I just read a fascinating (and somewhat frightening)article at The Atlantic about the dark side of meditation.
Yes, the dark side.
Growing up going to conservative Christian churches and schools, I was repeatedly told of the dangers of certain types of mediation, contemplation and repetition of mantras. It was pretty much part of the package in discussions/sermons/lectures/diatribes on the occult.
What strikes me with this article is that it’s not coming from a Christian POV at all. From The Atlantic:
Set back on quiet College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, sits a dignified, four story, 19th-century house that belongs to Dr. Willoughby Britton. Inside, it is warm, spacious, and organized. The shelves are stocked with organic foods. A solid wood dining room table seats up to 12. Plants are ubiquitous. Comfortable pillows are never far from reach. The basement—with its own bed, living space, and private bathroom—often hosts a rotating cast of yogis and meditation teachers. Britton’s own living space and office are on the second floor. The real sanctuary, however, is on the third floor, where people come from all over to rent rooms, work with Britton, and rest. But they’re not there to restore themselves with meditation—they’re recovering from it.
“I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror,” says David, a polite, articulate 27-year-old who arrived at Britton’s Cheetah House in 2013. “I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”
Michael, 25, was a certified yoga teacher when he made his way to Cheetah House. He explains that during the course of his meditation practice his “body stopped digesting food. I had no idea what was happening.” For three years he believed he was “permanently ruined” by meditation.
“Recovery,” “permanently ruined”—these are not words one typically encounters when discussing a contemplative practice.
On a cold November night last fall, I drove to Cheetah House. A former student of Britton’s, I joined the group in time for a Shabbat dinner. We blessed the challah, then the wine; recited prayers in English and Hebrew; and began eating.
Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, works at the Brown University Medical School. She receives regular phone calls, emails, and letters from people around the world in various states of impairment. Most of them worry no one will believe—let alone understand—their stories of meditation-induced affliction. Her investigation of this phenomenon, called “The Dark Night Project,” is an effort to document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices.
The morning after our Shabbat dinner, in Britton’s kitchen, David outlines the history of his own contemplative path. His first retreat was “very non-normal,” he says, “and very good … divine. There was stuff dropping away … [and] electric shocks through my body. [My] core sense of self, a persistent consciousness, the thoughts and stuff, were not me.” He tells me it was the best thing that had ever happened to him, an “orgasm of the soul, felt throughout my internal world.”
David explains that he finally felt awake. But it didn’t last.
He traveled back and forth from Asia to home seeking guidance, but found only a deep, persistent dissatisfaction in himself. After “bumming around Thailand for a bit,” he moved to San Francisco, got a job, and sat through several more two- and 10-week meditation retreats. Then, in 2012, David sold his car to pay for a retreat at the Cloud Mountain Center that torments him still.
“Psychological hell,” is how he describes it. “It would come and go in waves. I’d be in the middle of practice and what would come to mind was everything I didn’t want to think about, every feeling I didn’t want to feel.” David felt “pebble-sized” spasms emerge from inside a “dense knot” in his belly.
He panicked. Increasingly vivid pornographic fantasies and repressed memories from his childhood began to surface.
“I just started freaking out,” he says, “and at some point, I just surrendered to the onslaught of unwanted sexual thoughts … a sexual Rolodex of every taboo.” As soon as he did, however, “there was some goodness to it.” After years of pushing away his emotional, instinctual drives, something inside David was “reattached,” he says.
Toward the end of his time at the Cloud Mountain Center, David shared his ongoing experiences with the retreat leaders, who assured him it was probably just his “ego’s defenses” acting up. “They were really comforting,” he says, “even though I thought I was going to become schizophrenic.”
Yikes! “Unwanted sexual thoughts”, “spasms”, “freaking out”? That seems less a “dark night” and more an all out spiritual war. More:
The phrase “dark night of the soul,” can be traced back to a 16th-century Spanish poem by the Roman Catholic mystic San Juan de la Cruz, or Saint John of the Cross. It is most commonly used within certain Christian traditions to refer to an individual’s spiritual crisis in the course of their union with God.
The divine experiences reported by Saint John describe a method, or protocol, “followed by the soul in its journey upon the spiritual road to the attainment of the perfect union of love with God, to the extent that it is possible in this life.” The poem, however, is linked to a much longer text, also written by Saint John, which describes the hardships faced by those who seek to purify the senses—and the spirit—in their quest for mystical love.
According to Britton, the texts of many major contemplative traditions offer similar maps of spiritual development. One of her team’s preliminary tasks—a sort of archeological literature review—was to pore through the written canons of Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen Buddhism, as well as texts within Christianity, Judaism, and Sufism. “Not every text makes clear reference to a period of difficulty on the contemplative path,” Britton says, “but many did.”
The Dark Night Project is young, and still very much in progress. Researchers in the field are just beginning to carefully collect and sort through the narratives of difficult meditation-related experiences. Britton has presented her findings at major Buddhist and scientific conferences, prominent retreat centers, and even to the Dalai Lama at the 24th Mind and Life Dialogue in 2012.
“Many people in our study were lost and confused and could not find help,” Britton says. “They had been through so many doctors, therapists, and dharma teachers. Given that we had so much information about these effects, we realized that we were it.”
Read the whole thing. And check out Rod Dreher’s post on “The Jesus Prayer” and meditation where I first saw the link to this story.