ARTICLE on adverse consequences of meditation, invokes neuroscience

Fascinating article on potential adverse consequences of meditation. References neuroscience as possible explanation.

# When Buddhism Goes Bad: How My Mindfulness Practice Led Me To Meltdown

Extensive discussion of the work of Willoughby Britton, Ph.D., who works in this area and who would make a great Night Club guest (@Andrew, hey yo).

Her clinical neuroscience research investigates the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and body in the treatment of mood disorders, trauma and other emotional disturbances. She is especially interested in practice-specific effects, and moderators of treatment outcome, or in other words “Which practices are best or worst suited for which types of people or conditions and why”. She recently completed “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience” study which investigates the full range of experiences that can arise in the context of contemplative practices, including experiences that could be considered difficult, challenging or adverse.

As a clinician, she has been trained as an instructor in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and has taught mindfulness to both clinical and non-clinical populations. She has also completed three years of training for treating trauma and destabilized nervous systems. She now specializes in helping meditators who are experiencing meditation-related difficulties, and providing meditation safety trainings to providers and organizations. [LINK]

She co-runs Cheetah House, which helps people experiencing psychological problems caused by meditation.

A snippet from the article:

Britton explained to me that it’s likely that my meditation practice, specifically the constant attention directed toward the sensations of the body, may have increased the activation and size of a part of the brain called the insula cortex.

“Activation of the insula cortex is related to systemic arousal,” she said. “If you keep amping up your body awareness, there is a point where it becomes too much and the body tries to limit excessive arousal by shutting down the limbic system. That’s why you have an oscillation between intense fear and dissociation.”

She suggested I try a trauma therapy called Somatic Experiencing and invited me to her support group for meditators who have experienced acute distress. Their stories were validating yet heartbreaking: a steady stream of individuals using meditation in a search for relief from suffering and instead finding greater anguish.

While some were veterans of numerous meditation retreats, others simply dabbled with a meditation application. One woman, a clinical mental health worker, ended up in a psychiatric facility after her doctor recommended she participate in a 10-day meditation retreat. Numerous participants developed problems after using Sam Harris’s popular Waking Up app.

One might wonder if these wounded meditators had preexisting conditions that triggered these experiences. Most of us don’t, a finding similar to Britton and Lindahl’s study, which reported that 57% of practitioners suffering adverse effects didn’t have a trauma history and 42% had no psychiatric issues at all prior to meditation practice.


Really interesting article thanks for posting.

I think it would be really beneficial if possible adverse consequences of meditation and how to handle that would be openly discussed more often.


This really is interesting…and a little disturbing. Some of it doesn’t quite make sense to me.

He speaks of having four years of teaching experience and of being a long term meditator with 100 days of silent retreat under his belt before his disastrous experience with mindfulness. He speaks of a tumultuous and disturbing experience in 2011…were there no other signals of this problem that seems to have built to an explosive result? I do not have experience with retreat style meditation so I am curious if others here can chime in on how that could lead to this kind of problem.

I wonder if there are potential problems with focusing for all that time on just one style of meditation, as it seems that the author did. I also wonder if he was being honest with himself all along about his path. When he learned that this kind of thing was supposedly an “open secret”, he reacted badly. He states: “It was the first time in years I had dropped my Buddhist pretense and allowed myself to be truly angry”.

Is meditation being over-hyped for commercial gain with not enough regard for the personal path of each practitioner?

I can’t help but harken back to Tilopa’s Mahamudra transmission to Naropa where he said:

"You will discover the path of Buddha when there is no path of meditation.
By meditating on non-meditation you will attain the supreme bodhi."


Yeah, I‘m a little surprised, too and was even hesitant to post…

It is well known by any qualified meditation teacher that when one goes into longer, deep meditation retreat, when working with the tectonics of substrate mind deeply, then - after some time - there can be (not necessarily will be) emotional and mental upheavals. That is why in some retreats there is time for private meetings with the teacher and even sometimes a „buddy system“ to check on one another’s situation.

Not everybody gets strong upheavals, but if some traumata, which are lodged psychosomatically, are released, the practicioner may be overwhelmed.
A good friend of mine went once very deep into emptiness but mentally contracted and was fearful of „losing her identity“ (a fear of annihilation) that she had to stop and is hesitant to go to that place again.

This sort of thing usually does not happen by „only“ practicing one hour a day or so, but can during long and deep submersions in retreats and depending on the type of meditation.

These upheavals can be overwhelming but - if one has no major psychological trauma-situation and if one is supported by a qualified teacher - these experiences can be transcended and can mark a major milestone on the path.

Having re-read the article, another thought popped up.
If one practices singular mindfulness full-time, full-focus and takes it to an extreme, there seems to be something missing in that kind of practice.

Sensory imputs/impulses become overwhelming when one has “raised the gain of one’s microphone to maximum”. That would actually happen to probably most meditators.

Having great respect for John Kabott Zinn and the MBSR movement, I agree with B. Alan Wallace that mindfullness is just one factor to be developed, others are needed, though.

There is a good reason why traditional meditation trainings start for example with single pointed meditation. Single pointed meditation calms the mind and makes it stable.

A raw, highly accentuated mindfulness, which amplifies any and all sensory or mental or emotional fluctuation will of course be a horror show, if the mental factor of calmness is not equally developed.
Mindfulness can develop into Vipashyana, but only if there is a stable mind.


I too am suspect with this guy because Buddhism only has an issue with anger IF we react non-lucidly to it. My understanding from my studies is that one becomes mindful and feel the emotions that surface but we continue to feel into it until it dissapates on its own. It may take awhile but we definitely don’t act out our anger as that is what the Buddhists are more concerned with. It’s not feeling the anger, but reacting to it with unhealthy expressions.

The other thing that comes to mind is CO2 intolerance. Many people have an intolerance and this results from disordered breathing patterns and over breathing through the mouth that develops over time or after severe trauma. A long term disorder coupled with trauma (emotional or physical) can lead to panic attacks and anxiety which is what I experienced after my life threatening heart arrythmia. It would be interesting to rate those meditators that develop issues, what their tolerance to CO2 is. @KhyungMar is correct that traumas can come to the surface the deeper one goes with meditation and this can absolutely throw off one’s respiration - hence becoming severely intolerant to C02 which causes literally “insane” symptoms.

I learned all about this from my coach Brian Mackenzie and his team at SH//FT who train the military, war vets with PTSD and pro athletes. I discovered them after my doctors and heart specialist could no longer figure out how to help me with my continued racing heart (after my heart ablation procedure) and the symptoms they described is what I was experiencing. I couldn’t believe I had the same symptoms as war vets!

Here is the link to test your level at home in case anyone’s interested in learning more:

PS: When I first started this test last July 2020, I scored a 9 second exhale…a year later I’ve climbed to 59 seconds. I credit this from a years worth of dedicated protocols: taping my mouth shut at night (to encourage nasal breathing only), nasal breathing during strenuous exercise, and morning and night specific breath protocols.


Regardless of what you think of the author of the article, or what he says about his own experience, the most interesting part for me is the attention it draws to Willoughby Britton’s work. In a private message @Andrew thanked me for reminding him of her valuable work and indicated that he would see if he could get an interview with her. I hope that happens!

Andrew has a short article mentioning her work: Is There a Dark Side to Meditation?.

…the remarkable work of Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School. In what she initially called “The Dark Night Project,” but recently renamed “Varieties of Contemplative Experience,” Britton has brought scientific rigor to a muddied field. Everyone wants to tout the benefits of meditation (and get the funding to further prove it), few have the courage to play devil’s advocate. Britton has taken on that unpopular, but necessary, role. What is notable about her work is that it’s not just academic. Britton has established the Cheetah House, a place were recovering meditators can come to heal [insert link]. She puts her money where her mouth is.

He draws attention to an Atlantic article, The Dark Knight of the Soul: For some, meditation has become more curse than cure. Willoughby Britton wants to know why.

I haven’t read it yet, but it seems worth checking out for people interested in this important, and oft neglected, topic.



I’m glad she’s helping people. Her work is obviously needed. I remember back to the days I was working in an ultra conservative evangelical organization, I was told by my organizations Spiritual Director that I was in “league with the devil” because I was wanting to offer free yoga classes during the lunch hour for my colleagues (I am a registered Hatha yoga teacher). Its dawning on me now that they probably heard of people experiencing these negative symptoms after meditating and immediately assumed anything connected to yoga enabled the “devil” to cause trouble. Some staff actually banded together unbeknownst to me and created a petition to ban my classes! I learned of this from our Spiritual Director when he pulled me aside and decided to “enlighten” me on the dangers.

I’m also reminded of how when a person is trying to end their addiction to a hard substance like heroin, detox symptoms can make a person feel like they’re dying. It’s important to have people to guide them in managing their symptoms. I guess that’s what Britton is doing.

It would be very interesting to have Andrew connect with her and I’d definitely keep the recording handy to share with anyone else who believes the devil is to blame…haha


I would think that the danger that can come within intense yoga practice is real and possible if only in rare situations. This is why that kind of cultivation is recommended to be done in a careful context of qualified teachers.

But there is something else that engenders a more generalized ‘fear of yoga’ now present in the societal psyche among Evangelicals.

‘‘working in an ultra conservative evangelical organization, I was told by my organizations Spiritual Director that I was in “league with the devil” because I was wanting to offer free yoga classes during the lunch hour for my colleagues (I am a registered Hatha yoga teacher).’’

I had a similar experience in the context of a Children’s Library - our small NGO in the Mexican village where I live. We had lots of classes and activities besides lending books. The kids especially loved the yoga classes. B

ut then some of the kids who were strong regulars, stopped coming entirely to the library. I learned that their parents belonged to a Christian Evangelistic church and finding out we had given yoga classes, they forbid their kids to come to the library for anything after that.

When I went to talk with them, they gently explained to me that it was because yoga had it’s roots in Indian religions that worshipped the devil. They offered as proof, images of some of the Hindu gods. They told me they knew I meant well, but that I wasn’t seeing the dangerous slippery slope to Satan- in sheep’s clothing - that yoga classes present.

Their very bright ittle boy, who had been a daily regular, never returned to the library. Later he rebelled against their well intentioned strictness and ended up becoming a hitman for one of the cartels. True story. He is now in prison in Acapulco. I don’t think they have Yoga classes there. Looks like Satan reached him despite prohibiting the yoga classes and the books.


It is disheartening to see how some are so strictly tied to the teachings of their belief system that they are unable to benefit from other protocols.

In my readings I have seen that the Buddha was explicit on this point and this resonates with me:

“The wise one does not adhere to dogma”


“Examine all views, but not grasping them, and searching for the truth, I found inner peace”


Thank you SO much for sharing your story!!! I am not surprised at all. I can’t help but wonder how that little boy’s life could have turned up different had he had the freedom to find/practice truth that spoke to him.

The charity I worked for also had donors who held strict views. I actually had one donor stop sponsoring their sponsored child because the child (from Nepal I think) wanted to become a monk.

@Steve_Gleason Those quotes are golden and an antidote for unintentional harm… I realize how hard it is to live by those words when we’re steeped in ignorance and grasping.


see also: Making mindfulness meditation more helpful starts with understanding how it can be harmful

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In The Attention Revolution by B.Alan Wallace it is elaborately explained why it is important to first stabilize the mind by one-pointed mediation (Shamata) before moving on to advanced meditations such as Vipashyana or other forms of mindfulness meditations being practiced intensively.

If the „monkey mind“ is not calmed to an extent before, there is no use or sense in being mindful of it.
The „monkey“ will seem like King Kong and throw the unstable observer around.
For unstable, untrained meditators this can be a stressful tiring horror show with absolutely no benefit.