As a private meditation teacher who is deeply passionate about helping others, I want to warn you about the possible issue of dissociation. Why? Because I myself have faced this problem.
I have been meditating for more than twenty years. And for a long time I felt “invisible”, like I didn’t exist. I never realised that this had anything to do with my mindfulness practice. But now I know better. I’ve solved my problem and I still meditate daily. So let’s look at this issue.
What are dissociation and depersonalisation?
Dissociation is a condition in which you feel disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, body, surroundings , and sense of time. And it can also affect your sense of self identity.
If you suffer from this condition, you might be feeling disconnected from your body during meditation.
Closely related to this is depersonalisation disorder or derealisation disorder. This is the feeling of being disconnected from your body and mind and can also cause the illusion that the world is not real.
These issues are quite common
Many people today suffer from these two conditions, which are compounded by the isolation we have all be subjected to recently.
But there are solutions.
According to the Mayo Clinic, both dissociation and depersonalisation are typically treated through psychotherapy (talk therapy).
However, there is a fascinating link between meditation and dissociation. And changing the way you meditate could solve the problem.
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Link between Meditation, Dissociation, and Depersonalisation Disorder (And What To Do )
If you look back at our definition of dissociation and depersonalisation disorder, you will notice that they involve disconnecting from thoughts and feelings. And some techniques, such as Buddhist Vipassana, directly involve disconnecting from thoughts and feelings. So no wonder that we find a link between meditation and dissociation.
Now you might be thinking two things:
- Isn’t it good to remove yourself from your thoughts?
- And, if it isn’t good to do that, why do we do it when we meditate?
Yes, it is a good idea to distance yourself from your thoughts to a degree. For instance, if you are experiencing stressful thoughts, you will find it relaxing to dissociate from them. And indeed, this is one reason why Vipassana helps with anxiety, according to research in the International Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences.
However, problems can occur when we start to dissociate from all our thoughts.
As a meditator you might find that you’re always saying to yourself, “That’s just a thought.” And so you are continually training your mind to dissociate from thoughts, which is one of the symptoms of derealisation disorder, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
If you continually ignore your thoughts and tell yourself that they are not real (as many meditators do) then you will learn to dissociate. And this could cause problems.
Research published on the National Library of Medicine shows that because meditation involves training the mind to let go of thoughts, it could cause dissocuation. And in some instances, this could lead to anxiety.
You might feel tempted to stop meditating. BUT…
The truth is that meditation is not the problem. The problem is the way we meditate in the West.
Now here is the truly important thing.
Some meditation techniques are dissociative. And indeed Anapanasati (mindfulness of breath) and Vipassana can be very dissociative. But these are only two meditation techniques out of hundreds. And they should be just two parts of your overall practice.
Because while some meditations are dissociative, others help us connect to our thoughts, feelings, and surroundings.
You need to practice a combination of different meditation techniques.
Traditionally, Buddhist monks would practise some methods that disconnect us from thoughts and feelings (Anapanasati / Vipassana). But they would also practise techniques that connect us to thoughts and feelings, such as Loving Kindness (Metta), Compassion (Karuna), and ones that connect us to the body, like Kinhin (Zen Walking).
Monks (the masters of meditation) wouldn’t just create an empty mind. They would then fill the mind with compassion and thoughts of the dharma (Buddha’s teachings). So while they began by dissociating, they then associated with compassion and the dharma. So their minds detached from one thing and attached to something else
If you only do dissociative meditation techniques then yes, you will train your mind into dissociation and depersonalisation. That’s why you need to use a combination of different techniques.
We empty the mind of impurity in order to fill it with purity (compassion and the dharma or your own belief system).
Sadly, far too many people in the West only do one or two types of meditation. Indeed, as a meditation teacher, I have had conversations with people who think that mindful breathing is the only technique there is.
I blame society, to be honest with you. Ever since meditation became a huge business with apps and videos, people have started treating meditation like candy. They just do whatever technique they want when they want to do it.
And you’ll note that apps like Headspace dont care to warn you about problems like these, which is one reason why private meditation lessons are the best way to learn to meditate.
Sadly, THE DAILY MEDITATION is pretty much the only site in the world that says, “Yes meditation is good, but you need to do it properly or you’ll have issues”.
So here is what to do.
You need to empty your mind first. And you do that with Anapanasati and Vipassana (and possibly Self Enquiry). But then you must fill your mind too. You fill it with compassion and pure thoughts by doing compassion techniques and other methods that create healthy thoughts.
You can also use general dispositional mindfulness to reduce dissociation accodding to research on the NIAH.
Long story short…
If you only do meditations that cause dissociation, it could cause problems. So make sure you also include techniques that associate your mind with positive things like love and compassion. And also make sure you connect with your body (through Zen Walking, yoga, Body Scan, or other Integrated Body Mind Training techniques).
This is exactly what I did. I kept doing my mindful breathing, but I combined it with other techniques that focus on the body and with methods that develop my identity.
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison