Samadhi practice and Dissociative Disorder

I have been practicing Anapana and letting go practices for quite a while now and have noticed I am maybe focused too much on the insubstantial nature in daily life too often. Disidentifying and being aloof are easy to reside in. Could precepts and monasteries be what keep someone from a state of disconnection and almost in a trancelike state? I ran across this video where Shinzen Young brings this topic to light a bit.
(Sorry this was a big edit, being too personal)


Hey Westbury, thanks for the detailed account! I’d like to help, but I find the internet is really not a great context to talk about this kind of thing. I wonder whether you have anyone nearby who you can discuss with?

And as for the reference, can you be more specific? Thanks.


I am in VA, about 3 hours from Bhante G at Bhavana society. I have spoken with him about my practice in the past, but not specifically on these issues.
The video goes into seeing depersonalization and derealization states as the evil twin to enlightenment. He says there’s a very small number of people who fall into this state and he has had difficulty getting people through those experiences. His method to get them to reconstruct a lot of positive practices on their blank canvas. He goes on to mention that there’s Canonical sources explaining “falling into the pit of the void” But didnt leave a reference point. Could these be similar to trance?


Okay, well that’s good. So I’d encourage you to visit Bhavana and discuss it with Bhante G if he’s around, or else with one of the other residents. These are subtle and personal matters and it is hard to really see the person you’re talking to on the internet.

I’m afraid we’ll need something more specific to find the reference. It may be a paraphrase of something in the suttas, but it doesn’t immediately ring a bell.


My main concern would be states of trance and disconnection that could be misunderstood as samadhi which could result in large lapses of time without insight. but I guess trance would be all unenlightened minds in a way. I’ll continue to feel the breeze on my face and the beat of my heart in the meantime. Thanks for your input and reminder of discernment Bhante

Hi westbury,

I am not an expert but i can perhaps bring some insights from personal experience. This is a very subtle trap that easy to fall in to. When we contemplate impermanent and unsatisfactory nature of the world, instead of becoming dispassionate we can fall in to sate of very subtle resistance or we can even become contemptuous towards the world.

The remedy is to first understand it as an unwholesome mental state and replace it with wholesome mental states. In this regard practicing any one of the brahmaviharas is extremely effective.


I have been using Bhante Sujato’s 2005 guided metta retreat lately. Actually loving kindness is something very easy for me to do, but the main concern is it may keep me mingling with the world of the 5 senses and unconducive relations for too long. I feel selfishly happy with deep kindness for others but come off too solemn and distant. If only my friends were Dhamma practitioners, they’d be grateful to be around me :slight_smile: then again, to express myself I am thinking with a form of conceit worrying about others’ opinions.

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Hi westbury,

The following sutta teaches how to balance the metta practice.


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Also it’s important to keep in mind that both parties are participating in acrobatics. The trouble comes in to place when there isn’t a structured agreed upon role. For instance, there is the agreed upon commitment in a relationship, but the eightfold path brings a completely different dynamic when it comes to developing sense restraint, samadhi, and renunciation. how about a new sexual or otherwise orientation of “no strings attached, but I need your help in its evolution”? If only…

Trouble is we expect too much from life. Outcome does not matter if we are secure within our selves.

“So Ānanda, be your own island, your own refuge, with no other refuge. Let the teaching be your island and your refuge, with no other refuge.”


[quote=“lankaputra, post:10, topic:11167, full:true”]
“So Ānanda, be your own island, your own refuge, with no other refuge. Let the teaching be your island and your refuge, with no other refuge.”

You’re right. And as a byproduct so many people are attracted to those that cultivate that attitude. I guess that’s “taking care of others”. We shall see as we all take the next steps on the path. Somehow things turn out just the way they’re supposed to.

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Hi Paul. I’m not an expert on these issues, but found your question interesting and thought I’d weigh in. With the title of your OP mentioning Dissociative Disorder, you likely already know that from a clinical perspective, people with dissociative disorders expereince these states as a result of prior serious traumas in their lives. One definition that I just looked up is " Dissociative disorders are mental disorders that involve experiencing a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions and identity. People with dissociative disorders escape reality in ways that are involuntary and unhealthy and cause problems with functioning in everyday life."

And so, it seems to me that we can draw a bright line between healthy samadhi bhavana and the disordered states that can arise from prior trauma or other psychological disorders. These healthy practices are those that we actively and mindfully cultivate, that help lead us to vipassana, or clear seeing of reality. On the other hand, an unhealthy dissociative state is a defense mechanism to prior traumas ( in some cases) that lead one to disconnect from reality.

Your question is such a good one, as there seems to be some overlap, ambiguity, or confusion, with deeper meditation practice, where persons on retreats ( for example) might be in a psychological crisis and have that state be confused as jhana, an experience of anatta, or some other absorption state. Most meditation teachers are likely wholly unqualified to offer guidance in these circumstances, though it has always seemed to me that meditation teachers would do well to engage in some training to identify and refer properly people who might be in dissociative or other unhealthy psychological states while on an intensive retreat. Kind of like swimmming instructors being required to learn CPR… I’ve admired Bhante Sujato for his prior mentions/discussions of his own collaborations with clinicians in Australia and engagement with these clinical experts on these psychological issues. I’ve enjoyed some of the work of my neighbor at that actively explore these issues.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that from your OP I thought that this was an issue you were experiencing personally; you raised a really good question. But, it seems to me that anyone that has questions about dissociative states while in samadhi cultivation might align themselves with a good psychologist or LCSW that also meditates, and explore these concerns. Meditation has been found to be a of great benefit to those with trauma histories, and it seems that this benefit is best found with alignment with clinicians that can supervise and direct practitioners to explore samadhi without touching psychological concerns that can arise while cultivating these healthy states.


Thank you for posting this. I recently read a sobering article on meditation gone wrong and it was very informative. I had not realized such issues existed. For a while I have been meaning to ask the question you just answered but did not know how to post it.

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I asked a similar question in DW. There is a personal reason behind this question even though I can’t discuss this here at this moment. My understanding is that it is important to practice the Noble Eightfold Path as a whole. If you do only meditation but nothing else you can have some problems. It is important that you develop meditation gradually while doing the normal day to day work.


IMO there are few things in life that don’t have a double-edged nature: what can be helpful to some people in some circumstances, the very same thing can be unhelpful to other people in other situations (something that holds IMO for beliefs, spiritual practices and paths too).

This passage from Jack Kornfield’s book A Path With Heart comes to mind:

Meditation: Reflecting On The Shadow Of Your Form Of Practice

Just as every community has a shadow, every set of teachings will also have areas of shadow, aspects of life that they do not illuminate wisely. Every style of teaching will also produce its near enemy, the way that particular teaching can be most easily misused or misunderstood. It can be useful to take some time to reflect on the strengths and limitations of the practice you have chosen to follow. You can then consider to what extent these are issues in your own spiritual life. The following examples hint at the possible shadows you may encounter.

Insight Meditation and similar Buddhist practices can lead to quietude, to withdrawal from and fear of the world. The emptiness taight in Zen and nondualist Vedanta can lead to a related problem, to being disconnected and ungrounded. Any form of idealistic, otherworldly teaching that sees life on earth as a dream and focuses on higher realms can lead one to live with complacency, amorality, and indifference. Physical practices such as hatha yoga can lead to bodily perfection instead of an awakening of the heart. Kindulani yoga can lead students to become can lead students to become experience junkies in search of exciting sensations of body and mind rather than liberation. Those such as Krishnamurti and others who teach against any discipline or method of practice can lead people to remain intellectual about spiritual life without providing any deep inner experience. Practices that involve a great deal of study can do the same. Moralistic practices with strong rules about what is pure and what is not can reinforce low self-esteem or lead to rigidity and self-righteousness. Practices of tantra can become an excuse to act out desires as a pseudo form of spiritual practice. Devotion practices can leave clarity and discriminating wisdom undeveloped. Powerful gurus can make us thing we can’t do it ourselves. Partices of joy and celebration such as Sufi dancing may leave students lacking an understanding of the inevitable loss and sorrows of life. Practices that emphasize suffering can miss the joy of life.

As you reflect on these shadows, consider your own spiritual path and tradition. Let youself sense its strengths and weaknesses, its gifts and the ways it can be misused. Notice where you may be caught and what more you might need. Remember that there is nothing wrong with any of these practices per se. They are simply tools for opening and awakening. Each can be used skillfully or unknowingly misused. As you mature in your own spiritual life, you can take responsibility for your own practice and reflect wisely on where you are entangled and what can awaken you to freedom in every realm.

The following interview with Leigh Brasington also might be relevant. A lot of it is about the problems people run into in jhana retreats he runs (seemingly a relatively frequent occurrence). Sometimes traumatic issues come to the surface (more meditation then may not always be the answer). Sometimes people become a bit too spaced out and ungrounded. Brasington has said that on some occasions on long retreats he has sent people off to do mundane chores like chopping wood or even off to have a cup of coffee in a local café to get more grounded (he gives a story where someone from a retreat in a meditation centre calls the local airport to tell them to route the flight paths away from the centre because they are disturbing their meditation, something which probably seemed totally logical to them at the time :wink: ). There’s a story about Dipa Ma there too (one of the side-effects of deep concentation seems to be a temporary shutting down of the brain’s multi-tasking and executive functioning capacities). Seemingly after such meditation she often had real difficulties for a spell doing simple everyday tasks like trying to open the front door (“How do I open the front door?” “Don’t I need something?” “Oh, yes, a key” “Now where is that key?” “Oh, yes, in my back pocket” :slight_smile: ). Brasington expresses the view that personal interaction with and the availability of teachers very familiar with these states is indispensable, that meditation isn’t a cure for all the ailments of the Western psyche, that more meditation isn’t always the answer (or maybe a different form of meditation might work better if the current one is causing problems – he suggests metta meditation in moderate doses may often be a useful alternative).

Leigh Brasington Interview


Wow. Thanks for that awesome quote from an awesome excerpt. I’ve often felt guilty for “abandoning” one teaching to pursue another over the decades. Reading this made me realize that by following teachers in succession we are able to engage and deal with near enemies. Zen meditation did indeed lead me to a disconnected peace that shattered when I went rock climbing. And rock climbing did lead to exciting sensations of the body and mind that are irrelevant in my current study of the suttas.


It’s best to discuss mental health issues with your GP, Psychiatrist or Therapist- or approach one as its important to get help with such issues. Dissociation seems to occur with anxiety, which can arise randomly - and I’m sure you have come across researched treatments modalities. Medication for anxiety and low moods can help. I would stick with loving-kindness meditation and walking meditation and sort out any physical health/sleep/exercise or other issues as well which might impact on mental health first.


This accords with an experience I had after coming out of a retreat once; while my level of memory loss wasn’t quite so extreme as that, the situation was compounded by being overseas. There was little English in the Mahasi retreat centre I went to in Thailand and I was teaching in a country where there were no Buddhists. This was pre-internet. I got back to work and found that I had forgotten the content of the university lectures I was about to give (that I’d been delivering for years). It was quite scary for a while. I got colleagues to talk me through some topics, reread the textbooks and enough came back. I made a ‘professional’ decision that I couldn’t risk going back to deep unsupervised meditation; also other scary ‘dark’ experiences on the cushion lead me to ease off meditating deeply. When I was back in Australia 3 years later I got a lot of joy from visiting Wat Buddha Dhamma, where I’d lived for a while previously, and then gradually I found myself gravitating to Ajahn Brahm’s gentler methods. I’m sure that if I’d access to one of the highly skilled Buddhist psychologists that practice in Sydney l’d have got through it more easily.


@Gillian @karl_lew
Glad you liked the Kornfield passage. Thanks for sharing a little of your meditation experiences. The memory loss sounds scary.

I suspect I’m only a youngster in terms of Buddhist meditation (less than about 3 years) compared to the two of you, though I’ve had a spiritual practice (of a perennialist Christian hue; briefly referred to in my profile) for many years before that (though not one that really emphasized deep and profound meditation states: some meditation in it but the closest Buddhist equivalent to most of its practice would be metta and everyday mindfulness practice). I personally benefited a lot from it from its gradual bit-by-bit approach, but my experience is that I’m not sure that could be said for everyone I came across on that path.

Many (even most) found it helpful to varying degrees, but I’d say some definitely became more “disconnected and ungrounded” and for others the Kornfield quote applied:

“Any form of idealistic, otherworldly teaching that sees life on earth as a dream and focuses on higher realms can lead one to live with complacency, amorality, and indifference.”

I saw one or two who probably became bigger assholes (more judgmental in a more “spiritual”/passive aggressive way). There were also some differing schools of interpretation/approach (the “split” seems to be inevitable feature of any spiritual/political movement/approach :wink: ) producing their own one true path bores!

Anyway, I came to the conclusion that spiritual paths are not necessarily an inevitable unqualified good. :slight_smile: Perhaps that may be even more true with practices with some use much more intense and focused meditation practice (a direction I’m gradually heading towards myself).

I found some of the descriptions of very intense (mostly dry) insight practice over on quite sobering. The practitioners there seem quite competitive (mostly male unsurprisingly) and very attainment and results driven. A kind of high risk high reward philosophy (long intense meditation retreats encouraged). And there do appear to be casualties (people ending up in rather unpleasant states, seemingly endless cycling through phases that include a “dark night” phase).

And from the Brasington link above, jhana practice can come with its own issues too. So probably some caution, care, and gentleness needed with some of these practices.

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I think there’s a lot to be said for following the Gradual Path. Thinking about these issues in terms of ‘shadow’ is nice. Every tradition that has a shadow also has a face that is turned towards the light. :sunny: