Close your eyes. Think of the word ‘meditation’. What comes to mind?
Depending on your connection to and knowledge of meditation, you may have something a bit more nuanced, but for the majority of people, meditation summons an image of an individual sitting crossed-legged in a quiet, minimalist room, hands on knees, a content and blissful expression on their face. Maybe they’re chanting; maybe there is soothing music or nature sounds, or perhaps it’s hushed and quiet.
Because meditation is all about this blissful state, right? It’s about relaxation and finding zen. Right?
What We’re Led to Believe About Meditation isn’t Accurate
At least, not in the way many would-be meditation teachers, mass-media, and Instagram posts would have us believe.
The truth is: Meditation is not relaxation. Relaxation can be a by-product of meditation — it usually comes later.
I recently attended a three-part meditation course that took place over three evenings consecutively, for a total of 4.5hours. In the first session, our teacher talked us through the Being method for meditation. We then took part in a 20minute group meditation session before discussing our experiences.
It was a small group, but the consensus was WOW from my peers — this method had immediately helped them sink into a state of bliss. I smiled and nodded along, but a cold sweat broke across my body.
During the 20minutes, I experienced a minor panic attack. I felt a burning session run up the back of my neck and across my chest. My mind raced, whirred and frantically cycled through a series of harmful and toxic thoughts. The mantra we had been told to repeat in our minds lightly boomed loudly in mine, over and over again, and I struggled to reign it in.
I stopped after about 10minutes but sat quietly breathing and re-regulating myself. My experience was as far from what our teacher had described and what everyone else was describing as could be. I tepidly try to mention what I had experienced, noting I had many thoughts and couldn't control the mantra. I described it as feeling like my body was trying to close in on itself, almost like a fetal pose - I felt like I went into a protective state in response to the meditation practice. I thought I saw a look flicker across our teacher’s face, but I wasn’t sure what it registered. She asserted I should keep focusing on the mantra to move past thoughts.
I kept attending and attempted to implement another 20minute meditation session in my day in between the evening classes, as we were instructed to do. My first experience left me apprehensive, and although our teacher mentioned a few times that having and accepting thoughts was expected, we should just keep focusing on the mantra we were taught, to move past thoughts and get ‘down’ to a ‘state of bliss’.
The meditation did get easier, and I found my thoughts did become less volatile over a week of practice, but discussing those initial experiences within the group was challenging. When other members were coming ‘up’ from meditation and emphatically stating “that is some good sh!t!”, celebrating how blissful and ‘lost in the moment’ they all felt and commenting to each other about how rested and relaxed they looked (after two hours of meditation?)— I didn’t feel safe enough to share I was finding my experiences a little stressful.
From my research and reading, I know that meditation has multiple benefits, and it is a practice worth sticking it out with. Following the course, I stripped back the pressure it had inadvertently placed on me and focused on what might work for me. Two weeks later, with a consistent daily practice of one 10minute session, instead of two 20minute sessions as instructed, I do feel like I’m beginning to reap the benefits. I’m catching more thoughts that are reactive rather than thoughtful, I feel better able to regulate myself back from a reaction, and I look forward to my meditation time.
Without my professional knowledge, I can’t help but wonder whether I would have still been keen to continue after my initial experience? Most likely, I would have given up, deemed meditation as ‘not for me’ — or worse yet — considered myself as defunct in some way for not having the same experience as my other group members.
Recalibrating Meditation Expectations
I’m not saying my meditation teacher in this experience was wrong or lacked knowledge somehow — she was wonderful and very experienced.
She did advise that each meditation session we partake in can and will be different, and meditation can bring up a lot of unreleased and unrealised stress when you first begin.
But her overwhelming conviction that this was going to have a set experience of results for us is what drew me to her course in the first place. To have a rocky start did leave me questioning myself and whether to continue.
I decided to do a little more research, and see whether others had experienced something similar to me. I discovered an article written by Dawn Foster for The Guardian, where she discusses her own meditation experiences. It sounded rather familiar:
“I feel a rising panic and worry that I might pass out, my mind racing. Then we’re told to open our eyes and the feeling dissipates. I look around. No one else appears to have felt they were facing imminent death. What just happened? For days afterwards, I feel on edge. I have a permanent tension headache and I jump at the slightest unexpected noise. The fact that something seemingly benign, positive and hugely popular had such a profound effect has taken me by surprise.”
I kept researching and seemed to open a can of worms. There is a lot out there advocating that meditation is not all we’re led to believe it is.
In their book, The Buddha Pill, authors Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm challenge the common claims and misconceptions surrounding meditation as a catch-all cure to stress-reduction. They present research on the often serious and negative outcomes of meditation — psychosis, breakdowns, violent behaviours , anxiety, depression— seldom spoken of by meditation advocates and practitioners. My own theory here is that many meditation advocates and practitioners simply aren’t aware of the potential risks to some participants learning meditation for the first time.
Jonathan Fields is a meditation practitioner and he also talks in a Good Life podcast about how mindfulness and meditation can be harmful when presented as an isolated practice.
“Meditation cultivates awareness. It stills the water so you can see what’s underneath lying in the sand. But if you don’t like what you see, it doesn’t make it all better.”
In an article that is well-worth reading for Harpers Magazine, David Kortava provides an in-depth analysis of the psychological risks of meditation:
“The journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica published a systematic review of adverse events in meditation practices and meditation-based therapies. Sixty-five per cent of the studies included in the review found adverse effects, the most common of which were anxiety, depression, and cognitive impairment.”
The research and findings into the flipside of meditation continue to stack up. Researchers who advocate for meditation admit they’ve sat on adverse findings and delayed publishing results that didn’t meet their positive expectations: it’s clear there’s a shift happening with how meditation is perceived within the academic community.
But this shift doesn’t seem to have spread outwards just yet, and awareness for those teaching or advocating meditation on a community level is still limited.
Just Like People: Meditation is Nuanced
Precisely who is vulnerable to these adverse effects remains up for debate. Some clinicians suspect that meditation can trigger a negative experience only in individuals with underlying psychiatric conditions — diagnosed or otherwise. Some believe it can trigger a negative experience in anyone.
This might pose a few questions: should we meditate? How do we know if meditation is right for us? What should we ask a meditation teacher if we’re unsure about how meditation might affect us?
Lucienne Shanti De Tempora, a Melbourne based meditation teacher, really helped me to come to terms with what I initially experienced in my early meditation sessions:
“Put simply, the practice is about waking up, turning on the light and seeing clearly. With this illumination, things become familiar, and understanding is available which is where insight and wisdom will dawn from. A common misconception is that mediation is about “relaxation”, although this is a by-product and indeed a benefit, it is not the intention. Other misconceptions include escaping into an imaginary world or the most common belief, emptying the mind.”
She goes on to say:
“We are certainly not trying to tranquillize our emotions, but rather getting to know and work with them. This tried and tested, age-old practice isn’t magical or romantic in any way whatsoever. We are simply waking up to reality and doing what we can to collaborate with it and the world.”
In an Instagram post, Lucienne also firmly explains that the actual practice of meditation is not designed to reduce stress, although this can be a by-product of a consistent practice that works for you and your unique mind. She openly informs us that meditation can be stressful and draw up a lot of mixed thoughts and feelings. A session may leave you feeling tense, but working through this is a part of the process.
There are lots of different types of meditation. I recently tried a sound-bath guided meditation from Mary Hoang, founder and head psychologist of The Indigo Project, and it was a really pleasant experience. The option to focus on a layered soundscape helped me to connect better with my individual experience. I’m now gradually coming around to meditation being something I can actively use as a resource for positive improvement, no matter what it brings up, and as I mentioned — I do feel like I’m already reaping some benefits. I hope that combining a little bit of the Being method with this sound-bath method will benefit me long term.
But my experience is also founded on a solid educational and emerging professional background in psychology, therapy and mindfulness. If you’ve attempted meditation and had some initial negative experiences, I don’t recommend that you push through with the practice. Instead, I would recommend:
Speaking with a counsellor or therapist to understand your experience and ensure it isn’t anything deeper.
Work with a meditation practitioner who is aware of the potential negative impact. Ask the teacher if they are aware of the research and what they think about it. If they aren’t familiar, tell you it isn’t true or that you ‘shouldn’t worry about it’ this probably isn’t the best teacher for you.
If you have past experiences of trauma and are worried meditation may bring up some negative experiences related to this, find a meditation teacher who cites that they use Trauma-Informed Practice to support their methods. They’ll be able to validate your experiences, reassure you and notice if you are lapsing into a trauma-based episode. They’ll also be specialised and equipped with methods to help you through.
You can also not attempt meditation any further if you have decided it doesn’t work for you. There’s a slight smugness that surrounds this practice in our current ego-driven social media polished lives. It’s more than okay to not care for it if it simply doesn’t work for you.
Spend some time reflecting on why you want to try meditation in the first place. If it’s down to peer pressure or because you ‘think you should’ those are the wrong reasons.
If you want to better connect with yourself, build habits that will help you long term, and understand your own mind on a deeper level; great. But meditation isn’t the only path to achieve this.
Dr Sarah McKay, an Australian-based neuroscientist and writer, is an out and proud anti-meditation practitioner (it just doesn't work for her). Instead, she advises you could try:
A Walk in Nature: There is no ‘wrong’ way to walk in nature. In meditation, we may be consumed by thoughts of whether we’re getting it right — this doesn’t happen when we walk. Sarah advises:
“I’ve found it’s hard to walk ‘wrong’. When I walk, I don’t have the constant narrative running through my head as I do when meditating. No need to compassionately observe my mind. I just walk with my dog and think about whatever I want.”
Read a Book: Or listen to a podcast. These activities require you to pay attention without having to put too much thought into it. We all know the feeling of getting lost in a good book or absorbed by a podcast we find interesting. This is a wonderful addition to anyone’s day.
Get curious about your emotions: When complex, challenging, new or unexpected emotions arise, take some time to sit with them and explore them. At the heart of meditation is getting to know ourselves better, and we can do this without a ‘practice’. Sarah gives a great example and some questions you could ask:
“I recently gave up my 5 pm red wine habit for FebFast. I struggled with cravings come late afternoon (that is another blog post). Instead of fighting them, I tried to explore them as a good scientist should. What were the physical sensations involved? What has triggered the craving? Could I distract myself? Did the cravings come in waves that eventually subsided? Curiosity killed the cravings!”
Take a nap: One of the things my meditation teacher kept reminding us was that our 20minute meditation had the same benefits as taking a restful nap because we entered a restorative state (supposed to at any rate). You may know this, but the optimum naptime is 20minutes because we enter our second stage of sleep, which is restorative (read more on the science of that here). So, if meditation doesn’t work for you — a 20minute nap will give you the same benefits. Much like walking, it’s hard to think you’ve done a nap ‘wrong’.
You Do You
There’s absolutely no need to meditate if you don’t want to, and if you do want to, my biggest advice is: expect the unexpected!
Hold no expectations for what meditation might mean for you (positive or negative). Give it a chance, give it several chances, try different methods, work out what works for you and go from there.
The best thing is, if you are interested in something like meditation, you’re already stepping into a mindset that’s focused on finding the things that serve and support you to be the version of yourself you want to be.
That’s a pretty great starting point - no matter the journey to the finish line.