Aaron Alexis and the Dark Side of Meditation

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Slain Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis's mugshot from 2010 arrest
Splash News / Corbis

One detail among the many reports emerging about Aaron Alexis, the 34-year-old man suspected of killing 12 people in a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, stood out: he was a regular meditator.

How does someone who engages in meditation, which is supposed to focus the mind, and is often associated with efforts to diffuse violence, rather than instigate it, perform the acts that Alexis is accused of executing? Alexis had a record of violent crime and, his father told the Wall Street Journal that his son had anger issues related to post-traumatic stress from participating in rescue efforts during the 9/11 attacks. A former boss, who met Alexis at a Buddhist temple in the Fort Worth, Tex. area, said Alexis was also a heavy drinker who came to chanting and meditation sessions regularly.

At worst, most people see meditation as flaky, boring, self-involved or harmless.  But as research starts to document how it can help to fight stress, high blood pressure, addictions and many other mental and physical disorders, it’s also becoming clear that meditating isn’t always so benign — particularly if it’s used against a background of existing mental illness.

As TIME reported recently:

People with depression or past experiences of trauma, for example, may find themselves feeling increasingly anxious during  meditation, no matter how much they try to focus on the moment. Or they may be plagued by intrusive thoughts, feelings and images of the past during their mindfulness exercises.

That’s why [University of Washington researcher Sarah] Bowen suggests that people with depression or trauma issues who want to benefit from meditation should try it with expert guidance.  “If you get stuck in ruts like rumination, there are ways to work with that,” she says, “It’s important to have teachers who are very familiar with meditation to guide you as you are learning.”  Experts can let people know what to expect and offer emotional support to help them through rough patches.

Brown University neuroscientist Dr. Willoughby Britton, who has published research demonstrating how meditation can be used in depression, is currently carrying out what she calls the “dark night” project, which will explore the rockier parts of the mindfulness path.

Britton was inspired to do the research in part by two patients she treated during her psychiatry residency. Both were participating in a meditation retreat had to be hospitalized for symptoms they developed during their contemplation.  She later attended a retreat— and experienced for herself what it was like to follow meditation into an extreme and distressing mental state. As she described it in an online interview, “I thought that I had gone crazy. I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I mean I really had no idea why I was suddenly having all these…like terror was big symptom of mine.”

She eventually learned that overwhelming anxiety, fear and emotional pain— sometimes including symptoms severe enough to merit psychiatric diagnosis— are “actually classic stages of meditation”  that eastern practitioners are familiar with. But Western doctors and researchers who co-opted the practice and began advocating meditative techniques to treat mental illness were not studying them. They saw only the calming ability of meditation to focus the mind.

MORE: When Meditation Helps Mental Illness — And When It Hinders

Although Britton’s research is not yet published, there are enough anecdotes about such dark experiences in writings on meditation and from teachers and practitioners to suggest caution in prescribing the practice for the severely mentally ill without appropriate guidance.

While it’s impossible to know what role, if any, meditation played in Alexis’ mental states, it’s clear that most therapies and practices that are powerful enough to have positive effects are also capable of doing harm when used in the wrong way and in the wrong people.

38 comments
MorganDix
MorganDix

Thanks so much Maia for this interesting and compelling article about the potential shadow sides of meditation. I cited your articles on this topic in my feature article exploring The Dark Side of meditation over at About Meditation. Really appreciate your work. Thanks again. You can check out my article here: http://aboutmeditation.com/the-dark-side-of-meditation/

oneyoufeed
oneyoufeed

I agree with zx_max. The article itself makes sense and is fair


My only real problem is that in a tl;dr world no one reads past the link of mediation to murderers. It's typical link bait and very likely not even the authors doing. But that's the world we live in.



zx_max
zx_max

It's quite troubling to read the comments here and see how people are so religiously defending meditation. It looks like most people totally missed the point. So just relax, she's not saying meditation is inherently bad or causes people to become serial murderers.

At first, when I read the title and the first few lines, it pressed my buttons too and I had the counter-arguments already prepared in my head: The extensive list of peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the benefits of metitation and the fact that his meditation doesn't necessarily have a causal link to his murders; which is basically what practically all these comments come down too with the addition of mockery and insult towards the author. But I actually decided to withhold my judgement until I had read the full article. After all, I very much doubt the author is unaware of those facts.

First of all, the text doesn't need to do much to support the title since it simply says: "Aaron Alexis and the Dark Side of Meditation" which some of you somehow read as "Meditation produces murderers". If you're going to be offended at the simple suggestion that meditation can have a dark side, it shows how much your mind is rock solid closed. Eating too much of essential vitamins is bad.There is such a thing as eating too much broccoli, leafy vegetables can sometimes cause illness and even death because they can be contaminated. What heresy is this, am I saying vegetables kill people? Someone stop me please!

Now guess what, under certain circumstances meditation can also have negative impacts. The concern is not that meditation put violence or bad stuff in someone's mind, as meerkat13 seems to think, but rather that it brings to surface bad stuff that was already there. I myself practice meditation regularly and I did sometimes experience extreme anxiety and emotional storms. If some of you have practiced it for a while and never experienced any negative thoughts or feelings, you're probably doing something wrong. Yes, there are many forms of meditation but if a form you're practicing doesn't involve any of these, I don't think we should call it meditation. Perhaps we should call it relaxation or guided dreaming. One of the main point of meditation is actually to learn to let bad states of mind pass when they arise instead of clinging to them, a process which obviously implies bad states of mind . But sometimes these can be overwhelming, hence the advice to be cautious about it, the point of this article.   

Knowing this before I started meditation would have certainly been of great help to me. It can be quite staggering to come up on these when you're not expecting it. I was not expecting it because of the misinformation I read on it, the same you guys are saying: Meditation strictly and always imply only good stuff, no caution at all is necessary. This is totally false and a dangerous thing to say. It's a general principle that powerful tools automatically involve caution, meditation is not an exception to the rule. 

As for a link between Aaron's meditation practice and his murders, of course one doesn't necessarily exist and it's not what the author is saying. The fact is, it's not impossible to think of one. For example, I remember trying to call my parents after meditating to help me resolve some issues I had with them when it resulted in creating more problems than it solved. Powerful and uncontrollable emotions rised up during my practice and still had a hold on me while I was talking to them. Meditation does help to calm the mind like it has been demonstrated but sometimes this type of stuff can happen during practice. Powerful emotions can drive us to do extreme acts, so the idea that it could have something to do with Aaron's acts is not ludicrous at all. It's not proposed as a fact, it's simply an idea worth investigating, as in Britton's research. 

If you think this suggestion has no sound basis at all,  you have nothing to fear of such an investigation. I would advice you to learn to withhold judgement and be more open to controversial ideas, especially when they imply something you feel strongly about. We are all deluded in some ways, and this is the only way to break out of these illusions


meerkat13
meerkat13

It strikes me as ignorant and somewhat bigoted to blame Buddhist meditation for harming a man known as a heavy drinker. Maybe booze was a big part of his problem? 

As a Zen meditator, I can vouch for the rigors of extended meditation, such as that occurring at a weekend retreat, causing aching knees, hips and backs (almost always temporary conditions) and sometimes bringing up powerful emotions. But meditation is generally a calming practice, and Buddhists, although among the most tolerant people on earth, frown on using alcohol or any other mind-altering substance. I can't imagine that meditating while drunk would have any great benefits but it still seems unlikely that it would put violence in the mind of a peaceful person.

P.S. Where's the proofreader?  Wrong: "efforts to diffuse violence" Right: "efforts to defuse violence." Diffuse means to spread, which I don't think was the intent here.

forkywitherspoon
forkywitherspoon

What absolute nonsense. All peer reviewed studies point to meditation as very effective, with NO link whatsoever to increasing rumination, etc. Mindfulness meditation is the act of dismissing conscious thoughts. The lack of critical thinking in this piece is astonishing. However much trouble a person has during meditation is indicative of pre existing issues.

CarefulReader
CarefulReader

Wait what?  Am I missing something here?

Why is meditation being blamed for his actions? I'm not seeing any connection between the two things nor is there any evidence presented of this in the article. I'm pretty shocked that this made it through the Time editing process.  If he sought out psychotherapy to deal with his mental distress should that be blamed to? What if he took long walks in nature, should we write about the dark side of those?  As someone who has seen meditation benefit a lot of people around me, I would hate to think they would shy away from it after reading something this poorly written.

Therapist60
Therapist60

To even intonate that this man's actions had anything to do with meditation is disingenuous at best. What a terrible piece of writing. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Meditation causes nothing but good for those who practice it. It is one of the healthiest things a human being can do for mind and body.

HumanBeing2013
HumanBeing2013

Sorry Maia, but your article was very disturbing. Please read this comment in full to understand why. You're clearly taking a detail of Aaron Alexis' life and theatrically infusing it with an evil trope just to make a headline. You shame the practice of meditation by turning it into tabloid material, and you disrespect the greater tragedy with your sloppy journalism. Simply put, your story lacks structure. The text box you've included does not support your title. One example of your poor logic is this: Your article paints meditation as the /cause/ of Dr. Willoughby Britton's anxiety, while ignoring the fact that meditation could be revealing anxieties that are always present in her life...  I'm surprised you're tasked with reporting on neuroscience for TIME.com. I hope you're a guest writer and not officially affiliated. I invite you to re-write this piece, and actually investigate something. For example, how many of the first responders to the tragedy meditate or pray? If Aaron Alexis had a meditation teacher, then get an interview on the teacher's perspective of Aaron as a student and the greater tragedy as a whole. Do something productive. Uncover something new. And if you run out of ideas, bring in some actual science by using Google Scholar, don't just a quote a single person's meditation experience as support for your argument. Did your boss even see this? I see that you've won many awards for reporting. Unfortunately, you will not win any awards for this piece, Maia. By the way, if you need a break from the negative response to this article, you should check out The Huffington Post's latest article (9/18/13) on the meditation and the world's most elite businessmen and women: "This Is The New Favorite Pastime Of The Business Elite".

oldandproud
oldandproud

 The Bible makes it clear that we should mediate on the Word of God not empty the mind Eastern Meditation.  

Meditation can open the door to a very dark side that is not of God.  

Psalm 48:9 Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love


Meditate on the word of God not Eastern Meditation of "clearing the mind" 

svs
svs

This is why meditation has always been taught by experienced well practiced, and lineage authorised teachers - that is always until western materialist quick answer qualifications were developed


KonfusedKitty
KonfusedKitty

I'm sorry Maia but this story is all over the place with no clear direction, and certainly does not support the title.


Weird.

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

Most people, when asked as 6 year olds, do not say "I want to grow up to be a mass killer!". Instead, they seek out those things that can help them be more 'normal'.

Such was this man's case. He sought out mental healthcare. He sought out meditation. He sought out medication.

It all failed, and suffer the shot-up people for it. Maybe if our healthcare system were better in general it would have made a difference. Maybe not. We'll never know...

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

jeromearmstrong
jeromearmstrong

Actually, from what I have read, he also suffered from a "microwave sound" (tinnitus) going on all the time in his head, and play video games constantly. So can we have an article blaming those "dark" sides soon? 

More to the point, was he on any medication?

JeffreyNieves
JeffreyNieves

People who are trying to "defend" meditation are missing the point. They aren't say meditation is bad. They are saying negative experiences are part of the path. And they are. A mentally distressed person will be confronted with all crap they have floating around their mind. For some people this can be quite dangerous. 

Meditation is wildly powerful are not understood by western science enough for it to be used as therapy, yet.

GryphonParker
GryphonParker

This journalist needs to be fired and never allowed to write an article for anyone ever again.  I'm sick and tired of people trying to spread fear where none need exist.  You know what else that guy did that EVERY other mass murderer did?  He breathed oxygen.  Reports prove a direct link to breathing and violence.  I just wish we could have intelligent people reporting the news. 

JoeSchmidt
JoeSchmidt

The article assumes what many people assume: there is just one type of meditation practice when there are many types with different objectives. So, what meditation practice was he doing, how often was he doing it, and who was his teacher?

seriously..
seriously..

This is literally the most misinformed article I have ever read. Who the hell hires you "journalists"? Stop trying to take advantage of a paranoid america. I bet if he killed someone with a fork they would ban forks too.. You are pathetic.

Sil
Sil

Spreading this type of misinformation is most likely to be the cause of  increasing alienation, and a variety of other, current problems.
Senseless sensationalism, for the sake of making "news" is THE number 1 danger to which we are all exposed to.
Do the world a favor and report responsibly. 

Openminded1
Openminded1

The BS here is the PTSD bull his dad is trying to pull. This is not a combat veteran and when during 9/11 this guy was  around 21 what did he do reference to rescuing victims in NY and how long did he do it? I am a vietnam vet who knows about PTSD and the causes of ptsd , this guy without a doubt had mental issues but not PTSD.

ksbennett007
ksbennett007

To suggest that meditation had something to do with why this person made the choice to shoot people is speculation and reaching for an answer as to why it occurred.  I don't understand why you would want to even suggest that meditation played any kind of role in this violent crime.  This person had documented cases of violence and it was later discussed that he had a history of mental illness.  The fact that he meditated does not in any way provide any evidence as to why he did what he did.  It is misleading to suggest that it played a role in this tragedy.    

BruderHueChuyen
BruderHueChuyen

Meditating is simply the practice of training the mind, just as going to the gym is the practice of training the body. We wouldn't be surprised if a regular at the local gym committed a crime, would we?

Meditation is just a tool. It strengthens the mind. How the individual uses that mind, however, is another issue. 



LawsonENglish
LawsonENglish

An individual with known severe mental health issues and a history of violence was self-medicating using a variety of treatments and became violent:

"Alexis had a record of violent crime and, his father told the Wall Street Journal that his son had anger issues related to post-traumatic stress from participating in rescue efforts during the 9/11 attacks. A former boss, who met Alexis at a Buddhist temple in the Fort Worth, Tex. area, said Alexis was also a heavy drinker ..."

While meditation of any kind can occasionally be associated with negative issues, the more likely explanation is that Alexis was not seeking proper medical help and was using alcohol to mask his symptoms and using the meditation as another excuse to avoid treatment.


Incidentally, mindfulness meditation by itself isn't a terribly effective therapy for PTSD. Buddhist monks who flee to this country from Tibet often need Western therapy to handle their PTSD symptoms.


marcDouglas
marcDouglas

why don't you look into the darkside of being mentally programmed by our military.

WhatswithHarry
WhatswithHarry

"LOOK, HE'S DIFFERENT- GET HIM"

lolk. thanks Time. 

Gergarious614
Gergarious614

Really? You're a "Neuroscience Journalist"? Please tell me that posting this article was just a way to get your mouth fed and isn't an actual opinion. You would have to be a complete lunatic to believe that meditation is the "only thing that stands out" in this individual. Your article is proof that we are a stone's throw away from thought-crime. You should be ashamed of yourself for demonizing a peaceful practice that has brought millions of people inner peace.

swinefuzz
swinefuzz

Give me a break! His problem was severe mental illness. He likely found some peace through meditation, though obviously not enough. Eating broccoli is good for you. I'm sure Alexis sometimes ate broccoli. Would you blame broccoli for the deaths of the 12 people @ Washington Navy Yard? 

VicenteBalbastreBallester
VicenteBalbastreBallester

This article is outrageous and utterly offensive, also demagogic.

You just cant blame meditation because of a deranged individual!

oldandproud
oldandproud

The Bible makes it clear that we should mediate on the Word of God not empty the mind Eastern Meditation. 

Spiritually, many believe that meditations that focus on "nothing"  or "clearing the mind of all thoughts"  can open up the door to demon possession.  

Meditating on the word of God is different from Eastern Region mediation of "clearing the mind".   

Reading the bible and pondering(mediating)  the Word of God is what the Bible says to do not Eastern Religion meditation. 

forkywitherspoon
forkywitherspoon

@oldandproud And all peer reviewed research shows the Eastern method is extremely effective. Take your book of fables and go live in a cave. You have no clue about mindfulness meditation.

forkywitherspoon
forkywitherspoon

@JeffreyNieves You're incredibly uninformed. Mindfulness has been studied in depth and has been proven time and again by peer reviewed research to be extremely effective. It's an integral part of dialectical behavioral therapy. Have you read a book in your life or do you just like making things up? Unbelievable stupidity.

Thegarbageman
Thegarbageman

@Openminded1  You can get PTSD from a single bad incident, especially as a civilian who doesn't prepare for these disaster scenarios. If he was rescuing people on 9/11 god knows what he might have seen.

martin.hohenberg
martin.hohenberg

@oldandproud So, if a devout christian goes on a rampage and murders people, what's your explanation there? The number of serial killers who were "inspired by god" vastly dwarves the number of quasi-Buddhist serial killers.

CommonSense28
CommonSense28

@oldandproud Demonic possession? I've been meditating for over a decade now and no demon has ever possessed me, probably because they don't exist. I think its time to send you to a home grandpa.

zx_max
zx_max

@forkywitherspoon @JeffreyNieves Have you read and understood his comment at all. It seems like you were just ready to post this comment as soon as you saw it didn't defend meditation. Why don't you address what he said instead of insulting him 

Openminded1
Openminded1

@Thegarbageman @Openminded1 I am aware of how you can contract ptsd I have it from vietnam and have fought for it years via the VA and other sources. I will tell you his story is bs he was most likely no where near the 9/11 horror then anyone else watching it on TV. Even rape victims go thru PTSD or home invasion victims, I have seen it after 30 years as a cop. I have my doubts with this man being involved with rescue attempts. I think without a doubt he had mental issues and needed help but not PTSD.