paradoxes of eastern enlightenment

Paradoxes of Eastern Enlightenment

The teachings and techniques of enlightened masters contain many paradoxes or contradictions of Eastern enlightenment. For instance:

Paradoxes of Eastern Enlightenment — contradictions:

“Be desireless.” — Desire to be desireless. Desiring to be desireless is desire.

“Be non-attached.” — Attach to be non-attached. Attaching to enlightened1 masters, techniques and practices is attachment.

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Be humble”. — When the disciple tries to be humble, she is not because trying to be humble (seeking some kind of personal reward or accumulating merit) is contradictory to the ideal of humility.

“Be selfless”. — Self-absorb to be selfless. Absorbing oneself “within” or practicing meditation techniques is being self-absorbed. Seeking to gain enlightenment or spiritual advancement is self-centered, self-absorbed. Labeling goals or techniques (e.g. meditation) as “spiritual” doesn’t somehow make them selfless (remove self seeking, desire for gain, etc.)

“The enlightened master is selfless (egoless).” — The master lives lavishly (e.g. drives cadillacs, lives in expensive apartments, and has many servants). How would master (or students) know the master doesn’t harbor unconscious (hidden) selfish desires or motives?2

“The master’s (God’s) love is unconditional.” — “If you leave (stop following) him you will be lost (damned) for seven lifetimes, eternity, or go to hell/be lost in delusion (maya).”

“The enlightened master is ‘One’ (united) with everything.” Or, “The One is the many.” — If the master and everything is One (united) how is any individual part superior or inferior than any other?

“Seek your higher Self (or God) by following the enlightened master’s teaching and techniques.” — Seeking enlightenment or God is instilled in you from an external authority (a teacher or tradition). An external authority, not yourself, along with that authority’s particular teachings and techniques are required to validate yourself, your thoughts, feelings and experiences.

paradoxes of eastern enlightenment
Enlightenment by Marketa, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Failure to question paradox undermines reason

Most disciples learn to gloss over (think nothing of) the paradoxes or contradictions in the Eastern enlightened traditions or teachings. Students assume the authority of an enlightened master is perfect or infallible. Followers seldom, if ever, question the paradoxes and contradictions within their own particular master’s teachings or tradition.

It is fairly easy for disciples to find fault and contradictions in other outside teachings or techniques.3 Yet, seekers after enlightenment fail to use the same outsider scrutiny and skepticism towards their particular master, authority, or tradition. Failing to question paradoxes and logical contradictions in one’s own path undermines reason and suppresses analytical thinking.

Response from master or disciple — What they are really saying:

The enlightened masters (and their students) will often pooh-pooh (dismiss lightly or contemptuously) anyone who points out the problems with their paradoxes by responding:

“You cannot possibly understand from your limited human consciousness.” — The implication is only an enlightened master or advanced student can really know (because the paradox is beyond reason). You just have to trust the authority of the master or tradition.

“If you were enlightened, you would see my master/teacher/guru is enlightened and his teaching/tradition is infallible, perfect.” — It’s your ego or intellect that is getting in the way of your understanding and believing in the master, teaching, or tradition. If you entertain doubts or uncertainty you need to meditate or practice more, or surrender and have faith, and it will all work out in the end because you can trust the authority who is perfect and understands you better than you understand yourself.

“Your ego (intellect) is preventing you from knowing the Truth (master, god, or ultimate reality)”. — Anyone who has not attained superconsciousness or who is superior (enlightened or fully illuminated) must surrender to the claims. Even though it requires lesser mortals to take the claims on hearsay (second-hand) from the supposed authority of the master or tradition who claims first-hand experience or superior knowledge.

Paradox invoked to end inquiry

Paradoxes are invoked to end inquiry. Used to undermine reason, paradox lends itself to psychological manipulation4. Reason has its limits. But degrading reasoning–and reifying certain feelings and intuitions–is an assault on student’s thinking for themselves. Integrating reason and emotion are requirements for self-trust and for interpreting personal, first-hand experience.5

Paradoxes are invoked to confuse, undermine reason, and to manipulate followers:

Confuse, disorient — Paradoxes are designed to confuse and disorient followers, to dismantle critical, analytical thinking. Indeed, some students may have “breakthroughs” from past patterns of thinking. However, the credit for “good” experiences is given to the master or his teachings. While the blame for “bad” is attributed to failings of the student.6

Manipulate, control — The contradictions and paradoxes are positioned as descriptions of ultimate reality. If students don’t experience the “reality” described then it is purported to be the failings of the student, not the teacher or tradition.

Invoke surrender, obedience to authority —  After getting confused it is fairly easy for student to be manipulated and to follow the prescribed “path” as laid out by the authority, tradition, or group. Disciples seek comfort in the promises and certainty of the authoritative and charismatic teacher, teaching, or tradition. It’s fairly easy then to surrender for gain of the promised for happiness, love, or enlightenment that supposedly result from obeying and following the teaching and techniques as laid out by the external authority.

Question enlightenment and its paradoxes

Seeking to be desireless is desire, to be selfless is self-absorbed, and to be non-attached is attachment to subtle, “spiritualized” desires and attachments.

Disciples who fail to question the paradoxes are convinced the authority, teacher, or teaching is perfect, infallible. When anyone points out contradictions or paradoxes with the authority, teacher, or tradition responses often include: “You cannot understand from your limited human consciousness.” Paradoxes are used to undermine reason.

Reason has limits. But degrading reasoning–as inferior to feeling or obeying authority–is an assault on follower’s thinking and feeling for themselves. It undermines self-trust. It fills followers with mistrust of self, reason, and personal experience. The integration of reason and emotion are necessary for self-trust and to interpret one’s own first-hand experience. Paradoxes are used to undermine self-trust.

In Eastern enlightenment tradition finding fault with oneself, blaming failings on self (ego) is often used to manipulate and control followers. It fills followers with self-doubt and fear of self while handing over responsibility to external authority. The Eastern tradition of enlightenment, based on the master-disciple relationship, without integration of reasoning and feeling and development of analytical thinking, is infantile and immature.

A mature approach (integrating reason and feeling) is to acknowledge your personal, first-hand experience–as you see it–not as some external authority tells you you should. On the path of Eastern enlightenment it is the external authority that defines the path, the goal and the reality. Follow foremost your reasoning and feeling, not some external authority. We grow by taking responsibility for our thoughts and feelings, not by surrendering them to some external authority who claims to know what is best for us.

What do you think of the paradoxes or contradictions of Eastern enlightenment traditions? Share your comments below.

Photo Credit: Feature photo Quanyin sculpture by Dean Hochman, Flickr CC BY 2.0
NOTES

1 In this post by “enlightened” we mean some purported state of superconsciousness or attainment of a supposed superior, higher, or supernatural state of awareness, sometimes called Nirvana, Samadhi, Satori depending on tradition.

2 “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.” Read Masters, frauds, and the uncontrollable self in my post Meditation techniques offer illusion of control.

3 John Loftus makes a convincing case that believers are willing to honestly apply the outsider test but fail to see the irrationality of their own tradition or spiritual authority. Google “outsider test” or see Loftus’ book The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True.

4 “The Eastern view of enlightenment as beyond reason allows gurus to undermine reason.” “Paradox lends itself easily to mental manipulation.” See Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power.

5 For story of former monk, Ernest, undermining of self-trust, read my post Double Bind of Eastern Enlightenment.

6 For examples of finding fault with yourself, not with teacher, teaching, or tradition, read my post Double Bind of Eastern Enlightenment.

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.

loyalty in cult family

Loyalty in cult-family

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

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

Skinhead promise of paradise

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

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

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

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

Did Skinheads deliver on their promise?

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

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

Amish in tradition and fear

A former Amish man testified on camera[4]:

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

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

“Loyal” gods in Self-Realization Fellowship Order

My story.

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

Did SRF and Yogananda deliver on their promises?

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

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

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

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

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

Loyalty in cult-family

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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 devalues thought

How Meditation Devalues Thought, Thinking, Acting

Techniques for quieting the mind can be valuable. But valuing silence or stilling thought as superior devalues thought, thinking, and acting. Here are some other ways to find similar benefits to meditation techniques.

Commenter: I’m interested in hearing of other ways to find similar benefits to yoga and meditation techniques. What other ways can you think of?

SkepticMeditations: Techniques for quieting thought can be valuable: being quiet with yourself, being out in nature, hearing music or bird song, sitting or lying comfortably can help us relax and be more centered, to counter the busyness and distractions of a modern life.

But valuing silence and stilling thought as superior or more valuable than thinking or acting is the problem. It devalues thought, thinking, and acting in the world.

“Who” says certain techniques for stilling or quieting thought are superior? “Who” says withdrawing from the world is superior?

Eastern spiritual authorities promise superior techniques, concepts, and worldviews. The irony is that the thought withdrawing into thoughtlessness (stilling or silencing thought) is a thought, or web of thoughts, embedded in a certain ideology or worldview that claims to be superior.

Techniques for quieting and relaxing can be valuable. Select whatever works best for you. Unicuique suum (Latin: to each their own). Approval from others does not validate your ideas or your technique. Some ways, especially those purportedly superior, could be harmful. What are some other ways to find similar benefits of meditation techniques?

Other ways to find similar benefits of meditation techniques

There are many ways to still thought, to relax, to counter the busyness of modern life. Be quiet with yourself, be out in nature, listen to music or bird song, sit or lay comfortably to relax and be centered. Or, engross yourself in some activity so much that you forget yourself, your thoughts and your distractions. Who says meditation techniques are superior?

Meditation techniques can be helpful. They also can be harmful, especially when embedded in a worldview that values stilling thought (meditation techniques) as superior. This devalues thought, thinking, acting. There are countless other ways to quiet thought, to relax, and to be engrossed in meaningful activities. What benefits you will not be withdrawing from thought, thinking, or acting that is embedded in second-hand testimony from Buddha or any other Eastern or Western spiritual authority.

If you have any thoughts on other ways to “still thought” while valuing thought, please write in the Comments link or in the box “Leave a Reply” at the bottom of this post.