When Meditation Was Very Bad for Me (21/30)

I'm writing 30 posts in 30 days, this is number 21.

So today I saw David Chapman's excellent twitter thread about meditation risks, and I was like, oh, hey Sasha, remember that time that Zen meditation played a significant role in the hideous bipolar spirals that nastily consumed the first half of your twenties?

It's possible that meditation didn't make as big an impact on my mental health as I suspect it did, in the sense that I would've been just as fucked without it. Depression is wonderful at weaponizing everything. In a certain state, you can stroll through a bodega and decide, based on information you glean from the graphic on a box of cornflakes, that you're the waste product of the universe, a few junky sectors that need formatting.

But it was pretty bad, the meditation, which I did fairly seriously for 45m to 2h per day for about a year, and then more intermittently for a few more. I tend to think that it made the darkest period of my life darker and longer. I think it highly probable that if someone had given me a therapeutic dose of psychedelics instead of a book about meditation, things would’ve gone better.

What is the concrete state beyond thinking? In my case, it was the taste of gastric reflux, the howling of the white wall I was staring at, the honing of attention such that it could better examine the sour whining of reality, the constant bitter churn of the seconds pecking like Promethean birds at my mental innards, refusing to destroy me but enjoying my silky mouthfeel.

Tl;dr: I read Brad Warner's Zen books quite hastily and clumsily and was highly influenced by them. Basically what I took away was as follows. If you're not meditating, you're ignoring reality, which will lead to suffering, self-delusion, mindless Epicureanism masquerading as the pursuit of happiness, etc. The best way to address pain is to look at it, real hard, and watch it passing. So if you're feeling borderline suicidal what you should probably do is sit and embrace Being for as long as you can stand.

Zazen was all that my depression could've asked for. It was an invitation to loneliness, alienation, and devastating introspection. It encouraged me to wipe my mental lenses clean of the normal buzzing of my thoughts so I could see what was under there, which, at the time, was slimy and barren and cold. Zen exhortations to look past the ego made me very interested in throwing out my clothing, shaving my head, and avoiding my acquaintances, who, I realized, were avoiding the Truth about the Universe.

It was a nice treat for my mania, too. The pulsing of my heart was the pulsing of the cosmos. (Tachycardia from stimulants, in the right mindset, can be a great locus for concentration practice.) When I opened my eyes, I was left in an intense, blissful flow state that persisted all day, wherein everything was a game: I wrote rhyming poetry to the rhythm of my footsteps, tried to stare at all interlocutors without blinking, etcetera. It's been reported to me that in this stage of my life, I was either highly charismatic and fun or totally incoherent and weird, depending on the day.

I'm not at all claiming that I did what Mr. Warner would advocate. He seems like a reasonable, intelligent, and pleasant human. But one must consider what Aristotle said about government: there's the version of our system that we loftily conceive of, and how our system actually plays out when it's placed in the trembling stupid hands of stupid human beings.

Which is to say. The message that meditation is the answer, which is loudly broadcasted to certain niches, is especially tempting to those seeking drastic total solutions to life's issues, and many of those people are unstable by definition. And, beyond those niches, the wider cultural message seems to be that meditation is harmless, until it isn't, and you'll know when it isn't, so just stop right then, or seek a teacher who can help you. That's awfully optimistic in terms of what it assumes about self-knowledge. It's sort of like saying: drinking is harmless, until it isn't, and you'll know when it isn't, so just stop right then.

Meditation, like alcohol, can dramatically modify the apparatus that tells us when things are harmless and when things aren't. Somehow this has gotten out about alcohol, but not meditation. I think the message should be: have about one beer of meditation if you're not being supervised, and be aware that even one beer can have profound effects on many people.

Let me be clear, by the way, that, seven years out from my last bipolar episode, I'm very fond of contemplative practice, some of which should probably be called meditation. My relationship with it is happy and stable, and I'm confident that it will mostly remain so. In its current form, it's a great therapy for some of my systematic issues.

But a huge part of that is that I can see the darkness coming, if it is coming, after many years of deep acquaintance with my personal varieties of dysfunction. And a lot of that experience, ironically enough, was gleaned through meditation. My early experiences of meditation largely showed me just how grotesque my consciousness can get.