Can Buddhist Meditation be Dangerous?

June 17, 2016

1. A friend of mine alerted me to a recent article on possible dangers of mindful meditation:

Is Mindfulness Meditation Dangerous?

  • It seems that there are possible dangers in not only “mindful meditation” but other types of meditation too. I did a Google search and found that there are many articles, videos, and podcasts on the subject. You can do the same just to get an idea (try, “dangers of meditation” and “dangers of meditation youtube”) .
  • There is a recent book, “The Buddha Pill” by Miguel Farias (2015), which downplays benefits of meditation and also points to some reported bad outcomes.
  • There is a vast amount of misinformation out there. So, I thought of writing down my own thoughts based on the Buddha Dhamma that I understand and practice. In genuine Buddhist meditation too, one may encounter some discomforts as I will discuss below. But those are temporary and definitely not dangerous.

2. First of all, 99% of “Buddhist meditation programs” that are being taught and practiced today are not compatible with Buddha Dhamma, the original teachings of the Buddha. Let us first discuss this point.

  • The goal of the Buddha was NOT to teach practices and methods by which to attain temporary relief from daily stresses of life. Such procedures had been in practice even when the Buddha (Prince Siddhartha) was born 2500 years ago.
  • For example, breath meditation used by even Theravada Buddhists today was a practice that was rejected by the Buddha; see, “Bhävanä (Meditation)” section and in particular, “6. Anäpänasati Bhävanä (Introduction)“, which discusses breath mediation.

3. I do not either dispute or agree with the findings reported in the above articles or the above book. I do not know those specific cases, and it does not matter either because those meditation techniques are not “Buddhist meditations”.

  • There are many varieties of meditation techniques used by so-called “Buddhist meditators”; most are a waste of time and some are definitely bad. For example, one of the dangerous techniques is to try remove all thoughts that comes to one’s mind. One could lose memory (and perception) if this is done for a long time.
  • The Buddha said to stop IMMORAL thoughts, not ALL thoughts. There is a big difference between the two. Furthermore, he encouraged cultivating moral thoughts (Anapana is “äna” AND “päna”; see, “6. Anäpänasati Bhävanä (Introduction)“.

4. The suffering that the Buddha really focused on was the sansaric suffering, i.e., unimaginable suffering in some realms of this world which consists of 31 realms; see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma” or other posts on suffering.

  •  For a normal human, It is not possible to avoid births in the future in the four lowest realms (apayas) filled with suffering without attaining at least the Sotapanna stage of Nibbana. Not only any bad actions done in this life, but bad actions done in previous lives can contribute. We have been lucky to get this human life due to a past good action (kamma), but all of us have done both good and bad actions in our deep past.
  • Future births in the apayas is stopped not by “erasing” those past bad kamma, but mainly by a subtle mechanism which involves understanding the Buddha’s world view.
  • This website is all about explaining that complex process, but I can state what the end result is: the solution is to remove greed and hate from our minds which happens to a large extent when one comprehends the “bigger world picture” of the Buddha (which is called getting rid of ignorance of the correct world view or attaining samma ditthi).

5. Thus one could take one of three approaches:

  • One could learn pure Buddha Dhamma, the original teachings of the Buddha, and understand his world view. When one learns and comprehends this wider world view, one can clearly see the possibility of much suffering in future lives.
  • The other approach is to believe in the above stated conclusion, i.e., that getting rid of greed and hate from one’s mind will remove future suffering, and to start working on it.
  • But there is a third approach, which is to do both in parallel.

6. The third approach above is the best approach since it accelerates the process of cleansing. Furthermore, one can experience relief from not only future suffering but also in this life.

  • However, it must be understood that it is not possible to remove all types of suffering in this life by meditation. What we experience in this life are results of what we have done in the past. It is possible to avoid some bad outcomes but not all; see, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.
  • Another fact which is not discussed correctly is that there could be some physical discomfort one can experience when one really gets into deep meditation. But this is not dangerous at all, and is actually an indication that one is actually progressing!
  • The best way to convey the information is to describe my own experience (at least parts of it). Even though each person’s experience will be different, there are some common themes.

7. First of all, one does not even need to understand what Nibbana is in order to get started. Even though it is possible to describe what Nibbana is (there are many posts at the site), it is not easy to truly comprehend what is meant by stopping rebirth process, especially at early stages.

  • As an example, a child in the primary school may say she wants to be a scientist; that is her goal, because she has heard that it is a good occupation. But she has no idea what a scientist does.
  • In the same way, most Buddhists know that Nibbana is a coveted and worthy goal, but have no idea what it is. Most have not even thought much about it. They know that it involves stopping the rebirth process, but If pressed some may even say they do not “really want to attain Nibbana yet; I want to enjoy life a bit more”. That is because it is not easy to comprehend the dangers of such “enjoyments”.
  • However, the above child knows that she has to work hard and get good grades in school in order to become a scientist in the future. As she makes progress through the primary, secondary, and high school, she will gradually get a better idea of what becoming a scientist means and involves. It becomes even more clear when she gets a university education, and finally she may enter graduate school to actually become one.
  • Most Buddhists can be compared to that child stuck in the primary or secondary school: they refrain from immoral actions to some extent, but have not proceeded any further due to a number of reasons: lack of time, lack of understanding the urgency to do something before one gets old and the brain starts slowing down, etc.

8.  On the other hand, most beginners to Buddhist meditation may not have any idea what Nibbana is or even may not believe in the rebirth process. And one does not need to.

  • As I have tried to explain in many posts, Nibbana has many levels starting from just a relaxed state of mind all the way to stopping the rebirth process. One needs to proceed gradually, experiencing the increasing level of relief on the way.
  • Any reasonably moral person can see the benefits of living a moral life. Most religions teach how to live a moral life, at least to some degree.
  • The first thing to do is to try extending this way of moral living by incorporating factors that may not necessarily taught in other religions; for example, killing animals is not considered immoral in many of the major religions.
  • Killing other people for any perceived benefit is an inconceivably bad idea. We have to stop calling such ideas as “religious” regardless of the “religious label” attached. One would be bound for the worst sufferings imaginable for billions of years.

9. I think we live in a world today that is too “politically correct”. We are afraid to even give our honest points of view for the fear of being labelled “insensitive to other religions or cultures”. We should be free to point out and condemn immoral and harmful actions.

  • For me there are no religious or cultural boundaries; we live this life for about 100 years and may be reborn in a different culture which may follow a different religion; “Implications of the Rebirth Process in Daily Life and in Society“. However, it is not good to impose sudden cultural changes that could lead to major disruptions in societies.
  • My intention is to make as much progress as possible in this short time left, and to help others who may be interested.
  • I also think it is a disservice not to share with others something that one has experienced to be of value. It is of course up to others even to bother reading about it.

10. Going back to our discussion, one should try to avoid things that we know deep inside to be bad: engaging in dishonest and harmful behavior. This of course has many facets and levels. So, one should start stopping actions such as: taking advantage of others in any way, engaging is sexual misconduct, avoiding drugs and cutting down on alcohol, etc.

  • This gradual process is describe in detail in the first several posts in the “Bhävanä (Meditation)” section.  What I like to do here is to point out some key points that I think could be useful.

11. It is obvious that meditation, at least in beginning, does not require one to even sit down. Before one gets to that stage, one needs to remove some cobwebs from the mind that have accumulated over time.

  • Some people cannot sit down and concentrate anyway; the mind likes to wander around. This “agitation” is due to greed and hate, even though it may not be obvious. What breath meditation does is to force the mind to concentrate on breathing in order to stop this wandering temporarily.
  • And it does work for some people. But any calming effect is temporary. One may feel good during a meditation retreat, but when coming back to real life, the mind goes back to the agitated state.
  • Thus if one just does the standard “breath meditation” (without doing crazy things like trying to stop all thoughts) it is unlikely that they will experience any bad psychological effects, but it is bad in the sense of being an utter waste of time in the long run.
  • Many people I know to be meditators are stuck in this stage for tens of years, enjoying the temporary relaxation and refusing to get out of that “comfort zone”. By their own accounts, they have not made significant progress. But for some reason, they are still “being hopeful”.

12. Genuine Buddhist meditation is focused on long term effects. As the title of the book in #1 above implies, many people believe that going to a meditation session is like taking a pill for a headache; one is after a quick, temporary solution.

  • Buddhist meditation starts with stopping immoral activities that one can clearly see, such as those mentioned in # 8 and #10 above.
  • If one can persevere for a few weeks or months (depending on how much “cobwebs” are there), one should start experiencing a better state of mind. One will be able to concentrate on a given task (even a mundane task) better. In a few months one can look back and see that one has changed in some ways.
  • Then one can incorporate more “good habits” and discard more bad habits. One will start seeing the futility of lying, gossiping, and useless vain talk. These are discussed in detail in the meditation section.
  • By the way, one will be able to absorb more from the posts at this site with time too.

13. As time goes, one can try “sitting down” meditation sessions. Just sit in a quiet room away from disturbances, and think about a Dhamma concept. One could even read a post and contemplate on it while reading.

  • Actually, this is what I did in my early days. I would be sitting at my desk and either reading  a book or listening to a discourse on the internet from my teacher Thero. As I contemplated and started comprehending some concepts, I felt joyful in the mind, and I could start feeling a lightness in the body with time.

14. This is the beginning of a process that the Buddha described as, “preethi manassa käyö passaddathi, passadda käyö sukhanthiyathi, sukhinö samädhiyathi“. That means, “joy in the mind (from absorbing Dhamma) leads to lightness in the body, lightness in the body leads to happiness (niramisa sukha), and that leads to samädhi (enhanced concentration and a relaxed mind)”.

  • Once one starts feeling joy in the mind and lightness in the body, there is no stopping. Because now one can clearly see the benefits.
  • Then it becomes easier to grasp deeper concepts, which in turn leads to more joy, etc. and the whole process repeats and accelerates.
  • However, how much progress one makes depends on many factors. Some have practiced meditation in previous lives and they progress relatively fast. Regardless of the actual time taken, most should be able to make at least some progress. If it appears that one has not cultivated meditation in previous lives, it is time to start now.

15. When one is making more progress (especially when one begins to grasp anicca, dukkha, anatta), there could be some physical discomforts that one can feel. When I started feeling those, luckily I had heard about that from my teacher Thero’s discourses (by the way, I have not met the Thero or talked to him personally; both times I went to Sri Lanka he was not available).

  • Different people feel this kind of discomfort in different body parts above the waist. I am not talking about leg pains due to sitting cross-legged, etc. If a given posture becomes uncomfortable, one just needs to change the posture: one could straighten out the legs or go for a walk. Some people can sit cross-legged for longer times simply because they are more flexible or have had more practice.
  • Mine started in the head, throat, and hands. They were not painful at all; they are more like pressure waves. But if one did not know that it could happen, one could be concerned. Because it happens only during formal sit-down meditation sessions.
  • Other possible “symptoms of progress” are sweating and becoming thirsty (if this is the case, keep a glass of water close-by). Yes. all these are good symptoms; they indicate that the body is beginning to respond.
  • This was my first personal confirmation that it is not the body that gives rise to consciousness. It is ALWAYS the mind that controls the body. My mind decides when I want to do a meditation session. Furthermore, I can change my body sensations with my thoughts!
  • I have not yet heard anyone else experience it, but my body freezes when I get into jhanas (up to the third). It really freezes, like a statue. If someone comes and tries to pull my hands apart, it is difficult for them to do. But when I decide to stop the session, the body unfreezes within seconds. This is undeniable evidence that the mind can control the body.
  • The explanation for these (and other types of) experiences  involves the concept of the gandhabba that I have been discussing for some time now. These are discussed in, “Possible Effects in Meditation – Kundalini Awakening“.
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