pain resurface whenever I spill water again, I’m likely to experience my parents’ anger whenever I see someone else spill water.
This is a big part of why we’re all so intolerant at some peculiarities of other people’s behaviour — even when those behaviours seem entirely naive to others. We learn through traumatic conditioning to be hard-wired for judgment, and it becomes difficult as we grow to see those patterns for what they are. In a sense, they become as normal to us as fire equals bad, because they’re conditioned using the very same mechanisms and live in the very same part of the mind.
As we turn into adults then, we come with a baggage of emotional traumatic conditioning which can easily get in the way of us building meaningful relationships with others. We may simply end up despising anyone who picks their nose in public, who’s careless with their things, or who speaks too loud when other people are around. We can end up hating those who seem oblivious to what we’ve learned is an awful thing to do.
We can even find respite in telling them that what they’re doing is wrong — that’s very core of righteousness and narcissism, a weird and twisted form of loving attention.
Dissolving the Judgments
How does this relate to meditation, then? The judgements we all harbour make it very difficult to see the world in a rational or objective manner. We’re all so weighed down emotionally by our childhood conditioning, that navigating society becomes for most of us difficult and treacherous. Taken to an extreme, these sorts of conditioning might explain why Hitler hated jews. To a lesser degree, they could be responsible for some getting angry every single day at the bus driver or the cashier or the red light.
Put simply, those judgments induced by emotional conditioning we all have can be a great source of struggles and difficulty in a life — or, as the Buddha calls it, suffering.
Meditation, if anything, is a state of being where we step out of the mind as a means of witnessing the world outside the bounds of the judgments we so harbour. Judgments, you see, are not in their foundations our enemies: it’s perfectly reasonable to judge the angry guy who’s coming at me with fire in his eyes and step out of his way to avoid getting punched in the face. But when the judgments go beyond the useful, when they start to control every single aspect of life and to its detriment (as in getting angry all the time for silly little things), then we suffer — and meditation is meant to be a remedy for that suffering.
Meditation thus provides a window out of the mind-prison and into the reality of non-judgmental experience.
Does that equal calm and relaxation? It can, but not necessarily: seeing reality for what it is can sometimes be a rather distressing experience. When we start seeing how much judgment is all around us or inside us, as well as to what extent our lives are based on those judgments, we can very easily become overwhelmed. Meditation provides truth, and if the truth is that we’ve been living in a fantasy of despair for most our lives, then truth can bring about much much anxiety.
Of course, this doesn’t happen for everyone — for some, truth can be very soothing: the realization that the world isn’t as bad as we thought it was. You see, through meditation at a more advanced stage, we can come to see not only through our own judgments but also through other people’s judgments. When this happens, we come to understand that other people are just like us: navigating a difficult world, trying their best, merely hoping to receive and to give loving and affection — albeit sometimes with a rather clumsy and ill-informed strategy, we make due with whatever we’ve learned love means from our parents.
The Dangers of Meditation
Is meditation dangerous? The question, I would surmise, should rather be: is life dangerous? Meditation, you see, enables us to live a life less based on fantasy and more on truth. The process of awakening brought about by meditation is one where we slowly deconstruct the prisons and walls we would use as defense against those things we learned to identify as mortally dangerous through childhood trauma (or sometimes adulthood trauma, too).
Children like to create stories and spend much of their lives playing in worlds of fantasy as means of discovering the bounds of their own spiritual nature. If they should be traumatized by the real world, they may decide that a life in the imaginary world is more appealing than the real one. Through such subtle things, little by little and through the years, we end up growing up and becoming adults while still living partly in those fantasies.
I, for example, spent much of my adult life buried in video games. The world was way too scary for me, having been emotionally neglected by my parents and massively bullied at school and etc. Computers and video game characters became much more appealing than the real world, a safe and predictable alternative to the nonsense and in all appearances suicidal venture that was making my vulnerability available for all the world to see. If I needed to feel, I would feel alone — in my fantasy world — as the real world I simply couldn’t bear.
If meditation is to bring down the protective walls we build for ourselves in a lifetime of avoidance, then it should be no surprise that tearing down those walls can bring great fright and panic. An intense meditation retreat, for the novice practitioner who may not have the necessary spiritual and emotional support to guide them through the experience, may indeed prove to be dangerous and damaging.
Let’s be clear: meditation isn’t dangerous in itself. Life is dangerous. When we’ve been running away from life for so long, running away from death or from pain which are necessary parts of life, then meditation provides the troubling reminder into the real nature of things.
They call it spiritual awakening, and they do this for a reason. Just as any other awakening, it can be a peaceful experience with and air of singing birds and sunshine peering through the window — or it can be a hellish experience, full of sweats in the middle of a dark night as one wakes from a terrible nightmare.
Spirituality is Changing
In the old traditions, someone walking the spiritual path would be supported by a teacher — a guru. This guru would be responsible for taking the seeker through the steps of awakening, one by one and only as fast or as slow as they were deemed ready for. Some people are ready for awakening within minutes — others may need several lifetimes.
In today’s world, spiritual gurus are no longer so appreciated — it’s even clear that many of them might hold their own personal intentions above those of their disciples. With globalization and the internet, we all have our own personal access to most of history’s spiritual wisdom and practices, which we’re free to follow and interpret as we would. In the past, it wasn’t so: spiritual practices and knowledge were strictly guarded secrets — because they knew it wasn’t safe for the average Joe to access those without supervision.
All this unrestricted access to the world’s spiritual wisdom is absolutely wonderful, and I’m convinced that it will result in masses of awakenings as humanity has never seen. There will be unfortunate side-effects, however — some souls will be lost on the path, for sake of having undertaken the journey without the support they truly need for their own personal salvation.
Support on the Path
I am a life coach, a spiritual coach, a teacher of meditation and yoga and tantra. The intention behind my practices is to support those who would pursue their own spiritual journey. I believe coaches like me are here to replace the gurus — a safer and more empowering alternative to a life of complete surrender to a stranger who may or may not have our best interests at heart.
I offer empathic listening, emotional guidance, and a space to discuss the discoveries one makes on the path towards spiritual freedom. My coaching is one where I invite my clients within the space of my own meditation, progressively guiding them back into their own.
Should you wish for support on your path, should you desire for clarity, then I would invite you to get in touch with me — or any other coaches who dwell through spiritual teachings.