Can Mindfulness Meditation Cause Harm?

I am posting this web posting because it is thought provoking, not as an endorsement of the author’s views. The article challenges the current wave (there have been many past waves) of thinking that “Mindfulness and Meditation are Good.”

Please note that the author’s 17 statements have no annotation as to source in controlled studies, and therefore should be read as her thoughts and/or hypotheses, as yet unproven (or at least entirely undocumented in her webpage).

With that thought, please read ahead, with ‘caveat emptor’ (let the buyer beware) in mind. I would be very interested in the thoughts of those who practice mindfulness meditation, zazen, etc. Please post your comments as they occur. Thank you.

buddahbear01
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17 Ways Mindfulness Meditation Can Cause You Emotional Harm
by MELISSA KARNAZE on FEBRUARY 4, 2011
Mindfulness meditation is not a fad, say journalists, celebrities, psychologists, and even transhumanists.

But what writers, researchers, clinicians, teachers, and practitioners won’t tell you.

Is that there are seventeen hidden dangers of practicing mindfulness meditation.

When you’re not being mindful of how you’re treating your negative emotions.

How mindfulness meditation contradicts itself

Mindfulness meditation is supposed to promote mindfulness, or awareness of the present moment. It’s also supposed to promote acceptance of all experience.

However, when you look at what’s actually said and written about the practice, it’s a different story.

Because when it comes to stress, physical pain, emotional pain, discomfort, or any other undesirable sensations.

You’re supposed to get rid of them (or “defuse” them) by:

“Observing” them
Avoiding actually experiencing them so you can continue to “observe” them (also known as resistance)
Telling yourself that they aren’t real
Telling yourself that they aren’t necessarily accurate
Telling yourself that they aren’t you
Detaching from them as a result of telling yourself that they aren’t to be experienced, but rather “observed”
This is supposed to be a “nonjudgmental” process, but what happens most of the time — judgment of negative emotions. Why else would you try to get rid of them through such a technique?

When you really don’t judge a negative emotion, you let it run its natural course — without trying to step in and control the situation through cultivated mental discipline.

The process listed above trains you to dissociate from your unwanted thoughts and emotions. Who’s to say if you should experience “unwanted” thoughts and emotions” as you start to become aware of them? That’s your call. (We do emotion regulation all the time.) But it’s not the issue; it’s the deception.

The mindfulness meditation movement completely ignores its inherent contradiction. At least currently.

All because of lack of true acceptance of the emotional experience. Or fear of the emotional realm, which stems from obsession with artificial evasion of suffering.

The movement claims that mindfulness meditation “allows you to experience the present moment and be open to new experience.”

When it closes you off to certain unwanted experiences.

The common prescription of mindfulness meditation prevents you from being mindful of unwanted thoughts and feelings. (If you just follow them, though, they often work themselves out.)

What’s so bad about mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness meditation, like any other meditation, is a tool.

How you use that tool matters.

Many use it to avoid having to feel emotional pain.

But of course they won’t tell you that.

The cover story will be something nicer, spiritual even. Like, “I want to be more in touch with my true nature.” “It helps me de-stress.” “It makes me happy.”

Getting in touch with your true nature, de-stressing, and being happy are all possible without suppressing negative emotions. (They’re only possible without suppressing negative emotions, in the long run.)

Of course you’ll temporarily feel better if you don’t have to face your unwanted thoughts and emotions — which are just there to alert you of problems in your environment and/or your thinking. That by the way, only you can fix.

Of course you’ll have fewer worries if you stop thinking about your problems. But you’ll have to meditate again to get that high. Because you are not a monk living apart from modern civilization. You have demands of daily life that leave lots of room for things like interpersonal conflict, communication issues, and having to balance family with work.

Mindfulness meditation won’t fix your problems for you. (Unless you use it to really become mindful of your emotional experiences so that you can work through them constructively and mindfully.)

The first step you need to take in fixing your problems, long-term, is becoming mindful of them — by paying attention to messengers — the negative emotions.

When you detach from the thoughts and emotions alerting you of those problems — you ignore the problems. Or ignore important components. And might even make the problems worse.

If you’re not mindful about how you’re using mindfulness meditation to defuse your negative emotions, it can cause you emotional harm in seventeen crucial ways.

17 Ways mindfulness meditation can cause you emotional harm

Mindfulness meditation is about clinging to the story: Emotions aren’t real. Aren’t accurate. Will pass.

When you dissociate from your negative emotions, an integral part of who you are, seventeen of many unintended negative consequences may result:

You start to judge uncomfortable thoughts and feelings as inferior, unreal, or bad. Which gets in your way of actually learning from them, experiencing and healing them, growing from them, and integrating them.
You get good at stuffing anger and other negative emotions. Which might make them go away — temporarily. But hasn’t shown to be very effective.
If and when a traumatic or emotionally painful experience occurs, you don’t fully process it, and cut your grieving process dangerously short.
You have low tolerance for processing old grief. So if a repressed traumatic memory starts to surface, you stuff it down, re-traumatizing yourself.
You expect meditation to fix your problems for you, resolve your relationship conflicts, and make you happy. Each of those things requires hard work, commitment, and realistically, some discomfort. When you look to meditation to save you, you stop putting in the hard work and commitment, and evade the discomfort. Which makes it harder to effectively work toward your goals.
You detach yourself from conflicts in your life, expecting that meditation will get rid of the negative emotions — and fix the problem altogether. The emotions just signal the problem. Even if you ignore the emotions, the problem is still there.
You detach from your partner or loved one when they’re upset or experiencing an emotion you see as undesirable. You wish they’d just meditate it away, calm down, take a walk, get a grip — do whatever it takes to get rid of the emotion. When you invalidate your partner’s negative emotions, you cause serious wounds to both of you, harming trust and intimacy.
You find it difficult to connect to your feelings when you want to be emotionally honest with yourself and others. Because you’ve trained yourself to avoid them. This impairs your ability to be emotionally intimate with anyone.
Your relationships deteriorate, because you lose touch with what interpersonal conflict really means. After all, no one is really experiencing hurt feelings, right? Those feelings aren’t really real; just dissociate from them. Or, “observe” them.
You struggle to empathize with others, or understand their pain. If you don’t feel your own pain — you can’t expect to have compassion for another’s pain.
You lose your ability to naturally feel upset, sad, or concerned when there’s an issue in your life that you need to address. This puts a damper on healthy discernment.
Your ability to feel positive emotions is also affected. Because you don’t allow experience of the negative. The positive cannot exist without the negative. Get rid of the negative, the positive has no meaning.
Your passion and drive in life start to fade, or shift away from those things that are truly special to you. Which may be a good thing, if you don’t want to cling to such things. But a bad thing if you give up pursuits that once gave you meaning and reward.
You start to feel dissatisfied with your life, and alone. But because of the nature of mindfulness meditation, you compound the problem by meditating, dissociating, and numbing even more.
You become fixated, obsessed, attached to abstract, man-made, escapist concepts like enlightenment and transcendence. This distracts you from attending to your actual life, here on Earth, as a mortal human being.
You subconsciously seek a guru or teacher to show you the way to “better” enlightenment and transcendence. You have no idea how this person deals with their interpersonal relationships, not to mention conflict. You have no idea if this person could manage the mundane responsibilities you struggle to balance in life. Yet you put this person on a pedestal, and potentially take a advice that’s really not suited for your lifestyle.
You get it in your head that humans are so imperfect. This may come from the spiritual beliefs surrounding the practice, or just hanging around others who practice. (”Perfect” is a human construct by the way.) You then judge your human-ness. And seek to quiet (or kill) your ego, or self concept. Which puts you in ultimate conflict with yourself.
Meditate with mindfulness

Meditation doesn’t have to be harmful to your emotional health.

Mindfulness meditation may not cause you emotional harm.

However, if you’re using it to avoid experiencing your negative emotions, be mindful of that endeavor. And pay attention to any unintended negative consequences that may result.

Mindfulness meditation can help you process physical pain. Mindfulness can help you process emotional pain. And meditation can get you in touch with how you really feel, and how you can respond to your life in constructive ways.

It all depends on how you use the tool.

If you’re brave enough to feel, and be truly mindful of your personal experience, you can:

Move on from loss through grief
Transform anger into compassion
Find optimism from despair
Grow from pain
Be more engaged with your life
Lead life with more mindfulness
And so much more…
But you have to feel, all of it, first!

That’s real mindfulness.

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6 responses to “Can Mindfulness Meditation Cause Harm?

  1. Robert the rGyatso here.

    Well, I have never *heard of anyone in *Buddhism using mindfulness as a “meditation” as described in this article. (Which is on a spammish site trying to push e-programs. Some of the other articles look a little *wack too.) (Thanks for putting in the Link, Zach, very helpful!)

    Article says of ‘Mindfulness Meditation’ that “It’s also supposed to promote acceptance of all experience.”

    Here, this is not anything we do in Buddhism. WE do mindfulness, it is to observe our mind-ego-illusion, it is to observe our activity and our robotized reflexes to stimulus, it is to examine the structure and fabric of our environment. Paying Attention, and not trance-ing into fantasies and mental games.

    The article statement suggests that we do this “meditation” with no attention to discipline or virtue, just to connect more completely and concretely with our psycho-physical surrounding, warts and all. THAT is dangerous !!

    I guess it is possible to focus on mindfulness as a “meditation” to use it as an “adjustment” process to better fit with the illusion of ego and to fit in with social prejudices and preconceptions. Self-propagandizing oneself to become some ideal: brave, straight, republican, whatever. Definite harm there. Subverting reality with illusionment, an illusionary overlay. En-darken-ment.

    On the Opposite Side: If a person has serious baggage; suppressed memories, PTSD, history of trauma or abuse, there is a clear possibility that (ANY) meditation or spiritual practice will cause a person considerable DISTRESS as these things come up raw and pointy. As the memory unloads in a cascade. THAT is when a serious-heavy experienced Therapist/Shaman/Guru is needed just to get the person past the suicide. And then much determination, time and energy for both afflicted and teacher to get on past that. (These type therapist-folk are rare-on-the-ground…)

    This becomes a Long-time intensive Process, often using very edgy and potentially hazardous shamanic technology. But the person afflicted, if they survive, usually ends up at a very advanced level. (Caveat: That is only in my experience tho.)

    Otherwise, I would say the article is the equivalent to a Sales-Advert for the ‘super new vacuum-cleaner you and everyone just HAS to have’.

    But definitely worth the read. Just to be *mindful* of what goes on in some people’s heads. A valuable teaching. On Compassion.

    Blessings

  2. Greetings Zach and Melissa,

    Thanks for this wonderful challenge to contemplate. It seems to me, in thinking about the adoption of Traditional Philosophies into a contemporary setting, that our concept of ‘technique’ overcomes our understanding of what they are pointing towards.

    “It all depends on how you use the tool.”

    This separation between ourselves and our practice leads to the crack where harm can enter in. Mindfulness rests in Nature, it is a continuance, in the Human domain, of the Natural order that is the basis of everything. Dogen describes it as “the very life-root”:

    “We ourselves who are groping for the mark are mindfulness. There is mindfulness that exists in moments of owning one’s body, and there is mindfulness that exists in moments of having no mind. There is conscious mindfulness, and there is mindfulness in which there is no body. The very life-root of all the people on Earth is mindfulness as a root. The very life-root of all the buddhas in the ten directions is mindfulness as a root. There can be many people in one state of mindfulness and many states of mindfulness in one person. At the same time, there are people who have mindfulness and there are people who do not have mindfulness. People do not always have mindfulness, and mindfulness is not necessarily connected with people. Even so, through the skillful maintenance of this mindfulness as a root, the virtue of perfect realization exists.”

    A tool is not a life-root, it is a specialized technology that seeks an end result. Mindfulness is the Beginning, the Way, and the End. Practicing concentration in order to better ourselves we will perhaps achieve a fine artifice; a sculptor using a chisel with skill can create a beautiful work of art, but as Melissa points out, one simple mistake can lead to structural weakness that will eventually destroy the finished product.

    The Tibetan teaching points out that the gods are long lived and experience great pleasure, but even they are subject to the cycle of death and rebirth. It is only the buddhas that, in full realization, in Clear Light, are no longer subject to the cycles.

    The completion of the Ox-herding series is even more direct regarding the Sage:

    “His chest uncovered, barefoot, he comes into the marketplace.

    Smeared with mud and ashes, he smiles broadly.

    He does not need the coded secrets of the
    immortals.

    He just shows the withered trees how to release their flowers.”

    As a friend said to me “relax and be the Joy of Nature. Be it, nothing else.”

    – David

  3. Thank you Melissa, Robert and David.

    Here are my own thoughts regarding Mindfulness Meditation and the original posting from Melissa regarding “Can Mindfulness Meditation Cause Harm?.”

    My comments come out of personal experience with meditation since 1974:

    – I have found that meditation has brought me closer to my emotions, not further away from them.
    – I don’t personally feel feelings are good or bad and don’t believe that the purpose of meditation is to make bad feelings go away. I don’t recall any teacher of meditation ever saying anything to this effect.
    – I do feel emotions have a function in life and that to ignore them would be dangerous. Ignoring feelings is not the purpose of meditation, at least for me. For example, if treated poorly by a boss and feeling intimidated or insulted, meditation, allows me to ‘see’ and unearth all the thoughts and other emotions associated with the emotions of intimidation or feeling insulted and make a CHOICE how to respond (see next).
    – Choice, particularly with anger, fear and love, has helped in making my life more satisfying, not only to me, but to those around me. Choice, for me, more consideration and empathy towards myself and others, rather than reactivity, which, in my life, has benefited no one.
    – I am a strong believer in getting ‘out of the cave and into your life’ (quoting myself). It’s easy to become peaceful by yourself or with others in a sheltered environment. It’s much harder to deal with the world of family, friends, work, etc.
    – There is an accumulating wealth of research that strengthens the statement that ‘meditation is good for you” from interpersonal communications to health. Further, experimental psychology, offers rigorous and proven scientific method that will help bolster or debunk statements such as meditation is good or bad for us. These methods should be applied for all the precepts discussed thus far, unless specifically owned as personal opinion, as I have attempted to do above.

    I do believe, however, as with any intervention, there are negative and positive effects that inevitably result and can be identified. Perhaps this discussion can point a light in some of those directions regarding ‘meditation’ as an intervention.

    Lastly, I could not agree more with Melissa when she states the following aims in this beautiful, spontaneous poem:

    Move on from loss through grief
    Transform anger into compassion
    Find optimism from despair
    Grow from pain
    Be more engaged with your life
    Lead life with more mindfulness
    And so much more…
    But you have to feel, all of it, first!

    This, at least for me, is what mindfulness has brought to my own life, for which I am grateful.

    Warmest and kindest regards to all,

    Zach

  4. Wow would love to know Which movememt the person is on about… WHO are “they”? And where in the world do they practice mindfulness that way? 🙂

  5. Hi Carina
    Don’t have the foggiest who ‘they’ are. I invited the author to respond, but didn’t hear back, disappointing, but the conversation generated on Twitter and this forum was worthwhile to me nonetheless.
    I have had problems with my own practice which may or may not be considered ‘problems with mindfulness.’ Also have seen same with others. Whatever problems there may be should be written with the seriousness of an academician or the experience base of a practitioner, in my opinion anyway.
    Zach

  6. In mindfulness and in meditation the practice isn’t to empty the mind or to get rid of unwanted emotions.

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