double bind Eastern enlightenment

Double Bind of Eastern Enlightenment

I experienced mostly confusing feelings. I thought something was wrong with me. After 14 years inside Self-Realization Order, I realized, “It’s not me. It’s the system.” I’d been trapped in a double bind.

Trapped in the system of enlightenment

The “system” of enlightened masters, meditation teachers and groups creates a double bind of the mind. A double bind is a situation in which a person is confronted wfith two irreconcilable demands. Most followers seldom realize double binds keep them trapped in the system of enlightened masters.

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The “system” is about trying to fit yourself into a mold of the ideals, concepts, and traditions: such as enlightenment, detachment, and selflessness (ego-loss). You follow the system, do as you’re told, in the hopes you find what you are seeking–enlightenment, selflessness, or spiritual attainment. You keep trying, keep going–sometimes for years, decades, or your whole life–despite your frustrations. Not realizing it’s the “system” that is the problem, not you.

You’ve been conditioned to believe, to trust, to obey. From childhood onward you’ve trusted (mostly) the authority of your elders, sages, or masters. There’s a system–you were told and believe–that is a tried and true path. You have a strong desire to follow, to find your “true” self.

You seek to know yourself, your “real” or Higher Self, that is beyond your ego or lower self. You seek to know yourself through a “system”, a path, a tradition of enlightenment–it’s beliefs, methods and “proven” meditation techniques.

The Eastern “system” of enlightenment promises to fulfill your spiritual desires and promises to show you your “real” self. You strive for enlightenment and ego-loss, both of which are abstractions (existing only as ideas) created within the “system” of Eastern spiritual traditions and the guru-disciple relationship.

You believe the “system” is true because the “system” tells you it’s true. You follow the system and sometimes you get results. Often you don’t get the desired results. But you keep following the system, listening to the master, teacher, and guru. You are inside a self-enclosed circle: inside the system.

Double bind of enlightened masters

When you aren’t able to follow the system–for whatever reason: perhaps you overslept and didn’t have enough time to meditate, you dreamt of sex with a neighbor, or performed some other thought “crime”. You feel guilty, mistrust yourself, and feel helpless without the system and surrender to its authority. To feel better about yourself you throw yourself at the mercy of the system and its authority. You ask for forgiveness and humble yourself and go back to following the system–as you are supposedly an imperfect human, who needs the system and its authority.

The system you follow–you believe–is wise, unfailing, perfect. You just need better practice of its spiritual techniques and to better follow the system and its authority.

Within the system you feel better for awhile. Through following the system, you feel a sense of certainty, purpose, and confidence. It’s purported to be a thousands year old lineage with masters (authorities) who tell you the system of enlightenment is best for you.

You tell yourself: “It’s always brought me peace, joy, love and ultimately will save me from myself (ego, selfishness, delusion, and suffering)”. Redoubling your efforts for a while you keep following the system and its authority.

Ernest, trapped in “spiritual” double bind

Ernest1, an SRF monk of 18 years who eventually left the Self-Realization Order, remarked:

“Whenever I would redouble my efforts (be more strict with myself), I found it was impossible to sustain. It was unnatural and stressful, even though I felt more ‘spiritual.’”

But you keep getting confused. Asking in anguish, “What’s wrong with me? I am following an enlightened master, an unfailing system, an ancient tradition of enlightenment. Who am I to question the wisdom of the sages, masters, and messengers of an unfailing system?” Despite your frustrations you go back again and again to this system.

You blame yourself for feeling confused, frustrated, and conflicted. You tell yourself you must be doing something wrong. You are not following the “system” correctly enough. You have too much ego (too much selfishness). You redouble your efforts to obey the system. You are suspicious of your own intelligence and distrust yourself (because ego and intellect are to be mistrusted (according to the system). The higher, correct path (you are told) comes from the ancient wisdom tradition of the Eastern enlightenment and spiritual masters.

It’s maddening and cruel. An enclosed circle, a vicious cycle. You are in the double bind.

double bind Eastern enlightenment

What is the double bind?

The double bind is a no-win kind of communication, according to U.S. anthropologist Gregory Bateson2, designed to keep you obeying the authority figure. The double bind, i.e., two irreconcilable demands, as it relates to Eastern enlightenment is explained through examples and commentary that follow.

The Eastern enlightenment systems communicates double bind messages through implicit or explicit statements such as:

“You are asleep or ignorant. Meditation is the path to awakening or knowledge of God. You are asleep or ignorant, so keep meditating.

You are ego/self-centered. Meditation is the path to ego destruction/self-transcendence. If you are not yet egoless or selfless, keep meditating.

You are racked with desires. Meditation is the path to fulfillment of all desires, therefore becoming desireless. If you are not yet desireless, keep meditating.3

In each of the examples above, the system keeps you trapped in the double bind. If you are meditating and trying to follow given spiritual practices but not getting results (i.e., not becoming awakened and in touch with your true Self, selfless, or desireless), the system says that it’s your faulty practice and that you need to keep trying to do better. And if you should be following the system better, the system keeps you following, trying, and failing.

Example of double bind with spiritual teacher

A Zen Master says to his students:

“If you say this stick is real, I will beat you. If you say this stick is not real, I will beat you. If you say nothing, I will beat you.”

The disciples felt confused, trapped, doomed to get beat. They felt they should trust the Master’s wisdom and surrender, take the beating. One disciple, though, walked up to the Master, grabbed the stick, and broke it. 4 Rare is the disciple who has the self-trust and analytical thinking to “break the stick” and to thereby escape the system of the double bind.

When the student is repeatedly subjected to double bind communications over a long period of time, it’s easy for her to get confused and mistrust herself.

Long-term harms of double bind

There are long-term deleterious effects of being in a double bind. The harms or dangers of these double bind communications is that when students or disciples accept–without question–the traditions, teachings, or sayings of the Eastern “masters”–there is a breakdown of analytical thinking. Students are told to only trust meditation experience, the practices they are taught by telling them the experiences they should expect to have, how to interpret them, and how those experiences reveal the nature of reality.5. The systems often used by Eastern masters inculcate in students a mistrust of self, ego, and intellect. Thereby breaking down students analytical thinking, clear feeling and perceiving abilities. These are replaced with double bind communications, which ultimately are harmful.

Harms include, for example, physical and mental health issues, nervous breakdown, buying into everything that is said without question (breakdown of analytical thinking), not being able to see things clearly. Going round and round in circles in your thoughts, confused, and wondering what is wrong with you. The system of double blind is not designed for you to think for yourself. Rather the system may bring feelings of clarity and contentment only when you surrender, obey, and try even harder to follow despite the conflict and confusion your feel inside.

Ernest, conflicted and confused in “spiritual” double bind

Ernest, a former SRF monk of 18 years, told me his personal experience with double bind:

“I was good friends with Brahmacharini Becky [former SRF nun] before we’d entered the Order, when we were in college. Our relationship wasn’t romantic, but it might have become that if it weren’t for SRF and the SRF teachings of transmuting sexual desire into spiritual aspirations. After we had both entered the ashram I would sometimes think, ‘If she’s still in the ashram, I’m safe.’ That should have been a red flag, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t acknowledge that I still had feelings for her. The double bind didn’t allow me to have a desire that contradicted what I was striving for–a celibate life dedicated only to God and SRF. If I didn’t have God’s all-fulfilling love to replace a desire for human love [for Becky or person], that meant I wasn’t putting enough effort into my spiritual practices. So my desire for human love was too threatening to even acknowledge. I was more or less happily committed to the double bind–until after 18 years the subconscious desire for human love could no longer be ignored.”6

When confused and mistrusting your own thoughts and feelings it’s fairly easy for teacher, guru, or master to manipulate and control you. It’s not you (your intellect, feelings, or ego) that’s the problem. You are trapped in a system of the double bind. The double bind is integral to keeping students in the system and following the teacher, guru, or master. And, the teacher gains his power and authority over students through the double bind of the system. The teacher, teaching, and system of enlightenment is assumed to be perfect, infallible, unchallengeable.

You, not the system, are portrayed as having the problem

The system of enlightenment–the Eastern traditions, including the guru-disciple relationship–sets the context and forms the underlying assumptions of the teachings, practices, and techniques. The double bind prevents students enclosed within the systems of questioning or challenging the teacher’s authority. While in the system it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape though the system doesn’t actually work and may even be harmful.

When talking with fellow students or your spiritual teacher about your doubts or problems with the system they tell you, directly or indirectly, don’t find fault with the system, teacher, or techniques. Find fault with your practice, attitude, or ego.

Examples of finding fault with yourself, not with teacher, teaching, or system

Within the double bind of Eastern enlightenment you will find fault with yourself and not teacher, teaching, or system. Two examples of double bind communications regarding meditation, using SRF teachings, include:

“Do not find fault with the Lesson or the technique when you do not obtain results. Find fault with your distracted meditation.” — SRF Lesson 30

Today my mind has dived deep in Thee.
For Thy pearls of love from Thy depth-less sea.
Today my mind has dived deep in Thee.
If I find not, I will not blame Thy sea;
I will find fault with my diving.
–SRF Cosmic Chants, Today My Mind Has Dived

The message is clear. If teacher, teachings, or meditation seem to not be working, keep meditating, keep studying, keep trying. You are encouraged to try harder, to not question but follow the system. Rather than something being wrong with the system, teacher, or group you believe you must be doing something wrong. Your ego, intellect, or uncontrollable, unconscious impulses must be preventing you from getting the promised results from the system. Your fundamental belief is the system of the enlightened masters must be valid. You never question that. You blame yourself and surrender with greater commitment to the system, submitting to the authority and validation of the spiritual teacher, counselor, or enlightened master. You are trapped in the double bind.

The double bind controls. You allow it to control you as you follow and surrender to the system that is purported to bring results if only you practice correctly. The double bind keeps you going in circles thinking you are weak (egoic) and need the system. While the system, teacher, or techniques can only be validated by the system, tradition, and techniques themselves. It’s a circular, closed system: the double bind.

Breaking out of the double bind

The double bind is a no-win kind of communication designed to keep you obeying the authority figure. We have examined the double in the context of systems of Eastern enlightenment. When trapped in the double bind you believe in the system that the group, teacher, or master inculcates in you. The system includes the double bind: a web of no-win communications, beliefs, and unverifiable claims about special techniques and traditions from Eastern enlightened masters. Trapped inside the system the double bind communications lead you to believe if you just try harder, follow more faithfully, and destroy more of your ego–someday, sometime, if not this life then hopefully in a future life–you will gain enlightenment, spiritual mastery, or end your suffering.

Even students who physically leave teachers, groups, and religions often remain trapped inside the system of the double bind. They perpetuate the system in their beliefs, morals, and commitments. “Wherever you go, there you are”. My anecdotal observations of former SRF monks, members, and myself who left the physical system is that many formers (ex-students)  still cling to a belief system of Eastern enlightenment and are still trapped in the double bind. To escape this double bind requires seeing and analyzing the system from outside the system of enlightenment fundamental beliefs, worldview, and unverifiable claims.

Rare is the student, the disciple, who has the cojones (balls), self-trust, and analytical thinking to “break the stick” of the master and to thereby escape from the system and its double bind.

Special thanks to Ernest for sharing his personal experiences above and providing his editorial comments on the overall draft of this post. Your help was invaluable and much appreciated.

Featured image: Courtesy of olavXO, “breakout”, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

NOTES

1 Ernest is fictitious name. This former SRF monk wrote this quote of his personal experiences and asked that his real name be kept confidential.

2 Gregory Bateson, double bind, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Bateson#Double_bind

3 Read my post Duped by Meditation? which discusses the underlying premises that feed the double bind.

4 Psychology Today, The Double Binds of Everyday Life, Marilyn Wedge Ph.D. 13 Oct 2011 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/suffer-the-children/201110/the-double-binds-everyday-life

5 Meditation, The Passionate Mind Revisited: Expanding Personal and Social Awareness, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley: CA. 2009. p 267

6 The names in this example have been changed to protect privacy of the actual persons.

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

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

challenges meditation-related experiences

Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists

Study shows meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists are underreported and adverse experiences such as anxiety, fear, or paranoia are common.

Most studies of meditation we read or hear of trumpet the benefits of contemplative practices. Meditation practices, especially mindfulness–a Buddhist-derived method, has become a popular form of health promotion. However, we seldom read or hear in the Western media and literature about the challenges with meditation-related experiences.

PLOS One published The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE): A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists. Researchers cataloged 59 meditation-related experiences, which included challenging, distressing, and impairing situations which occurred to meditation practitioners.

To conduct the VCE study, researchers from Brown and Santa Barbara Universities recruited a total of 73 meditation experts and practitioners from Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan.

This post provides a summary and comments on the VCE study.

Study of Meditation-Related Challenges with Western Buddhist-Meditators

For the VCE study, participants were asked to describe, in their own words, and to offer their own explanations of their meditation-related experiences. Participant’s responses to the researcher’s questions were cataloged. A catalog was compiled of  59 meditation-related experiences and used to categorize each of the participant’s reported experiences. Then each reported experience was weighted as a percentage of all the experiences reported by study participants.

For example, the three categories of meditation-related experiences most widely reported were:

  • Fear, anxiety, panic, or paranoia (82%)
  • Positive affect (75%)
  • Changes in self-other or self-world boundaries (53%)

Three interesting meditation-related challenges reported by study participants had to do with:

  • Inability to concentrate for extended periods, or problems with memory (executive functioning)
  • “Mind racing” as it’s commonly called or increased cognitive processing speed
  • Feelings ranging from bliss and joy to fear and terror

With my nearly two decades as an ordained monk practicing meditation, I found this VCE comment interesting:

Scrupulosity or obsessive and repetitive thoughts about ethical behavior, was primarily a concern for practitioners in a monastic context… p11

Researchers were neuroscientists, psychologists, and religious scholars

The five authors/researchers of the VCE study are from Brown University and University of Santa Barbara. The five are university professors each specializing, respectively, in a field of neuroscience, humanities, religion, or psychology.

The researchers from Brown University’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (CLANlab) study contemplative, affective, and clinical neuroscience, specifically related to meditation practices. Co-directed by neuroscientist and clinical psychologist Willoughby Britton, Ph.D., and religious studies scholar Jared Lindahl, Ph.D., the lab researches the effects of contemplative practices on cognitive, emotional, and neurophysiological processes in both clinical and non-clinical settings.

My post Dark Side of Meditation discusses another meditation-related study from Brown University.

Participants were practitioners and experts of Buddhist-meditation

The VCE researchers recruited a total of 73 meditation experts and practitioners from Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan.

The criteria for selecting the study’s 73 participants was:

  • Minimum 18 years of age
  • Meditation practice in a Buddhist tradition
  • Ability to report on meditation-related experience that was challenging, difficult, or distressing or impairing.

The criteria for excluding participants was:

  • History of unusual psychological experiences prior to learning meditation (eg. substance abuse or mental illness)
  • Mixed practice history that included non-Buddhist practices
  • Presence of medical illness that might account for challenging experiences.

Thirteen of the original 73 participants were eventually excluded from the final study results. (The final results were based on 60 participants). The participants were asked structured questions in an interview format lasting from 45 to 120 minutes.

Problems with VCE study

The VCE study, like most meditation-related research, is flawed, inconclusive, and has numerous weaknesses.

Common problems with meditation-related research and this VCE study, include:

  • Small sample size. VCE study included 57 participants in the final results.
  • Values (good or bad) of experiences were colored by the interpretations of subjects/interviewees.
  • Participants can interpret an experience as either positive or negative.

There is a wide range of interpretations about the meditation-related experiences. Interpretations can vary between persons, teachers, or meditation traditions.

In Conclusion

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE): A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists aimed to increase our understanding of the adverse effects of contemplative practices. The authors hoped to provide resources to promote health and to raise awareness of potential damaging effects of meditation-based practices.

While the VCE study offers unique insights into underreported challenges related to meditation, this paper is only a preliminary examination of the field. It does not provide conclusive evidence of the severity of benefits or problems with meditation-related experiences. However, we could draw a few conclusions.

Challenges related to meditation are typically underreported

Not everyone who practices meditation experiences health-promoting benefits.

A significant percentage of meditation-related experiences, in the VCE study, were challenging, distressing, or temporarily or permanently debilitating. At least one of the study participants reported meditation-related experiences that required medical support or hospitalization.

The 31 page (not including data tables and Supporting Information files) paper is available at:

PLOS One, The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists, Jared R. Lindahl , Nathan E. Fisher , David J. Cooper , Rochelle K. Rosen, Willoughby B. Britton. Published: May 24, 2017.

If you have any thoughts on meditation-related challenges, please write to us in the box below titled “Leave a Reply” and enter your comments there.

Superiority Complex of Meditators

Meditation systems often instill followers with harmful ideas of superiority.

The attitude of superiority by meditators, yogis, and avatars is morally, spiritually, and scientifically bankrupt. Violence or agression need not be overt or expressed physically to be harmful. Destructive ideas, even notions of passivity, can breed indifference and incite actions of hostility towards others, especially outsiders. Meditation and yoga, as a spiritual ideology, as a soteriology1, has embedded within it harmful superiority complexes.

This article examines harmful superiority complexes within meditation and yoga practitioners, within their systems of ideologies and soteriologies.

Soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation, liberation, or release:

  • In Hinduism is the primary concept of moksha (liberation, release).
  • In Buddhism is the primary aim of liberation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.
  • In Mysticism, generally, is the primary notion of liberation of soul or self through union with a transcendent being.

Many meditation practitioners have one or more of these soteriological aims or goals. If not, top of mind, then somewhere in the background is the desire or seeking of liberation, release, or salvation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.

Nothing wrong with the desire to reduce suffering or ignorance. However, systems of yoga and meditation that promise liberation often also instill followers with superiority complexes and psychic conflicts.

Psychic conflict and superiority complexes

First, in this article we use “complex” to describe a group of emotionally laden ideas that are repressed that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior2. Superiority3 in this article is defined as an exaggerated sense of one’s importance that shows itself in the making of excessive or unjustified claims.

Superiority complex, then, is an explicit or implicit attitude of superiority that conceals feelings of inferiority and fears of failure.

Yogis, masters, and avatars (exalted persons supposed to be enlightened, compassionate, and “One” with everything) and their followers usually proclaim that yoga (their particular spiritual ideology or practice) is the highest, ultimate, and superior path for humanity.

The ideological or soteriological systems of yoga and yogi-masters typically proclaim to achieve for practitioners “Oneness”, inclusion, and compassion towards all beings. While in actuality there are internal conflicts. Everything outside their particular yoga system, tradition, or ideology is seen as inferior, illusory (Maya, Satanic), and ultimately worthless.

“Weird Statue of figure ontop of temple Batu Caves Malysia” by amanderson2 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Yoga scriptures illustrate superiority complexes

To illustrate the ideological superiority complexes embedded within yoga systems, consider the following examples:

Shiva, the Hindu god of yoga, in the Rasārṇava4 condemns all other forms of yoga or religious practice, not sparing even the six major philosophical schools of Hinduism–which allow liberation with release from the body upon death5:

“The liberation that occurs when one drops dead is indeed a worthless liberation. [For in that case] a donkey is also liberated when he drops dead. Liberation is indeed viewed in the six schools as [occurring] when one drops dead, but that [kind of] liberation is not immediately perceptible, in the way that a myrobalan fruit in the hand [is perceptible] (karamulakavat).

In The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, explains that the Hindu yoga god, Shiva, continues in the Rasārṇava to emphasize that the yogic quest is superior to all other religious practices:

Liberation [arises] from gnosis (jnana), gnosis [arises] from the maintenance of the vital breaths. Therefore, where there is stability, mercury [sexual fluid of Shiva] is empowered and the body is stabilized. Through the use of mercury one rapidly obtains a body that is unaging and immortal, and concentration of the mind. He who eats calcinated mercury (mrtasutaka) truly obtains both transcendent and mundane knowledge, and his mantras are effective.

It is now known that exposure to mercury and its compounds causes hydrargyria or mercury poisoning, which may lead to peripheral neuropathy, damage to or disease affecting nerves, which may impair sensation, movement, gland or organ function, or other aspects of health, depending on the type of nerve affected. Perhaps to the Raseśvara the symptoms from mercury poisoning and nerve damage was believed to be a sign of spiritual achievement, liberation, and superiority?

Greater than followers of other paths?

The Bhagavad Gita, Song of the Lord, is a part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. In it the Lord Krishna, who is proclaimed a great yogi and avatar (Lord come to earth to save humanity), extols the superiority of yogis.

“Such an one ranks Above ascetics, higher than the wise, Beyond achievers of vast deeds! Be thou [a] Yogi, Arjuna! And of such believe, Truest and best is he who worships Me With inmost soul, stayed on My Mystery!”6

Famous yogi guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, claimed he was a channel of Krishna/Christ- Consciousness in his interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita, God Talks with Arjuna:

“The Lord Himself here extols the royal path of yoga as the highest of all spiritual paths, and the scientific yogi as greater than a follower of any other path”7.

Shiva, Krishna, and the mahesvaras (great yogis or avatars) belittle other religious systems and practitioners as inferior. Meditation practitioners are led to believe they and their particular techniques are superior, and that all followers of other systems are inferior.

“Misa dominical” by Serge Saint is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Implanting superiority to get and keep followers

Meditation and yoga traditions and systems use their Super Men (avatars and masters), like Krishna, Shiva, and spiritual gurus, to impose their values and implant their superiority complex into their yoga followers.

The spiritual Superman (avatar or master) proclaims all other systems of liberation (soteriologies) are inferior, “worthless” in an effort to get and keep followers. All other people who do not practice the Guru Lord’s version of “royal” yoga (meditation techniques) are explicitly and implicitly deemed inferior, ignorant, or damned–doomed to wander in darkness of Maya.

Instilling fear in followers

Fear is instilled in followers of these systems. The system, with the spiritual authority at the head, needs to ensure its continuance by keeping followers, and fills them with ideas that instill fear should they consider leaving the system. Remember these are ideological systems: built and maintained on ideas. They are not dependent on physical proximity or even actual adherence to practice.

Feelings of guilt for questioning the system is one way to prevent you from leaving. Followers when trapped inside these systems of ideas justify their loyalty to the system, group, or teacher to protect themselves from questioning their doubts and repressed feelings.

Competing for followers

Yogis, avatars, and spiritual masters compete for followers. It’s not enough to follow any system of yoga or meditation. Theirs is superior. Their followers are told they are superior. It has to be this way for this system to survive, to keep its followers. If gurus or yoga systems are not perceived by their followers as superior to any others, why follow that particular ideology, system, or meditation practice?

The “others”–followers of other systems to liberation–are therefore condemned as inferior by the “superior” meditators, yogis, and so-called spiritual masters of a particular system. Or, at best the “others” and their inferior systems are pitied (with condescending “compassion”) as those other peoples are in “reality” lost, ignorant, and part of the mindless masses.

To err is human. We often believe our team or tribe is the best (superior) and everyone else’s is inferior to ours. That in itself is not the problem. Repression of superiority complexes and the lack of awareness of followers is the problem.

Overcoming superiority complexes of yoga and meditation systems

Superiority complexes, like we discussed above, are often implicit or explicit within the ideological or soteriological systems followed by meditation practitioners. Repressed within these systems followers often have hidden feelings of insecurity and feelings of failure. By transforming feelings of inadequacy or inferiority into superiority complexes, these systems pretend to be more spiritual, to be greater than others. The harm and dangers lurk in this repression of inferiority that pretends to be superior.

I am not saying all practitioners or all yoga or meditation systems have superiority complexes.

What I am saying is followers of these systems are at higher risk of repressing their feelings through claims of superiority, having all the answers, following an infallible authority or unchallengeable system. Hence the popularity of articles hyping the “scientific” benefits of certain meditation methods.

Feelings of being “chosen”, “special”, or greater that others can be an indicator there is superiority complex. If one person or system is superior, then the other must be inferior.  A system, like yoga or meditation, that claims to be superior, infallible, and unchangeable is a potentially harmful ideology.

Ideological superiority = This is a natural, human trait, but dangerous thinking. The yogis, avatars, or spiritual masters are not exempt (indeed in this article we’ve shown them to often be the perpetrators) of needing and competing for followers who seen them as superior to others, especially to other spiritual systems or techniques. Anyone claiming to be superior to others or to be a part of an infallible, unchallengeable system is at increased risk or harming themselves and others. Awareness of this fact is an important step towards doing less harm to oneself and others.

Notes

Image #1: “Alchemy” by Riding on a comet is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1 Soteriology. Wikipedia. Accessed May 31, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soteriology.

2 Complex in this article, is used in the psychological or psychoanalytical context. Google definition. Accessed May 30, 2017 https://www.google.com/search?q=complex+definition&oq=complex+defin&aqs=chrome.0.0j69i57j0l4.4331j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

3 Superiority and it’s synonyms. Merriam-Webster. Accessed Jun 2, 2017 at https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/superiority

4 “Raseśvaras, like many other schools of Indian philosophy, believed that liberation was identity of self with Supreme lord Shiva and freedom from transmigration. However, unlike other schools, Raseśvaras thought that liberation could only be achieved by using mercury to acquire an imperishable body.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 24, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raseśvara].

5 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print.  p174. https://www.amazon.com/Alchemical-Body-Siddha-Traditions-Medieval/dp/0226894991

6 Bhagavad Gita, VI:45-46, Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation http://hinduism.about.com/library/weekly/extra/bl-gitatext6.htm

7 God Talks with Arjuna, Ch 6 v45-46, Paramahansa Yogananda. Self-Realization Fellowship. Print. https://www.amazon.com/God-Talks-Arjuna-Self-Realization-Fellowship/dp/0876120311