Hazards of Meditation

We’ve dealt with the benefits of meditation, but what about its dangers, if any? Many people have a sense there is something sinister and hazardous about the process of self-inquiry in general, and about meditation specifically as a mode of self-inquiry. I don’t want to exaggerate these suspicions, but I will admit they have some basis, even if it’s largely misplaced.

There are four main categories of hazard associated with meditation

  • the hazards of self-inquiry
  • the hazards of faulty methodology
  • the hazards of the tradition
  • what could be called organizational hazards

Self-inquiry can be hazardous only if you are ultimately unable to accept and assimilate what you discover. For most people, this poses no problem, though to be able to benefit from the process of self-inquiry does require the skill of acceptance of self and others – which is one of the important practices associated with the meditative path. If you are unable to learn this skill, then you may end up re-experiencing over and over again the pain associated with your life’s past traumas rather than working through them. So do pay attention to the practices associated with acceptance of self and others, such as those associated with Metta Bhavana.

Naturally, if you have a confirmed history of mental illness, then please do consult with your health care provider before beginning a meditation practice. Of course, we all at some time in our lives feel like we’re "going crazy" – but this is not what I mean here by mental illness. Indeed, this feeling of "going crazy" is just the kind of "cognitive dissonance" which meditation can eventually heal, even if during the process you sometimes feel "crazier" than ever. This feeling of "craziness" is, in fact, a by-product of the process of maturation: the friction between old cognitive patterns and the reality of "things as they really are". Real mental illness is a far more serious thing, and you, your family and the medical establishment will have likely dealt with it in various ways, whether appropriately or not. So again, if you have a history of mental illness, please consult with your doctor before continuing with meditation.

The second category of possible hazards associated with meditation has to do with faulty methodology. Most established schools and traditions have mapped out systems of practice that are perfectly safe, and any practices that might cause you problems (if there are any – a big "if" there ) are often kept in relative secrecy until you’re ready. The principal problems stem less from meditative practices per se, than from what can be called "energy practices", in particular, so-called "kundalini" practices. Without well-developed mindfulness, or if taken up too quickly and vigorously, these practices can sometimes foster or aggravate imbalances in the practitioner. You might have experiences that seem extraordinary and, in rare cases, even frighteningly out of control. In order to avoid this possibility, the best advice is to follow a structured system that takes into account the order in which practices should be learned, as is taught by most established schools that deal with energy practices. (Note: Here at Meditation Mojo, I don't teach energy practices - at least not any powerful or potentially dangerous ones - so if you're seeking those you'll need to look elsewhere.)

The third category of hazard is what can be called the hazard of tradition. What this entails is the realization that much of the methodology of meditation and yoga was developed within a monastic tradition. Most of us are what can be called householders or students. Few of us are monks (I'll use the same word for either male or female monks). With all due respect to the monastic tradition, we have to realize that the life of a monk is very different from that of a householder or student, with far different demands. Monasteries essentially can be looked at as groups of people banding their energies together in order to accomplish two things:

  • provide for their physical needs which are voluntarily reduced in order to
  • allow more time for spiritual practice

This reduction in physical needs has inspired a vast literature around the concepts of renunciation, detachment and self-denial – concepts which are not well-suited to the average householder or student, whose struggles are more centered around advancing themselves in social and economic life.

For non-monastics it's more appropriate to talk of concepts like equanimity as opposed to outright renunciation – that is to say, not getting caught up in your mental and emotional games, as opposed to withdrawing from the world to a hermit cave.

The fourth and final category of possible hazard is what we could loosely call "organizational". Since the late 60’s, when meditation began to gain popularity in the west, numerous organizations have sprouted up purporting to teach meditation. Often there is a significant monetary component mixed in, such that even if the beginning lessons are free, eventually you are asked to pay more and more in order to advance. And the promised "advancement" is often associated with gaining various super-powers, which never quite seem to materialize, though the money disappears all the same.

If money isn't required, then significant amounts of time are required, usually with the notion that you are doing service to "the mission" or "dharma". While this may be true, what is also true is that these organizations are typically run upon a business plan, and the time invested freely by the supporters figure significantly into these organizations' bottom line. In some cases, the organizations are sincere; in other cases, they are not and the bottom line results in some pretty outlandish profits for the actual "owners" of the organization.

In any case, the victims of these "spiritual" scams eventually end up poorer and somewhat wiser, or else they find a way to insert themselves in some fashion into the organizational food chain.

That unscrupulous people should use spirituality as their way to get rich is one of the great mysteries of the spiritual quest. For in some very odd way, they usually do end up serving spirituality despite themselves. After all, they do need to provide a fairly decent portrayal of the quest (even if ultimately their portrayal is a betrayal). So they give spiritual seekers something of what they seek, while ultimately providing them with a good life lesson, if somewhat harshly taught: namely that we are all ultimately responsible for our own advancement, and should not expect to discover all the answers in any one place or from any one teacher, unless that place and teacher be ourselves.

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