The Other Side of Meditation

We constantly hear about the benefits of mindfulness meditation: It’s now being taught in schools and at work and is often touted as the “magic pill” for what ails you. Here are two papers that challenge this view.

Key Takeaway

Although there are many benefits to mindfulness meditation, here are two studies that look at its other side. The first study found that narcissists who practice mindfulness meditation may actually experience a decrease in empathy because it may have "ironically ‘licensed’ narcissistic individuals to focus more exclusively on their self aggrandizing thoughts, at the expense of focusing on the mental states of others.” The second study found that it’s not uncommon for meditators to have long-lasting negative experiences.

Mindfulness May Actually Decrease Empathy in Narcissists

One of the things that mindfulness is supposed to help us with is cultivating compassion, or empathy. But this claim has rarely been tested experimentally and no study has investigated the effects of mindfulness on empathy in narcissistic individuals.

In this study from the University of Amsterdam, the researchers divided 158 participants into three groups - a mindfulness group, a relaxation group, and a control group. The mindfulness group did a five minute guided mindfulness meditation where they focused on their breath and observed their thoughts without judgment. The relaxation group practiced five minutes of relaxation exercises. The control group were just asked to let their minds wander.

After the exercises, the researchers assessed their cognitive empathy - the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings and take other people’s perspectives - using the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test in which participants identify emotions from photographs of people’s eyes. The researchers also assessed their affective empathy - the ability to share other people’s feelings and feel emotional concern for other people’s emotions or experiences - by having them play a game of Cyberball, a ball-tossing game in which one player is excluded.

Mindfulness actually reduced the cognitive empathy of narcissists, the very individuals who need it most!

The researchers expected that mindfulness would increase empathy. But it didn’t. However, in further analyses, they found that, while mindfulness increased cognitive empathy in non-narcissists, it actually reduced the cognitive empathy of narcissists, the very individuals who need it most!

The mindfulness exercise may have "ironically ‘licensed’ narcissistic individuals to focus more exclusively on their self aggrandizing thoughts, at the expense of focusing on the mental states of others.”

An explanation the researchers gave for this unexpected result was that the mindfulness exercise, which encouraged participants not to judge their thoughts, may have "ironically ‘licensed’ narcissistic individuals to focus more exclusively on their self aggrandizing thoughts, at the expense of focusing on the mental states of others.” This study did not teach individuals specifically to take another person’s perspective and it may be that mindfulness raises compassion only when it explicitly teaches people to be compassionate.

You may wonder whether a five-minute mindfulness exercise is enough to increase empathy especially in narcissists. Some previous research has found that it is effective in improving scores on the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test, which assesses cognitive empathy. Nevertheless, future research should look at longer mindfulness interventions and, perhaps interventions that specifically teach compassion.

Meditation May Have Unexpected Negative Effects

The research on meditation rarely talks about “challenging experiences” that meditators may face. This paper from Brown University interviewed 100 meditators and meditation teachers from the Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan traditions. All meditators reported some challenging experiences , including hypersensitivity to light and sound, insomnia or involuntary body movements, or challenging emotional experiences including fear, anxiety, panic, or a loss of emotions altogether. And these experiences lasted from a few days to months to more than a decade! This study also found that these experiences were not related to pre-existing psychiatric or trauma history or to practising incorrectly.

The researchers want to remove the stigma that meditators may feel when they experience a problem.

What the researchers hope to achieve with this paper is to generate research on the challenging effects of meditation. And to remove the stigma that meditators may feel when they experience a problem.


Ridderinkhof, A., de Bruin, E. I., Brummelman, E., & Bögels, S. M. (2017). Does mindfulness meditation increase empathy? An experiment. Self and Identity, 16:3, 251-269, DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2016.1269667

Lindahl, J. R., Fisher, N. A., Cooper, D. J., Rosen, R. K., & Britton, W. B. (2017). The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12: e0176239. 

  • This is indeed an eye opener , a perspective which will aid me in interacting with people of different mind sets
    Thank you

    • Kevin, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. People have different mind sets and may not be ready for mindfulness or any meditation. And we need to respect that.

  • I have been meditationg for over 25 years twice a day 1½ hours per day in the last 20 years. There are some people who meditate and they are stuck in the process. Staying stuck in the process can be seen as “negative” as any other dynamics or process. One needs to recgonize when it happens and be aware enough to act upon the situation (help form an experienced meditation teacher, to go through the so called “negative” process. The ego has to be taimed and it’s shell cracked to be able to open up to higher self and the dynamics of the soul and essence. Meditation can help do this but is not sufficient to master the whole process of being reborn to our essence. One needs to be taught by someone who went the whole nine yards and knows what he or she is talking about.

    • Thank you for your comment Marie Louise. Yes, an experienced meditation teacher will help. But people are at different levels of consciousness. Who’s to say that one level is better than another? Even our language assumes that higher levels of consciousness are better than lower levels. But people lead perfectly worthwhile lives without the “higher levels.” Meditation obviously works for you, but I don’t believe that it’s for everyone.

  • Interesting yet I have to say that as we observe our thoughts new insights come up and some will make you feel uncomfortable or sad or whatever.
    Since meditators look for enlightenment, Isn’t this awareness the true value of meditation?
    Wouldn’t you need to look at everything so you can make a change?
    Or maybe the goal is to feel good always? would this goal be realistic?

    • Thank you Alexandra for your comment. I agree that meditators look for enlightenment, but not everyone wants enlightenment. For some, the thoughts and new insights are not just uncomfortable or sad, but downright traumatic. And many people are not looking to make a change: They’re happy with where they are. I think that, for those of us in the “change” professions, our judgment can be clouded: We tend to see everyone as wanting to change. But that’s simply not true.

  • Thank you Irena for expanding perspectives and contributing to the awareness on empathy. Wisedom emerges from looking at many angles. Gratitude

    • Thank you Roxane. I thought this was important to share because virtually all of the research looks at only the positive side to meditation. This is not to take away from the benefits of meditation, but this research shows that it’s not right for everyone.

      • yes , I can see the negative affects but I presumed that it was practising without a proper teacher meditation is not about focusing on thought its about breath of cause you are aware of your thoughts but the eventual aim is to quiet the mind which it does of its own accord when done properly.

        What I am saying here is that if you are engaged in any thoughts then its not meditation because your body structure is not straight ie head might be subconsciously at a tilt and if that’s the case then without fail its not meditation because you are actually in thought or even fantasying.

        Meditation is a tool but to use that tool you have to know what you are actually doing and it don’t work over night.

        I do agree there can be some negative affects but a lot of it can alleviated with a Teacher.

        As you know for some students just shutting the eye’s and breathing through the nose the idea of becoming aware of oneself can be an eye opener ie bad dreams which I remember was the common complaint.

        Hence reason if it done properly its not meditation …

        • Thank you Albert for your comment. People are different and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other. It may be because they’re not ready, it may be the teacher, or it may be another reason. Why I summarized this research is because the empirical evidence has been one-sided and I wanted to provide a more balanced view. The second article looking at negative experiences was exploratory research that did not identify the reasons for the negative experiences. In fact, that was not the intent of this research. They ended the article by stating that more research is needed.

    • Alan, exactly. When I came across this research, I knew I had to share it. People need to know that it may not be positive for everyone.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    Get ten neuroscience strategies to work with your clients' brains


    Powered by WishList Member - Membership Software