Recovering From Meditation

disassociation disorder
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After meditation retreat, Cleménce had a psychotic breakdown. Her panic attacks, her loss of self, were finally, through medicine, brought back to the real world.

Here is her story, reprinted with her permission1.

It’s taking me some courage to write you my story but I need to, so here we go:

My name is Cleménce. I am age 28 and a former yoga instructor originally from Paris.

In 2014, I attended a 10 day Vipassana retreat. Before the retreat I was a lively, dynamic, New Age kind-of girl. I would trip on the present moment, “connect” to my higher self, read minds, “manifest” stuff– and well, imagine things a great deal.

After my retreat, I had a psychotic breakdown. I became filled with fear, anxiety, and terror. My panic attacks were filled with a horrendous realization that I was nothing, empty, just a ghost with no heart, no personality, no feelings, no tastes–I became a no-self that I had not been warned of. My retreat instructor, when I reached out to him about my panic attacks, said to keep on meditating. I completed the retreat. When I returned home I was a psychological zombie.

Soon after, I reached out to the “spiritual community” who told me “it’s all a dream”. Hearing that made me lose my shit and my mind. My family (and I) freaked out about my zombie state and panic attacks. I saw doctors and went in to the hospital. Months later, gradually I was able to function again in the real world.

I’m now stabilizing on medications and looking for a job in my old profession, editing and communications. I had to stop all kinds of spiritual practices, including yoga and meditation. I try now to only believe in things I can actually see and touch–to keep me grounded in reality. I don’t even worship the clichéd “present moment” anymore. Ekhart Tolle makes me want to throw up.

I suffer a great deal from hatred and anger towards buddhism, mindfulness, and New Age. Even taking a deep breath reminds me of new age crap and triggers anxiety.

I wanted to reach out, say hey I’m here! And let you know that I have a project to start a website to collect stories of people who had meditation and spiritual problems–and who now tend to live a more grounded life–to connect and share resources for recovery.

Scott: I’m so glad you contacted me, Cleménce. We need more people to come out like you. People who meditate(d) that have the courage to speak of the entire range of experiences–not just the bliss-bunny, feel-good experiences–but also the unwholesome side-effects of meditation and the often accompanying supernatural belief systems steeped in delusions.

While I was an ordained Hindu-yoga monk for 14 years, I too had a nervous breakdown and panic attack while I was living in the ashram. I’ve not yet written or spoken to people about my psychotic episode in the monastery. Your sharing of your recent psychotic episode reminded me. Eventually, what caused my psychotic breakdown also led me to question the entire premises and postulations of the ashram, of god(s)), which led me towards skepticism and nonbelief in any so-called supernaturalism. I’m not angry about what happened to me. My only regret now was that I was so gullible and that I didn’t find my way out sooner.

I’m wondering if you would allow me to reprint your email “anonymously” in a blog post for interested readers.

Cleménce: Yes, I’m totally cool with being quoted anonymously.

Scott: Perhaps your story will encourage others to come out, to comment, to share with others about the full-range of personal experiences from meditation and mindfulness practice–not just sugar-coat meditation like a bunch of bliss bunnies.

Notes
Recovering from Religion http://recoveringfromreligion.org/about/overview/. I strongly recommend that persons who experience negative side-effects of meditation and/or religion seek professional medical help. Support groups, such as Recovering from Religion, may augment professional help. Please first seek the help of qualified, certified medical and psychological professionals.

1 Reprinted with permission from Cleménce. Her real name and particular details were changed so her identity remains anonymous.

9 comments

  1. Red

    A fellow named Greg Foyster wrote a very interesting piece on these kinds of unhealthy effects called “The Meditation Myth.” Worth Googling.

    And my support and best wishes go out to Cleménce.

  2. cj725

    Fascinating stories – and a fascinating subject. I’ve heard about psychotic breaks due to altered states of consciousness, including meditation, but know little about the causes. Obviously, it’s a very painful experience – but the fact that each of you seems to have wound up in a better place, as a result, is very interesting. Perhaps it speaks to the inner knowing of our body/soul, even if consciously we aren’t aware of what’s wrong with our surroundings and what we really need. I tend to agree with the idea that not all meditation is bad, but I do think it depends upon the belief system it accompanies and what kind of pressure cooker that presents.
    Something else I found interesting in Clemence’s story – and this may not have anything to do with her in particular – but her frightening experience of nothingness almost sounded like encountering the “dark side” of losing one’s ego – complete annihilation. I mean that metaphorically, of course. It’s ironic since losing the ego is considered one of the holy grails of the new age. Oddly enough, in time spent around feminists, we’ve had a few discussions about that subject and how different losing one’s ego is for women than it is for men – mainly because most women have been raised not to have an ego from an early age. Then a lifetime is spent trying to get some of it back just to survive in the world. I consider it like the bark on a tree; the bark isn’t the tree, but without it, the tree can’t survive. For adult women (or men) who are spiritually pressured into giving up their ego, before they’ve had a chance to form a healthy one, I imagine that could be an emotionally crushing experience – maybe even inducing a psychological crisis. I’m not sure if any part of this actually relates to Clemence, but her story reminded me of these issues.

  3. SkepticMeditations

    @2bidule22: I agree with your conclusion: meditation practice is not “all bad”. Nor, is it all good. The same concept or attitude applies to everything in life and the universe. Perhaps our interpretations of our experiences and perceptions is the illusion or delusion.

    Thanks for sharing your own story and perspectives.

  4. 2bidule22

    I can sort of understand that such a thing can happen with Vipassana practice.
    For me, it had a different effect. I sensed a complete loss of self, till a degree that I, my body, had no more boundaries, and my ” consciousness ” was immersed in ” a soup of atoms ” that constitutes all that exists. It didn’t last for long, just a few minutes. I didn’t find it that weird as I had approached such states during a Zen Sesshin ( several days of sitting for about 10 hours a day ) and also the use of hallucinogenics once or twice decades before.
    With Vipassana, I discovered a path to a very profound relaxation and I still may use that technique, in an informal way ( In bed before sleeping ! ) in times of stress or anxiety. I am quite happy to have discovered that. It is a tool.

    People who organise Vipassana Goenka courses give a pre registration form to fill and ask all sorts of questions to get an idea if you are psychologically abble to do the course. But they don’t give any warnings. Or explanations on the effects you are going to experience… I suppose they don’t want the students to seek a state they’d have already imagined as it would certainly spoil the whole process of learning.

    I am quite sure that in the ancient tradition in Burma, where it originated, people who were taught the technique had already been with the masters for months or years of preparation and progressive exercises and teaching before they’re start.

    In the West nowadays, you got to have quick results. And the organisers don’t care if there are ” accidents ” : once you’ve done your course, there is only a vague link with the teachers and they will not move and take responsibility if something went wrong. As Clémence explained…
    I am not in a position to give professional advice on that matter…

    In the sixties/seventies there was this famous book by Aldous Huxley ” The doors of perception “, on magic mushrooms.
    Depending on the person, some doors should remain closed. Or opened only after a long initiation process and only in full knowledge. It needs competence to be dealt with. In traditionnal societies, only the shamans and their disciples would dare dare such paths.

    I remain convinced that it is not ” alll bad “. It is not an illusion, it a side of life/reality.
    Is it useful ? That question is open.

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