Dr. Willoughby Britton — The Hidden Risks of Meditation, Overlaps with Psychedelic Risks, Harm Reduction Strategies, How to Choose a Retreat, Near-Death Experiences, and More (#705)


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“If you can interface with any type of meditation spiritual system with maintaining your inner compass, that’s going to be a recipe for a much better outcome.”

Willoughby Britton, PhD

Willoughby Britton, PhD is a clinical psychologist, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School, and the director of Brown’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory.

Her clinical neuroscience research investigates the effects of contemplative practices (meditation) on the brain and body in the treatment of mood disorders, trauma, and other conditions. She is especially interested in which practices are best- or worst-suited for which types of people or conditions and why. She is probably best known for her research on adverse effects—why they happen and how to mitigate them.

Dr. Britton is the founder of Cheetah House, a nonprofit organization that provides evidence-based information and support for meditators in distress as well as meditation safety trainings to providers and organizations. 

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercastPodcast AddictPocket CastsCastboxGoogle PodcastsAmazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

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#705: Dr. Willoughby Britton — The Hidden Risks of Meditation, Overlaps with Psychedelic Risks, Harm Reduction Strategies, How to Choose a Retreat, Near-Death Experiences, and More

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Want to hear an episode that examines the upsides of meditation? Listen to my latest interview with Buddhist mindfulness legend Jack Kornfield in which we discussed yogic swoons, the point of consciousness, how the Buddha would deal with anxiety, the dimensions of meditation, reliably eliciting the non-self, cultivating a more joyful mind, and much more.

#684: Jack Kornfield — How to Reduce Anxiety and Polish the Lens of Consciousness

What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.



  • Connect with Willoughby Britton:

Brown University | CLANlab

  • Connect with Cheetah House:

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram


  • [05:55] Where did Willoughby’s interest in meditation begin?
  • [09:47] Discovering a link between meditation and insomnia.
  • [11:51] Challenging assumptions about meditation as a purely beneficent practice.
  • [13:29] Awakening is not a metaphor.
  • [17:40] Can mindfulness be too much of a good thing?
  • [19:46] My personal experience with meditation defying positive expectations.
  • [28:04] Undesirable consequences of meditation are more common than you probably think.
  • [30:03] What makes some people more vulnerable to the potential dangers of meditation than others?
  • [45:53] Altered states as a deviation from baseline.
  • [46:38] The impact of diet on meditation.
  • [48:21] The neuroscience behind psychedelics and meditation.
  • [52:53] The dangers of combining psychedelics and meditation.
  • [54:36] Choosing and vetting the ideal meditation retreat.
  • [59:39] When being a high achiever is a risk factor.
  • [1:04:21] Does Willoughby currently practice any forms of meditation?
  • [1:07:04] When meditation compromises cognition.
  • [1:10:45] Duration of symptoms and duration of impairment.
  • [1:11:41] Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD).
  • [1:12:50] Differences between meditation-related and psychedelic-related adverse events.
  • [1:15:31] The origin of Cheetah House.
  • [1:17:52] Ideological power and scaffolding.
  • [1:25:54] Willoughby’s self-care.
  • [1:29:47] Resources for people seeking relief from meditation-related adverse effects.
  • [1:34:43] Institutional betrayal and the empathy that comes from being humbled.
  • [1:37:12] Advice for aspiring psychedelic healers.
  • [1:39:33] Near-death experiences (NDEs).
  • [1:50:18] Parting thoughts, and the Dalai Lama’s response to Willoughby’s meditation research.


“I was on a meditation retreat, and I mentioned the data that I had found, which is basically that it was causing cortical arousal and insomnia. And the meditation teacher sort of chastised me and said, ‘I don’t know why all you clinical psychologists are always trying to make meditation into a relaxation technique. Everyone knows that if you meditate enough, you stop sleeping.’”
— Willoughby Britton

“Let me tell you, males 18 to 30 who think that combining every possible powerful tool, all at once, to break on through to the other side is a story that I see again over, and over, and over again.”
— Willoughby Britton

“Within that study, we found that people who had tried meditation even once, half of them would have at least one negative effect. And it could be extremely brief, no big deal. More concerning is that 10 percent, so one in 10 people who had tried meditation even once, would have a meditation-related adverse effect that was associated with impairment in functioning.”
— Willoughby Britton

“Having a negative experience during meditation, which we call negative valence, I don’t consider that an adverse effect. I think that if you don’t have some kind of negative experience in your meditation at some point you’re probably sleeping, because it’s not a warm bath for the mind — it can be challenging.”
— Willoughby Britton

“If you can interface with any type of meditation spiritual system with maintaining your inner compass, that’s going to be a recipe for a much better outcome.”
— Willoughby Britton

“Meditation never really improved my cognition. I always found that I was sort of one of those sleepy meditators. I would just get really, really, really calm and my brain just kind of got dull. But if I go out there and just use power tools outside in the cold, then my blood’s moving, my brain’s working. That’s doing more of what I was hoping meditation would do. I am also just ecstatically happy, which meditation never did that for me.”
— Willoughby Britton


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