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No, Not Everyone Should Meditate

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Josh Simmons
Josh Simmons

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I see new meditation articles being published by major news outlets regularly. The type of these articles are usually anecdotal, How to Meditate, According to Halle Berry or dumbed down refactorings of new research, Meditating can make your brain quicker (plus how to meditate). Other than the concerning implications that stem from following meditation instructions from a news outlet or Halle Berry, the sentiment is nearly always positive on meditation, that it is something everybody should be doing. My hope is that anyone pursuing meditation with only a limited understanding of what it is and how powerful it can be does not progress past the early stages so that they don't harm themselves.

I am not a meditation teacher. I'm not qualified to give advice on how to meditate or how to get deeper into the practice. I would never encourage someone who I didn't know very deeply to begin a meditation practice. I do have years of experience with my own practice though and am more well read than most novices beginning a practice. I began meditating in 2010. I had been doing a lot of reading about 1960s counterculture as one does in their undergraduate years. A biography on Timothy Leary led me to the work of Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass). Reading his work Be Here Now blew apart my understanding of consciousness and I began meditating based on simple instructions provided in the back of the book. I meditated daily for about 20 minutes. Thanks to the university library, I was able to read books on the topic as fast as they would lend them to me. Some notable ones I read during that time were "Zen and the Art of Archery", "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", and "Mindfulness in Plain English". After a few months of daily practice and reading, I began to experience some strange phenomena during sessions.

The first odd thing I experienced was the inexplicable feeling that there was someone else in the room during my meditation. Luckily this didn't disturb me too much, one of the books I had read at that time mentioned that this was something that could happen during zazen. I now know that it is called the sensed presence effect. Other sits were more pleasant - I often had a sensation of uncaused joy arise. Sometimes I would see intense and clear images inside my head. During one session I saw a bright blue humming sphere that I knew was God (or some kind of representation of) - I swear I could hear the harmonious hum of it. I had previously abandoned my Christian faith but that experience alone made me reconsider my stance. I even wrote a piece of music about it later on called blue god hum gently breaks back of skull and absorbs consciousness melting away duality. How might I have reacted to these experiences if I had a genetic predisposition towards schizophrenia? I still wonder if some of these mystical experiences pushed me towards becoming a bit more neurotic than I was when I began practicing. These are the shadow details nobody has time to mention in a quick news story.

I got busier and I allowed my practice to slip away. I would pick it up in fits and starts, often times branching out of zazen with which I was most familiar. I tried and have practiced mindfulness, Transcendental Meditation (nondirective mantra, not the "real thing"), yoga nidra, and Vipassana. Eventually I settled into a modified version of zazen and practiced daily for three years where I saw incredible changes in most areas of my life. I fell off the wagon last year and have recently restarted my practice.

So why would I, someone whose spirituality, health, and relationships have benefitted from meditation, discourage its practice by everyone? The answer is complicated.

Maybe it's easiest to compare the current moment that meditation is enjoying in the spotlight to that of another psychologically altering activity: LSD. Although it didn't have the backing of mainstream media, many influential figures were encouraging the youth to take LSD - ironically reading about the most notable of these people, Timothy Leary, was what initially led me to meditation. Clinical research on psychedelics, including LSD, are demonstrating the strong positive effects these substances can have on anxiety and depression in a controlled, clinical setting, with trained professionals. This research could allow countless people to live their lives free from mental illness and it's a travesty that all research on these substances was shut down for decades. In the 60s, on one side there was Timothy Leary recklessly encouraging everyone to gobble up all the LSD they could get their hands on, on the other side, there was the media spreading lies about psychedelics and suggesting that they are useless degenerate drugs - as with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

In 2022, I think that most people somewhat familiar with psychedelics would agree that not everybody should take them. It's probably not a good idea to take psychedelics if you have a family history of schizophrenia for example. Michael Pollan actually gives the substances a fair treatment in his book on psychedelics How to Change Your Mind.

Meditation is as powerful or even more powerful than psychedelics in terms of the short term and long term effects it can have on a person's life. Meditation-induced psychosis, among other risks are a very real possibility of meditation and just like the potential negative effects of LSD, any amount of ignoring them won't make them any less real. These risks multiply when something is extracted from a holistic context. Practicing meditation without growing up and living in a community where the practice is part of the way of life mitigates a lot of these effects - there are teachers, elders, tribal knowledge, etc. When you remove an activity from the context it was formed in, you loose the meta-knowledge that surrounds it. It's not impossible to do successfully, but you better proceed with caution, knowledge, and ideally the guidance of a teacher unless you want to suffer the consequences.

Lacking teachers, elders, and tribal knowledge, who do we go to for meditation advice? My suggestion would be to work with a therapist that's well versed in meditation. If you were going to start training for a triathalon having never exercised before, you'd probably check in with your doctor first to see if you were in good shape to start that kind of training - this is why high school students are required to get physicals in order to participate in sports. Establish a rapport with a therapist that has meditation experience and ask them if it's safe for you to proceed. If you can find a worthy meditation teacher - that may be a valid route too, but the lack of professional qualifications makes it difficult to estimate the authority of such a person. When searching for a teacher while living in Southern California, most of the teachers I met were 80% bullshit and 20% marketing - at worst they were outright frauds, at best their knowledge of meditation was rudimentary. Who knows, that could just be a selection bias for the type of meditation teacher that would gravitate towards a region with a lot spiritually lost seeker-types, i.e. customers.

An areligious meditation practice can have a place alongside other religious practices. As a Christian, I use it to hone my focus for prayer and to increase my mindfulness so that I can better sense what God wants for me. The best advice on the subject that I can offer is to think about incorporating meditation if it's something that you feel drawn towards, but check in with a mental health professional before starting a serious practice. Self-assess the state of your mental health and be honest about if you have anything concerning lurking there - if so, the beginning of the practice can bring up a lot of uncomfortable emotions, it's like the process of unclogging a drain. If anyone tells you that it's safe and "good for everyone" they're either ignorant of the potential risks or are novices in the practice who aren't aware of how deep and intense sessions can become.