I believed the hype and did mindfulness meditation for dumb reasons-- now I'm trying to reverse the damage
[This post is in a long beta phase and may change as my reflections on the topic change. Some sections may be under-edited.]
I overdid it with mindfulness and meditation. I probably never needed to practice them in the first place. Like yoga, I was drawn to meditation because I was already good at it— I quickly saw the benefits because for me they were easy to reach. I was really flexible, so I quickly got into serious yoga practice. I was very observant, introspective, disciplined, and my senses were very sensitive, so I quickly “made progress” in mindfulness and meditation. I probably started at a level of mindfulness (or at least those aspects of mindfulness) which is a desirable endpoint for others. I dislocated my knee doing yoga, because I am excessively flexible, and because I was excessively sensitive and trained myself to be vigilant, I kind of broke my mind with mindfulness.
I’m embarrassed of what happened to me for a few reasons. Chiefly, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t think critically about what I was doing with meditation. Honestly, deep inside I think my revealed belief was that meditation didn’t do anything. If I had really believed it did something to change the mind, I would have had the mentality that it could cause harm as well. I would never have said to myself or anyone else that meditation had no effect— I was kicking my own ass constantly with grueling sessions, and I expected something from them. But I somehow didn’t think of “getting better at meditation” as reflecting changes in my brain, even though I gripe about it when anybody else forgets that all behavior has a basis in the nervous system. I viewed “do nothing” as a default state, almost how the brain should be, which is not justified at all. (I’m still angry at how I let mindfulness propaganda shame me and others for wanting or being accustomed to stimulation.) What I really wanted from those sessions was to experience altered meditative states and get deeper truths about the nature of awareness and enlightenment, and on some level I believed those states would be some kind of external truth I was accessing, not something I was generating by training my brain to be able to make them. I’m ashamed to say I accepted a lot of Buddhist beliefs like that at face value, and I realize now that, because of the focus on the mysteries of consciousness, hidden in my heart I had hope that Buddhism could provide the kinds of mystical answers that I had long ago concluded no religion could. I really did think I could learn the hack of "radically accepting" how everything is as it is and always be content, and I harbored a secret hope (subversive in Buddhism but common in its adherents) that if I became whatever "enlightened" was I would magically understand the universe.
I regarded the changes I saw from meditation as being not really changes at all, but a purer expression of how I was supposed to be, less clouded by distraction and unconscious autopilot. Some of them were pleasant, like noticing colors and details more vividly. I was more able to listen to and observe others without jumping in with my own opinions. The most exciting thing was being able to see more of my inner world. Readers of the blog will know that I’m quite fascinated with my navel, and getting access to more and more of it on demand led to a dangerous addiction. If I did anything wrong in my meditation practice— that is, completely against the advice of all authorities— it was seeking those sensations and insights.
(Whenever anybody raises the harms of mindfulness practice, inevitably they are told they are doing it wrong. This accusation is unfalsifiable, of course, and we don’t really know if the people with good results were doing it “right,” either. I’m sure I didn’t do the best job on the whole. All I can say is that I’m an educated and capable person who sincerely tried my best to learn to meditate, seeking instruction from experts and reading copiously about it along with other supportive practices, and in doing that I sustained the harms I'll enumerate below.)
I really thought that I was simply exploring new territory and learning static truths about myself. I did not realize what a dynamic, feedback-driven process messing with your attention is. I wasn’t just clarifying my attention like you would clean rust off a bike chain; I was deeply reshaping my attention at multiple levels. In short, I was teaching myself not to get habituated to stimuli and not to pattern-match via sensory deprivation, in particular by depriving myself of my default mode network inner monologue stream (“letting go of thinking”). Not habituating or pattern-matching are oft-exhorted goals because of typical mind fallacy: it’s common not to be nuanced enough. Many people believe that you can’t make too few assumptions, but it’s not true. We need heuristics for speed and to make room for the things that actually require nuanced attention. I felt the effects of reducing habituation and not pattern-matching across many domains, from verbal thinking to visual and auditory processing. Similarly, it's common to be excessively involved in "ego," or a self-image or self-narrative, and to benefit from loosening yours up and not seeing it as so solid. But when you attack your sense of self and try to train your brain not to build it up, you can lose things like proprioception and self-recognition.
There’s a lot more to my story on meditation, but I’m not comfortable telling all of it here. I’m just going to list the harms I am still dealing with today, about 4 years after ceasing serious meditation and 2 years after stopping meditating on purpose entirely. If you think you are suffering harms from meditation including things more serious than what’s listed below, or if you want to know about more serious possible side effects, you can message me through Substack, the (Wordpress) blog, the blog Facebook group, or you can check resources like Cheetah House for people who have suffered meditation harms.
So I find myself in a position where I want to undo a lot of the things I did through meditation. How would one do that? There’s not much of a template for this. In the West, mindfulness is treated as a panacea (or, I suspect most often, this is often a “belief in belief situation” and in fact mindfulness is a virtue signal whose actual effects are more or less placebo) and most people laugh at the idea that simply using your brain a different way could be harmful. I have done research into this over the years, but very little of the information out there is in the form of scientific studies (the biggest exception is the work of Willoughby Britton). It is mostly from talking with Buddhist teachers, knowing about neuroscience and, of course, my direct experience practicing meditation and being in my own mind that I’ve arrived at the hunches below. So take what I wrote with a big grain of salt— I'm merely sharing what I have tried and plan to try.
Some of these harms are neurological, some psychological, and some are harmful memes that I picked up from being immersed in the values around mindfulness, which I, again, accepted embarrassingly uncritically.
Broad spectrum solution: Don’t meditate.
This helps, but there are still a lot of patterns I installed that I need to more specifically uninstall, and there are some specific deficits I want address. People who could actually benefit from moving in the direction of my harms maybe should maybe should meditate.
Harm: loss of concepts
One of the general things that mindfulness meditation aims to do is teach the practioner to perceive sense data more directly and less filtered through preconceived ideas of what it is we're sensing. It seeks to show us that concepts are an illusion, everything from thinking you see a "table" instead of a composition of light and shadow all the way up to our own self-concepts. The biggest harm of reducing the tendency to pre-filter input through concepts is the processing time that it takes to bind all the shapes or sounds or ideas I’m hearing into something my brain can use. Mindfulness training puts the emphasis on direct sensory experiences— that’s what you’re really experiencing, not the "thing," really the concept of the thing, that you think is in front of you-- and so my processor is all gunked up cataloging a bunch of parts and shapes and surfaces before just seeing a table that I could use. I take in excessive extraneous detail and don't prioritize incoming information as quickly as a result of mindfulness practice. I can cope with it, but it creates a lot of friction without much benefit. I just changed my graphics settings to be stupid high and now the game runs slow. I don’t pattern match quickly enough and it makes my thinking slow and contributes to a foggy brain feeling. I have trouble chunking information in my working memory, at least compared to how I used to be.
- Anything that encourages rapidly taking in gestalts and total impressions
- Believing the world is real and external; having the mentality that the purpose of perception is to build my immersive model of the world, not to directly perceive sense data
- Thinking in terms of objects and stories, not just sense data
Harm: inability to accept "stories," fear of missing details of experience
This fear of making a perceptual or interpretive error leads to a constant sense of unease and bloat from maintaining a lot of unnecessary ambiguity in my models.
For me, the compulsion to deconstruct concepts came from a perfectionist fear of being wrong, so I’m trying on asserting "my" story more, both through interpretation and by changing the world to be what I want.
Harm: relaxation-induced panic
Relaxation-induced panic is a horrible catch-22 wherein relaxing is a cue to panic and become vigilant again. It’s a symptom most often associated with PTSD, and it’s a high up on the list of meditation harms tracked by Willoughby Britton. I experience this panic somewhat cognitively, and I know it is triggered by an awareness that I am not paying attention to the environment and noticing the details. I’m naturally quite neurotic and highly sensitive to threat, so I suspect that mindfulness training made me perceive lack of awareness as a threat condition. Adapting mindfulness to make use of my threat-detecting circuitry is probably how I got so good at “coming back to the present moment”. What I now think I was doing is not to the mindfulness brief: I wasn’t arriving in the moment with relaxed attention, and I was certainly in the trance of emotions like fear, but I got very good at maintaining cognizance that what I was perceiving and feeling was just a stream of sense data.
- The same things we offer people with PTSD and anxiety: titrated exposure, something to convince yourself it's safe to ignore lots of sense data
- Focus on only the best and most stimulating data from other domains, i.e. don't eat pizza crust, read just for plot without catching every easter egg, distract self from boring tasks with abandon
Harm: too sensitive and too reactive
I started out quite sensitive across the board. I had a high ability to discriminate and appreciate details that comes with a proneness to sensory and emotional overload (however valid the concept of the “highly-sensitive person” may be as a whole, the multi-domain sensitivity definitely describes me). With mindfulness practice, I tuned up that sensitivity at many levels. This is probably a good thing for less naturally sensitive people, but not for me. Willoughby Britton makes the point that the mindfulness craze has ignored a lot of neurodiversity in the response to mindfulness interventions by explaining that, although most people habituate to a sound like a gong ringing the more they hear it, a minority of people become more sensitized the sound and react even more when they hear it again. Mindfulness interventions have been proven to reduce habitation to stimuli, what is usually described within the originating traditions as “freshness of perception”. I was someone who reacted to door bell rings with a full-body startle before starting to meditate, and, although I can imagine using mindfulness to train myself out of that reaction the way that I trained myself to loosen the reflex to refer to my cognitive interpretations of stimuli (see Harm: loss of concepts above), what actually happened is that I became highly sensitized to stimuli.
I became more reactive in part just from noticing more stimuli, but also because of common Buddhist doctrines that encourage you not to distinguish between internal and external occurrences. All of your perception is you, and boundaries between you and other people or the environment, or ultimately between anything and anything else, are ephemeral and imagined (according to two of the three marks of existence, non-self and impermanence). I still endorse a version of the view that "you" are actually your whole world, not just the avatar in the world, but I don’t believe that your sense of self should try to reflect that— for practical purposes, I am inside my body, which is inside a larger world, and most things that happen in that world are causally disconnected from me. Many teachers will go further and say things like not paying attention to your world is rejecting it and therefore yourself or you will always be at war with yourself if you oppose the world, believing you are separate from it (I’ll replace these with an actual quotes when I track them down.) For someone with scrupulosity, this handy obsession with correct mental behavior was a recipe for a new compulsion. And this compulsion, vigilance, was something I could be doing literally all the time in my mind— in fact, should be, according to these teachers.
- giving myself permission not to notice things as deeply
- cultivate awareness of separateness between myself and the rest of the world— what happens over there or in my perception is not necessarily my problem
- do not feel obligated to be fully present to the world
Harm: body energies
This one is actually pretty neutral in itself as far as I can tell, but it can be upsetting to have this mysterious and seemingly purposeful phenomenon happening inside you. I believe it has the same underlying cause as tinnitus or visual snow, but for skin and proprioceptive awareness.
- same as with tinnitus or visual snow: not tuning it up by paying attention to it or encouraging it
- when it comes, enjoying it as an idle sensation, nothing more
- resisting the urge to read significance into the movements of the energy
Harm: loss of 3D vision
This is related to loss of concepts. I can pop in and out of 2D and 3D vision at will, it’s just that 2D is the default, and 3D always feels more real. Whenever I pop into it, I feel suddenly aware that I have a back and that there are sounds behind me as well. I suspect that it’s like tapping into the immersive UI model setting of the mind.
- basically to go around trying to see things in 3D and not as sensory components
Harm: exacerbated neurological vision processing issues
Speaking of visual snow, mindfulness made mine way, way worse by encouraging me to notice it.
- ignore it
- focus on making a model of the world rather than faithfully noticing how every detail is actually initially experienced in my mind
Possible harm: difficulty hearing at noise or processing speech
(I have had ear exams that showed my machinery is good, and it’s so analogous to the visual processing issues I know were caused by mindfulness that I think meditation contributed to it)
- not paying attention to background noise
- trying to pay attention to the meaning of what someone is saying rather than the sounds they make, encouraging pattern matching.
If you meditate casually, don't freak out. I was meditating a lot. But please think twice about becoming a more serious meditator.
I think that for people are naturally very grounded, or have very solid fixed concepts in their mind, mindfulness might be a helpful intervention. But for people who are more like me-- the equivalent of the super flexible person attracted to yoga or the spiritual seeker secretly hoping for a miracle-- I would advise staying away from meditation. Not because I think you'll suffer harms like I did, but because I think you don't need it and it's probably a waste of time. Only explore your mind this way if you find it interesting, and even then, beware. You can affect yourself in ways most people don't realize by "doing nothing."