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I Left a Buddhist Retreat in Handcuffs (esquire.com)
91 points by dredmorbius 61 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 96 comments



I found the article a little disorganized and the author seems to be having trouble expounding a clear thesis. I just read it for the second time, and I still don’t have a good grasp of what he experienced or what connections he’s trying to make to Buddhism. Maybe that’s understandable given what happened to him (though I’m not really sure of, besides him going “crazy”), but I still think that as a journalist he should be able to write a more cohesive and lucid article. And for reference, I’m saying this as someone who’s gone through a number of ineffable experiences with heavy doses of psychedelics. Just saying that he felt like he was dying and being reborn ad infinitum doesn’t really cut it as phenomenological explanation.


> I found the article a little disorganized and the author seems to be having trouble expounding a clear thesis.

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.


The MCTB book - https://www.mctb.org

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)


I’m bipolar and ha e gone through a number of experiences myself, both drug induced and otherwise. Many writers have described these kind of experiences with such poise and skill and I just think this guy falls short. With him being a journalist, I was just expecting a more coherent narrative and deeper introspection into his actual first person experience. I started off with him describing him arrested at a retreat but he never really seriously tried to make us understand his headspace.


>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?

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)


the message is that meditation has a dark side and some previous imbalances may land you in deep trouble. people don’t really acknowledge this and put an = between meditation and calm/transcendence.

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'll be honest. I was left feeling that the author has mental health problems and that this experience happened to trigger it. I'm coloured by past experiences as I've had a very good friend suffer from psychotic episodes that sounds very, very similar to what the author suffered. I think the idea that it was drugs, insomnia, or meditation that caused the problem is a rationalisation - one that my friend made as well (minus the drugs).

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.


As a long time mediator, your response was what I also saw in the article.

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.


yes, your current experience is heavily influenced by your past experiences.


The fact the author had a history of drug abuse and mental health problems, probably didn't help things any.


That's part of what mirceal just said.


Sounds like you started reading prepared to defend Buddhism but failed to find a well defined attack against it.


I took it as the author simply relating their experience and including some informed opinions on it. What was news to me was that this can happen just with meditation! I didn’t know that.


A retreat is more than just meditation.

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[1]. I personally know people who attended ashrams connected with [1] 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.

1. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-14/children-lived-in-fea...


These Vipassana retreats are not ashrams like you mention. Many of your other points are not untrue, but seem a little baited to me, understandably, given your position.

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.


I've been doing 2 to 3 week long meditation retreats every year for the past 10 years or so. I don't disagree with anything your are saying in particular. However I do think there is value in them (otherwise I wouldn't keep going), but I also think people should ease their way in. Do a 1 day retreat first, then do some three days, and then do a week. Have a regular meditation practice, preferably with the same people you are doing the retreats with. So in my specific case I've known all of the teachers for 15 years or so, and usually most of participants for many years. We do ask for medical disclosures for participants, and it's not like we have been completely without any incidents. I think your points are well taken, but I would advise people who are interested in meditation and retreats so just use some common sense and don't rush into it and know the people you are doing it with. For me at least it's a very rewarding experience.


What sort of incidents?


Some guy took off his clothes and started wandering around the outside grounds


The majority of those could be encountered when you go on holiday.


If you think about it, the people going on 10 day meditation retreats are probably not the most relaxed people in the world. The author was struggling with a lot of issues...

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.


He seemed to eventually find a case, a woman, where someone without prior mental illness experienced what he did. That makes a stronger point than his own experience, since he had spent months in a mental hospital previously. So I guess his thesis is that psychosis can be induced by meditation in some unidentifiable segment of the population. Although if you Google this Arising and Passing away business, it seems accepted and known to the practitioners anyway.


>I found the article a little disorganized and the author seems to be having trouble expounding a clear thesis.

So, like regular long-form journalism then, at least in the style of the New Yorker.


This article is an important read for any meditation enthusiast who isn't aware that it's not all rainbows and ponies. Intense meditation does affect brain structure, and how it affects different individuals can be unpredictable. This is why some people will need extra support.

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.


While I agree with you, the author experienced drugs and psychosis before, which I bet contributed.

Meditation on its own is unlikely to cause harm, I think.


I think what you mean by dark night is the last chapter in The Mind Illuminated.

Being red pilled with the literature doesn't make you immune to the "dark night"


Also don't by misguided by monks and nuns who are in RELIGION e.g Theravada (Zen is good). They sell their religion by calling it a philosophy which is by crap. Studying Theravada ~hundreds of hours with meditating you learn a lot about Early Buddhism but you get entangled in religion with: worshipping, reading the sutras religiously etc)

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".


I was referring to the "dark night" Dr Daniel Ingram expounds upon in his writings (which I'm familiar with) and is referred to in the article. I haven't read The Mind Illuminated, so I'm not sure if it's the same thing.

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.


> haven't read The Mind Illuminated, so I'm not sure if it's the same thing.

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.


So the book that you mention takes things to the extreme, and this is what often happens with belief systems of any sort. Personally, I have found meditation on the three characteristics (unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and non-self) to be useful. Why? So I can go on craving things I can't have, mourning losses, and getting caught up in my own ego, only without being completely overwhelmed by it all.

Life without suffering is not life, and those who truly believe in the complete removal of suffering will indeed find their way to nihilism.


beautifully put! If I might add - the first noble truth is that life is suffering, to which, the noble eightfold path only offers a temporary remedy.

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.


IMHO, I think the translation "life is suffering" is inaccurate enough to be particularly negative/nihilistic. Though, maybe "pain is an inescapable part of life" is too much the other way, not sure.

"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.


One could go even further and say that life can not be easily defined by a single term; hence the three marks of existence, which also seem to be reflected in a way in a western ethos. But even these three marks, in my humblest ans undereducated opinion, are just an entrypoint to describing the human condition.

It is probably most safe to say: "life is such". But that's akin to saying nothing; perhaps in this lies the absolute truth?


Very true. Translating dukkha as just "suffering" is a vast oversimplification.


Not really it had been suggested here on HN , I can safely say its the best book of meditation I've read. Like someone said a "manual" for your mind and soul.

Also read SSC review on it. https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/11/28/book-review-the-mind-i...

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.


The term and concept go back to the Middle Ages: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Night_of_the_Soul


Meditation retreats sound interesting, but they've always struck me as tending to have a fairly grueling, bizarre schedule- awake and breakfast at ~6AM, dinner at 4pm, lights out at 9PM (and no meal until breakfast the next day.) It strikes me as the worst setup for long meditation sessions- getting everyone sleepy and hungry and out of sorts. That it would send susceptible people off the deep end doesn't sound surprising.

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.)


Lack of sleep, sudden change of routine, total immersion in a new mindset, and withholding food is the classic playbook of cult indoctrination. The point is to weaken existing barriers that would otherwise keep people aloof, disengaged, and instead create a total experience. I’m not claiming that a meditation retreat is a cult indoctrination, at least not most of the time. It does however share some commonalities with indoctrination, and interrogation. If your goal is radical change, a breakthrough emotional or otherwise, this is an ancient and proven system to make it happen.

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.


There's never been any sleep or food deprivation at any retreat I've been to. They keep an early schedule because that's what they used to. The routine that parent described is basically normal for your typical early bird.


It's basically the standard monk's schedule. Might be a shock for late sleepers used to eating and snacking throughout the day. Enough of a shock to set off some people. The Thais have an idiom for it which translates to "allergic to the robe". It happens to new monks sometimes. I saw it happen to one new monk in the group I ordained with. A few days after ordination I saw him running and yelling that the senior monks were trying to kill his family.


At least at the Dharma Drum Mountain retreats I've been to, it's true they have restrictions on what to eat and when. For example, garlic is contra indicated, offensive smell and supposedly makes you randy. Eating dinner is contraindicated, offered, but you'll notice the monks not eating it and just having tea or something. It's considered a medicine meal for the sick. Personally, I do feel more restful and ready for sleep at the end of the retreat days without dinner, but I do see how people not used to it could consider it food deprivation.


Going "hey non early bird, enforced early bird schedule NOW" is a shock to the system. It doesn't matter if it's normal to a completely different person.


>>Lack of sleep, sudden change of routine, total immersion in a new mindset, and withholding food is the classic playbook of cult indoctrination.

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).


Once you adjust to the schedule, it's fine.

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.


> going from 4:30-5PM until 6AM without food is not a huge deal

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 :)


The key characteristic of a cult is that the cult leader plays an active role in the indoctrination process. This seems to not be the case with the Goenka brand of Vipassana.

TFA references Megan Vogt, not sure if anyone has posted this yet:

https://www.pennlive.com/news/2017/06/york_county_suicide_me...


I did a week-long silent meditation retreat in Thailand a few years ago. I thought it would be difficult for the same reasons you mention -- I tend towards night-owling and loathe the thought of not eating for more than a few hours. It turned out to be much much easier than I expected. Without electronics and other sources of artificial light the circadian rhythm shifts to the sunrise-sunset cycle pretty rapidly. I slept quite well for the majority of my stay. As to the food, I think we're just conditioned to think we need way more than we really do. Eating two meals was only hard the first full day, and after that it felt fine. The meals were on the large side so it wasn't a large calorie deficit, if any. I definitely encourage you to try it if it's something you're interested in, you may be surprised at what you're capable of.

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).


Three meals a day including breakfast is basically lobbyist propaganda to support the cereal, milk, and egg industries. I'm never hungry in the morning and breakfast is unnecessary for me.


How many meals do you eat a day and how many calories total? I eat 4 "meals", including right after I wake up. But they are usually 500-600 calories each.


Interestingly enough, if I wake up before 10 I'm hungry for breakfast, if I wake up later, I'm not.


A lot of the reasoning behind these kinds of shock-related systems is exactly as you describe, to shift you out of your previous modes of function and directly into a new mode.

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.


If you're going to sleep that early, I don't understand what the problem is with that schedule? For example, if you made everything 3 hours later, that would be breakfast at 9AM, dinner at 7PM and lights out at midnight. That's still 9 hours of sleep... it's probably a bit early compared to the average coder schedule, but waking up around sunrise doesn't seem all that strange (compared to waking up hours after the sun is up).

Is there no lunch maybe?


I have tried arguing this with self proclaimed night owls including my girlfriend.

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.


There are various studies that suggest a genetic component to energy levels at different times in the circadian cycle. A quick search will find some for you. Just because your cycle can be adjusted doesn't mean that some people don't have longer ones or experience high energy levels at later times.


Good resource would be: Matthew Walker Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams


This is partially the purpose of army basic training. If you can’t take the stress of boot camp, it’s good to know that before you’re faced with the stress of combat.


I am curious if medical training (which apparently involves lots of crazy shifts) has a similar purpose.


"Hazing" in general has a "let's subject you to hardship to see what you're made of" component to it, which is sometimes of value and sometimes is just a cargo-cult.


The one I did was breakfast 7 AM, lunch either 11 AM or 12 PM (I forget), and no food after that. I didn't find it an issue since I ate a big lunch then used little energy and went to bed early.


Was it positive in the end? Is it possible to replicate the experience at all apart from the retreat?


I did a 10 day Vipassana retreat recently. It was indeed grueling. Up at 4. Start meditating at 4:30, etc. It was hard but rewarding. Im still celebrating the rewards and I did this 6 months ago.


The author doesn't mention where he went on retreat, but there's more than enough information in his post to figure it out. I won't name them, but I will say that they aren't a monastery and aren't part of an established Buddhist tradition. The movement that the retreat centre is affiliated to was established in the late 1960s by a businessman with no monastic training. Bluntly, there are a lot of organisations out there who are accountable to nobody and are teaching stuff that isn't Buddhism, but sorta-kinda looks like Buddhism if you don't know any better.

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight_precepts

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Way


The author doesn't mention where he went on retreat

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.


"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.


No need to be coy. I did the Goenka 10-day in 2013. Even though they seem to disavow the idea that they are a Buddhist sect, once you get used to the discourses and the Pali chanting, and then do your own homework, it becomes pretty clear that it's a loosely-coupled sect of Theravada Buddhism. I don't think this viewpoint is controversial.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ba_Khin


It is not unheard of for these problems to occur with this sort of long meditation retreat, but it is rare. The beginner's mind is not used to spending so much time in this state, and it can lead to hallucinations or extreme discomfort. That's why most sanghas and retreats require people to build up to these longer retreats.

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.


All of the similar Buddhist retreats I have looked in to (though I've never attended) required interviews before even a 3 day retreat, never-mind 10, and generally wouldn't allow you to do a long one before having done a short one.\

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've been meditating for approximately two decades, and I think it was clear to me from the beginning, more or less, that abnegation of the self was absolutely a possible pitfall: to be either conscientiously approached, carefully avoided, or embraced and thereby ultimately ameliorated. I haven't had much success with any of the three, and it's something I still struggle with.

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.


This sounds a lot like vipasana meditation center. I've been to one in Nepal, and the police didn't have to escort me out of it, I did it myself on the 3rd day.

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.


Being a Buddhist born person living in a mostly Buddhist country this saddens me. It seems all this hype with so called Buddhist retreats and meditation apps in the western world is pretty much twisting the teachings of Buddha. Monks have practiced meditation for centuries without any adverse effects as mentioned in the article. It seems like they focus on _state of being mindful_ than really being mindful. Meditation is not that difficult. And certainly does not require an app or a spiritual guide. Try learning a little about Buddhism and read up on meditation.(maybe avoid the best sellers and go for something written by a real monk?)


In the west, Buddhism is often stripped of the low intensity, community oriented aspects of Buddhism present in Buddhist countries; and what remains of them is invested with alien majesty.

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.


So buddhism knows nothing of these effects? And what kind of buddhism might that be?


The fee based retreat this poor guy went to reminds me of the fee based authentic native sweat lodge performances done in Sedona Arizona where people die and the lodge medicine man later proves to be some guy that has no connection to any native nation.

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.


I'm surprised this hasn't been mentioned already, but one thing I've found mentioned again and again in various meditation forums as an aid for people struggling with difficult feelings brought up by meditation is "metta" meditation, which translates roughly to "loving-kindness". Through one way or another (often repeated mantras are used), the meditation aims to generate feelings of love and goodwill towards both the meditator and towards others. This compassion can then be called on if difficult feelings arise (and my understanding is they often do at some point).

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.


I'm a 25 year practising western Buddhist. My perspective on this is it can be a danger to take just one part of the noble eight-fold path to such an extreme completely separated from the rest of the path. One should focus first on the base of path, get that in order and reinforce it through repeated practice. By that I mean (mundane) right view, (mundane) right intention, right speech, right action and right livelihood. They should be the majority of your focus at least. Not the higher level work of right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration (the meditative practices). That would be like trying to build the top on a pyramid before building the bottom, or trying to row your boat across the river without unhitching it from the bank.


Understanding the difference between nihilism and oneness is what is required to detach from ego in a productive way. To paraphrase Alan Watts, enlightenment is like space travel, it requires enormous, longstanding discipline to go all the way out and come back intact.


He mentions that he did a bunch of drugs back in the day, and that the diet at the retreat was likely to cause weight loss. This made me wonder if part of what he experienced was drugs stored within his fat cells re-entering his body.


It's an 8-fold way. http://www.zenguide.com/principles/eight_fold_path.cfm

"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.


This phenomenon is in sweden termed meditational psychosis (meditationspsykos), and is not connected to meditation that is especially intense or extensive. Having happened to people without drug backgrounds or mental problems, some tried meditation only once. The only common denominator is meditation, in any form really.


Funny thing, Hindus warned of this in multiple tracts in their own flowery ancient language, so it is apparently not unknown. Their solution was to stress out the role of their experienced guru to guide it and carefully mete this out.


> I didn’t want to stay medicated (my previous stint had lasted a decade), and I understood that the rules of the retreat meant that as I had left before the end, I could not go back. Vipassanā makes it clear in its literature regarding “serious mental disorders” that: “Our capacity as a non-professional volunteer organisation makes it impossible to properly care for people with these backgrounds.”

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.


Look at this paragraph a couple above the one you quoted:

> 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.


From the text it sounds like there was a large amount of time between the hospital/medication (that was in the mid-Nineties) and the meditation retreat, which I assume was relatively recent - I don't think he was on meds by then?

>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.


Does the article say the author quit their meds cold turkey before this retreat? I viewed the first sentence you quoted as meaning the author was stuck. They didn’t want to go back on meds (we aren’t told when or how the meds were stopped) and they couldn’t go back to the retreat. I thought it was a simple statement about having few options.


> freak out in a greek monastery on the the Athos peninsula, you're also likely to get hauled away in handcuffs

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?


Its hard to follow, but I don't think he was on medication going into the retreat, rather was given anti-psychotics in hospital after. (There was, apparently long ago, a history of mental health issues).


I've shared a bunch of Willoughby Britton's talks here in the past, mostly from the Buddhist Geeks podcast/conference. They're super interesting, I'd recommend checking them out.


Do you have any links? I browsed your submission history but it's fairly lengthy.



Sounds like psychedelic drugs, used properly (unlike the author), are a safer alternative. Who'd have thought?


They're not, which is why the experimenters always had an experienced "sitter" watching and there was emphasis on (mind) "set and setting".

Or why in other cultures such a psychedelic trip was guided by a shaman.


[joke]

A more advanced student would be taken away with just ONE hand cuffed.

[/joke]


I now live about 5 minutes from where the Vietnamese monk burned himself alive and drive past it all the time [1]. It is now a very busy intersection with probably hundreds of thousands of people passing by daily, there is a temple on the corner. I'd say that the majority of people passing by have no idea what happened here in the past.

[1] https://goo.gl/maps/A1BeFPr9nuA2


> my previous stint [taking mind altering anti-psychotic drugs] had lasted a decade

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.


> 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.



FYI, the repost was recommended by HN itself, which they occasionally do.




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