The dangers of intense meditation

I can across Damcho Pamo’s website around ‘meditating safely’ and wanted to highlight it as a helpful resource. It’s well documented that intense meditation, especially silent Vipassana retreats, can initiate a sponatenous awakening, and centres are often not equipped to deal with the consequences. Here Damcho Pamo tells her story of what led to her passion to raise awareness around this, from her own perspective:                                

DamchoPamo                                      

 I, Damcho Pamo, am a British woman who experienced psychosis and mania, when I was 51, while attending an intensive meditation retreat. Prior to this chapter in my life I had no history of psychological problems and in fact was psychologically robust.

To spread the word about meditation being associated with the development of such problems for some people I created the website

www.meditatinginsafety.org.uk

This is an evidence based site that raises awareness of mental health issues in relation to meditation practice

In 1997 I became involved with a Zen group. I adopted a daily meditation practice and attended three retreats a year, two weekends and one five day. The retreats were intensive as they were in silence, the only opportunity to talk was in individual interviews with the teacher, and there were around eight hours of meditation a day.

I was motivated to attend the retreats and to practise meditation daily to engage with an authentic practice, enabling me to be more in touch with The Sacred and in particular to develop compassion.  In 2001 whilst attending one of these five day retreats I became manic and psychotic. It actually turned out that I was slightly psychotic when I arrived at the retreat, though at the time I wasn’t aware of that. The first night there I had very disturbed sleep. My mind was racing and I slept for only about three hours. I had a sense of my mind fizzing. I was concerned about this as I normally slept well, and especially so when I attended retreats, so I raised it with the teacher. She was dismissive just saying you don’t need to sleep when you meditate. So I continued with the retreat becoming increasingly psychotic and manic. Having no prior experience of such states I had not a clue what was going on. There were not many signs that I was in difficulties as I attended the whole of the programme. However I think my demeanour must have been odd and also I was eating very little at some of the communal meals but none of this was picked up on; no one approached me to ask how I was. After the retreat I was travelling for three or four days. During this time I became increasingly psychotic and manic but amazingly managed to negotiate train tickets and generally look after myself. The first two days at home my husband and I had visitors. I managed to cope with that. Much of my psychosis was just in my head and I was quite clever at hiding it from others but my husband and our guests could see that my behaviour was odd. It then took my husband a couple of days to persuade me to see the doctor. I was very wrapped up with what was going on in my head but had no sense that anything was wrong. I had no awareness in that way. When the doctor came he interviewed me for about two hours and easily established that I was psychotic and manic. I was then given medication that very quickly got me out of this state. However it turned out to be just the start of a three year period of further major problems. I went on to experience long periods of agitated depression and a further period of psychosis and mania. Eventually having had two courses of ECT and with the right balance of medication my condition became stable. From 2004 I was sufficiently well to work. My condition ever since, on the right balance of medication, has been stable. In 2002 I became involved with a Tibetan Buddhist group, adopting a daily meditation practice from 2008 and becoming a Buddhist in 2013. With my experiences of psychosis, mania and agitated depression I had been in a cul-de-sac but now feel I am back on the Buddhist path.

I see the meditation retreats that I attended and the daily meditation practice, actually practised in a rather forced way, I adopted during the four years prior to the retreat when I became psychotic and manic as contributory factors to my having developed these severe problems. The strongest indicator of this being so was that for the first four days after each retreat I would be aloof, distant and cold towards my family. I’d then snap out of it and revert to my usual warm and supportive self. However at that time there were also several strong stressors in my life. I had a perimenopausal physiology that was giving me psychological problems, a close relative had died, my work was stressful and I felt frustrated about my employment, and I practised Astanga Vinyasa Yoga, a very physically demanding and energising practice.

Dark Night of the Soul

The phrase Dark Night of the Soul is coined in modern times to describe coming through very difficult times in our lives. On our website I give the background to this concept.

When I became ill I don’t think I was going through a Dark Night of the Soul experience in the classical sense of losing my faith and feeling dry and arid. I was under chronic multiple stressors with the final trigger being the intense meditation retreat, the straw that broke the camel’s back. This accumulated stress pushed me into a physiological state that my system was no longer able to remain in balance with. Throughout my three years of troubles, treatment and recovery I never had a sense of losing faith. At the time of first experiencing problems I was a practising Quaker, with a belief in the inner light within each person. During my first spell in hospital even though I was feeling utterly terrible I was still courteous to nurses and considerate to my fellow patients however bizarre their behaviour. I mentioned this to a friend afterwards and she said I was just hardwired that way. However I wasn’t so good with the psychiatrists! Strange as they really are the people who can help you but when you feel imprisoned in a hospital it doesn’t feel like it! I would often spend my afternoons, alone, in the small hospital chapel, reflecting and found that really helpful.

However as my recovery has progressed, becoming more nuanced over the last 16 years, I would say that I have become more whole in myself, feel freer and have changed for the better. This has been assisted by being on the Buddhist path and becoming a Buddhist in 2013, though I am still a Quaker: at present not an active one. The aspects of being that I am working on at present are non-attachment, being in the present moment and equanimity. So to this extent I have emerged from a very difficult situation into a better state. You could say this is to do with taking a positive and constructive approach to having had to cope with a harsh situation and if you do that you develop as a person but perhaps in spiritual terms it is more than that. My path has similarities to St. John of the Cross’s view (outlined on our website) and in developing such aspects as non-attachment I am convinced of the reality of Buddha Nature, to me the equivalent to St. John’s Our true nature is God.

Post-script

Gerald May (2003) also expresses the view that perhaps societies can go through a collective Dark Night of the Soul emerging from that phase with an improved situation. Perhaps World War II could be thought of in this way with life being considerably improved in the years after the war. Perhaps we could think of our present societal situation in this way and hopefully we will come through it with a better approach one that embraces squarely the realities of climate change, works towards sustainable energy sources, further develops international co-operation and above all creates the situations where we all care for each other better.

Reference:

Gerald G. May, 2003, The Dark Night of the Soul, A psychiatrist explores the connection between darkness and spiritual growth, Harper Collins

Although we may not see things quite the same way, (believing that all these types of manifestations are part of the awakening healing path and not indicators of ‘illness’), it is important to acknowledge the need to meditate safely…

For resources and more info on this, go to:

www.meditatinginsafety.org.uk

Thank you for raising awareness on this important subject Damcho Pamo ❤

 

 

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3 Responses to The dangers of intense meditation

  1. Hi, Katie,

    I am well aware of the occurrences of mania and other types of psychotic “breaks” that can occur for some people during or after having intense meditation experiences or being in a retreat setting. However, I take issue with two aspects that you and your doctor seemingly determined:
    1) you say that you had never had any serious mental problems prior to that retreat, and
    2) you both believe that were actually experiencing “psychosis” when you returned home.

    I have no doubt from your report that you were having problems and that some of them were mental/psychological. I am sorry that you went through that.

    I’m also glad you’ve publicized this warning for others who may be vulnerable to having negative consequences from practicing meditation. This was a courageous piece to write and post: thanks!

    However, let me respond to number 1, above: in my extensive professional and personal experience with meditation, psychology, education and mental health issues, I disagree. For people I served/ worked with/ was on retreat with, no one first has ever had full-blown psychosis or mania for the first time, from “nothing,” by being on a meditation retreat.

    In your descriptions in this post of your mental and circumstantial state, I read about MANY signs of instability and difficulties that you entered the retreat experiencing. As with you, there are ALWAYS some signs of instability, however subtle, however far in the past, however mislabeled, which those people (and their physician and their families) did not acknowledge prior to attending the meditation retreat or meditating intensively.

    Retreatants must be properly screened and prepared before attending. It is the teacher’s responsibility to assess each student. Also, the students must be honest and able to report on their own health sufficiently. When warning signs are not recognized, some types of meditation are, indeed, potentially dangerous for some practitioners.

    Therefore, although I agree that meditation can evoke, reveal, and highlight practitioners’ mental states and tendencies, I contend that meditation does not create mental health problems, nor can meditation completely end or cure them.

    When we use a can opener to open a container and worms jump out, weren’t the worms already there? We don’t blame the can opener for the appearance of the worms!

    Meditation is a tool, a set of techniques and experiences, a “can opener” for our minds (the “cans”). Meditation has no inherent ability to harm and, in fact, all the techniques are designed to generate outcomes of great benefit, even if the practices themselves are arduous, painful, upsetting, difficult physically and challenging in other ways.

    Undoubtedly, each meditation student requires proper guidance (an authentic and capable teacher, available when needed), a stable mind, and adequate health to meditate successfully. Meditation is NOT for everyone, but there is no danger for practitioners, even those who encounter the most intensive meditation experiences, when they are properly situated, guided and prepared.

    BUT, as we know, many people are NOT in optimal mental or physical health, or do not have adequate guidance. THEY should be aware of the dangers and move slowly (or not at all) into more intensive practices.

    Regarding number 2, above: I disagree with your (and your doctor’s) definition of “psychosis.” I and most professionals utilize this definition: “psychosis is a severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality.” You never seemed to have “lost contact with external reality.” Therefore, no “psychosis” occurred, unless you are misreporting and you DID leave our shared reality for your own inner world. Did you? If so, I apologize for my assumptions.

    Clearly, your experiences were difficult and painful, and you needed care and treatment: I am, however, in the absence of other evidence, disagreeing with your terminology. What you experienced were examples of severe neuroses, perhaps revealing that you can swing onto the “borderline” between neurosis and psychosis, getting a little too close to psychosis, when stressed. Nevertheless, none of those experiences was caused—but may have been exacerbated—by your having practiced meditation (as well as the other stressors you mentioned, such as not sleeping enough).

    I hope you continue to recover and improve. I appreciate your candor, but I did want to “set the record straight.”

    Best to you all and may all beings benefit!

    Sally Ember, Ed.D.
    Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist practitioner since 1996; meditator since 1972; trained in clinical and social psychology since 1981

    Like

    • Hi Sally, Thank you for your contact. Please note that this is not my experience; it’s an account from Damcho Pamo, who created the website: http://www.meditatinginsafety.org.uk/ Emerging Proud is a platform for people to talk about their experience from their own perspective, in a way that is helpful for them, it does not necessarily contitute my personal view or experience. If you’d like to respond to Damcho directly, please feel free to contact her via: http://www.meditatinginsafety.org.uk/ My personal wish to raise awareness on this topic is that intense meditation can trigger a spontaneous spiritual awakening, and therefore resources to understand the consequences of that need to be put in place. It can also bring up repressed emotional turmoil, so if unconscious at the time of psychological assessment for retreat admission, would be unknown to both the attendee and the retreat hosts. This needs to be acknowledged, not to put people off attending, just to ensure full consideration is given to the risks. Warmest regards, Katie

      Liked by 1 person

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