Most of the research conducted on contemplative practices to date focuses on its beneficial aspects and rarely on unpleasant meditation-related experiences (Goyal, et al., 2014; Sparby, 2017). In fact, an analysis of the literature reveals that only a few studies have ever explored if meditation practitioners ever have unpleasant experiences during their meditation practice (Goyal, et al., 2014) What makes this more complex is that to date the processes through which meditation can result in unpleasant experiences is not clearly understood. Further, there is no clear taxonomy of how to measure, define and investigate such experiences within the research community. Likewise, there is also a lack of understanding of the relationship between such unpleasant experiences and meditation type.
A study exploring such issues
A recent study published on PLoS ONE tried to address some of these issues by exploring if meditation can result in unpleasant experiences (Schlosser, et al., 2019). This by investigating their prevalence and the possible relationship between unpleasant meditation-related experiences and demographic characteristics, negative thinking, mindfulness, meditation practice and self-compassion.
The researchers found that from the 1,232 participants, who part-took in the study, 25.6% reported that they had experienced some kind of unpleasant meditation-related experiences. Such participants believed that the unpleasant experience was caused by their meditation practice. Further what was of interest was that it seemed that religious participants reported fewer instances of unpleasant meditation-related experiences.
Gender and negative thinking
Also, what was of note was that although being female was not a mediator for unpleasant meditation-related experiences. Unbecomingly Males seemed to report a higher likelihood of experiencing unpleasant meditation-related experiences compared to females. The researchers argued that the emotional regulation paradigm (Gross, 1999), could provide a useful framework for further understanding such a result (Lomas, et al., 2015).
Likewise, the researchers found that unpleasant meditation-related experiences were correlated to repetitive negative thinking. They argued that this could be resulting from the fact “that meditators predisposed to heightened levels of repetitive negative thinking may be more susceptible to particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences because they lack the ability to disengage from intrusive and repetitive negative content that arises during meditation” (Schlosser, et al., 2019, p. 10).
Practice type and intensity
Further, the researchers also noted that the study indicated that participants who engaged in deconstructive meditation practices (vipassana/insight meditation) were 65% more likely to report unpleasant meditation-related experiences when compared to non-deconstructive practices. The research’s proposed that this could be a resultant effect of the direct inquiry of deconstructive practices into emotional, cognitive and perceptual states of our lived experiences. Such direct inquiry can at times challenge our usual patterns of how we experience our reality; which could be associated with and interpreted as an unpleasant meditation-related experience.
Another interesting finding was that meditation retreat experience was related to unpleasant meditation-related experiences. Although the researchers commented that their study did, “not capture whether the particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences happened before, during, or after a meditation retreat, or whether and how these may have been linked to the unique constellation of influencing factors operating in the context of retreat practice” (Schlosser, et al., 2019, p. 10). Contrastingly the researchers found no evidence linking such unpleasant experiences with lifetime meditation experience, frequency or length of practice.
Summary (Unpleasant Meditation-Related Experiences)
In summary, approximately one-quarter of participants reported that they had encountered particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences in the past (Schlosser, et al., 2019). Although a note of caution must be exercised because of the following limitations:
Firstly, the study only used one question to capture the prevalence of unpleasant meditation-related experiences. Such question did not give any indication of the type of unpleasant experiences or their severity and impact.
Secondly, the aspect that the question related to unpleasant meditation-related experiences nudged the participants by providing examples. This could have affected and biased the rate of reporting of unpleasant meditation-related experiences.
Thirdly, the lack of a standardized measure for unpleasant meditation-related experiences could result either in an underestimation or an exaggeration of the actual rate and intensity of such unpleasant experiences.
Fourthly, the study did not control for possible pre-existing mental health problems, which could have acted as a confounding variable affecting the estimated prevalence of unpleasant meditation-related experiences.
Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., . . . Haythornthwaite, J. A. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357-368. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018
Gross, J. J. (1999). Emotion regulation: Past, present, future. Cognition and Emotion, 13(5), 551-573. doi:10.1080/026999399379186
Lomas, T., Cartwright, T., Edginton, T., & Ridge, D. (2015). A qualitative analysis of experiential challenges associated with meditation practice. Mindfulness, 6(4), 848-860. doi:10.1007/s12671-014-0329-8
Schlosser, M., Sparby, T., Voros, S., Jones, R., & Marchant, N. L. (2019). Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations. PLOS ONE,14(5), e0216643. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0216643
Sparby, T. (2017). The nature of contemplative science and some prospects for its future development. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 24(5-6), 226-250.