Tagged: Hinduism

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

Meditation techniques offer illusion of control

Esther Simpson, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Esther Simpson, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Meditation techniques, like religion, offer an illusion of control, a false promise of personal mastery.

Helplessness, insecurity, and uncertainty are part of the human condition. Unable to find permanent freedom from our ailments, we willingly surrender our bodies and minds, our time and resources, to uselessly following the advice of charlatans, of spiritual teachers, gurus, or buddhas.1 Meditation techniques may act as a placebo (sham or fake) treatment to our ailments that give us an illusion of control.

To begin, let’s define “illusion” as a thing that is or that is likely to be wrongly perceived and that probably we have wrong ideas about. Now, let’s proceed with our discussion of the illusion of control offered by meditation techniques.

Helplessness and the human condition

Life largely operates beyond our control. Our birth, death, and much of life’s events unfold mostly outside our power. We crave security and certainty and want to exert our influence over other people. Many people believe that meditation techniques provide them with unlimited access to secret knowledge, to magical cures, and to personal mastery over one’s body, mind, and world.

Meditation philosophy, inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism that will be discussed below, is built upon the false premise that there is something wrong, missing, or corrupt within us, which is beyond our awareness and control. (Read my post Duped by Meditation? for further elaboration on false premises underlying many meditation practices).

Charlatans, gurus, and spiritual teachers implant in our minds the need of a cure (from our unawareness, asleepness, or out-of-controlness), and then offer us sham products that offer the illusion of control.

Mind-control disguised as self-control

Meditation teachers are seen by many of their followers as moral authorities who implant in their minds the necessity of self-control. Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, in their book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, warn, “All mind control operates under the guise of self-control”.2 Under this psychological, spiritual, and theological pretext, meditation is a fraudulent technique that is sold on the pretense of offering self-control.3 Practitioners often willingly surrender control to teachers who have already implanted in them the need for self-restraint as the right path to ultimate freedom of body, mind, and spirit.

Self-Realization Fellowship, a Hindu-inspired religion that I used to follow, promises that disciples who correctly practice the given meditation techniques every day will eventually, if not in this life then in a future incarnation, attain total self-realization, self-mastery bringing complete awareness of Self or God.

In the Samadhi Padi chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra says, “Yoga is the restraint of mental modifications” (“Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ”).4 Mental control or restraint, a core component of yoga, is supposed to eventually lead the practitioner to the penultimate state of Dhyana (meditative trance and total absorption in self-awareness or Samadhi).5

For many people, meditation techniques offer a theological or moral framework that appeals to their unmet needs to control body, mind, and world.

Masters, frauds, and the uncontrollable self

The more we feel helpless, the more we want to assign control to someone or something else to cure or fix us and our world. We attribute magical agency to spiritual teachers, religions, and meditation techniques.

Kramer and Alstad, point out that in the East the prevailing idea is that the self is limited and to be transcended (Hinduism) or that the idea of the self is a false identity of the mind that is to be transcended (Buddhism). These Eastern ideas are biased towards the reduction or elimination of the self or ego to attain a permanent selflessness or egolessness.7 Any teacher or mystic who claims to be totally selfless or egoless must also claim to be totally conscious.

In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at University of Virginia, gives reasons why our unconscious is inaccessible: “The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try…. Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, it may not be possible to gain direct access to unconscious processing.”8

For gurus and spiritual teachers to admit that unconscious factors are at play within oneself would mean that no one can be certain that any person can ever be completely self-aware or can be totally selfless and egoless. It is debatable that so-called advanced masters, mystics, and saints are what they say they are: totally self-aware, in complete self-control, and perfected in selflessness or egolessness; and that the teacher knows what is best for disciples who strive to follow in her footsteps.

Kramer and Alstad write, “If there were even the remote possibility that a totally realized being had an unconscious, how could anyone (including the realized one) be certain that all motives and actions were pure and selfless?”9 Many Eastern-inspired religious teachers negate or devalue Western psychology because its concepts about the unconscious (uncontrollable self) undermines their power and authority.

Countless people look to charlatans, spiritual teachers, or gurus who they believe are completely conscious, totally selfless, and have foolproof answers and magical cures.

Results from meditation: placebo effect?

Our feelings of powerlessness feed anxieties and hunger for coping mechanisms.10 The times we feel most uncertain and helpless is when we most want answers and control. Even an illusory sense of control is enough to satisfy.

Our expectations that a technique or treatment will be helpful can sometimes give us beneficial effects. A meditation technique can enhance a practitioner’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that the practice will be helpful. Medical scientists say that the placebo effect–when a fake treatment or technique (an inactive substance like a sugar pill or meditation technique)–can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.11

In Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, R. Barker Bausell, a former Research Director of the National Institute for Health-funded Complementary Medicine Program, points out that, “If a completely inactive pill, ointment, or procedure (in other words, a placebo), accompanied by the expectation of effectiveness, can result in pain relief, then surely any therapy–no matter how bizarre–that we consider credible enough to seek out (and pay for) can also result in pain relief [or give us feelings of control and well-being], compliments of the placebo effect.”12

The effects we may feel from meditation practice then may be largely a sham, a treatment that creates temporary relief and illusion of control.

The Journal of American Medical Association published a landmark meta-study of 47 clinical trials with 3,515 participants on the effects of meditation. The researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore concluded that meditation treatments were not better than drugs or exercise. (Read my post Meditation Not Better than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds). “The studies overall failed to show much benefit from meditation with regard to relief of suffering or improvement in overall health, with the important exception that mindfulness meditation provided a small but possibly meaningful degree of relief from psychological distress,” wrote Allan H. Goroll, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts General Hospital.

A wish for you

In summary, meditation techniques may act as a sham or fake (placebo) treatment for ailments and give an illusion of control. Whether any person is ever able to be completely self-aware, self-controlled, and selfless is debatable. The false promises of personal mastery and magical cures from charlatans is something everyone needs to guard against by using critical thinking.

If you suffer, are in pain, or feel powerless; if the meditation techniques you practice help, then, I am happy for you. Or, if you discovered that meditation techniques didn’t ultimately help, like I did, then I hope you find an effective treatment or another placebo. Understanding that illusions or placebos may have benefits also means there are countless ways you could improve your situation and get a sense of control over your life.

Notes

1 The seed idea about the illusion of control was gleaned from James A. Lindsay’s, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79

2 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) p. 225

3 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79

4 Quoted from “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_Sutras_of_Patanjali

5 See “Samadhi”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samadhi

6 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79

7 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) pp. 101-102

8 This quotation of Timothy Wilson is from On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not by Robert A Burton, M.D. (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2008) p146

9 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) p. 102

10 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 80

11 See “Definition of Placebo Effect”, MedicineNet.com, http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=31481

12 R. Barker Bausell, Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007) p. 256

Selfless Realization from Meditation?

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Meditation techniques are often used to negate the self.

Assuming the “self” is a product of the human mind, and with the idea of self as limited or false, Hindus and Buddhists created mental methods to transcend or reverse this faulty self-identity1.

What is meant by self-identity is who and what one thinks one is. It is the pillar of one’s personality2.

Traditional Eastern Hindus and Buddhists often used techniques to deconstruct self-identity.

Hindu-inspired meditation movements treat self as delusion.

The ultimate aim in Hindu meditation is transcending the self. The self is to be sacrificed for a so-called Higher Self.

Buddhist-inspired practitioner’s try to perceive the self as illusion.

The ultimate aim for the Buddhist is destruction of the self. That is, the ideal is annihilation of self-concept that supposedly is the cause of one’s suffering.

Read my post about the Contradictions with Samadhi 

What many Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired meditation techniques have in common is that they involve negating thought to transcend thought.

Whether one can actually transcend or negate thought may be debatable. But these mental methods, that some claim are beneficial, even miraculous, contain contradictions and warnings.

Selflessness contains contradictions, including:

  • Self-identity is deconstructed and then built up using a guru’s or a group’s beliefs and worldviews;
  • One’s feelings are given more importance than thought. Negating thoughts may prevent the use of critical thinking which could protect one from unnecessary suggestibility and gullibility.
  • Valuing selflessness and denying selfishness is itself “self-centered”. Humans all are out for self-interest.

We may never know if negation of self is possible. Heck, scientists, philosophers, poets, and mystics have been debating for millennia what “self” may be. We may have many selves. Here we defined self-identity as what makes up one’s personality and sense of who and what one is at any given moment.

My decades of practice with meditation techniques demonstrated to me that thoughts are never actually transcended nor negated. The desire to permanently attain a selfless or thoughtless state of enlightenment seems to me to be a delusion, one that many gurus and groups use to lure and keep followers.

I have had many experiences in and out of sitting meditation where I felt like I was floating above my self, was bursting with love, or was one with everything. Most of these experiences occurred randomly outside of sitting meditation without any effort on my part3. Even while writing this I find that by simply thinking or imaging something intently I can experience overwhelming emotions well up from within. So-called self-transcendent experiences may occur often and may be ordinary to many people. Perhaps they are so ordinary we frequently discount them.

“Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water” a Zen monk supposedly told his students.

Can people transcend self using mental techniques that negate one’s thoughts? Might some gurus and groups distort people’s perceptions of the themselves to take advantage of them?

Notes

The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books: Berkeley, CA, 1993, p. 101

2 ibid, p. 103

3 These so-called transcendent or mystical experiences that I have had I have interpreted in various ways at different times throughout my life. While I was fervent religious believer, I interpreted these experiences as supernatural, as a gift from god or guru. After I learned to think more critically, I have interpreted my past and present “mystical” experiences as natural, as part of being human. Just because there may not be a definitive explanation for self-transcending experiences does not give us license to say we know they have some extraordinary or supernatural cause.

Problems with Beliefs & Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Groups

meditation group Hindu yoga
premasagar, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

A 20 year insider investigates the worldviews and practices of Hindu-inspired meditation movements.

In Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (2010, New York University Press) Lola Williamson explores the worldviews, mystical experiences, and guru-disciple relationships of Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs) and examines three famous gurus and the organizations they founded: Self-Realization Fellowship of Paramahansa Yogananda, Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Maheshi Yogi, and Siddha Yoga Dham Associates of Swami Muktananda.

She interviews followers of these organizations who have 20+ years of tutelage under these famous gurus. These three organizations combine Hinduism with Western values that form a hybrid, new religion that Williamson calls HIMMs[1].

Williamson, at the time she began writing this book, had participated for 21 years in Siddha Yoga and saw herself as a devout disciple of Gurumayi, the guru-successor of that movement. Before that Williamson was involved for 10 years in teacher trainings with Maharishi in Transcendental Meditation.

As Williamson investigated these movements to write this book she learned of disturbing accounts of abuses and organizational dysfunctions that were endemic to many of these groups[2].

She and many followers of HIMMs felt it was necessary to distance themselves from rumors of scandals and negativity that was reported by persons who left the ashrams and the organizations.

In 2005, Williamson abandoned this book project and quit Siddha Yoga because of the “cult-like atmosphere pervaded by many of the movements”.

In 2007, she resumed writing of this book that offers a unique perspective on HIMMs from both inside and outside.

Two perspectives, insider and outsider, reveal bits of reality in different ways, like the lame man riding on the shoulders of the blind man[3].

Williamson, as an insider understands the “heart” of the tradition and what makes the HIMM faith attractive to its followers. Outsiders, on the other hand, like Williamson [and myself included], may provide a different perspective and a willingness to examine and critique abuses.

“I also realized that some people use Hindu-style meditation and the philosophy accompanying it to escape from facing hard truths about themselves or about people and events around them”- Williamson [For example, see my post Abandoning Family for a Guru]

This post is the first in a series that will summarize Lola Williamson’s book, Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Movements as New Religion

Beliefs and Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements

Paraphrasing from Transcendent In America here are some of the beliefs and practices common to HIMMs:

1. Strong commitment to meditation as a means to attaining inner peace, and ultimately, to attaining a state of consciousness described by practitioners variously as liberation, enlightenment, or unity consciousness;

2. Belief that the guru of the movement has attained this state of liberation and serves as their guide;

3. Initiation into a deep, personal relationship with the guru, who is the center of charismatic authority;

4. Each HIMM sees itself as a sort of “family” centered on the guru;

5. Share common beliefs such as karma (natural law of retribution) and reincarnation and the ideal of “enlightenment”;

6. Share common lifestyle; purity is necessary for attaining enlightenment and adherence to dietary restrictions, most are vegetarians and try to avoid stressful situations or “negative” thinking;

7. Seek a balanced life that combines self-effort with a sense of ease, often limiting exposure to popular “worldly” culture or entertainments often viewed as not helpful to spiritual evolution;

8. Belief that self-reflection aids spiritual growth, may include introspection, psychotherapy, or participation in human potential groups;

9. Share common rituals (eg. chanting, meditation), myths (eg. ascending chakras in an astral spine service as a ladder up to samadhi, awakening of kundalini or serpent energy), and metaphors (eg. yoking the five senses to the “chariot” of yoga meditation–an allegory from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture);

10. Conceive of HIMM practices and beliefs as more than or greater than “religion”, that it’s a universal, spiritual approach to life available to anyone irrespective of faith tradition.

The are several problems, says Williamson, with this interwoven system of meaning used by people who participate HIMMs.

Problems with Beliefs & Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements

According to Williamson, there are several problems with the beliefs and practices of HIMMs, including:

HIMMs do not adhere to “universal” beliefs nor practices

A. First, the notion that the beliefs and practices of HIMMs are universal actually disregards the fact that many religious practitioners do not believe that “God” dwells within a human being or that union with God is possible or even desirable.

B. The notion that differences in religions can be transcended if everyone where to experience unity consciousness is a particular dogma or belief system of HIMMs, even if it arises out of personal experiences.

C. Essentially, followers and gurus of HIMMs are asserting that unity among religions would be possible if everyone accepted the HIMM worldview or practiced the HIMM forms of meditation.

HIMMs adhere to dogmatic beliefs and ritualized practices, like other religions

D. HIMMs compare the inner depth of their religious system to the outer expressions of others. To outsiders, though, that observe HIMMs, the particular rituals, practices, and dogma appear as forms like any other religion, for only the external can be observed.

E. Rituals most valued by HIMMs center on practices of meditation and initiation into its methods. Traditional Indian Hinduism, like traditional Asian Buddhism [See my post From Monastic to Domestic Mindfulness], reserved the initiations and practices of meditation exclusively for monks and renunciates, not for householders as is touted by HIMMs as a way to recruit people from all walks of life.

Conclusion

Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion questions and discusses, from both insider and outsider perspectives, the problems, beliefs and practices of Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs).

In the above article I summarized and paraphrased what Williamson noted is the system of meaning of people who participate in HIMMs, including: strong commitment to meditation as way to peace and liberation or enlightenment, initiation into a guru-disciple relationship with a charismatic authority, share common beliefs such as karma (retribution), reincarnation, dietary restrictions, and a set of Hindu-inspired but Westernized rituals and myths that are similar externally to any other religion.

Some problems with HIMM’s beliefs and practices, paraphrasing Williamson in Transcendent in America, include: adherence to a dogma that meditation is universal when actually only if other religions believe like HIMMs do that god is within all human beings and that god may be found in their forms of meditation practice. Traditional, Indian Hinduism reserved meditation practice for monastics. HIMMs promote meditation as a necessary and desirable practice for people from all walks of life.

Question for readers: Have you ever considered yourself a participant in a HIMM, as outlined above? Are there other key components (not included in the lists above) that more clearly represent the system of meaning, practices, and beliefs of participants in HIMMs?

Notes

1 In defining HIMMs, Williams says, “There is a qualitative difference between people who have been raised in a tradition in which the rituals, the foods, the prayers, and the ethics are second nature, and people who have incorporated only parts of a tradition into their religious style. This is why I use the term ‘Hindu-inspired’ rather than ‘Hindu’ to describe Transcendental Meditation and similar movements….Western traditions of individualism and rationalism also influence the style and ethos of these movements.” p 4 Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (2010, New York University Press). On p 25 of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009, Penguin Books) Wendy Doniger says, “The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita) were not always so highly regarded by ‘all Hindus’, certainly not before the Euro-Americans began to praise them.”

2 In future posts I intend to explore some of the abuses and dysfunctions of HIMMs as described by Williamson in her book.

3 Adapted from p 34 of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009, Penguin Books) Wendy Doniger

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Critical Biography

buddha serpentWas Patanjali a real person or a half-human, half-snake god? Was the Yoga Sutra a “classical” text? Where have the translations come from?

These and many other questions are explored in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography by David Gordon White professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of several books, including The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India (read my post on it), Kiss of the Yogini, Yoga in Practice, and Sinister Yogis (read my post on it).

Modern Yoga is an amalgam of Occult, New Age, and Christian-Hindu Metaphysics packaged for consumers who may seldom, if ever, examine critically the actual origins of the philosophy and practices of Yoga. (Read my critical posts of Yoga). The Yoga Sutra, like most ancient sacred texts, has little in common with the original version.

yoga sutra of patanjali white-minBelow is my review and commentary on:
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books)
by David Gordon White, Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.

“Big Yoga–the corporate yoga subculture–has elevated the Yoga Sutra to a status it never knew, even during its seventh- to twelfth-century heyday” writes White in his Preface.

Patanjali (first century BCE or fourth century CE) is the name of the mysterious author-compiler of the Yoga Sutra, acclaimed in modern yoga circles. In twelfth century Tamil traditions, Patancali (spelled with a “c”) is the name of a half-man half-snake incarnation of the great serpent-god, Ananta. Later scholars, identified this mythic Tamil Patancali with the Sanskrit Patanjali of the Yoga Sutra. Was the author of the Sutra a human, Patanjali?

What actually is the Yoga Sutra?

Literally, they are 196 obscure stanzas written in Sanskrit. What we read are not the original.

What we actually get in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali are interpretations of commentaries.

“When we speak of the philosophy of Patanjali we really mean (or should mean) is the understanding of Patanjali according to Vyasa [mythic ‘editor’ of the Vedas (1200 BCE) and Mahabharata (400 CE)]: It is Vyasa who determined what Patanjali’s abstruse sutras meant, and all the subsequent commentators elaborated on Vyasa…” says Rutgers University professor Edwin Bryant, a scholar of Hinduism.

Vyasa-min
Vyasa

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is a chronicle of the Yoga Sutra’s principle commentators to-date: including Vyasa, eighteenth century German romantic philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Theosophical Society founder Helena Blavatsky (read my post), first Indian Guru to come to the West Swami Vivekananda (read my post), famous twentieth century yoga teacher Krishnamacharya and others.

White weaves together a narrative of biographies about the chief commentators that crafted what we call the Yoga Sutra.

White concludes his book with Yoga Sutra 2.0, that is, his final chapter on what may be next, along with some “alternative theories” about how the Sutras may have been “hijacked” or co opted by translators or commentators to promote their agendas. He also shares a provocative theory of scholars that the Sutra was originally a Buddhist work that was reinterpreted into a Hindu text.

Critical scholars, like David Gordon White, could grind the Yoga Sutra down into analytical powder for ever, and not be able to provide definitive answers (kind of like biblical scholarship).

Yoga students may find White’s critical biography contradicts Modern Yoga teachers who claim lineage with the original Sutras of Patanjali.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is for ardent students and critical researchers of yoga. Yet, this book is easy to read for the non-technical, non-academic reader with keen interest in yoga. Readers of White’s book may never see The Yoga Sutra as “sacred” or “original” again.