Buddhism’s Biggest Open Secret

Buddhism’s Biggest Open Secret
Illustrations by Franziska Barczyk 

Taking a look at adverse effects of meditation in Eastern and Western Buddhist practice

By Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar 

I began moping around in a dark, melancholy state. I was always nervous and afraid, weak and timid in mind and body. The skin under my arms was constantly wet with perspiration. I found it impossible to concentrate on what I was doing. I sought out dark places where I could go to be alone and just sat there motionless like a dead man. Neither acupuncture, moxacautery [burning dried flowers on or near the skin], nor medical potions brought me any relief.

These are the words of Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768), a Japanese monk who would eventually become a central figure in the Rinzai tradition. But to judge from his words above, he is a monk with a very big problem. This problem—meditation sickness—takes him on a quest, and he crisscrosses Japan to meet with Zen teachers who he hopes will be able to help him. They can’t really, telling Hakuin either that there is nothing to be done or that diligently practicing zazen (seated meditation) in a secluded place will bring him out of it.

This journey, which Hakuin recounts in his spiritual autobiography, Wild Ivy (trans. Norman Waddell), is filled with experiences of satori (sudden enlightenment), where he finds himself laughing and crying at the same time, covered in mud, and branded a “crazy monk” by passersby. He meditates for seven days and seven nights without sleep. Eventually, Hakuin finds Master Hakuyu, who explains that the fire in Hakuin’s heart has traveled up his body. To bring this fire down, the master prescribes the “soft butter method.”

Master Hakuyu instructs Hakuin to envision a small lump of butter on the top of his head, melting down to the lower body, healing all the areas that are out of whack. Hakuin leaves the master after this instruction and later writes that he devoted the next three years to this practice, which he calls Introspective Meditation. The condition cleared up entirely, and the problems never returned.

Zen is far from the only Buddhist tradition with old texts that address difficulties in meditation. Tibetan traditions refer to “retreat rlung,” or “meditator’s disease.” (Rlung is the Tibetan word for the element of wind or air and by extension refers to diseases of wind imbalance.) In a 2004 article on the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition website, Venerable Lhundup Nyingje writes that nearly every meditator experiences this imbalance, which can be compared to a strained muscle and can lead to agitation, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, headaches, chest or back pain, and other physical reactions such as diarrhea or indigestion. If left untreated, meditator’s disease can even lead to a practitioner’s becoming “severely mentally disturbed,” according to Nyingje. However, the Pali canon, the central body of texts of the Theravada tradition, doesn’t have much to say about these sorts of difficulties, according to the scholar and monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi. “It is puzzling that they are passed over,” he said, pointing by contrast to the Vesali Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 54.9), in which dozens of misguided monks kill themselves after the Buddha gives a talk on the unattractiveness of the body.

Researchers looking at this problem today say that we have to acknowledge the adverse effects of practice, one of Buddhism’s biggest open secrets. From a scientific perspective, we’re still in the early decades of beginning to understand that meditation is not a cure-all—and that the instruction to practice more, as Hakuin was told by many a Zen master, has the potential to cause more harm than good, particularly among those who have experienced trauma. While information about meditation sickness is becoming more widely available, practitioners are left with the question of what to do about it, and teachers and dharma centers who are aware of the issue have been trying to figure out how they can better prepare students who might encounter difficulties.

Daniel Lawton, a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher from New Orleans, doesn’t meditate anymore. He’s also a rare exception in that he’s an instructor who speaks openly about the negative side effects of meditation he experienced.

Lawton had already experienced dissociation and a lost sense of agency before he went on a jhana retreat in 2019. By his count, he had previously sat about 15 retreats and logged countless hours in meditation. But it was what he calls that “traumatic retreat” that led to PTSD and lasting effects that are still with him today….



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