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Why Mindfulness Can Take You to the Edge of Madness

I love meditating because it acts as an anchor, gives me a foundation and keeps me calm. However, it's the retreats that do me in. Spending a week disconnected from normal life and daily distractions is a recipe for disaster.

The last ten years have seen an explosion in the popularity of mindfulness and meditation. Celebrities, musicians and politicians have all been lured by the promise of peace, serenity and a perfect antidote to our ever stressful world. Richard Gere, Emma Watson and Russell Brand are among the many well known figures that have openly embraced it.

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However, all is not well in the world of mindfulness and meditation. A new book claims that they hide a dark secret by taking you to the edge of madness with stories of mania, depression and psychosis.

The book is called'The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?' by Miguel Farias, a psychologist and head of the brain, belief and behaviour research group at Coventry University. He states that, having studied scientific evidence, he has come up with seven common myths that surround mediation practices.

In summary these myths are:

  1. meditation has no negative effects
  2. benefits everyone, makes the world a better place
  3. is better than therapy
  4. produces a 'natural high
  5. can be devoid of any spiritual influence
  6. positively changes us
  7. meditation and/or mindfulness 'only does good' with

Let's look at the first one that meditation has no negative effects. Apparently, not so. The book states there are thousands of citations about people who appear to have been driven towards the 'darkness in their soul' in their hunt for happiness or 'feeling broken' or 'pushed to the edge' of sanity during meditation retreats.

One study based in the US found that 63 per cent of people who had been on retreats had suffered from at least one side effect of confusion, depression, anxiety or blind panic. Another study said that practising meditation for up to 20 minutes a day raises cortisol (the stress hormone) levels even though the meditators didn't feel more stressed.

But, what the book doesn't explain is - why?

I have been practising Transcendental Meditation for over twenty years and feel perfectly qualified to answer the question - how can meditation push you to the edge of madness?

The answer is very, very simple. Our brain races around going over and over thoughts at breakneck speed. Mindfulness and meditation create a stillness in the brain, a slowing down of the mind's constant whirr, bringing it to a stop just like a playground roundabout

This brain whirring, or mind racing numbs our feelings which lie in the crevice of our psyche. Once the distraction is removed we are left with the emotions which we've have been trying to distract ourselves from, for perhaps years.

Because meditation is so effective, and fast, we suddenly find ourselves in a place that's unfamiliar. It's a bit like like walking into a drug fuelled party where the feelings are rampaging around all out of control. It can come as quite a shock.

Vinnie was a high flyer living in New York and started meditating three years ago. Four months after starting she went on a Summer meditation retreat in the Hamptons. By the time she left she had to seek professional help to handle the anxiety. She says:

"it was like I had post traumatic stress disorder, I started waking up in the night in a panic. I thought about stopping meditating but it was grounding me and I knew I would have to deal with this stuff at some point. I'd worked non-stop to keep it away. I couldn't commit to a relationship and became hooked on exercise. I was always the first one in the gym at 5am. It was time to get the help I knew I needed."

I love meditating because it acts as an anchor, gives me a foundation and keeps me calm. However, it's the retreats that do me in. Spending a week disconnected from normal life and daily distractions is a recipe for disaster.

Photo by Frame Angel

In these retreat centres, there's no WiFi and I'm sure they plant them in deepest Wales where you can't get any 3G let alone make a call. There are no books, newspapers, radio or magazines. In fact there's very little colour, it's all muted green's and reds. There are log fires, quiet corners, woody walks and other people having melt downs.

It's OK for the first 2-3 days but after that all hell breaks loose. By day 4 I walk into the teacher's room sobbing my eyes out, begging to know what's wrong with me. They smile and tell me to keep meditating. I sob more. They smile more.

We don't live in an expressive culture and we're taught at a young age to repress our feelings. Crying is definitely frowned upon. However, meditation brings us home - to ourselves - and that can be scary. It lifts the lid of the cookie jar and suddenly our inner life is in front of our eyes. What this book inadvertently highlights is the 'disconnect' between our modern 24/7, fast paced state and our natural self.

Once I started TM meditation on a regular basis, and went on a retreat, I had to steady myself through the tricky bits. I took up yoga, better eating and got myself a great therapist. Best decision I ever made. The mania no longer surfaces and the inner peace is ever present.

If you plan to go to on a meditation retreat can I recommend you pack some comfort food, a box of tissues and map to the teacher's room. Good luck.