Damaged by Meditation?

Emily, head in hands, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Emily, head in hands, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Nirvana gone awry? Stories of nervous breakdown, terror, suicide and death after meditation

The dark side of meditation is seldom if ever reported in the media or by mindfulness advocates.

What was once a fringe spiritual practice in the West has, within the space of decades, transformed into a mainstay of modern culture and wellness advice. Over the past few years, science has increasingly started to back popular claims about the effects of mindfulness and contemplation. And studies now link regular attempts to focus our minds and calm our bodies via breathing exercises, chanting, or other meditative techniques to a host of benefits—everything from decreased stress and blood pressure, to increased cognitive abilities, to fundamental shifts in the way we process the world. Last January, Time even ran a cover story on America’s meditative “Mindful Revolution.”

Originally appeared in Good: a magazine for the global citizen

Yet this rush to validate, package, and promote meditation as a universal good may actually come with unforeseen risks. Although sitting and thinking may seem like an innocuous process, the fact remains that meditation is an altered state that we use as a tool to transform our bodies and minds. And like any tool, although intended for good things—like introspectively confronting our thoughts and feelings and coming to terms with troubling realities—it can wind up causing harm when set towards tasks that it just isn’t meant for (like acting as a quick-fix concentration booster or anesthesia for emotional strife). In the case of meditation, as the practice proliferates in the West, we’ve become increasingly aware that for some people, especially those with mental or personality conditions, mindfulness can trigger anxiety, depressive episodes, or flashbacks to past traumas.

“Because meditation cultivates a type of witness awareness (I’m witnessing my thoughts, I am not my thoughts),” wrote Andrew Holecek, Buddhist spiritualist and teacher, “which if done properly can help us distance ourselves safely and beneficially from the contents of our mind, it can also exacerbate certain kinds of dissociative and depersonalization disorders.”

“There is a sutta [Buddhist scriptural verse]” where monks go crazy and commit suicide after doing contemplation on death,” writes Chris Kaplan of the Mind and Life Institute.

Listen to Interfaith Voices: Nirvana Gone Awry: Death at a Buddhist Retreat for:

An account of the Buddhist monks committing suicide and why the Buddha changed his teachings of meditation on death to meditation on breath.

Two modern accounts of death during meditation retreat, including:

1) Emily O’Conner, age 21, tells her spiritual guide, “I’m having the most wonderful time of my life. Thank you so much for bringing me here”. That night, the last thing Emily wrote in her journal was, “I am a Bodhisattva [an enlightened being]”. Then she climbed up onto the roof of the retreat center, wrapped a scarf around her face, and jumped off the roof to her death.

Ian Thorson and Christie McNally
Ian Thorson and Christie McNally

2) Ian Thorson, age 38, dies in front of his wife, Christine McNally, during a three-year silent retreat. Dying of dehydration and dysentery in the remote mountains of Arizona, Thorson had believed he was on the cusp of becoming enlightened.1

Continuing with the article from Good: When Mindfulness Goes Wrong 

“I thought that I had gone crazy,” recalls Britton of the experience. “I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I mean I had no idea why I was suddenly having all these… like terror was a big symptom of [my own negative meditative episode].”

…Lurid and haphazard accounts of “spiritual sickness” and erratic, dangerous behavior brought on by extreme meditative retreats and practices—seem to suggest that the perils of meditation, even if niche, are worth popular consideration and address.

… As humanity loves a simple, silver bullet solution (as so many believe meditation to be). It seems likely that people will continue to suffer under the dark side of meditation until high profile cases reach a critical capacity or—as the pendulum of pop obsession starts to swing in the other direction—the meditative trend begins to regulate itself. Until then, if your post-yoga om session has your mind turning to anxious or disturbing thoughts that you just can’t process or move past, it might be a good idea to just get up and walk away, rather than pushing yourself into the void. Or if you’re dead set on meditating, at least find yourself a therapist or spiritual guide familiar with the practice who can help you work through the dark states you’re coming up against.

Read the full article published at Good: When Mindfulness Goes Wrong

Listen to the audio broadcast at Interfaith Voices: Nirvana Gone Awry: Death at a Buddhist Retreat

See my index of posts on adverse effects and critiques of Meditation and Mindfulness

Note

1 For an article on the circumstances of Ian Thorson’s tragic death, read How Self-Improvement Became Self-Destruction On ‘Diamond Mountain’, NPR Book Reviews, 2015 Mar 18

Creator of Skeptic Meditations
5 comments
  1. Thank you for the warning!

  2. Yeah, meditation groups, holy roller charismatic churches and even Quaker silent meetings can draw weird sorts of folks. Hard to tell if the group does the damage (or the meditation), or if they just draw damaged, dangerous, deluded types who have a higher incidence of bad outcomes.

  3. @Sabio: Good points. Thanks.

  4. Mostly it is the teacher – and the group. Especially if it is guided meditation, and/ ore a Tibetan Buddhist retreat.

  5. @s: What is this “it” you refer to twice? My sense is you probably don’t know what “it” is either or you would have just said what “it” is that you are referring to. Why guided meditation or Tibetan Buddhist retreat? Wonder what meditation or guru you follow that makes you so confident you know what “it” is and that you are safe from “its” dangers.

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