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Can Meditation be Bad for You? A Response.

thoughts & comment — 08 Nov 2012

MARY GARDEN wrote a challenging article entitled 'Can Meditation Be Bad for You?' in the Sept/Oct 2007 edition of the atheist magazine, Humanist. You can read the original article here:

It is no coincidence that those who most easily fall under the spell of gurus and teachers are more often the ones that end up vociferously rejecting not only those teachers but anything to do with spirituality. This might be called the fundamentalist flip (often from a religious fundamentalist outlook to a scientific fundamentalist outlook), and it seems to be what has happened to Mary Garden. She describes herself as originally being a "starry-eyed devotee of the infamous guru Bhagwan Rajneesh" and goes on to say that she "finally gave up on seeking enlightenment in the late 1970s and returned to worldly life." So then she wrote for the Humanist, a publication that describes its ideology as "a natural and democratic outlook informed by science…"

What Garden appears to be saying in her article is that she was using meditation to gain something — the elusive state of enlightenment. And when she did not find it… she gave up. Fair enough, but that statement gives us a clue as to her spiritual maturity. A more mature seeker might have come to the conclusion that enlightenment is an impossible pipedream because it is merely a concept, and that the whole purpose of meditation is to help loosen the attachment to concepts, including the concept of enlightenment. So instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, such a 'seeker' might see that their whole spiritual paradigm has been a farce — a movement of the spiritual ego — and this realization can open the door to a much deeper experience and understanding of life and reality.

Instead, seven years into her fruitless search for enlightenment, Garden appears to have retreated back into "worldly life", before rejected her previous spiritual teachers and cherry-picking cases where individuals who were meditating seem to have come to harm as a means to reject meditation itself (corroborated with the warnings of a spiritual teachers on the dangers of meditation to some people).

She has also written a book about her spiritual search in India in her book Serpent Rising: A Journey of Spiritual Seduction. I have not read this book (this short piece is a response to her article, not a review of her book), but it is clear from the title and reviews that it is also a strong rejection of her earlier spiritual journey.

The points that Garden is trying making are actually specious: anything and everything can be bad for some people because we are all unique — not only physically and biochemically, but also psychologically and energetically. There are some people, for example, who are allergic to water. The medical terms for water allergies are Aquagenic Pruritus or Aquagenic Urticaria. Would knowing how water affects individuals with these conditions lead us to the conclusion that water is bad for us? Of course not! Water is only harmful to a tiny percentage of people and overall it is still considered beneficial.

To label something harmful, it has to be shown to be harmful to a large percentage of people. Now if meditation was harmful to a significant percentage of people, you would certainly hear about it. I for one have been around meditators most of my life, and so have many of my friends, and although we are certainly aware of individuals having temporary problems, or giving up meditation in frustration, none of us have never heard of anyone going psychotic or committing suicide — or for that matter losing the ability to do maths! That is not to say that these negative consequences are impossible — anything is possible — but if they have happened then they must be rare events. Therefore, no statement regarding meditation being generally bad for you can be made using such a small selection of opinions; all that can be said is that meditation may not suit a small percentage of people, perhaps with latent mental health issues. (I say ‘perhaps’ because it is notoriously difficult to pinpoint causation in any complex system like a human life.)

And anyway, if meditation really was bad for you it would not produce the overall positive results that it does. Take for example a look at the following video:

Here you see the effect of an intense meditation courses on prisoners in the infamous Tihar Jail in New Delhi which holds 10,000 prisoners. Tihar was once renowned for its inhuman conditions, gang fights, drug use, corruption and violence, until a woman named Kiran Bedi became its Inspector General in 1993. Bedi introduced Goenka Vipassana meditation courses to the prisoners a year later. The results were extraordinary as the video will attest, and the general atmosphere in Tihar has changed considerably. Now if meditation was generally bad for you, then Tihar would not have positively transformed in the way that it has. I have no doubt that meditation did not suit every prisoner, but the majority seem to have benefited hugely from it. Would it be better for them to be left to their old violent ways without meditation? Probably not.

As for the loss of memory after prolonged meditation. Sure, but that comes back, just as memory comes back when it is lost after prolonged sleep, or prolonged partying. And there is little point Mary Garden speculating in "for all we knows". After all, for all we know pigs can fly. Garden’s "for all we knows" says nothing about reality, only about her current set of beliefs and emotional state.

And talking about reality, it seems that Garden idea of meditation is as an escape from reality, perhaps to gain that elusive conceptual enlightenment. This comes across very strongly in her article — as if meditation is an inoculation against what is. This shows a profound misunderstanding of meditation — and, it has to be said, a profound misunderstanding of what Bhagwan Rajneesh taught. (No I am not a follower of Bhagwan or indeed any guru, and never have been ever.) Correct me if I am wrong, but Bhagwan Rajneesh was trying to teach people to wake up, not to have spiritual dreams.

So it appears that Garden caused her own spiritual downfall by having a conceited and conceptual understanding of meditation and enlightenment. The issues were with Garden herself and not with her experiences. It is rather odd that many other seekers trod the same spiritual journey to India and found true awakening. Apart from personal friends who seem to have always had profound and awakening experiences in their days in Indian ashrams, a few I can think of that the reader might have heard of are Ram Das, Gangaji and Radhanath Swami. (Radhanath Swami’s book The Journey Home is worth a read to understand the yearning of true spiritual seeking.)

It could be that Mary Garden was just unlucky and happened to have gravitated towards corrupted teachers. But it is also possible that Garden did not have an authentic spiritual calling, but a psychological calling. And that psychological calling might have attracted to her the negative experiences that she had. It is my experience that when a spiritual calling is authentic, we find, one way or another, the source of that call, even if we have to step over the charlatan teachers we are bound to bump into along the way. That is because the true hunger for awakening gives us the inner fire to persevere against all odds.

I am not a guru person myself. I have never understood how anyone can see God in another and not themselves. And I do find it odd that those who are gullible enough to give their lives away to another human being should be the ones who that then try to discredit spirituality for the rest of us when they suffer the inevitable consequences. But I respect that following a guru is often the first stage for many spiritual seekers/ For me, personal spiritual teachers have always appeared along the way, and I know from experience of myself and others that when the seeking is earnest, we always arrive at our destination whether we have a guru or not… we always arrive home.

Mary Garden had a bad experience in India, whereas most others I know seem to have had profound and awakening experiences. But this is understandable because we are all different and we are all motivated by different things. This is the human condition. But I am sorry that Garden has chosen to dismiss spirituality because she appears not to have had the eyes to see beyond the spiritual trip — she does not appear to have been able to give up dreaming, preferring to swap the spiritual dream for the worldly dream. We may start on the spiritual trip, but unless we move down into something more authentic and less conceptual, then we will always remain trapped in the ego’s delusion, and we will suffer as a consequence.