Is there a connection between intensive meditation and mental instability? How much should people risk to pierce the veil of divinity itself?
In A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, investigative journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney unravels riveting accounts of Westerners obsessed with Eastern spiritual teachings. In gripping narrative, Carney delves into the characters of people obsessed with “enlightenment” to the brink that pushes them into insanity.
This post is my review of an absorbing book:
A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, Scott Carney, Gotham/Penguin Books: NY:NY, Hardcover, 2015
“Ian Thorson was well known only briefly in Buddhist circles, and more so for the unusual circumstances around his death than for any of the actions in his life. Looked at from one perspective, his plunge toward enlightenment is an obvious case of madness. Yet lurking in the shadows of the cave where he died are clues about the idiosyncratic reasons Americans have adapted Eastern mysticism to their own ends. More important, Thorson’s own self-sacrifice begs the question, How much is too much to risk for a chance to pierce the veil of divinity itself?” p 13
Path to Enlightenment Fraught with Danger?
On the morning of April 22, 2012 a thirty-eight year old Stanford student, Ian Thorson, died of dysentery and dehydration on a remote Arizona mountain top during his intensive quest for enlightenment. After Thorson’s demise, Carney was struck by how Thorson’s tragic death was similar to the suicide of a young woman he traveled to India with for a silent meditation retreat.
The unorthodox Buddhist teachings of Western Lama Geshe Michael Roach, and his ex-wife Lama Christie McNally, took on a grim reality that culminated during an intensive meditation retreat when Ian Thorson died in McNally’s arms while hiding in a cave to achieve enlightenment1.
Lama Geshe Michael Roach explained that “…Doing yoga for four hours a day or five hours a day; it’s not fun. And it’s not a joke. It’s a life-or-death attempt to become a being who can serve all living creatures before you die”. p 132
Using Thorson’s tragic spiritual journey as a springboard, Carney investigates how the promise of “enlightenment” pushes some people to forsake the world around them and risk their lives and sanity.
Striking parallels with the meditation cult I followed
Reading A Death on Diamond Mountain reminded me of my own decades-long spiritual quest with an Eastern meditation guru. I had forsaken the world, family, all–to obtain the guru promised spiritual liberation. In my obsession to pursue enlightenment, I escaped to the cloistered monastic community on top of Mount Washington that overlooked the jagged skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles2.
There are striking parallels between the cult of yoga meditation that I followed and the tragic obsessions with enlightenment recounted in A Death on Diamond Mountain.
In upcoming posts I will examine these parallels with dangerous spiritual obsessions, such as Thorson’s in his unorthodox Buddhist cult, with certain spiritual diseases, and with the psychic costs and madness I witnessed while I was a monk for fourteen years in the Self-Realization Fellowship yoga meditation cult.
Students of yoga meditation and Eastern spirituality, or any person concerned about the risks on the path to enlightenment, owe it to themselves to read this absorbing book, A Death on Diamond Mountain.
The final sentence of the book is, “Only the curious will learn what happened here”. Unfortunately, many serious devotees lack interest in learning about the risks of intensive meditation. Worse, they deny risks. Many people obsessed with the quest for spiritual awakening are in danger of abuse and mental instability.
A Death on Diamond Mountain is an engrossing investigative story that reveals how an obsessive quest for enlightenment is riddled with danger.
1 Here’s an ABC News video on the tragic events that led to the death of Ian Thorson and the reactions from his stunned, angered family: Buddhist Yoga Retreat Death Raises Questions on Ariz. Monk’s ‘Enlightenment’ Preaching
2 Read my Monasticism index of posts for many of the experiences and examinations I had within the Monastic Order of Self-Realization Fellowship.