Karen Long (a pseudonym), in her mid-20s, turned to meditation as a way to feel connected. "I wanted to experience that 'oneness with the universe,'" she says. At a nondenominational San Francisco temple, she hooked up with a group of women practicing a hodgepodge of relaxation techniques, drawn from books and discussions. Long spent one to two hours a day meditating over the next three years.
"Then I began hearing voices," she says. "I heard profound messages. The other people thought it was a sign of enlightenment. Some people at the temple told me that I had 'contacted a spiritual guide.' During my normal awake hours, I found myself feeling spacey sometimes."
Unconvinced that aural hallucinations were a sign from God, Long quit meditating. The voices stopped.
Long's experience isn't unique. Researchers have known for 30 years that meditating can have adverse health effects on some people, inducing psychological and physical problems ranging from muscle spasms to hallucinations. But around the Bay Area, eyes seem closed to the data.
"A lot of people do experience negative side effects," says Dr. Maggie Phillips, the director of the California Institute of Clinical Hypnosis and a licensed psychologist in Oakland who teaches workshops to colleagues around the world on the proper applications of relaxation therapies. "I've had people that went to these five- to eight-day-long retreats, and they were practically basket cases when they came out the other end. And they're told, "You just have to be more patient.' A lot of spiritual teachers don't know how to look at the internal dynamics and how they interact with types of relaxation and meditation."
Just as some people are allergic to penicillin, some people react badly to meditation. Billed as a "one size fits all" technique for self-improvement and even healing, meditation is packaged in a hundred different ways. Mantra meditators chant a phrase with numbing repetition. Others practice walking meditation, or empty-mind meditation, sweeping the mind clean of thought. The harmful effects aren't limited to one specific technique or even long retreats.
Those effects can include facial tics, insomnia, spacing out, and even psychotic breakdowns. Dr. Margaret Singer, clinical psychologist emeritus at Berkeley, with research partner Dr. Janja Lalich, collected case histories from 70 clients seeking treatment for problems that began during meditation practice. Their research presents several examples of these symptoms and notes that prior to meditating, none of the patients had individual or family histories of mental disorders:
- A 36-year-old business executive now lives off welfare as a result of the relentless anxiety attacks and blackouts he suffered after taking up meditation. "Everything gets in through my senses," he told Singer.
- A young woman watched rooms fill with orange fog when she "spaced out" at random moments.
- A 26-year-old man was overwhelmed by rage and sexual urges whenever he went out in public, driving him to stay home to avoid these episodes.
Singer and Lalich point out that most people never have problems with meditation. The danger for those who do is that many instructors call the problems a welcome sign of enlightenment, as in Long's case, or proof of the student's insincere effort. In either situation, teachers encourage the student to meditate longer. One former mantra meditator, who did not want his named used, called it "being strangled by concepts." After increasingly frequent panic attacks, he abandoned mantra meditation in favor of informal, unstructured contemplation and a Paxil prescription.
The tricks played by the meditating mind are based in physiology. Over the past year Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of eight longtime practitioners of Buddhist meditation, snapping images of blood flow within the brain while they were meditating and comparing them with images taken when they were not. The scans tracked increased blood flow to the frontal lobe -- used for concentration and focusing -- during meditation. But blood flow to the parietal lobe, which calculates the boundaries of your body in relation to its environment -- "You are not the chair, you are sitting on the chair, the chair is on the floor" -- decreased. Other parts of the brain also activate during meditation -- the limbic system, which is the heart of emotion and memory, and core areas that control heart rate, blood pressure, and arousal.
These results support what other researchers have discovered about the side effects meditation can cause. Dr. Michael Persinger, a psychologist at Laurentian University in Canada, found in 1993 that meditation induces epilepsylike brain seizures in some people. His study of 1,081 students showed that the 221 meditators among them had a higher rate of hallucinating floating spots of light, hearing voices, and even feeling the floor shake. Other studies reported that meditators complained of feeling emotionally dead and seeing the environment as unreal, two-dimensional, amorphous. Those results aren't surprising if meditation reduces blood flow to the parietal lobe. In longtime meditators, unreality can strike spontaneously. Singer describes it as "involuntary meditation." One of her patients took anti-seizure medication for 25 years after quitting meditative practice to regain control of his mind.
Other side effects fall under the paradoxical umbrella of "relaxation-induced anxiety," or RIA. Instead of relaxing during meditation, RIA sufferers feel distressed. Psychologists at Virginia Commonwealth University monitored 30 chronically anxious people during guided meditation. Seventeen percent indicated that their anxiety got worse. A previous study led by Dr. Frederick Heide at Pennsylvania State University reported that the same happened to 54 percent of the subjects. Symptoms of RIA include panic attacks, sweating, a pounding heart, spasms, odd tingling sensations, and bursts of uncontrollable laughter or tears. RIA can also aggravate conditions, such as schizophrenia, depression, asthma, and bleeding ulcers, that were previously stable.
What physiological changes explain RIA? During meditation, the brain releases serotonin. People with mild depression might enjoy the increased levels of serotonin because the neurotransmitter can ease their mood. Drugs like Prozac mimic this effect. However, too much serotonin can cause all of the symptoms of RIA, according to Dr. Solomon Snyder, head of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. In some cases of schizophrenia, an excess of serotonin coupled with meditation can drop-kick someone into psychosis.
"Most people, when you're working with anxiety, the treatment of choice is relaxation," says the California Institute of Clinical Hypnosis' Phillips. "But if you have people that get easily overwhelmed and may not even know what it's about, don't even have words to go with it, you have to avoid hypnosis, relaxation, meditation until you teach them how to handle what comes up."
Meditation is a huge industry in San Francisco. We asked 14 Bay Area instructors, chosen at random from different fields of meditation, if they inform students about the possible side effects. Only three of the teachers knew what we were talking about. Of the remaining 11, Sam Geppi of S.F. Yoga gave a typical reply:
"Negative side effects from meditation? There really are none. Meditation is just about going within, toward what is real. There is nothing 'created' through meditation. We create our problems and negative side effects more by escaping into the world, escaping from meditation. Meditation is a long-overdue look within. Sometimes a student will discuss their initial fear of the inner void once the space and depth of being is first encountered, or that they feel like they are going crazy. I simply tell them, 'Meditation is not making you crazy. It is making you aware that you are already crazy.'"
Lalich, now a sociologist specializing in psychological manipulation at California State University in Chico, says, "The problem is that everyone thinks that meditation is great for everybody, and people are always surprised to learn that it can cause problems. Certainly there's plenty of context where it's completely harmless, but it's like driving a car -- people don't think, 'Oh, I'm the one that's going to have an accident.'"
Lalich hopes that 30 years of research will finally open our eyes. "If you were going to buy a car you'd look at Consumer Reports. It's the same thing -- you're talking about your body and your mind; you should be as cautious."