In an environment where meditation is being promoted for a whole range of mental health problems, a line should be drawn between the problems meditation can help with, and those it can’t.
There’s a tendency in spiritual communities to infer spiritual causes to well-known and documented medical conditions. If you look for it, you’ll find outlandish claims that certain esoteric practices claiming to cure schizophrenia or even cancer. I take this as evidence that human potential for self-deception knows no boundaries.
Yet, despite the “woo-woo”, we should not discard all “alternative” practices, such as meditation, as ineffective. There’s in fact increasing scientific evidence that meditation can help with many conditions like anxiety, depression and pain.
First, let there be no doubt that there’s absolutely no reason to differentiate meditation from medical or psychological treatment. If you’re under the care of a competent psychologist or doctor, and they’re willing to monitor you and support you while you practice meditation, there’s no reason to choose one over the other. When facing illnesses, meditation shouldn’t be used or seen as a cure or a treatment, but rather as an adjunct to treatment or simply a practice that might help.
But then, there are people – and I’ve known some – who are looking to treat their mental illnesses with meditation. This can quickly get ugly, since practitioners often interpret their symptoms as signs of their meditative progress. This can drive them to practice even more intensely and to bluntly reject other forms of advice and treatments. This is a path to self-destruction.
While I see meditation as highly effective for dealing with the “ordinary neuroses” of most people, it was never intended to help with more serious manifestations of mental disorders. It’s totally inappropriate for that.
That’s not to say that meditation is “only” good for stress-reduction though. My personal viewpoint on neuroses is that most people are pretty deeply immersed in all kinds of neuroses. I would go as far as to say that the common shared worldview is, in a sense, seriously neurotic. I see meditation as the main remedy for that particular problem. This is why I practice and teach meditation.
As disappointing as it may sound, that effectiveness doesn’t extend to treating schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and other psychopathologies. Somebody with a serious mental health problem who decides on their own to learn meditation and cure themselves is much more likely to exacerbate his or her problem.
I sincerely believe that a well-meaning but perhaps naive meditation teacher can worsen the problem by giving certain pieces of advice. While some meditation instructions may be helpful for a mentally stable person that begins having a variety of meditation experiences, the same advice could very well lead a mentally ill student deeper into its problems. Unfortunately, there are certain experiences that could be interpreted both ways – either as a symptom of a mental disorder or as a valuable meditation-induced insight – depending on the specific context and on the subject reporting the experience. This confusion can lead to very real and dangerous consequences.
There are however, meditation teachers who are in fact fully qualified therapists, and who are using meditation very effectively in conjunction with all the other therapies that they’ve been trained for. That really works.
In doubt, one should always consult a professional. While regular meditation practice shows tremendous benefits for many, it is absolutely not a magic-pill for serious mental illnesses. It was never designed for that, and I strongly advise against trusting teachers claiming otherwise.
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