The Misuse of Meditation

Problems in the Use of Meditation

Patricia Carrington, Ph.D.

Author of “The Book of Meditation


Blocks in meditating represent one type of problem with which all of us working with meditation must deal. An entirely different difficulty arises, however, when meditation is embraced, but for the wrong reasons, or when it is used in an undesirable fashion.

While some people shy away from meditation, others take it up with too much intensity. If twenty minutes twice a day is beneficial, then two or three or four hours of meditating per day should be correspondingly better – or so the reasoning goes. As with any therapeutic dosage, of course, this is not the case. If one pill is prescribed, taking the whole bottle is not a good idea.

While the proper meditation time may be highly beneficial, anything over that amount may have adverse effects. As we have seen, for some people, even fifteen or twenty minutes of meditating at one time is too much. When I speak of over meditation, however, I mean a much longer amount of meditation. For the average person practicing practical meditation, this might be defined as meditating more than one hour a day for the first year, and after that for more than one hour at a single sitting, or more than two hours on the same day – keeping in mind the fact that the ‘safe’ limit may be considerably lower than this for certain individuals.

As discussed in Chapter 7, tension-release during ordinary meditation can produce side-effects which, at times, can make for difficulty if they aren’t regulated. If meditation is prolonged for a matter of hours this process of tension-release can be magnified many times. When a person spends this much time meditating, powerful emotions and ‘primary process’ (bizarre) thoughts may be released too rapidly to assimilate and the meditator may be forced into sudden confrontation with long buried aspects of himself for which he is not prepared. If he has enough inner strength, or is doing the extra meditation under the supervision of an experienced teacher, he may, weather such an upsurge of unconscious material and emerge triumphant. If he has fewer inner resources or has a past history of emotional disturbance, he may be overwhelmed by it, fragile defenses may break down, and an episode of mental illness occurs.

This eventuality is guarded against by most responsible teachers of meditation who strictly limit the amount of time the meditator is advised to spend at his practice. TM, for example, is limited to no more than two twenty-minute sessions daily; Benson gives the same directions for his method; and we similarly limit CSM. Those who choose to meditate against these explicit instructions are usually people with deep-seated personality problems who make use of meditation in a very special way. We will discuss this way in a moment as we look at some examples of people who have over-meditated.

Over-meditating seems to be similar to other forms of addiction. Studies of drug usage have shown that those who tend to abuse drugs, as opposed to those who simply use them, show many more signs of severe personality disturbance, social withdrawal, and the like. In the same way, those who consistently over-meditate, when studied psychiatrically, most often turn out either to have a previous history of addiction to drugs or to have other psychiatric problems of a serious nature. Taken in heavy doses in a person with an unstable background, meditation can be dangerous.

Problems from Over-Meditation

The following anecdotes illustrate some of the difficulties which may arise from over-meditation. While these examples may seem severe in terms of the psychiatric symptoms involved, they are typical of the over-meditator. To my knowledge there is no such thing as a mild case of true over-meditation. When a person comes to the point where she is meditating many hours a day, on her own and without supervision, that person usually has a disturbed emotional adjustment to begin with. The people I will describe here already had deeply troubling personality problems. Over-meditation increased their difficulties, however, and appeared to push these people over the brink, as it were, precipitating a serious psychiatric condition.

Kaye was a withdrawn young woman who consulted me when she was already in a state of incipient mental breakdown, because she had heard that I was ‘sympathetic to meditation’. She reported that she was losing her sense of identity and was haunted by sexual terrors. Her life was chaotic. She could barely handle the simplest practical tasks and shied away almost totally from contact with people.

Kaye’s experience with meditation was based on a lifelong problem. She had been an extremely shy girl with a painful sense of inferiority about her own body, which she felt to be ‘deformed’, although this was not in reality the case. Upon graduating from high school she had found refuge from the challenges of social life by entering a Zen retreat, where she lived for two years, undergoing strict training in Zazen meditation. While living there, Kaye meditated at least four hours daily. At this same time she was forbidden to speak with anyone about the strong emotions that surfaced during her meditation. She was observing a partial vow of silence which prevented her from discussing topics other than superficial household tasks.

Despite the rigor of this routine, Kaye initially benefited from being at the retreat. An ulcerative colitis which she had previously suffered from disappeared entirely. She seemed relieved at being in a quiet, protective place where she did not have to face humiliating rejections from the outside world, and her tension level reduced accordingly.

Eventually, however, an emotional ‘bottleneck’ began to develop. Intense feelings and stressful memories were rapidly surfacing during Kaye’s long hours of meditation, which she could not discuss with anyone. Because of her enforced silence she was unable to receive social support for these painful emotions and became increasingly threatened by them as time went on. Finally she found herself with a cauldron of explosive conflicts which she could no longer handle. Meditation was continually bringing up new emotionally charged material which she could not deal with fast enough.

At this point, Kaye fled from the Zen center and began to travel from city to city, temporarily living with room-mates who were also Zen meditators. Each time when she inevitably failed to get along with her new room-mates, she became more troubled. She continued to meditate many hours a day, but without the support of the Zen center, where she had felt cared for and protected, her defenses gradually broke down and serious psychiatric symptoms emerged. At this point her meditation was no longer calming her; it was causing anxiety. When in desperation she finally abandoned meditation, it was too late. The rapidly developing emotional breakdown continued.

Eventually Kaye admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital. She was experiencing racing thoughts which she could not control and was suffering from intense anxiety attacks. Following a brief hospitalization, she made an appointment to see me. I saw Kaye for a few sessions before referring her for more extensive treatment than I was able to offer. During these sessions she obtained relief from outbursts of emotion which were so intense that she would tremble violently, almost convulsively, while experiencing them.

Without talking it over with me (I would have advised against it), Kaye later decided to try meditation again. She had only been meditating forty-five minutes, however, when she found herself once more becoming disoriented in her thinking and experienced rising panic. On the basis of this brief attempt, we were both able to agree that she was not yet ready to return to the practice. I recommended that if she should ever resume meditating, it would be wise to do so only in a very gradual fashion, probably meditating for no more than five or ten minutes a day, until she found herself fully able to tolerate a slightly longer time than this. This advice seemed to relieve her of conflict over whether or not to recommence meditation. From that point on she was able to plan for herself and was ready to enter into a constructive treatment program.

Although traditional Zazen practices such as those Kaye followed are more rigorous than the simpler centering techniques, it is unlikely that it was the Zazen teaching, per se, which caused Kaye’s difficulty. Many people can use this method of meditation very beneficially. Her problem seemed to have arisen from an unfortunate combination of circumstances. This emotionally disturbed, intensely withdrawn young woman had been over-meditating in a setting which did not permit her any relief from the accumulated tensions which almost inevitably travel from city to city, temporarily living with room-mates who surface from such long hours of meditation. She was forbidden to talk about her feelings and could achieve no understanding of them.

A person with a healthier personality than Kaye’s might have meditated constructively even under such a strict regime, arriving at a socially withdrawn but adaptive mode of life. No doubt this often occurs in monasteries, retreats and other similar settings. Even Kaye might have withstood this excessive meditation if she had had a chance to talk over her feelings regularly so that she could assimilate them. Or, on the other hand, if she had been exposed to meditation only in small daily doses she might have been able to adjust to it without becoming imbalanced.

Another instance of over-meditation occurred in a Transcendental Meditator who had been carefully instructed not to meditate more than twenty minutes twice a day. When Dudley contacted me for advice he reported a list of symptoms sufficiently distressing to cause almost anyone to panic. While physical and neurological examinations had shown that he had no identifiable diseases, he complained of dizziness, pressure in his head, physical ‘rushes’ that would ‘go to his eyes, ears, nose, and throat’, and an inability to tolerate bright lights. More distressing to him, however, was his feeling that people seemed ‘unreal’ and only a reflection of his own consciousness. He had an intense feeling of alienation and experienced a ‘tremendous gulf’ between himself and others. He also could experience only what was in his immediate visual field; the back of a house did not ‘exist’ for him unless he walked around to the other side and actually saw it. If a person left the room where he was, that person ceased to ‘exist’ until he or she reappeared. The present felt eternal. When he went to sleep he felt he was ‘leaving’ his body; and one night when he saw a horror movie on TV he vividly imagined, in fact was convinced, that, like the figure on the screen, he was carrying ice picks in his hand. He was terrified of what he might do with them.

The more Dudley meditated, the worse these symptoms became. When he contacted me he reported that he was regularly meditating three hours a day, plus repeating his mantra to himself throughout the day. What was particularly significant was that Dudley claimed he had not realized that he should not meditate this much. Since TM teachers and checkers repeatedly stress the proper amount of time for meditation, this young man clearly had chosen to ‘selectively inattend’ to what they were saying. For reasons of his own, he had apparently needed to escape into an oblivion created through over-meditating.

Some of Dudley’s symptoms superficially resemble some of the experiences reported by mystics: the disappearance of time, the eternal moment, the sense of leaving the body, the reflection of one’s own consciousness in the universe, for example. When these experiences are under the control of the person having them and are intentional, they can be an important part of a person’s spiritual development. In Dudley’s case, however, no amount of guidance from meditation teachers had been able to change his chaotic experience into a constructive, positive one. He was reporting compulsive symptoms, perhaps unconsciously borrowed from the reports of spiritually inclined people, but used for his own maladaptive purposes. They were out of his control and consistently negative.

Dudley’s background emerged during the diagnostic interview. He was an only child still living at home with his parents at age twenty-seven and closely tied to his mother. Because of this, he was presently unable to leave home to go to a professional school of his choice. For many years numerous personality problems had prevented him from growing up emotionally. Treatment with such therapies as behavior modification and hypnosis had been to no avail. While the specific symptoms that Dudley was now experiencing were apparently released by over-meditation, their basic cause seems to have been the disturbed adjustment which he had had all his life. Dudley and his mother had carried on continuous psychological warfare against his father, who appeared to be the scapegoat in a family triangle. The more symptoms Dudley developed, the greater his emotional stranglehold on his mother, and the greater his guilt toward his father, who was supposed to be ‘unsympathetic’ to Dudley’s many ills and to his ‘lack of initiative’ at age twenty-seven. At night Dudley would often experience such rage against his sleeping father that he feared he might harm him.

To cope with his growing rage, frustration and shame, Dudley had begun to bury himself in meditation as one might lose oneself in a drug. An intelligent man, he must have known that he should not over-meditate in that fashion, but had chosen to do this until he was literally flooded by unpleasant symptoms. When he consulted me he had recently stopped meditating entirely (a decision which I advised him to stick to) but his symptoms continued to worsen as the time to leave home and enroll in a professional school in a distant city rapidly approached. Dudley’s main problem at this point appeared to be the separation anxiety which he was experiencing – he knew he would soon have to leave his mother. Coupled with this was his deep guilt at his childlike dependency on his mother and his intense hostility toward his father.

Dudley is typical of those who consistently over-meditate. His symptoms seemed to stem not so much from meditation in and of itself as from the neurotic misuse of meditation. When he was challenged in a single diagnostic interview to face some of the basic issues which were underlying his problem, his symptoms temporarily became much less intense. His sense of time returned and his orientation in space and sense of reality were almost entirely reinstated by the end of two hours of conversation with the therapist.

While over-meditation seems to have paved the way for Dudley’s emotional disturbance, it cannot be said to have actually caused it, considering the ease with which, temporarily at least, his symptoms cleared up with insight. What his case teaches us is the necessity for probing deeply into the causes of excessive over-meditation. The chances are that over-meditation will be found to reflect deep emotional problems. These problems must be treated in order to effect a permanent cure for whatever symptoms arise.

This is an important point to bear in mind, because some of the so-called super-cults require that their followers meditate for many hours each day. At one time the members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness spent two to three hours chanting the ‘Hare Krishna’ when awakening in the morning and followed this by additional sessions of chanting at various points throughout the day. Other groups such as the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, which flourished in the 1970s, encouraged similar intensive meditation in their followers. The control of such super-cults over their followers raises a number of questions about possible exploitation of followers who have been confused and rendered highly suggestible by over-meditation.

Obviously over-meditation on a wide scale could have serious consequences. In this book, however, we are discussing the practical forms of meditation which, when properly followed, are always used in moderation. While moderation is insisted upon for ordinary practitioners, teachers of some forms of practical meditation, on the other hand, may be required to meditate continually for long periods of time every day as part of their training. TM teachers, for example, are periodically required to attend residence courses where intensive regimes of meditation (up to several hours a day) are required for periods of six or more weeks at a time. Not surprisingly, an occasional TM teacher has been known to develop serious emotional problems either during or shortly after such training, and several such cases have been called to my professional attention. In light of the heavy meditational requirement for TM teacher trainees, therefore, it would seem that a decision to become a TM teacher should be weighed just as carefully as a decision to undertake any other regime requiring extensive meditation would be.

In light of the temptation to over-meditate that is seen in certain susceptible individuals and the potential risk involved for their mental health if such a person were to do so, it is essential for anyone thinking of joining a movement which includes meditation as part of its program to inquire about the amount of time they will be asked to spend daily in this practice. Prospective meditators may also want to look carefully at other aspects of any movement they are thinking of joining to make certain their own personal liberty and freedom of thought will be preserved. Responsible training programs offering intensive meditation should supply low pressure, non-coercive and supportive retreats where every participant is free to remain fully in command of her own life, to make her own decisions, and to come and go as she wishes. To make certain of the non coercive atmosphere of any large-scale ‘spiritual’ training program may take careful investigation since a number of the more notorious organizations now recruit through ‘front’ organizations with names that are unknown and seemingly innocuous.

A wise procedure for anyone who is considering attending a preliminary meeting of such an organization is first to read about the organization and its strategies from a viewpoint different from that advanced by the organization itself. Almost any library contains non-fiction books about super-cults which are a reliable source of information. Even if the specific names and details in these books are not always up to date (the scene changes rapidly, with previously highly active cults fading away as the public becomes suspicious of them, and new ones appearing seemingly overnight) such books often accurately describe the highly questionable tactics of many of the super cults with respect to the civil liberties and mental and physical health of their practitioners. The newspapers and magazines found in libraries are another good source of information which any research librarian can guide you to. A preliminary investigation of any cult’s background is crucial if one’s personal safety and mental health are to be safeguarded.

Even in the most unpressured and genuinely supportive retreat, however, as with Kaye described above, catastrophes sometimes arise, and the addition of an adequate clinical staff of trained mental health professionals appears essential for such programs. If professionally trained assistance does not exist in an intensive meditation-based program, the decision to enter a group requiring large amounts of meditation every day requires careful thought. Small, decentralized meditation settings, where considerable personal guidance is afforded each trainee by a highly qualified teacher, or else responsible home instruction, are usually preferable to the mass organizations.

These special precautions do not ordinarily apply to the practical forms of meditation undertaken by the average person, however. Practical meditation may add an important dimension to our lives, but it does not become a way of life. For this reason it seems to be the only type of meditation appropriate for use along with formal psychotherapy as this is practiced in the West. Whether it can be considered a form of therapy in its own right is the question we will look at next.

Dr. Patricia Carrington’s award winning meditation technique CSM (Clinically Standardized Meditation) is a clinically sensitive meditation method developed by the Medical Department of New York Telephone Company and used by numerous medical institutions, organizations, and individuals worldwide. For information click here.

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