Male atheists contemplating taking up meditation may like to think deeply about that decision.
In a recent study more than a quarter of those who meditate regularly reported having had a “particularly unpleasant” psychological experience related to the practice, including feelings of fear and distorted emotions.
The results were worse for men (28.5%, compared to 23% for women) and those who do not have a religious belief (30.6%, compared to 22% of those who do).
The research team, which was led by University College London (UCL), UK, acknowledges the study’s limitations: the 1232 online survey participants were only asked one question, and the data gives no indication of the exact type of experiences or their severity and impact.
Also, the cross-sectional nature of the data does not allow the researchers to clearly infer that meditation caused these experiences.
Nevertheless, it does give pause for thought – and perhaps more inquiry.
“These findings point to the importance of widening the public and scientific understanding of meditation beyond that of a health-promoting technique,” says psychiatrist and lead author Marco Schlosser.
“Very little is known about why, when and how such meditation-related difficulties can occur: more research is now needed to understand the nature of these experiences.
“When are unpleasant experiences important elements of meditative development, and when are they merely negative effects to be avoided?”
The study was a collaboration between UCL, Witten/Herdecke University, Germany, and the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Participants were asked: “Have you ever had any particularly unpleasant experiences (e.g. anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world), which you think may have been caused by your meditation practice?”
More likely to say “yes” were those who had been on a meditation retreat at some point in their lives (29%, compared with 19.6% who hadn’t), those who practised only deconstructive types of meditation, such as Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice (used in Zen Buddhism), and those with higher levels of repetitive negative thinking.
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
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