The meditation myth

The Words We Found: The Best Writing From 21 Years of Voiceworks, Hardie Grant 2009

I KNOW two serious meditation practitioners. Half an hour after the first told me meditation gave him a calm and balanced mind, I heard that the second had been committed to a mental hospital.

Passing paramedics spotted my flatmate meditating on the footpath of Swanston Street and called the police. Recently he had been suffering from psychosis tinged with Buddhist altruism and had come to the conclusion that moving through the world ‘killed molecules’. He would suddenly freeze, mid-stride, to avoid colliding with nearby atoms. When the police found him he was rooted to the sidewalk, gawking at his own shadow.

I didn’t find out about his episode until returning from an interview with Mr Siladasa, the chairman of Melbourne Buddhists Centre, days later. During the session Siladasa, a respected neurologist, had spoken eloquently about the benefits of meditation. He was lucid, logical, sane and happy. How could the same technique have contributed to both mental states?

I know from personal experience that meditation has the power to both sharpen the mind and stir the soup of madness. In November 2005, I travelled to South-East Asia on a quest for meaning. Like most Western backpackers, I searched for it in the bottom of beer bottles. Every afternoon I awoke with a hangover, chastising my lack of self-control. Finally, I’d had enough. It was time for a mental kick in the pants.

I took the train to Northern Thailand and enrolled in one of S.N. Goenka’s popular 10-day retreats. For those who aren’t familiar with Goenka, he’s a Burmese industrialist who suffered from chronic migraines until he took up meditation (picture Jabba the Hutt in a sarong). Inspired by this miracle cure, he began teaching others. Starting with a handful of students in 1969, Goenka has now amassed a horde of starry-eyed devotees numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and his spiritual franchise now operates out of more than 100 countries.

Goenka’s 10-day course is known for its gruelling schedule. Participants slog through 10 hours of meditation per day with no cigarettes, alcohol, meat, TV, books, music, conversation or any other solace. It’s spiritual Survivor, with the million-dollar prize of bragging rights to those who make it through.

Aside from crippling leg cramps, the meditation programme gave me stomach convulsions so violent there was blood in my faeces on the fifth day. The 4 am starts made the short stroll to the meditation hall seem like a three-legged race. The course played havoc with my mind, too.  One moment I was on top of the world, the next I was alone in the abyss of depression. My brain lost the ability to control my body. During a group meditation session, my right hand rose to my throat of its own accord and started squeezing. I swatted it away and exited the hall as reality evaporated around me. In my psychotic state I battled through a medieval mallee with a machete, then found myself in the kitchen brandishing a butter knife. Even at this early stage, it was obvious my road to enlightenment was to be riddled with potholes.

Despite my efforts to remain clear-headed, on the sixth day madness tapped me on the shoulder and whispered that, from now on, we’d be bunking up. I was practising Vipassana at the time, a Buddhist meditation that involves passing attention from head to toe. On this occasion, the body I passed my attention over had hourglass hips, full breasts and long, lustrous hair. My metamorphosis felt so real I strutted up to the teacher and told him, ‘I’m a woman now. My name’s Sasha.’ He didn’t ask for my number.

I can hear a few people saying, ‘Hey, hang on a minute. Meditation is good for you.’ Let’s draw a deep breath in and direct attention to the basis for this opinion: clips from movies, articles from glossy magazines and information inherited from past generations. Deep breath out: unless we know someone who meditates or have practised ourselves, we’re only regurgitating what we’ve been spoonfed by the media.

So what exactly is meditation? Like a Zen monk mulling over a koan, we need to first unravel the riddle of words. Many dictionaries define the term as thinking deeply about spiritual matters. We can therefore turn our backs on Western fads like Transcendental Meditation™, a technique trademarked by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1958 and endorsed by celebrity bands The Beach Boys and The Beatles, and swivel East for answers. One common Eastern practice, concentration meditation (samadhibhavana in the Pali tongue), involves maintaining focus on a single, static thought-object, such as a colour or syllable, for prolonged periods. Practitioners of insight meditation (pannabhavana) observe arising moments while accepting the law of impermanence – everything changes. People experienced in these techniques are unflappable stoics, able to bear life’s vicissitudes with a humble shrug.

But I stuck to neither of these spiritual paths. Rather, I studied Goenka’s version of Vipassana meditation, which incorporates both techniques. Starting at the head, I passed attention through my body, observing physical feelings but not reacting to them. Every sensation, so the theory goes, is the symptom of an emotional state. When upset, the throat parches. When aroused, the groin tingles. Goenka’s Vipassana teaches a person to perceive without recoiling from pain or clinging to pleasure. The upshot is a mind that keeps its cool when confronted with grief or titillation.

But the goal isn’t to tame emotions and urges – that’s just a positive side effect. The true outcome generally isn’t mentioned in course brochures, because it might spook retreat-goers. The point of Vipassana is to dismantle the ego.

Goenka has described his technique as the mental equivalent of open-heart surgery. During the first three days on retreat you cut through the ego’s protective casing, exposing the innards of the mind. You can then watch thoughts arise , witness the way emotions seesaw from one extreme to the other. You notice that you’re happy, sad, angry, happy again. Suddenly, an epiphany rears up and delivers a mighty wallop: what you previously believed was your identity is actually a series of changing states of consciousness.

Imagine your life is a film. Meditation slows down the footage so it can be viewed as separate frames. Any sense of continuity – of you being the same person from one frame to the next, one moment to the next – is shattered. For some people, this experience is liberating. Their sense of identity expands to encompass the world at large and they feel a kinship with the cosmos. For others, losing the self comes as a profound shock that awakens primitive terrors, followed by mourning for the I that is no longer.

Meditation is an ancient ritual imbued with risk. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (IV), a dense tome listing every known psychological ailment, includes this passage under the category ‘Religious or Spiritual Problem’:

Asian traditions recognize [sic] a number of pitfalls associated with intensive meditation practice such as altered perceptions that can be frightening, and ‘false enlightenment’, associated with delightful or terrifying visions.

The Tibetans have a term for what can go wrong during meditation. Sokrlung, which means ‘a disturbance of the life-bearing wind that supports the mind’, is a mental disorder resulting from overzealous practise.

It comes as no surprise that participants on intensive retreats, where an average day can consist of up to 10 hours’ meditation, are more likely to overdo it. Psychoanalyst Jack Engler, writing in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An unfolding dialogue, reported a 1986 team of American psychoanalysts who found that half of the attendees on an Insight Meditation Society Retreat in Barre, Massachusetts, suffered from ‘…significant fantasy, daydreaming, reverie, imagery, spontaneous recall of past memories…and emotional lability, including dramatic swings in mood.’

Mr Siladasa warns that if someone encounters personal issues during an intensive course, ‘pressing on may actually produce some major mental problems’. Several attendees of Goenka’s 10-day retreats, where students sit sessions of ‘strong determination’, have pushed on and paid the price. On a Vipassana forum called, regular member Margot writes:

I recently went to a 10-day Goenka course and had a great experience from it. However, a friend went this past week and had a ‘psychotic episode’ and is now hospitalised after being picked up on the street [for] acting very strange.

Of course, it’s not all horror stories. For every person who suffers difficulties, there are a hundred other Dicks and Janes who claim to have found the practice helpful. Goenka’s courses are immensely popular and most people part chanting Vipssana’s praises.

Even hardened criminals have benefited from Goenka’s special brand of Buddhism. In April 1994, over 1000 inmates at Tihar Prison, New Delhi, sat perfectly still throughout a full 10-day course. Psychological studies showed Vipassana had a positive effect on prisoners’ behaviour, reducing hostility and the desire for revenge. Since then, Goenka’s mantras have been mumbled in prisons in Taiwan, Thailand, New Zealand, Spain, Mexico, the UK and the US.

When asked why Vipassana was good for prisoners, Goenka replied, ‘Vipassana is good for everyone!’ Mr Siladasa also believes mediation has universal applications: ‘Most people enjoy the experience of meditating. It gives them tranquillity and peace of mind.’

However, the minority of people who have problems practising shouldn’t be overlooked. The issues with meditation should be out in the open, not swept under the yoga mat.

First, we need to address the misconception that meditation is good for everyone. It’s not. In fact, for the mentally unstable, meditation can be catastrophic. Mr Sildasa concedes this, stressing that ‘meditation [should] be avoided with illnesses involving psychosis’. Even Goenka admits the risks. His site,, states, ‘we do not recommend [Vipassana] for people with serious psychiatric disorders.’

Depression sufferers, who are understandably drawn to the happiness meditation promises, often can’t practise either. Mr Siladasa explains:

If someone is at the bottom of their depression and we’re asking them to do a loving kindness meditation, to find some kindness for themselves, they just might not be able to do that…then they feel defeated, they feel wounded, they feel even worse.

The second problem that needs to be tackled is the fanatical attitudes of some practitioners. Buddhism has zealots, too. However, unlike their Christian and Islamic counterparts, their activism doesn’t harm others, only themselves. Instead of suicide bombers, there is suicidal compassion.

‘I started to consider [the lives of] sentient beings like bugs and dust mites to be more important than my own life,’ informs my flatmate. We are chatting at a café on Swanston Street – the same street where, just five weeks before, paramedics picked him up. ‘I became obsessed with the idea of compassion,’ he continues, ‘and it kind of sent my mind into a delusional world of fantasy.’ However, he doesn’t necessarily view this as a bad thing. ‘Some people say fantasy is what’s real and they make movies out of it.’

My flatmate is a film student. He’s forever pitching oddball scripts to me. They remind me of Donald Barthelme’s stories – they only make sense when you’re standing in left field. He’s an idea scout. Halfway through speaking, he’ll spot a new thought and try to cram it into the current sentence.

‘What if I’m helping other beings, by not functioning?’ he ponders aloud. A silence settles as we follow this philosophy to its unspoken end. I’m reminded of what he said he wanted to tell the policemen on Swanston Street: ‘It’s my practice and I’d like to follow it through as far as it can go, even if it were to kill me.’

My flatmate is convinced meditation is good for him. I’ve got a hunch it’s not. However, I’m not a trained psychiatrist and can’t make that call. All I can say for certain is that he’s practising incorrectly.

Buddha would agree. Mr Siladasa tells of one of Buddha’s disciples, Sona, who worked at walking meditation with such ardour his soles split and bled:

And the Buddha says, ‘Sona, what are you doing? You’re meditating too intensely, too severely, that’s not the way to practise.’ You must avoid these extremes of intensity or extremes of laziness. You must find this middle, this balanced way.

My flatmate’s definition of a middle way is to ‘try as hard as we can [to be compassionate] until there’s nothing we can do unless we want ourselves to die’. That’s a radical, dangerous interpretation of Buddhism. Yet intensive retreats, such as Goenka’s, can encourage extreme practices, which fuel such thinking.

Goenka means well. It’s difficult to impeach a man who teaches for free, has spoken at a UN Peace Summit and has helped turn around the lives of thousands of prisoners. He has only the best intentions.

But his viewpoint is quixotic. He’s smitten with his own technique and prescribes the same schedule for every man, woman and child, regardless of circumstance. This doesn’t take into account individual practitioners’ needs. People aren’t robots. They shouldn’t be plonked on a 10-day production line to have their brains rewired for release back into the world.

Encouraging students to meditate intensely without first properly assessing their psychiatric state is irresponsible at best. Sure, there are some checks in place – potential attendees are now interviewed about their mental history. But people still fall through the cracks. Some land in hospital.

That brings us to the third issue practitioners face: lack of guidance. The meditating mind, starved of stimuli, conjures up elaborate fantasies to stave off boredom. Without a spiritual teacher to provide a reality check, it’s possible to become lost in an inner Wonderland. You might even give birth to an alter ego, like I did.

‘It is taught in the earliest scriptures of Buddhism,’ explains Mr Siladasa. ‘Buddha said one of the most important things that’ll win the heart’s release is to stay with the wise and be guided.’

Psychological textbooks hold the final key as to why some practitioners struggle with delusions and personal issues, while others sail smoothly to Nirvana. According to transpersonal theory, a new-age arm of Western psychology, adolescents pass a series of milestones on the road to a normal, healthy adult ego. Sometimes a stage is skipped and a person doesn’t have a coherent identity. In this case, rather than ushering in enlightenment, meditation results in a regression of personal development. Engler, this time in his essay ‘Therapeutic Aims in Psychology and Meditation’ summed it up when he wrote, ‘You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.’

The Western world must have a shortage of somebodies. Large numbers of people have problems meditating. K. Sri Dhammananda, who before his death in 2006 was the pre-eminent Theravada Buddhist monk in Singapore and Malaysia, warned:

The mind must be brought under control in slow degrees and one should not try to reach for the higher states without proper training. We have heard of over-enthusiastic young men and women literally going out of their minds because they adopted the wrong attitudes towards meditation.

Meditation is a powerful technique with major psychological consequences. It’s a serious undertaking, not a quick fix, cure-all, or something you can pick up on a weekend retreat. Practise correctly and you’ll be as happy as the Dalai Lama. Embark on a spiritual crusade, or treat meditation as ‘a bit of fun’, and it might just send you mad.

Or it might give you what my flatmate calls the ‘wa wa feeling’.

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