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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


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.

Goodbye Summer 2011 image

Leaving God and Monastic Order

Monastic life was supposed to be an exalted path to self-realization, spiritual enlightenment, and God. But the pain of feeling “stuck” was greater than my fear of leaving the Order. I had to get out.

Reasons why I left the Order and left God was the focus of my conversation with Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.

Our conversation was published on Patheos / Rational Doubt1 blog. With permission from Rational Doubt editor and cofounder of The Clergy Project2, Linda LaScola, my interview with Scott Jacobsen is reposted below.

Scott Jacobsen: You published the story of your personal transition from being part of a monastic order called the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order to not being a part of it. The story is on The Clergy Project website, dated May 27, 2015. You were known as Brahmachari Scott. Now, you’re just Scott (me, too). For those leaving monastic orders, what are important things to keep in mind?

“Scott” creator of Skeptic Meditations: It was a big deal to leave the Self-Realization Monastic Order (the Order or SRF) after 14 years. It was a pivotal decision in life. I joined the Order when I was 24, expecting to be a monk for the rest of my life. I took vows of loyalty, obedience and chastity. All, purportedly, for finding God and self-realization. My justification for being a monk was that purpose. But it was complex.

For reasons as complicated as life can become, I felt out of place. I realized the monastery was not for me. This wasn’t the end, though. In the most important ways, my journey unfolded when I chose to come back to the world.

Before leaving the Order, I spent months acclimating myself to the outside world. It was like dipping toes into cold water before the plunge.

Instead of attending the regularly scheduled monastic classes, I joined a local Toastmasters club. I practiced public speaking. Rather than turn my doubts and fears inward—as I did for decades, I visited an outside psychotherapist, and confided my hopes and fears to her. Before seeing that psychotherapist, I spent years weighing the pros and cons of staying in or leaving the Order. I built an underground support community of trusted current and former monastics, church members and biological family.

At the time, I had a motto:

I’m not moving away from anything. I’m moving towards something.

Something great, I hoped. I did not know, but I felt I was moving towards something great based on a vision. I was developing a plan for a new life. That energized me. The pain of feeling “stuck” was greater than my fear of leaving the Order. I was one of the lucky few. I escaped. When I say “escaped,” I mean physically and psychologically.

Many monks from the Order I lived with still live in the monastery. Many others left. However, some of those who left still psychologically stuck within the Order. The monastery is still with them. It is more important where one resides psychologically rather than physically, in my opinion, speaking now from over a decade of experience. Some people have the privilege to move. Several monks stayed in the Order who were instrumental in helping me become who I am today. For me, leaving the Order was about moving towards, rather than away, from something.

What are some expected difficulties—personal, familial, and professional—in transitioning out of a monastic order?

The difficulties included learning how to reintegrate into society. We had extremely limited access to the outside world. The monks were allowed to watch one movie a month, and even that was censored. The Monks’ Library contained only censored materials: books of saints and yogis, the LA Times newspaper and magazines like National Geographic and Sports Illustrated. Access to the internet, during my tenure, was blocked or filtered and our phone calls were monitored for ‘billing’ purposes. We were charged for long-distance calls, which discouraged outside contact. Censoring of our exposure to the world, we were told, was for our own spiritual development.

Life inside was like a cult.

Upon re-entry into the world, I felt woefully inadequate in practical matters of daily life.

To transition, I learned how to be an adult, and to be assertive, to negotiate and pay my bills. I had to reintegrate into society, rebuild my life, relationships, and start a career. When I left, I had no job, no home and no family to live with. I had to prove to myself that I could make my way in the world. Within two years of leaving, I enrolled in university and graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree while working for a corporation.


I was intrigued by your description of monastic life on The Clergy Project website:

…monks didn’t just sit all-day chanting, praying, and navel-gazing.

Monastery routine consisted of meditation, classes, recreation, 9-to-5 jobs: ministering to a worldwide religious congregation at the Self-Realization Fellowship churches, temples, meditation centers and groups, and spiritual retreats. Each monk received $40 per month cash allowance, room and board, paid medical care, and all-you-could-eat lacto-ovo vegetarian buffet.

You were working in rather extreme conditions. What was running through your mind? What is the insight gained since you left about monastic life, e.g. working conditions?

I was convinced by church doctrine and the spiritual mythologies. They stated that renunciation and self-sacrifice was an exalted path to God, self-realization and spiritual freedom. However, a few years after leaving, I was able to step back and take a stern look at the conditions of the Order.

In the monastery, I lived inside a closed, cult-like system. SRF is a Hindu-inspired meditation group.

The followers—consciously or unconsciously—buy into false premises taught by the church. Once one believes the false premises, it becomes easy to surrender to the work and spiritual routine for hours, days, weeks, months and years. You hand over control to teacher, guru, church or religion.

SRF puts a premium on meditation techniques as the highest way to spiritual development or self-realization.

Examples of some of the premises3 we believed:

  • You are unaware. Meditation is the way to unbroken awareness. If you are not fully aware, keep meditating.
  • You are one with God, but don’t know it. Meditation is the path to God. If you don’t know God, keep meditating.
  • You are asleep and don’t know it. Meditation is the way to wake spiritually. If you are asleep spiritually, keep meditating.

Now, I look back and regret having spent precious years in the pursuit of the Order’s false premises. But, better late than never, I outgrew them.

The Scientific American article was the linchpin to becoming an atheist within your social circle, friends and family. What seems to be the main reason for transitioning out of monastic life?

There’s so many reasons why I left.

Mostly, I needed to change and grow. The Order wasn’t about change or growth. Lord knows, I tried. Ultimately, the church and its leader were about perpetuating the “revealed” teachings of the teachers. I was lucky; I saw through the false premises of the church. I never regretted leaving it.

There are local agnostic, atheist, humanist, and freethinker organizations to provide support for people. How can friends and family give support?

Family and friends play a vital role in supporting people like me who leave extreme religions or cult-like groups.

My family accepted me. I can not think of anything special that family and friends can do that is different that what true friends and family do: laugh, care, and do things together. Naturally, different friends and family serve different needs for us. It was most helpful for me to connect with a variety of people from different cultures or worldviews. Having a good therapist helped, I did not become a burden for friends and loved ones with my issues.

You created Skeptic Meditations as well. It is a general resource on skepticism with a blog. How can people become involved with Skeptic Meditations?

I created Skeptic Meditations to critically examine the supernatural claims of yogis, mystics, and meditators, and to muse and critique my experiences inside the SRF/the Order.

Christians have many resources to question and doubt, if they choose. After coming out of the Order, which is a Hindu-inspired meditation group, I found precious few resources for people like me who had left Christianity and questioned Eastern religion, especially yoga meditation. Skeptic Meditations explores the hidden, sometimes darker, side of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation.

Thank you for your time, Scott.

I’ve enjoyed your questions and chatting with you. Thank you.

After our interview was published, I asked Scott Jacobsen his reasons for founding In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.

Jacobsen: Whether religious leave or irreligious find religion, I want individuals to have the freedom to choose the path for their own lives. Often, danger comes from restriction of belief, conscience, and movement of people caught in unhealthy communities, which are often religious or cultish, or outright cults”.

Scott D. Jacobsen, interviewer and founder of In-Sight, may be contacted at Scott.D.Jacobsen@gmail.com.

Question for readers: In your own life, in what unhealthy communities may you have been “stuck”? What did you do to leave, to learn and to grow after leaving the group for your better life?

1,2. Patheos / Rational Doubt is a blog where the public and non-believing and doubting [religious] clergy can interact. Contributors include founders of The Clergy Project, including Linda LaScola, and both “out” and “still-closeted” members of a private forum. Active or former clergy-persons who no longer believe in their faith in God, Higher Powers, or supernatural can learn more about The Clergy Project private forum.

3. Read my post Duped by Meditation? for an explanation of false premises peddled by many meditation teachers and groups.

Sleep Paralysis In Yoga Tradition

What is sleep paralysis? How is the experience interpreted in yoga tradition?

Every night we suffer from sleep paralysis. But we are not always aware of it. Sleep paralysis occurs while we are half awake and half asleep and we can’t move.

“Always when I’m going off to sleep. It’s pretty much the same”, Ted, a 35 year old British psychologist described his experiences of sleep paralysis. “My eyes are open and I get the sense something in the room is happening. Then a shape gathers. A presence. I can feel its weight. I have multisensory sensations. I feel like my body is floating. I can’t move it. I try to make a sound in my throat. I can’t. As I keep struggling to cry out, eventually scream out and that wakes me up and then I can move my body.”[1]

As I was thinking about writing this post, I kept hearing readers tell me, “You don’t know that sleep paralysis is similar to yoga meditation experiences. Who are you to speculate on the traditions and experiences of yogis, saints, and mystics?” I had my doubts about writing this post. While what I write may not adequately address all aspects of sleep paralysis and interpretations, I feel it is important anyway to write this article.

In between sleeping and waking, in this “threshold consciousness”, are a variety of mental phenomena that includes lucid dreaming, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis. I assert the sleep paralysis may be, in yoga tradition, what is interpreted as union with god, soul, or spirit. But more on that later. First, let’s return to what happens in our body during sleep paralysis.

What Happens During Sleep Paralysis?

While sleeping, your body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. One REM and one NREM sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes. First is the NREM sleep cycle which takes as much as 75% of your overall sleep time. During NREM sleep, your body relaxes and rejuvenates itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep shifts to REM. Your eyes move rapidly, dreams occur while the rest of your body remains very relaxed. During REM your muscles are “switched off”. If you become aware and interrupt before the REM cycle is finished, you may notice you cannot move or speak. This is sleep paralysis.[2]

In Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis Chris French, Professor and Psychologist at University of London, identified three psychological factors in the experience of sleep paralysis:

  1. Intruder — The person may sense a presence, hear voices or strange sounds, and see lights or visions. In a word–hallucinate.
  2. Incubus[3] — The experiencer may feel pressure, be unable to voluntarily control breathing, may panic creating a feeling of suffocation or difficulty breathing.
  3. Unusual body experiences — Sensations of floating, flying, or hovering, and out of body experiences. Proprioception, self-orientation within the body, is missing or out of order.

Sleep paralysis may evoke feelings of bliss or terror. The experience may be interpreted differently by different cultures or traditions. In Hinduism, Viśvarūpa is Sanskrit for “sacred terror”. Whether the experience is terrible or joyful is irrelevant. It’s the tradition and the interpretation that frames it as either sleep paralysis or sacred yoga.

How is sleep paralysis experience interpreted by yoga meditation tradition?

Narada prostrating before Vishvamurti, Public Domain.
Narada prostrating before Vishvamurti, Public Domain.

Yoga Tradition and Sleep Paralysis Experience

Famed yogi-guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, taught his students a “Definite Technique of Attaining Ecstasy:

“As you are falling asleep each night, keep your eyes half-open and focused at the point between the eyebrows; consciously enjoy in a relaxed nonchalant way the state at the border of joyous sleep as long as you can hold it without falling asleep, and you will learn to go into ecstasy at will. . . Try to remain in this state from five minutes to one hour, then you will know about yoga: conscious communion of your soul with God.”[4]

The practice of the yogi-guru’s technique (above) could result in what Western medicine and psychology says is sleep paralysis. Yogananda interprets sleep paralysis experience as “yoga: conscious communion of your soul with God”.

Another aspect of sleep paralysis which overlaps with yoga tradition is samadhi. Samadhi is by tradition the supreme goal of yoga (union or communion with God).

Let’s examine some similarities between so-called yoga samadhi and sleep paralysis.

Similarities Between Yoga Samadhi and Sleep Paralysis

When compared with sleep paralysis we find many similarities between yoga samadhi experiences, which include:

  • Immobilized body, unable to move
  • Altered or heightened awareness
  • Heard voices, sounds
  • Saw shapes, visions
  • Sensed presence
  • Disabled physical senses
  • Labored breathing
  • Panicked to breathe, speak, or move
  • Felt terror[5] or bliss (depending on experiencer interpretation)
  • Sensed floating, levitating
  • Hovered, outside, or “above” the physical body

To be aware is to experience. No awareness, no experience. After awareness of experience comes interpretation.

For instance, you become aware you can feel or control your “breathing”. Terror sets in. You panic. You gasp for breath. Or, you feel detached from your physical body. You feel bliss or terror.

I had panicked during yoga meditation. My awareness just landed on “not breathing” after feeling “outside” my body. I panicked and gasped for air. Coming back to voluntary control of my body.

An American-born swami-monk lectured around the world about the blessings of yoga meditation. The first time he practiced his guru’s yoga meditation technique, he told audiences he panicked when he became aware he was “not breathing”. Gasping finally resulted in sucking air into his lungs. Immediately the swami said he was brought back into his body consciousness.

Personal experiences like these are anecdotes, not proof the phenomena are objectively real. Returning now to the anecdotes reported by yogis and experiences of sleep paralysis patients, let’s examine the differences.

Differences Between Yoga Samadhi and Sleep Paralysis

Differences between sleep paralysis and yoga samadhi, includes:

Sleep Paralysis Yoga samadhi
Very common. More than 3 million US cases per year.[6] Legendary, mythical claims and anecdotal stories not well-documented nor verified by independent researchers.
Reproduced, well-documented by independent researchers in various lab experiments. Not reproduced, not well-documented by independent research or lab experiments.
Mechanism fairly well-understood for how and why physical and psychological phenomena occurs during half awake, half asleep state. No “samadhi” or superconscious awareness has been clearly explained in a verifiable, credible way. No scientifically known mechanism for how and why a superconsciousness exists or is actually different from non-supernatural brain states, such as sleep paralysis.
Recorded durations of seconds or minutes. Said to last minutes, hours, days, years, or for eternity (when one reaches godhood or cosmic consciousness). No well-documented cases from independent researchers or experiments.

What can sleep paralysis teach us about yoga traditions?

When we compare sleep paralysis and yoga samadhi experiences we find many similarities. Not all phenomena related to so-called yoga samadhi and sleep paralysis experiences are the same. Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Definite Technique of Attaining Ecstasy” seems to be yoga method to induce sleep paralysis. The ecstasy or experience that Yogananda and yoga tradition may interpret as supreme yoga–union or communion with God–physicians and psychologists may call sleep paralysis.

Have you experienced sleep paralysis? Yoga “samadhi”? What do you think of similarities or differences between the interpretations by yoga tradition?


1 Professor Chris French, Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis. Presentation at Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, Oct. 11, 2009. Accessed Aug. 30, 2016, https://vimeo.com/11459308.

2 “Sleep Paralysis”. WebMD, accesssed Aug. 30, 2016, http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-paralysis#1-3.

3 “Sleep Paralysis”. Rationalwiki, accessed Sep. 1, 2016, http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis. In Medieval Europe demons called incubus were said to attack women and succubus to attack men, usually sexually. Different cultures interpret differently but usually mythologically the experiences of sleep paralysis, altered awareness, and yoga samadhi.

4  Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship Lesson 154. Yogananda refers to “conscious” sleep throughout his yoga lessons, “The soul may use its intuition together with life force released from bodily activities during the relaxation of sleep to project true visions on the screen of the subconscious. Visions may show events to come, as the soul can use its intuitive power to “photograph” future happenings. But a vision does not appear until sufficient energy has been relaxed from the heart and from the ordinary waking consciousness (as in sleep) to project it”, Lesson 73. And, “This detachment of the mind from body consciousness [during yoga meditation] is similar to that experienced in sleep, except that one remains consciously aware”, Summary Lesson.

5 “Visvarupa”. Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 1, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vishvarupa. Bliss and terror are bedfellows in Hindu mythology. Viśvarūpa is Sanskrit for “sacred terror”. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu bible, Lord Krishna reveals to his chief-disciple, Arjuna, the Viśvarūpa experience. Arjuna is terrified by Viśvarūpa, said to the universal form of Hindu God(s).
6 “Sleep Paralysis”. Mayo Clinic and Google Search, accessed Aug. 30, 2016,  https://g.co/kgs/3Vw3IB.

Decades of Meditation Practice, Wasted?

By SortOfNatural, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
by SortOfNatural, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Should some devotees continue or stop wasting time in meditation practice? Or, is faith in meditation, in a guru, or in perseverance–despite insignificant results–a virtue?

This post examines long-time meditation practitioners who continue despite little or insignificant results.

Many gurus and their institutions claim that meditation is a science, that if practiced correctly meditation brings empirical results.

One such claim, that is extraordinary, can be found in a quote by Paramahansa Yogananda, guru of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF):

“The yogic science is based on an empirical consideration of all forms of concentration and meditation exercises. Yoga enables the devotee to switch off or on, at will, life current to the five sense telephones of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Attaining this power of sense disconnection, the yogi finds it simple to unite his mind at will with divine realms or with the world of matter”.1

Some devotees may practice meditation for decades and have little if anything to show for it, let alone “empirical” results to speak of. These meditation practitioners may often rationalize and justify away their lack of significant results.

For example, below are quotes from two long-term SRF meditators, Walter and Bryan, who were interviewed by Lola Williamson, which are excerpted from her book, Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements As New Religion (New York University Press: 2010).

Walter, practiced meditation for forty-three years

“Although he [Walter, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda and SRF devotee] had been practicing meditation for forty-three years, he expressed uncertainty about how much progress he had made….I was curious why he had stuck with the practice for so many years if he was not seeing results. He replied…’If I don’t meditate, I miss it….It’s seeing the world as consciousness, not as physical reality.’” p. 9

“Seeing the world as consciousness” is a seemingly profound statement, but is vague and vacuous of comprehensive meaning. Is Walter merely justifying his decades of meditation practice as-is rather than examining the actual results from the time, energy, and money he invested into meditation?

Bryan, after decades of meditation, “It’s just not what I expected”

“Bryan’s dramatic mystical experience occurred continuously over a period of two to three months. They happened before he started meditating….He puts forth tremendous effort to follow the daily disciplines he has learned through Self-Realization Fellowship, yet he does not feel he has gained control over his experiences. I [Bryan] kept asking, ‘Where’s some dramatic stuff? Where’s the beef?’…’It’s hard. In hindsight I know what I’ve gotten back; it just hasn’t been what I thought it would be. Meditation has made me a much calmer person. It’s helped to be in the present moment. And this is a lot. It’s just not what I expected.’” p. 165

by JD, Wasted Time, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
by JD, Wasted Time, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The meditation practice and particular worldview that is often taught with it, such as in SRF, may be difficult for many devotees to question or to not stay attached to. Psychologists call the tendency in people to be attached to their investments, despite heavy losses, the sunk-cost bias2. It may take a person years to give up on poor investments. The greater the loss of the investment often the longer it may take a person to let the investment losses go.

After thinking critically about my experiences with meditation practice and in SRF I realized that the results I got from meditation practice were insignificant compared with the great investment of my time, energy, and money.

Are long-time meditation practitioners too invested to quit or at least to question the value of continuing to meditate as-is? What other excuses or arguments might devotees have to try to convince themselves or others that they are not wasting precious time in meditation?

No True Meditator Argument

At this point, I’m guessing that some devoted meditators who read this will invoke the No True Scotsman3, or, what I will call the No True Meditator, argument to try to rationalize why they may not, nor anyone else may not, get significant results from meditation.

The fallacious No True Scotsman (No True Meditator) argument may go something like this:

Walt: Meditation practitioners will get tremendous results of concentration and realizations.
Tom: Then why are there so many meditators who don’t get results?
Walt: They were never true meditators.
Tom: What’s a true meditator?
Walt: Only those who get results.

Question for readers: What other reasons or arguments are there for why some long-time practitioners don’t quit meditating when results are insignificant?


1 Autobiography of a Yogi, Chap 26: The Science of Kriya Yoga, Paramahansa Yogananda (Self-Realization Fellowship)

2 The sunk-cost bias or fallacy is described as “reasoning that further investment is warranted on the fact that the resources already invested will be lost otherwise, not taking into consideration the overall losses involved in the further investment.”–Logically Fallacious,  http://www.logicallyfallacious.com/index.php/logical-fallacies/174-sunk-cost-fallacy 

No True Scotsman, also known as No True Christian, and what I’ve taken the liberty to call here the No True Meditator argument or fallacy that is described as “when a universal (“all”, “every”, etc.) claim is refuted, rather than conceding the point or meaningfully revising the claim, the claim is altered by going from universal to specific, and failing to give any objective criteria for the specificity.”–Logically Fallacious,

Guru-Manipulation & Self-Mistrust

pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Mental or psychological control is easy when people doubt themselves.

Trusting in gurus and persons presented as higher, more knowledgeable, more powerful, or morally superior tends to make one more susceptible to manipulation.

Children, of course, need to rely on their parents and elders for protection, wisdom, and authority. But when children are taught to mistrust themselves, then as adults they are more likely to look to someone else to trust and to save them, especially in a crisis.1

Instilling Self-Doubt In Children

While a child, whenever I asked reasonable questions about church doctrines that didn’t make sense my parents and Sunday school teachers retorted “god works in mysterious ways”. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was one nonsensical idea I questioned:

How could God be one and three at the same time? and, what was this Holy Spirit thing?
Did being told to trust in a mysterious god instead of in reason lead me to mistrust myself?

As a young adult, against my parents wishes, I was ordained a monk in a Hindu-inspired meditation group, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF).

The teachings of SRF and their Guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, like many gurus, are fraught with suggestions that followers should doubt themselves and instead unconditionally trust the Guru.

In SRF Lesson 51, Paramahansa Yogananda taught:

“I never found complete satisfaction, comfort, and God-contact until I attuned myself with unconditional loyalty and devotion to the divine consciousness of my guru.”2

Below is a partial list of methods used by gurus and manipulative authorities who impose mental controls by instilling self-doubt. Followed by a partial list of ways that healthy individuals and groups use to boost self-trust.

Methods used by Gurus to instill self-mistrust:

  • Patronizes followers (treats with kindness while betraying superiority)
  • Assumes superiority (knows what’s best for others)
  • Instills fear, guilt, or shame
  • Belittles reason and personal experience
  • Emphasizes dangers of ego, lower self, self-interest (reason, intellect, personal experience)
  • Provides methods (such as meditation) to realize soul or higher self (beyond reason, intellect)
  • Emphasizes service to guru or authority (versus taking care of one’s self-interests)
  • Masks abusive behavior as “training” or as beyond understanding of lessor humans

Methods used by those who boost self-trust, includes:

  • Nurtures self-expression, creativity
  • Values first-hand experience over others’ experiences
  • Encourages evaluation of outer and inner world
  • Values critical thinking, reason, and intellectual development
  • Respects feelings, is aware of, and allows processing of personal experiences

The above lists are not exhaustive and are meant to be a sample of the kinds of methods, both subtle and overt, that gurus and controlling authorities use to manipulate followers. Let me know if you have any items to add or to change these lists.

1 p 10 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books, Berkley, CA. 1993
2 Self-Realization Fellowship Lesson 51: My Guru, Sri Yukteswar