How many psychotic episodes have you had in your life?
Perhaps it is amazing that the author could even put words to paper to describe the experience. Yes, the piece is a bit rambling, but how often do you get a first-hand account of a visit to the Dark Night and back again?
The notion that meditation is not a universally "good" thing, that it might unlock parts of your mind that you might not want to (or be able to) deal with, is certainly worthy of exploration.
And the Dharma Overground wiki and forum https://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/dharma-wiki/-/wik...
I'm quite surprised that the article didn't link to it as a support and enthusiast resource for hardcore meditators (even though he mentions it)
All the time. From authors, from Dostoyevsky and Sartre to Hunter Thompson, to random people (seems a good chunk of Medium, for example, includes such experiences)
same thing as with certain types of substances. you may have a really good or a really bad experience. at least with meditation there is some work (a lot actually) involved and along the way you get a chance to process some of the things that happen to you.
I witnessed one of my friend's psychotic episodes and it was probably the most terrifying thing I've ever seen in my life. They went from being the completely normal and wonderful friend that I'd known for years to (over the period of about 8 hours) slowly feeling like they could see and understand more and more about the universe. Finally they felt that they were a god and had a duty to overthrow a consipiracy against the world that only they could see. I luckily managed to persuade them to go to a hospital and after restraints and drugs they were perfectly normal again the next day.
Even as I say that the meditiation experience may have "triggered" the episode in the author, I don't understand enough about the condition to even say that this is probable or even likely. One of the things I learned about my friend's condition is that this feeling of knowing more than others, or "seeing the world as it really is" tends to bubble up leading to the very rationalisations that are used to deny the illness. My friend is very, very bright (and this seems likely to be the case for the author as well). Creating a running dialog of plausible explanations is easy for them.
I guess what I'm saying is that meditation may or may not have a dark side, but I'm relatively sure that the author's experience is not related directly to the meditation. It was an existing medical condition.
People damage themselves in all kinds of ways when they are unsuited/poorly trained/ prepared for extreme environments.
You wouldn't expect a grossly overweight person to run 11hrs a day for 10 days. Goenka's practices are extreme, and the 10 day silent retreat isn't suitable for everyone.
This is why there's the questionnaire for Vipassana during enrollment: it's an attempt to recognise someone who's not fit enough (yet) for it. That the author was able to persuade the volunteers, despite his known past, to let him in should not really reflect against them.
As others have point out in the discussion here, a retreat typically includes at least some of the follow:
1. Sudden and drastic change in sleep / wake schedule than you might be used to
2. Sudden and drastic change in diet
3. Sudden and drastic change in level of autonomy vs collectivism
4. Sudden and dramatic deference to authority / leadership
5. A lack of, or complete absence of, trained mental healthcare professional
6. Potentially bad actors, presence of people with malicious intent. This may be subtle, and the agent may not be aware of what they're doing.
7. You may not even be aware there is an ongoing investigation to past wrong-doings. I personally know people who attended ashrams connected with  who were not aware of the active Royal Commission investigation. Of course the Ashram didn't advertise the fact, so if you didn't happen to see it in the news you may not have been aware.
Call me paranoid, but I'm highly suspicious of anything and anyone connected to (quasi-)religious organisations.
There's a great deal of difference between honest people trying to help those looking for something outside the standard (because it's helped them personally), and predators. I'm sorry for your friends, but what happened at Mangrove Mtn is a different story.
I also don't disagree that there's a lot to be suspicious of, but it shouldn't cloud your mind to assume that everyone is either delusional, fraudulent or predatory.
Many people have experiences and feelings that can't be explained by healthcare professionals. Many healthcare professionals have had unexplainable experiences and feelings. The phenomena of near death experiences is an example: people clinically dead, but were able to describe their operating room from a strange angle with great precision. This is why people go there in the first place: they're looking for answers.
Unfortunately, your friends found wolves.
Also, if you don't believe in God, you get hit with a conundrum at some point: Why do so many people say they have had religious experiences, or talked to God, or near death experiences, etc? Are they lying, or is something happening in the brain?
There is a lot to be said that the human mind may have never evolved to live in a complex society like we live in with billions of other people in it. There seems to be a lot of loose wires in there.
So, like regular long-form journalism then, at least in the style of the New Yorker.
I have done intense meditation before and became a much calmer person. I experienced a level of peace and harmony that felt like my mind was a spontaneously orchestrated symphony. I also experienced the so-called "dark night" that was as deep and expansive as the universe itself. I experienced what arises from "the void": anything and everything. I was able to reconcile all of these experiences by coming to my own understanding of what the "The Middle Way" in Buddhism is.
Mental journeys (or 'spiritual journeys') can be just as treacherous as physical journeys; they can be transformational in many ways, but sometimes people get lost and cannot find their way back.
Meditation on its own is unlikely to cause harm, I think.
Being red pilled with the literature doesn't make you immune to the "dark night"
As Albert Camus said: "Dogma is philosophical suicide".
>Kierkegaard stated that a belief in anything beyond the Absurd requires an irrational but perhaps necessary religious "leap" into the intangible and empirically unprovable (now commonly referred to as a "leap of faith"). However, Camus regarded this solution, and others, as "philosophical suicide".
Regardless, there is no such thing as "red pilled" when it comes to all of this, and nobody who engages in intense meditation is immune. I went through it once and that was quite enough.
Basically it says at the end of the book telling us about: suffering, impeanence and no self. He tell us we should notice we become angry and enraged like a nihilist. (1)
The idea is that meditation and absorption is the only salvation to that , meaning without these skills you will be bound to suffer for real.
>Regardless, there is no such thing as "red pilled" when it comes to all of this, and nobody who engages in intense meditation is immune. I went through it once and that was quite enough.
Well I am sorry for the language, as a lay Buddhist myself keeping up with the discourses, middle length,combined of the Buddha and other sutras. They are nihilistic and don't talk about the meaning of life but just about salivation from suffering.
(1) Buddha was the first nihilist in the world. Source wikipedia.
Life without suffering is not life, and those who truly believe in the complete removal of suffering will indeed find their way to nihilism.
It has been a long time since I've been on the path, but I still remember the beauty of the inner silence; however I also remember how the silence becomes the void that eats away at the world we dream, leaving only the cold and naked meaningless of the world - i still remember how it was easy to become one with nothing instead of becoming one with everything.
I also wanted to say something more regarding Karuna, however that would probably be even more superfluous and pointless than my comment already is.
"Life is dukkha" seems to mean so much more than that. Especially as the Buddha expounds on multiple types of Dukkha, only one of which is suffering/pain. The other two, being impermanence and conditioned states.
It is probably most safe to say: "life is such". But that's akin to saying nothing; perhaps in this lies the absolute truth?
Also read SSC review on it.
P.S: having a christian author book quote in your bio. You may as well have a culture shock when it comes to the early Buddhism (not anything modern like Mahayana and cotemporary) since its on the opposite side of the spectrum.
As a sort of "negative control," I wonder if psychosis is as frequently triggered by other taxing programs; for instance, army basic training? There too people are forced to sleep on an artificial schedule, meals are regimented and at potentially unfamiliar times, and most of the day is spent in unfamiliar, effortful activity (but all of which is probably diametrically opposite to meditation.)
Boot camp has some things in common, because it is quite the indoctrination, but they feed you well, and focus more on breaking down the ego and forming a group identity and esprit de corps. Cults focus on breaking people mentally and creating dependence. Interrogation tends to focus on disorientation and a need to bond with the interrogator. Meditation retreats focus on breaking existing habits and perspectives and instilling new ones.
Similar tracks, different intentions and outcomes. Another difference is that in the military you’re screened for prexisting psychological issues, and they have a vested interest in that screening process. You also have trained observers at all stages who know to look for signs of deterioration. In a retreat you have no screening, no such resources, and no training in recognizing early signs of psychosis.
None of these:
>>awake and breakfast at ~6AM, dinner at 4pm, lights out at 9PM (and no meal until breakfast the next day.)
..fit your criteria.
Lights out at 9PM and waking up at 6AM gives up to 9 hours of sleep. That's plenty.
Similarly, going from 4:30-5PM until 6AM without food is not a huge deal, especially since you spend most of that time sleeping (in fact, not eating immediately before sleep can be very beneficial for sleep quality).
Before you adjust, having a meal at the wrong time and sleep at the wrong time can be somewhat equivalent to skipping both of them. If you ask me to fall asleep at 9PM without any previous setup, it will not happen, and I will not be rested at 6AM.
In a Vipassana retreat it's actually no food after noon, so that would be 12PM to 7AM iirc (haven't done a 10-day retreat in many years).
And it isn't a huge deal as you'll likely have other things on your "plate", such as a heaping portion of pain in the X (where X is your knees, back, buttocks, etc.) to keep you full :)
TFA references Megan Vogt, not sure if anyone has posted this yet:
e: in light of what jason_slack said - your experience may vary, of course. Just saying that personally I did not find the sleeping/eating situation to be too difficult after a couple of days. My biggest struggle was actually sitting on the ground for so many hours per day. My hips and legs have become so tight from chronically sitting in an office chair that maintaining good posture on the floor was very painful for me (I've actually since started stretching regularly to work on this).
The participants of the group (meditation retreat, army boot camp, etc) are all 'reset' into this new mode simultaneously and together, increasing group coherence.
The point is not to be comfortable, the point is to spend all one's time and mental energy doing the new thing, whatever that may be. I suspect most folks are extremely shaken for the first two to four days and then settle into the new routine.
Is there no lunch maybe?
The time of day is nothing more than a number, so saying that "I can't sleep before 11pm" is pretty nonsense. We swap the clocks back / forward by an hour twice every year and it only takes a couple of days to get used to the change. Spain is an hour ahead of the UK, despite being on the same longitude. If you ever fly between time zones, again it only takes a few days for your body to adjust.
I am still looking for someone to give me a decent counterargument and that "night owls" is a real thing that couldn't be solved with some discipline about sleep and waking times. Night Owls always seem to focus on a specific time, ignoring that fact that it is all relative.
Actual Buddhist practice is, by and large, considerably less bizarre. Not eating after noon is the sixth of the eight precepts accepted by laypeople during retreats or special days in the Buddhist calendar. The purpose of these precepts is to focus the mind on spiritual matters rather than worldly pleasures; they aren't all that different to the restrictions of Lent, Ramadan or Ta'anit. The overwhelming majority of religious and spiritual traditions make use of some kind of temporary asceticism.
The eight precepts aren't terribly difficult to follow, but they can be a shock to the system, especially if you go from dabbling in meditation to an intensive retreat. More significantly, meditation is much more physically and mentally taxing than you might expect, so an intensive schedule of meditation can be utterly exhausting if you haven't built up a baseline of endurance. It'd be like going straight from jogging in your local park to a desert ultramarathon.
No reputable Buddhist sangha would invite someone who is pretty much a total novice to a ten-day retreat. I'm a fairly experienced meditator and I'm comfortable with sustained and lengthy meditation sessions, but there's absolutely no way I'd go on a retreat of this level of intensity. Novice monks in my tradition wouldn't be expected to follow this kind of schedule, let alone people who had just walked in off the street.
I think there's a problem on both the supply and demand side; dodgy organisations are offering recklessly intensive retreats, but there's also a broader culture of extremism and quick-fixes that drives people to seek Enlightenment In A Week™. A huge amount of diet advice is dangerously unhealthy, because sensible eating is much less appealing than "The Miracle Diet - Get Your Perfect Body In 21 Days". CrossFit practitioners joke about rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal symptom of extreme overexertion. I regularly see submissions to HN that brag about extreme "productivity hacks" that involve chronic sleep deprivation or eating pseudo-food substitutes.
Ironically, this all runs directly contrary to one of the core tenets of Buddhist practice - the Middle Way.
Respectfully, did you read the article? Because both Vipassana and Mr. Goenka are mentioned.
In my experience nothing in Vipassana is particularly bizarre. Eating two meals a day with a snack in the evening isn't an ascetic practice, and neither is the sleep schedule which allows for 6.5 hours a night. The sleep I will admit is an adjustment, but it's a challenge, not an impossibility. And not a health risk. It's a great deal of meditation, but that's the idea.
I think main point the parent explained (very well) is that a great deal of meditation is a bad idea for the untrained.
Those who have mental disorders, whether under treatment or not, should go slowly with meditation and should keep a journal and keep in contact with a counselor. There are psychologists just about everywhere who have mindfulness and even Buddhist training, and who can help to guide people through this safely. There are enough benefits to meditation that it is worth working with a counselor to ensure that it is done safely. Those with certain forms of psychosis should probably avoid meditation, as it can alter brain patterns in a way that sidesteps the coping mechanisms one has been taught.
Long retreats are unnecessary for reaping the benefits of meditation or mindfulness. Think of these long retreats like marathons. They are incredible experiences for those willing to put in the hard work to train for them, but most people get all of the health benefits they need from 30 minutes worth of exercise. I have not yet gotten to the point of doing a long retreat in my own practice, but I am working up to it. Fifteen minutes a day and a little dedication will do it. Never bite off more than you can chew.
Also, note that if you are having a traumatic experience or suicidal ideation -- no matter the cause or when it occurs -- stop what you are doing and please immediately seek help. Meditation can turn up things that are difficult for some people to cope with. There is nothing wrong with getting a little help to deal with these things.
You can read many similar stories about retreat experiences which are less extreme. It's just irresponsible to put yourself through that extreme or let someone put themselves through it without proper preparation. Especially if they have a history of problems.
I try to make this clear to people when I talk about meditation (which I don't, often) - it's a sword, not a shield, and you can definitely misuse it. But for people who feel lost and powerless, it is sometimes worth the danger.
It was all fine, I didn't mind meditating, but evertyhing else was too much like prison for my taste. One thing that just didn't sit right with me was that,it was supposed to be a silent retreat but the only people you are not supposed to talk to were the other guests. The staff was definitelly talking to you and expected answers. Also things like, this afternoon I feel like skipping one hour of mediation and taking a nap were not allowed.
Later reading about these meditation centers and Sri Goenka, I found out that he developed his system in prisons and the prison like made sense to me.
For example, when Japanese Zen is practiced in the west, bowing to Buddha and one another is an integral part of the practice. It is something that many western people struggle with, as it connotes considerable deference in the west. In Japan, however, people bow in many professional contexts, at the beginning of class, and in many non-institutional social contexts as well. The bowing in a temple setting is a continuation of this. It's a little more regimented -- in a temple setting, we are to bow to everyone as we pass them -- but not such an enormous departure from everyday life. One the one hand, bowing in the west is something that has an exaggerated significance, relative to what it has in Japan; on the other, bowing is something where we see a continuity between Buddhism and everyday life in Japan, but not in the west.
People can have profound insights and yes also freak outs based on intense meditation. That's normally considered a success, and is something that a legitimate monastery or retreat is equipped to handle without calling police to arrest the meditator by force and imprisoning him in a psychiatric detention facility, to have the paper trail from that frame and follow him for the rest of his life.
My understanding is that insight meditation practices in particular, like Vipassana mentioned in the article, are especially likely to bring up difficult feelings. But if one has some sort of "safe container" they can put those feelings within, then they have the opportunity to integrate the experience, and they can grow from that. It's much like being able to recount a traumatic experience in a setting where you feel safe and listened to; it can allow for real healing. But there _needs_ to be some safe context for the pain to be felt. I feel like I read a lot of stories about people trying to dig up as much "insight" as they can, but without giving thought to how they might be able to integrate them (both with meditation and also psychedelics).
For anyone interested in this stuff, I've found Radical Self Acceptance by Tara Brach to be a really great source of both guided metta meditations as well as discussions about balancing "Seeing"/"Insight" and having the safe emotional container for experiences. I would also highly recommend The Mind Illuminated, mentioned elsewhere in this thread, as a great general textbook on meditation, which also gives special attention to uncovering Insight in a way that can be safely integrated.
"It avoids the extreme of self-torture that weakens one's intellect and the extreme of self-indulgence that retards spiritual progress."
Hard to sit on a 2-legged chair.
I don't really see what the author's personal troubles have to do with specifically Buddhism. If you stop taking powerful psychiatric medications and freak out in a greek monastery on the the Athos peninsula, you're also likely to get hauled away in handcuffs.
I'm no mental health expert but it seems risky to stop taking your meds, cold turkey, and likely against the advice of your mental health professional, proceed to immerse yourself 24x7 in any sort of religious retreat.
> In the mid-Nineties, in my mid-twenties when I was working as a journalist in London, I took enough recreational drugs to keep me awake for nine days, at the end of which I was psychotic, sectioned, sedated and held in hospital for four months. That might sound dramatic, but I did it to myself and for all I know the treatment (including drugs since withdrawn from use) and the incarceration saved my life.
So, mid-90s, freaked out on recreational drugs, ended up in the hospital for four months.
Went on legal brain-altering drugs for a decade. Which would have him going off of them somewhere in the 00s.
...and then if you look at the paragraph right above the one you quoted...
> It seemed clear to me that if I could reach such an altered state through intoxication and insomnia once, and then do it again 20 years later through silence and concentration [...]
...we can pencil in about a decade of being off the legal brain-altering chemicals. Whatever triggered this, it wasn't the result of going cold turkey off of something he'd been taking up to the last day before starting the meditation course.
>I had been screened out at the initial application because of my history and then, after going into detail, accepted, as my prior issues were so long ago.
I'm not clear on why it should be obvious that someone freaking out during an intense meditation should be "likely" to get "hauled away in handcuffs". Could you explain?
Or why in other cultures such a psychedelic trip was guided by a shaman.
A more advanced student would be taken away with just ONE hand cuffed.
Very interesting how much the author focuses on this one weekend retreat of sitting around, and not on his admitted long term use of experimental mind altering antipsychotic drugs.
This sounds like commonly reported withdrawal symptoms (aka freaking the fuck out) from long term use of very very powerful poorly understood drugs.
Withdrawal symptoms do not last decades.