Nicole Kidman as Masha in Nine Perfect Strangers

Researchers discuss the risk of psychotic outbursts in meditation

Spiritual retreats might be in fashion, but what studies have been indicating is that even people without a history of mental illness could be triggered while practicing meditation for long and intensified periods.

Disclaimer: This is the translation of an essay originally published at TAB UOL.

Released last year on Hulu, the series Nine Perfect Strangers is an adaptation of a book with the same name, written by Liane Moriarty. Starring Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy and Michael Shannon, the series features a spiritual retreat led by the Russian guru Masha Dmitrichenko (Kidman). Full of rules and secrecy, and a long waiting list for very expensive reservations, the spiritual retreat became famous both for receiving celebrities and for being the stage of an accidental death.

As the episodes go by, we realize the series is not necessarily criticizing spiritual retreats and mindfulness gurus that are multiplying in the Western world. But, nevertheless, the story is successful when portraying the anguish and uneasiness that take the guests of similar dependencies. After reading David Kortava’s article at Harper’s Magazine, I couldn’t think of anything else but this series.

This is because Kortava tells the story of a woman who suffered a psychotic outburst while hosted in one of these retreats — something that also happens in the series, by the way. But, in this real example, the woman didn’t exactly receive proper help and, in the end, she was admitted in a psychiatric hospital. Even without any history of mental illness, the patient developed severe symptoms of psychosis after spending days practicing long and intense meditation exercises. And even though we may want to believe this is just an isolated case, there is evidence that this is not exactly true.

Kortava mentions the research done by Willoughby Britton, a clinic psychologist and neuroscientist at Brown University. Once a meditation evangelist, Britton has considered another perspective on the practice while doing her PhD research. Besides the clinic studies, Britton also visited several retreats in which she was told dozens of horror stories experienced by the guests — psychotic outburst and cognitive disturbances were some of the most common incidents.

Although these outbursts can be temporary, there are cases that can last years. According to a guest interviewed by Britton, meditation, which is a practice that aims for detachment, has sabotaged her mind by making it unable to register new memories or even remember simple things like the meaning of a color (red for something forbidden or dangerous, for instance). Britton also collected reports of people who were less able to feel emotions, even if they could fulfill their daily tasks like making the bed or driving their children to school. The problem is that none of this had any emotional connection to them.

In the case of this article published at BBC though, we learn about a study made by researchers from the State University of New York which indicated that meditators can suffer from unexpected and undesired effects such as becoming more selfish or less empathic — being this due to an intensification of a previous treat or not. According to this research, one of the reasons behind this change is the fact that mindfulness practices indeed work when the goal is to reduce stress and negative emotions. However, not all negative emotions should be reduced or alleviated, since they are important to guide our morality. The feeling of guilt, for example, is something that makes us apologize or do something that could mitigate our mistake, but what mindfulness meditation teaches is how to ignore emotions like these, thus making it unlikely that meditators make decisions based on morality.

Eight experiments were performed with 1,400 people who were evaluated according to different methods. In one of them, participants needed to write about a situation in which they felt guilty for something. Then, half of these participants would do an exercise of mindfulness breathing, while the remaining ones could simply let their minds wander. By the end of the exercise, the participants answered a questionnaire that measured their levels of guilt and received another task, which was to imagine that they received 100 dollars which could be donated to that person they did harm, according to their report.

What this study demonstrated was that those who did mindfulness breathing exercises felt less guilty, so they were less generous with the money they would give to the person they harmed. On average, these participants only wished to donate USD 33,39, while the other participants that simply let their minds wander had an average of USD 40,70, a difference of almost 20%.

Of course, these studies do not give us the allowance to think that every and each mindfulness meditator has despicable behaviors. However, it is interesting to see how the popularization of the practice and even the encouragement towards it have turned into a new way to pursue redemption in our times. In catholicism, going to the mass, praying and confessing can work as moments of meditation and reflection for a person.

In the case of confession, the Bible says: “If we confess our sins, He is loyal and just to forgive our sins and purify us from all injustice.” In other words, in case someone confesses their act, they will be forgiven by God. On mindfulness, there is not exactly a connection with a moralizing entity. On mindfulness, resources found in religious contexts are used, but here they are emptied from all the religious meaning. Even though “mindfulness”, in itself, means full attention to the present, this set of techniques we currently know is the result of an adaptation supposedly made by someone called Jon Kabat-Zinn. Buddhist meditation was reviewed and emptied from its religious connotation to become a means to alleviate stress. But it is this very objective which makes mindfulness meditation a practice so distant from what is performed by Buddhist monks.

As mentioned in Kortava’s article, the meditation style practiced by Buddhists in the 5th century a.C. had no intention to reduce stress or alleviate negative feelings. It was rather a contemplative practice which was designed for monastics that relegated all their belongings, social position, wealth, family, comfort, and job. Buddhist monks therefore use meditation as a means to transcend all that is mundane and break with the cycles of reincarnation, thus achieving nirvana. In the case of the Pali suttas, some of the oldest Buddhist writings, Buddha describes meditation as a practice that is almost exclusively dedicated to followers who decided to reject all their mundane belongings.

In the case of mindfulness, there is not necessarily any abdication from habits and belongings — in the case of some retreats and gurus, you actually need to be wealthy to access them. Mindfulness therefore, in a general sense, aims to mitigate negative feelings that come from a routine marked by consumption, work, study, leisure, and relationships. In both cases, we are speaking about practices that aim for changing the individue in face of the world, but, in Buddhism, the monk “removes himself” from the world. For those who stay, how is it possible to distinguish when a meditator has really improved and when they simply succeeded in repressing and alleviating negative feelings, without necessarily learning how to deal with them or grow from them? In other words, are mindfulness meditators simply learning how to “block” these negative stimuli, which, despite being painful, are important for our personal development?

In the BBC’s article, we learn that the researcher Andrew Hafenbrack, from the University of Washington, found out that mindfulness breathing can actually impair meditators from feeling guilty and responsible. However, when the loving-kindness meditation technique is used, a technique that inspired the Buddhist practice of Metta Bhavana, results are different. In this case, the technique involves contemplating people that are part of your life: friends, relatives, colleagues or even strangers that are part of your daily life, and how to cultivate good wishes and feelings for them. Hafenbrack understood that, with this kind of meditation, people actually felt more open to fix the mistakes that made them feel guilty compared to those who practiced mindfulness breathing.

Curiously, I am reading a book that mentions the concept of disenchantment of the world proposed by Max Weber. He suggested that when religiosity is abandoned, individuals would then use ethics and philosophy, as well as scientific concepts as their morality compass. However, what we see these days, being it through the work of Yuval Noah Harari or other commentators that are less focused on technology, is that religion (the feeling and the pursuit) have not grown less important or urgent, even in times of intense technological and scientific innovation such as ours.

Mindfulness, while a secular version of Buddhist meditation, has therefore proved to be an attempt of reconnection (religion comes from the Latin word religare, which means reconnection) which lacks the detachment of the mundane and trivial. Adopted by corporations, the method has been used as a means to address issues in productivity and the mental health of employees, thus being less about cure and more about a stitch.

What the studies mentioned in the articles published at Harper’s and BBC indicate is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, it is this universalization that can be very dangerous to the point of potentially becoming a trigger even for people who have no history of mental illness. In spite of the trend on searching for spiritual retreats and practices, what these studies show is that it is important to be cautious even in the case of rituals that don’t involve the consumption of any substances.

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