What you don't know about meditation could hurt you.
Meditation has been romanticized in the West for its many healing benefits. As a disciplined meditator, I am well aware of the benefits of daily meditation and I am grateful to the Eastern spiritual teachers for introducing it to the world - but many people are unaware of the dark side of meditation. Many of the amazing benefits we hear about meditation come from scientists who have studied meditation in a laboratory, but not in a clinical setting, and according to Brown University-based neuroscientist Willoughby Britton, these Western studies on meditation tend to be biased and show only the positive effects.
As science evolves and we continue to learn more about the mind, we realise with greater clarity that there are some instances in which meditation is not an effective choice. Consider, for example, the case of trauma.
Meditation, Trauma and Movement
Psychologist and medical bio-physicist Dr. Peter Levine defines emotional trauma as a form of biological stress that overwhelms the nervous system and is challenging for an individual to process. Stress becomes traumatic when the body cannot digest and let go of the pressure. The pressure is therefore stored in the body as suppressed energy.
A natural physical response to trauma is the body shaking. Animals in the wild are not traumatized because of their innate ability to discharge energy through involuntary shaking.
Human beings also involuntary shake during and after trauma. We forget to allow our bodies to shake and we attempt to stop the shaking. As noted by Dr. David Berceli, author of “The
Revolutionary Trauma Release Process book”, neurologists tend to label this kind of shaking as a pathological response to trauma, but rarely consider that it may have therapeutic or beneficial effects.
People who practice meditation are often encouraged to face all that arises within themselves, but this practice may be ineffective when the body and mind are overstimulated. If shaking and moving are needed to release trauma from the body, in sitting meditation we are doing the exact opposite. When trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D, exposed his traumatized clients to Jon Kabat Zinn’s meditation practice, they all came back re-traumatized and in worse shape than before.
When we are in a state of hyperarousal and attuned to our bodies, we could shake and move our bodies rather than meditating. Meditation is only one tool in a toolbox which may or may not work at different times.
Meditation, Dissociation and the Shadow
As I mentioned above, when we experience trauma, our nervous system is overwhelmed and in order to survive, we disconnect and dissociate from the extreme pressure of the trauma. When dissociation happens, we push the trauma out of conscious awareness and become unconscious, and a shadow is created. A shadow is an unconscious part of us that we are not aware of. We do not usually see our shadow or blind spot but others may see it. An example would be a person who does not consider himself an angry individual but others do. The very act of dissociating from trauma that helped us to survive can also be an impediment to our emotional growth later in life. Our pain when not processed is still within us like undigested food, rotten in the unconscious mind. These emotional pains unconsciously control and shape our lives.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” - Carl Jung
Although meditation can increase self awareness and help us to see more of our shadow, no matter how far our meditation takes us, sometimes we still cannot see our blind spots and outside help is needed. After long spiritual retreats in Thai and Burmese monasteries, psychologist and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield noticed that he was still suffering tremendously in intimate relationships, with childhood wounds, at work, and with patterns of fear that even deep meditation could not heal. He noticed that many advanced meditators and teachers suffered from neurosis, deep fear, and grief. He concluded that many of these issues cannot be touched even by the deepest meditation. In fact, psychotherapy is necessary.
Philosopher Ken Wilber argues that meditation helps us wake up to our true nature while psychotherapy helps us to clean up and integrate our shadow and dissociated parts. These two are separate from each other and both are needed for healthy holistic growth.
Meditation is not a relational practice
We are relational beings and our first relationship, with our primary caregiver, is the most fundamental factor for health. Many infants who lack this nurturing relationship may die. A child needs to be cared for, listened to, and validated. If these needs are not met by the caregivers, he won’t be able to build a healthy secure bond, which, in time can become an enormous source of trauma. Relational trauma can only be healed through a therapeutic relationship because it is created in a relationship. In some cases, meditation can actually make the situation worse. Restoring an insecure attachment is a must to ensure healthy development of the self and safe meditative practice. After a secure, healthy bond is restored with a psychotherapist, then we may be able to self-parent or self-regulate ourselves much better and embrace our pain the way it is embraced in a relationship.
To be heard and validated by another person brings safety to the nervous system, and, as Dr. Stephen Porges tells us “Safety is the medicine and it happens in a relationship”.
Meditation and Detachment
Eastern tradition claims that attachment causes suffering, and there is emphasis on a detached attitude towards life. But without a secure and healthy childhood bond with our caregivers, we would have unhealthy attachments to external objects. One of the primary causes of addiction, anxiety, and depression is the emptiness that was created based on the deep trauma of an unhealthy childhood bond and as a result, we distract and numb our suffering with drugs, alcohol, Internet, etc. in order to distract ourselves from the pain. The healthier the childhood bond is, the fewer unhealthy
attachments we have as adults. We feel secure and content in our own skin. We cannot meditate away early insecure attachment issue.
People seek guidance for their early psychological wounds from spiritual teachers such as the Dalai Lama, but only an experienced psychotherapist can help us work through the chaos of our childhood trauma. When we have a broken bone, we go to the hospital to be treated, not to an acupuncturist. For the same reason, experts on childhood trauma are effective trauma informed psychotherapists, not spiritual teachers. Some examples of excellent body-oriented modalities are Somatic Experiencing by Dr. Peter Levine, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy by Pat Ogden, and TRE Exercises by David Berceli, Ph.D.
Meditation and Witness Consciousness
There is a concept in meditation called Witness Consciousness, in which practitioners develop the skill of witnessing’ the content of their own mind from a distance, without identifying with the emotions and thoughts that they observe. If this is done incorrectly, it can exacerbate dissociative disorders by detaching people from their emotions rather than integrating them. This takes training from a trauma-informed meditation teacher who knows the difference between dissociation and integration.
Meditation, the Body, and Spiritual Bypassing
Some meditation techniques, such as mantra meditation, can calm and benefit the mind, but they ignore the body, where trauma mainly is stored. In order to process trauma, work with the feelings in the body. Many spiritual schools do not deal with emotional processing in the body, thinking it, a waste of time. But what if healing happens within the vessel of this body? The body is a sacred temple that stores everything, and in order for healing to occur, working with the body is a must.
“The Body Keeps the Score.” - Bessel van der Kolk MD
“The Kingdom of heaven is within you.” - Jesus Christ
As we gradually process trauma, we become closer to the Kingdom which is in the present moment, right here right now, obscured by layers and layers of unprocessed trauma stored in the body.
Any attempt to ignore the body, where body memories and their emotions are stored, is a form of spiritual bypassing. It is escapism. Many spiritual schools skip all emotional work and focus on bliss and Dr. Peter Levine beautifully calls it "bliss bypass".
We think we can ignore the body memories and all of their emotions and somehow without dealing with emotional pains, somehow be healed. This is a dangerous concept that trips up many gurus. Many of them are not willing to own their dark side (shadow) and only focus on the light; as a result, they become imbalanced and may act out by exploiting people through sex, money, and power. A person who is in an abusive relationship and meditates to calm the mind is escaping dealing with the real issues and then by stopping the abuse. We can use anything to spiritually bypass, and most of us do it to some extent when life gets hard.
“We cannot transcend our suffering by ignoring it.” - Judith Blackstone, psychotherapist and spiritual teacher
Meditation and Kundalini Energy
Our modern lifestyles spoil us with instant results. We want to grow psycho-spiritually quickly, not knowing it takes years. Too much meditation in too short a time - indeed, any intense spiritual practice such as a long meditation retreat, psychedelics such as Ayahuasca, or even receiving shakti or spiritual energy from a spiritual teacher can be forceful and traumatic for some people. It may ignite Kundalini energy in the body, which could be dangerous. In yogic philosophy, Kundalini energy is an inactive energy at the base of the spine, and the yogi’s intention is to raise it to the head (crown chakra). It is a sacred energy that is related to higher states of consciousness but when it is activated quickly and irresponsibly in an unhealthy body, it can do a lot of damage. Spiritually grounded yogis know that in order to activate Kundalini energy, they need to strengthen their bodies and purify the energy channels in their bodies for years.
When we are not stable enough, Kundalini energy can trigger a tsunami of energy and cause a massive amount of purification that is often too much to handle, and ultimately causes dysfunctionality in some people.
At some meditation retreats, the main focus is more on digging deep with a lot of effort and less on loving kindness meditation. We want to force ourselves into healing which is a trap. One of the signs of emotional growth is becoming kinder to ourselves and not pushing ourselves beyond our limits. Enlightenment is a journey, not a goal to attain.
Some of the qualities that are needed the most on the spiritual path are feminine qualities such as patience, relaxation, slowness, softness, gentleness and kindness. Society does not appreciate these qualities and often labels them as weak and unproductive. The truth is the exact opposite: in order to heal, we need to bring relaxation and gentleness to our bodies, like a loving mother who embraces her crying baby, rather than forcing their bodies to heal with intensity and force.
Meditation and Negative Emotions:
Many meditative traditions encourage practitioners to avoid so-called negative emotions such as anger, rage, jealousy, and fear. We all have these emotions and avoiding them is a form of denial. All emotions have light and dark sides. For example, chronic unresolved rage can suppress the immune system and trigger a host of illnesses, but short term rage can save our lives. If an invader breaks into our home and there is a possibility of harm or death, the best thing to do is to scream, fight back, and use all our power to push back this
intrusive energy in order to save our lives. If we feel injustice and we become enraged in a situation, we can use the powerful energy of rage to motivate us to change something for the better. Although we all have negative emotions, flexibility is needed to ride all emotions wisely. When dealing with the shadow of an emotion, the best thing is to understand, accept, and transform it.
“I don't think there is such a thing as bad emotion. The only bad emotion is a stuck emotion.” - Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
Meditation and losing the Ego self (Personality)
Another misconception is that to achieve enlightenment, you have to lose the ego-self entirely. What we mean by ego here is everything that makes up our personality. According to Neuroscientist Dr. Willoughby Britton, this notion might not have been too damaging hundreds of years ago for an Eastern culture that was more identified with collective community, but for the Western man who is very individualistic this can be disastrous, and has in fact caused suicidality. We cannot get rid of our ego self and attempting to do so only brings pathology. Our ego or our story is the gateway to healing. We can only nourish and evolve the ego personality and gain a larger perspective of ourselves that is not just limited to the ego self but includes the ego self.
If you are looking for a meditation technique, I invite you to look for a trauma-informed meditation class or teacher and find an effective psychotherapist to complement it. There are many mediocre meditation teachers and psychotherapists out there and only the best ones can help. If you do not find an excellent meditation teacher and psychotherapist on your first attempt, keep searching. It’s worth it.
Trauma informed meditation is only one pillar of the holistic approach to healing. We also need to include somatic psychotherapy and other healthy lifestyle choices.
When we are aware of these meditation pitfalls, we can experience a safe and nourishing meditation practice and know when it is safe and when it is not safe to meditate.
Writer: Moe Espandiari
Artist: Shirin Divanbeigui
Meditation-Related Difficulties: Neuroscientist Willoughby Britton
Even the Best Meditators Have Old Wounds to Heal by Jack Kornfield Phd
What Meditation Can’t Cure by Debra Flics Psychotherapist and Meditation Teacher
Nine Ways To Ensure Your Mindfulness Teaching Practice Is Trauma-Informed
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study)
Explanation of Trauma Release Exercises from medical history