A few years ago, after I discussed the benefits of meditation in one of my workshops, a student said to me: “Well, what you’re actually saying here is that meditation is great, and does not have any dangers or side effects.”
That comment made me realise how easy it is to highlight the bright side of meditation while disregarding its potential dark side. Psychological research(link is external), as well as our personal experience, has shown how valuable meditation is: it reduces our stress, deepens our meaning in life, eases our pain, and makes it easier for us to sleep.
However, it is also important for us to recognise the potential hazards of meditation, which might arise during practice. This is especially relevant to beginners, who might experience one of the challenges discussed below and think that there is something wrong. It is also vital for meditation and yoga teachers to be aware of these potential dangers, as their students might encounter similar challenges, and need support. I believe that, if we could bear in mind that these possible perils exist, we would be able to deal with the challenges in a healthy manner, instead of halting meditation practice.
The “right” way of meditation
Some teachers or books contend that their way of meditation is the “right” way, and go as far as to dismiss as wrong other techniques and approaches. This is a dangerous area, where everyone needs to be extremely cautious. One of the most beautiful things about meditation is that it could be practised in numerous ways and techniques. There are many approaches to meditation, and you would need to seek the one that is right for you. Flexibility and openness are the name of the game, and claims that there is only one effective way to meditate are just restricting. Practising a wrong meditation technique could be a harmful experience for you; if you try a meditation method for a while, and still it doesn’t feel right, you would need to switch to a different one.
Facing your buried emotions
The most profound interaction you experience in meditation is the interaction with yourself. As part of that, you would get in touch with buried and supressed emotions. Meditation could trigger waves of anger, fear or jealousy, which had been sitting deep within you, and that would make you feel uncomfortable. This is a natural and healthy dimension of meditation practice, and these emotions will gradually subside. However, if unaware that meditation could bring those buried sentiments out, the practitioner might feel that something is wrong and avoid meditation, under the uncontrollable impact of the emotional wave.
Seeing “the white light”
You might have heard stories about people who say they see a white light or feel flying as a free spirit, when they meditate. Although this might be an experiential side effect of meditation, seeking such experiences is unhelpful. You would be frustrated, when you don’t get the experience you were hoping for. Meditate, and let everything else take its natural course.
The “perfect” practitioner of meditation
You might have expectations of yourself in relation to meditation: Sitting still for a long time, feeling calm after meditation, and not being angry; the list is long. This is where the danger of expectations lies. We are human beings, and as such we have times in our lives when it is more difficult to sit and meditate, or feel calm. It is perfectly natural.
Meditation is not a therapy
Mediation is a long-term journey, which is healing and nourishing. However, if someone is facing difficulties and seeking help, meditation might not offer the support they are hoping for. It might be that they need to see a therapist to feel heard and understood.
Self-compassion in meditation
When we engage, as part of our meditation practice, with uncomfortable feelings and sensations within us, we have an obligation towards ourselves: to be self-compassionate. A peril lies here in pushing too far, too much, beyond the capacity of our heart and soul, at that given moment. It is important to be able to sit still with whatever is moving within you, but you would need to be able to take a step back from the feeling or sensation, if it is too much.
The danger of non-attachment
Non-attachment is one of the building blocks of meditation. It is the skill of taking a step back from whatever happens, or whatever we feel, acknowledging that it is transient, and accepting that it will soon change and transform. This quality of non-attachment is important, as it helps us not to get carried away with the “drama” of life, and to remain calm and peaceful.
However, such non-attachment does not mean avoiding, repressing or disregarding anything. We should not detach ourselves from the people and activities we love and enjoy, nor should we become passive or inactive. Non-attachment simply changes the quality of the relationship with life: it allows you to make conscious and peaceful choices, because you relate to people, events and yourself, in a non-attached manner.
Dr. Itai Ivtzan is a positive psychologist, a senior lecturer, and the program leader of MAPP (Masters in Applied Positive Psychology) at the University of East London (UEL). His work is focusing on Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, and Spirituality. You can find his workshops, books, and scientific work on his website: www.AwarenessisFreedom.com(link is external)
His online Meditation Teacher Training(link is external) offers an in-depth discussion and practice of meditation and mindfulness, including the topics debated in this article. You can follow Dr Itai Ivtzan on Twitter(link is external) and Facebook(link is external).