Meditation for Everyone?

YogaWhat could meditation possibly hurt? It’s not some wicked thing like Christianity. We all know the terrible things that Christians do. You know…there were the Crusades. And the Crusades. Oh yeah, and the Salem Witch Trials. That was only 400-plus years ago. And Christianity today is just as deadly, right?

On the other hand, meditation is all smiling people on hillsides saluting the sun and becoming mindful. It’s all about living in the moment. After all, wasn’t it the Buddha who told us, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”?

Yes, these thoughts might be an exaggeration of the attitudes of popular culture’s view of meditation and “mindfulness” practices as no-brainer, harmless, non-religious practices, but they are not utterly off base. A lot of people thought that Don Draper going to a meditation retreat at the end of Mad Men looked like a good idea. What would they have thought had he gone off to commune with Dominicans or Billy Graham? If Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter, had been a Presbyterian, don’t you think the critics would have been all over that? Instead, he was obsessed with meditation.

From a purely anecdotal standpoint, if Russell Brand thinks meditation is terrific, shouldn’t we be skeptical? Just a thought.

As it turns out, a fair amount of literature by reputable researchers has been suggesting that meditation might not be quite as benign as people have been led to believe. A couple of recent articles (here and here) have given an overview. David Shapiro of UCLA did a study of a small group and found that 63% of them had negative outcomes from meditation.

The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, pain, confusion and disorientation. But perhaps only the least experienced felt them – and might several days of meditation not overwhelm those who were relatively new to the practice? The answer was no. When Shapiro divided the larger group into those with lesser and greater experience, there were no differences: all had an equal number of adverse experiences.

Currently, researchers in England have been looking into the practice, especially as it has been adopted as a more mainstream psychological therapy.

And one in 14 of them suffered ‘profoundly adverse effects’, according to Miguel Farias, head of the brain, belief and behaviour research group at Coventry University and Catherine Wikholm, a researcher in clinical psychology at the University of Surrey.

Granted, Farias and Wikholm have a book to sell, The Buddha Pill, but there findings should be enough to at least warrant some concern. If a medical procedure had severe negative effects for 1 in 14 patients, would the FDA permit its use?

It shouldn’t surprise the Christian thinker that Buddhist-style meditation, in which the practitioner attempts to empty the mind, would lead to negative results. The human mind doesn’t empty very readily, but it can shake off the restricting forces that keep our worst thoughts at bay. Left to its own, hopelessly sinful, devices, my mind can go to some exceptionally dark places, places I don’t want to visit without the Holy Spirit along for protection.

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