Meditation & Madness
Updated: Jun 20
by Cynthia Crosse
"Go to a 10 day Vipassana retreat," they told me, "it will be wonderful!"
I did. It was the worst 10 days of my life.
Vipassana retreats are silent and involve 11 hours sitting cross legged in meditation each day, beginning 4am. Each evening there is a video of the founder, S.N. Goenka, talking about what you are likely to have experienced during the day. I can tell you what I experienced on my first day … terror! This was accompanied by a deep sense of failure and shame. How could I, who have been meditating on and off for years and involved in all sorts of magickal practice, find this so difficult – I needed to escape and fast.
I tried to in fact, but we were literally chained in at the gate. My chest was constricted, and I could hardly breathe. What did this mean for me whose life had been dedicated to the Great Work? Was I a dammed and lost soul? It certainly felt like it.
In Goenkaji’s discourse, he explained that the first day was analogous to “a surgical operation with the knife going in deeply.” Those are the actual words he uses in these recordings … what the hell did day two have in store?!
A surgical operation with the knife going in deeply
I was only able to complete the excruciating 10 days because I was too scared to know how I would deal with the failure of leaving. I learned later that a woman had committed suicide after one of these retreats. I understand her head space.
Three years on, it’s taken the best part of this time to lose my resistance to meditation.
Looking back over this experience, I conclude that it is entirely irresponsible for people that teach meditation, to not teach about the mental health issues that are an inherent part of it. The same can be said of teachings of magick and mysticism.
These experiences should be anticipated or “framed” in advance. Think how much easier my experience might have been if, at the beginning of the day I had heard:
“You may experience all sorts of extremes of the mind that may cause you to feel you are going mad – relax! These are ‘normal’ experiences and just about everyone in the class will feel the same. You are not alone; you will not go mad; and you will you come out the other side to great benefit.”
In his book “Mastering the core teachings of the Buddha,” Arahat, Dan Ingram, warns of the risks of meditation:
“… not telling practitioners about this territory from the beginning so as to give them a heads up to what might happen is so extremely irresponsible and negligent that I just want to spit and scream at those who perpetuate this warped culture of secrecy.”
“These side effects are no fantasy,” he explains. “When they show up they are as real and powerful as if some dangerous drug had seriously skewed your neurochemistry, and I often wonder if that might be something like what happens. Thus, it seems only fair to have the same standards that we apply with such pronounced zeal and fervent litigation to drug companies and doctors also applied to meditation teachers and dharma books.”
When they show up they are as real and powerful as if some dangerous drug had seriously skewed your neurochemistry
In their 2015 book, “The Buddha Pill: Can meditation change you?” Oxford psychologists Dr Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm devote an entire chapter to “The Dark Side of Meditation” claiming that up to 7% of people can suffer profoundly adverse affects including more experienced meditators.
Examining half a century of clinical studies, the researchers warn consumers not to swallow the hyperbole about meditation. The writers want people who use the techniques to be prepared properly for the positive and negative thoughts that may arise.
“Meditation wasn’t designed to make us happier or more relaxed,” says Dr Wikholm. “So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if negative issues do come up… It doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile, but there is a need to increase awareness that meditation and mindfulness may not be the smooth ride that media stories about it might suggest.”
A key concern of the writers is the lack of regulation for teachers of mindfulness and meditation. Invariably, teachers lack mental health experience and are unable to deal with issues as they arise.
In his book, A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield speaks of the need to put the brakes on when the going gets tough.
“At times in intensive spiritual practice,” he says “or in extreme or accidental circumstances, powerful altered states and energetic processes can open too rapidly for us to work with them skillfully. At these times, the degree of energy, the power of the experiences, or the level of release goes beyond our capacity to handle or hold it in a balanced or wise way. With a teacher and within ourselves, we must be able to acknowledge these limits and have the compassion to respond to them wisely. At this point, we must then find a way to slow down the process, to ground ourselves, to put on the brake.”
Jack uses a wonderful example of a young karate student who over-zealously sat down to meditate for an entire day and night. “If one does this long enough,” says Kornfrield, “the pain and fire become so powerful that consciousness becomes disassociated and catapulted out of the body.”
When the lad arose after 24 hours of meditating he strode into the filled dining room “and began to yell and practice his karate maneuvers at triple speed.” The retreat managers stopped him from meditating, got him working in the garden and jogging and he was fine within a few days.
Understanding that these feelings of extreme mental discomfort are not unusual steps in the path to exaltation makes me feel a whole lot better about my own situation. We punish ourselves terribly when things don’t go the way we think they should. So, the sooner we understand that mental health is a continuum upon which we may slide at various times in our practice, the sooner we can let go of our self-stigma.
In “The Dark Side of Being Full of Light” writer Robin Lee says:
The process of being led to the light, of waking up as so many of us like to say, is not simply [about] becoming more luminous. I’d love to see that idea detonate. It is also the process of getting very intimate with the dark, ravenous, insatiable heaviness inside of you.
The more we practice, the more we realize that the more we let the light in, the more the darkness will arrive, exist, and grow to bring contrast. Denying it causes a lot of mania.
When we continually push it away, judge it, or believe it to not be aligned with our path (often read: who we think we are) it only grows in power and presence.… What happens when we ignore the parts of us that we are afraid to look at, is that we become slaves to that master. .. It grows and grows, and becomes fear, guilt, shame, terror, anxiety. The pangs of which you may not wish on your worst enemy.
As I drove the three hour journey towards my most recent retreat, just a week ago, for the entire drive I wavered between a sense of solidity and clarity versus anxiety and psychosis. As I have come to expect now, there is a general “disturbance in the matrix” that happens prior to getting close to the edge of it. The sure footing of everything that I have known to be “normal” starts to fall away as I begin to perceive the world differently.
I think this is the “circulato” process that Daniel Gunther describes in “The Angel & The Abyss” when he writes about the alchemical process called the Vas Pellicanicum. He explains that matter is unsettled before it is distilled and condensed again causing the primary matter to evolve to a higher state. With each circle of distillation, impurities are removed from the original material until a more rarified essence is obtained and the point of exaltation is reached.
“The practicing Magician performs this same type of circulation through all the aspects of the psyche. Again and again, weak spots in the armour are confronted; the purifications, Banishing and Consecrations are repeatedly performed. In this three-fold process, we cleanse and clarify, and rededicate ourselves to the Great Work. This must be done continually…” he says.
In Initiation in the Aeon of the child, Gunther describes our preference for the symbols of light as a chief characteristic of the Aeon of Osiris.
“The formula of LVX … although efficacious, represents an incomplete perception of the universe. … Analytical psychology has taught us that the dark aspects of the human psyche cannot be ignored without danger – for a gross imbalance invites the intrusion of adverse elements - threatening to practice Magick and ignore this counsel is flirting with disaster.”
They really don’t give a fuck, because they recognize that darkness is part of being human.
So, let’s not be shocked when our practices lead us to the extremes of the mind - some of which will be extraordinary – some of which will be extraordinarily painful. It is this acceptance of all aspects of the self that, in my mind, makes Thelema cool. It seems that Lee is describing “thelemites” when she says:
“You can sort of sense it, when you meet someone authentic. They’re tapped into this. They’re unafraid of being a hot mess. Of being too much. Of having a vulnerability hangover. They really don’t give a fuck, because they recognize that darkness is part of being human, and they are okay with baring their humanity to the world.”
Dr Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm (2015). The Buddha Pill: Can meditation change you? London: Watkins Publishing.
J. Daniel Gunther (2009). Initiation in the Aeon of the Child. Florida: Ibis Press.
J. Daniel Gunther (2014). The Angel & The Abyss. Florida: Ibis Press.
Daniel M. Ingram (2008). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. London: Aeon Books.
Jack Kornfield (1993). A Path with Heart. USA: Bantam Books.
Robin Lee (Dec 10, 2015). The Dark Side Of Being Full Of Light. Robin Lee, http://www.rebellesociety.com/2015/12/10/robinlee-darksideoflight/