When Not to Meditate

Meditation is often promoted to be a cure all treatment for all sorts of issues; anxiety, depression, sleep problems, chronic pain etc etc. But there is a deeper and possibly darker aspect to meditating which is often glossed over by the modern attitude for a quick fix. People often enter meditation hoping it will change how they are feeling (negative mood, anxious feelings, depression), but instead, meditating can bring us deeper in touch with ourselves - including the 'bad' bits.  And unless you are ready and/or being supported to do so, meditating can be a hugely challenging experience.

I do believe in all the positive aspects of meditation whole heartedly. However I had an experience which got me thinking long and hard about prescribing meditation for anyone and everyone at all times, and I came to this conclusion:

Sometimes - it's not good to meditate.

It's not something that I would have considered previously. I would have never thought that meditating could have unwanted or negative consequences. Despite all research regarding the virtues of meditation - I have seen very little about the adverse effects of meditation, and most of the reported negative events involve Buddhist monks meditating for extremely long periods of time, often while fasting. I managed to find one article which highlighted some of the issues I was concerned about for the lay person:

“Meditation while clinically depressed can result in intensification of feelings of despondency, hopelessness, and negativity generally. The metta practice is theoretically a good thing, but in practice it can be a nightmare if all you feel is self-hatred!” (Wild Mind - Buddhist Meditation)

Earlier this year, I took part in a Vipassana ten day silent meditation retreat. I had been wanting to do this for a very long time and I decided it was now or never - and so I booked in a few months in advance. It's an intense ten day meditation experience, in silence. No human contact with anyone, no eye contact, meditating ten hours a day.

Unfortunately, about one week prior - my very new relationship fell over. I won't go into details - but needless to say, my mind was not in full form when I attended the retreat.

The short of the story - is that I spent 10 full days, living my own private version of hell.

I wasn't clinically depressed, but I had a lot of very negative thoughts going on in my head. Due to the style of the retreat, there is not only no talking and no eye contact, there was to be no reading, writing, any form of communication with anyone, inside or outside the compound.  Meditation begins at 4.30 am and is spread throughout the day until 9pm at night.

I tend to be a person who can be a little hard on themselves and I (in my wisdom) believed that I would conquer my somewhat disturbed mind and emerge full of light and love.

Instead, on the morning of the 10th day, I realised that no such thing would happen. My thoughts were the same (damning if you must know), my body was an anxious wreck, I'd suffered nightmares and I desperately wanted a hug and good friends around me.

Because I am stubborn, I stuck it out. And it is only on reflection that I have been able to process that actually, sometimes, it really isn't good to sit with a mind that is so hell bent on destroying 'you'.

Other forms of meditation would have probably been more appropriate. Guided meditations. Meditations based on compassion and kindness. Mindful activity, mindfulness in general. But simply left totally undistracted and alone to spend 10 hours of a day focusing on breath and body sensations was not therapeutic, helpful or at that time, kind.

I would never want to discourage meditation and I would totally do the Vipassana retreat again, but I would ensure I was of sound and settled mind prior to entering.

So, although meditation (and mindfulness) has been shown to be helpful in preventing depression and helping one to recover, beware of entering into meditation in a distressed, depressed or anxious state. If you feel it helps, wonderful, continue. If you think it does not - please stop. Listen to the little voice and go and get some help and self care.

A lesson learned.


Article on Mental Health and Intensive Meditation Retreats

Mindful Bias

Dismantling mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for recurrent depression

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