Author Topic: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation  (Read 5743 times)

perriwinkle

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Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« on: January 26, 2017, 04:02:21 AM »
Hi everyone. I understand that Vipassana can be incredibly beneficial for many people, and I am not writing to disparage the technique. I simply want to share my experience of mental illness triggered by attending a 10-day Goenka retreat. I hope that my story will inspire other beginners to start out with less intensive meditation practice rather than plunging into a 10-day retreat. I also want to encourage everyone, both veterans and novices, to take certain safety precautions before attending long term retreats:
-No matter how experienced you are, please make sure you have a safe ride home from retreats
-Please ask a person who knows you well to check in with you after retreats
-Do not be afraid to consider Western medicine as an option for the recovery of your mental health after a difficult meditation experience

First of all, I am a high functioning 24-year-old who does not drink, smoke or do drugs. I had no history of any mental illness before attending the retreat, and neither does my immediate family. I attended the retreat with the hopes of becoming less prone to stress in my personal and work life. I was in for a huge surprise...
During the course I listened to the dialogues and followed instructions very seriously and diligently. I actually enjoyed the retreat a lot of the time. The first thing I noticed was a heightened sense of taste and smell. By the seventh day, I had an experience where I felt like a higher power was directing my body around. At other times I had unpleasant feelings, such as waking up to a burning, itching sensation all over my body. I began to feel so strange that I asked the instructor if meditation could cause brain damage--his response was that the unusual feelings I described were signs of progress. Towards the very end, I felt like I was at peace with the universe and that I could sense the energy around me.
The day after the retreat, however, I was completely out of my mind to the point of being dangerous. When I took the train home (I was living on my own in India at the time) I had completely lost my subjective sense of time. I was so spaced out that I lost my cell phone and fell down some stairs. By some miracle I arrived at my apartment safely. I started to act very strangely--I put my forehead into a bowl of frozen peas, scrubbed my skin with cornflakes, and poured water all over my clothes. I came to the false conclusion that I had been born color blind and walked around in circles using my thumbs to release the color vision out of my nostrils. I called my mother in the US and she looked up a nearby hospital with a neurologist and told me to make an appointment.
Eventually I found my way to a psychiatrist and I was prescribed olanzapine. This caused me to settle way down. However, it was not the end of my psychotic experience. Three weeks later I was back in the US navigating the mental health care system. A psychiatrist unwisely told me to discontinue olanzapine and switch to aripiprazole. The day after I stopped olanzapine I felt like I had a migraine and I started to behave irrationally again. I put maple syrup on my feet, washed the walls, and communicated with plants. I lost my sense of time again and could no longer remember whether or not I had taken pills and which pills I had taken. I reached my lowest point when I became convinced that my mother was psychotic and suicidal. I quickly called an ambulance to save her life. Guess who ended up in that ambulance?
I am not looking for advice or sympathy. I have come to terms with what happened to me. I simply want to communicate that these retreats could cause you to go into a state of mind that you are not prepared to handle alone. Even if you have never experienced mental illness before in your life. Luckily, after one week in the hospital and six months of recovery time I felt back to normal again. Now I am completely fine.
I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Willoughby Britton, a researcher at Brown University who studies adverse effects of meditation and who told me that I am not alone. She once opened up her own home as a sanctuary for mentally ill meditators:
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/the-dark-knight-of-the-souls/372766/
Also, check out this awesome website created by someone who had an experience very similar to mine: http://livingvipassana.blogspot.com/

stillpointdancer

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #1 on: January 26, 2017, 10:50:41 AM »
I've made a study of this for a book I am writing. There is no link between meditating and mental illness. None. What does happen, though, is that meditation practice brings changes to the brain, and how the mind subsequently operates. With something like mindfulness meditation, past issues can rise to the surface. Stuff that you didn't realize you had now becomes available to look at and reinterpret.

Scientific research has shown the many benefits of meditation, such as decrease in stress, lower blood pressure, fewer absences from work, a greater ability to fight off infection, and even the possibility of a longer lifespan. but you are quite right to point out that there may be downsides as well. I would not recommend that anyone should attend such a retreat without two or three years of meditation practice under their belts, as you really need to be gentled into the practice rather than be thrown in at the deep end.

My other concern is the other end of the spectrum, 'secular' mindfulness, which is creeping into standard corporate training. Without an understanding of how deep issues can rise to the surface, then things may indeed happen that need properly trained people on hand to deal with. But that surely isn't something that medication would be needed for.
“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Franz Kafka

Amy Axelrod Kaufman

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #2 on: January 26, 2017, 03:30:23 PM »
I agree.  Meditation is calming and really does help one deal with various stresses.  As someone who leads Guided Meditations and meditates are well, I know I am not yet ready for a 10 day meditation.  You have to know yourself.  Some of us think that if 1 day is good then 10 days are better.  Not true.  Know yourself.  Know your capabilities and limitations.  I also agree with the corporate end. I'm afraid that "Mindfulness" has become nothing more than a catch phrase said by those who truly know nothing or very little about what mindfulness really is. 

TheJourney

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #3 on: January 26, 2017, 06:32:38 PM »
The other component of this is Qi (also called Prana  in India, called Orgone by Wilhelm Reich, meaning life energy). There are people who do yoga or meditation and experience partially released Kundalini and became temporarily insane or have long term physical ailments.

I think this may have happened to you. Energy was unleashed but parts of your body had blockage to the flow.

I didn't go insane at the Goenka retreat, but I did experience some real weird sensations:

1. Line of tiny firework sparks trailing across the back of my neck in a straight line then went up to my right cheek, web like structure started growing on left and right cheek. Just as a mental thought of telling the AT later it stopped and disappeared right away.  This happened in the dorm while I was meditating sitting on the bed.

2. Several nights before falling asleep I can feel invisible compressive force from all spherical direction compressing my head toward the center of my nose area.

Don't understand it. After the retreat, I never felt any of this again. Of course, in my passive vipassana practice, through out the day I can feel light itch sensations shaped like line in natural contour (not straight) pervading my face one after another.

I think you experienced energy imbalance during the Goenka retreat.

perriwinkle

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #4 on: January 28, 2017, 01:10:12 AM »
I agree with what has been said about knowing your limits as a beginner. Unfortunately, the 10-day Vipassana retreat is an introductory course open to beginners. There is no warning on the website about any particular risk to beginners. How was I supposed to know that I was not ready? Especially when the FAQ section of the Vipassana website poses the question "Can Vipassana make people mentally unbalanced?" and the response is "No." This is despite the fact that the two website links I shared in my original post prove otherwise. I find it extremely irresponsible that the organization makes this claim when so many people have had adverse effects from meditation that a researcher from Brown University studies the phenomenon.  Please take the possibility of mental illness seriously.
I believe that some people are prone to experience extremely altered states of mind from meditating and these people should not do ten day courses unless they take safety precautions and work directly with a teacher who will check in on them. To all people reading this: You may be one of these people. If you experience troubling thoughts and sensations while meditating please take them very seriously and seek help. Being insane and hospitalized was certainly not a relaxing experience!

dharma bum

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #5 on: January 28, 2017, 03:17:52 AM »
periwinkle, I wonder if your problem was exacerbated by the fact that you were in a foreign country. India can be a difficult country for Westerners. The sensory overload followed by the sensory deprivation in the retreat can possibly scramble the brain.

https://culteducation.com/group/1289-general-information/8184-death-on-the-path-to-enlightenment-inside-the-rise-of-india-syndrome.html

"Unfamiliar environments have long been known to bring on episodes of short-term delirium. In 1817, the French writer Stendhal described being physically overcome by the experience of viewing Florentine art; a century and a half later, the psychiatrist Graziella Magherini coined the term Stendhal syndrome (also called Florence syndrome) after treating patients who'd become dizzy and confused, even hallucinating or fainting, while visiting the Italian city. "

Much as I am grateful to the Goenka organization, I am very critical of their policy to not let people leave when they are obviously having difficulties. In one retreat, one fellow meditator had epileptic fits, but they wouldn't let him leave, which I thought was really foolish.
« Last Edit: January 28, 2017, 03:41:38 AM by dharma bum »
Mostly ignorant

Nicky

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #6 on: January 28, 2017, 05:38:08 AM »
When I was a beginner, I did a ten day retreat every month for one year. I also was the manager of ten day retreats for about five years (however not with Goenka). Out of the thousands of people I registered & looked after at retreats, I do not recall any becoming mentally ill (apart from some individuals with major pre-existing problems).

A meditation retreat can only trigger off an underlying pre-existing disposition. This is similar to how many people experiment with recreational or psychedelic drugs and, in some people, drug taking creates mental illness. The mental illness arises from within the brain or mind of the person.

The meditation retreat has obviously showed you that your mind has a disposition towards mental illness. Therefore, you should be heedful & careful with what you do in life.

Kind regards

stillpointdancer

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #7 on: January 28, 2017, 10:41:22 AM »

The meditation retreat has obviously showed you that your mind has a disposition towards mental illness. Therefore, you should be heedful & careful with what you do in life.

Kind regards

I think this is a bit negative. I prefer to say that issues can arise from meditation practice which were just below the surface. If you look at it positively, meditation has thrown up something that can now be dealt with. Like a general medical check up that throws up a problem that would otherwise have been missed. Something that should be followed up and dealt with, but probably not something that will  follow people for the rest of their lives.
“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Franz Kafka

perriwinkle

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #8 on: January 28, 2017, 05:37:07 PM »
periwinkle, I wonder if your problem was exacerbated by the fact that you were in a foreign country. India can be a difficult country for Westerners. The sensory overload followed by the sensory deprivation in the retreat can possibly scramble the brain.

I agree that being in India had something to do with it, especially since I wasn't able to return from the retreat into a normal routine surrounded by people I was familiar with. However, I still believe I would have had a similar reaction if I had done the retreat near my home in the US.

The meditation retreat has obviously showed you that your mind has a disposition towards mental illness. Therefore, you should be heedful & careful with what you do in life.

I also agree that my mind has a predisposition towards mental illness. However, I had no reason to suspect this because of no personal or family history of mental illness or drug use. That is why I am extending a warning to all meditators to please be careful, plan a safe ride home, take it slowly, etc.

I think this is a bit negative. I prefer to say that issues can arise from meditation practice which were just below the surface. If you look at it positively, meditation has thrown up something that can now be dealt with. Like a general medical check up that throws up a problem that would otherwise have been missed. Something that should be followed up and dealt with, but probably not something that will  follow people for the rest of their lives.

I really believe it is important to understand what happened to me as mental illness, not just part of my journey as a meditator. There were moments when my life was actually in danger because of my psychosis. I also think it was entirely preventable and unnecessary for me to be in that mental state. Every individual is unique, and some people should go down the path more slowly.

Matthew

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #9 on: January 28, 2017, 09:51:31 PM »
Hello perriwinkle,

I'm sorry to hear of the difficulties you have experienced, yet not surprised. This year vipassanaforum will celebrate it's tenth birthday - during that time we have often encountered similar stories and sometimes been able to help people "pick up the pieces" following attendance at Goenka retreats.

Nicky offers wise advice above.

Be kind to yourself,

Matthew
~oOo~     Tat Tvam Asi     ~oOo~    How will you make the world a better place today?     ~oOo~    Fabricate Nothing     ~oOo~

Andy

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #10 on: February 04, 2017, 02:34:17 PM »
I've made a study of this for a book I am writing. There is no link between meditating and mental illness. None.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0738hm2

TheJourney

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #11 on: February 04, 2017, 04:57:36 PM »
Few points:

I went to one goenka retreat. There were about 120 people. There is no way that I can possibly know if anyone was hurt by it. We cannot say that we went to retreat so many times and didn't witness anything wrong with anyone. When something happens to a lady and she left. I would not have known because of noble silence and men and women were separated,

 I have read of others with similar problems and happened in USA retreat. It can happen anywhere.  Weird sensation I experienced was at a retreat in Marland, though mine was minor issue just that I never experienced electrical sparks zapping through my neck and growing spider Web sensation.

Valid critique is that there needs to be a disclaimer, or else one day something happens and the world will blame it on Buddhism.

Another valid critique is that the organization really needs to stop the unvalidated claim that this is what Buddha practiced as the sacred truth. There is a sutta that says to speak the truth one needs to say that " It is said..." so that the statement is not an absolute fact.

Also, the awareness of sensation is release of sankhara is not what Buddha taught and not the reason Buddha said to do vipassana.

These two statements were conveyed often. Do body scan to rid old sankhara and don't accumulate any new sankhara is not taught by Buddha.

After the retreat, the more Buddha's teaching  I read the more I was glad that I quit after 2 months.

ergomind

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #12 on: February 05, 2017, 12:13:32 PM »
This is my first post here!  :)

I'm glad and grateful to be here with others who have experienced meditation.

Perriwinkle, your story is really helpful. It helps people, including me, to realize there are some risks when you attend a 10 day course and that if you're suffering a lot afterwards you're definetly not alone.

I did so two years ago, and suffered a lot when I came back from the course. I was almost as psychotic as you were and had serious problems. I was also frustrated about not being able to leave the course and I felt that they didn't warn people about the potential risks enough before the course.

However, as I understand it, you never had experienced mental illness before you joined the course.
Therefore, the teachers most likely would have confirmed you're application anyway despite the warnings and they would also have encouraged you to continue.

I'm really glad you feel better, and have come back to normal. I'm curious about one thing, and I hope that you don't misunderstand my question: do you feel that you, somehow, feel grateful for what you've experienced now afterwards? Realizing that I could benefit from my traumatic experience was a major point for me to develop. I'm sitting on a really valuable treasure, and so are you. You have courage enough to help people understanding there are risks to join such a course, courage enough to tell about a very hard time in your life, and you seem very keen that no one else should experience such unnecessary suffering like you did and also strongly recommend people to be prepared before they join such a course. Because of your experience, you can do that and also understand people who have experienced severe suffering while meditating in a much deeper way than just an intellectual way of it.

Today, I've started to enjoy meditation again. If I was asked to join a 10 day course tomorrow, I'd say no. Maybe I will attend in the future, but not now. Meditation is definetely not about coming to turns and accept all sufferings you feel and just stay there. If you can't see any benefit of the technique then it's useless. I warmly recommend metta bhavana (loving kindness) as a way to come back to meditation, if you are in interest of doing so. And also read books about buddhism, vipassana, buddhist meditation and meditation in general. It really helped me to understand why it ended up so badly for me in the beginning and how to enjoy meditation again.


I wish you all the best.

Kind regards,
Marcus

perriwinkle

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #13 on: February 09, 2017, 12:54:08 AM »
Hi Marcus
Thank you for your kind words and for posting about your experience. I am sorry that you went through a difficult time like I did. It helps to know that we are not alone. In regards to your question, I do feel grateful in a way. I think people often learn and grow after going through any challenging experience in life. For example, now I feel more empathy with meditators, as you said, and also with people who have mental illnesses. During and after my crisis I ended up re-evaluating my life and thinking intensely and creatively about my interests, goals, and beliefs. Still, I don't believe that anyone should continue meditating when they notice that symptoms of mental illness are emerging...I hope that one day people will be better aware of the risks involved and make informed decisions about meditation
Thank you for the suggestions, I am not back to meditation again but maybe someday

Meditative

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Re: Mental breakdown triggered by meditation
« Reply #14 on: February 09, 2017, 05:39:13 AM »
This has always been a fear of mine, that meditation would reveal and exacerbate underlying mental illness. I've experienced extreme fear on a psilocybin mushroom trip, probably due to me resisting the crap out of a forced ego death. During the trip I was totally convinced I was going to die or be unstable for the rest of my life. It was 3 hours of hell that felt like 3 days.  Luckily I haven't had any negative lasting effects from the experience. In fact it has actually made my life better because I'm not so afraid anymore of going back to that place. I'm less afraid to experience pain... it can be an great teacher.

 

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