One may be forgiven for thinking that meditation is a risk-free activity. In the rush to sell Buddhist-style meditation as a scientifically proven, healthy lifestyle choice for the modern consumerist, the dangers are rarely mentioned. There are dangers, however. Wrong motivation, attachment, and emotional disturbance are the dangers most likely to ensnare unwary meditators…
Meditation Dangers & Risk Reduction
One may be forgiven for thinking that meditation is a risk-free activity. In the rush to sell Buddhist-style meditation as a scientifically proven, healthy lifestyle choice for the modern consumerist, the dangers are rarely mentioned. There are dangers, however. Wrong motivation, attachment, and emotional disturbance are the dangers most likely to ensnare unwary meditators. The symptoms will manifest differently according to one’s character and situation and are not always easy to recognise. Proper motivation, reliable information, expert guidance and experiential awareness are a meditator’s best defence.
Wrong motivation is perhaps the most likely danger to bring down a meditator. The Buddha’s purpose in teaching meditation was to give his followers neither an intellectual understanding of reality, nor supernatural abilities, nor a highway to Heaven, but the means to liberate themselves from delusions, cravings and aversions that result in dukkha (anguish, anxiety, stress, etc.). Renunciation (non-greed), goodwill (non-hatred) and peacefulness (non-violence) are appropriate motives for following in the Buddha’s path. A longing for happiness and freedom from worry, fear and sorrow will serve initially as a good motivator, but attachment to this natural desire will gradually lessen as one’s meditation practice naturally matures.
Attachment (to traditional doctrines and rituals, for example) is the most likely consequence of meditating with the wrong motivation and frequently manifests as anxiety and eagerness for signs of ‘progress’ or ‘failure’, pride in one’s ‘attainments’, and a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Attachment may cause one to spend lots of money on meditation retreats, courses, books, cushions, icons and other paraphernalia. One may feel obligated to abandon enjoyable activities and relationships prematurely for the sake of enlightenment – resulting in guilt and worry instead of peace of mind. Passivity, apathy, a compassionless attitude, are symptomatic of a deliberate ‘letting go’ policy inspired by dogma, whereas a skilful appraisal of reality – founded upon a mature meditation practice – actually strengthens compassion and resolve as one’s cultural conditioning gradually and naturally weakens. Unwholesome fascination with lights, sounds, and sensations experienced during meditation (seeking to prolong and enhance them instead of merely observing them with bare attention, for example), excessive sitting, unwarranted openness or guardedness, evangelising, and sectarianism, are all signs of attachment rather than enlightenment!
Buddhist meditation is neither therapy nor panacea for 21st century problems. A genuine meditation practice will undermine old certainties about one’s destiny, one’s activities, achievements, priorities and self-identity. Initially, one is likely to experience a kind of depression; things that used to matter no longer seem so important or worth pursuing, one’s health and one’s relations with others may even be strained by fierce cravings, strange delusions, irrational fears and feelings of intense anger at the slightest provocation. Such emotionally disturbed states are more likely to arise when meditation is misdirected or pursued too vigorously, when using intoxicants (alcohol, hallucinogens and other recreational drugs, prescription drugs, etc.) or when suffering severe psychological illness (PTSD, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, etc.). As an athlete avoids overtraining, so should a meditator. Better to ‘undertrain’ rather than ‘overtrain’, which leads to staleness and frustration and other more serious issues that may cause one to abandon the Middle Way altogether. With good mindfulness, however, one should be able to recognise the limitations of one’s character and so refrain from either laziness or strain. With guidance from an experienced teacher or some other reputable information resource it is possible to learn from one’s difficulties with meditation and emerge transformed, more able to look upon the world objectively (without imposing one’s conceptual views, value judgements, ideologies, etc.) and to respond unconditionally.
Undoubtedly it would be safer and more fruitful for the spiritual aspirant to concentrate solely on developing moral discipline or sila (through the practice of right speech, right action, and right livelihood) than to embark upon a programme of meditation with the wrong motivation. As Bhikkhu Bodhi explains –
The observance of sila leads to harmony at several levels — social, psychological, kammic, and contemplative. At the social level the principles of sila help to establish harmonious interpersonal relations, welding the mass of differently constituted members of society with their own private interests and goals into a cohesive social order in which conflict, if not utterly eliminated, is at least reduced. At the psychological level sila brings harmony to the mind, protection from the inner split caused by guilt and remorse over moral transgressions. At the kammic level the observance of sila ensures harmony with the cosmic law of kamma, hence favorable results in the course of future movement through the round of repeated birth and death. And at the fourth level, the contemplative, sila helps establish the preliminary purification of mind to be completed, in a deeper and more thorough way, by the methodical development of serenity and insight. 
Meditating while clinging stubbornly to deep-rooted cravings, fears, and prejudices, is unlikely to result in harmonious action and peace of mind, as Bhikkhu Khantipalo makes clear –
Meditation implies renunciation, and no practice will be successful unless one is at least prepared to make efforts to restrain greed and hatred, check lust, and understand when delusion is clouding the heart. How far one carries renunciation and whether this involves outward changes (such as becoming a monk or nun), depends much on a person and his circumstances, but one thing is sure: inward renunciation, an attitude of giving-up with regard to both unskilful mental events and bodily indulgence, is absolutely essential. 
With a skilled meditation teacher one is more likely to avoid the dangers of wrong motivation, attachment, and emotional disturbance. Without a teacher it is essential to proceed cautiously, for as Francis Story rightly observes –
It is difficult for most people to distinguish between self-hypnosis, the development of mediumistic states, and the real process of mental clarification and direct perception which is the object of Buddhist mental concentration. 
If it becomes apparent that meditation is not leading to greater peace of mind and improved relations with meditators and non-meditators alike, just stop. Make greater efforts to uphold the Five Precepts and consult a genuine source of information – preferably an experienced meditation instructor – before trying again. Remember: one is not obliged to meditate in order to find refuge in the Buddha’s dhamma, and there is no shame in stopping meditation if an honest appraisal of one’s experiences results in a negative conclusion.
 ‘The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering’, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
 ‘Practical Advice for Meditators’, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
 ‘Buddhist Meditation”, by Francis Story, (The Anagarika Sugatananda). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 24 November 2013.
‘Dangers Of Meditation’ by Lorin Roche, Phd. A Zesty, Life-affirming Approach To Meditation, undated.
A sweeping critique of eastern religious traditions in general rather than Buddhism in particular. Conflating Buddhism with Yoga, for example, the author kind of misses the point: unlike Yogic meditation, Buddhist meditation is unconcerned with physical contortions, autohypnosis, quests for occult powers, and unification with God! Moreover, in his eagerness to protect readers from gurus and charlatans, he paints all religious teachers as stuck-in-the past dogmatists who demand total obedience from their students, and he neglects to mention the ‘Kalama Sutta’ in which the Buddha explicitly warns against uncritical acceptance of doctrine and deference to authority. The article serves nonetheless as a reminder to maintain a commonsense attitude towards modern day meditation masters and the ancient methods they teach.
‘Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology’, by Douglas M. Burns. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
A Buddhist perspective on the issues raised by Lorin Roche’s article (above).
Image: ‘Troubled Meditator’ by PJL 2015