There has been some growing concern recently about the safety of mindfulness meditation. Some claim that the practice can have severe side effects, such as panic, depression, and confusion. Are these concerns well founded? Maybe.
The main study cited by opponents of meditation is a British study of the effects of mindfulness meditation on a group of prison inmates. The inmates participated in a 90-minute weekly meditation class for 10 weeks. The study found that the inmates’ moods had improved and they had experienced a lower stress level, but remained just as aggressive as before the intervention.
I fail to see how this study disproves the positive effects of mindfulness meditation. First, prison inmates are not a representative sample of the general population. Many of them have severe psychological disorders. Many mental health professionals would agree that they need more than meditation to overcome their mental illness.
Second, a 90-minute weekly class is not representative of an effective meditation practice. Most meditation teachers advocate a daily practice of at least 20 minutes of sitting meditation as a way of life, and not just for a limited period of time. Furthermore, a good meditation practice involves more than just sitting meditation. It includes participating in a meditation group, attending retreats regularly, and practicing mindfulness in all our affairs.
If anything, the study seems to confirm some of the positive effects of meditation, such as improved mood, and lower stress levels. So, I don’t see how this study shows that mindfulness meditation is ineffective or dangerous.
I should also stress that most meditation teachers, including myself, do not proclaim meditation to be a cure for all mental, emotional, and physical ailments. However, mindfulness meditation can help prevent many disorders, and is a useful tool to complement standard medical and psychological treatments.
In all fairness to those concerned about the safety of mindfulness meditation, from my more than 19 years of teaching experience, I have noticed one area for concern when meditating. As we practice, over time our mind will calm down significantly. As a result, memories of our past will begin to surface, and this will include unpleasant memories. If we are not yet strong enough to face them, then these memories can cause us more stress. However, if we want to be truly at peace, then we must confront the painful memories of our past, and deal with them once and for all.
In our teachings, we address this potential side effect. We recommend to our students three main components of a safe and effective meditation practice: 1) practice sitting meditation daily, 2) get involved in a meditation group, and 3) practice loving-kindness writing meditation daily.
The sitting meditation is essential for developing mindfulness. It helps us steady our mind and calm our emotions. It also helps us develop the inner strength necessary for dealing with painful memories. A meditation group can go a long way toward helping us heal. It is a resource of experience and support, so that we don’t have to deal with our problems alone.
The writing meditation is a fairly new approach to practicing loving-kindness meditation. What this practice does is reprogram our subconscious to see all people from a more loving, forgiving, and compassionate point of view. So, when memories of people who have hurt us arise, they won’t trigger such painful emotions. I think these three practices are the reasons why we never see people have adverse reactions to mindfulness meditation.
The benefits of mindfulness meditation have been well researched. I think we still need to do more rigorous research on potential side effects, so we can develop methods and techniques for addressing them. Up to now, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence of harmful side effects of mindfulness meditation, and in my almost two decades of teaching, I have not yet encountered any. What I have seen is people overcome the wounds from their past, improve their relationships, and live more peaceful and fulfilling lives.
Meditation photo available from Shutterstock