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. So-called ‘secular forms’ of meditation first came to mainstream public awareness in the early 1960s, when Hindu-inspired Transcendental Meditation (TM) gained popularity in the United States. In the 1970s, vipassana, a standardized residential 10-day meditation retreat undertaken in a secular format, also became popular among Westerners. More recently, ‘mindfulness’ meditation, a form of secular meditation derived from Theravada Buddhism, has found widespread use as both a therapeutic intervention and a mainstream self-help tool. ‘Meditation as self-help’ has become a booming commercial industry, and alongside these practices there now exists a variety of secular meditation courses, apps, podcasts and meditation-related wearable technologies. While the boundary between the secular and the religious is blurred, popular mainstream meditation techniques such as TM, vipassana and mindfulness are generally promoted as being derived from Eastern religions, but inherently non-religious, and suitable for a general audience.
The popularity of secular meditation has been due in large part to its acceptance within the scientific community. Over the past forty years, thousands of research studies have been conducted suggesting that there are many psychological and physiological benefits associated with meditation. As a result, various meditation techniques have been incorporated into a number of therapeutic interventions and used as tools for the treatment of a variety of clinical issues. Interest in meditation has also grown as a result of mainstream media attention, particularly coverage of TM and mindfulness. The media has played a crucial role in driving public acceptance of meditation by positioning the practice as an inherently secular, side-effect free, therapeutic technique that is ‘good for everyone.’
Although the scientific studies and popular media coverage of secular meditation have been overwhelmingly positive, meditation has not gone without some criticism. In particular, a small but growing literature indicates there could be adverse effects associated with meditation practice, in both clinical and non-clinical settings. Close examination of the scientific literature reveals that even in early meditation research, adverse effects, including profound but de-stabilising insights, problematic spiritual emergencies, and the exacerbation of pre-existing mental health issues, were identified. In religious traditions, these types of 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. Additionally, in traditional contexts, meditation teachers are equipped to deal with complications that may arise. However, in a Western secular context, negative effects associated with meditation have largely been overlooked or ignored in both the academic literature and in the popular media.
Why have meditation adverse effects been ignored in secular settings? This question is particularly relevant given the current popularity of secular meditation practices in a large variety of non-traditional settings including therapy, education and the workplace. If meditation has adverse effects, and these adverse effects are underreported, this has significant implications for the safe delivery of meditation practices in these settings, including the consideration of factors such as teacher competency, participant screening, ongoing monitoring and informed consent.
This thesis argues that meditation adverse effects have been ignored in secular settings as a result of three factors related to the secularisation process: first, 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;’ second, secular meditation has been decontextualized and divorced from the religious literature and contemplative practitioners who could shed light on possible difficulties associated with meditation; and third, the image of meditation in popular media has been manipulated to fit contemporary market demands for a secular Westernised therapeutic technique that can be commodified.
This thesis comprises an analysis of pop cultural sources and a close reading of clinical research sources regarding meditation in the modern West. This project incorporates data from a variety of meditation studies obtained from the scientific literature, including experimental studies, qualitative studies, unpublished PhD dissertations and case studies. It also considers ‘traditional’ religious sources on meditation, including stages of the path literature, Buddhist meditation manuals and spiritual autobiographies.