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The practice of yoga, mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, and other contemplative techniques is becoming increasingly popular as people seek ways to improve their health and well-being. While these practices are generally associated with positive outcomes, they can also lead to altered states of consciousness that may present challenges for some individuals. A new study by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital explores the prevalence and effects of altered states of consciousness associated with meditation practice. The results, published in the journal Mindfulness, reveal that these experiences are more widespread than previously thought.

The study surveyed over 3,000 adults in the US and the UK and found that 45% reported experiencing non-pharmacologically induced altered states of consciousness at least once in their lives. These experiences included feelings of derealization, unitive experiences, ecstatic thrills, changes in perceived size, and out-of-body experiences, among others. While many respondents reported positive well-being effects following these altered states, a significant percentage also reported negative outcomes. Some individuals experienced moderate to severe suffering, and a small percentage even claimed life-threatening suffering. The study also found that the majority of those who experienced suffering did not seek help.

The researchers emphasize the importance of recognizing and supporting individuals who have challenging experiences with altered states of consciousness. They note that clinicians are often ill-equipped to address these issues, leading to a potential public health concern. The findings suggest that altered states of consciousness are a common variant of normal human experience, but that more research is needed to identify individual characteristics that may predispose individuals to negative outcomes. It is crucial to develop clinical curriculum and guidelines to support patients experiencing suffering related to altered states of consciousness.

Despite the potential risks associated with altered states of consciousness, the researchers urge that meditation and other contemplative practices should not be dismissed as inherently dangerous. Instead, there is a need to better understand and support individuals who engage in these practices. Like with other therapeutic tools, it is essential to provide adequate support for individuals to fully realize the potential benefits of these practices. By developing safeguards, such as clinical curriculum and informed consent processes, meditation teachers and clinicians can help ensure that these powerful practices are experienced safely.

In conclusion, the study highlights the importance of further research into altered states of consciousness and the potential risks and benefits associated with mindfulness and meditation practices. By enhancing our understanding of these phenomena, we can better support individuals who have challenging experiences and provide more comprehensive care to those who seek the benefits of contemplative practices. Moving forward, it will be essential to integrate this knowledge into patient care and educational programs to ensure that individuals engaging in these practices do so safely and with appropriate support.

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