The term, “Meditation Sickness”, was not just made up. It’s a translation from words in ancient Buddhist texts. It refers to psychological and physical problems that may arise during meditation, including severe problems like psychotic states urging someone to suicide.
As a pioneer and practitioner in the field of Spiritual Emergency I was drawn to understand more about the term meditation sickness, i.e. where did it originate, and what did it cover?. I have met people who were deeply disturbed and unable to perform daily tasks (cooking, childcare, personal hygiene) as a result of intensive Buddhist practice of meditation. I had not been aware that ancient texts gave prescribed antidotes for practitioners who ran into these types of problems. Some religious historians and researchers are unearthing these texts and advices in order to offer some help to those with meditation sickness. Still, the researchers question if these old recommendations fit into current culture. They wonder, what will effectively address the problems today?
What’s The Problem?
Mindfulness practices originated in Buddhism but were simplified and popularized as secular approaches to gain peace and moderate pain. Could it be that mindfulness practices are leading some practitioners down an unexpected path to emotional disturbance or physical upset?
Britton and Lindahl have now produced a number of qualitative and clinical studies that have identified a spectrum of potential negative side effects [of Buddhist meditation]. These range from gastro-intestinal disorders to anxiety, depression, psychosis, delusions, terror, dissociation/depersonalization, and even suicidality. (1) …Britton et al.(2) found that adverse effects “with durations of 1 day to 1 week were reported by 11 (14.1%) participants, with durations of 1 week to 1 month by seven (9.0%) participants, and with durations of 1 to 5 months or ongoing by five (6.4%) participants.”
OK, the study quoted above drew from a relatively small cohort; however, don’t you think it is still quite alarming to note that almost 15% of practitioners identified adverse effects? Authors believe practitioners should be cautioned that adverse effects may occur and taught how to manage them. They caution: Mindfulness is thus not a guarantee to cultivate more peace.
Meditation Sickness Does Not Occur in All Types of Meditation
As a practitioner of Yogananda’s techniques of meditation which is shared in an international community of at least 30-40,000 people, I do not hear about anything akin to meditation sickness in our community. After 55+ years of meditation it is obvious to me that disturbing psychological experiences may arise but nothing akin to a chronic disorder, dissociation or suicidality. If a practitioner has an excellent guide who has reached “Self-realization” (as Yogananda did), or can speak to a nun or monk at SRF with profound experience of Yogananda’s meditation path, there is always help when difficult experiences occur. Nuns and monks of the Self-realization Fellowship are always available to confer if problems arise in meditation. If psychological issues arise, meditators may be advised to seek psychological counseling.
In speaking about Yogananda I do not intend to transmit that he is the only teacher or offering the only path that will save a practitioner of meditation from so-called meditation sickness. There are others. However, excellent meditation teachers are few and far between in my experience. Perhaps the issue here is: We need to understand that fully-prepared teachers are necessary when we make use of paths of meditation in order to gain deeper peace.
Unfortunately, the authors of books and articles on meditation sickness are not giving due recognition to the fact that other meditation paths, not Buddhist, may cultivate very different experiences that avoid the problems they have seen in Buddhist meditation. Sorry to say, they are potentially scaring people away from a spiritual practice that can bring people to the furthest reaches of Self-realization.
Emma Bragdon, PhD. (Transpersonal Psychology) is the Executive Director of IMHU.org. She was a member of the San Francisco Zen Center from 1967-1971. She has been a follower of Yogananda’s teachings via Self Realization Fellowship since 2012.
- Lindahl, Jared R, et al. “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience: A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists.” PLoS One, vol. 12, no. 5, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239
- Britton, Willoughby B, et al. “Defining and measuring meditation-related adverse effects in mindfulness-based programs.” Clinical Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, vol. 9, no. 6, 2021, pp. 1185–1204. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702621996340
Lutkajtis, A. (2020) The Dark Side of Dharma: Meditation, Madness and other Maladies on the Contemplative Path. Aeon
Salguero, CP. (2023) “Meditation Sickness in Medieval Chinese Buddhism and the Contemporary West” Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol. 30. ISSN 1076-9005
Yogananda, P. (1995) God Talks to Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, Royal Science of God-Realization. Self-Realization Fellowship.