Anti-depressants and the quest for Zen
May 15, 2010 1:58 PM   Subscribe

How do chemicals (alcohol and anti-depressant medication) impact meditation? I am wondering if taking anti-depressants would impacts one's ability to meditate? I know dreams are impacted by taking anti-depressants, so does that mean that vivid dreaming (under the influence of seritonin re-uptake inhibitors) has no spiritual meaning whatsoever? (obviously those who believe in lucid dreaming should address this question). Please shed some light (even if just anecdotally) on the impact of taking these medications on one's ability to still the mind.

What's your experience on the impact of anti-depressants on meditation and lucid dreaming. If I want to deepen my meditation practice, should go off of the anti-depressants? On a related note, does drinking (in moderation) have an impact on one's ability to still the mind/meditate? Please share your knowledge, thoughts, insight, even if its anecdotal.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Lucid dreaming isn't a "belief", per se. It's simply one of many types of dream-state.

As for the "spiritual" meaning of dreams, no medical study is going to provide evidence of that either way. A psychological study of the meaning of dreams and our relationship with them would be more helpful.

Meditation practices and medical regimens are both incredibly person-specific. Even if we knew what exactly you are taking now, I don't see how anyone could do more than guess as to what the effects would be either way. Talk with the person who prescribed you the medicine.

Alcohol is a depressant, in my experience it has made meditation more difficult because it inhibits the ability to concentrate and also can cause drowsiness.
posted by Vinegaroon at 2:09 PM on May 15, 2010

I have never taken anti-depressants or been drunk when meditating (nor do I know about lucid dreaming). But for meditation, anything that helps you stay awake and focused is good for meditating. If you're tired, caffeine could help. (So could theanine in green tea, which supposedly promotes alpha waves, though I'm not sure about evidence for the connection between the latter and effective meditation.) I'm sure that alcohol would be a bad idea.

I get the impression that you see meditation as some kind of mystical experience in which you will see visions. Kudos to you if something like that has happened, but if not, don't expect it, because it's not that way for most people. The benefit of meditation is generally the lack of stuff going on in your brain.
posted by k. at 2:24 PM on May 15, 2010

I would question whether or not a vivid dream has "spiritual meaning" at all. Sometimes a dream is just a dream.
posted by Biru at 2:29 PM on May 15, 2010

If I want to deepen my meditation practice, should go off of the anti-depressants?

Depression would have a much worse impact on your meditation practice than antidepressants do.
posted by ook at 2:43 PM on May 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Alcohol is terrible for meditation. In the Indian tradition, alcohol is highly tamasic which is the furthest away possible from meditative energy which is sattvic. Rajasic is in the middle between them which would be caffeine, cocaine and so on. Of course, it may not be so clear-cut, my feeling is that good green tea is probably a mixture of sattvic and rajasic, depending on quantity and strength.

I don't see how you're fitting lucid dreaming into this question. You can meditate while you're in a lucid dream (or repeat mantras, or something like that). But that doesn't mean that a substance that makes lucidity more likely will by itself make meditation deeper. It's similar to stimulants that may keep you awake and therefore allow you to meditate instead of sleeping - but it does not follow that they will make meditation deeper if you were able to be awake in their absence.
posted by rainy at 3:05 PM on May 15, 2010

You should definitely be very careful about going off anti-depressants to do meditation. Sometimes meditation can make mental illnesses worse, and trigger episodes of depression, mania, etc. The usual teaching in Zen is to ignore altered states of consciousness, bliss, transcendence, and teachers often warn against becoming attached to those states and assigning spiritual meanings to them.

If you're looking to deepen your practice, the first thing I'd recommend is to find a good teacher.
posted by AlsoMike at 3:09 PM on May 15, 2010

With regard to the spiritual meaning you find in meditation or dreams, I wouldn't worry about the physical, chemical basis for the experience except inasmuch as your own personal experience of it is affected. Everything we do can be connected to a chemical reaction, but that doesn't mean that we can't find meaning/significance/spirituality in our lives. In other words, vivid dreaming can have a spiritual meaning for you regardless of the physical basis of it.

If you find that alcohol - or anything else - impedes your ability to meditate or find spiritual significance in dreams then you can make a choice to avoid alcohol if you wish. If you don't find that to be the case then it doesn't matter what other people think about it. This would be true of anything.

The tricky part is setting your priorities. If alcohol does inhibit your spirituality then is the freedom to occasionally enjoy alcohol more important than that spirituality. If you find that anti-depressants limit your ability to find meaning in your dreams then you have to choose between the emotional peace and stability that they allow you to enjoy and the need to find meaning in the form of lucid dreams. I am convinced that many people have found that they can live a richly spiritual life while using anti-depressants and alcohol, but if you find that you can't then no one on metafilter will be able to set your priorities for you.

For what it's worth, I wish you the best of luck and if you do decide to stop taking anti-depressants follow these guidelines:
1) taper down very slowly
2) wait until you've been symptom free for at least 6 months to a year
3) make sure that you tell someone you are close to and that you trust so that they can let you know if they notice anything changing
4) discuss it with your doctor first.

Also, you should be aware that alcohol impedes the ability of anti-depressants to treat depression, as opposed to anxiety.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 3:18 PM on May 15, 2010

For me meditation is an active process, and I don't do it when I'm sleeping. I sometimes get vivid dreams similar to the SSRI ones when I take melatonin or 5HTP, but this doesn't occur when I'm awake. Taking melatonin and 5HTP, and meditating generally assist me in being in a psychological/spiritual state which I consider healthy and balanced in my life. Your mileage may vary.
posted by kch at 4:14 PM on May 15, 2010

Yogically speaking, you should be able to find a place of depth regardless of what substances might be in your system. Practically speaking, I think you are going to need to explore this stuff yourself. Deep meditation is going to be different for everyone.
posted by bprater at 6:07 PM on May 15, 2010

If you find anyone telling you you have to compromise your health and sanity to deepen your meditative practice, I'd run pretty far and fast-- and that's what someone telling you to go off your meds would be doing.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:23 PM on May 15, 2010

In theory, feeling depressed is just another mental state to watch when meditating. In practice you may find that to be impossible. And then there will be the times when you're not meditating.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:07 AM on May 16, 2010

For anti-depressants I think it varies vastly from one drug to another...for instance, some of them have an "upper" effect...Wellbutrin gives me a ton of energy but I am a little bit shaky at times. It's made it harder to focus in yoga, so I imagine that meditation would also be more difficult.
posted by radioamy at 5:43 AM on May 16, 2010

If I want to deepen my meditation practice, should go off of the anti-depressants?

Depression would have a much worse impact on your meditation practice than antidepressants do.

Oh god this. The two aren't mutually exclusive, at least until you become an advanced meditation person. Start meditating while continuing your meds, then after you feel you've made significant process in meditation, talk to your doctor about slowly tapering off the meds.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:53 PM on May 16, 2010

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