Damage arising from the incorrect practice of meditation, qigong, and yoga is far too common! In this lesson, I describe some of the underlying causes and treatments for such imbalances.
In some ways, this is the most challenging and important video I've ever attempted. Please be patient as I try to walk through these concepts. I have been having this discussion with students for the past 20 years, and it has only become more relevant with the explosion of spiritual teachers all over the internet.
I started meditation and various "energetic" practices at quite a young age. While I am very grateful for my path and the instructors who helped me learn, I did suffer from a surprising number of problems directly related to the methods. Insomnia, migraines, panic attacks & anxiety, delusions, emotional dissociation, & loss of memory. It's these kinds of severe side effects that I'd like to address. Only years of specific training have healed the damage I created by playing with fire.
Talk to any long-time healer about their practice, and they will be happy to tell you about the type of patients they attract. For some reason, we all draw a particular kind of sick person. One of my friends constantly sees hyper-emotional patients, and another is always helping clients with old sports injuries. It's how we develop an accidental clinical specialization. When I started giving treatments many years ago, I had hoped to specialize in migraine and sciatica treatment. But can you guess who keeps showing up in my clinic? Yes indeed. Hundreds of people who had been badly damaged by incorrect meditation, qigong, and yogic practice. You can understand why I moved from Costa Rica to this monastery with Master Zhicheng to learn a safer training system. ("YangSheng Gardens" on Instagram) There are far too many harmful techniques in circulation, and the impact on the health of our community has been disastrous.
Usually, I would only share the nourishing techniques and stay silent about the damaging ones being passed around online. It's important to avoid speaking negatively about other teachers and methods. However, I hear people refer to alarming side effects as though they are positive signs of change. It's harmful, and I feel compelled to point out the error.
Just this week, I listened to a famous meditation teacher. He taught that it's common for meditators to begin experiencing terrible headaches, sleeplessness, extreme emotional swings, delusional thoughts, and even epileptic-like seizures. He implies that these are signposts along the correct path toward enlightenment. That you must become sick before you can become well. I've heard this insanity countless times! People will come to my clinic and describe rashes or swellings as signs that they are moving their energy well. Some will describe hearing voices, manic episodes, and hallucinations as proof of a rising spiritual level. Listen to the most famous instructors, and you'll hear how their own awakening experience nearly killed them. It left them homeless, destroyed their family life, and ruined their job. One of my favorite instructors even bragged about visiting mental hospitals to retrieve his students!
None of this is healthy or necessary. There are safer and more effective ways to train. We emphasize the importance of stillness, gentleness, and release as foundations for practice. They will help prevent the scary symptoms and build a better foundation for cultivation. The tendencies that lead to damage are impatience, emotional shortcuts, forcefulness, control, egoic ambition, exhaustion, and repression. We seem to believe that we need to really "feel" the changes for them to be authentic. Too often, we push our training until intense heat, significant movement, visions, or other wild experiences occur. Unfortunately, this is like turning up the voltage passing through an electrical system until it begins to glow red and spit sparks. Sure, you can be confident it's turned on, but you'll only get burned.
Instead, imagine healing and awakening as comfortably and peacefully as falling asleep. As clear and effortless as waking up from a dream. The method as simple as learning how to release a held breath. From my own perspective and experience, this is what our practice should feel like, and my instructors agree. Anything else gets in the way or causes damage. We are returning to our most natural state of being, like releasing water to flow downhill. There is no need to force the water to flow. It happens entirely on its own. All we need to do is let go of the blockages damming the channel. And then, in the most natural way, the rivers return to the sea.
Please understand that there will be painful stages throughout awakening. For instance, there will likely be significant discomfort in facing the truth of your past, reconciling your choices, and healing the damage you find in the present moment. This requires seeing things clearly, being vulnerable to the people in your life, and acting through wisdom and love. Such clarity and open-heartedness will grow from settling and releasing, not from stirring up emotions and gripping tighter onto ideas. People also feel uncomfortable when they begin noticing the areas of their bodies that have been ignored and the feelings that have been repressed. Restoration requires relaxed, mindful attention that only results from grounding and anchoring the qi. Obviously, this process of healing and integration can indeed be ugly and filled with things you want to avoid looking at. Remember that the transformation can be guided gently and skillfully without generating further harm. Find a qualified master to help, and seek a doctor or a therapist for severe problems that come to the surface. We all need help, and none of us do this alone.
All too often, people feel that generating explosive change and tearing open old wounds is somehow more satisfying. They subconsciously believe that if it doesn't hurt, it's not working. They cannot imagine that something nourishing and wholesome can be effective. We've heard the lie "no pain, no gain" too many times to allow life to become simple and relaxed.
Take your time with this process. Don't be in a hurry. This quality of unhurried patience is another sign of good practice. All deep healing occurs at the speed of nature. Genuine transformation cannot be rushed. Consider people working toward a healthy body weight. Those who lose weight quickly nearly always have a whiplash experience later. Not only do they gain back more weight than before, but they damage their health. Alternatively, someone who slowly cultivates a healthy body weight finds it easier to maintain. It's the same as gaining insight during meditation. Patient steps toward a greater understanding of your life take time and integration. Otherwise, every child would simply read a book of wisdom and become a sage, or we would force them to acknowledge their mortality in primary school. Neither of these would help. There is proper timing to all stages of evolution. Every path toward personal growth must follow this gentle pathway or risk becoming dangerous and misleading.
For illustration, I'll share a few stories from close friends.
A buddy of mine hoped meditation would help his terrible anxiety. …and, well, it did. He had moments of qi settling and depth of insight into his experiences. However, he didn't learn how to relax his mind before concentration practice. He only knew how to tightly grip his attention and squeeze his mind to remain focused. The result? Terrible headaches that became worse with every meditation session. He had to give up practice for long periods to avoid feeling like his head would explode. Obviously, this pain only made his anxiety worse. He recently told me he could enjoy meditation again by sitting comfortably and letting go of expectations and control. This relaxation of intent is primary in our training system and avoids these imbalances.
Learning to settle the mind and pay careful attention is essential. Only then can we gain insight from our experiences. With time this clarity will deepen self-knowledge and develop embodied wisdom. However, when we strain to accomplish through a white-knuckle grip upon the mind, forcing it into compliance, we produce negative habits and side effects. We solidify mental and physical tension, and our qi rushes upward. Worst of all, we come to believe that peace somehow requires control, dissociation, and manipulation. But the truth is that this tension and control are obstructions to relaxation and serenity. Instead, we learn that stillness results from the release of tension. Complete disinhibition and free flow. This form of practice allows awareness to rest upon the object of your meditation effortlessly. The body can soften, and your qi can settle. This is far more healthy for your practice!
Another long-time friend struggled with mild depression throughout life. What David Lynch calls "The suffocating rubber clown suit of negativity." She had hoped that meditation would help her feel uplifted and emotionally stable. And while it definitely helped her over the years, there were unforeseen consequences. She studied self-inquiry methods to help her awaken to a sense of timelessness, no-thingness, and impermanence. The training worked and transformed her perspective on the world. Unfortunately, the realization came in an improper training order. Because this realization arrived before she loosened her grip on her sense of self and a psychological need for meaning in the world, it made her depression even worse. She would look around for a sense of external meaning and see only emptiness. In meditation circles, this is sometimes called the "dark night of the soul" and is famously painful. It's also totally avoidable with proper training and guidance. She should have first relaxed her need for external motivation and experience as a source of purpose. Only afterward, realizing a world without definite structure and permanence, and this would have felt like freedom. Within our system, we always begin by softening the importance of our personal story and calming any emotional turbulence. It makes later insights easier to process and integrate because we don't take them personally.
The sequence of mental, emotional, and physical transformations makes a big difference in the outcome! Changing the order of the same practices radically changes the results! Sometimes this art is referred to as "Internal Alchemy," and I recommend studying with a master to learn more details.
Anyone who has ever tried baking bread understands this process. What would happen if you didn't add yeast to the dough? Or if you add it but need to mix it more? What happens if you put it in the oven but don't know how to heat it? How is the bread different if you let it rise or obsessively knead it so it can't expand as it rests? What if you just dropped flour, yeast, water, salt, and oil into a bowl and threw it into a hot oven? Clearly, the details of the method matter, and you can understand why I take such care to talk about the correct order of cultivation.
When I began clinical work, I helped a man with profound paralysis along one side of his body. The stroke hit him at only 20 years old, and many decades later, he was finally seeking help for his discomfort. He had been a robust athlete with no signs of vascular weakness. One day he followed a hot sauna by jumping into the cold swimming pool, causing an instant stroke. This damage may surprise people who think that hot & cold immersions are good for circulation. However, there is little evidence of its benefits, and it can be very stressful for the body. The problem is one of reporting. People who are healthy and robust enough to handle this stress on their circulatory system are happy to tell people about their favorite invigorating habit. Those more delicate people find themselves unable to share the adverse side effects they suffer. This one-sided reporting is the same as popular trends in intense meditation and qigong methods circulating the internet. Please be gentle with your body-mind! In this social media-driven world, we only pay attention to the loudest voices of the most attractive people. At the same time, the injured or unwell find themselves unable to warn us about their mistakes. This is why we must be cautious about where we find our health advice. Seek out long-lived traditional systems that have been tried and tested, and observe the instructors to ensure their sanity and health. Then take things slowly, and avoid any practices that seem harsh or dramatic.
One of the ways I gained experience was by visiting healing and practice centers worldwide. Because of this, I would treat famous instructors regularly in exchange for lessons or simply the opportunity to help their students. I will eventually share many wild personal stories on my Patreon page, though I refuse to call out people by name. Suffice it to say that many of these famous personalities are absolutely lying about their skills, level of cultivation, and training history. They teach methods they invented, untested, simply so they could teach something nobody else knew, all the while claiming it to be an ancient technique passed on by a mysterious master. They declare to have been healed by some technique, and meanwhile, in the clinic, I discover that they are still suffering horribly. They teach practices to heal the mind or emotions while plagued by delusions, extremely turbulent feelings, and egoic pain. And, as I mentioned before, many were passing on the same methods that caused tremendous problems for them in the first place!
Let me share one of my personal experiences of damage from improper practice. As many of you know, I was a very sickly kid with several mental and emotional difficulties. Plenty of unscrupulous or confused teachers were happy to tell me what I wanted to hear about healing, strength, and knowledge. I was told to read books filled with ancient wisdom, most of which turned out to be complete fiction. They told me to eat a certain way which only made me more ill. They gave me practices that only caused me to be weaker and more likely to be injured.
For instance, one trainer gave me a qigong method to help me with the constant fatigue I had been experiencing since childhood. I would have to leave classes as a kid to go and lie down in the nursing office and then again when I got home from school. Did the host of doctors and teachers ask me about my terrible insomnia, anxiety, and disordered eating? No, not one. Eventually, someone taught me a technique to energize my body and mind when exhausted, and this is where the problems began. I didn't understand the mechanism, but I used this method to force my energy upward to feel awake. Later, I constantly used a similar tool to manipulate my emotions to feel a form of manic happiness, and yet another procedure to keep from feeling pain. What was the result of this misuse? I became deeply exhausted because you cannot replace sleep with a stimulant. My emotional life became a mess because I only learned to repress feelings instead of resolving them. And I suffered significant physical damage because I ignored every warning my body gave me during martial training. Yet these are the kinds of methods taught to students seeking healing.
Much better is to help people learn to understand their fatigue and to rest or make other changes to help genuinely replenish their energy level. This training takes more time but lengthens our lives instead of shortening them. Much better is to teach people to acknowledge and process their emotions, to grow as open-hearted humans, and to connect with their community. This practice is more difficult because we must mature emotionally and deal with messy feelings, yet it makes life richer and more worthwhile. Much better is to help people understand the relationship with their body and to heed its signals. This connection is never popular because we must experience discomfort, yet it allows us to become embodied and to make friends with pain.
If I'd been lucky enough to have a good instructor, they would have helped me to understand these things and to avoid dead-end methods. My stubbornness would have made me resistant because I wouldn't have wanted to wait to feel different, and that's the difficulty. Everyone wants to feel different, but nobody wants to change. That's why teachers must cultivate patience, too.
Ok, here is one more of my personal stories to illustrate improper training. For better or worse, I spent my life exploring various meditation methods, and I am tremendously grateful to all of my teachers. However, it seems that none of them were familiar with these holistic approaches to healing. They believed that faster is better and that it's best to use shortcuts when possible. One of these is often called the "direct path" toward dissolving the sense of self. It works... but it comes at a cost. Similar to the friend I mentioned who fell into a "dark night of the soul," I also experienced a moment of breaking my brain by changing too quickly. I used a technique to force awareness about the nature of my mind and the idea of my self. All at once, this removed my motivations, ambitions, interests, and sense of direction in life. This is because these things were built upon my dreams and thoughts about who I hoped to become, which suddenly vanished. This emptiness left me unable to understand my own experience or how to live. I spent months just staring at a wall or sitting under a tree with a silly smile on my face. I couldn't teach, operate a clinic, or maintain relationships. If not for my close friends keeping me fed and grounded at the time, I probably would have become lost and homeless. This is a tremendously familiar story among teachers worldwide, yet it's totally unnecessary.
A good instructor would have first helped me ground my motivations, ethics, and habits in something more worthwhile than my ideas of myself. Also, they could have helped prepare the ground of my life for such developments, ensuring I had a safe space to heal and re-integrate without tearing apart my life. It's like teaching me to load and fire a gun without first removing obstructions from the barrel. The aftermath wasn't pretty.
An opening to the awakening process doesn't have to be so destructive. It can be as simple as a series of quiet realizations that make you smile and laugh without destroying your life or health. I had a teacher who would push his reading glasses up onto his head when he finished with them. Later, he would hunt around the classroom, wondering where he had left them. Sometimes he had more than one pair hiding up there! Waking up to the truth of your nature can feel as obvious and funny as putting your hand on your head to find glasses there. It makes the urgent search into a beautiful joke.
A woman was traveling in Iceland, exploring the volcanos as part of a bus tour. When the bus pulled over for lunch at a mountain bus stop, she went into a restroom and changed her clothing. Later, the bus driver asked if everyone was back on the bus, and someone noticed that one person had yet to return. The woman didn't realize that everyone had mistaken her for someone else. Panicked, they called for a coast guard helicopter and formed a huge search party. A kind person, she joined in the search, not realizing that she was literally hunting for herself. Self-realization can be as simple as discovering that you are what you have been seeking all along. What you are looking for is where you are looking from. This enlightenment can feel like a hit from a sledgehammer or like taking a deep breath of mountain air. The difference is in how the understanding is approached, and our system seeks to prepare the body-mind to adjust easily and comfortably.
If you're following the system as we have laid it out, this should provide stable mental expansion and healing without side effects. You might also seek out a master to help answer questions personal to your experience. A doctor or therapist can help you with any severe issues that arise from improper practice. For those of you who have found yourselves with strange symptoms that get stronger as you train, please stop and seek help from an expert. Internal methods are strong medicine, and all strong medicine must be used appropriately to avoid it becoming poison.
If you haven't developed any damage from meditation, qigong, or yoga, please continue being cautious and gentle with your practices. Simply recognizing the possibility of damage might be enough to keep you safe. This is my hope and the reason that I'm sharing this lesson.
However, if you're someone who has developed damage to your body-mind from practicing things supposed to help you, please know that you are not alone. It's all too common, and hopefully, we can work together to make things a little safer in our community. Stillness, rooted in release, must become the cornerstone of your practice. Cultivate the ability to sink your qi, ground your awareness in the present moment, and calm your emotions. Make sure that the four pillars of your health are well-balanced:
Sufficient rest & relaxation
Enough movement & circulation
A healthy diet
A stable mental-emotional life
Any of these thrown out of balance will impact every aspect of your life and inhibit healing. Along with your internal practices, take the time to consider them and seek help when needed.
We all need help throughout life, and finding good teachers and community is a sign of wisdom and strength. Find some like-minded people in the comment section and share your experiences. There's no need to walk alone on this journey that nobody ever returns from.
Enjoy your practice!
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