Meditation is any technique that leads to changes in one’s perception of reality, and such changes can cause great harm if they occur without guidance within a structure of explanation that facilitates integration of these experiences into one’s understanding. 

I had an intuition and realization not too long ago that the explosion of interest in meditation, and the concomitant explosion of ‘teachers’ of meditation with little or no experience of the long term results of meditation, was going to result in the creation of an unfortunately large number of psychologically disturbed people who, while studiously attempting to develop mindfulness, would experience changes in perception and thinking in the absence of someone who could guide them through the changes, some of which can be extremely damaging and debilitating without guidance.

We need an explanation of what is happening and guidance so that we are not damaged by the experiences and are able to continue our practice so that we can move beyond it. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what explanation we receive, as long as it has the coherency to enable us to move on. As I’ve heard it said: “Better not to start; but if started, better to continue on to the end.”

I’m speaking, as always, from personal experience here. Starting meditation before my 7th year without instruction from a teacher left me very troubled and took 35 years to overcome on my own. Without an explanatory system to comprehend what was happening to me, I had to find my own way through it. I had stopped meditating, prolonging the damage. It was only after I had finally found a way to integrate the experiences that I was able to continue. Looking back, I see how unnecessary suffering that way was. 

I think we are facing a deluge of people suffering from experiences that they cannot understand because they have no guidance. The only saving grace here is that most meditators aren’t really very dedicated in their practice. 

Modern secular use of meditation, so-called ‘mindfulness meditation’, keeps the technique(s) of ancient traditions and throws away the deep wisdom of long experience. Science delights in the low-hanging benefits, derides the possibility of any other ‘real’ changes obtaining from the practices because they are couched in spiritual terms, and then acts surprised when negative things start happening. Typical. 

Meditation techniques lead to changes in perception and thinking–that’s their purpose. And these can be a good thing when properly understood. Yeah, sure, they lead to stress reduction and better concentration. But that’s just the start of an avalanche. 

That avalanche should be seen as a validation of the illusory nature of our ideas of reality. Instead, though, they are being seen as some kind of alchemical process that only touches certain people, an unwanted side effect of mediation that should be protected against. That’s the wrong takeaway, in my opinion.

Here’s one article on the problem of the ‘side-effects’ of meditation. That characterization isn’t mine. It’s the way the traditionally understood stages of insight that are the normal, progressive, effects of all types of meditation are being labeled by those who’ve never experienced them and their long range benefits along a path to enlightenment. The fact that they aren’t the desired effects of secularized meditation is what makes them a side-effect in the minds of people who want the low-hanging fruit of better concentration, stress reduction and pain management without the tree!

Here’s another article on the danger of unguided meditation:

The risk is rising as meditation techniques become secularized because their use, and instructions for use, are focused solely on their initial benefits, and most ‘teachers’ learn only that and teach only that, leaving students on their own when continued use of these mediation practices have their traditionally known and understood temporary effects as one advances. These techniques have a nature of their own and that nature doesn’t respect commercial desires. 

But I envision another risk factor rising up from the sheer numbers of ‘students’–the earnest initiates–attending retreats organized by jet-setting self-help ‘gurus’ outside of spiritual traditions, who, regardless of their level of realization, don’t have the attentional capacity to provide the needed guidance to all of these new students that a truly selfless teacher must give to someone while guiding them through the stages of enlightenment.

The West doesn’t have the kind of infrastructure of readily-available accomplished masters that is necessary to serve the needs of very large numbers of students on a one-on-one basis. Perhaps that is why most advanced meditation techniques aren’t indiscriminately taught by long established traditions. The accelerating commercial success of the introduction of these techniques into modern life may become their ultimate failure. And that failure will unfortunately rebound onto spiritual practices as a whole. 

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