How to make meditation 'safe'?

I was reading a few articles and in the process of listening to a podcast interviewing Dr Willoughby Britton ( Willoughby Britton - When Meditation Causes Harm - Mind & Life Podcast (mindandlife.org)) about the adverse side effects of meditation from her research. See some more references below. This might have been a topic discussed back in 2021. My curiosity comes from 1. someone who is practicing, 2. going to start training in MBSR. I want to understand if in the sutta, there were warnings about meditations, or any other commentaries or traditions that offers a ‘guidebook’ as to what and how to support meditators who might not be following the path as instructed? I understand back in 2021, the discussion was around learning meditation through apps, and certainly many are doing that, with the popularity of so many meditation apps, as well as meditation courses online. The DIY culture of everything. What are some of the things teachers and students should look out for to prevent one from going down the wrong path?

When I think of Yoga, it is taken out from its spiritual context and offered just as exercise, and so is meditation to certain degree, as a ‘feel good’ / ‘feel all’ kind of practice. I don’t think non buddhist realise ethics, noble 8 fold path and brahma viharas are some of the other aspect of the practice with my own experience, should also go hand in hand with one’s meditation practice.

What went wrong with doing causal meditation one off courses, or coming out of intense vipassana meditation retreats and keep practicing without a teacher or sangha? In other words, what are the key elements that needs to go with meditation according to the Buddha, and the main schools of Buddhism, which allows for practitioners not to go into the dark path?

The understudied risks of mindfulness | Alumni & Friends | Brown University

Prevalence of meditation-related adverse effects in a population-based sample in the United States - PMC (nih.gov)

The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists | PLOS ONE

The Side Effects of Meditation No One Talks About (vice.com)

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I don’t have a full answer to this question at the moment, but there are some red flags to looks out for. From the Vice article you linked:

He had begun meditating in August 2017. His gateway was a book, The Mind Illuminated by John Yates, and then Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha .

And these are two red flags right here. There are threads on this website about these two teachers already; it suffices to say: stay away from them.

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The meaning of ‘Bhavana’ should be understood in terms of arising and growth. In my opinion. Especially kusala dhammas are meant. But it may happen that trying to meditate one may be actually engaged in akusala bhavana.

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The Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha was clear that mindfulness and immersion (sati, samādhi) are only “right” if they are supported by Right: view, intention, speech, action, livelihood and effort.

These situations are caused by people jumping right off into the deep end of meditation without even trying to shore up the fundamentals first: generosity, kindness, honesty, ethics, forgiveness, patience, etc. Without these qualities, the mind will always remain bifurcated, restless, and cannot achieve calm or insight no matter how much you try to force it. But with those wholesome qualities, you need not make a special force of will: calm and insight “naturally arise for one without remorse.”

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In the counselling world meditation and mindfulness practices are contraindicated in cases of trauma, depression, and depersonalization/derealization.

I suspect that many people who have severe negative reactions to meditation retreats have either an unaddressed issue like one of those above, and/or lack a sufficient understanding of the path to properly integrate meditation experiences.

Also, I trust monastics who have been teaching other monastics and lay people for decades have a much better understanding of the range of meditators and what they need than someone who took a course to be a meditation teacher.

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And schizophrenia and probably others, no doubt!

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I agree that more research is needed into the potential dangers of meditation practice, especially given it’s rising popularity.

I think the type of meditation being practiced when incidents occur is important context if we’re going to learn from them. From the vice article I can’t tell what type of meditation was being practiced. Were they simply watching the breath or trying to directly observe mental phenomena? Perhaps they were using a mantra?

It sounds like they were all practicing quite seriously, so intensive practice is probably a common factor.

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Hi @Noone-is-here , this is a good topic and it’s been explored several times on the forum already. You can search using terms like Meditation and Safety.

There’s a few suggestions and a list of resources also here in this thread which was more specifically about existing mental health conditions but you might find it useful:

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I am not aware of these two authors, I’ll be looking them up now!

I certainly believe that is one possibility, Dr Britton dismissed it by saying even meditation teachers got into trouble, and I have also know someone who committed suicide who was a mindfulness teacher. Although I did not know what his qualifications nor how long that person has been doing this for, and if there were other hardships in life. I suspect there are other factors which is, just like many who wants to master a skill, one would get a competent teacher who is familiar with the field or has demonstrated skills and insights, in this case, I would say monastic Sangha with many years of rigorous training or lay teachers whom have been trained by Monastic as well. Perhaps there is a question of how does one know who is competent? Sometimes vassa or years on cushion doesn’t mean someone is wise and can advise meditators.

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Any suttas you can think of, I can explore this a bit more? :pray:

That is a great point, any suttas that anyone know talks about Akusala or Kusala Bhavana?

Many suttas talk about the right vs wrong N8P… e.g. AN 10.103 Not sure what you’re looking for specifically?

In the last bit of my reply, I was quoting AN 11.2

https://suttacentral.net/an11.2/en/sujato

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The following information regarding ‘the best teacher on Samatha and Vipassana meditation’ may be useful for your question:

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Off the top of my head, Aharasutta SN46.51.

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If someone wants to make meditation safe, he should be virtous and learned regarding the five hindrances and all the defilements that can come up in the mind.

He should learn that the Dark Night stage was not taught by the Buddha. He should learn that fear, anxiety, excitation to have this or this vision, excitation to have this or this insight, conceit of superiority, equality and inferiority are all hindrances.

He should read the suttas and listen to or read Dhamma talks from wise people like Ajaan Chah, Ajaan Maha Bua, Ajaan Thate, Ajaan Paññavaddho and Ajaan Geoff. If he speaks thai, he can listen to Ajaan Singtong’s talks.

In other words, he should have right view inside and right view oustide.

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On the other hand, according to right view, mind and thoughts are not mine and can never be mine. They only act according to their own causes and effects. Thus even due to mediation, dark night and other psychological disorders may occur. Specially when trying too hard and stressing neurons, these may occur.

If one follows closely the best teacher on Buddhist meditation (i.e. ‘right view’ and ‘mindfulness’) suggested above (How to make meditation 'safe'? - #15 by thomaslaw), it is certainly not only very safe but also mentally very healthy at all times.

When I first encountered the idea of meditation as having a “dark side” in an article, I was immediately curious. As I read the article, I realize that the kind of meditation it was referring to was what I call “escapism meditation”. It’s a kind of “spiritual bypass”, a term introduced by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. This kind of meditation contradicts what the Buddha taught as found in the Suttas.

I’ve written about this in my book: What You Might Not Know about Jhāna & Samādhi.

To briefly answer your question “How to make meditation ‘safe’?”, have the right ideas about meditation, because your ideas about meditation determine how you meditate.

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I agree, and I suggest that one stays with the teaching/teacher until one is firmly grounded, and then, I would say that one is ready to continue in one’s practice, and open up to other teachings/teachers.