Willoughby Britton, the director of the clinical and affective neuroscience laboratory at Brown University, runs a support group for people like David—people for whom meditation has caused a psychological and physical crisis. Each week, she gets more emails from people who are struggling, asking for her help. “I’m seeing a lot of casualties,” she says.
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31-year-old Patrick* from Tennessee read Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and borrowed the accompanying audio-guided meditations from his local library. He listened to the CDs, which guided him through breathing and body-scan meditations.“I would say probably four or five days a week I was doing half an hour to 45 minutes, and I was almost never not meditating for a day,” he tells me. “I hit almost every day for like seven weeks.”
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The people who reached out to me from Britton’s support group all asked for their identities to be protected. They didn’t want their peers, bosses, teachers or families to find out they had suffered so intensely from a practice most consider healing. “Mindfulness is really seen as a positive end-all/cure-all,” Sofia** tells me. “A panacea. Everyone who does it boasts about its benefits. Having it be public that for me it actually exacerbated my symptoms would bring a lot of shame and guilt. It makes me feel like an outsider.“