Thanks so much for this, Dan. The dangers of meditation -- especially for people who have experienced trauma, anxiety intensities, and recurrent episodes of panic (notice that I'm not calling any of these things disorders) -- has been well documented, but silenced, ignored, or shouted down.

And the ethical lapses involved in selling mindfulness to captive audiences in the workplace, schools, prisons, and other high-control organizations are also not being addressed with enough seriousness.

If something is powerful, it can be powerfully healing and also powerfully harmful.

I grew up in the meditation and yoga cultures and saw so much trouble there that, as a teen, I developed my own practices that don't lead to dissociation, depersonalization, or emotional disruptions. I thought I was being impertinent, but i really couldn't tolerate meditation or the culture of certainty around it.

I see now that I had a pretty good idea! Thanks for telling your story. I'm certain that people will tell you that you weren't doing meditation right, but that's a part of the silencing culture. These negative effects are real and not disclosed, which leads to unnecessary suffering. I don't think Buddha would like that!

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Jul 19, 2021Liked by Dan Lawton

Thanks for sharing, Dan. Beautifully written essay, and glad to hear you are finding integration and healing.

I once was a Goenka Vipassana meditator too, went on 3 of the 10-day courses. I think part of the problem with that tradition specifically is the long hours. It's the ultramarathon of meditation, and injuries are inevitable. They absolutely know about injuries, that's why they have a checklist of things they reject people for, like doing QiGong because they know about things like QiGong sickness. Or if you do other meditation practices they reject you because of the risks of combining practices. But of course even if you do just Goenka's body scan technique perfectly, it can be an intense ride and can break a person. Also the "one technique only" dogma is very harmful for intermediate-to-advanced meditators, because that's exactly when you need to explore different approaches like Somatic Experiencing or therapy or something else to integrate other stuff, since you've reached the point of diminishing returns with Goenka's body scan method.

I agree we absolutely need to talk about the risks of meditation. I got a CT scan last year and I had to sign a waiver that said there was a 1 in 100,000 chance I would just die from the scan due to a rare side-effect. We don't yet know how rare or common meditation side-effects are, but we should at least do due diligence and let people know they exist. I know loads of people personally who have had spiritual emergency or other negative side-effects from meditation, Kundalini yoga, yoga asana, or other spiritual practices. In every large retreat you can practically guarantee one or two people there are having a mental health emergency.

We also need a lot more studies to determine causation. I think it's very likely that meditation, especially very intensive retreat style meditation, has rare but consistent side-effects. But without a control group, how can we know for sure?

Part of the problem is we don't talk about psychosis or mental health emergencies generally, let alone in meditation communities with religious bias towards their technique being always good. When we think of "crazy" we tend to have an image in our mind of someone experiencing psychosis, a relatively common human experience that most people recover from if they are given the proper support. Instead we treat people going through mental health crisis as lepers and shunt them off to the margins of society.

I do think probably iatrogenic spiritual injury can happen to anyone at any time, but I also suspect different approaches to meditation could reduce risk. Super intense retreat schedules I think are likely to increase risk, just as super intense running schedules are likely to increase the risk of shin splints or knee injury. People who are injured by meditation often, like you, seek out techniques designed to work with trauma. But why wait? We should start from the beginning with trauma-aware and trauma-transforming methods. Life itself is traumatic for most of us, even if we don't qualify for an official PTSD diagnosis. We need approaches to mindfulness that actually inhibit the sympathetic nervous system response from Day 1, not simply increase sensory clarity more and more until it is overwhelming.

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Jul 17, 2021Liked by Dan Lawton

Thank you Dan. I really resonated with your experience after having a practically rough experience and reintegration afterwards as a new practioner at a meditation center and seeing not only myself but other meditators dismissed, minimized, blamed and shamed for their challenges including anxiety attacks, PTSD, and psychosis. I really resonated with the anger you expressed in saying "What kind of fucking person would go through this and not warn others of the risks?" And with the loss of faith you described not so much in Buddhism, but in people's ability to act in accordance with their professed values. Compassion and wisdom are often taught as values with Buddhism and meditation is taught a pathway for developing theses qualities. The way in which I have experienced and you have described teachers teaching intensive meditation and treat the real suffering of students strikes me as deeply at odd with these values. You mentioned transparency, honesty, humility as values within religion but these same values are essential to all types of organization including the business and nonprofit models many monasteries use. I have been researching and looking at other monasteries, and wondering what it would look like to find a place that is truly ethical and accountable for their full impact, including the negative. The question of who a teacher is accountabile to has become very important to me. Thank you also for sharing so many great resources here. Meditation for me these days is very hard- as what once brought relaxation now brings tension to my body. However, sitting outside and breathing deeply, allowing my focus to shift to noticing the colors, textures, movements around me in nature allows me to find a place of tranquility when focused breath meditation becomes to much. I have also returned to dancing and spend more time in the earth based practices that feel more resonate for me. Different postures while meditating other then sitting have also helped enter more of a state of being, rather than fighting patterns of thinking. I am happy to hear that you have reclaimed the parts of your identity that are essential, may you continue to grow in and blossom in your essence as the process of healing continues.I am also glad to hear you are going to be teaching mindfulness with transparency and with the knowledge and experience you've gained. Trauma-informed mindfulness instructors are very much needed as are those who will share these concerns with both students and other instructors. Blessings to you on your journey, may you be supported and bring forth your gifts and experience in a way that benefits many beings. With Gratitude,


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Jul 17, 2021Liked by Dan Lawton

wow, what a brave, compassionate, generous person you are to share this experience. May this publication offered selflessly for people indeed propel you forward through this bizarre and hopefully mostly wonderful human journey. Thank you for your brilliant, eloquent, meaningful writing.

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Jul 18, 2021Liked by Dan Lawton

Dear Dan, thank you so much for sharing this information and your story. As a mindfulness trainer I am grateful to know a bit more about adverse effects. I need to read more into this, to guide my participants better. I hope you'll recover well and I'd like to stay informed of your counseling work.

Kind regards, Loes from the Netherlands.

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Jul 17, 2021Liked by Dan Lawton

Thank you for this. I was a hard core meditator of 20+years who studied Somatic Experiencing and somehow found myself letting the meditation go. I think I found what I was really looking for through doing SE. I do often wonder about going back to meditation in a different way. It could be so different now that I know my nervous system so well. I didn’t have acute issues like you, I mostly enjoyed the practice heaps but I think there were some things about the rigour and intensity that were not good for my system.

Glad these things are being talked about I’m very curious to learn more.

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As has been mentioned, Buddhism and Meditation are not the same. Meditation is a tool that Buddhists use. Unfortunately, this tool gets used and sold like a can of beans. Even some Buddhist groups are guilty of this. It works be best if meditation is practiced in a framework that you commit to, instead of cherry-picking from different frameworks. Cherry-picking tends to skip over the things that challenge us. Buddhism has many different frameworks. In my Tradition, the Triratna Buddhist community, we are well aware of the dangers of only doing mindfulness types of meditation in an unbalanced way. We need to balance it with an emotional development type of meditation, like the Metta Bhavana (development of loving-kindness). Otherwise, our awareness and sensitivity keep increasing, but we do not have the emotional positivity to assimilate your experience. Eventually, this can lead to you being overwhelmed, as you describe so well.

Good luck in your balancing and assimilation.

You are welcome to contact me if you wish.


I'm a long-time meditation practitioner and teacher.

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I have a similar experience. On a Vipassana retreat I got to a point where I could see all my thoughts. Most of them very defensive. I experienced panic attacks and recovered for almost a year. Now, over 2 yrs later I feel that the breakdown and subsequent therapy uncovered many of my defenses which would stay hidden if the breakdown didn't come. So really bad experience leading to better myself. But I agree with you that nobody there speaks about the negative effects and teachers are usually completely unable to help. My teacher told me to go to forest and pray.

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Thank you so much for sharing your story. I'm so glad to read the report of such experiences, and a re-interpretation of what meditation can do to you without the spiritual whoo.

Two years ago I was in great distress as a result of intense meditation, a single bad cannabis trip and some generally destabilizing life events (job&relationship loss) that I delved into something that is quite similar to what you describe. I experienced horrible panic attacks, time and space seemed to make no more sense, my feeling of self dissappeared, the world around me looked completely alien, my thoughts seem to rapidly change, even though I stayed completely aware of what was happening wasn't "normal" (so no delusions). For weeks I tried to "fix" myself and didn't see how I slipped more and more into a state of severe mental distress. I didn't know what was happening to me, and when trying to find for similar stories all I found was Daniel Ingrams term "Dark Night" and Stanislav Grofs "Spiritual Emergency" - which scared me imensely, made me question my own reality and lead to massive dispair. As the traditional psychiatric help network couldn't do more than prescribe me anti-psychotics either (which francly made things worse), suicide seemed to be the only escape. Luckily I did not succeed.

I was able to receive appropriate help by going back to my home country and staying in a good psychiatric ward specialiced in trauma for a couple of months. Step by step I regained ground in this reality and am now more or less stable, with fleeting episodes of anxiety and dissacociation remaining.

I am so glad and relieved to see someone writing about Ingram and Grof's interpretation, and offering an alternative explanation. The thought of having reached a "point-of-no-return" in my meditation and now being somehow "stuck", or having to "overcome" and "complete" the process was diametral and played a major role in worsening my mental state. The fear associated with this still lingered in me at some level, and I was never sure how to interpet what happened to me.

(btw I found this article indirectly via the recent questionnaire on meditation on Astral Codex Ten, which while filling out triggered quite a bit of anxiety and pseudo-flashbacks to the episode)

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“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.“ (1 John 4:1)

You discovered what is not of God. Flee from it and run towards God. He will heal you.

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Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing these things, Dan. I hope you continue to find healing.

I wonder if Buddhism had come to the West in a non-commercial, non-consumerist way, if things would have been different. Perhaps ancient guides and warnings would have been published and more widely known. In Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, we are very cautious about deep forms of prayer. Books that touch on it always warn of the bad things that can happen.

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I'm ambivalent. Careful attention to distressing experiences uncovered or instigated by meditation techniques is crucial. Underscoring that is deeply worthwhile. On the other hand, while too often under-attended to, the world's contemplative traditions by no means ignore them. It appears that the "Vipassana Institute" mentioned in the piece — and presented as a group that ignores adverse meditative experiencing — is a Goenka organization. And Goenka's folks do call attention to what they call "the storm" — periods of distress and confusion that more or less predictably occur for many people at some point.

TM speaks of "unstressing." Centering Prayer speaks of "the unloading of the unconscious." The "dark night of the soul" is alluded to in the piece, regarding which the contemplative John of the Cross famously devoted a book. And there's "Zen sickness."

And of course past centuries' accounts framed distressing meditative occurrences as demonic experiencing (and as disinclined as I am personally to use the latter language, I've had experiences myself for which it "fits).

I'm a rather intensive meditator, a clinical psychologist, and a spiritual director. Again, I feel balance is called for — neither denying the truth that there are profoundly difficult occurrences that can befall us in meditation, nor the fact that there are long-standing traditions of acknowledging that fact. (And as a psychotherapist, analogous things can be said of that practice — some folks have deeply troubling events befall them in connection with undergoing psychotherapy.)

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I'm so happy to have found my way to this article. I began my meditation journey 13 years ago now and so much of my experience reads like yours: instant connection and love for the practice, followed by an inner shift that left me incapable of living a normal life for over a decade. And taking that shift as "grist for the mill" when it was really just a neurosis that was made worse with practice. Each time I'd try to talk to teachers I'd get some variation of "have you tried being more mindful?" Or "dark night of the soul" poetry. Or outright attacks. Or something else not acknowledging the fact that I was holding on by my fingertips and the Solo Spiritual Warrior bit that was being encouraged was only making it worse, despite putting in hours a day on the cushion and having immense faith in the practice. Followed by the sense of betrayal...Yes. I haven't been able to ever properly convey that the way you did here. Thanks for writing this and helping others realize they aren't somehow lost causes in the face of the "Mindfulness: Cures what ails You" world we now live in.

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Very well written. The great lesson of this is that with anything you have to look at the Cost side as well as the Benefit side, and that if you do too much, the extra cost is likely to exceed the extra benefit. As Paracelsus, I think, said: The dose makes the poison. Sometimes even a little of something is bad, but almost always there's a level which is Too Much.

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Great article. Thanks for sharing.

This is something that an old Chinese Zen mink once cautioned me about years and years ago. She said something to the effect that "these meditation practices should be used with caution and guidance from an experienced master. There are dangers for beginners if they try to advance without proper foundations."

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That was very well written. Kept even my flighty attention engaged all the way through. And it's a fascinating finding. It seems there is no direction we can go without eventually ending up somewhere beyond what we can handle.

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