The Science of Meditation (and the Relationship between Meditation and Trauma)

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A few years back the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar published an interesting article surveying what insights we can glean from the scientific study of meditation. These insights concern questions such as the health and psychological benefits of meditation, the relationship between meditation and compassion, and how meditation might impact our relationships and even our biases. It’s an interesting article and I encourage you to check it out (see the link at the end of this post).

The practice of meditation has been with us for centuries — in the west we know it dates back at least to the time of the desert mothers and fathers of Egypt, and it’s likely it goes back further than that (Aryeh Kaplan’s wonderful book Meditation and the Bible offers some tantalizing clues to how meditation might have been practiced in ancient Israel before the time of Christ). And of course, the Buddha meditated his way to enlightenment some 2500 years ago. But the scientific study of meditation is quite a new field, although research is taking place at numerous settings around the world. I have participated in several studies for Emory University; you might want to check to see if institutions near you are conducting studies on meditation and see if you could qualify to participate as a “lab rat.”

I remember my first spiritual director telling me, almost forty years ago, that meditation is something that is good for the soul, the mind, and the body. Back then she was going on anecdotal evidence, but the understanding was that a regular, stable meditation practice not only could help us get closer to God (or enlightenment) but could support a sense of calm or inner peace, and help to alleviate stress which naturally carries physical benefits. Since I’ve been wearing a fitness tracker I’ve noticed that my heart rate typically drops about 10 beats a minute during a 22 minute period of Centering Prayer.

Fast forward to today, where it seems that research is vindicating the idea that meditation provides health benefits, even if only in minimal ways. I appreciate the fact that the researchers who are examining the science of meditation are cautious and careful in reporting their findings in a balanced and hopefully objective manner. To me, saying meditation provides a “modest” impact on physical health is not an criticism of meditation, but rather an honest assessment that it’s good for you, but not a panacea. If you want to reduce the risk of heart disease, or manage your blood pressure, etc., by all means I would encourage you to make meditation part of your overall plan of care, but only part — we still need to consult with our healthcare providers to establish an our overall strategy for maintaining or improving our optimal health.

One of the findings that the article covers might surprise people who appreciate the spiritual and health benefits of meditation — but it’s important, so I want to highlight it: Meditation isn’t good for everyone all the timeIn unpacking this statement, the authors of the article make this critical point:

For individuals who have experienced some sort of trauma, sitting and meditating can at times bring up recent or sometimes decades-old painful memories and experiences that they may not be prepared to confront.

This tracks with an important lesson I have learned, especially through the interviews I’ve participated in as part of the Encountering Silence podcast. For years, I have been convinced that meditation is a tremendous gift especially for people who (like me) struggle with depression or anxiety. And I still broadly believe that meditation is/can be a healing and helpful practice. But trauma survivors often may find that meditation can be a challenging experience, for it can bring us face to face with memories or feelings tied to our trauma — and if we are not prepared for this, or even simply not ready for it, such experiences, even in the context of meditation, can be upsetting or frightening. Thomas Keating described such a process as “the unloading of the unconscious” — apparently it is quite common for people who engage in deep or sustained meditation practice to, sooner or later, face forgotten or perhaps even repressed memories, images, feelings, thoughts, that can represent old wounds. For some people this might just be like a “bumpy ride” — but with caring spiritual direction, and perhaps the support of a qualified therapist, moving through such difficult or painful inner experiences can be a way of healing our relationship to the past. But the more traumatic such past experiences were, the greater the potential that encountering them in meditation can be distressing.

Does this mean we shouldn’t meditate? Not hardly. But it does mean that people who are the survivors of trauma may want to anchor their experience with meditation in a safe and trusting relationship with a therapist, in addition to a caring spiritual guide (assuming your meditation practice is, like Centering Prayer, spiritual in nature). And for those of us who have mostly positive experiences of meditation, it’s helpful to remember that others may have a different experience that is consistent with their own journey with trauma and suffering.

As I write these words, I am reminded of a friend of mine who read a book about Centering Prayer some years ago. She read a book about it, but did not attend a Centering Prayer workshop or group. She was not working with a spiritual director. When she tried the practice, she had an imaginal encounter with what she described as a demonic spirit. This frightened her terribly, and when she confided in a friend, the friend told her that Centering Prayer was dangerous because it exposed the mind to demonic attack. Needless to say, this person remains vocally hostile to Centering Prayer or any other form of meditation.

It’s a sad story, especially because my friend is now so closed and opposed to a practice that, with appropriate guidance, she could have learned to find deeply valuable. Let me be clear: the historic Christian tradition does not teach that meditation leaves us vulnerable to demonic attack! That is a modern misconception, no doubt inspired by people who have had unfortunate experiences like my friend. Historically, Christianity has taught that unfriendly spirits attack us not through silence, but through our thoughts. Because of this, meditation (which teaches us to let thoughts go gently) is actually spiritually very safe! But just because it is spiritually safe does not mean there is no (psychological) risk or danger. Although I don’t know my friend well enough to say (and I am not qualified to diagnose her), my hunch is that it was her own trauma that bubbled up even during that initial exploration of prayerful silence. Without a wise guide or supportive community to help her make sense of the experience and process it in a safe and therapeutic way, she was vulnerable to someone’s spiritual scare-tactics, with unfortunate results.

What’s the takeaway here? Meditation remains something that is generally very good for us, physically as well as mentally and spiritually. But it is a meaningful and powerful process for accessing the depths of our ordinary human awareness, and therefore can lead to uncomfortable or even painful experiences of traumatic memories, feelings, and thoughts. Therefore, anyone who wants to explore meditation in a serious and/or sustained way, ought to be careful to find supportive friends, allies and caregivers, including a group or community of fellow practitioners, a knowledgeable and compassionate spiritual director, and/or a therapist who is familiar with the psychology of meditation. With such supportive colleagues and caregivers, meditation can be truly a meaningful and even joyful practice — and even the unloading of the unconscious can be simply part of an overall process of fostering greater psycho-spiritual health and wellness.

Here’s the link to the article in Lion’s Roar:

The Science of Meditation: What We Know and What We Don’t

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About the author

Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

By Carl McColman

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