The Dark Side of Dharma

Why Have Adverse Effects of Meditation Been Ignored in Contemporary Western Secular Contexts?


  • Anna Lutkajtis University of Sydney



Meditation, Psychology, Buddhism, Mindfulness


In contemporary Western society, meditation techniques that were previously taught within the context of Eastern religious traditions are now increasingly being practiced in secular settings. While the boundary between the secular and the religious is blurred, popular meditation techniques such as Transcendental Meditation, vipassana, and mindfulness are generally promoted as being derived from Eastern religions, but inherently non-religious, aligned with Western psychology, and suitable for a general audience. Over approximately forty years, thousands of research studies suggest that there are many psychological and physiological benefits associated with these forms of meditation; however, a small but growing literature indicates there could also be adverse effects. In Eastern religious traditions, difficulties associated with meditation are acknowledged, and are usually understood to be milestones on the path to enlightenment, the result of improper practice, or due to individual differences. However, in a Western secular context, negative effects associated with meditation have largely been overlooked. This article argues that this is in part due to the fact that in contemporary Western society the goal of meditation has shifted from enlightenment to symptom relief and personal transformation, leading to the assumption that meditation is harmless and 'good for everyone'.

Author Biography

Anna Lutkajtis, University of Sydney

Anna Lutkajtis is a Master of Arts (Studies in Religion) student at the University of Sydney.  She has a Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) degree from UNSW and is interested in the interaction between religion and psychology, in particular, meditation, entheogens and the healing potential of altered states of consciousness.


Amihai, Ido, and Maria Kozhevnikov. 2014. Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of the Neurophysiological and Cognitive Correlates of Vajrayana and Theravada Meditative Practices. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102990. Doi:

Arat, Alp 2017. ‘What It Means to be Truly Human’: The Postsecular Hack of Mindfulness. Social Compass 64(2): 167-79. Doi:

Bacher, Paula G. 1981. An Investigation into the Compatibility of Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy and Buddhist Meditation. PhD diss., Boston University School of Education.

Benson, Herbert. 1975. The Relaxation Response. Collins, London.

Berry, Daniel R. et al.. 2018. Mindfulness Increases Prosocial Responses toward Ostracized Strangers through Empathic Concern. Journal of Experimental Psychology 147(1): 93-112. Doi:

Boals, Gordon F.. 1978. Toward a Cognitive Reconceptualization of Meditation. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 10(2): 143-82.

Bogart, Greg. 1991. The Use of Meditation in Psychotherapy: A Review of the Literature. American Journal of Psychotherapy 45(3): 383-412. Doi:

Bradwejn, Jacques, Mary Dowdall, and Linda Iny. 1985. Can East and West Meet in Psychoanalysis? American Journal of Psychiatry 142(10): 1226-28. Doi:

Britton, Willoughby. 2011a. The Dark Side of Dharma. Buddhist Geeks. Online:

Britton, Willoughby. 2011b. The Dark Night Project. Buddhist Geeks. Online:

Britton, Willoughby B. and Jared R. Lindahl. 2017. Does Meditation Have a Dark Side? In Dan Harris, 10% Happier podcast #79 (24 May). Online:

Britton, Willoughby B. et al.. 2013. Awakening Is Not a Metaphor: The Effects of Buddhist Meditation Practices on Basic Wakefulness. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1307: 64-81. Doi:

Brown, K.W. et al.. 2007. Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for its Salutary Effects. Psychological Inquiry 18(4): 211-37. Doi:

Burrows, Leigh. 2016. Safeguarding Mindfulness Meditation for Vulnerable College Students. Mindfulness 7(1): 284-85. Doi:

Castillo, Richard J.. 1990. Depersonalization and Meditation. Psychiatry 53: 158-68. Doi:

Compson, Jane. 2014. Meditation, Trauma and Suffering in Silence: Raising Questions About How Meditation Is Taught and Practiced in Western Contexts in the Light of a Contemporary Trauma Resiliency Model. Contemporary Buddhism 15(2): 274-97. Doi:

Deikman, Arthur J.. 1963. Experimental Meditation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 136: 329-43. Doi:

Deikman, Arthur J.. 1966. Implications of Experimentally Induced Contemplative Meditation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 142: 101-16. Doi:

Dobkin, Patricia L., Julie A. Irving and Simon Amar. 2012. For Whom May Participation in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program be Contraindicated? Mindfulness 3: 44. Doi:

Dryden, Windy, and Arthur Still. 2006. Historical Aspects of Mindfulness and Self-acceptance in Psycho­therapy. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 24(1): 3-28. Doi:

Ellis, Albert. 2009. [1984] The Place of Meditation in Cognitive-behaviour Therapy and Rational-emotive Therapy. In Shapiro and Walsh 2009: 671-73.

Emerson, Gwendolyn B. et al.

2010. Testing for the Presence of Positive-Outcome Bias in Peer Review: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Archives of Internal Medicine 170(21): 1934-39. Doi:

Engler, Jack. 1984. Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation: Developmental Stages in the Representation of Self. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 16(1): 25-61.

Engler, Jack. 2003. Being Somebody and Being Nobody: A Re-examination of the Under­standing of Self in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. In Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue, edited by Jeremy D. Safran, 35-100. Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA.

Epstein, Mark. 1995. Thoughts Without a Thinker. Basic Books, New York.

Farias, Miguel, and Catherine Wikholm. 2015. The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Watkins, London.

Farias, Miguel, and Catherine Wikholm. 2016. What Mindfulness Gurus Won’t Tell You: Meditation Has a DarkSide. Spectator Health. Online:

Fields, Rick. 1992. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Shambhala Publications, Boulder, CO.

French, Alfred P., Albert C. Schmid, and Elizabeth Ingalls. 1975. Transcendental Meditation, Altered Reality Testing, and Behavioral Change: A Case Report. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 161(1): 55-58. Doi:

Fromm, Erich, D.T. Suzuki, and Richard de Martino. 1993. [1974] Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism. Souvenir Press, London.

Fulton, Cheryl L.. 2018. Self?Compassion as a Mediator of Mindfulness and Compassion for Others. Counseling and Values 63(1): 45-56. Doi:

Goldberg, Philip. 2010. American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. Three Rivers Press, New York.

Goleman, Daniel. 1971. Meditation as Meta-therapy: Hypotheses toward a Proposed Fifth State of Consciousness. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 3 (1971): 1-26.

Grabovac, Andrea. 2015. The Stages of Insight: Clinical Relevance for Mindfulness-based Inter­ventions. Mindfulness 6: 1-13. Doi:

Grof, Stanislav, and Christina Grof. 1989. Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. Tarcher, New York and Los Angeles, CA.

Habermas, Jürgen. 2006. Religion in the Public Sphere. European Journal of Philosophy 14(1): 1-25. Doi:

Hale, Mary. 2018. Perfectly Present: Mindfulness Curriculum as Implicit Religion. Implicit Religion 20(4): 335-65. Doi:

Hergovich, Andreas, Reinhard Schott, and Christopher Burger. 2010. Biased Evaluation of Abstracts Depending on Topic and Conclusion: Further Evidence of a Con?rmation Bias within Scienti?c Psychology. Current Psychology 29(3): 188-209. Doi:

Hunter, Kathryn M.. 1986. ‘There Was This One Guy…’: The Uses of Anecdotes in Medicine. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 29(4): 623. Doi:

Huntington Jr., C.W.. 2018. Are You Looking to Buddhism When You Should Be Looking to Therapy? Tricycle. Online:

Kennedy, Raymond B.. 1976. Self-induced Depersonalisation Syndrome. American Journal of Psychiatry 133(11): 1326-28. Doi:

Korn?eld, Jack. 1979. Intensive Insight Meditation: A Phenomenological Study. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 11(1): 41-58.

Kripal, Jeffrey J.. 2007. Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Kuijpers, H.J.H. et al.. 2007. Meditation-Induced Psychosis. Psychopathology 40: 461-64. Doi:

Lauricella, Sharon. 2014. The Ancient-Turned-New Concept of ‘Spiritual Hygiene’: An Investi­gation of Media Coverage of Meditation from 1979 to 2014. Journal of Religion and Health 55(5): 1748-62. Doi:

Lazarus, Arnold A.. 1976. Psychiatric Problems Precipitated by Transcendental Meditation. Psychological Reports 39: 601-602. Doi:

Lindahl, Jared R. et al.. 2017. The Varieties of Contemplative Experience: A Mixed-methods Study of Meditation-related Challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176239. Doi:

Lomas, Tim et al.. 2015. A Qualitative Analysis of Experiential Challenges Associated with Meditation Practice. Mindfulness 6(4): 848-60. Doi:

Luberto, Christina M. et al.. 2018. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behaviors. Mindfulness 9(3): 708-24. Doi:

Lukoff, David et al.. 1999. Religious and Spiritual Case Reports on MEDLINE: A Systematic Analysis of Records from 1980 to 1996. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 5(1): 64-70.

Lustyk, M. Kathleen B. et al.. 2009. Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant Screening, Safety Procedures, and Researcher Training. ADVANCES 24(1): 20-30.

Maslow, Abraham H.. 1971. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Viking, New York.

Masters, Robert A.. 2010. Spiritual Bypassing: When Spiritualty Disconnects Us From What Really Matters. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.

McMahan, David L.. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press, New York.

Murphy, Michael, and Steven Donovan. 1999. The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research with a Comprehensive Bibliography 1931–1996. Institute of Noetic Sciences, Sausalito, CA.

Nickerson, Raymond S.. 1998. Con?rmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises. Review of General Psychology 2(2): 175-220. Doi:

Otis, Leon S.. 2009. [1984] Adverse Effects of Transcendental Meditation. In Shapiro and Walsh 2009: 201-208.

Parsons, William B.. 2009. Psychoanalysis Meets Buddhism: The Development of a Dialogue. In Changing the Scienti?c Study of Religion: Beyond Freud?, edited by Jacob A. Belzen, 179-209. Springer, New York and London. Doi:

Pritchard, Sean M.. 2016. Mindfulness and Beyond: A Qualitative Study of Advanced Mahasi Meditators’ Experience. PhD diss., ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Rosch, Eleanor. 1999. Is Wisdom in the Brain? Psychological Science 10(3): 222-24. Doi:

Rosenthal, Robert. 1979. The File Drawer Problem and Tolerance for Null Results. Psychological Bulletin 86(3): 638-41. Doi:

Samuel, Geoffrey. 2015. The Contemporary Mindfulness Movement and the Question of Non-self. Transcultural Psychiatry 52(4): 485-500. Doi:

Shapiro, Deane. 1992. Adverse Effects of Meditation: A Preliminary Investigation of Long-term Meditators. International Journal of Psychosomatics 39: 62-67.

Shapiro, Deane H., and Roger N. Walsh (eds.). 2009. [1984] Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. Aldine Transaction, New York.

Shapiro, Shauna L. et al.. 2006. Mechanisms of Mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology 62(3): 373-86. Doi:

Sharf, Robert H.. 2015. Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (and Why it Matters). Transcultural Psychiatry 52(4): 470-84. Doi:

Shear, Jonathan. 2006. The Experience of Meditation: Experts Introduce the Major Traditions. Paragon House, St Paul, MN.

Smith, Jonathan C.. 2009. [1975] Meditation as Psychotherapy: A Review of the Literature. In Shapiro and Walsh 2009: 55-61.

Tang, Yi-Yuan, Britta K. Hölzel, and Michael I. Posner. 2016. Traits and States in Mindfulness Meditation. Nature Reviews: Neuro­science 17(1): 59. Doi:

Tangney, June P., Ashley E. Dobbins, Jeffrey B. Stuewig, and Shannon W. Schrader. 2017. Is There a Dark Side to Mindfulness? Relation of Mindfulness to Crimi­nogenic Cognitions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 43(10): 1415-26. Doi:

Treleaven, David A.. 2010. Meditation, Trauma and Contemplative Dissociation. Somatics 16(2): 20-22.

Treleaven, David A.. 2018. Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing. W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Walsh, Roger, and Shauna L. Shapiro. 2006. The Meeting of Meditative Disciplines and Western Psychology: A Mutually Enriching Dialogue. American Psychologist 61(3): 227-39. Doi:

Wilber, Ken. 1996. Up From Eden. Quest Books, Wheaton, IL.

Wilson, Brent M. et al.. 2015. Increased False-Memory Susceptibility after Mindfulness Meditation. Psychological Science 26(10): 1567-73. Doi:

Wilson, Jeff. 2014. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. Oxford University Press, New York. Doi:

Yorston, Graeme, A.. 2001. Mania Precipitated by Meditation: A Case Report and Literature Review. Mental Health, Religion and Culture 4(2): 209-13. Doi:



How to Cite

Lutkajtis, A. (2019). The Dark Side of Dharma: Why Have Adverse Effects of Meditation Been Ignored in Contemporary Western Secular Contexts?. Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, 31(2), 192–217.