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