Meditation: what can go wrong

Yesterday’s post ended with a look at some of the effects and benefits of meditation, and some recent studies that show meditation is able to change your body and your brain–effects going far beyond mind or attitude. The lesson here is that meditation is real and it is powerful. Like anything that can produce powerful change, there are dangers, but this is not something that has received much attention in modern thought. Meditation is presented as a panacea—just sit and feel good and watch all your problems melt away. This is naïve and optimistic, and we must also consider what can go wrong.

The dangers of meditation

First, trying to relax can, for some people, actually lead to more stress. This is the well-documented Relaxation-Induced Anxiety Response, and one of the solutions is to meditate properly. The right mindset is to approach the practice with an open mind, free of expectations. If you try to force relaxation, negative effects can follow. This is probably not a severe side effect, but it’s something for the new meditator to be aware of—if you find the practice of sitting and trying to relax stressful, then stop trying to relax.

Meditation may also impair some kinds of learning. A recent study suggests that the practice of mindfulness may interfere with implicit learning. As Dr. Brett Steenbarger and many other writers remind us, implicit learning may be critical to success in financial markets. A number of academic studies have shown that even untrained traders were able to find and assimilate patterns in financial markets that they could not describe in words, and then act on those patterns properly. This is, of course, one of the major goals for traders and investors, and it appears to be possible that meditation may interfere with this type of learning. (Though it is unclear, to me at least, that the study actually examined true “mindfulness meditation’”)

Meditation will often free a lot of repressed energies and emotions. In some cases, this may not be constructive; people sometimes repress things for reasons. In extreme cases (e.g., PTSD), rapid releasing of repressed events can have very harmful effects, so this is something else to consider. It is certainly possible, for some people, that meditation may “shake things loose” that will need to be dealt with in another setting (e.g., therapy).

There have been other reported cases of meditation leading to more serious psychological problems, such as persistent dissociation, problems fitting into the real world, and, in extreme cases, psychotic breaks. This is an area we must approach with respect. The original goal of meditation was to lead the meditator to an awareness of his or her “true nature”, and an experience of the “oneness of all things and all consciousness.” Now, it makes sense that if someone has these experiences, that person might find himself with some complicated side effects. To a traditional meditator, some of these things might not be problems atll. A meditator who achieves, to put it in context of one of the traditions that created these practices, a sense of the illusory nature and impermanence of the Self and of his personality might experience a state of mind that modern psychology would seek to treat. In this case, meditation has done exactly what it was “supposed to do”, but the goals are squarely in conflict with modern life.

Historically, meditators have sometimes had other, more unusual, experiences. Visual and auditory hallucinations are not uncommon, and vivid dreams that seem to be (or, perhaps, are) full of meaning are quite common. Some of these experiences might be described as visions, and some can be profoundly disturbing. Meditators report effects that might be called psychic—knowledge of the future, of things at a distance, hearing other peoples’ thoughts, or seeing auras around physical objects. I realize that some of these things might be stretching the extent of what many readers are willing to believe, but, at the very least, realize that many thousands of people have reported these experiences. Meditation may “adjust” your perception of reality in some interesting ways.

There are also potential physical side effects: sensations of heat or energy, and sometimes involuntary movements of the body. This can be as benign as twitches in large muscle groups, or as extreme as forced contortions. (One tradition tells us that the yoga postures (asanas) in use today came from something called kriyas, which are postures the body is forced into as meditation unleashes certain energies in the body.) Pranayama (practices which control the breathing, sometimes introducing long holding of breath with pressure) can possibly have some physical dangers, and can further these dramatic experiences of a kind of energy moving through the body.

There is also the potentially frightening experience that has been labeled a “Kundalini Awakening”, in which an energy is said to awaken in the body, move through the body, and transform both the physical body and the personality. This experience is sometimes excruciatingly painful and disruptive to normal life, and it can go on for years. Yes, some of these things require a consideration of an “energy nature” to the body that is more than a little in conflict with our modern science and understanding of the body, but people have reported these experiences for millennia, and they continue to do so today. We must at least consider that something is going on here that might go beyond our normal, everyday experiences.

Avoiding the dangers

Now, let me pause after sharing a list of ominous dangers and side effects and say, once again, I am a strong advocate for the place of meditation in modern life and society. There is wisdom and healing to be found in meditation, and a host of very positive effects for stressed, modern people. However, we must consider the potential risks, and what to do about them. I think a good model comes from the tradition of Zen Buddhism, which practices a type of meditation called zazen–“simply sitting.”

If you sit in zazen, you sit in meditation, often for many hours each day. If you went to your teacher and said you were having visions, the answer would be simple: “Ignore them. Just sit.” If you said you were feeling energy moving through your body you would be told “Ignore it. Don’t fight it. Just sit.” If you said you had an ecstatic vision and understood the meaning of your life and of all the Cosmos you would might be reminded of the Zen proverb that says “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water. After Enlightenment chop wood carry water”, and probably sent away with the advice to “Ignore it. Just sit.” Many of the dangers of meditation come from a meditator either getting lost in a “side experience” or trying to fight it. The traditions that gave birth to these practices unanimously encourage the meditator to give himself up to the experience, to not be distracted by effects, no matter how dramatic they appear to be, and to simply continue with the practice.

An invitation

Getting started in meditation can be hard. One of the reasons it is hard is because so much of it is experiential—there is only so much that I can write that will have any meaning at all. I included just a hint of meditation in the psychological section of my trading course, and I was overwhelmed with the positive response. In fact, some of the most common comments I receive on the course are requests for more of this work, to go deeper, and to explore some new boundaries. Your requests have been heard.

Starting in late February, I am offering a guided, four week meditation experience for readers of my blog. With a little time commitment every day, we will explore a variety of techniques, consider some of the potential things that can go wrong, and, just maybe, you will find something that can become an important part of your life, your work, and who you are. So, if you are interested, check out that link, and follow me on Twitter (@AdamHGrimes) for updates and more information.


Adam Grimes has over two decades of experience in the industry as a trader, analyst and system developer. The author of a best-selling trading book, he has traded for his own account, for a top prop firm, and spent several years at the New York Mercantile Exchange. He focuses on the intersection of quantitative analysis and discretionary trading, and has a talent for teaching and helping traders find their own way in the market.