For weeks I set aside fifteen minutes in the morning to sit, crisscrossed on my bedroom floor with my eyes closed, just breathing. Meditation devotees (my New Age friends who are further attuned to their inner peace than I am) assured me that it would be uncomfortable at first, but it would be worth it. The sales pitch was that I would cultivate mindfulness through meditation that could soothe my high-functioning anxiety and even help sharpen my creativity.
Every day during those God-awful weeks, after about three minutes that felt like three hours inside my head, I’d begin to feel heart palpitations because my heart was racing in my chest. My thoughts wouldn’t slide past me with a polite invitation of being merely observed and let go. No, no, they roared through me in an avalanche of worry and traumatic memories that bobbed to the surface like mental trash, spiritually cock-blocking my ability to chill out. On several occasions, I broke out in hives. I would jump out of my skin when the alarm on my phone would signal that my hellish daily routine of inner peace and mental calm was finally over.
I told my friends that I wasn’t getting the hang of it. Just keep going, they insisted. It’s totally natural to have negative thoughts arise; you just have to return focus to your breath and move past the intruding thoughts, they chanted.
This cycle repeated itself so often that I found myself grumbling to my friend that I felt broken and stupid. Why was she able to sit with her thoughts and enjoy being in her head, but I couldn’t? She was visualizing her chakras aligning and the universe opening up its secrets to her. I remembered past traumas that left me breathlessly terrified.
We both decided that perhaps meditation isn’t my thing. Rage Yoga could be, though.
The thing is, meditation doesn’t work for me. It never has. But until recently, I was made to feel terrible about myself because I couldn’t get a grasp on cultivating mindfulness the way seemingly everyone around me who claims to practice it can. Even my mother-in-law has patiently tried (and failed) repeatedly to teach me how to just sit with my thoughts and breathing, but each time I try — no matter how earnestly — I leave the experience feeling unwell in my head and heart.
“Meditation isn’t good for you,” a therapist told me recently. “For someone who already retreats and self-isolates, meditation can be even more isolating and unhealthy,” she said. And that was a huge ah-ha moment for me.
Meditation and mindfulness are billed as powerful tools that can help center a person and alleviate mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. How it works, wellness gurus say, is that by sitting calmly and focusing on the present, one can notice negative thoughts and feelings and learn to let them saunter by without judgment. The practice of meditation can go a long way to help one cultivate mindfulness, which is how we let our emotional reactions (and over-reactions) to everyday moments cease. We instead passively float through an experience that might otherwise be stressful, which I suppose is where the inner peace happens.
For someone like me who has anxiety and can sometimes feel paralyzed by the intensity of emotions, the idea of harnessing the benefits of meditation to alleviate my mental health — which requires no drugs or therapy and is free — is exceptionally appealing. There have been plenty of studies and a lot of hyped-up media shining a glowing light on how restorative meditation, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), can be, particularly for frazzled souls such as myself. With guidance, some say that meditation and mindfulness can even be as powerful as antidepressants. I was sold. Until I experienced meditation and realized how mentally and emotionally damaging it was for someone like me.
According to a study published by The Lancet in 2015, researchers looked at the effectiveness of both antidepressants and MBCT in patients who suffer from recurrent depression. What they found was that there really wasn’t much difference.
“We found no evidence that MBCT-TS is superior to maintenance antidepressant treatment for the prevention of depressive relapse in individuals at risk for depressive relapse or recurrence. Both treatments were associated with enduring positive outcomes in terms of relapse or recurrence, residual depressive symptoms, and quality of life.”
Science isn’t backing up all the hype about how superior mediation and mindfulness perform when compared to conventional Western treatments. The Washington Post pointed out that in the last 45 years of intense study on how phenomenal meditation and mindfulness are supposed to be, science still has no idea how it really works or if it’s any better than a placebo.
But stunningly, the one area of meditation and mindfulness that goes woefully underacknowledged is how damaging it can be to those who are not equipped with the right skills, training, or therapeutic support to deal with the horrors of traumatic memories that will undoubtedly float up to the top of a meditation session.
This dangerous side effect of meditation was precisely my problem. It’s like that old joke, “I stuff my feelings down until something in my body breaks, and I can go to a doctor and get a pill to fix it.” It was probably not the healthiest way to go about life, but honestly, I wasn’t even aware that I was doing this until I tried and failed to develop a mediation and mindfulness practice.
I’m lucky, though. The worst I ever felt after a meditation session was socially skittish, emotionally withdrawn, and physically shaky (ok, I experienced hives and heart palpitations too). Others have had to deal with far more frightening experiences. For something that is supposed to be so calm and safe, meditation can sure f**k you up.
Take the Dark Night Project out of Brown University, for example. This curious project is run by Dr. Willoughby Britton and seeks to understand how meditation and mindfulness can be harmful. We all know about all the positive benefits, but very little is shared or understood about the drawbacks and dark side.
“We have a lot of positive data on meditation, but no one has been asking if there are any potential difficulties or adverse effects and whether there are some practices that may be better or worse-suited for some people over others,” Britton told The Atlantic Magazine in 2014. “Ironically, the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in America is actually medicine and science, not Buddhism.”
In The Atlantic's impressively detailed piece, Britton shares stories of how some people have experienced psychological damage from meditation. In one example from the article, a man was convinced that he was developing schizophrenia after an intense spiritual retreat that required rigorous meditation. He described his experience as “psychological hell” and talked about suicide ideation.
I could see myself in Dr. Britton’s words. As she spelled out all the ways that meditation and mindfulness do not live up to their promise of peaceful fulfillment and psychological healing, I wondered if I fit the mold of someone who — like those in her study — could never reap those glowing rewards but who would rather end up psychologically and emotionally injured.
So, I quit trying. The therapist who pointed out that meditation isn’t well-suited for me suggested that I find a physical outlet like walking. She also challenged me to confront my emotions, albeit in specific ways that are far safer for me than taking my brain skinny dipping through terrifying thoughts.
Meditation and mindfulness without a trained therapist’s guidance to help me sift through the landmines waiting in my thoughts aren’t healthy for me. But for all that meditation and mindfulness failed to live up to, it did highlight one thing; I wasn’t handling my mental health as well as I thought I had been. After years of ignoring my anxiety, meditation showed me exactly how cunning I have become at hiding my anxiety behind a veneer of productivity. And that realization is one that I may be incredibly uncomfortable with, but I am grateful to see it and have the opportunity to deal with it.
I admire my friends who can chant Om and mean it and then leave their practice feeling bright and rejuvenated. Part of me feels sad that I can’t experience that kind of lightness through meditation, but, as my New Age pal once pointed out, there’s always Rage Yoga.