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Can meditation go wrong? Exploring the range of experiences

While meditation is often heralded as a miracle solution for its calming, soothing effect, it can also end up painful and disturbing, a new study has found.

“Many effects of meditation are well known, like increased awareness of thoughts and emotions, or improved calm and well-being,” said study lead author Jared Lindahl, visiting assistant professor in Brown University‘s Cogut Center for the Humanities.

“But there is a much broader range of possible experiences. Exactly what those experiences are, how they affect individuals and which ones show up as difficult is going to be based on a range of personal, interpersonal and contextual factors.”

The researchers sought out “challenging” meditation experiences because they are underrepresented in the scientific literature.

They are, however, documented in Buddhist traditions, the study said. Tibetans refer to a wide range of experiences — some blissful but some painful or disturbing — as “nyams.”

From interviews with 100 Western Buddhist meditators, the researchers developed a list of 59 experiences organized into seven types, or domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (i.e. emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (i.e. motivation or will), sense of self and social. They also identified another 26 categories of “influencing factors” or conditions that may impact the intensity, duration or associated distress or impairment.

All the mediators interviewed reported multiple unexpected experiences from across the seven domains, hypersensitivity to light or sound, as insomnia or involuntary body movements.

Challenging emotional experiences included fear, anxiety, panic or a loss of emotions altogether, the study found.

If research can uncover why challenging experiences arise, then meditators and teachers might be in a better position to manage them, the authors said.

They also hope the new study can help people realize that adverse experiences are not necessarily unique to them or their fault.

“During the interviews, some people learned for the first time that they are not completely alone in having had this experience,” Lindahl said. “The social awareness we think this project can raise could be a key way of addressing some of the problems.”

One of the remedies people cited for dealing with problems was simply having someone they could talk to who was familiar with challenging meditation experiences, the researchers said.

One of the authors, Willoughby Britton, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, recently started a weekly online support group where meditators can share their challenges with each other.

“Our long-term hope is that this research, and the research that follows, can be used by the meditation community to create support systems for the full range of meditation-related experiences,” Britton said. “Really, the first step is acknowledging the diversity of experiences that different people can have.”

By:David Beasley, Staff Writer

Source: Brown University

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