ABINGTON, Pa. — Two gifts totaling $50,000 are kicking off an international research project led by Penn State Abington professor Pierce Salguero into the diagnosis and treatment of meditation-related adverse effects, long known in East Asia as meditation sickness. The support for investigating this largely obscure occurrence in practitioners of intensive meditation has been provided by the Institute for East-West Medicine and its founder and president, Dr. Raymond Chang.
Psychiatric studies have demonstrated that meditation can lead some people to encounter acute psychological imbalances or psychosomatic ailments. The rise in its popularity, coupled with the lack of widespread knowledge about or support for potentially negative outcomes, makes the adverse effects of meditation an urgent topic of scholarly investigation.
“This phenomenon has been known for thousands of years in Buddhist cultures, but it is a story that is just starting to emerge in the popular and scientific media,” said Salguero, professor of Asian history and health humanities.
He explained that it is normal for meditation to surface difficult memories, traumas, and anxieties, much like in therapeutic settings.
“But the myth is that meditation is always relaxing and blissful. Adverse effects can be a normal part of the process that practitioners often don’t expect, but if they are not aware, they may think they should do more meditation to counteract their symptoms,” he said, which may not resolve the issues.
Chang, who funded the gifts to raise awareness of the potential drawbacks of meditation, has stepped forward with his personal support.
"We think Professor Salguero's work to bring to light the possible side effects of Eastern meditation techniques is something that needs wider attention. As it is our Institute's mission to bridge Eastern and Western aspects of healthcare, it just seems most natural for us to support this pioneering work," Chang said.
We want people to be better informed of the potential risks of meditation in the same way that medications carry warning labels. The objective is informed consent.
—Pierce Salguero , professor, Asian history and health humanities
An internationally known expert in the history of intersections between Buddhism and Asian medicine, and with a background in the practice of both meditation and Asian medicine, Salguero is leading the effort by about a dozen international scholars to identify and translate texts from historical, religious, and medical traditions that are often written in archaic scriptural East Asian languages. This literature is virtually unknown in medical, scientific, and practitioner communities.
“This material has never really been translated into English, so my feeling is that the scientists who are studying meditation and who are English speaking may be unaware that there are volumes of materials pertaining to the topic,” he said.
Salguero will employ the gifts from Chang and the institute to commission contributions from scholars and to pay open access fees so the results of the project will be available at no cost to the public. It will hopefully improve clinical outcomes by suggesting interventions and solutions and make meditation practices safer.
“I want to help people understand these symptoms as well as have the research written to make it accessible to non-scholarly audiences. We want people to be better informed of the potential risks in the same way that medications carry warning labels. The objective is informed consent,” he said.
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