loyalty in cult family

Loyalty in cult-family

Extreme groups like Amish, Skinheads, and Self-Realization Fellowship Order promise followers “paradise”. Promises of “paradise” come in various forms: a heavenly afterlife by following tradition, spiritual enlightenment by meditation practice, or superiority over others by violence.

Below we compare the underlying psychology within three extreme, cult-like groups:

Skinhead promise of paradise

Christian Picciolini was born and raised on the southside of Chicago in a working-class neighborhood called Blue Island, the birthplace of the American white power skinhead movement.[1]

One day at 14 years old I was standing in an alley and a man came up to me an essentially promised me paradise. He promised me that I wouldn’t feel powerless anymore.[2]

That man was Clark Martell who in 1987 co-founded the Chicago Area SkinHeads, also called Romantic Violence, the first organized neo-Nazi white power skinhead group in the United States.[3]

Martell promised me that I had something to be proud of. And that if I were to join him and his movement I would leave a mark on the world and find my purpose.

Did Skinheads deliver on their promise?

At first it felt like a family. There was a lot of acceptance. Here you have a bunch of broken people who enjoy each other’s company because we were all broken in some way. But quickly it turned into a dysfunctional family. It was after a while each person for themselves movement. There was no loyalty, only people with an agenda they wanted filled. They used others as pawns.[2]

Picciolini, after 8 years as a Skinhead, left the group. He co-founded a non-profit–Life After Hate–which helps people leave hate groups.

Amish in tradition and fear

A former Amish man testified on camera[4]:

I was Amish. It was a simple life. We were a unified people that shared one thing: Tradition. Within the Amish Order we all had our part: The older, the younger. From the outside we looked good. We looked satisfied. But on the inside we were confused, unsure, scared.

I lived in a society that was based on fear: The fear of hell. Each day I had questions and uncertainty about my life’s purpose. The elders told me not to question but to obey the teachings of the past. I tried to live at home but my reality was defeat. I had to hide my feelings for the sake of acceptance.

“Loyal” gods in Self-Realization Fellowship Order

My story.

In Self-Realization Fellowship the guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, promised to show us we were gods. In a secret ceremony disciples vowed their complete loyalty to the guru and his organization, SRF. Then the guru initiated disciples into Kriya yoga meditation techniques. Meditation and being loyal to the guru would show us we were gods. In its Service Reading #39, SRF teaches: “To such a God-sent Guru [e.g., Yogananda] the disciple must always be loyal throughout his lifetime and through future incarnations until he finds redemption.”

Did SRF and Yogananda deliver on their promises?

At first, there was a sense of certainty, purpose, and acceptance. The guru and SRF made promises and had the answers. They made us dependent on them.

The monks were broken people. We all had been disappointed and disillusioned with the world. Promises made us willing to give up everything, to follow and obey forever the guru and SRF.

But after the honeymoon wore off it was a different story. There was no loyalty, only loyal followers and those who were labeled disloyal. Each person was loyal for their own self-preservation. Everyone’s true thoughts and feelings had to be hidden for fear of not being accepted. Any person could at anytime be branded as disloyal, shunned, or ostracized within the community.

I lived in fear. People had to accept their “training” without question. Abuses were easily excused and justified. Towards the end of my decade and a half within the Order, a few monks and I discussed our fears of fanatically “loyal” monks who might assassinate other monks who they considered disloyal. That kind of “loyalty” and fear was the last straw. All four of us monks in that conversation left the Order within the next several months.

There was no loyalty except to persons who said or did what SRF and its leadership wanted. Their promises were empty.

Loyalty in cult-family

At first members of Amish, Skinheads, or SRF Order feel like they are part of a family. Members of the in-group feel accepted into the community. People outside the group don’t understand them, even ridicule them. A persecution or messianic complex drives followers of these groups to bond even closer together. However, the loyalty is to the leaders, tradition, or ideology–not to the individuals themselves as human beings. Any deviation from the tradition, guru, or institution is seen as disloyalty. Fear takes over. Some eventually leave the group.

These examples illustrate some common themes of groups like the Amish, Skinhead, and SRF Order:

  1. Leader or tradition that promises certainty, purpose in life.
  2. Feeling, at first, of acceptance and family.
  3. Dysfunctional group held together by fear.
  4. Hiding of one’s feelings and living in fear of being found out.
  5. Eventually, fortunate persons, leave and are able to help others leave.

Notes

1 Life After Hate. Staff. Accessed on Aug 20 2017 at https://www.lifeafterhate.org/staff

2 The Center for Investigative Reporting. Hate on the march: white nationalism in the Trump era. Reveal broadcast. Aug 19 2017.

3 Clark Martell. Wikipedia. Accessed Aug 20 2017 at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clark_Martell

4 Amish: Shunned and Excommunicated. Mission to Amish People. Accessed on Aug 19 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgU7hiBczjI&list=PLv3ujCEQ-THhKEp6ty81eFlAhcG6j4wcP

science mindfulness lost mind

Science of mindfulness lost its mind?

The research of mindfulness meditation lacks self-criticism. Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? ask Oxford psychologists.

This post raises two major problems and recommends ways to improve the research.

The replacement of orange-robed gurus by white-collared academics who speak of the benefits of ‘being in the present moment’ is a powerful social phenomenon, which is probably rooted in our culture’s desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements.

An important article, by Oxford psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm in The British Journal of Psychiatry, raises two major problems with researcher’s attempts to study mindfulness:

Two major problems with research of mindfulness

  1. Researchers tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that individuals react differently to mindfulness techniques. Advocates present meditation as if it’s always beneficial and seldom acknowledge the practice may not always be positive.
  2. Teachers of mindfulness have little, if any, formal training in mental health. Individuals who practice, especially those who suffer side effects, should have access to qualified mental health professionals. [For one tragic example read ‘She didn’t know what was real’: Did 10-day meditation retreat trigger woman’s suicide?]

Farias and Wikholm conclude their four page article with recommendations to improve the research and some ways to address concerns for people considering the use of mindfulness techniques.

Potential difficult psychological problems with mindfulness

Research on mindfulness (by Lomas et al in 2015) revealed that meditation practice may increase the awareness of difficult  feelings and agitate psychological problems. Forgotten childhood traumas of some practitioners can suddenly confront them during meditation practice:

I saw the depth of the pain that is buried. Things that have happened to me that have not been dealt with properly. It can be very scary to know there’s that very strong thing in there. (Lomas et al)

Mindfulness practice does not add up

Two meta-analysis (studies of studies) disconfirmed the expectation that continuous practice would lead to increasing positive benefits. In other words, they did not find any confirmation that the more you practice meditation or mindfulness the more benefits you get. Apparently the expected positive changes from mindfulness plateau after only a few weeks of practice, rather than increase or accumulate over time.

There is no clear rationale for why continuous mindfulness practice would keep improving well-being or cognitive abilities.

Proponents say continuous [mindfulness or meditation] practice adds up in a mathematical way making you:

  • More mindful
  • Super aware
  • Super controlled
  • Super happy
  • Eventually liberated from the illusion of the individual self.

These are some of the many magical things people expect from continuous practice of mindfulness and meditation.

The ‘mind gym’ can be dangerous to your health

Many people’s magical expectations of meditation techniques may be naive, but it is also dangerous contends Farias and Wikholm. Mindfulness practice is often seen as some kind of ‘mind gym’: Like brushing your teeth or going for a run to protect your health, mindfulness exercises are supposed to bring mental fitness and resilience.

Their own wishful thinking blinds most researchers and practitioners of meditation to self-criticism. Researchers mostly promote the benefits of meditation. Researchers seldom publish studies that show negative or null results. Without critical reflection on mindfulness research we stay content in our magical expectations that meditation makes us super aware, super happy, and super healthy (if not eventually liberated from illusion of self).

Recommend what?

First, we need a clear and thorough theory of how meditation techniques work. Work not magically but practically within the human body and system. We need to identify an ‘active ingredient’, the ‘mechanism of action’, that makes the technique work (versus believing in a lucky rabbit’s foot or placebo). Second, credible research studies need to include placebo groups, control for expectations, and examine why not everyone reacts positively to meditation.

It is important that we speak openly about the potential for adverse effects in order to de-stigmatize the issue; surely the last thing we want is for a patient to feel they ‘failed’ at using a technique, when the reality is that it worked differently [or not at all]…

Originally appeared in Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? Miguel Frias and Catherine Wikholm, The British Journal of Psychiatry (BJPsych) Bulletin 2016 Dec; 40(6): 329–332.

Also, I recommend The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? by Farias and Wikholm. It’s an excellent book that examines numerous studies, what works and what doesn’t with meditation research.

Featured image by Fe Ilya, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

monks ashram weekly routine

A Monks’ Ashram Weekly Routine

“If I lived in a monastery I’d be happy and peaceful praying and meditating all the time.”

A monastic routine teaches lessons in self-discipline, contemplation, and obedience. But a rigid routine, based on unlivable ideals also has many pitfalls and dangers.

In this post, I share the daily routine of a SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) monk: the spiritual activities, individual duties, and group activities expected of monks within the SRF Order. Though the ashram routine being discussed is founded within a Hindu-Christian religious ideology and an extreme monastics renunciate lifestyle, any closed system–political, social, religious–is likely to have similar risks and dangers.

Monks’ Ashram Weekday Schedule

The typical weekday schedule of an SRF monk consisted of:

  • 6:00 a.m. Gong rings, arise for private meditation in your bedroom
  • 7:00 Group meditation in Monk’s Chapel
  • 8:00  Vegetarian Breakfast served in Monk’s Dining Room (Silence)
  • 8:30-12:00 Office work in Monk’s assigned department
  • 12:00-12:30 p.m. Meditation (Silence)
  • 12:00-1:00 Vegetarian Lunch served in Monk’s Dining room (Silence)
  • 1:00-4:30 Office work (continued)
  • 4:30-5:30 Recreation (group or individual physical fitness)
  • 6:00-7:00 Group meditation in Monk’s Chapel
  • 7:00-7:30 Vegetarian Dinner served in Monk’s Dining Room (Silence)
  • 9:00 Private meditation
  • 10:00 Lights Out (Silence)

Everyday there was a strict rule of silence–no talking or noise–between 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., and during all meals and meditations and all day Sundays. [Read my post Ashram Silence.] During my first 5-7 years inside the ashram, I was quite self-disciplined in forcing myself to get up by six in the morning. and in following the monastic vows and rules of the Order.

Later, after 10 years or so, I realized that the monks who lasted that long or longer inside this cloistered system had managed to carve out their own routines. When a monk felt reasonably secure in his seniority or status in the ashram he can take liberties with his schedule; whereas the younger, newer monks feel the need to follow all the rules and vows or they may be reprimanded, or worse, asked to leave the Order. Fear often motivated monks to follow the weekly routine.

Monks’ Weekly Evening Schedule

Monday evenings – Private Spiritual Study of lessons and books published by SRF.

All monks were expected to read the SRF Lessons, books, or lectures in the privacy of their own room. Studying non-SRF books was discouraged.

Over the decades I was in SRF and was a monk I’d read most of the same books and lessons numerous times. Of course, I often learned something new each time I reread the same books. However, there was much more I could’ve (and eventually secretly) learned by reading non-SRF approved books. [Read my post Secret, Underground Library of Monks].

Once per month, on Monday evening, the monks would gather at 6 p.m. as a group in the Monks’ Office conference area and watch a movie: a film that was typically rated G or PG, and on top of that was often edited and censored prior to screening. All movies were first censored by a 3-5 person Monks’ Movie Review Committee. Films that were particularly popular among the monks included Raiders of Lost Ark/Indiana JonesStar WarsStar Trek, and so on.

Tuesday evenings –  There was class on a topic related to monastic life, such as obedience, loyalty, simplicity, chastity, devotion, meditation, prayer, and so on.

Typically, classes were lectures given by a senior monk. In the ashram monastery the longer a monk was in the Order the more supposedly spiritual the monk was. Anyway, during classes in my first 3-5 years in the ashram I wrote copious notes during lectures.

These classes didn’t really encourage “learning”. Rather the underlying message was always about following the guru–obediently. The ashram system was based on an authoritarian teaching model based on the time-honored Eastern tradition of the guru-disciple relationship.

The guru-disciple relationship systems is based on unquestioning obedience to the teacher-master. [See my post Guru Dictates the Questions and Answers]. We were taught that the guru knew what was best for us, even if we thought otherwise. After all, we were led to believe that our guru was all-knowing, all-loving, an enlightened master. Who were we to question his teaching? Despite the rhetoric that the monks were family inside the ashram, each monk was more or less isolated in how to apply what was taught. Not a recipe, in my experience, for productive, long-term learning, growth, or fulfillment.

Wednesday evenings – Private Spiritual Study.

Same as above Monday evening’s Private Spiritual Study.

Thursday evenings – Three-hour group meditation in Monks’ or Main Chapel.

Thursday evenings the monks were expected to skip dinner (fast)–no food was served, except sometimes there was a watery soup. Then at 6 p.m. the monks were expected to meditate as a group in the chapel from 6 to 9 p.m. I learned that many monks took a nap before the long meditations to try to prevent themselves from sleeping or nodding off during meditation. For the problems of monk’s sleeping in meditation, read my post on Sleepitation.

Friday evenings – Open schedule.

Friday night’s no particular group events were scheduled, but once or twice per month, there was an optional group shopping trip to one of the local malls. Monks were expected, when leaving the monastery grounds, to keep in pairs to avoid getting into trouble–tempted by “maya” (cosmic illusion or satan)–or into activities inappropriate for an SRF monastic who had taken vows of loyalty, obedience, chastity, and simplicity. SRFers are taught “environment is stronger than willpower”. In other words, if we live in a world of maya (cosmic illusion) we cannot trust ourselves unless we surround ourselves with other SRF members or better yet SRF monastics who think these same thoughts like us.

Monks’ Ashram Weekend Schedule

Saturday – Open schedule – extracurricular ashram duties such as cleaning rooms and ashram community areas and doing yard work.

Cleaning of monks community areas included: chapel, courtyard, library, barber shop, laundry room, and so on. Haircuts were given by another monk assigned to them. The monk barbers were trained to cut hair by a former monk who, after he left the ashram, ran a successful hair salon.

Sunday – Silence all day and night.

11 a.m. -12 p.m. Sunday sermon/service in monks chapel

3-9 p.m. Six-hour meditation in monks chapel

(6 p.m. – Soup, salad, and baked potato served in monks dining room–if you weren’t at the six-hour meditation. Sunday was a day of fasting, except for monks who wanted some fruit during the day or soup and salad in the evening.)

Pass the Tofu, Please: Ashram Dining

Strict lacto-ovo vegetarian. No alcohol or stimulants were served. Once a month, for a special occasion, Chai Tea was made and served by a monk from India. The cliche about Friar Tuck loving his food is true. One of the few acceptable fleshly pleasures for the monks was food. Sweets especially were relished in great quantities with gusto. However, dessert was officially served only once a week during a lunch. [Read my post Seductive Pleasure of Monks].

Meals were served buffet-style. A monk could pick and choose, do “all you can eat,” fast or abstain entirely from eating. Only during special holidays or ceremonies were monks expected to join the group during meals. Food was both seen as a base necessity–to feed the body temple for God–and relished as one of the only “pleasures of the flesh” to be indulged with discipline in the monastery. Monks sometimes joked as they heaped large portions of food on their plates, “Food: it’s the last thing to go”–the last physical desire to overcome on the spiritual path to avoid rebirth and to attain godhood.

The Monk’s Dining Room had enough chairs and tables for about 30 persons. There were 80 monastic residents at that time at the Mt Washington Ashram Center. Monks cycled through the dining area in shifts or waves. Or, they grabbed food on plate and went outside to eat in silence the ashram courtyard.

School’s Out For Recreation

For the sporty and competitive, like me, this included group sports: basketball, volleyball, soccer, tennis, or gym. The monastery/ashram had its own courts and sport facilities on the grounds.

Many monks were hyper-competitive. Group sport was an outlet for an otherwise “go along, to get along” culture. (Most of the monks realized the ashram had a “false” harmony–a surface illusion of harmony–while underneath the surface where many deep individual and group frustrations, angers, and passive-aggressions. Sports was for some, an outlet of their aggressions). I recall ashram basketball, volleyball, and soccer games where monks got injured, elbowed in the eye, or knocked off their feet by highly-competitive and aggressive monks.

Most monks chose solitary or individual fitness activities like walking, jogging, hatha yoga, or gardening. Walkers or joggers were permitted to venture outside the walls but only on prescribed paths and preferably with another monk. As noted above, monks were to avoid going anywhere without the company of another monk.

Group Meditations

Mandatory. Weekly schedule had built-in 4 hours of weekday meditation, and on weekends up to 10 hours meditation. 24-30 hours of individual and group meditation every week. While ashram routine was helpful with establishing habits and ensuring time each day to practice meditation, most of the monks–as far as I could tell–struggled with the monotony of practicing the same techniques, in the same way, with the same people, day after day, year after year. The irony was we were taught by the spiritual teachers that we were practicing meditation to find every new joy. There was seldom joy and little new in these monotonous individual or group meditations.

Monks’ Living Quarters

The monks’ living quarters consisted of ashram units or blocks of individual dorm rooms. Rooms were basic: typically approximately 10×15 sq feet. Four walls with an entrance door from the unit hallway with communal bathroom and toilet shared by 4 or more monks in a unit. Each monk had their own room within the unit. Each room contained a single bed–called a yogi-bed, a wood plank with a mattress on top–a dresser, desk, and small closet. Maybe a bookshelf. Otherwise, each monk was on their own to furnish their bedroom.

Senior monks got the best rooms–the most quiet, not adjacent to the courtyard, kitchen, or phone room–or rooms outside the ashram walls within homes, private residences with swimming pools, in the neighborhood adjacent to the ashram. During the time I was in the ashram no personal phones, computers, or TVs were provided or permitted.

The monk’s ashram unit hallway had a wall phone. The wall phone could be used for personal calls. The monks would be billed monthly for all outbound calls which discouraged calls with anyone outside of the ashram system. With phone, internet, TV, and other communications restricted, monitored, and discouraged, the monks lived in a physically and ideologically closed system.

Monks’ Cubicles: Working for the Guru-Man

Every monk was assigned duties within a department. From 8:30 to 4:30 he was expected to serve SRF worldwide organization. Departments included: Temple, Center, Editorial, Publications, Purchasing, Telecommunications, IS, Personnel, Garden, and Office of President. During my fourteen years in the Order I served in four different departments. These jobs were not unlike any corporate cubicle job. However, no salary was paid. Monastics supposedly dedicated their hands, hearts, and minds wholly to the guru’s work–without monetary compensation.

Our office duties consisted of ordinary paper pushing, answering phones, emails, and attending meetings. Nothing remarkable. In fact, most monks that I knew found their office work unfulfilling. It was bureaucratic and tedious. There was little a monk could do without first obtaining permission from their superiors or authorization from the Office of the President. Monks, as far as administrative work, were replaceable drones, cogs in a machine. The work was not meant to be creative or productive, but to follow orders and to “keep the teachings pure” for SRF by protecting the image and “divine dispensation” of guru, Paramahansa Yogananda.

Psychologists have field day in the ashram

Some people might romanticize the life of a monk: thinking that it’s filled with peace, contentment, and brotherly love. There may be moments of happiness, but like everything else in life it was far from perfect. A monastic routine could reinforce self-discipline, contemplation, and persistence. But rigid routines, based on renunciation and unlivable ideals have many pitfalls and dangers.

During my last few years in the SRF Order, psychologists visited the ashram. They were not SRF members and were invited at the behest of the ashram leadership. Pairs of psychologists came into the ashram and conducted several workshops for monks and nuns. This was the era of the Spiritual Life Committee. Apparently, many monks and nuns were found to be psychologically impaired: several cases of monastics needing medical and psychological treatment for panic attacks, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and several scandalous outbursts of sexual misconduct.

The psychologists told us that the lifestyle of a monastic was one of the most stressful professions, along with Air Traffic Controllers, Police, and Firefighters. Why did these psychologists say monastic lifestyle so stressful? Living 24/7/365 with the people you live, work, and play with: your superiors, your peers, those who have ultimate authority to judge, punish, or reward you. Also, the pressures of being “perfect”–unlivable ideals–monastic rules and vows, the constant observation by other monastics and SRF members in the churches, temples, and meditation centers who were told–implicitly or explicitly–that the monks were representatives of God and guru.

Aint a saint?

Indeed, SRF devotees/members often assumed that the monastics were “saints”. Or at least some or many were saintly. While inside the order the way to “advance” in the was to please the superiors, to make the church look good. There was much pressure on monastics to please what seemed like the arbitrary wills of spiritual leaders who seldom talked directly with the monks (the average monks saw the President, Sri Daya Mata, and other high ranking church leaders (VP Sr Mrinalini Mata, GM Uma Mata, VP Ananda Mata) only once or twice a year at a Satsanga (group spiritual lecture). A most unimpressive organization, in terms of leadership and organizational effectiveness. It was a “spiritual” hierarchy of bureaucracy. Read my post The Ashram: Spiritual-Corporate Caste System.

Is living in a monastery a happy peaceful affair of praying and meditating all the time?

Monastic routine–including praying and meditating–is founded on the ideals of increasingly handing over control to unchallengeable authorities. These authorities propagate the virtues of renunciation and self-sacrifice. Presumably followers are required to sacrifice their selfish impulses to attain the superior or higher states of selflessness, enlightenment, samadhi and so on. In short, a follower’s concerns with their own interests becomes the source of their own problems. Self-centeredness (ego) becomes the villain to be sacrificed, slain, destroyed.

Once one’s self-trust is undermined its fairly easy to allow oneself to be manipulated and controlled by authority. It’s not necessary for any of the individuals within the monastery to consciously manipulate or control others or to allow themselves be manipulated and controlled by others. All that is required is to follow the routine and ideals of the monastic order.

Yes, outwardly the ashram routine allowed for plenty of peace and quiet time for prayer and meditation. A superficial vibe of peace, harmony, and happiness was present. But underneath the surface, inside the hearts and minds of monks was much anxiety, fear, even psychosis. The irony is that the ideals that lead one into a monastery, to pray and meditate all the time, are the very source of their problems. Going “within”–using meditation techniques and monastic routines–are following outward systems, promulgated by spiritual authorities. When we look outward (to renunciate or monastic systems, practices, or techniques) for validation we are barred from self-knowledge. We then are enslaved to routine and validation from authority.

Notes

Special thanks to Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing for his editorial assistance and comments prior to publication of this post. Without Scott’s help and encouragement this post would not be published.

Featured image credit to amanderson2, line of monks, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

ashram silence

Ashram Silence

Every Sunday, in the SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) Order, the monastics had a strict rule of observing silence. On this weekly day of silence, we refrained from speech. This was from the time of waking to the time of retiring to bed in the evening. The idea was in silence monastics would devote the entire Sunday to contemplation, meditation, and practicing the presence of god (basically praying).

Sunday silence was intended to dedicate the entire day to god, to the redoubling of efforts to the practice of the presence of god, to forego any activities interfering with a direct and personal experience of god. In addition to Sunday silence, monastics on every weekday observed periods of silence before 8 AM and after 9 PM  and during all mealtimes. This post focuses mostly on the all day of silence on Sundays.

Each Sunday, the monks retreated further from the world into the inner sanctum of non-verbal silence, all-day fasting, and six-hour long meditations.

Loved and hated about ashram silence on Sundays

What I sometimes Loved about Sundays in the Ashram

  • Free time: If I had no work or duties, I had more free time to relax and read independently.
  • Focus: The silence encouraged deeper concentration in the 6 hour-long meditations.
  • Quiet: Peace and quiet was a welcome change after a hectic week of ashram duties.

What I often Hated about Sundays in the Ashram

  • Fasting: No food, other than fruit, was made available on Sundays. I often was hungry.
  • Guilt: If I wasn’t spending at least 6 hours in one sitting in meditation, I often felt guilty.
  • Sermons: Every few weeks, I was called for public representation of the SRF temples.

Ashram silence: Map of obedience

Silence can bring peace and healing. It can also control and manipulate.

“A good monk is seen and not heard”. I was taught this along with all SRF monks. Keeping quiet, above all, meant obedience to rules and vows of the Order. Silence was a map of obedience.

Silence can be valuable. But valuing silence as superior to one’s thoughts minimizes the value of one’s thoughts. Silence, we are told, is a path to enlightenment. Silencing our thoughts becomes a way of following and thinking someone else’s thoughts.

Fear of living without a map is the main reason people are so insistent that we tell them what to do… Not only does the map isolate us from responsibility, but it’s also a social talisman. We can tell our friends and family that we’ve found a good map, a safe map, a map worthy of respect.
— Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

Ashram silence was “a good map, a safe map, a map worthy of respect”. Silence itself was not the problem. There’s much to love and hate about silence. The silence, though, born of  fear of living without a map–an authority to take responsibility for us–is the problem. The ashram silence was worthy of respect. It is an example of living in fear, in keeping quiet, and following orders.

Notes

Special thanks to Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing for his editorial comments prior to publication of this post.

Featured image by Dan Taylor, Shhhh, Flickr, CC by 2.0

what meditation sickness

What is Meditation Sickness?

What do Eastern traditions say about “meditation sickness”? Who gets it and why?

“Meditation sickness” has been identified by various Eastern Buddhist traditions, and is sometimes also called “Zen sickness”, “falling into emptiness”, or “lung” (Tibetan rlung; pronounced loong).

It is not uncommon for various Buddhist masters, such as Guifeng Zongmi (780-841), a celebrated Zen master, to criticize excessive focus on meditation and achieving “inner stillness” (ningji). In Is Mindfulness Buddhist?, Robert Sharf professor of Buddhist studies at UC Berkeley, writes that Buddhist masters, like Zongmi, warned about disengagement from the world and used the term “meditation sickness” (chanbing) to criticize practices that were detrimental, mostly those techniques that emphasized inner stillness.1

Eastern masters like Zongmi, continues Sharf, were critical of practices that cultivated a non-critical or non-analytical presentness. In other words, what in today’s parlance we might call “zoning out”. We are not referring here to ordinary daydreaming or being lost in thought. Rather “meditation sickness” is a potentially harmful, even psychotic, reaction to too much immersion in meditation practice.

Meditation disorders in Buddhist traditions

In the introduction to The Varieties of Contemplative Experience: A Mixed-methods study of Meditation-related Challenges in Western Buddhists 2 we find brief descriptions from Buddhist sources of what is “meditation sickness”.

In Tibetan Buddhist traditions, nyams is a term that refers to a wide range of “meditation experiences”—from bliss and visions to intense body pain, physiological disorders, paranoia, sadness, anger and fear—which can be a source of challenge or difficulty for the meditation practitioner.

Interpretations vary in Buddhist traditions

We find in the Eastern sources that meditation-related experiences are wide-ranging and interpreted differently by different traditions. For instance:

In some Buddhist (and Hindu) lineages, meditation-related experiences are deliberately cultivated and framed as “signs of progress”. While in other lineages these experiences can be “dismissed as untrustworthy hindrances to genuine insight”.3

For example, in some Zen Buddhist lineages, makyō is a term that refers to “side-effects” or “disturbing conditions” that arise during the course of meditation practice and sometimes may be interpreted as signs of progress 4.

Zen has a long tradition of acknowledging the possibility that certain meditation practices can lead to a prolonged illness-like condition which has been called “Zen sickness” or “meditation sickness”.5

The Śūraṅgama Sūtra—a classic text of Mahāyāna Buddhism—identifies fifty deceptive or illusory experiences (skandha-māras) that are associated primarily, though not exclusively, with the practice of concentration (samādhi). The Sūtra particularly warns about pleasant experiences that lead the meditator into a false sense of spiritual progress, which results in misguided thinking and conduct.6

Likewise, “in Theravāda Buddhist traditions, progress in the practice of meditation is expected to lead to transient experiences called “corruptions of insight” (vipassanā-upakkilesā) on account of meditators’ tendency to confuse these blissful and euphoric states for genuine insight” 7.

Contemporary accounts report monks becoming “mentally unstable” in the wake of such states 8. Other stages of practice, in particular some of the “insight knowledges” (vipassanā-ñāṇa), are presented as being particularly challenging, especially in modern Asian sources 9.

Case: Meditation triggers Pennsylvania woman’s suicide

A June 29, 2017 report from PennLive, a media outlet in Pennsylvania, ran this article:

‘She didn’t know what was real’: Did 10-day meditation retreat trigger woman’s suicide?

The article describes twenty-five year old Megan Vogt who got afflicted with “meditation sickness” during a 10 day vipassana retreat in May 2017. “Instead of emerging from the course enlightened, Vogt exited incoherent, suicidal and in psychosis” wrote PennLive. Following her retreat, Vogt found herself in the psyche ward and wrote desperate emails to the retreat staff pleading for help. It did not help. Ten weeks later, Vogt was found dead after leaping from a catwalk on the Norman Wood Bridge, falling 120 feet. Tragic.

Westerners Dealing with Meditation “Disease”

In his Spiritual Sickness chapter in A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment Scott Carney gives Westerners’ several accounts of meditation “diseases”, including some which are fatal.

Carney writes:

“In 2002, [Amy Cayton, a psychologist] recited mantras on a three-week meditation retreat and something started to go wrong. At night she tossed and turned in her bed, and her mind kept spinning over the same anxious ideas. At breakfast she didn’t feel like herself. By lunchtime she had trouble breathing. Then, as she hunched over a vegetarian meal, she began to gasp for air. A woman put a hand on Cayton’s shoulder and gave her a diagnosis that she had never read in any of her psychological literature. The lady gave her a concerned look and said that Amy Cayton had lung: the meditator’s disease.

“I was the sort of person who gave 110 percent to everything, and approached meditation the same way. Then lung set in and I was suddenly emotional over everything. I’d get angry over nothing, or just burst into tears. Western doctors couldn’t diagnose the physical symptoms–shortness of breath, and loss of memory. And then there was the exhaustion. The main thing was exhaustion.”

“Cayton approached Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT)…Based on Cayton’s symptoms, he suggested an aggressive regimen of Tibetan medicine. He instructed her to eat heavier foods and stop meditating for a while. It took time, but eventually her symptoms subsided.”10

After Cayton fully recovered Lama Zopa requested that she put together a collection of stories from FPMT students for Westerners dealing with the “meditation disease” known as lung. Her book, Balanced Mind, Balanced Body: Anecdotes and Advice from Tibetan Buddhist Practitioners on Wind Disease, is available from FPMT store.

Case: An interpretation in Hindu tradition

The Self-Realization Fellowship is a Hindu-inspired meditation group headquartered in Los Angeles. For decades I lived within the monastic orders’ ashrams. There I was committed 110% to meditation practices as taught in the SRF Lessons. In my blog post, Blank Minds and Tramp Souls, I wrote that SRF warned of the dangers of meditating in the dark without a nightlight and of letting the mind go blank (empty).

For, according to SRF, meditating in the dark or letting your mind go blank (empty) could allow entry of tramp souls to come and possess your body and mind. Demonic possession: A spooky belief, that filled me with fear to be sure. Apparently that was the best SRF could do, provide a childish superstitious diagnosis of psychoses as supernatural demonic possession, instead of warn us like adults that intensive meditation may cause temporary or permanent psychological damage.

What’s causes and cures meditation sickness?

For some people the promise of “enlightenment” pushes them to forsake people around them and risk their lives and sanity. These tend to be the people who get afflicted with meditation sickness. The cure is apparently to meditate less or stop meditating, engage with the world around them, and see a medical professional. The best cure could be prevention: Doubt and critical examination of the promises of enlightenment, nirvana, or samadhi. The connection between intensive meditation and mental instability is unclear. People who get meditation sickness appear to be the most sincere seekers and intense meditators.

Read other posts I’ve written related to:

Adverse (Side) Effects of meditation practices.

Connection Between Intensive Meditation & Mental Instability with quotations from the book cited above A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment.

Notes

Featured image: Courtesy of new 1lluminati, multiverse, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

1 Robert H. Sharf. Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (and why it matters). Transcultural Psychiatry. 2015. Vol 52(4). 470-484. [link]

2  Jared R. Lindahl , Nathan E. Fisher , David J. Cooper , Rochelle K. Rosen, Willoughby B. Britton. The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLOS ONE. May 24, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239

3 Gyatso J. Healing burns with fire: The facilitations of experience in Tibetan Buddhism. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 1999;67(1):113–47.

4 Sogen O. An Introduction to Zen training. (D. Hosokawa, Trans.) Boston: Tuttle Publishing; 2001. And, Aitken R. Taking the Path of Zen. San Francisco: North Point Press; 1982.

5 Hakuin. Idle talk on a night boat. In: Waddell N, editor. Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave. Berkeley: Counterpoint; 2009.

6 Hua H. The Shurangama Sutra with commentary, Vol. 8. Burlingame, CA: Buddhist Text Publication Society; 2003.

7 Buddhaghosa B. The Path of Purification. Onalaska, WA: Buddhist Publication Society; 1991.

8 Sayadaw M. Manual of insight. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications; 2016.

9 Tate A. The Autobiography of a Forest Monk. Chiang Mai: Wat Hin Mark Peng; 1993.

10 Carney S. A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment. Avery;2015. p200-201