This is a response to the Atlantic Monthly article, “The Dark Knight of the Soul.” (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/the-dark-knight-of-the-souls/372766/?utm_source=Mic+Check&utm_campaign=2f3ff84205-Mic_Report_6_26_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_51f2320b33-2f3ff84205-285410933
This article in the Atlantic Monthly highlights a clinic in Providence, Rhode Island where Dr. Willoughby Britton, “an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Brown University Medical School receives regular phone calls, emails, and letters from people around the world in various states of impairment. Most of them worry no one will believe—let alone understand—their stories of meditation-induced affliction. Her investigation of this phenomenon, called “The Dark Night Project,” is an effort to document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices.”
This article deserves serious examination because if the demonization of meditation becomes the next fabricated trend in pathologizing and treating normal human behavior, then it might just signal the beginning of the end for the spirituality/personal growth industry in this country.
One of the obvious sources of confusion regarding meditation is that the word itself is used to describe a variety of different approaches and techniques. Across all these techniques, though, meditation is nothing more than focusing one’s attention. The critical aspect that differentiates one technique from another is what is receiving the focus, and the spirit in which the focus is being transmitted.
Due to the limited scope of a blogpost, I’m only going to contrast meditation practices that are health or relaxation-oriented vs. those that might be described as contemplative or transformative.
As we know by now, meditation can be used quite effectively as a relaxation tool, a means to lower blood pressure or pulse, and to counter the effects of stress. This is a very useful reminder of how we can program our physiology via our attention, and if it were adopted by a majority of people it could, for example, put a big dent in the ridiculous over-prescribing of blood pressure medication. A person might conceivably use meditation solely in this practical role for her entire life, because the mind has clearly established a specific agenda and it will not stray outside the set protocol if it’s to achieve that goal.
However, if someone begins to discover a persistent sadness that accompanies her relaxation protocol, she might think that she needs a new technique or that her execution is flawed. In such an approach to meditation, thoughts, feelings, and emotions may be regarded at best as annoyances to the task at hand, but not as useful sources of information in themselves. If there is a clearly defined agenda driving one’s motivation to meditate, then the mind will do its damnedest to suppress, rationalize away, disregard, and minimize any incoming information that conflicts with this agenda, just as Scrooge initially dismisses Marley’s ghost as “an undigested bit of beef.”
Generally, this approach to meditation, while having practical value, doesn’t encourage an attitude of exploration and discovery beyond the specific physiological results that are being sought. As such, it can coexist quite well with the baseline rigidity of the mind without much fuss.
Let’s contrast this with a meditation practice that is intended to cultivate a state of contemplation or witnessing of the mind itself, which is the type of practice that I’ll be referring to for the remainder of this blogpost. If a person undertakes such a practice, then he has already recognized on some level that there is something lacking in his life. All that remains is to discover what that “something” is and establish how much he’s willing to sacrifice in order to rectify it. In some circles, this is known as a spiritual path.
With this type of meditation practice one is usually encouraged to combine a point of focus with an attitude of vulnerability and surrender. (Already, we can see how the ramifications of such a focus might differ greatly from the limited goals of a relaxation/stress management model of meditation.) Since our culture at large actually discourages vulnerability and surrender and equates these with weakness, our initial efforts at understanding and putting these qualities into practice can be very painful and clumsy. The attitude of a contemplative practice is the opposite of how we live our lives most of the time, which is in a fiercely guarded state where we’re terrified that we may not be right about everything.
Because we begin a meditation practice with all of our social conditioning solidly in place, there are some underlying assumptions we bring to the table that are hidden to our conscious minds until we encounter our resistance to letting go of these same beliefs. Then we hold on for dear life.
I feel the number one assumption is the belief that we can know anything, including assuming that we know what a human being is. But if we assume we know what a human being is, then we think we know what the mind is. Next, if we know what the mind is then we know what meditation is, and so we know what to expect and what not to expect. Because, gosh, we sure don’t want any surprises.
When vulnerability and surrender meet these beliefs head-on, something’s gotta give. In attempting to reconcile these conflicting forces by allowing our rigid beliefs to soften in the face of being vulnerable to the possibility that we might be wrong, we gradually become aware of the power of quiet destruction that we’ve beckoned into our lives. Indeed, we would never have consciously asked for this, because something else—something other than our discriminating mind–has drawn us onto this battlefield.
Meditation can potentially devastate our illusions, identities, agendas, and roust our skeletons from their closets, regardless of what we thought our intention was going into it. The misperception that a meditation practice will necessarily be an enhancement of one’s present life situation rather than a force that may cause its disintegration is often one of the first sacrifices in achieving any depth in one’s practice. In our current 2014 environment, in which we’re conditioned to regard constant bombardment by external stimuli as normal, the impulse to look inward is an inherently subversive act.
Here are a few quotes from the article by clients who are said to be recovering from meditation:
“I had a fear of being thought of as crazy,” he says, “I felt extremely sensitive, vulnerable, and naked.”
David explains that he finally felt awake. But it didn’t last. “I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror. I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”
“Psychological hell,” is how he describes it. “It would come and go in waves. I’d be in the middle of practice and what would come to mind was everything I didn’t want to think about, every feeling I didn’t want to feel.”
And there you have the prevailing American perspective on spirituality and personal growth: If I don’t get it just the way I want it, then there must be something wrong with the technique, my teacher, or me.
The difficult periods of meditation, feeling like we don’t enjoy anything anymore or that our life is meaningless, is a way to get us to STOP doing what we’ve always done, because the inherent emptiness of our old life is being shown to us. For a lot of us, our internal dialogue simply never makes it to an audible level because we censor it so completely, precisely because it includes such disturbing material. When someone feels depressed, panicky, anxious, or hopeless as a result of their meditation practice, it is alerting them to a whole level of repressed emotions and feelings that have not been allowed to see the light of day. The fact that they are now at the surface where they can be acknowledged means that there is finally a possibility for healing.
Have I personally experienced depression, white hot rage, thoughts of suicide, and intense fear and anxiety as a result of meditation? Yes, and I continue to do so, but it’s not “a meditation-induced affliction”! It’s opening the door of my mind’s cluttered attic, finding out what’s inside and learning to cope with being a more fully-feeling human being in a world that is increasingly determined to produce robots, to feel as human as possible without going insane. Meditation is simply the vehicle by which I give myself permission to do so.
Does it help to have someone to talk to during these difficult periods? Of course! But that person certainly doesn’t have to be a mental health professional that is poised to tell us that there’s something wrong with having normal human feelings. A person is much better off not embarking on a meditation practice if he isn’t willing to risk discovering that there is something other than his mind, and that it has nothing to do with his individuality or agendas. Because the mind doesn’t appreciate being deconstructed, to put it lightly, it may view its obliteration through the lens of a mental and emotional breakdown and cause one to seek intervention so that it can abort the process of transformation and preserve its dominion. Mission accomplished.
With the widespread use of antidepressants and other mood-altering aids, as well as suffocating social pressures such as political correctness and public shaming, we are driving our collective emotional selves deeper and deeper into inaccessibility. Our rapidly shrinking outlets for honest emotional expression doesn’t squelch our need to find that expression; it does, however, mean that an encounter with our true feelings is more likely to be unexpected and precipitated by events seemingly beyond our control. Meditation can certainly be a way to counteract this trend and intentionally enter into an interaction with our deeper selves, so we don’t have to wait for life to beat the stuffing out of us for us to feel something.
We make the mistake of believing there’ll be a straight line from desiring change in our lives to seeing evidence of change, and this linear way of thinking about personal growth or transformation is yet another mental construct that can fall apart in the face of a meditation practice. The difficult truth is that it may require years of opening ourselves up to repressed fear, depression, or rage that is standing between our current, unsatisfying life and something quite different and much more honest. Until we’re willing to really feel the pain that has drawn us toward meditation in the first place, we’ll continue to look anywhere else for change except where we almost certainly need to go.
In our “you can have it all” culture, we think we can subject our mind to the rigorous examination of a meditation practice and still believe in the American Dream, still keep our failing marriage together, and still hang on to our miserable, high-paying job. We want to be connected with the whole universe and all humanity except for that person over there that doesn’t smell very good. It’s like thinking you can open Pandora’s box just a smidge. When we permit ourselves to get away with this degree of internal haggling, it’s no wonder that we rarely see the change in the world or in ourselves that we passionately claim we long for. We persist in the contradictory line of thought that we want change, but we want it to feel familiar so that it doesn’t scare the shit out of us.
We advocate taking risks in order to experience life fully, but we stubbornly maintain that we can take risks and control the outcomes at the same time. If we need intervention to recover from glimpsing the reality of our inner state, then what’s next?
The clinic featured in this article is the latest twist on American health care’s fine tradition of killing the messenger, whether it’s in the arena of physical or mental health. In this case, meditation is seen as the problem rather than the means by which a person recognizes some truths about her emotional and psychological self, just like an orthopedist who tells a patient that’s experiencing pain while jogging to stop jogging, while the real issue is the patient’s badly misaligned pelvis. It also reflects western medicine’s inclination to confuse the qualities of a healing process with the pathology itself.
“Many people in our study were lost and confused and could not find help,” Britton says. “They had been through so many doctors, therapists, and dharma teachers. Given that we had so much information about these effects, we realized that we were it.”
Cool! Let’s create a brand new affliction and just happen to be uniquely positioned to treat it. Et voilà, the expert is born! In the guise of the helper or healer, we once again have someone who wants to short-circuit the process of healing, in this case the disintegration of the ego, the big daddy of them all. And, let’s just happen to be associated with an Ivy League university medical center so that our research will have brand name cachet, bountiful funding, and a fast track to publication.
I get seasick just trying to make sense of someone researching the adverse effects of meditation on the mind. It’s like a husband who is cheating on his wife that hires a private investigator to prove to himself that he’s cheating on his wife. Well, the brain may give up some of its secrets to researchers, but the mind has very little interest in revealing itself. We simply can’t reliably study the mind with the mind. It’s like a dog chasing its tail, but much worse because at least a dog will eventually get exhausted and lose interest. But our misguided and relentless efforts to understand the mind results in entire belief systems, institutions, and social structures that only serve to prevent us from accessing anything beyond the mind. As a result, we only discover what the mind is willing to give up without risking the existing order of things.
Meditation, however, provides us with a perspective from which we can actually witness the mind without trying to understand it, which in my experience is the only way it will reveal its secrets, strategies, machinations, and most importantly, how it creates and perpetuates what we perceive as reality. Unfortunately, the price that one pays to have this experience is in the fine print and rarely provided up front. We don’t realize we’re asking for the destruction of those parts of us that are just distractions from seeing ourselves for who and what we really are, and now we want our old life back. Guess what? Your old life is what you were asking to be freed from.