Comments on “Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods”

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Do you have a teacher?

Eric 2021-02-05

If you’re practicing Mahamudra or Dzogchen, I wonder how you’re doing it without a teacher. I think Samaya is probably necessary. That’s my understanding, as well as my experience. Otherwise, it’s inevitable that it becomes your personal trip.

Zen and the Art of the Practical Joke

James 2021-02-05

From some the stories I’ve read about Zen masters, Zen seems to turn you into a kind of Trickster figure who likes to tear down others’ pretensions. Probably that comes from the influence of Chaungtzu.

I have to say that becoming the sort of person who sneaks all the monastery’s pots and pans out into yard at night — then gives flip answers when he’s caught and questioned about it — sounds a lot better than becoming a zombie.

On the other hand, if you’re already lonely and alienated, something that puts even more distance between you and society seems like it could tip you over the edge.

Meditation

Robert M. Ellis 2021-02-07

I found this very surprising in your often insightful work, as it seems to show that you simply don’t have a clue about meditation. How can anyone who regularly meditates, and claims to have found it beneficial, describe meditation as aiming to “Kill any remaining emotions, thoughts, sensations, and your sense of self”, apparently without any significant qualification? If you’re engaged in any remotely helpful practice (and I don’t know what practices you’ve done) the aim is to integrate emotions, thoughts and sensations, not to ‘kill’ them. To ‘kill’ them (i.e. repress or eliminate them) is simply bad meditation practice. Whilst I’d be happy to accept that people sometimes fail to integrate negative emotions that they encounter in meditation, and thus experience ‘negative effects’ (which I would say are negative effects of unintegrated conflict, not of meditation making you aware of that conflict), your inaccurate way of characterising what people are trying to do when they engage in any kind of helpful meditation practice does not seem to help anyone understand what is going wrong when this happens.

"Meditation": different practices with different purposes

David Chapman 2021-02-07

The word “meditation” covers a wide variety of practices with varying purposes, risks, and benefits. (As the post said.)

“Kill any remaining emotions, thoughts, sensations, and your sense of self” describes the role of vipassana as it was understood in circa-1900 Theravada Hinayana. (And also in the relevant suttas as far as I understand.) Other practices have other purposes.

The post points to the risk of using that practice to accomplish opposite or unrelated purposes, such as integrating rather than eliminating emotions. The risk increases depending on how intensively you practice and how closely you stick to the original method. The post was prompted by reports of bad outcomes from practicing a recently-developed “hardcore” technical system that conforms more closely than most to traditional instructions and encourages long, intense sessions that are supposed to result in loss of sensory contact and so forth.

Contemporary “mindfulness” and vipassana-lite methods mostly derive from Mahasi’s method, which he invented in an ascetic, life-rejecting framework. They’ve been adapted for modern purposes, apparently partly successfully. Clinical outcomes suggest that, despite modifications, they can still have the originally intended result of depersonalization and derealization.

I don’t know what practice(s) you mean by “meditation.” If they avoid those risks, that’s great.

There are Vajrayana practices who explicit aim is to integrate emotions. They might be a better starting point for adaptation than Hinayana methods, if that is one’s aim.

Meditation

Robert M Ellis 2021-02-07

I’ve studied a fair amount of the Pali Canon material on meditation, and I can’t think of anything that remotely bears that interpretation. Samatha is specifically focused on mindfulness and loving-kindness, which are integrative, whilst vipassana focuses on insights. The Pali Canon account of the Buddha’s asceticism makes it clear why that approach does not work and instead offers the Middle Way - which, if it has been recognised in at least one area, has been applied in meditation: in the form of the lute-strings analogy, for instance. You can’t even relax the body, let alone achieve any kind of access state or jhana, by “killing emotions, thoughts and sensations”. If you are then going on to do vipassana reflections, you can’t do so successfully without initial relaxation.

There may have been teachers who taught in that alienated way, but if so you need to make it much clearer that this is an untypical spin off from the main meditation tradition in Buddhism. It’s also seriously inaccurate to claim that this is “pretty much the same thing” as secular mindfulness.

It’s not sufficient to hide behind the idea that different meditation techniques have different approaches and intentions. Some of them work better than others, and most Western use has understandably gravitated towards what works. Instead, you here identify Buddhist meditation tradition in general with what doesn’t work, and as a result given a misleading impression of the dangers. You also make no attempt to differentiate between problems that are revealed by meditation and problems that are caused by meditation.

It’s even in the DSM..

SusanC 2021-02-19

The psychiatrist’s manual, DSM-5, had, in at least one of its revisions, “Qi gong psychotic reaction” as a possible diagnosis. It would seem likely that insofar as this is actually a thing, it isn’t specific to qigong and can also manifest in other meditative traditions. In any case, the basic idea that this can happen is well established enough to have got a diagnostic code all of its own in the psychiatrists manuals.

From what I’ve heard from meditators, adverse reactions to meditation or are indeed possible but pretty rare. What’s the actual risk probability seems a reasonable question to ask,

=====

Buddhist philosophical argument sometimes ends up trying to distinguish shunyata from nihilism.

There’s possibly something related, which is to explain why the expected outcome state of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy … or meditative traditions … is not the same thing as dissociation.

(Some parts of the chöd sadhana sound alarmingly like dissociation … but my belief/hope is that there’s an important distinction. This comment is already long, so I won’t try to justify that claim)

Pali Canon

Ignacio Prado 2021-02-20

I’ve studied a fair amount of the Pali Canon material on meditation, and I can’t think of anything that remotely bears that interpretation…

All Buddhist history is contested, but, with respect to asceticism and as it relates to vows for Buddhist renunciates, the middle-way in the Pali canon is mostly characterized as accepting some meager food from begging rather than attempting to starve yourself.

From the very first discourse, the root of suffering is understood as “craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non-being”. It is not understood as extreme or unbalanced craving. It is craving.

The result of the path in the very first discourse is understood as “remainderless fading and ceasing, giving up, relinquishing, letting go and rejecting, of that same craving.”

The method in the second discourse to get to that result is understood as one of estrangement from the craving self by recognizing its objects as not-self (impermanent and not subject to control):

“Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard (the truth) [of not-self] sees thus, he finds estrangement in form, he finds estrangement in feeling, he finds estrangement in perception, he finds estrangement in determinations, he finds estrangement in consciousness.”

“When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated.

The attempt to estrange oneself from the objects of craving can become unbalanced by forceful methods because the craving self can co-opt anything for its own use. The goal of the method, however, is still estrangement.

Finally, in the root sutra of mindfulness meditation in the Pali Canon, there is the famous contemplation of the body in its vile and unclean aspects:

In the same way, monks, a monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: ‘In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.’

An interpretation of the import of these passages could be made in which what leads to suffering is not sensual desire, but unbalanced sensual desire; where realizing not-self is not a matter of being passionless, but of being equanimous and emotionally whole; or where the problem is not the body as it is, but the way we hide from ourselves the full reality of the body.

The Pali Canon also doesn’t speak univocally. There are the accounts of the absorptions and bliss states (though they are also usually framed as what the Buddha had already tried from existing yogic practice forms and found insufficient, even if necessary).

These are, however, modern interpretations and foci. They are reading back into early Buddhism what’s come after, especially reading back into it what we want out of it, because we aren’t particularly motivated by what it was made for, which is, for renunciates, release from a cycle of continuous rebirth and death (and, for householders, a better rebirth that might eventually lead to being a renunciate). You can evolve early Buddhist practice forms for other–more modern–goals, but it’s worth asking if other historical practice forms might not be a better fit, requiring fewer epicycles.

What works in meditation, and the Pali Canon

My comment was mainly about what works in meditation, but you’ve only focused on the scholarly issue in response. The issue of reading the Pali Canon for me is an illustration of the issue of what works, not the other way round. Of course if you cherry pick a lengthy and complex text to support your point, you can make it say what you like. However, you haven’t shown why alienated approaches to meditation work, and thus why anyone should choose to interpret the Pali Canon in that way. I also gave several examples from the Pali Canon of Middle Way approaches, which you have completely ignored. I particularly mentioned the Buddha’s renunciation of asceticism and the lute strings analogy (Anguttara Nikaya 6.55). There’s a lot more there if you want to work through the Pali Canon positively and find inspiration for the Middle Way there - all this material, far too much to discuss here, is collected and discussed in my book [‘The Buddha’s Middle Way’] (https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/buddhas-middle-way/)
- Equinox, 2019.

As for what you do quote, your interpretation of it is extremely one-sided. The term translated as ‘craving’ (tanha) probably does not refer to all desire, but only to obsessive forms of desire: ones that can be neurally distinguished as motivated by the ‘Reptilian brain’ but insufficiently contextualised by the frontal cortex. Some scholars distinguish kaama-chanda from dhamma-chanda as two sorts of desire. I agree that traditional Buddhism doesn’t distinguish craving from ordinary desire clearly enough, but that’s no reason to assume a palpably stupid interpretation. Instead we can choose to interpret it helpfully.

Similarly, ‘not-self’ can just as easily be interpreted as a bigger and more integrated context as a recommendation of alienated states. If you ask a meditation teacher about whether they recommend contemplation of the loathsomeness of the body for beginners, I hope you will get some pretty clear negative responses. Perhaps such practices were less alienating for people in the early Buddhist times, or perhaps they’re only for advanced practitioners, or perhaps they’re just mistaken. Either way, though, I suggest some positively motivated cherry-picking rather than negatively motivated cherry-picking. You’ll find it works equally well either way!

But the bigger point, which you haven’t responded to, is simply that alienated meditation does not work. Only basic psychology is required to work out why it does not work, namely that if you set up an internal conflict this just leaves you in a conflicted state, and prevents your energy being applied to longer-term goals. Such conflicts are characteristic of mental illnesses rather than therapeutic or morally efficacious practice. So, rather than presenting a version of meditation that does not work and warning people against doing it (as though it was just some sort of accident when it happens to work), I strongly suggest presenting a model of meditation that actually does work, so that you can encourage people to make positive use of it, and put negative side-effects in a much more helpful perspective.

Rainbow body

SusanC 2021-02-20

I am now wondering how seriously various different teachers are about the whole “rainbow body” idea.

Personally, I don’t take it seriously. (I think my personal conception of what an enlightened humanity would be like does not involve rainbow body).

But I suppose it is one possible answer someone might give to the question of “what is this method supposed to achieve?”

I am also now wondering what claims Machig Labdron makes for chöd, and what the Six Yogas of Naropa claims for dream yoga, candali, etc.

Earth Goddesses

SusanC 2021-02-20

P.S. if becoming a sky god is an acceptable thing to claim as the objective of meditation, then what about being an earth goddess? Vasudhara, maybe…

(And there are dakinis, of course…)

Meditation: What Works, What's Orthodox, What's Aberrant

Ignacio Prado 2021-02-21

My comment was mainly about what works in meditation, but you’ve only focused on the scholarly issue in response…

I’ll let you have the last word after this, because while I think I’ve made an honest effort to understand your perspective with respect to what’s at issue in this conversation and respond to it, I am not sure the converse is true. If I may characterize your perspective, it’s

“Why are you defining the path and goal of mainstream meditation in this clearly aberrant way and then claiming it’s dangerous or ineffective? Focus on what’s effective–which mainstream meditation largely is–and then interpret the tradition in light of that. Here’s all my work where I do that.”

Effectivity is goal-relative, so your pragmatic interpretations of the Pali canon are going to have to start with a goal. David’s post was not claiming traditional Sutric meditation methods are ineffective. He claimed something like the opposite–followed with intensity and focus, they can be all-too-effective at achieving their original goal, which is becoming passionless.

You claimed this was an aberrant way to understand the goal of meditation as it’s presented in the Pali canon (though sometimes you are not distinguishing technique and goal). So I responded with what I think is in fact an orthodox interpretation. Cherry-picking is a weird accusation when I am quoting from the First and Second Discourses of the Buddha and the Discourse on Establishing Mindfulness in their translations by an influential contemporary scholar-practitioner in the Thai-Forest Theravada tradition.

You are right to point out that consciously attempting to kill emotion as it arises isn’t much emphasized in the canon and wouldn’t work if it was. But here is where the distinction between technique and goal is important (or method and result). The Shakyamuni Buddha’s genius was in noting that, if you want to kill passion, the best thing to do is continuously get out of its way and let it die of its own accord, as all things will. Sutric meditation is, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, a process of killing passion and thereby suffering with the continuous kindness of letting be. This is a difficult method with a–from a modern perspective–quixotic goal, but luckily the three refuges can be of enormous help.

That most modern meditation practices don’t have this goal and don’t produce this result is a good thing. But the open question is how much of this is an accident of their modern mode of application vs. a product of their design. By design, Sutric meditation was an elite practice for celibate monks who were spending the rest of their day doing things like begging, memorizing or copying sutras, and chanting. That’s not the context in which most middle-class professionals engage with it. The question is what happens when they do–when they are not just looking to relieve stress but intensify practice and fundamentally transform their experience of the world and activity in it? Continuously alternating between focusing on a candle flame and shutting yours eyes is not, at the level of technique, “alienating” or schizoid, but do it for 12-hours a day on retreat and the result might be.

I hope and believe meditation can be effective and not lead to psychosis. It would be sad if I were spending an hour and a half a day on something ineffective or likely to make me crazy (though it wouldn’t be the first time). But the question remains what kind of meditation, effective for what, from what tradition. I have a preference for methods that come from later, non-dual traditions (Buddhist and non-Buddhist), that have robust pre-modern non-monastic expressions, that are more awareness based than highly concentrative, and whose goal is not getting out of the business of being and dying, but getting better at it. There’s some evidence that these methods are less subject to aberrant (from a modern perspective) results when intensified, but the science in this area is still very sparse, difficult, and agenda-driven. I accept that you have found effective ways to interpret the Pali canon and use it in conjunction with modern, mainstream presentations of meditation to achieve goals that are non-traditional from an early Buddhist perspective. My skepticism is around the generalizable reliability or necessity (given alternatives) of suppressing the central thrust of the early Buddhist tradition in this way.

Valium

SusanC 2021-03-02

A cynical take on this might be that present day therapy (as opposed to traditional uses of meditation) sees meditation as sort of a replacement for Valium, and the goal really is to turn you into a zombie.

——-

When you say “ zombie”, given the context, I’ve got a idea of the kind of zombie you meant.

But there is also, for example, the zombies of George Romero movies such as Dawn of the Dead. There’s a satirical element to setting a zombie apocalypse movie in a shopping mall, of course, so they’re not so far apart.

From a brief read of the meditation harms literature, full George Romero style adverse effects appear to be not common.

(Conversely: derealisation effects from PTSD combat trauma can sometimes be very bad indeed).

Offtopic question

trand 2021-03-03

Hey David!
I would like to ask you question related to Dzogchen, but couldn’t any contact information on your websites. Is there any way to contact you directly?

Questions

David Chapman 2021-03-03

Hmm. If it’s a question that can be asked publicly, you can do that here. If it needs to be private, I am not likely to be a good person to answer it! I just write stuff; I don’t give advice or teach Buddhism.

Questions

trand 2021-03-05

You don’t give advice on Buddhism? Are all your writings on the topic there just to make sure the internet doesn’t run out of websites? :P

Regardless of how you see yourself, your writings on Buddhism in the West have inevitably put you in some position of authority, and for me personally, trust, as I’ve found myself similarly repelled by the stale, upper-class liberal “California Buddhism” (as well as any kind of LARPy reactionaries who, in simply turning that upside down, don’t see that they’ve outsourced most of their thinking to their enemies). I’d like to take up practice in Dzogchen, but the only organizations geographically available to me are Rigpa and the International Dzogchen Community. Given your experience in the tradition, I would like to know if you have any advice as to whether they are good purveyors of Dzogchen. I know that the founder of Rigpa was subject to a lot of controversy not long ago, but besides that I have very little to go on as to making a choice, so after reading your extensive writings on the topic, I was wondering if you might have any pointers. :)

Advice and where to go

David Chapman 2021-03-05

You don’t give advice on Buddhism? Are all your writings on the topic there just to make sure the internet doesn’t run out of websites?

LOL!

Sorry, I should have said personal advice.

This is a question I can answer publicly. But, I understand why you might have wanted to ask it privately, in case I didn’t want to publicly diss particular organizations!

So, it turns out I can’t say much about either of the ones you mention, due to ignorance.

Since Soggy was disgraced (and then conveniently died), Rigpa seems to be continuing as a network of centers that invite various teachers in from various Tibetan traditions. [See their post-Soggy “vision statement.”] So it’s probably not possible to generalize. You could check out your local center and go to some events and see if it’s to your taste. (Virtually, for now, I guess, although we can cross our fingers and hope we can gather in person again in a few months.) Looking at their list of teachers, generally they are traditionalists with some Consensus veneer, and not in the style of Vividness. Whether that’s good is a matter of what you like and are looking for…

The International Dzogchen Community was, similarly, left behind by the death of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. He was a great teacher of Dzogchen (whereas Soggy was a fraud as well as an abuser). If he were still alive, I’d enthusiastically recommend checking out his organization. I have no idea how well they are managing after his death. I suspect it will depend on the local center. Unlike most Tibetans, he did authorize several Western teachers who I respect a lot, so it’s definitely worth looking into.

As another possibility, my spouse Charlie Awbery recently co-founded a Dzogchen-based meditation community, Evolving Ground. It’s in an extremely different style than anything a Tibetan would create (or, probably, approve of). Not surprisingly, their view is aligned with Vividness, so if you like this, you might also like that!

Geography

David Chapman 2021-03-05

Oh, I should have said: Evolving Ground is currently entirely virtual, but will hold in-person events, probably in many locations, once the plague has passed.

Dark Retreat

SusanC 2021-03-21

As an example of something that has a widely acknowledged meditation risk, my understanding is that dark retreat is basically categorized as “Danger. High risk of bad experience if attempted by beginners. It’s so dangerous we’re not even going to publically explain how you do it, in case someone foolishly tries it. If you think you’re ready for it, ask your guru, and they’ll make as assessment of your psychologically suitability before deciding whether to let you have any details.”

Even chod comes with a little bit of a health warning, along the lines that summoning demons in a charnel ground is the kind of thing that ought to be approached cautiously, with easy exercizes for beginners first…

Dangerous practices

David Chapman 2021-03-21

Yes.

Dark retreat is completely pointless unless you have reasonably stable awareness of rigpa. Without that, at best you’ll have some vaguely entertaining hallucinations. More likely, you’ll spend your time being bored and trying half-heartedly to do some other sort of meditation and mostly wonder why you are sitting in the dark. However, the sensory deprivation can lead to psychosis. Fortunately, as you say, there is no “pop” version, so not many people run into trouble with it.

I wouldn’t recommend chöd for many people. I rarely do it myself. The pop version seems to be watered down enough to be reasonably safe, I guess.

Clinical trial data

SusanC 2021-07-18

What I’d like to see for meditation is the same kind of safety data that we have, for example, for vaccines.

If a fatal side effect is rare enough that you can administer the treatment to half the UK population and see only on the order of a dozen cases, then basically I am not worried.

If you administer a treatment to a very large number of very old people, then some of them are going to drop dead for reasons that have nothing to do with the treatment. So you clearly want to know the increase in risk vs no treatment, rather than the raw death rate,

For currently licensed vaccines, we know the rough answers to these questions.

For meditation, I’m not seeing much of an indication of the probability of adverse effects, and this clearly matters.

Data on frequency of adverse effects

David Chapman 2021-07-18

Since I wrote this, there are two new studies from Britton et al. that seem to be the best available so far: “Prevalence of meditation-related adverse effects in a population-based sample in the United States” and “Defining and Measuring Meditation-Related Adverse Effects in Mindfulness-Based Programs .”

A very loose summary might be “minor bad effects in ~50%, significant in ~10%, serious in ~1%.”

I’ve added this to the page text.

Serious bad effects

SusanC 2021-07-30

Thanks for the update, David. The 1% serious bad effects is a potential cause for concern, deserving investigation.

For many medical treatments, we tolerate high probability mild side effects, e.g. a vaccine might give you a sore arm the day after or a fever for a few days. My intuition is that the high probability mild bad effects from meditation are even less serious than the sore arm/fever effects we’d be willing to put up with for a vaccine.

The people I know who are into lucid dreaming seem in general to be very tolerant of having nightmares or sleep paralysis, I.e. the possibility of experiencing sleep paralysis isn’t going to deter them from trying to do Cool Stuff in a lucid dream. Consider this a known, high probability, low severity side effect of dream yoga. Personally, I’d rate sleep paralysis as lower severity than, e.g. a fever for a couple of days.

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