The Dark Side of Mindfulness

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

In The Buddha Pill, psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm look at the dark side of mindfulness — all the people who report experiencing panic attacks, hearing voices, or finding that meditation has deepened their depression after some initial respite:

“Since the book’s been published, we’ve had a number of emails from people wanting to tell us about adverse effects they have experienced,” Wikholm says. “Often, people have thought they were alone with this, or they blamed themselves, thinking they somehow did it wrong, when actually it doesn’t seem it’s all that uncommon.”

One story in particular prompted Farias to look further into adverse effects. Louise, a woman in her 50s who had been practising yoga for 20 years, went away to a meditation retreat. While meditating, she felt dissociated from herself and became worried. Dismissing it as a routine side-effect of meditation, Louise continued with the exercises. The following day, after returning home, her body felt completely numb and she didn’t want to get out of bed. Her husband took her to the doctor, who referred her to a psychiatrist. For the next 15 years she was treated for psychotic depression.

Farias looked at the research into unexpected side-effects. A 1992 study by David Shapiro, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that 63% of the group studied, who had varying degrees of experience in meditation and had each tried mindfulness, had suffered at least one negative effect from meditation retreats, while 7% reported profoundly adverse effects including panic, depression, pain and anxiety. Shapiro’s study was small-scale; several research papers, including a 2011 study by Duke University in North Carolina, have raised concerns at the lack of quality research on the impact of mindfulness, specifically the lack of controlled studies.


  1. Palamas says:

    Well, of course some folks may be freaking out about the “adverse side effects” of meditation. And we’re talking the moment one ratches up their commitment to a meditation practice up a notch or three.

    I see a major culprit being the tendency to sell meditation to today’s secular public as a relaxation technique. When it is anything but.

    Also, the “real deal” systems (ranging the gamut from Centering Prayer to dhikr to Satipatthana) were developed within specific religious traditions. The modern-day tendency to “eclectically” decontextualize these practices is old news by now.

    So we have large numbers of people practicing these techniques seemingly detached from their cultural-religious moorings AND, instead of relaxation, they are confronted with the deeply shattering mysterium tremendum. The Truth That shows them the truth about themselves as well.

    “Psychologically-damaging” and “nihilism” don’t quite capture what ensues.

  2. John says:

    The power of meditation really is not understood or respected by the modern secular (atheist) Buddhists who have sought to strip all the traditional elements out of the practice, since religion = bad.

    Meditation brings deep psychological baggage to the surface, which is what these adverse effects more or less are. The experience of short term pain and adversity is part of a healing process, and the individual often feels fantastic after the “dark night” runs it’s course.

    Of course, there are always a few outliers who get extreme adverse effects and may never fully recover. In traditional meditation cultures this is well known.

  3. Grurray says:

    “she felt dissociated from herself”

    This mental state doesn’t just result from Buddhist meditation. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of optimal experience and ascetic prayer practices of monks and hermits of various Christian orders are some other examples. Intense exercise, reading a good book, caring for and nurturing family members — many activities can result in feelings of transcendence from the self. You might say it’s something a lot more common then we realize. We just don’t notice it in our modern world while overly concerned our modern tasks.

    It looks like these people have some deeper problems besides not taking to meditation.

  4. Alrenous says:

    it doesn’t seem it’s all that uncommon

    Naturally it’s impossible for doing it wrong to be common.

    For most, a meditation retreat is the equivalent of a couch potato getting up one morning and trying to run a marathon. Injuries should not be surprising.

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