Research on Negative Effects of Meditation (Video)

In this video Willoughby Britton PhD from Brown University gives a presentation on a very important topic: The negative effects of meditation.

I am currently collaborating with Willoughby to collect data on this phenomenon, which is often called the “Dark Night” in meditation communities. If you have experienced a Dark Night and would like to discuss it, please contact me at

Posted on April 26, 2011, in Dharma, Meditation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Interesting talk on a very interesting topic. Unfortunately, Willoghby Britton, too, like so many others, distinguishes between people with a traumatic history and those with psychiatric diagnoses, which, in the light of research showing a strong link between trauma and psychiatric diagnoses (cf. for instance John Read’s research), is debatable. What worse is, the mention of psychiatric diagnoses as an indication that something in fact is wrong with the labelled person’s mind/brain, something that is distinctly different from anything else, and presumably less understandable than, for instance, a history of trauma, kind of justifies the ongoing discrimination against psychiatrically labelled people, practised at meditation retreats, centers, etc., who deny these people access, and it may even encourage more of this discrimination to take place in the future.

    In his article “Freedom To Sit: Welcoming People with Psychiatric Labels at Buddhist Retreats” Will Hall writes: “Many people who have had harrowing experiences going off the deep end of madness, landing in psychiatric hospitals and labeled bipolar, schizophrenic, or borderline, have nonetheless gone on to become perfectly capable of completing rigorous meditation retreats. And many people with no psychiatric history at all have found themselves unable to complete the same challenging retreats. We are not necessarily more fragile, vulnerable, or unstable than others just because of our mental health experiences.” Now, Willoughby Britton’s talk mentions that quite a few people experiencing negative effects from meditation do have psychiatric labels, and if you settle for this information alone, it must seem that Will Hall knows the “wrong” people, and therefor comes to the “wrong” conclusion.

    The really interesting question though, that which determines a person’s ability to cope with stressful, challenging experiences, is not whether they have a label or not, but rather what the label means to them. I have no doubt that a person who identifies as suffering from a brain disease that renders them emotionally more vulnerable, fragile, and unstable than the average, “normal” person, will be more susceptible to possible negative effects of meditation. At the same time, I also have no doubt that those who do not identify with their psychiatric labels are no more, and maybe even less, susceptible to these negative effects than the average person. Not that they don’t experience these effects, but they know how to cope with them, and maybe even how to turn them into a positive experience, into progress.

    It would be a lot more interesting if researchers like Willoughby Britton took a look at this aspect, and did not settle for rather superficial statistics, merely counting psychiatric diagnoses.

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful response Marian. You point to an important an often overlooked side-effect of psychological research: stigma. The intent of the research is certainly not to cause further suffering for anyone, but to highlight suffering that is not recognized in mainstream psychology. My hope is that as more comes to light about this, the stigma will decrease rather than increase.

  2. great presentation. it’s a pleasure meeting you and Willoughby at the Buddhist Geeks 2011 Conference. really interested in this research.

    btw, have you contacted the Shamatha Project and asked them if they are keeping track of this data point as well?


  3. P.S. Will you and Willoughby be attending this conference?

    it’s currently asking for presentation proposals 🙂

    • Thanks for tuning me in to the conference – I did not know it was coming up. I was not planning for it, but I cannot speak for Willoughby, who may be going (I would bet she is).

      It was great to finally meet you in person! Please keep in touch and let me know how things unfold for you in your practice.

      • i hope Willoughby goes to that conference and present her research results/proposal. not sure if i’ll go the conference but i’m considering it. we’ll see what happens. i ride with serendipity 🙂

  4. Yes, I will be at that conference. Not sure if or what I will be presenting (I do other research besides adverse effects!)


  5. ALSO, I am posting my student Chris Oates’s video on the Nonlinear path to Enlightenment. I just watched it again this morning and it is pretty great. Lot’s of good Kornfiled quotes:

  6. I do have two problems which I believe to be the adverse effects of meditation. The first is acute procrastination. The second is extreme irritation when I hear English in U.S. and Australian accents. No other accents or languages bother me what so ever. I am being absolutely honest here and not in any way sarcastic whatsoever.

  7. 1. “a type of wind that gets activated” – is this woman a scientist or a mystic ?

    2. “probably a couple of suicides” (probably !) if anyone committed suicide as a result of any course i ran i would know exactly how many. Also, people unable to work or care for children for months or years after attending courses, people hospitalised etc – in what way precisely are the people “teaching” at these retreats compassionate and/or responsible?

    3. sorry cos i know the following is really simple but you´ve no idea how blind true believers can be : meditation slows down your brain waves and general metabolism so there is no way in the world it is going to make you sharper and more alert. Over time it will blunt you and space you out.That´s obvious.That´s abc.Lace up your laces.Count up to three.

    • Hi Bill,

      Sounds like this video really resonated with you, but I’m not sure if you are agreeing or disagreeing with Dr. Briton. She is also appalled that people are becoming undone and that this is an unrecognized problem, that is why the research is being done.

      I’m taken aback at the idea that meditation “spaces you out”, because it just doesn’t if it is done correctly. What we are describing here is insight meditation, not relaxation techniques or new age mysticism, which would likely lead to spacing out. Insight meditation is intended to heighten awareness, and it does that very well, sometimes too well. Check how the page “How to Meditate” for more.

  8. Ok ron, let´s not quibble over terminology, i´ll use you´re term “sinking”.Some other terms for states brought about by meditation which you are happy to use and do accept that occur are “dissolution” then “fear” then “misery” then “disgust” etc. Are all of these brought about by “not doing it right” too?
    I´m glad we both agree that relaxation techniques and new age mysticism techniques do cause spacing out. Would you be so kind as to name the specific techniques you are referring to – You would be doing a great service to the public to name them. I,of course, unlike you, do not consider insight meditation the exception.
    Oh, and what about the many documented cases of people attending INSIGHT meditation retreats and then as a result having to be hospitalised or being unable to work for periods of from one month to several years after leaving the retreats. Are they “not doing it right” too ? best wishes, bill

    • Bill, please read the link I provided to learn the specific technique for insight meditation (it’s Mahasi style noting).

      Since this is about insight meditation and the negative effects it can cause, it would make sense that people are running into trouble on insight retreats. That is what this talk (and a lot of my website) is warning people about. I think you and I are in agreement, so I can’t understand why you seem so upset with me and Dr. Briton – we are trying to help people understand this, which you seem to do.

      As far as “spacing out”, if you’re referring to how one can feel spaced out when in the insight stage of dissolution, let me clarify. The reason one feels spaced out in dissolution is because they are only catching the endings of things, but their attention is very precise and very clearly focused despite this feeling (it has to be to get to this stage), one notices things seemingly after they have happened, which leads one to feel a little spaced out. But this is not the way the whole of the insight meditation feels, it is one stage in 16, and it doesn’t feel that way for everyone. It is very different from spacing out in a relaxation or some new age meditations where the goal is not to see things as they are but to create a soothing desired state.

      I write this hoping that it clarifies things for you rather than inflames more hostility. As I said, I think we are in agreement.

  9. Wouldn´t it be better ron if we just stuck to the points being discussed and didn´t go imagining for ourselves who is and who isn´t upset with whom ? People are not “running into trouble” – they are being hospitalised,are experiencing distress so severe that they are unable to work or care for children for long periods after leaving the retreats and in many cases people are experiencing these sequels for years (up to 9 years) after leaving the retreats.You say you are warning people – in what way ? Are you warning people not to attend these retreats ? If you are i thank you for it,I shan´t write anymore ron cos i can see we are each on “different paths” – i wish you luck with your´s but my prime concern is for people who may unwittingly harm themselves by practicing the harmful techniques which you promote best wishes, bill

  10. Hi Ron
    Are you still collecting data/ stories regarding adverse experiences of meditation? I think this is a really important area of research – not only for the understanding of what can happen as a result of practice, and hopefully put in place safety nets to minimise the risk of harm and unnecessary suffering to people who experience adverse effects, but also to bridge the divide between ‘spiritual’ and ‘psychiatric’ experiences and the paradigms that influence the way they are viewed and hence managed. I have personal experience of unusual states of consciousness and ultimately psychosis as a result of experiences which rapidly unfolded in my first Vipassana retreat under inadequate guidance. I’d be interested in contributing to your research in some way if it’s still in process.

    • Hi Anon,

      I’d be happy to talk to you about participating in the study. Thanks for your willingness to contribute. It has been some time but I do believe that data collection continues. Please contact me by email so we can connect and discuss it more.

  11. This is now several years later I realise but – repeating Anon’s question above – is anyone collecting adverse experiences of insight meditation? I went on my first Vipassana course over New Year’s, and given the effects I have been going through would agree with their ‘inadequate guidance’ comment (as would some of my friends, who have expressed anger and concern on my behalf). I would also appreciate being in touch with others about this as part of my healing, which certainly continues.

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