Category: Adverse (side) effects

Connection Between Intensive Meditation & Mental Instability

Photo by Moyan Brenn, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Photo by Moyan Brenn, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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

a death on diamond mountain skeptic meditations

“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.

Eyal Richter, untitled, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Eyal Richter, untitled, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.

Notes

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.

The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

the buddha pillCan practice of contemplative techniques bring lasting personal change? If so, are changes always for the better?

Two Oxford psychologists, Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, examine the empirical evidence and tease out facts from fictions about meditation.

In The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Farias and Wikholm examine 40 years of clinical studies about the effects of Transcendental Meditation, popularized by Beatles Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and investigate the astonishing claims made by mindfulness meditation advocates.

Meditation practice appears to have physiological benefits. Yet, “a crucial problem”, grapples Farias, “is how to pinpoint the active ingredient of mindfulness that helps with depression.” (p 111)

The authors also did their own empirical studies using inmates of U.K. prisons: stress-testing the effects of yoga meditation on murderers, rapists, and thugs.

Examining 40 years of research on effects of meditation, the authors concluded:

  1. Scientific evidence for lasting change from meditation practice is weak.
  2. Only modest changes for practitioners of meditation. Yet many who use or teach meditation techniques make astonishing claims about their powers.
  3. Meditation gives rise to different mental states, but there is nothing physiologically extraordinary going on.
  4. Studies are poorly conducted: have small sample sizes, lack proper control groups, and full of problematic biases. They explain why in detail.
  5. There is a dark side to meditation–psychosis, breakdowns, and violent behaviors–that seldom is spoken of by meditation advocates and practitioners.

Farias and Wikholm are sympathetic to meditation. Though the empirical evidence revealed that meditation is not a cure-all and is not a magic pill, while some practitioners experience nothing and others have adverse side-effects.

“I haven’t stopped believing in meditation’s ability to fuel change, but I am concerned that the science of meditation is promoting a skewed view: meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing. It’s primary purpose was much more radical–to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is ‘nothing there’.” (p 152)

The chapter The Dark Side of Meditation gives many examples of Buddhist violence and how a Buddha or bodhisattva may justify killing. Farias recounts how during his visit to an Indian yoga guru’s ashram, he was confronted by machine gun-carrying guards and was walled-in by pro-death penalty posters. “What if Hitler had meditated?” they ask: speculating what if the Fuhrer would have meditated and experienced lasting physiological change, conquered the world by compassion and peace instead of killing and violence.

“One of the crucial teachings of Buddhism is that of emptiness: the self is ultimately unreal, so the bodhisattva who kills with full knowledge of the emptiness of the self, kills no one; both the self of the killer and the self of the the killed are nothing more than an illusion (p 166).

“The most recent evidence, which analyzes dozens of studies conducted over more than forty years, suggests that if you are generally anxious or emotionally unstable, TM (Transcendental Meditation) will help you to a moderate extent, and will be more effective than simple relaxation. If you have have high blood pressure, the American Heart Association recommends TM (while mindfulness is not recommended), although physical exercise, such as swimming or running, would be better.” (p 14)

A ground-breaking book, The Buddha Pill, promotes critical thinking about meditation in an easy to follow and yoga-friendly tone. Farias and Wikholm guide the reader to question and think critically about the astonishing claims of meditation advocates.

Can Meditation Have Negative Side Effects?

Insomnia, Evan, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Insomnia, Evan, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Advocates of meditation say it helps free the mind, possibly liberates the human spirit from bondage and leads to enlightenment. Others say meditation has many benefits and is effective in fighting depression. But few are discussing the negative effects of meditation.

These interview questions were adapted from CBC Radio. The responses below are by Scott at SkepticMeditations and are the author’s personal opinions and anecdotes.

Your interest in the negative effects of meditation began after you meditated for decades and spent 14 years in a Hindu-Yoga monastery. What happened to you?

I’ve had many positive experiences with meditation. However, I’ve noticed during the decades of my practice that my thoughts about meditation changed, matured. I used to believe that meditation, when practiced properly, brought enlightenment and spiritual liberation. My motivations for practice were essentially driven by my spiritual or religious aspirations.

While I was an ordained monk in a Swami Order, I lived and meditated with hundreds of monastics. The daily routine in the ashram included four hours of intensive meditation–a minimum of two hours of private meditation, individually, and at least two hours of group meditation.

I knew monks who had nervous breakdowns and panic attacks. As far as I know these psychotic episodes did not occur during meditation. The strict 24/7/365 monastic rules and vows of imposed social pressure and a heavy emphasis on renunciants to strive for nothing less than absolute liberation and spiritual perfection.

Years of suppressing emotions led some monks, all vowed to celibacy, into romantic and sexual outbursts with other monastics or church members. One committed monk-friend hopped over the cloister walls and shopped for prostitutes. He was found out by the leaders of the community and was immediately asked to leave the Order. Another dedicated monk developed neurological tremors and twitches. Doctors didn’t know what caused his symptoms, they could not find any physiological cause. This monk was prescribed medications to control his tremors and psychoses. He eventually was asked to leave the Order, was incapable of taking care of himself and went to live with his parents who tried to sue the Order for psychological damages to their son.

My own nervous breakdown and panic attack lasted two days and nights. It was a terrible but invaluable experience. It was a breaking- and turning-point in my life. I freaked out, was paranoid, and imagined that the spiritual authorities would ask me to leave the Order. My beliefs about meditation were, at least partly, responsible.

You said that you thought meditation might be a good thing, but the benefits are overrated. What makes you say that?

Meditation has benefits. First, relaxing and learning to discipline body and mind are good things–within reason, in a balanced way. Observing our thoughts and emotions can be enlightening, frightening, and maddening.

Frankly, when we really listen to ourselves–to our inner chatter of thoughts and feelings–we quickly discover how petty, trivial, and neurotic we are. This realization can be unsettling and scarey. Also, most practitioners believe that their meditation methods are perfect and that any adverse effects are the fault of the practitioner. So we blame the victim–we fault ourselves for failing in meditation or for not living up to our spiritual ideals.

Once in a while the meditator gets a glimpse of subjective experience without all the chatter–she has a moment of peace, of thoughtlessness, of stillness. Those moments are profound but seem to be normal byproducts of being attentive and allowing ourselves opportunities to relax.

So how do you know that the negative side effects are connected to meditation? Couldn’t people have a pre-existing psychological condition that might have triggered by any number of things?

I don’t know that meditation by itself is the cause of negative side effects.

My experience and observation is that the meditator’s entire belief system or worldview contributes to psychotic episodes. Intense practice of meditation is often a way to escape problems or to dodge the reality of one’s life situation.

Westerners seem to believe in souls, afterlives, sins, karma. All sorts of wacky ideas seem normal. We project onto meditation all our societal and personal beliefs, fears, aspirations, and self-deceptions. If anything meditation without a strong rational, critical thinking mind will most likely lead the practitioner deeper into self-delusion, confusion, and disillusion. Having a good guide or therapist may help, but is no guarantee.

In your experience, when you saw profound psychosis in meditators that required long term treatment, was that typical for the people you knew who had problems with meditation?

Serious psychotic episodes were rare. But the dozen or so monks I know who had episodes were indeed serious: most required medical and psychological care, and were incapacitated for weeks, months, or years.

So some of the people that you’ve observed, like the monks you mentioned, these effects came after practicing meditation for years, sometimes decades?

Yes. Often the people who had the worst psychotic episodes appeared to be those who were the sincerest and committed to meditation practice and to following the spiritual guidelines of the religious community.

Seldom did meditators or monks talk about negative side effects or breakdowns. It goes against the foundation of meditator beliefs, of following a “higher” path or the wisdom of the gurus, and would call into question enlightenment or whatever liberated state of mind or being you want to call those ideals.

There are hundreds of millions of people who practice meditation. Why aren’t more of them coming to the same conclusions as you?

It’s difficult to step back from what the media, religion, and our intuitions are telling us. We humans want so much to believe in the meditative dream: that there is some utopia we can attain for ourselves and for humanity. Meditation is sold as a magic elixir: a promise of permanent peace, enlightenment, salvation from sins and suffering.

We humans are too easily trapped inside our own confirmation bubbles. Only when we are willing to burst those bubbles and think skeptically about the claims of meditation advocates do we have a chance to see we might actually be engulfed in magical- or wishful-thinking.

What do you think is happening in the process of meditation that’s leading people into a possible psychosis?

The beliefs that people hold about meditation I think are what exacerbate psychotic problems. We are taught and believe that we humans are broken, sinful, and egotistical (and that that’s bad) and that meditation is always good and will lead us to fixing our brokenness.

But what are the alternatives for people who are suffering who might benefit from meditation. What advice do you have for someone who’s thinking of taking up meditation?

Meditate is one option from many alternatives. I find that life’s simple pleasures provide me with equal benefits to meditation: listening to music, hiking in nature, cycling on backcountry roads and so on.

I encourage those who are considering meditation to ask themselves: why do I want to meditate? Do I challenge my beliefs and assumptions about the benefits of meditation? Do I read contrary viewpoints to my treasured notions about meditation or supernatural beliefs? We all need to develop our critical-thinking skills. We humans are extremely prone to endless self-delusions.

Read Can mindfulness meditation have negative side effects? on CBC Radio

Adverse (Side) Effects

Seven Popular Myths about Meditation

The origin of species, Hendrik van Leeuwen, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The origin of species, Hendrik van Leeuwen, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There’s no scientific consensus that meditation can cure mind, body or soul. So why do so many drink Buddha-flavored kool-aid?

Before you swallow the kool-aid, consider the myths surrounding mindfulness and meditation.

“It is hard to have a balanced view when the media is full of articles attesting to the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. We need to be aware that the reports of benefits are often inflated… whereas studies that do not discover significant benefits rarely pick up media interest, and negative effects are seldom talked about”, warns Wikholm.1

In The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?, Catherine Wikholm co-author, with Dr Miguel Farias, bust seven common myths of meditation.

The University of Surrey and Oxford researchers in clinical psychology found studies that revealed meditation actually raises stress hormones. A US study found that 63% of people on meditation retreats had one adverse side effect, from confusion to panic and depression.2 One in 14 had experienced ‘profoundly adverse effects’.

kool-aid, amanda-freenman, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
kool-aid, amanda-freenman, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is growing evidence that for some people meditation may cause mania, hallucinations, depression and psychosis.

“…Meditation was primarily designed not to make us happier, but to destroy our sense of individual self–who we feel and think we are most of the time–is often overlooked in the science and media stories about it, which focus almost exclusively on the benefits practitioners can expect,” writes Wikholm.

Article originally appeared in The Guardian

Here are seven popular myths about meditation that are not supported by scientific evidence.

Myth 1: Meditation does not have adverse or negative effects. Meditation only changes us for the better

Fact: Many who have researched the benefits of meditation also have personal or professional interest in promoting the mindfulness movement. The emerging evidence is that meditation can be associated with stress, negative effects and mental health problems.

When something goes wrong or if meditation doesn’t work, the problem say meditation advocates, is not with meditation. There’s something wrong with the patient or the practitioner. “It’s not the meditation. She didn’t practice right or must have already been predisposed to psychosis”. This is called blaming the victim.

Myth 2: Meditation can benefit everyone

Fact: No surprise that meditation may have benefits that vary from person to person. “After all, the practice wasn’t intended to make us happier or less stressed”, says Wikholm, “but to assist us in diving deep within and challenging who we believe we are”. Everyone will react differently during the process of dismantling of the individual “self”. Whatever your belief of self is, your mistake is to try use meditation to define it.3

Myth 3: If everyone meditated the world would be a much better place

Fact: “There is no scientific evidence that meditation is more effective at making us, for example, more compassionate than other spiritual or psychological practices”, writes Wikholm. When we expect to benefit from something, we will most likely find or report benefits.

Myth 4: If you’re seeking personal change and growth, meditating is as efficient–or more–than standard therapy

Fact: There’s no evidence that the benefits of meditation are the same or better as of being in conventional psychological therapy. Most studies compare mindfulness to “treatment as usual” (such as seeing your General Medical Practitioner), rather than one-to-one therapy.

Myth 5: Meditation produces a unique state of consciousness that we can measure scientifically

Fact: The overall evidence is that these meditative states are not physiologically unique. The consciousness or internal sensations from practice can be experienced from many other activities: such as during sleep, relaxation, or engaging in sex or our favorite hobby or sport.

Myth 6: We can practice meditation as a purely scientific technique with no religious or spiritual leanings

Fact: “Research shows that meditation leads us to become more spiritual, and that this increase in spirituality is partly responsible for the practice’s positive effects”, writes Wikholm. Similar to what was noted above about the mistake of trying to define self, trying to define what spirituality is probably a mistake as well. Meditators often have a conscious or unconscious leaning towards illuminating the “self” or becoming spiritual, whatever that means.

Myth 7: Science has undeniably shown how meditation can change us and why

Fact: Some studies show that meditating can have a greater impact than physical relaxation, although other research using a placebo meditation contradicts this finding. Advocates of meditation can be overenthusiastic about scientific studies and overlook the actual findings. When looking beyond the headlines and hype we find that science knows little about meditation, if and why it may or may not work with some people. Unlike established scientific facts, like gravity or evolution, there’s currently no consensus, no testable scientific theory for how meditation changes us and why.

Conclusion

Some people may get benefits from meditating. But not everyone. And, occasionally meditation may cause depression, paranoia, and psychosis. Meditation was not designed to make people happy, but was designed by renunciants who wanted to destroy the sense of individual self. When the benefits of meditation are not forthcoming or when things go wrong it’s not always caused by the practitioner. We need better scientific studies and a testable theory for how and why meditation works. We need open public discussion about the adverse (side) effects of meditation practices, not just the benefits.

Is it any surprise that some people might go mad from meditation–as it was not designed originally for human happiness but for destruction of the individual self?

Are you surprised by the above myths or facts? Submit your comments below.

Further reading

Notes

1 Quote from Mindfulness apparently isn’t as good for you as science originally thought, The Debrief

2 See my post “Unusual experiences” of mindfulness for more data on adverse events occurring during meditation retreats

3 See Why “Being Authentic” is Holding You Back, Fast Company for further discussion about practical problems of defining “self”