Meditation : Harmful Effects
No human activity is completely without risk of harmful outcome, nor is there any human activity that is wholly beneficial to every individual in every circumstance. Meditation is not an exception and suspending normal judgement about the effects of any meditational practice is not warranted, no matter how strongly the claimed benefits are promoted. Prem Rawat does not offer any caution about the meditation that he prescribes.
The received wisdom, in western contexts, during the past three decades has been that meditation, whatever its form, whatever its source and whoever the practitioner, is necessarily a benign activity. The most cursory reflection suggests that such a judgement is foolhardy and inevitably wrong. If meditation has an effect on the meditator there must be some possibility that the effect may be harmful and not beneficial. Of course there are many different forms of meditation and it would be alarmist to suggest that 5 minutes of guided meditation from a relaxation tape might be a major health risk, however the meditation prescribed by Prem Rawat is of an order that can be considered to be psychologically active.
The four techniques prescribed by Prem Rawat are taken from the canon of Yoga widely practised within Hinduism, it is notable that these techniques are presented by Prem Rawat without any philosophical or psychological context except one of adulation to the 'inspirational speaker' and an excessive expectation of revelatory experience. It is also pertinent that there is no support system that allows practitioners of the Prem Rawat prescribed techniques to discuss or have explained any disconcerting or worrisome experiences that they may have. The meditational initiate is given the techniques, instructed to practice them for an hour per day and never discuss their experience with the exception of encouragement to make expressions of gratitude to the 'inspirational speaker'.
There are no published studies of Prem Rawat's followers s practitioners of meditation however investigations of comparable practices have relevance and certainly raise concerns. There have been a number of studies of the practitioners of Transcendental Meditation as taught by the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi. TM is comparable to Prem Rawat's prescribed techniques, both have a transcendental objective, both are described in mystical terms separated from religious context and both involve techniques of inward concentration. In the case of TM this involves concentration on a mantra while in the Prem Rawat process concentration is upon a set of physiological processes.
Although TM, along with other meditational practices are ascribed numerous beneficial outcomes there is now a substantial body of evidence for negative outcomes, chief amongst these are psychological changes typified by depersonalisation and dissociation. The characteristics of these psychological states are familiar to many who formerly followed Prem Rawat, and are particularly and unhappily familiar to family and friends of those who continue to pursue the Prem Rawat techniques.
Of studies carried out on meditators, primarily TM practitioners, symptoms of depersonalization, derealization and dissociation have been widely reported. In a 1990 study, Richard J. Costello records "Individuals who practice the type of meditation designed to alter their consciousness may suffer depersonalization (loss of one's own reality or a loss of his own identity in relation to others around him) and derealization (change in one's perception of his environment) during meditation. Deikman (1963, 1966a) and Kennedy (1976) reported cases in which depersonalization and derealization occurred in individuals practising meditative techniques designed to alter consciousness. (Costello R.J. Psychiatry, Vol. 53, May 1990, pages 158-167 Depersonalization and Meditation.) Article available online at minet.org/Documents/research.1990.castillo
A measure of the degree to which meditation is psychologically active can be gathered in a quote by Costello of Deikman's work.
Deikman has referred to the effects of meditation as the "de-automatization of the psychological structures that organize, limit, select, and interpret perceptual stimuli" (1966b p. 329).
As short duration and rarely occurring experiences, depersonalisation, derealization and/or dissociation are neither uncommon nor in themselves harmful experiences. As chronic states occurring either singularly or in combination these are distressing and may lead to profound psychological impairment.
In a comprehensive assessment of TM the following report was made in respect of personality changes :
Descriptions from the qualitative testimonies: felt as if grown older, depressions, glassy look, easily influenced, more lax, no relationships with anyone, more closed in, more dishonest, lonely, fanatical, egocentric, defensive, more unstable, and sensitive.... 75% (49) judged the changes which occurred as begin altogether negative.....
while the same report recorded :
"...76% (51) of cases investigated had psychological or psychiatric disorders which occurred during the T.M. phase and as a result of the practice of T.M.... In first place, (63%), is "tiredness"....In second place follows "states of anxiety" 52% (27). Together with "frightening images" it points to quite horrific meditation experiences which may not be related to outsiders (non-meditators) and are hardly discussed among meditators because of the prevailing pressures "to be successful". The lack or absence of discussion which could relieve or resolve these matters intensifies the state of anxiety and frightening images into being a physical syndrome, which manifested in 31% of case (16) as fixations and 39% of cases (20) as obsessive ideas of various type s and in 26% (13) cases as a nervous breakdown. 20% (1O) told of steadily increasing suicide tendencies....In 39% of cases (20) a regression in terms of their perceptions of themselves and others was observed. Even meditators notice this process, as, for instance, when they describe the face or facial expression of many insiders as being "baby-faced".... Meditators withdraw more and more into a pretend world....29% (15) of meditators were oppressed by guilt-feelings.... 39% (20) showed increased nervousne ss, which manifested symptomatically as twitches of the head or limbs.... Outside stimuli become too strong to cope with. If the meditator cannot avoid them, then a nervousness manifests itself. Meditators are much more sensitive to noise.
All these negatives reported in the German TM study are familiar to those who have been involved with Prem Rawat's prescribed meditation, and can be attested to by those who are no longer bound by the secrecy of the Elan Vital organization.
A useful clinical appraisal of depersonalisation may be found in the Psychiatric Bulletin (2001) 25: 105-108 pb.rcpsych.org this contains the succinct description of depersonalisation as "A feeling of detachment or estrangement from one's self... There may be the sensation of being an outside observer on one's own mental processes...Various types of sensory anaesthesia, lack of affective response...are often present."
Similarly a study by Siera and Berrios had this to say:
"Such symptoms have been found in 2.4% of the general population (Ross 1991) and 80% of psychiatric in-patients, of whom 12% had severe and persistent depersonalisation(Brauer et al 1970) Depersonalisation can occur as a primary disorder, or as a feature of depression, anxiety states and schizophrenia. It also occurs in neurological conditions such as the aura to temporal lobe epilepsy, and in healthy individuals during fatigue, meditation, extreme stress or after use of hallucinogenic drugs. Classical descriptions emphasise reduced, numbed, or even absent emotional reactions, for example, all my emotions are blunted, and the emotional part of my brain is dead (Mayer - Gross 1935; Shorvon 1946; Ackner 1954). Historically, a neuropsychological basis for depersonalisation has been considered, stimulated by clinical observations on patients with neurological disorders, and psychophysiological studies (Siera & Berrios, 1998). Psychiatric Bulletin (2001) 25: 105-108.
A 1993 study by M.A. Persinger suggested that partial epileptic signs were evident in meditators: minet.org/Documents/research.1993.persinger
The case histories of seventy clients who sought treatment for psychological distress precipitated by meditation have been considered by the late Dr Margaret Singer of University College Berkeley, working with Dr Janja Lalich now of California State University. (Singer & Lalich. Cults in Our Midst. pub. Jossey-Bass.)
Whether the harmful effects of those meditational practices which are designed to effect a change in consciousness are unavoidable or whether cultural or religious practices allow the amelioration of that harm, is a matter for further investigation. What is certain is that the meditation prescribed by Prem Rawat is provided without cultural or religious context and most significantly without any care for the well being of practitioners.
Inevitably Prem Rawat and the organisations that promote him provide examples of those individuals who claim benefit from their prescribed meditation, the numerous individuals who experience negative effects are ignored.
Can Meditation Be Bad for You? Article by Mary Garden.
For commentary on the work of Singer, Lalich, Persinger and others: