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Mindfulness & psychosis

I read by chance an online article from pennlive.com about the case of a young woman, Megan Vogt, who was found dead following an attempt of suicide 10 weeks after her 10-day intensive vipassana retreat.

Her last note say “Please forgive me for doing this, I remember what I did at the retreat. I finally got that memory. I can’t live with me”. She had also an intensive email with the center and in her email it says that 8 days after the retreat she ended in psyche-ward and memory-loss. She could focus any longer. Her mind kept going to the retreat time. And, at last they found her dead.

The summary is logic but rather make me uneasy as the current situation would be different (country wise). It said that meditation can be powerful and restorative, but at the same time, it opens to everything in the past within our mind, including potentially if we have repressed memories from trauma. Instead retreats are viewed as essentially not risky which can be problematic. And this makes me uneasy.

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the link 'She didn't know what was real': Did 10-day meditation retreat trigger woman's suicide? - pennlive.com

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As has been pointed out multiple times on this forum…


All opinions by participants on this thread are deemed to be be expressions of their own personal experience, which are not necessarily valid for other participants. This forum, as also the internet should not comprise the primary source of advice for anyone regarding their lifestyle, diet, meditation practice etc. Users are advised to seek professional personalized advice from their own doctors and spiritual advisers. Meditation practices can be harmful, and potentially even life threatening if embarked upon without adequate professional supervision.

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I am so sorry. :pray:

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No problem… it is indeed an important conversation which is worth having. But as a mod, I have a duty to warn readers about the nature of the content… :slightly_smiling_face:

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It has been better reported for quite some time now that mindfulness meditation can really trigger trauma or psychosis. As they say " the issues are in the tissues" and there have been books like : The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma which talks how trauma affects the body . There has also been a book specifically about mindfulness and trauma : Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing . One of the foremost researchers in the field of mindfulness related trauma that I know of is Dr. Willoughby Britton and she has set up a non profit called Cheetah House and as seen in their website :

Cheetah House is a non-profit organization that provides information and resources about meditation-related difficulties to meditators-in-distress and providers or teachers of meditation-based modalities.

Dr. Britton has also shared freely a toolbox that you can download here if you are interested : Meditation Safety Toolbox | The Britton Lab | Brown University

According to her findings it does not only happen to people with traumatic experience or those who do intensive practice. It also happens to people who have no prior history of psychosis , disturbance or those who do casual practice . Fortunately there are now meditation centers whose instructors undergo trauma training .

Here is a related article to Dr. Britton :

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This is a very important topic which is often left unspoken in meditation teaching circles. I have long felt that there needs to be a suitably trained person available at meditation retreats to provide support and comfort to anyone experiencing psychological distress as a result of meditation practice. The above-mentioned resources are valuable.

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SN 54.9 springs to mind:

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I am not sure what kind of conclusions we can take from these stories? Just an attempt:

If:

1- We are fragile
2- There is nothing we can do that is risk free or without possible drawbacks.

Then:

1- Whatever we do, we better do it with care
2- To take risks doing something worthwhile is always better than taking risks doing something useless.

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Would anyone with Goenka retreat experience be happy to share their thoughts?

Is this retreat described in the article typical of Goenka retreats? (things like: access to medicine being denied, people with no experience being allowed to take on an intensive retreat, teachers with vague credentials being allowed to lead a retreat)

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Two weeks of extreme sleep deprivation with 6 to 10 hours spent in prolonged stress positions each day is, IMO, literally a form of torture. No wonder people get traumatized.

Sleep deprivation is not good for physical and mental health, e.g.

Although scientists are still trying to tease apart all the mechanisms, they’ve discovered that sleep disruption — which affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, among other things — wreaks havoc in the brain, impairing thinking and emotional regulation. In this way, insomnia may amplify the effects of psychiatric disorders, and vice versa.

I have to admit, I’m really skeptical of what I perceive as a positive attitude towards sleep deprivation in some Buddhist circles.

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I agree with this . Even doing something as simple as picking something up caused a woman I heard from to be hospitalised. She tried to pick up a coin and wasnt able to stand upright and was brought to the hospital . Just as simple as picking up something. What I do believe needs to happen is more awareness and information that mindfulness meditation can do this or that. Because normally what you only hear are that you would get relaxed etc. Also more trauma training for teachers or supervisors of meditation centers.

Sadly based on what I gathered from other meditators this is not a one off issue when it comes to Goenka centers .I think it stems from the lack of trained superviors / teachers . Based on the biography of Goenka as reviewed here :

Goenka never felt his students were competent to teach the Dharma themselves

As a result, Goenka only permitted his video/audio talks on retreats while his assistant teachers answered basic meditation questions.

and a criticism from Christopher Titmuss :

The assistant teachers can only offer the barest advice on the technique to the students on the Goenka courses. A student spends a maximum of five minutes with the assistant teacher. Students may require much longer to go deep into an issue but the course does not provide such opportunity or only very rarely.

The assistant teachers never give a Dharma talk themselves as the course plays a video of a Goenka course. The same assistants do not know how to give meditation instructions as they only have permission to play an audio talk of Goenka’s instructions.

Well also 10 day retreats can be too much for a person or someone without prior knowledge of the possible negative effects. But still I am very grateful that through Goenka many people has been reached by the dhamma but something needs to change .

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If i may add to your good input. I think it is the duty of individual practitioners to set the relationship with institutions right. Institutions, be it the media that reports on such stories, or organized retreats, or even psychiatry have their own logic in presenting causality. Dismissing them as irrelevant is wrong hence transparency is important, but to take their input as necessarily authoritative or accurately prescriptive under all circumstances is deluded in my opinion. Taking their input in proper context ensures good use of the shared information while keeping the individual practitioner responsible of his/her actions/choices.

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@anne … Correct 100%, the problem is not the mindfulness itself. The problem is about the teacher, unqualified teacher makes mindfulness bad and there are lot. … Reminding me of a discussion over the controversy of teacher list in the Mahasi Techniques . The Board of The Mahasi techniques take that there are a lot of people who claim him/herself to be an expert of the Mahasi Method. Some make their own book ubder the name of Mahasi Techniques. Some even claim that they have already been an Arahant or Sotapanna (actually, they are not qualified because they have already trapped in their own feeling).

The accident in US is to be remembered that we need a good teacher not just teacher or even self proclaim a teacher.

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@Bundokji

The conclusion should not be about the method taught by the Buddha. It is absolute.

The conclusion should be discussing about who should be allowed to teach Mindfulness. There are a lot people who take only 1 retreat but they consider themselves already an expert in mindfulness. And (I am very sorry to say and please do not get me wrong - without bad intention) not even every Bhikkhu allowed to teach mindfulness. Only a few are eligible to be called Bhante (or teacher). :pray:

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Agreed.

I don’t understand, in general, this whole extensively long retreat thing. I have read a lot of suttas, maybe I have missed it, but I don’t remember reading in the suttas any instructions to go on excessively long retreats or anything like that.

I personally think they just add to the “achievement culture” we live in. But as I often say, what do I know.

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I would say there are probably “expert[s]s in mindfulness” without any retreat experience. I would take a risk and say, the teacher probably didn’t have much to do with this unfortunate situation.

One could argue retreats are not necessary to the development of the path, since within the suttas, I don’t see any instruction to go on retreat. Now, if somebody has a sutta that does please share.

There are a lot of problems with this article in my opinion. Causation does not equal correlation.

Also, a lot of people are marketed these retreats, and really have no idea what they are getting themselves into. I have spoken to a few people who went on 10-day or even 15-day retreats, and they didn’t even know the core teachings—their admission, not my assumption.

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@rcdaley … maybe :pray:

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If such conclusion would make people feel more certain about what they do, then no problems. It seems to be inline with due diligence when the mindfulness teacher is cross-checked by other experts in the field of mindfulness meditation. Also determining how many retreats he has under his built would provide an objective criteria for spiritual seekers. Having the teacher certified would also enable people to avoid a lot of confusion when they try to determine responsibility when things go wrong, and would provide consolations for the families of the victims when the teacher gets punished for not acting responsibly, and would therefore restore faith in the system.

Such state of affairs seems much healthier than the poor woman who appeared perfectly healthy before committing suicide after a ten days retreat as per the media article.

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I have come to believe that problems like the one described in the OP arise largely due to the tendency, especially in Western cultures, to try to step on the path at the end rather than at the beginning. There can be a kind of hubris in thinking that training in morality is not necessary, or that we’re already moral enough, and dismissing it out of hand.

In truth, the path is designed to first prepare the ground (of the mind) to be fertile, and this cannot be skipped over without risking harmful repercussions. Developing moral conduct is the beginning of mindfulness training, as we have to be mindful in order to change our basic conduct from unskillful to skillful. This training also begins to tame the coarsest defilements in the mind.

Further training the mind, through samadhi practices, continues to prepare the mind for transformative insight. In the category of samadhi practices I would include not only breath meditation, but any kind of heart training, especially the brahmaviharas. But daily life practices would be included too, like gratitude, the six recollections (which inspire confidence and inspiration in the heart), and contentment with little. In a nutshell – learning how to calm the heart.

A mind that has been prepared by training in moral conduct, basic mindfulness, and mental calming, and that has at least an intellectual understanding of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self, is better prepared for an intensive retreat where transformative insights might arise.

Preparing the ground in this way would go a long way toward preventing unfortunate outcomes.

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