Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Dangers of Meditation

I rarely hear people mention that there are dangers associated with meditation and spirituality in general, but I have come to the conclusion that there are genuine risks associated with spiritual practice. I don't want to blow them up beyond their importance, but I think that it is important to know that they exist.

I've come to this conclusion partly from observing others directly, partly from reading on the subject and partly from self-observation.

Over the years, I've watched some pretty wild psycho-dramas unfold amongst people who are engaged in spiritual practices. One of the most bizarre involved a conflict between a Daoist priest and martial arts instructor that eventually resulted in an official complaint complaint being lodged with the police about "grand theft temple treasure"----for a framed poster that you can buy in China town for ten bucks. (I'm sure there were amusing anecdotes told in the coffee room of the police station.) In a more serious vein, many are the tales of broken hearts from the sexual misconduct of North American Buddhist teachers, at least one of which became a fairly well-known book: Shoes Outside the Door.

On a more serious note, I've noticed a couple folks who went "over the deep end" while obsessing about religion. I suspect that these folks had problems that existed long before they became involved in spiritual practice, but contrary to what some people might think, spirituality seems to have not only not helped these folks, it may have helped induce the madness that descended upon them. One person I know, for example, was very religious and went to the point of living in a Catholic intentional community. She had to give all of that up though, as it became clear to both her and her therapists that the schizophrenia she began to manifest was tied to religious symbolism. (She related to me a memory of being in a mental hospital, tied up in a straight jacket, while nurses and porters held her down so a doctor could inject her with sedatives. At the time, she said she was convinced that she was Jesus Christ.) Heavily medicated, she now avoids any sort of religious involvement like the plague.

My personal experience is that any insights I have gained from the practice of meditation and contemplation have been paid for by the development of a strongly introspective character that isolates me from other people. Lately this separation was brought home to me when I took an acquaintance out to the local farmer's market. She was totally enthralled with every vendor and asked for free samples from each and everyone. All I could think about was the fact that every free sample came with a disposable plastic cup or spoon that was instantly tossed into the trash. Moreover, I noticed that she was totally oblivious to this---to me---obvious problem.

I wouldn't trade the insights and sensitivity that I have gained from the practice of Neidan, but it does come at the price of losing one's ability to totally lose oneself in the sorts of child-like pleasures of ordinary people. The problem isn't so much that I can no longer get involved in things and enjoy myself, its just that those things that I do enjoy are rarely the same things that the general public does, and vice versa. This creates a barrier between the introspective spiritual seeker and his neighbours. Of course, this phenomenon explains the tendency of spiritual seekers to become hermits,recluses, anchorites and monastics.

In a way, these issues are pretty much the same as those experienced by anyone who decides to live a "counter cultural" existence. Many of us know people who "dropped out" from mainstream society and in return mainstream society dropped onto them like an anvil. Most of this comes down to the fact that society "protects its own" and people who "follow the rules" tend to have a support system to help them get over the rough spots. I once had a high-school friend explain this to me by saying "If you just do what THEY want, life can be pretty sweet."

But once you decide to make your own rules, you have to assume more responsibility for your life.

Consider, if you will, someone who decides to be self-employed instead of working for a large business. It becomes the individual's responsibility to line up customers, deal with suppliers, find some way of dealing with downtime due to sickness, etc. In contrast, people who work in a large, unionized business only have to think about what would happen if they get laid off.

Take this one step further and try to live without the discipline of either customers or bosses (which amount to much the same thing), and you end up living an economic carnival ride. I have an acquaintance who did this sort of thing for years until he ended up at an advanced age spending a Canadian winter in an uninsulated summer trailor with nothing more to eat than half-rotten pumpkins. (He escaped that scenario by giving up his confirmed bachelorhood to get married to a woman of financial means.) Many folks following the same path end up in much worse straights---they live on the streets of our cities. Indeed, there is a very popular book and movie titled "Into the Wild" that chronicles the way the wilderness killed a young man who attempted to drop out of society and live as a wilderness hermit.

In its way, anyone who treads the path of internal alchemy---taijiquan, "sitting and forgetting", etc---is even more of a rebel than the counter-cultural type who tries to live without "the man" breathing down his neck. That is because he is casting a critical eye towards the way his mind operates and the deepest level of assumptions that govern his life.

And once you start to look deeply into how the mind operates, and seriously question all of our assumptions, we can end up falling down Alice's rabbit hole.

I've mentioned above about how several North American Buddhist teachers have been involved sexually with their students. This makes sense once you realize that a large part of what both teacher and student are doing is trying free themselves from their socially constructed sense of self through intense self-analysis. Becoming in tune with the "Buddha mind" and "seeing the face you presented before you were born" leaves the rules pounded into your head by the school nuns behind you. At that point, "there are no rules', and it is hardly surprising that this has tempted a lot of people into infidelity.

Oddly enough, the opposite result can also occur. If sitting and forgetting can free you of social constraints, the simple practice like "mindfulness" can create a whole new set of problems. If a person really gets into the habit of carefully observing each and every moment of her life, what happens to the joyful and spontaneous things? Sex can become impossible if you develop the habit of being completely aware of everything you do (this probably has something to do with the celibacy that most monastic traditions manifest.) Indeed, if you seek to leave the "animal" behind, it is hardly surprising that our animal instincts disappear.

As a result of learning these lessons, I've come to a few ideas about protection against the problems of spiritual practice. First of all, I don't encourage anyone to meditate, do martial arts, or anything else spiritual unless they have a pretty good grounding to their life. A steady job, a normal place to live, regular work habits, etc, are pretty good indications that someone is not going to go off the deep end. Secondly, if you do follow the path, it is really important to use routine and conventionality as "anchors" to keep you from flying off into the wild blue yonder. There is a reason why monastic institutions have such a love of order and ritual---it helps keep the number of monks who go crazy down to a bare minimum.

Ultimately, however, "yah pays your money, yah takes your chances". Society is quickly going to Hell in a handbasket and lots of conventional people live lives of total lunacy. People who pursue a spiritual path are adventurers seeking a better life, and anything worth having requires taking risks. Just don't forget that lots of adventurers end up freezing, starving or being eaten by cogars.

So be careful!

18 comments:

Lirone said...

Thanks for writing about this topic... so rarely talked about and yet it's so important for people to be aware of how things can go wrong. It's not enough to be well-balanced beforehand - if the practices are applied wrongly it can upset even someone who starts out balanced.

When you're being encouraged to challenge the boundaries of your self, it's not easy to distinguish between a level of challenge that pushes the boundary of your comfort zone and challenge that pushes you to a level from which it's hard to recover unscarred. It takes a really good teacher to get the challenge right for each student... and yet unless you're aware of this as an issue, it's hard to choose wisely!

The other consequence of not discussing this is that people for whom it does go wrong can feel really excluded from the community that once supported them.

I say this, because I once did a lot of buddhist meditation, culminating in a 3 month silent retreat - that eventually led me into a depression that affected me for years. My teacher should never have let me onto the retreat, still less encouraged me to take part. Perhaps ironically, it utterly destroyed my ability to do meditation or be comfortable in silence for several years afterwards - and even now I have to fight a deep fear of meditation to do even a simple breathing awareness.

One of the hardest aspects was not being able to explain to others what had happened to me - ordinary people didn't understand what I was doing on the retreat in the first place, my former sangha couldn't conceive of the idea that meditation could do harm. So I was cut off from almost all support at just the time I needed it most.

Knowing what I know, it's worrying to see how many vulnerable people are following the guidance of teachers who don't know what they're taking on. And it worries me particularly to know that this dark side to meditation is so rarely discussed. I hope nobody else goes through what I have been through... but I fear that it's happening all the time.

Bill Hulet said...

Thanks for your comments, they certainly augment my post.

One point that I probably should have talked about is the relationship between a teacher and a student. IMHO, there are far too many teachers who either encourage or at least do nothing to discourage a really slavish attitude towards teachers by students.

This is dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.

Not only because it leaves her open to sexual, financial and other forms of exploitation, but because it means that the student is a lot less likely to disengage from some sort of practice that is causing her problems than she would have if the teacher was trying to build up her self-confidence and autonomy.

Rengajim said...

This is a topic that needs more discussion. I taught meditation for many years, decades in fact. I taught both in institutional settings, such as Temples and Prisons, and to individuals on a one on one basis. One thing I was always clear about is that the ability to meditate does not in itself lead to insight or skillfullness into other people's problems. I look at meditation as similar to gardening, or musicianship. Simply because someone is an excellent gardener does not mean that they will be able to offer coherent advice on other matters; the same applies to being a music teacher or a teacher of baking.

Because westerners are, for the most part, unfamiliar with meditation I think they tend to exaggerate the extent of its domain. Or they simply misunderstand what meditation means. The result is that the meditation teacher is often pushed into becoming a kind of therapist, or a confessor, or a substitute parent. If one comprehends meditation as a craft, like pottery or baking, one's relationship to the teacher becomes more realistic.

Best wishes,

Jim Wilson

Moon Dog said...

This is a great blog!

jessaka said...

Great blog. I started my own blog on this subject. It certainly needs to be talked about. Most people are under the impression that meditation only leads to peacefulness.

jessaka said...

I am sending this to you, so you can read my own blog. Let me know what you think if you wish too. Your blog is great by the way:

http://jessaka-downthecrookedpath.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

Meditiation also depends on the nature of the "tools" that the teacher has provided. Interpretation is an area where a teacher can introduce their own fallacy, or their own experience that may have no revelance to another's frame of reference. Find a credible teacher is first rule of thumb. The YMCA style probably doesn't qualify.

Anonymous said...

Well put.. wish I would have read it a few years ago. Meditation was wonderful at first, but coupled with the onset of social anxiety and pot smoking, I spiraled way, way down. And meditation was the only thing I thought I needed to "fix" myself. The more things I became aware of in the present moment, the more things I had anxiety about: walking, talking, blinking, any body movement, actually thinking... Becoming acutely aware of these things was devastating when coupled with an intense social anxiety.
I read a headline today that was about believing anything you read, at least for the moment. I think ( from my experience) that the spirituality books can kinda suck you in, a cure-all. Almost four years later, I am just now getting myself together. If I had to go thru it all again, I wouldn't. -D.F.

Dylan said...

I wish there was more support on recovering from the devastation that meditation can incur. Lorin Roche has a pretty neat website. However, I think the hardest part is having to let go of meditation after, in the beginning, is seemed to make life what you always thought it had the potential to be. Again, I had to struggle for so long just to be comfortable with make words come out of my mouth, and how to feel like "I" was still intact, when it really wasn't. If anyone reads this, maybe having gone thru this, or struggling with this, please email me, it's a dreadful thing to have to go thru and I'll try my best to give you some feedback on how to "get back to normal." dylan.ford@gmail.com

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Dylan:

Don't take this the wrong way, but I don't really know who you are and what credentials you have to be advising other people. I've left your email address, but I want to warn anyone who reads my blog that I do not know or endorse any advice you may be offering---.

Anonymous said...

This is a great Blog, you hit the nail on the head, and this is something people should learn more about.
I went through a whole list of problems that resulted from meditation, and there isn't like a manual to tell you how to get back from crazy, false enlightenment mode, i did, but it took like 3 years, and i wonder about how many other people it happened to, that couldn't or didn't will themself back.
seriously, this issue should be made more available to the general public.

Jesse said...

This is rather late but I was quite caught by your comment about plastic cups at a farmer's market.

"...but it does come at the price of losing one's ability to totally lose oneself in the sorts of child-like pleasures of ordinary people."

I wanted to disagree, because although I often have the experience of being unable to enjoy things which others enjoy, like taking samples which encourage waste, I think that there are pleasures which can be childlike without setting off those alarms. For me swing dancing is like that. So is a really good conversation. There are moments when you forget yourself, let yourself fall into the thoughts of others. For me, as an analytically focused person, those experiences are what I would call childlike happiness. Not the intellectual pleasure of solving a difficult problem, but the spontaneous unalylized sort that occurs when you stop thinking and dance.

Anonymous said...

I would like to share my own experience with meditation practice.

At first, when I went on meditation retreats, I would experience tremendous feelings of rapture, delight and euphoria.

After a few retreats, I started to practice meditation at home and study buddhist texts. I had finally found meaning and purpose in my life.

But then things took a very negative turn. I started to experience intense manic/depressive modes that were triggered by my meditation practice. I had never had any serious mental illness prior to practicing meditation. I am in my 40s.

Over the last few years I have had to be hospitalized on several occasions for psychotic episodes during my manic phases. These manic episodes were then followed by bipolar depression where I became suicidally depressed for months at a time.

Somehow the states of deep concentration I entered altered my brain chemistry.

I currently live in Thailand. I am under the treatment of a Thai psychiatrist here.

He has communicated to me the fact that over his years of practice he has treated many Thai patients including monks and nuns who have suffered hallucinations and other psychotic episodes as a result of intensive meditation practice.

Unfortunately, in the West, there is no discussion regarding the dangers of meditation practice.

While I do believe that mindfulness practice (dry insight) can benefit many people I am wary of recommending intensive concentration practice to anyone.

Anonymous said...

I would like to share my own experience with meditation practice.

At first, when I went on meditation retreats, I would experience tremendous feelings of rapture, delight and euphoria.

After a few retreats, I started to practice meditation at home and study buddhist texts. I had finally found meaning and purpose in my life.

But then things took a very negative turn. I started to experience intense manic/depressive modes that were triggered by my meditation practice. I had never had any serious mental illness prior to practicing meditation. I am in my 40s.

Over the last few years I have had to be hospitalized on several occasions for psychotic episodes during my manic phases. These manic episodes were then followed by bipolar depression where I became suicidally depressed for months at a time.

Somehow the states of deep concentration I entered altered my brain chemistry.

I currently live in Thailand. I am under the treatment of a Thai psychiatrist here.

He has communicated to me the fact that over his years of practice he has treated many Thai patients including monks and nuns who have suffered hallucinations and other psychotic episodes as a result of intensive meditation practice.

Unfortunately, in the West, there is no discussion regarding the dangers of meditation practice.

While I do believe that mindfulness practice (dry insight) can benefit many people I am wary of recommending intensive concentration practice to anyone.

Anonymous said...

Hey there! great blog.

My experience with meditation is a dilution of willpower. Meditation when practised left me floating like a cloud in my head and when scary thoughts emerged I couldnt muster enough resolution to ignore them.

The thoughts gradually became more prominent in my mind until I was literally living in a nightmare and I nearly did terrible things.

In the end, I summoned whatever courage was left and thought to gain control over these thoughts.
I came to realise courage is the true solution and the shortcut to life's problems

Anonymous said...

May I suggest you all read Cults in our Midst by Margaret Singer. Is is unbelievably interesting. I believe in enlightenment, etc. however there are many many out there that are taking advantage of people who want to be 'free or at peace' and take their money, and worse, their soul by simple practices shown in the book above.. including over meditation, exhaustion and more. Please people be very careful who you trust with your soul!

Anonymous said...

i think you people were/are mentally ill long before you even thought about meditation. your "western" lifestyle is the cause.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Anonymous:

I do suspect that the culture someone comes from is relevant. But I also suspect that older cultures---because they were less open---were very adept at sweeping problems under the carpet.