Dangers of Meditation?

Discussion of meditation in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions.
User avatar
Queequeg
Global Moderator
Posts: 4321
Joined: Tue Jul 03, 2012 3:24 pm

Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Queequeg » Fri Jul 07, 2017 6:45 pm

So this article turned up in my FB feed today...

'She didn't know what was real': Did 10-day meditation retreat trigger woman's suicide?

It sounds like this young woman did not have previous experience with meditation before signing up for an intense 10 day Vipassana retreat.

I've often wondered about groups that offer these intense retreats without prerequisites, without requiring some relationship between instructor and student. It seems irresponsible to me to give people a few instructions and then set them out on their mind. I don't know what sort of instructions this center offered, but it does not sound like enough.

Of course, there must also be a consideration of the student and their latent conditions. It is certainly difficult to tell what lies beyond the person presented, but it would seem minimally responsible for the teacher to get to know the student, probe them a little to make sure they were ready for such an intense practice.

Curious to see other's take on this.
“Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
-Henry Miller

"Language is the liquid that we're all dissolved in.
Great for solving problems, after it creates the problems."
-Modest Mouse

"Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world!"
-The Grateful Dead

User avatar
dzogchungpa
Posts: 5617
Joined: Sat May 28, 2011 10:50 pm

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by dzogchungpa » Fri Jul 07, 2017 7:25 pm

If you focus on an object, you are not meditating. - Dudjom Rinpoche

User avatar
Grigoris
Global Moderator
Posts: 15153
Joined: Fri May 14, 2010 9:27 pm
Location: Greece

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Grigoris » Fri Jul 07, 2017 7:37 pm

A friend of mine suffered flashbacks to childhood sexual abuse at a Vipassana retreat, he was a huge guy so they had to let him leave, they couldn't really stop him. There are always mental health risks involved even in the most well planned and "professionally" overseen retreats.

Keep in mind that those who oversee the Vipassana retreats are normally not teachers per se, but people that have completed a number of retreats. The teachings are via audio or video tapes.
"My religion is not deceiving myself."
Jetsun Milarepa 1052-1135 CE

"Butchers, prostitutes, those guilty of the five most heinous crimes, outcasts, the underprivileged: all are utterly the substance of existence and nothing other than total bliss."
The Supreme Source - The Kunjed Gyalpo
The Fundamental Tantra of Dzogchen Semde

User avatar
Vasana
Posts: 1358
Joined: Thu Aug 22, 2013 11:22 am

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Vasana » Fri Jul 07, 2017 8:40 pm

While Megan had anxiety and was taking medication for it[...]
Perhaps there needs to be extra emphasis when retreat leaders teach that underlying mental health issues are important contraindications that warrant a more tailored and gentle approach so that they get the most from it, rather than come out worse.

Maybe meditation in these contexts should be approached in a similar way to certain medicines in that even if just 2 out of a 1000 people report a specific adverse side effect, it has to be listed on the long list of possible side effects even if most people have no such problem. Some people will be unable to watch for their own inner warning signs if they don't know what those red light traffic warnings may be.
"The changing cycle of joy and sorrow, like the changing seasons –
As a time of suffering will surely come around to me,
May I truly practice the sublime teachings."
- Dudjom Rinpoche

User avatar
Queequeg
Global Moderator
Posts: 4321
Joined: Tue Jul 03, 2012 3:24 pm

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Queequeg » Fri Jul 07, 2017 8:59 pm

This article really saddened me.

It sounds like the center where she went was not really prepared for her.

1. It sounds like she was a very sensitive person who probably was already fairly well developed spiritually, and so she might have gone much further more quickly in her meditation practice than the average person might. I can't help but think that a more gradual approach would have been better for her, along with some training in establishing the spiritual architecture to stabilize and understand what she was experiencing.

2. Her parent's reaction was completely understandable. It is the reaction the average prudent person in our society would take - place the person in the mental health system. I can't help but wonder, though, if she had been brought to mental health professionals familiar with meditation that they might have effectively helped her.

May the accumulation of dharmic wisdom in our society quicken so that tragedies like this become a thing of the past.
“Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
-Henry Miller

"Language is the liquid that we're all dissolved in.
Great for solving problems, after it creates the problems."
-Modest Mouse

"Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world!"
-The Grateful Dead

User avatar
odysseus
Posts: 1051
Joined: Tue Apr 17, 2012 11:50 pm
Contact:

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by odysseus » Sat Jul 08, 2017 12:59 am

I suspect these traumas come from something else. The Buddha thought "Right Concentration" and "Right Mindfulness" as part of meditation and he would have not done this if it was not safe. The suffering comes forward in meditation, but if a student gets traumas, it is because of something else. There is a bad vibe involved. Buddhist meditation is totally safe.
Let a man not seek for the respect of his peers, but let him seek wisdom.

-- Dhammapada

User avatar
Johnny Dangerous
Global Moderator
Posts: 7450
Joined: Fri Nov 02, 2012 10:58 pm
Location: Olympia WA
Contact:

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Johnny Dangerous » Sat Jul 08, 2017 1:42 am

IDK, I always thought it was bizarre that they require the Ten day silent retreat before you can do shorter ones, if one was being careful or practical it seems it should be the other way around.

Short of that, I find it weird that they allow long retreats where no actual teacher is present, it seems like a bad recipe.

One of the downsides of a silent retreat with no feedback or audience with a teacher - you could go in some really crazy directions and have no one to pull you back.

Ultimately I suspect though, a case like this similar to a case of allergy that no one knows about, until it's too late.
I can't help but wonder, though, if she had been brought to mental health professionals familiar with meditation that they might have effectively helped her.
Honestly my guess is the answer might be "no" unless they were also Dharma practitioners.
"it must be coming from the mouthy mastermind of raunchy rapper, Johnny Dangerous”

-Jeff H.

User avatar
Adamantine
Former staff member
Posts: 3716
Joined: Tue Feb 08, 2011 7:09 am
Location: Space is the Place

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Adamantine » Sat Jul 08, 2017 5:47 am

It seems like there were a number of support failures involved:
Firstly, the "assistant" teacher for the women, who was assigned to that retreat. She clearly had no idea what to do, and should have contacted the parents instead of having a volunteer watch her meditate when serious imbalances developed. There's a real do-or-die culture in the Goenka Vipassana system that puts too much fixation on just completing the 10 days, like a cookie-cutter-formula, and not any emphasis on the unique needs or presentations of individuals. It's a factory like mentality that is highly institutional. I've been through it and I felt like I was losing my mind at one point around day 3, because the whole culture of doing a group retreat where eye contact is forbidden and you are doing closed-eye-silent sittings for 12 hours minimum a day (equivalent to a sensory deprivation tank) and the only access to human voice or teaching is a mediated video of Goenka (a now dead guy) can be deeply disturbing and dehumanizing for an average human. Every person in there is going through some intense upheaval sooner or later and it literally feels like an asylum at times. In my case it became quite wonderful but it was still very unbalancing even then to leave and try to reintegrate, as it's akin to being still on an acid trip and trying to function at school or a job. It took me a few weeks to begin to feel somewhat myself again. There's no support or real instruction about reintegrating. As one friend put it, it's like your mind is a deck of cards, and the 10-day is like throwing the deck in the air.. and then recollecting the cards but they're all in a different order. Well I'm not surprised that for some the acid trip was a bad trip, and that all the cards don't always make it back into the deck.

That said, I know of two instances where people had latent psychosis triggered by meditation, but not in ten-day retreat: just going to a kundalini meditation that lasted an hour or two a few times and doing that once a day or so.

People lose it doing Vajrayana retreats too, I'm well aware. So indeed there are probably people who have some level of imbalance that are akin to people who are deathly allergic to penicillin. You give them what is medicine to most of the population... but to them it is poison.

Back to the support failures: the other main one of the assistant teacher was not to email her back, either time she reached out. That's inexcusable. Her parents, knowing she had been suicidal, shouldn't have let her run around alone so soon. And clearly the psychiatrist she was seeing underestimated the danger she posed to herself. All these factors united to unfold in this tragedy.

It's really sad. But just as penicillin administered by a careless nurse to an unwitting patient who is deathly allergic shouldn't cause penicillin to be outlawed for everyone for whom it functions as a medicine- we shouldn't blame meditation, per se.. we should just be mindful of these potential adverse reactions especially if we are in a position of authority of any kind. .. and in that case behave more skillfully than this assistant teacher did. Although she surely is a product of an imperfect institution.
Contentment is the ultimate wealth;
Detachment is the final happiness. ~Sri Saraha

User avatar
odysseus
Posts: 1051
Joined: Tue Apr 17, 2012 11:50 pm
Contact:

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by odysseus » Sat Jul 08, 2017 9:07 pm

In lieu of your story, I would like to repeat that Buddha would not teach Jhana and Vipassana if it wasn't safe. The problem must lie somewhere else, like bad people in your life. Buddhist meditation cannot never lead to psychosis or suicidalism. Buddhist meditation leads to happiness. I am saddened to hear that Buddhist meditation has been linked to mental health problems and they honestly believe this! But this is the modern world's understanding of Buddhism.
Let a man not seek for the respect of his peers, but let him seek wisdom.

-- Dhammapada

Jeff H
Posts: 650
Joined: Mon Sep 01, 2014 8:56 pm
Location: Vermont, USA

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Jeff H » Sat Jul 08, 2017 10:49 pm

odysseus wrote:In lieu of your story, I would like to repeat that Buddha would not teach Jhana and Vipassana if it wasn't safe. The problem must lie somewhere else, like bad people in your life. Buddhist meditation cannot never lead to psychosis or suicidalism. Buddhist meditation leads to happiness. I am saddened to hear that Buddhist meditation has been linked to mental health problems and they honestly believe this! But this is the modern world's understanding of Buddhism.
In reference to your signature, could this be the quote you are referring to?
In [i]Way to the Bodhisattva[/i], chapter 8, Shantideva wrote:10. One moment friends,
The next, they’re bitter enemies.
Even pleasant things arouse their discontent:
Ordinary people—it is hard to please them!

11. A beneficial word and they resent it,
Turning me instead from what is good.
And when I close my ears to what they say,
Their anger makes them fall to lower states.

12. Jealous of superiors, they vie with equals,
Proud to those below, they strut when praised.
Say something untoward, they seethe with rage.
What good was ever had from childish folk?
It also seems to show that we ordinary people can make a mess even out of the most pure things ... so I can't agree with your post. Nothing in samsara is guaranteed safe.
We who are like children shrink from pain but love its causes. - Shantideva

User avatar
odysseus
Posts: 1051
Joined: Tue Apr 17, 2012 11:50 pm
Contact:

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by odysseus » Sun Jul 09, 2017 12:10 am

Jeff H wrote: In reference to your signature, could this be the quote you are referring to?
In [i]Way to the Bodhisattva[/i], chapter 8, Shantideva wrote:10. One moment friends,
The next, they’re bitter enemies.
Even pleasant things arouse their discontent:
Ordinary people—it is hard to please them!
I guess it was something like this. No wonder about it, Samsara can make anyone suffer. It's just suffering and we have to deal with it.
Jeff H wrote: It also seems to show that we ordinary people can make a mess even out of the most pure things ... so I can't agree with your post. Nothing in samsara is guaranteed safe.
I didn't judge you as bad, I said only "foolish common people" with a sense of humour. In Samsara, nothing is safe, but Buddha is safe. His way is the best safety in Samsara there is.
Let a man not seek for the respect of his peers, but let him seek wisdom.

-- Dhammapada

User avatar
odysseus
Posts: 1051
Joined: Tue Apr 17, 2012 11:50 pm
Contact:

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by odysseus » Sun Jul 09, 2017 12:16 am

Jeff H wrote: ... so I can't agree with your post. Nothing in samsara is guaranteed safe.
So, Jeff. Where do you don't agree? I said there are other factors involved. Don't you think Buddhism should be safe? Please explain, I'm curious about the so-called problems of Buddhist meditation...
Let a man not seek for the respect of his peers, but let him seek wisdom.

-- Dhammapada

Jeff H
Posts: 650
Joined: Mon Sep 01, 2014 8:56 pm
Location: Vermont, USA

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Jeff H » Sun Jul 09, 2017 3:34 am

odysseus wrote:
Jeff H wrote: ... so I can't agree with your post. Nothing in samsara is guaranteed safe.
So, Jeff. Where do you don't agree? I said there are other factors involved. Don't you think Buddhism should be safe? Please explain, I'm curious about the so-called problems of Buddhist meditation...
Perfect Buddhadharma that is transmitted, received, and practiced perfectly may indeed lead infallibly to perfect happiness. But in fact, we're all bumbling around in our ignorance trying to identify qualified teachers and teachings, understanding it imperfectly, and practicing the best we can under the circumstances. I consider it quite possible that what some people practice as Buddhism may not lead to happiness, and could cause harm.
We who are like children shrink from pain but love its causes. - Shantideva

User avatar
Queequeg
Global Moderator
Posts: 4321
Joined: Tue Jul 03, 2012 3:24 pm

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Queequeg » Mon Jul 10, 2017 5:01 pm

odysseus wrote:I suspect these traumas come from something else. The Buddha thought "Right Concentration" and "Right Mindfulness" as part of meditation and he would have not done this if it was not safe. The suffering comes forward in meditation, but if a student gets traumas, it is because of something else. There is a bad vibe involved. Buddhist meditation is totally safe.
(Emphasis added)

Check out the link Dzogchungpa gave above. That article refers to an event recounted in the Pali canon in which the Buddha gave instructions to meditate on death in a cremation ground and then went away on retreat. He came back to find that dozens of bhikkus had killed themselves. That article links to this:

"Like a Boil with Nine Openings": Buddhist Constructions of the Body and Their South Asian Milieu

Quote from the Samyutta Nikaya - When the Buddha returned from retreat and found the number of Bhikkus thinned, Ananda explained:

"As to this body, they fretted bout it, felt shame and loathing for it, and wanted to kill themselves. As many as ten monks did so in a single day; even twenty, thirty of them killed themselves in a single day!

"Would the Blessed One please teach some other method, so that the order of monks might be established in knowledge?"

To say that anything is totally safe is difficult to maintain. Clearly, there are some teachings that the Buddha gave that were not totally safe, because they did go haywire when faithfully put into practice by the bhikkus. You might say the fault was in the practitioner, but that assumes that there is a practice distinct from the practitioner.

Notwithstanding, the things this young girl was saying sound similar to what Ananda said the monks were saying...
“Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
-Henry Miller

"Language is the liquid that we're all dissolved in.
Great for solving problems, after it creates the problems."
-Modest Mouse

"Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world!"
-The Grateful Dead

User avatar
odysseus
Posts: 1051
Joined: Tue Apr 17, 2012 11:50 pm
Contact:

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by odysseus » Mon Jul 10, 2017 7:53 pm

I think this is a misunderstanding. Buddha wanted well-being and he had clear insight of what to teach. His teachings are totally safe. I hope not you guys actually want it to be dangerous??? Sounds a bit like this.
Let a man not seek for the respect of his peers, but let him seek wisdom.

-- Dhammapada

User avatar
Queequeg
Global Moderator
Posts: 4321
Joined: Tue Jul 03, 2012 3:24 pm

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Queequeg » Mon Jul 10, 2017 8:47 pm

odysseus wrote:I think this is a misunderstanding. Buddha wanted well-being and he had clear insight of what to teach. His teachings are totally safe. I hope not you guys actually want it to be dangerous??? Sounds a bit like this.
Sounds like you have an article of faith (dharma is categorically safe), and that's the extent of your consideration.

And yet, even Pali sources recognize that even the Buddha's direct instructions were proximately related to suicide.

In the least, there needs to be some further consideration.
“Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
-Henry Miller

"Language is the liquid that we're all dissolved in.
Great for solving problems, after it creates the problems."
-Modest Mouse

"Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world!"
-The Grateful Dead

User avatar
odysseus
Posts: 1051
Joined: Tue Apr 17, 2012 11:50 pm
Contact:

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by odysseus » Mon Jul 10, 2017 8:52 pm

Queequeg wrote:
Sounds like you have an article of faith (dharma is categorically safe), and that's the extent of your consideration.
I say Samsara is not safe, but Dharma is.
Queequeg wrote: And yet, even Pali sources recognize that even the Buddha's direct instructions were proximately related to suicide.
Suicide, not at all! This is crap. Let me interpret the Sutta by myself before I go further.
Queequeg wrote:
In the least, there needs to be some further consideration.
My confidence is unshakeable. Buddha is the safest boss ever.

But, yes we need more consideration. Where does the delusions lie about Buddhist meditation? We don't want the Buddha tarnished due to ignorance!
Let a man not seek for the respect of his peers, but let him seek wisdom.

-- Dhammapada

User avatar
justsit
Posts: 831
Joined: Wed Oct 21, 2009 9:24 pm
Location: Delaware

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by justsit » Mon Jul 10, 2017 9:28 pm

Perhaps this analogy might help. Say you have a glass, and, unbeknownst to you, the glass has a flaw, an unseen crack.
You pour some hot (not boiling) liquid into the glass, and bam, the glass cracks.

There's absolutely nothing wrong or dangerous about having hot liquid in a glass. The problem is with the glass itself.

A person with an underlying psychosis, in the act of meditation, may access and aggravate their condition. And if the persons around them aren't equipped to handle that, a bad result may occur. A cousin of mine committed suicide while living in a Buddhist center, and there have been several persons I knew personally in various sanghas that have also committed suicide. IMO, there is no fault in the dharma, rather, some kind of karma coming to fruition, but that's only a guess.

User avatar
Queequeg
Global Moderator
Posts: 4321
Joined: Tue Jul 03, 2012 3:24 pm

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by Queequeg » Mon Jul 10, 2017 10:01 pm

odysseus wrote: Suicide, not at all! This is crap. Let me interpret the Sutta by myself before I go further.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html
“Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
-Henry Miller

"Language is the liquid that we're all dissolved in.
Great for solving problems, after it creates the problems."
-Modest Mouse

"Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world!"
-The Grateful Dead

User avatar
dzogchungpa
Posts: 5617
Joined: Sat May 28, 2011 10:50 pm

Re: Dangers of Meditation?

Post by dzogchungpa » Mon Jul 10, 2017 10:20 pm

odysseus wrote:I hope not you guys actually want it to be dangerous???
Well, some people like a bit of a challenge, you know?



Queequeg wrote:
odysseus wrote: Suicide, not at all! This is crap. Let me interpret the Sutta by myself before I go further.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html
Here is Bhikkhu Bodhis' summary of the commentary's take on this story:
In the past, it is said, five hundred men earned their living together as hunters. They were reborn in hell, but later, through some good kamma, they took rebirth as human beings and went forth as monks under the Blessed One. However, a portion of their original bad kamma had gained the opportunity to ripen during this fortnight and was due to bring on their deaths both by suicide and homicide. The Blessed One foresaw this and realized he could do nothing about it. Among those monks, some were worldlings, some stream-enterers, some once-returners, some nonreturners, some arahants. The arahants would not take rebirth, the other noble disciples were bound for a happy rebirth, but the worldlings were of uncertain destiny. The Buddha spoke of foulness to remove their attachment to the body so that they would lose their fear of death and could thus be reborn in heaven. Therefore he spoke on foulness in order to help them, not with the intention of extolling death. Realizing he could not turn back the course of events, he went into seclusion to avoid being present when destiny took its toll.

So the commentary, but the idea of a kammically predetermined suicide seems difficult to reconcile with the conception of suicide as a volitionally induced act.
If you focus on an object, you are not meditating. - Dudjom Rinpoche

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 12 guests