Five Warning Signs of Dangerous Meditation Groups

premasagar, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
premasagar, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Trance, suggestibility, and depersonalization grow around a guru or doctrine of meditation as a way to moral perfection

First, let me say there may be many benefits from occasional meditation practice. Likewise, there are as many, if not more, benefits from sleep, exercise, and sex–to name three ordinary, human acts.

I’m not against meditation or self-control. Not at all. Rituals that ground and center body and mind can be practical, healthy and powerful. Many popular misconceptions about meditation can cause harm. My aim is to point out that zealous meditation groups and extreme meditation lifestyles can be dangerous or harmful.

In this post, we will examine several dangerous meditation doctrines and groups.

Five Warning Signs of Dangerous Meditation Groups

Here are five warning signs that your meditation doctrine or group could be dangerous or unhealthy:

1. You believe that moral perfection comes via meditation, relaxation, or stress reduction.

Even in the so-called religionless or secular mindfulness movement the “present moment” is both savior and heaven. “As Thich Nhat Hanh asserts in You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment: ‘The only moment in which you can be truly alive is the present moment. The present moment is the destination, the point to arrive at.'”[1]. The implication of Hanh’s assertion is that unless you are mindful of the “present moment” you are dead. This belief creates conflict within the practitioners psyche that the world and the self can be divided into the truly living (the mindful) and the dead (the mindless).[2]

2. You believe your meditations are the key to your salvation, spiritual enlightenment, or soul perfection.

This warning sign is the religious equivalent of its secular cousin above. As Paramahansa Yogananda claimed in his Autobiography of a Yogi: “What the rishis [divine sages] perceived as essential for human salvation need not be diluted for the West. Alike in soul though diverse in outer experience, neither West nor East will flourish if some form of disciplinary yoga be not practiced.”[3]

This belief is part of an elaborate doctrine, a theology or meditation system that may include the concepts of karma, reincarnation, or astral bodies. Yoga meditation is promoted as the science of god realization or as the certain, absolute method of self-realization.

3. Your guru or spiritual teacher proclaims that her version of meditation is the certain way to attain higher states of spiritual awareness (and, of course, the guru or her advanced disciples claim they have attained the highest states).

The warning signs may lead some to extreme behaviors such as meditating for hours or days at a time, neglecting family and friends, and joining a cultish meditation group. I had dedicated decades of my life to intensive meditation, vowed my life to loyalty, obedience, celibacy, and service to the dubious agendas of guru Paramahansa Yogananda, his successor-president Daya Mata, and her spiritual henchmen. There are plenty of other meditators who followed similar dangerous paths.

Ian Thorson barely contacted his family in New York. Instead he threw himself in every practice prescribed by his two lamas, Christie McNally and Geshe Michael Roach. Without outside interference, at the mountain retreat in Arizona Ian could enter meditative states for days at a time. Or, most notably, he was often at his lamas cabin–on hand to fulfill whatever errand they needed. Months later, on top of a nearby mountain, at age 38 Thorson died of dysentery and dehydration in McNally’s arms while fulfilling his intensive quest for spiritual enlightenment[4].

Read about this tragedy at my post Connection Between Intensive Meditation & Mental Instablity.

4. You feel guilt, shame, or fear when you can’t, won’t or don’t live up to the high ideals, rules, or standards as set by the meditation teacher or group.

Some meditators may be too driven and too focused on attaining spiritual liberation. They take meditation way too seriously, as if life and salvation of self, soul, and the whole world depends on it.

Tibetan Buddhist and PhD. sociologist counselor Amy Cayton wrote: “People who only meditate for stress reduction or who aren’t interested in attaining enlightenment probably don’t often get lung [the meditator’s disease]. We get lung because we are trying to do something, to attain something, instead of relaxing and letting it happen naturally.”[5]

5. You feel addicted, obsessed with meditation. You feel you can’t function without even a little practice. You may neglect family, friends, and real-world responsibilities to practice meditation or join the group.

Prior to becoming a monk and leaving home to live in a meditation ashram in North San Diego County, I’d lock my bedroom door for hours and ignore my Mom and Dad’s knocks at my door. I didn’t want to be disturbed and was determined to control my mind and meditation as I was taught and encouraged at the SRF group meditations.

A Skeptic Meditations reader privately shared with me: “The search for ‘self’, transcendental experiences seems futile. Yet, I still meditate twice a day. It’s hard to escape the metaphysical baggage that comes associated with it. I think of giving up the practice as it seems like such a crutch to feeling normal and human. I’ve honestly thought of switching to old fashioned sleep, diet, and exercise for a month to see if I really need to meditate. Further, over the years, it seems I’ve developed a nasty habit of *needing* ‘to go inward,’ rather than connecting to life as it is.”

I speculate that many meditators experience and meditation groups display these warning signs. The above list is by no means complete.

My own decades-long indoctrination within an extremist meditation group, Self-Realization Fellowship, demonstrated the above warning signals. For decades I was mesmerized and engulfed within the enchanting doctrine of the meditation group.

Underlying many intensive meditation practices is a potentially dangerous or harmful way of thinking and behaving.

In my next post I will explore how trance, suggestibility, and persistent depersonalization (see my post on Depersonalization/Derealization) occurs with zealous meditators and within meditation groups.

Notes

1 p 174 Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture,
Jeff Wilson, Oxford University Press. 2014. Hardcover. Read my post that discusses the book by clicking the above link.

2 p 161 Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture,
Jeff Wilson, Oxford University Press. 2014. Hardcover. Read my post that discusses the book.

3 p 61 Autobiography of a Yogi, 1st Edition, by Paramahansa Yogananda, 1946

4 p 170 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. Read my review and discussion of this book by clicking the book link.

5 p 200-203 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. Lung, meditators disease is mentioned in Carney’s chapter ‘Spiritual Sickness’ and “is just one of the [serious physical and psychological] maladies known to waylay people on the road to spiritual perfection.”. I hope to explore the symptoms and causes of lung in future posts on Meditation Diseases.

Creator of Skeptic Meditations
12 comments
  1. Hey David: I don’t know who the people are in the photo. The photo caption that came from Flickr is all I’m aware of. I’m wondering why you are asking, if I may ask? thanks

  2. Sure. The guy on the right with the beard looks like a Youtuber that calls himself “shaktipatseer” who also claims to be the reincarnation of Lahiri Mahasaya!! A complete fruit loop!

  3. Maybe you are right, David. If I still thought Lahiri Mahasaya was a divine incarnation, who met an invisible, immortal Babaji while lost in the Himalayas, I may still be gullible enough to think Shaktipatseer was a reincarnation of any great sage, maybe Lahiri too.

    I no longer fall for speculations about reincarnations or divine incarnations. These kinds of illusions only lead one to the feet of an “infallible” guru or grasping for hallucinations in one’s own head. I passed through that phase and outgrew it, grew up emotionally and growing intellectually.

  4. You are doing well, that’s for sure. By the way, when you were in the ashram etc and meditating did you ever feel pains in your body or did your body ever move by itself?

  5. @David: Yes, had felt pains in my body and mind during meditation, mostly from discomfort and forcing myself to sit in meditation for hours at a time. As to your other question, did your body move by itself?–no levitating or yogic flying.

  6. No, I don’t mean yogic flying or levitating. I mean the automatic adoption of mudras or other asanas, breathing patterns or rhythms, straightening of the spine and neck, swaying, etc without conscious will power being used to make these moves. Also, what do you mean by pains in your mind?

  7. Hey David: I’m not sure what you mean but “automatic adoption”. Is what you are getting at some specific, observable behavior that we could describe terms and definitions and agree on? Otherwise, I’m at a loss for how we could productively discuss what you may be trying to ask.

    As to your question about “pains in the mind”, they included, for me, headaches, sensations in the head, psychological and emotional distress (guilt, shame, anger, frustration, emptiness, isolation, depression, sadness, helplessness…the list could go on about psychological “pains” experienced during or as a result of meditation practices and doctrines).

  8. Scott, now that you are free from the yoga teachings, do you drink or take drugs?

  9. You know, I would be interested in hearing more critiques of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. I’ve talked to a follower of his, and after awhile he started to come off as a sort of present moment fundamentalist.

  10. @David: I don’t do drugs. Occasionally, I have a drink on social occasions. How about you? Do you practice yoga meditation, drugs or drink? Frequency?

  11. @Mark K: I remember some of the SRF Monks, only a small handful, who admired Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m not qualified at this time to say much about his teachings at present. Though when I study and think deeply about many of these meditation and mindfulness teachings they share common pitfalls and delusions. Many Buddhists say there is nowhere (nirvana) to go or to arrive at. Yet, clearly practitioners in the West at least, are striving to get somewhere in their meditations. Strip away the idealized perfect, buddhalike, states and I doubt many would put much time in meditation or mindfulness practice. At least not much more than napping or physical exercise. There aint no salvation in meditation that can’t be had in many other activities.

    Thanks for your comments and suggestions.

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