Meditation-related Problems


Asian traditions recognize a number of pitfalls associated with intensive meditation practice, such as altered perceptions that can be frightening, and "false enlightenment," associated with delightful or terrifying visions (Epstein, 1990). Epstein (1990) describes a "specific mental disorder that the Tibetans call 'sokrlung' (a disorder of the 'life-bearing wind that supports the mind' that can arise as a consequence...of strain[ing] too tightly in an obsessive way to achieve moment-to-moment awareness" (p. 27). When meditative practices are transplanted into Western contexts, the same problems can occur. Anxiety, dissociation, depersonalization, altered perceptions, agitation, and muscular tension have been observed in western meditation practitioners (Bogart, 1991; Walsh & Roche, 1979) . Yet Walsh and Roche (1979) point out that "such changes are not necessarily pathologic and may reflect in part a heightened sensitivity" (p. 1086). The DSM-IV emphasizes the need to distinguish between psychopathology and meditation-related experiences: "Voluntarily induced experiences of depersonalization or derealization form part of meditative and trance practices that are prevalent in many religions and cultures and should not be confused with Depersonalization Disorder" (p. 488).

Kornfield (1993), a psychologist and experienced meditation teacher, described what he termed a spiritual emergency that took place at an intensive meditation retreat he was leading.

An "overzealous young karate student" decided to meditate and not move for a full day and night. When he got up, he was filled with explosive energy. He strode into the middle of the dining hall filled with 100 silent retreatants and began to yell and practice his karate maneuvers at triple speed. Then he screamed, "When I look at each of you, I see behind you a whole trail of bodies showing your past lives." As an experienced meditation teacher, Kornfield recognized that the symptoms were related to the meditation practice rather than signs of a manic episode (for which they also meet all the diagnostic criteria except duration). The meditation community handled the situation by stopping his meditation practice and starting him jogging, ten miles in the morning and afternoon. His diet was changed to include red meat, which is thought to have a grounding effect. They got him to take frequent hot baths and showers, and to dig in the garden. One person was with him all the time. After three days, he was able to sleep again and was allowed to started meditating again, slowly and carefully. (adapted from pp. 131-132)