Willoughby Britton believes in the power of mindfulness meditation to change your brain-and your life–for the better. She just wants you to be careful.
Mindfulness meditation is a $4 billion industry in America. Seven years ago, the number of meditators in the US was estimated to be 20 million, with an additional 1 million each year. And these are not just college students or new-age types. Meditation’s gone mainstream, and it’s showing up everywhere—from hightech companies in Silicon Valley to the Marines to the cover of TIME. Even politicians, such as US Representatives Tim Ryan, D-OH, and Mark Sanford, R-SC, are becoming meditation evangelists. Ryan recently published the book A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.
The founding father of the mindfulness movement is Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a molecular biologist who became an avid meditator in the 1970s. In 1979, while working at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, it occurred to him that meditation might help patients deal with chronic pain. To explore this idea, he established the Stress Reduction Clinic and developed the now-famous Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, an eight-week intervention derived from Buddhist meditation teachings and practices. According to the center’s website, more than 20,000 people have completed the course. And Kabat-Zinn was right: meditation has since been proved effective in helping people cope with pain.
In recent years numerous studies have shown that mindfulness—a secularized form of Buddhist-inspired meditation that stresses a nonjudgmental awareness of the present—may help reduce blood pressure, enhance immune function, and improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are signs that it might even slow the effects of aging and increase one’s capacity for compassion. A recent study by Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Eric Loucks, PhD, which Psych Central named one of the “four greatest psychological discoveries of 2014,” suggests a possible link between self-reported mindfulness and improved cardiovascular health. Other studies have begun to examine the effect of mindfulness on the brain’s very morphology, including one that reported an increase in gray matter in the left hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and memory.
What’s not to like?
As it turns out, meditation, like other medical interventions, has possible side effects. According to the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people with certain psychiatric problems like anxiety and depression.” That’s a fairly tepid warning for “symptoms” that can range from distressing to catastrophic, and include reports of meditation-induced seizures, panic, fear, involuntary movements, de-repression of traumatic memories, mania, hallucinations, pain, and loss of sense of self.
Clinical psychologist Willoughby Britton, PhD, has met enough meditators who have become impaired by meditation (in her definition, this means being unable to work or care for children for at least one month) that she believes that informing people about the risk is a public health issue.
But it’s also a personal one.
For Britton, who as a teenager was equally fascinated by the human mind and the human brain, coming of age in the ’90s was a boon. George H.W. Bush had declared those years the “Decade of the Brain,” and support for brain research was strong. She decided to major in neuroscience, but she wanted to explore not just brain function but also questions of consciousness: What are we? What’s looking out of our eyes? What happens when you die? When she realized neuroscientists didn’t really want to talk about consciousness, she began taking classes in religious studies and philosophy. She wrote a dual thesis, on addiction, in both neuroscience and philosophy.
Then, in the summer between her junior and senior years, Britton’s close friend from childhood committed suicide. Filled with sudden terror at the notion that people can disappear, Britton developed an anxiety disorder. “I’d always been interested in consciousness, but now it was really pressing,” she recalls. “What could have happened to her? Where did she go? The whole reality that we’re mortal and life isn’t actually that safe [made me]fearful and anxious.” Britton’s father gave her A Path with Heart, by Jack Kornfield, a prominent American Buddhist and meditation teacher. She devoured the book, and began to use mindfulness meditation to work through not only anxiety and grief but existential issues as well.
The book was immensely helpful, Britton says, “but I was still really fascinated by death. Does [consciousness]go away when we die? Is it brain based?” In a required course in which students had to choose a country to study, she chose Tibet, “because I knew the Tibetans … spent a lot of time thinking about death.”
Meanwhile, Britton was meditating.