Contemplation: is it the key to happiness — or a path to holiness? Is contemplation dangerous? Some people think so.
This past weekend I read a book that has given me some food for thought on this subject. The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? is by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, two psychologists in England who study the idea that practices like yoga or mindfulness meditation have observable health benefits. They became involved in a study of prisoners practicing yoga — could it help them to be more at peace, or even less aggressive?
As they surveyed the scientific literature on measurable effects of meditation and yoga, Farias and Wikholm discovered that much of the research was poorly executed or subject to ambiguous interpretations. Furthermore, it seemed like many of the studies were sponsored by organizations with an interest in promoting meditation.
The Buddha Pill seems very balanced in its approach, carefully describing ways in which various studies can be interpreted to demonstrate the positive benefits of spiritual practice — but also how much of the research has led to ambiguous or inconclusive results. Media coverage, however, tends only to stress the positive evidence — it’s almost as if we have a cultural desire to believe these kinds of practices can make a measurable difference in our lives, so much so that we are willing to ignore evidence that suggests otherwise.
But as interesting as its critique of “meditation science” is, what really grabbed me in reading The Buddha Pill was a chapter provocatively titled “The Dark Side of Meditation.”
The authors provide several anecdotal examples of people who experienced severe episodes of depression or even psychosis in the wake of engaging in intensive meditative practice. The chapter begins with the terrifying story of Aaron Alexis, a meditation practitioner who killed a dozen people at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013.
Farias and Wikholm go on to describe a 1992 study on the effect of meditation retreats, which “found that 63 per cent of [the subjects] had at least one negative effect and 7 per cent suffered profoundly adverse effects. The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, increased negativity, pain, feeling spaced out, confusion and disorientation.”
We can dismiss stories like these by insisting that those who suffer negative effects from meditation must have had a pre-existing mental illness. But if meditation can make a mentally ill person worse, doesn’t that make meditation dangerous?
Maybe “dangerous” is not the best word here. I think a better word is “powerful.” Silence has the power to change us. Which means it is worthy of our respect.
With Aaron Alexis in mind, the Anglican solitary Maggie Ross wryly noted in her book Silence: A User’s Guide:
It is possible to practice meditation under the illusion that one is outside of any perceived value system, but this idea is deceptive and dangerous: meditation will intensify whatever values a person holds, whether or not they are acknowledged— and every person has a value system, positive or negative, creative or destructive. Meditation can be abused as well as used: One can meditate in order to become a more efficient killer.
Thirty years ago, I took my first class on “Christian meditation” — what we now would call silent prayer or centering prayer — while living in Washington, DC. When I signed up for the course, the application form explicitly stated that this course was not a form of therapy, and might not be appropriate for some persons based on their therapeutic needs. At the time, I remember thinking that meditation must be something powerful, something we should treat with respect.
I think that’s an important point we need to remember today, but maybe sometimes it gets lost in the “rah-rah” rhetoric of many meditation-boosters.
I’m not writing this blog post to scare anyone away from silent prayer, which I still believe is a profoundly beautiful, meaningful, and traditional way for fostering deep intimacy with God. Books like Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening or Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious have addressed the question of how to manage powerful emotions that might arise in the context of prayerful silence. So there are good resources available to help us when we encounter the power of silent prayer.
My purpose is simply to emphasize that contemplation — contemplative, silent prayer — is not something to be taken lightly.
Anything with the power to transfigure us from the inside out deserves our respect.
Here’s an interesting perspective from a friend of mine that I posted on Twitter a while back:
Is contemplative prayer dangerous? Yes! It’s dangerous the way Jesus is dangerous. — Kevin Johnson @johnsoxo
— Carl McColman (@CarlMcColman) May 17, 2015
Contemplative practice is like a power tool. If you know how to use it properly and carefully, it can make your “work” (in this case, the work of responding to the love of God) easier. But if used carelessly or improperly, it can be dangerous. When we pray in this way, we need our prayer to be grounded in the love and mercy of God. Otherwise, when we encounter the “icky stuff” deep inside us — our shadow, our sin, our fears and narcissism — it could seem overwhelming.
If you experience deep emotional distress as a result of any kind of meditative practice, immediately stop the practice, take care of yourself (avoid drugs and alcohol, don’t do anything to hurt yourself or anyone else, and ask someone you trust for help) and then seek out the care of a qualified mental health professional. This is not optional. Just like you can’t play sports if you aren’t willing to have a doctor treat you for injuries, likewise if you want to swim in the deep waters of contemplation you need to be willing to seek out appropriate mental health care, should the need arise.
I believe that the risk of this kind of emotional crisis is probably very low for those who engage in contemplative prayer or other forms of meditation for less than an hour per day. After all, the scary statistics in The Buddha Pill pertain to people who engage in intensive, multi-day meditation retreats. But no matter how low the risk may be, we need to be prepared to respond appropriately, should the need arise.
How to practice silent prayer safely
If you are interested in the practice of Christian silent prayer, here are five important steps to take to make sure your practice is spiritually safe.
- Meet regularly with a spiritual director or companion. In other words, you need someone with whom you can discuss your spiritual practice, honestly and candidly. Someone who will help you discern what’s going on if something unsettling or awe-inspiring occurs. This person will help you stay grounded and will keep you humble. And — this is difficult, but important — a good spiritual companion will help us see if we’ve gotten off track with our prayer or other spiritual practice (for example, if your spirituality is making you anxious or proud, instead of humble and compassionate).
- Actively participate in some sort of faith community. That could be a centering prayer group, an oblate or third order gathering, or even your church — but it needs to be a community of people with whom you are regularly engaged, who can answer your questions, encourage you when times are tough, or can provide a larger spiritual context for your practice.
- Maintain a daily vocal/verbal prayer practice, aside from the silence, that will help to form or deepen your spiritual values. As a Lay Cistercian, naturally I recommend praying some form of the Daily Office (see this blog post for more on that). Lectio Divina (prayerful Bible reading) is another option. The point here is to remember that in addition to immersion in silence, we need to be formed by the words, language and values of our spiritual tradition in order to become truly wise — and holy. Speaking of which…
- Commit yourself to becoming holy (by God’s grace). The purpose of Christian contemplation is not happy feelings or cool experiences, but holiness — that is to say, radical intimacy with God which will transfigure you from the inside out. In other words, practicing silent prayer or contemplation requires not just a desire to be still (as worthy as that may be), but also a larger spiritual context. For Christians, this means responding to the love of God. We are called not just to be mystics or contemplatives, but to be holy — to orient our lives to love and service and mercy. Silent prayer means more than just becoming peaceful or serene — it needs to be part of an overall life committed to becoming humble, compassionate, contrite (willing to turn away from sin) and loving — as Christ loved.
- Stay grounded: balance your interior work with good old fashioned “exterior” work. There’s a reason why Benedictine monks have as their motto Ora et Labora, which means “prayer and work.” Physical labor is a meaningful and valuable way to keep the body strong, and the mind focused on something other than its own interior drama. Even a task as simple as mowing the lawn or mopping the floor can help us remain grounded and stable. Kahlil Gibran said “Work is love made visible” — likewise, labora is ora made visible.
My sense, based on what I’ve seen over the past thirty years (and the mistakes I’ve made along the way) is that when we do these five things, we have the spiritual and social support to go as deep as possible in contemplative prayer safely and beautifully.
So is contemplative prayer dangerous? Yes, but just like a car or a chainsaw is dangerous. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it, but it does mean we need to engage with it in a careful, respectful, and proper way. But when we do that, then we are in a position to be blessed by its power.
Do you have any other thoughts about how to practice silent prayer safely and responsibly? If so, please leave a comment below (or on social media).
Very good and important column. I think a number of caveats are on order. I’ve meditated and talked with people who practice various forms of meditation, contemplative prayer, and related practices for approximately 40 years. I would say, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the amount of time and effort people put into meditation/contemplation – rarely more than 20-30 minutes a day, and quite often not on a daily basis – will have very few negative effects. Of course, this also means it’s likely – unless they make a strong effort to integrate their individual practice with compassionate action, supporting their family, neighbors and community, living a healthy, responsible and dedicated life, the positive effects may not be so strong either.
As far as the negative effects of more intense practice go, I’m always mildly amused (though sometimes mildly annoyed) at the repeated (repeated ad nauseum) amazement of modern meditation researchers that some new discovery they’ve made turns out to be old knowledge. I call it the “law of secular exclusion.” First, you search through some contemplative tradition, East or West, leave out anything that looks vaguely threatening or even just too foreign to the modern mind (too religious, not religious enough, too supernatural, not supernatural enough, etc). You proclaim that, “yes, those medieval folks (European, Asian, whomever) may have had some insights, but we with our superior scientific knowledge know better.” You discover all kinds of positive things those primitive mystics didn’t know, and then you discover all kinds of negative things those primitives didn’t know.
Somewhere down the line, someone comes along who was never afraid of all those annoying, foreign, threatening things in the medieval/ancient traditions. It turns not, not only did they know most of this stuff all along (the dangers of contemplation/meditation, the subtleties of human development, mind-body interaction, how to conduct paranormal explorations, the source of genius, the nature of dreams, etc etc) but when you go just a bit deeper, it turns out that these primitive folks, without the benefit of “modern science,’ may actually have known all kinds of things our modern methods have simply excluded from our universe of knowledge.
I’ll conclude by mentioning that approximately 80 years ago, the Indian poet and yogi, Sri Aurobindo, wrote a wonderful letter to a disciple warning him of a host of dangers that can arise in the midst of dedicated practice of meditation.
You won’t find anything even remotely resembling this in any “scientific” study, because we don’t (yet!) have a scientific methodology adequate to the study of such things (remember St. Bernard’s statement that one’s method of study must be “adequate’ to that which one is studying – at least, I think it was St. Bernard of Clairvaux).
Your words of caution are well advised, in the Orthodox tradition, contemplative prayer, meditation and the use of the Jesus prayer, is strongly discouraged unless one is under the tutelage of a Spiritual Father, preferably an experienced monastic.
Thanks, Carl. This has been enlightening. Sounds like the way to get my life in order.
I read this same info back in the 90s when I first started meditating (Eastern traditions) — caution that the practice could exacerbate mental issues. I also recall one of my best friends, who has bipolar disorder, telling me back then that she had tried meditation but that it made her feel imbalanced. I have been meditating (15-20 minutes a day) and doing yoga since the 90s and have only reaped benefits from them. I agree though that meditation in particular should be grounded in a broader, healthy spiritual practice.
I think the risk of meditation precipitating an emotional or spiritual crisis really is only significant when one is doing intensive meditation for long periods of time over successive days (such as one might do in a 30-day Zen retreat). Like you, my experience has been positive, even though I have had to face down a lot of fears and anxieties. But all in the service of inner healing!
Excellent advice. Mariana Caplan has also written compellingly on such spiritual emergencies and other pitfalls of the path in her books “Halfway up the Mountain” and “Eyes Wide Open”.