☠️ The Warning Label
Meditation, like every medicine, should come with a warning label.
I wanted to start by just saying that the way that I think about meditation, at this point is, is as a medicine. It's a type of medicine. It's, of course, not just one thing, there are many different kinds meditation and styles of meditation, but all of them, at least the ones that I've studied, have at the core of their intention to be able to heal some sort of ailment or make something more whole.
I was thinking about the mindfulness movement, which is extraordinarily popular now, but the origin story of how mindfulness started. Not mindfulness with a big M, but Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It's started in the basement of the UMass Medical School where this molecular biologist trained at MIT named Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is also a meditator, as an meditator and Vipassana meditator. He started a program with several others to teach meditation in a way that sort of stripped all of the explicitly Buddhist and religious elements out and just taught what he saw as the core technique and did so within the context and the frame of medical intervention.
At the beginning, the way he tells it is that they would actually send patients down to the basement who couldn't get any relief or couldn't get significant relief through other interventions, through surgery, through medication, through talk therapy. It's sort of, especially people with chronic pain who had tried basically everything and couldn't get relief, and they sent these folks. It was like last resort down to the basement with Jon Kabat-Zinn and some other meditation teachers, and out of that because the folks that went down there, many of them did get some very significant relief. Maybe not that type of relief they were expecting, but they were able to learn how to cope with and deal with the pain that they experienced on an ongoing basis or with the illness or the terminal diagnosis they were given. Out of that, developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, which is very much framed in terms of a kind of medicine or medical intervention.
If you go back even further, back to the original time of the Buddha, one of the core models or teaching frameworks that was being taught then was also framed in terms of a medical model. That the Four Noble Truths, it was framed primarily in terms of this classical Indian medical model where you start off with the First Truth: life contained suffering. This was the diagnosis. This is like, this is the way it is. The Second Noble truth was about the cause of that suffering, and they talked about in terms of craving or trying to grasp onto certain kinds of experiences.
In the medical language, that's the, hopefully I'm saying this right, Lisa can correct me if not, the etiology where something arises from, the causes of the diagnosis. Then the Third Noble Truth being about how there could be an end to suffering, there could be an end to this particular variety of suffering. That's the prognosis. Then finally, the Four Noble Truth was about this particular path and how to get there: the full path or the three trainings of ethics, meditation and wisdom, and that was the prescription. This is what you do to kind of resolve the ailment that is ailing you.
From the time that meditation started to proliferate, already it was framed as in terms of a medical model that made the more sense. One of my first teachers, the first teacher I really worked with extensively is a fellow named Daniel Ingram, and he is a medical doctor who works in emergency rooms. He works in Northern Alabama, which from what I gather from him is one of the most challenging places to be in the emergency room. I guess it also probably pays better. That is why he's probably down there. Something that he said early on as I started working with him was, that it was crazy to him being a medical doctor having gone through all that training, at the same time done all this hard-core meditation training, that unlike in medicine where every form of medicine has to come with some warning label.
It may not literally a label on bottle, but it comes with some acknowledgment of the various side effects and cross effects and possible things that can happen when you take the medicine that aren't necessarily things you want to have happened, but they might be just part of the deal. That is crazy that that was a legal requirement for almost 100 years in the West, but that meditation had no such warning labels, at least in modern times. He was a big advocate for being open and upfront about the possible side effects of hard-core meditation, to use the medical analogy of meditation where you get the dose high enough and you take it long enough to get the intended effects.
I wanted to start off this kind of broader exploration of different ways to train the mind and to meditate with this really upfront acknowledgment that there are side effects, and the side effects are important to understand to have some sense of what could arise and some sense of what they mean and how to work with them. I sort of came up with the side effect label that I would put on the bottle of meditation. I don't think this is totally comprehensive or it's supposed to cover everything, but it's kind of what I found to be helpful description of the side effects.
For me, the side effects of meditation include an increased sensitivity to the full range of your human experience and the potential dissolving of who and what you take yourself to be, and this can lead to periods of existential grief, anxiety and depression, so that's the "Meditation: The Warning Label" that I would put on the bottle. I wanted to kind of go into that and explore kind of what I mean by that and why is it that if we're doing this practice that's medicine, that's considered a way to heal body and mind, how that could be leading to periods of grief or anxiety or depression which we normally think of as problems themselves.
I think it's worth saying that it's interesting that not a whole lot of meditation teachers in the last few decades have led with us. It's not that they don't talk about it, but it's usually that is the first thing they talk about. Something they talk about when you're like on day four of a hard-core retreat and everything starting to shake a little your perceptual field, or they talk about it with close students, people that they know well who they can see are having some of these effects. I think part of the reason might be that since meditation is so new in the West or has been so new that there was a sense of them, this is such a great thing and we don't want to ruin it by talking about all the bad things first. We don't want to hurt the marketing efforts essentially.
I don't know. I don't know what it's like for the different teachers up there and how they teach, but I know for myself it's felt really important to bring it up front and center. There are lots of historical precedents for that as well. There actually has been a warning label on the bottle of meditation. The ancient contemplative texts in the Buddhist tradition referenced them, hold them. Every single one of them talk about the difficult phases and stages and experiences that can come up when you meditate. Modern researchers now are studying them officially.
One woman who we've talked to several times on the Buddhist Geeks Podcast named Willoughby Britton. She's based up North, Brown University, and she's been studying what she originally started calling "The Dark Knight Project" sort of a reference to this Christian contemplative tradition text. Now, she's calling it the "Difficult Stages of the Contemplative Path Research," and she's been basically talking to and exploring all the various, talking with people who've done meditation practice and had these side effects and sort of doing an exhaustive look at what kinds of effects there are. I'm looking forward to her research coming out now, because I think it'll shed a real light on this. Not only are they mentioned in the ancient text and not only are researchers studying them, but people are experiencing them all the time; many without even knowing that they're experiencing the side effects.
A lot of people who get into meditation actually find this is a very common pattern that they start practicing, they really enjoy it, they get a lot of benefit from it, and then all of a sudden it's like things started going downhill, or suddenly difficult emotions start running up to the surface in a way that feels overwhelming and unbearable. Oftentimes, these are the side effects of meditation and not knowing that they stop meditating. They go, "Oh, I didn't sign up for this, and I clearly am doing something wrong because I heard meditation is about just experiencing total bliss and clarity and seeing the nature of everything that's arising. I didn't expect all of this fear and anger at my mom, ended up few coming out for whatever."
Yeah, these side effects I talked about them in my warning label as existential grief, depression, anxiety. The existential part I sort of put in the front there because it does seem to be the unique quality of the side effects of meditation. That it's about our existence, it's about these fundamental existence questions: Who am I? What is this? What's happening? Why am I here? The type of grief and anxiety and depression that I want to talk about is very much related to our existence, to our feeling of being alive and who we are. I think that's important because that differentiates these type of side effects from other forms of anxiety or grief or depression.
It's important, I think, not to confuse or conflate what can arise in meditation as a kind of meditative funk with, for instance, a seasonal affective disorder or postpartum depression or social anxiety, and these are different forms of anxiety and depression that have different causes and oftentimes have different or different responses are necessary. Now, it's difficult because we can't completely tease these things apart because we're human beings, we live in the modern world, and who among us doesn't have some degree of difficulty psychologically, physically, and then we go into meditation and then some of these natural side effects rise and suddenly we got all kinds of different challenging things kind of arising together. That's what amplifies these side effects that makes them more difficult to work with. It's what I think of as the cross effects, and let's just put it this way: it's challenging territory.
Let me start with the first one, and I was pretend as if there are no cross effects. We're just experiencing. We're totally psychologically mature people with no issues, and we go into meditation. I'm sure several of you are fit into that category here, and we go into meditation and we begin practicing whatever form or style of practice that we're doing. I want to bring up this quote from the meditation teacher Chögyam Trungpa talking more broadly about the spiritual path. He says, "Treading the spiritual path is painful. It's a constant unmasking, peeling off of layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult." I was thinking about grief in terms of this thing that Trungpa is talking about, how when we really engage in the practice of meditation.
No matter what kind of meditation I think, we start to see that we have certain identities or personas or masks. These masks are kind of like our provisional identities. At some point, we pick them up and we put them on. We may not even remember when, and they became provisionally who we are, at least in certain contexts, certain times. These are our masks that are very deep in terms of being a mother or a father or son or daughter, family member. These are also masks related to our function in the world: our job titles, CEO, administrative assistant, executive, coordinator of global outreach. You can just come up with every title that we take on, and our function at work becomes part of who we are, part of our masks. The deep mask of or a person or human being. We kind of inherited that one as soon as we came wailing into the world.
We have all these different ones, and some of them are deeper, some of them are more profoundly part of who we are and some of them are more superficial, and we pick them up and put them off without much trouble. When we see through the practice of meditation through direct sensory investigation that some of these masks are not who we are, in fact that we've imbued them with too much of ourselves and that we've actually there's a case of mistaken identity that we've taken ourselves to be the role or the persona or the function that we serve in the world, then there's a process of first shock, "Oh my God, I can't believe I thought that's who I was" and then gradually a process of dissolving those identities.
Interestingly, that doesn't necessarily mean that the masks go away. It just means that we no longer think they are who we are. In a very real sense when we engage in that process, we die to these sense of who we are, various kinds of sense of who we are. Any time something dies, whether it's an idea or a person or a role or mask, anything that we give importance to that we imbue with our attention and care; any time something dies and falls away, there's a natural grieving process, there's a natural feeling of losing something of loss.
For me, this really hit home couple of years ago when my partner and I had a failing business on our hands. Buddhist Geeks was a for-profit company at one point, and we started that way because we didn't know what we were doing, and we had at certain point wanted to grow and expand, do more, so we took on investment, we took on investors. These are all great people fortunately. We used their money to hire couple of new people and to build some things. Like a lot of enterprises like this, a lot of it didn't pan out, it didn't work, so here we had a bunch of money that we owed folks and a project that wasn't quite working, although it still had something really important to it, and we were no longer able to pay our bills.
At this point, we were living in Boulder, which was expensive, and we're like "Oh my God, how are we going to pay our next month's rent? We can't take any more money from these people." Knowing that what we're doing, our current strategy just isn't working. What I hadn't realized even though one of my mentors told me this is that part of what made it so difficult wasn't just that: here's our business, it's failing, and we have to do something and figure it out. It was that I had imbued my identity so fully with the project over the years, I had become Buddhist Geeks.
One my mentors warned me about this. He told me that this happens. He said every time someone starts a project or company, they have to merge their identity with it for a few, because it's insane. You're trying to do something that nine times out of ten fails, and so you have to become crazy and think that you are that, so that you can make it through all the days and nights where everything is like crazy, and you don't know how you're going to make it to the next day. What I hadn't realized was how deeply I had identified with the project and with that company, and so not only was it failing but like I was failing, I was dying. Two years ago, we made this move to here actually where my family lives. We hold up in Mars Hill, and one of my grandparents have a little guest cabin, and we fortunately were able to go there and just let everything fall away.
For about two months, I was in there just unable to do anything. I was just totally grief-stricken. There were couple things I was able to manage doing. I was able to continue doing the podcast and talk to people, but that was it. I couldn't work. I couldn't, I was mostly functional, but for the most part just going through a tremendous grief process, because I felt like who I was and all that this thing that I've given so much energy to was dying or dissolving. I didn't know what was going to happen next. For me, this was a real, it was a wake-up call to see how, even though I've been practicing meditation for all these years and I'm seeing all these provisional identities and seeing how they weren't true.
Here again, I'd fully merged my identity with this project, this thing outside of me and when it started shaking, I started shaking. That was a real process of grieving and having to let go of me as that and allow that to do whatever it would, to come back in whatever new form or to dissolve completely. I really did get to a point where I was okay with that, and that's where grief brings us eventually is to total acceptance of what's happened. In order to get to that point, we usually have to go through, and this is the hard part of grief; the deep sorrow and what someone's called the ocean of sadness. We have to actually feel incredibly sorrowful. We have to feel the deep sadness of loss itself of nothing being able to be held onto forever.
Once we're able to feel that and this is the sort of the way to work with the side effect is, you actually eventually get decent at opening to grief and sorrow and loss and accepting that that's part of this, then the grief process moves through. It's a natural process. It actually unfolds without any need for us to do a bunch. We just have to be there and show up and feel things, but it can be really hard and it can take a long time. For me, with Buddhist Geeks, it took several months to get to the point of being able to like intellectually acknowledge that this thing was actually not going to work, that that actually was dissolving in its current form.
That's just a company. I think about a loved one or parent or a sibling or a spouse or a someone close when they have a life-threatening illness or die; how much harder is it then to acknowledge the reality and feel the sorrow and sadness? Also with spiritual practice when we start to see that who we thought we were like since we were born, that who like we fundamentally think we are is actually not who we are and that itself begins to dissolve. How much even more sadness and grief is there? Yeah, I don't want to get too much into that, because it feels quite bottomless, but that's the process of grief and one of the side effects of meditation. If you really do it well, you get in touch with how everything is that we care for and we hold onto, that we cherish and that we imbue with our own sense of identity, is eventually pulled from us in some way.
Then anxiety. This is really interesting. I always joke with my wife that she's the master of anxiety. She would acknowledge that openly. When it comes to anxiety, the existential variety of anxiety, I was thinking about that and why is it that that arises when we start to practice and start to question and start to get into this meditative process. I was realizing that for myself, as soon as I started meditating, I started asking questions and in fact that maybe the questions came before the meditation. I started asking questions and thought of meditations and way to do this formally, but as children, most children go through a phase where like they are unafraid to ask any question. They'll ask every question that you could imagine: why is the sky blue, who am I, where are we from. They're just in a process of asking these questions for the first time, and so they don't have any answers to those question, that have any solid answers. I mean they have the answers people give them, but for them they're just like WTF, what is going on.
At a certain point, that WTF, we get answers, we inherit models, we get busy. We have stuff to do, we fall in love, we do stuff and in a way that questioning, of course, we can't sustain that level of questioning and maybe we nor should we probably sustain that level questioning, but in a way the meditative process is about returning to those questions, asking those fundamental questions again that we thought we had all sewed up already, that we had wrapped up, that society has wrapped up. Questions like who am I, what is this, what's the purpose, or what is a purpose for life that's worth living.
As we begin to open back up to those questions through meditation, it puts us back in touch with the feeling of not being completely shut or of not knowing exactly what the answers are, and that not knowing while it's always celebrated in spiritual circles as being like the penultimate or the ultimate understanding, it also comes with it very much of a sense of freaking the fuck out often. Because we know to not have the answer to the question who am I or what is this, is to open oneself to complete uncertainty. It's actually to open oneself to or to bring oneself right to the edge of insanity in a certain way, because consensual reality and how we operate in consensual reality determines our sanity, and so to question these things in a certain way is kind of insane, because you start to open doors that most people get uncomfortable with being open around you.
You start to behave in idiosyncratic weird ways often. You go out 10 months in silence contemplating these things perhaps, or you start putting into Google, "who and what is the nature of consciousness." I'm sure Google stating that, people, executives at Google, "What the hell?" That not knowing can bring up and can surface this deep sense of anxiety of dis-ease of feeling like something's not quite right here, something kind of subtly off, and maybe in a way that subtle feeling of anxiety is what brings us to ask the questions also in the first place. In a way, we all deal with certain amount of existential anxiety, but the degree which we let it in and we actually let it inform us and that we actually take it seriously instead of trying to ignore it or cope with it, that seems to be the thing that gets a lot of people interested in meditation. In part, because it's so deeply unpleasant and we much rather not be anxious.
We would like to find a solution to that anxiety, and may be the solution is enlightenment or being nonjudgmentally mindful moment to moment with our experience, and maybe then we won't feel the sense of complete groundlessness and uncertainty. It is the groundlessness, it is the feeling of not knowing but also not having a place to put our, to stand, not having a solid reference point that we can go back to every year. That is tied to the anxiety, but it's also tied to the freedom that can be discovered in the midst of this anxiety. There's a story that another of my teachers, Joseph Goldstein tells.
It's kind of like a metaphor for the spiritual journey and in the story, there is a skydiver who's going up to take their first jump, and they've got all their equipment on. They've been trained. They're up in the middle of the airplane like 10,000 feet or whatever, and then it's time to jump. They've done all this preparation. They've put all this effort in and then there's the exhilaration moment in the actual jumping, and this is like the big breakthrough experience or moments like "Wow. Jumping out of the airplane's amazing."
The next phase of the story is that the skydiver goes to pull the ripcord and realizes they don't have one, and this is the existential anxiety. This is the feeling of "Oh my God, I don't have a way to just let this thing down or to control this. It's out-of-control." The meditation practice gets us in touch with the out-of-controlness. We can feel it moment to moment. We don't even know what's going to happen next, so how could we possibly control it. The good news is the next phase of the story is that the skydiver, and this is a weird skydiving trip, granted, but the skydiver realizes that there is no ground, so he's flying through empty space, groundless, no parachute, but then realizes there's also no ground. There's no way that he's going to hit anything.
For me, what really, there was a turning point in my own practice when I realized that that fear and anxiety that would constantly and even sometimes predictably come up in meditation practice, especially when I was contemplating how impermanent, how everything's changing, that that anxiety, that fear is itself groundless. That groundlessness puts us in touch with the anxiety, but the anxiety itself is groundless, so here we are flying through empty space freaking out, but we're just flying through empty space.
When we notice that the anxiety is flying through empty space, that it doesn't have anywhere to land either, or anyone who could be stuck with it forever, then it also can dissolve and then we're left with a kind of openness and a kind of freedom in free fall, and that's in some ways the antidote to, or the way work with the side effect is to notice that itself, the anxiety itself is groundless. Again, it doesn't mean it's going to go away, although it might go away for short periods. It probably will come back up, because shit this is still groundless, but when we remember, oh yeah, this too is groundless. I thought for a second this is happening, it is someone real. No. It's not completely real. It's real enough that I'm freaking out right now, but it's not completely real, because I see that it's passing.
Then, the last side effect is existential depression. In the Warning Label, you remember I said the side effects of meditation may include an increased sensitivity to the full range of human experience where that increased sensitivity rate comes through training. We train our minds to focus more clearly on what's rising to be stably with, our breath for instance, or to notice our emotions and thoughts and body sensations to question, to incline our mind to open the heart, to just rest, just be in awareness itself. Through all of those modes, we are increasing various kinds of sensitivities to what's happening, to what's arising.
We're not just fueling the habitual thought based way of relating to experience. We're just constantly thinking about our experience. We're thinking about the world. We're actually dropping into our bodies, feeling our emotions, noticing our thoughts, and so we become much more attuned and much more sensitive to the full range, the panoply of experience that's unfolding in us and around us because we're not disconnected from each other, so we actually feel part of what each other's feeling too. In doing that, we open to so many new things. We open new states. We see things we've never seen before in our own minds and hearts, as I'm sure all of you have. We see discomforts and subtle tensions and pains in the body that we didn't know were there that we'd kind of been masking, and then we have to deal with that.
Ideally where this is supposed to lead, this increased sensitivity, is to what one of my mentors Ken Wilber called "Hurts more, but bothers you less." That is that your sensitivity is increased, so actually things actually hurt you more too. You feel the pain more acutely, the difficulty more poignantly, and yet at some points must also bother you less, because you have a balance with it and also the joys are that much more beautiful, but it's the hurt more part that really ties in with this side effect of depression, because the hurts more bothers you less. There's often a gap between the two unfortunately.
It starts off hurting more and feeling more pleasurable that we increase the range of what we can feel the sensitivity, and then often what happens and certainly what I've noticed is within that increased range and sensitivity, suddenly some part of our experience or some parts feel unbearable. They actually feel too much. It's like we turned up the volume of sensitivity and then we suddenly hear this unbelievably loud piercing sound that are like, that I can't, I can't listen to that, I can't open to that, that is too much, so in a way the sensitivity leads us into experiences that are overwhelming. They're designed in a sense to do that.
I'm just going to pull up some of my notes into and cut off of this place. There we go. Here we are. We're open. We're more open, more sensitive, and then suddenly something rushes in, that totally overwhelms us. It could be a new form of experience or pain in our bodies, emotional pain that we didn't notice there. It could be past traumas and hurts coming to the surface, and oftentimes our strategy, one of the only strategies we have for working with that overwhelm is to actually then deaden or dampen the range. It's like suddenly we practice opening it and now something came through this, just like blew us open, and we actually just we clam down. We find a way to actually compress the highs and lows back down to something more manageable.
That's one way of understanding depression actually, is that it's a kind of deadening or dampening of the full range of our experiences. Sometimes it's the opposite of what we're trying to do or what we start to do as we meditate open, and it's also, I think this is a really important point. It's also, there's a wisdom in it, because it shows us that there's stuff we can experience and it kind of enables us to not have to experience it. There's a wisdom of depression in that, but ideally and here's a thing I've been through this too.
When I went gung-ho into the meditation practice and when I first started, my wife, both of us were gung-ho headfirst, and we had some profound opening experiences and all the sorts of insights and we're excited and we're just dedicating our full attention to this thing, and then at certain point, we found ourselves sitting on the couch night after night, feeling kind of hopeless and not really knowing what to do with our lives. I'd like look over to her, and I'd say, "Honey, what do you want to do tonight? It's Friday night." We're like in our early 20s. "What do you want to do tonight?" "I don't know. What do you want to do?" I'll be like, "I don't know. What you want to do?" Then really we'll go like this like every single night for like 10 or 15 minutes, and so we eventually decided we weren't going to do anything. We would just like, sit there and read spiritual books or something.
We were both, at that time, dealing with this existential depression. We didn't know what the, what was the point of all this. We're like we thought it was like about happiness and the pursuit of happiness. We have these ideas and we deconstructed them now, and we'd opened into this kind of other realm of experience, and that even that was overwhelming and too much to deal with. Now, it's like we couldn't go backward, because we knew that that whole thing that was motivating us before was bullshit, and yet the thing we'd open into and thought was so awesome was also like too much to bear. Here, we just couldn't do anything. We were paralyzed for a while.
Fortunately, we had good teachers and good support structure, so we both were able to kind of realize how to get out of this. Mainly, what we learned is we just have to slowly with heartfulness and with care begin to like open to those things that were overwhelming, the pain, the loss, the trauma, all this things that felt like too much to deal with. Just slowly, we started to learn how to open to those things and to also let go of our ideals of what we thought this was about.
We thought it was going to be this like nonstop bliss fest, and it really turned out to be like some big highs and some big lows, so we had to come to terms with the reality of that as well. As we did that and as I think as meditators, as we are able to then open to the greater intensity because we have this increased sensitivity, eventually we start to be able to hold it and then it bothers us less. Then finally, it does bother us less. At that point, we start to notice that we have a kind of balance that we're both more sensitive, but we can also modulate the sensitivity. We don't always have to be like wide-open feeling everything. We can sometimes just kind of close down a little bit and kind of feel as much as we're able to feel.
We don't have to feel everyone's experience all the time. We can actually just kind of be silent and be with ourselves. We all have to mask the overwhelm with various things. We can actually just be with it, and in that comes a kind of increased confidence that we can deal with whatever comes. Anything that arises, we know eventually we'll be able to work with it. It might take a while and it might knock us off our feet for a while, but we know that there's an inner resiliency that starts to develop in being able to work with that increased sensitivity.
Then, depression becomes something that is like an old friend, this existential depression. You know you're going through at times when you're in over your head, and you know that that's part of the path, at least it has been for me, and that there are ways to mitigate, to kind of lower the dosage. Meditation or to go out and enjoy, going on walks, or taking that hot tub baths, to talk to friends, to get some perspective on what you're doing and interject some humor into the whole thing, and then it seems it's more bearable. It's not like doesn't have to become so intense and so hard core, which it does for some people unfortunately. That the dampening and the deadening itself becomes unbearable. That the depression itself becomes something we can't live with.
Yeah, these are to me some of the common side effects, and ideally when we learn how to work with them, they're passing. They come and go. They're not things that we have to worry about long term as being they're going to totally disrupt our lives forever. That the medicine of meditation continued to ... In effect, the side effects are what opens us, and the medicine is actually embedded in the side effects. They are teachers. They teach us how to open more deeply to our experience, to accept the fuller range of it and to see that this isn't some sort of pie-in-the-sky endeavor. It's actually about coming down and waking down into our lives more fully and being able to relate more completely to other people into the full range of their human experience, because we're not so different. Yeah, here's to enjoying the side effects of meditation and utilizing them as the path itself.