I heard that sometimes meditation can be harmful. Is this true?
In most cases, meditation will be of a lot of benefit. Learning how to work with the mind, to regulate and heal emotions, becoming more conscious, and stress relief are just some of the benefits of regular meditation practice.
There are some cases in which meditation can create issues. Many of these can be navigated with a competent teacher. There are excellent generalized meditations (meditations that are a good starting point for anyone) but meditation is often prescriptive. This means that when we are at different places in our lives, different types of meditations are needed. There are also different types of meditation for different purposes, or to heal specific energetic imbalances.
This means that someone can be doing the wrong meditation for themselves and bringing themselves into further imbalance. For example, most people could really benefit by grounding meditations. Often people find chakra meditations, especially meditations involving the third eye. We are a very mental culture (we have a lot of energy in our heads– I jokingly say that most people look like lollipops of energy to me) and so drawing energy up into the head, especially when most of our energy is in our heads anyway, is going to create issues. These issues may vary from headaches to further exacerbating mental health difficulties.
One of the most common reasons meditation is thought to be harmful is due to the significant amount of trauma and emotional backlog we hold within our bodies. When we turn within, it can be like opening a closet door that has been stuffed. Everything falls out, and it can create emotional overwhelm, panic and anxiety, and unpleasant memories and flashbacks to arise.
I liken this to a ball of energy. If we have a small ball of energy (emotional backlog held in our bodies) we can handle this ball ourselves. The larger that ball grows the more helpful it is to have others assist us with it. Another individual, a group, a community, can all help us to make what we carry individually become less burdensome.
It is possible with even the largest of balls to learn to gradually work with what we carry. The key to this is gradual, though. Learning boundaries with ourselves is part of meditation, but in the beginning we may need a competent spiritual teacher, therapist, or bodyworker to help us become embodied enough so that we can know what our internal boundaries are (our boundaries with ourselves) and to respect them.
We live in a culture that is very over-activated. We focus on doing, rather than being states. Meditation will eventually allow someone to rest, to be, to become still. But when we are stuck in personal and collective states of trauma (our community or the world going through a traumatic experience, as we are right now) people tend to be stuck in hyper vigilant states.
This includes inner hyper vigilance, meaning that the person is aware of every stomach gurgle, every muscle ache, and every revving up of an overly-adrenalized system. It is also difficult for individuals who have difficulties with focus overall to begin to meditate.
Ideally we will eventually have a balance between externalizing our energy and internalizing. Basically, doing and being. Meditation can teach us to be, which is helpful for our culture of doing. In certain imbalances, there is too much looking within and externalization is necessary to rebalance. This means things like participating in physical exercise, gardening, walking, and bringing awareness outwards– to others instead of to the self.
In many cases, the right meditation needs to be chosen for such individuals. Something like progressive relaxation, walking meditations, or the right mantra to give the mind something to do is the right prescriptive meditation in these cases. Sitting in silence or focusing on breath is too difficult in the beginning for these cases, and gives opportune time for catastrophizing, overanalysis, or a drifting mind to occur.
When we think of meditation, we should think of it as mental training. This is similar to going to the gym. We would not go from sitting on our couch to training for the Olympics. This is the equivalent of what some people attempt to do with meditation.
There can be issues that arise from doing long meditation retreats or personally doing too much meditation. A small amount each day to build “muscle”; the gradual path, simple and short to start, allows for the mind and body to acclimate.
In rare cases, spiritual emergency may occur. This is when we are thrust into a period of spiritual revelation or overwhelm due to spiritual experiences in our lives. In many cases, ceasing doing anything spiritual and focusing on daily reality is necessary. In other cases of spiritual emergency, the right meditation can be helpful.
I have seen a rise in people concerned about meditation over the years. Often it is a misunderstanding or improper teaching occurring. Many times I see meditation blamed when it is the frequency, duration, or type of meditation that is truly the issue.
Learning to meditate gradually, with the right education regarding the “how” and “why” of meditation is incredibly helpful. Learning when to reach out during or prior to meditation to have someone help you process that closet full of stuff is how even those of us with the most packed closets can begin to unpack those closets and have a clearer, healthier, and more discerning mind.
Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual teacher and healer. You can find her Meditation course here, and her books, including the Body Deva (a form of self-inquiry, or meditation, that allows for someone to build a relationship with their bodies) here.