The Therapy Beat

The Therapy Beat

Is Meditation as Safe as We Think?: The Risks We Don’t Talk About

By Chris Lyford

January/February 2022

There’s an old parable in the Buddhist tradition that begins with Buddha and one of his disciples walking through the woods on a warm afternoon. Tired and thirsty, they stop to rest, and Buddha asks the disciple to get him a cup of water from a nearby stream. Just as he arrives at the stream, an ox cart passes through it, clouding the water with mud and gravel. The disciple returns to Buddha and says, “My Lord. The water is cloudy and unfit to drink.”

Buddha tells the disciple to wait a moment and then return to the water. When he does, he finds it still cloudy. “Wait a little longer, and then go back,” Buddha instructs.

This time, the mud and gravel has settled, and the water is clear. “You see,” Buddha says when the disciple returns with clean water, “Sometimes the water of the mind is clouded with bad thoughts. But when we remain patient and wait for them to pass, the mind becomes clear, just like this water.”

The message is straightforward and commonly taught to meditators today: when negative or distracting thoughts arise, simply notice them and let them go.

But Cheetah House, a nonprofit organization founded at Brown University in 2009, says it’s not that simple, and questions what happens when those thoughts are so negative, so intense, that they not only become unbearable, but risk irreparable harm to the meditator.

This assertion—that perhaps meditation isn’t as safe as most people assume—is at the center of a debate within the…

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