The Necessary Dark Night?

I’ve been reading about this researcher who deals with people who have been negatively affected by meditation, like permanently it seems. I’ve also seen that a lot of people have this idea that this whole “dark night” stage is 100% necessary to the “progress to insight” as they call it. I’m not really a big fan of that model, but I do think people can go through those stages. I’m just not convinced it leads to true awakening.

I’ve also read a recent article, and you can find this too if you just search google, of a girl who went on a vipassana retreat recently, lost her mind while on it, literally, and when she asked for help they just told her to keep meditating, for 3 more days straight! This could have been just another story of someone getting in too deep too quickly and in a place that was not run properly, but unfortunately that is not how this needed. She left the retreat with her family, totally gone and a wreck, and continued to email the retreat staff asking for help. They clearly didn’t help and instead ignored her emails, and a few weeks after the retreat, she successfully committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

This is obviously a problem. There are people saying this is something you have to go through to reach awakening, and there are people killing themselves because they are going through this. Something isn’t right. It’s strange too because it makes me think of my own mind and circumstance. Like in MN20 when the Buddha talks about “mind crushing mind.” I’ve pretty much lived in that my entire life, and so I can’t imagine ever really being affected like that, having that “dark night.” I’m just stable like that, always have been, I had to be to survive. So what, now because I can’t have this dark night I can’t reach awakening? That’s nonsense. And what, someone who doesn’t have a mind that can handle these deeply distrubing states of mind can’t reach awakening either?

If you are so psychologically twisted and wrecked by the very practice that is supposed to be helping you, to the point that you kill yourself?! There has to be another way. These people need to reevaluate their whole progress of insight model, and they especially need to make sure there is an on-call psychologist at these retreat centers. This girl had very slight anxiety issues before her retreat, that’s it. Everyone has very slight anxiety issues! And all she did was meditate, nothing unusual, just intensive meditation. These retreat centers can’t think that meditation just automatically fixes everything. Obviously this girl had a predisposition to a very serious mental illness that the meditation brought out (she was saying she wasn’t real and she wasn’t supposed to exist all this insanity). At that moment someone should have said, “stop meditating right now, go see the psychologist, take this emergency xanax, we’re calling your family to come get you.” They told her to KEEP meditating! I mean my god, smarten up.

Here’s a link to the article:

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Meditation retreats are tricky things. Like medication, the more powerful it is, the more side effects it can have. Equally placebos have the lowest rate of side effects. I have conducted retreats of jhana and vipassana (not to be confused with Vipassana technique of Goenka) and even after using screening questions to rule out mental health issues, one person turned out to have depression which got worse- probably due to the lack of communication and lack of family around her, lack of familiarity and perhaps lack of some of her usual comforts. I discovered this because I happened to use a anonymised depression screening questionnaire at the start and end of the retreat. It wasn’t very serious but it was concerning. Equally the other 20 or so participants were doing well. I think if there is a previous history of depression or especially of psychosis it is best to get those conditions under good control and take baby steps before jumping into intensive retreats. With psychosis it is possibly good to avoid deep meditation unless it is very well controlled by antipsychotic medication. The nature of the retreat matters as well. Vipassana retreats have a bad reputation about this. Some centres which may have quickly sprung up running without an actual teacher, with just instructors running them. The human mind is unfortunately too messy for a factory-like approach to realisation.

Factors of stream entry are:

  1. have spiritual friends
  2. Listen to the true teachings
  3. Contemplation of those teachings (yonisomanasikara)
  4. Practice according to the dhamma

Now some people think it is good to begin at 4. I think this can lead to trouble. When one has been in the company of people who may embody these truths, have heard the full doctrine and have thought through and ironed out the conflicting information (‘made clear in terms of views’) when the practice is performed there is no conflict. They have made a gradual trek from ignorant way of thinking to incorporating insightful ways into their thinking. They’ve had the time to think about it, play with it and work it out for themselves. All they need to do now is realisation.

I believe those who experience the most amount of distress are those who come least prepared. My wife and her best friend both went on a Vipassana retreat. Her friend was an ex-Christian and she had to terminate the retreat as she started seeing not-self and was too taken aback by it. My wife was a born Buddhist and she found it no problem at all and found the retreat very good. Another factor for this ‘dark night’ is I think the degree of attachment to things. When impermanence, dukkha and not-Self starts becoming very apparent, the more attached someone is the more difficult it will be to let go. It becomes a kind of suffering due to attachment.

There is a difficult moment when tilakkhana becomes apparent and revulsion or nibbida starts to appear at the sheer delusory nature of the world we thought we lived in is seen. This might last anything from an hour to 2-3 days. It depends on the preparation including whether the person has access to jhana. Vipassana based on doing jhana first is the best of the Four paths to Nibbana IMO because of this. The jhana is containing, and calming while Vipassana at that stage is necessarily deconstructive and potentially agitating. Doing both on the same day really helps. All in all people go through much more pain just to run 5k. With the goal as realisation a little bit of a downside is not much of a sacrifice.

Get experienced and expert advice if mental health issues are in the picture though.

With metta

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I am not either. I was involved in this form of practice for several years in the US. It was normal for pretty much everyone by the end of a 10 day retreat to experience strong emotional upheavals and this was seen as a sign of progress. It does not surprise me that the girl was pressured to continue - the view is that you need to just keep pushing harder when things get difficult.

I don’t believe there is any support in the EBT’s for this type of practice but that doesn’t seem to bother them at all - they basically see it as a new and improved version.

A friend of mine made the switch a couple of years ago from the dry vipassana practice to working with a metta/jhana teacher and I asked him if during the jhana retreats people were having all these emotional problems and he told me no - not at all.

It would be interesting to hear from Ajahn Sujato if he encounters these kinds of problems in the retreats he does.

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The concept of the dark night of the soul is a concept in Christian mysticism and seems to me very much a reflection of the Christian world view out of which that tradition developed. The idea seems to be that before one can reach salvation and paradise one must first pass through some horrible purgatorial wasteland where the spirit is deprived of the presence of God. Only once one has been painfully purged can one then emerge into the light of redemption through divine grace. Similarly, the idea may be that one needs to imitate Christ by going through a similar “passion”, and will have to be crucified to the world before being resurrected.

This same pattern is repeated in America in a variety of more secular contexts, and I am disturbed to hear it is part of the American Buddhist “meditation industry.” It sounds very much like other classic American versions of “taking the cure” - like detox centers, rehab centers, “fat farms” and deprogramming centers. Americans seem very attracted to the idea that one can take a time out from their manic and frustrating lives and go to some kind of purgatorial “boot camp” where they get the spiritual or psychological shit kicked out of them, in an “intensive program”, so they can then go back to the worldly frenzy as a transformed person.

Importing these notions into Buddhism seems quite inappropriate to me. Although there are a few places in the suttas where some monks are depicted as freaking out, or being suicidal, on the whole the path is depicted as completely wholesome and a gradual ascent through deeper realms of freedom and joy, with no “dark night” along the way. The second jhana is a happier state than the first jhana, and the third jhana is a happier state than the second jhana, etc. The only dark night depicted is the worldly misery that preceded entering the order and striving toward arahantship. Usually, these new entrants to the order are represented as delighted just to join and get started. They exult in the fact that they have left their household obligations and drudgery behind. They wander into the woods, “do jhana”, make inspired exclamations about their happiness and bliss, and attain freedom.

The Buddha taught a gradual training toward liberation, a gradual process of wearing away the cravings for and attachments to objects of worldly desire, not an “intensive program” with a side path through the hell realms. Even Angulimala didn’t go into meditation boot camp. The Buddha first focused on just teaching him how to beg, and how to endure the vilification, ridicule, verbal assault and physical assault that went with it. This gradual effacement of his pride and hostility prepared him the final process. Also, when the monks did experience fear and dread, just from being alone in the woods at night, he didn’t just say “tough it out loser, and try harder!” He taught them parittas they could use to ward off their fear.

A lot of this comes from the America expectation that they can cram into a weekend or a few weeks all of the progress that monks make over many years under the watchful care of spiritual friends, starting with basic baby steps. But the American experience with Buddhism is also heavily influenced by imports from the Zen and Tantric tradition, which includes ideas about the “fast path” and sudden enlightenment, and demanding military-like masters or spiritual shamans who will send you on an emotionally jarring vision quest through a psychedelic horrorshow.

I have never been on a meditation retreat, and never intend to go one one. Although I live a household life, I am fortunate in that it is a very quiet household life, with ample time for meditation. I see the ads for meditation retreats in the American Buddhist magazines, but the whole scene has a bad smell to me. Unfortunately, there is a thriving industry of mainly non-monastic teachers who now have a substantial livelihood stake in keeping that industry going.

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I have heard the “dark night” stuff coming from the perspective of someone who claims to be Arahant lay person - so, make sure you investigate the source.

That being said, I think you can go through emotional stuff - it can come up in the course of meditation practice, for sure.

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Well, I think there is no doubt that the original source of the phrase “The Dark Night of the Soul” is the work by the same name by Saint John of the Cross.

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I meant in the context of Buddhist meditation, but thanks for the clarification! :slight_smile:

Well “dark night” is a more of a name some people use for the dukkha-nanas in the path to insight, as well as the name willoughby britton used in her research (she’s the one doing research on those who have had severely negative effects from their contemplative practice), and yeah it was definitely taken and based off of saint john of the cross. I know who you’re talking about, but this extends far beyond him, and really has nothing to do with him, at least not what I’m talking about here.

Thanks for this difficult but very real topic!

My general skepticism is that many people don’t actually know what Buddhism is, no matter if they call themselves ‘Buddhists’ or participate in ‘Buddhist retreats’. People who know their Buddhism also know that it’s a path of joy and peace (as @Mat, @DKervick and other experienced friends pointed out in other posts) - not as an ideal but in practice. I’d say if someone is suffering along the way then per definition they’re not applying the Buddhist path at that moment. The function of teachers is to help students on that path, and if they refuse to do that then they forfeit their right to be called teachers.

Fact is that the ‘esoteric scene’ attracts unstable westeners. If you go to ashrams, monasteries, retreats, satsangs, conventions… there is some percentage of people that one could be worried about. Looking from the outside the spiritual supermarket is structured by labels. People don’t know what’s inside when it has ‘Buddhist’, ‘mindfulness’, ‘vipassana’, ‘Dzogchen’ or whatever on it. They can’t because worldly life is strongly based on labels.

I’m afraid that this unfortunate reality of unstable ‘followers’ can’t be avoided, unless one branch/brand would make a reputation for itself for rigorous selection of unfit students. The more personal guru-system is better equipped for that. For example UG Krishnamurti or Nisargadatta (disregarding their dhamma for the moment) afaik didn’t tolerate unfit students or visitors well, whereas my guess is (please bring counter-examples!) that people won’t easily be rejected at retreats or monasteries.

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The progress of insight as described in the Visuddhimagga is structured like as below. This contains jhana, precepts, and developing right view before practicing vipassana.

In contrast look it this blog. He knew nothing of Buddhism, was vaguely into ‘healthy living’ and decided to go on the most intensive dry vipassana retreat available.

The difficult bits are the insight knowledges from 5-8 according to this non-EBT scheme below. It is reflected in penetrating into tilakkhana and nibbida, viraga and nirodha in the EBT schemes, nibbida being the hard bit, the intensity being, IMO related to the prior preparation undergone, including current practice of jhana, or at least deep samadhi. Having a good person who you trust in the retreat you can talk to helps too.

The Progress of Insight:
I. Purification of Conduct (sila-visuddhi)
The Method of Insight in Brief
II. Purification of Mind (citta-visuddhi)
III. Purification of View (ditthi-visuddhi)

  1. Analytical Knowledge of Body and Mind (nama-rupa-pariccheda-ñana)
    IV. Purification by Overcoming Doubt (kankha-vitarana-visuddhi)
  2. Knowledge by Discerning Conditionality (paccaya-pariggaha-ñana)
  3. Knowledge by Comprehension (sammasana-ñana)
  4. Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away (udayabbaya-ñana) in its weak stage, involving the Ten Corruptions of Insight
    V. Purification by Knowledge and Vision of What Is Path and Not Path (maggamagga-ñanadassana-visuddhi)
    VI. Purification by Knowledge and Vision of the Course of Practice (patipada-ñanadassana-visuddhi) (including mature Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away)
  5. Knowledge of Dissolution (bhanga-ñana)
  6. Awareness of Fearfulness (bhayatupatthana-ñana)
  7. Knowledge of Misery (adinava-ñana)
  8. Knowledge of Disgust (nibbida-ñana)
  9. Knowledge of Desire for Deliverance (muncitu-kamyata-ñana)
  10. Knowledge of Re-observation (patisankhanupassana-ñana)
  11. Knowledge of Equanimity about Formations (sankhar’upekkha-ñana)
  12. Insight Leading to emergence (vutthanagamini-vipassana-ñana)
  13. Knowledge of Adaptation (anuloma-ñana)

[Link]

@Gabriel, the retreat that I have come across do routinely ask whether applicants have mental health issues- but the problems are when they are intentionally concealed as was my experience above, and/or develop it or get worse while in the retreat. It is interesting while no one would think of running a marathon without any preparation, when it comes to mental development it doesn’t receive the same degree of consideration. ‘Parity of esteem’ for mental health compared to physical health is something that is being promoted in UK over the last few years, among professionals. I suspect the same attitudes are present in the population and I wonder if meditation has a reputation of being light-weight harmless pursuit in the west.

with metta

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Based on Jimi’s intriguing question, I looked up some of the articles on this supposed dark night phenomenon, and came away with the impression that much of it comes from people attempting to combine intensive meditation practice without any of the supporting disciplines and trainings, and without any real appreciation of, or commitment to, the Buddhist value-system or the ultimate goals of the Buddhist path, within which those meditation practices have their natural home.

For example, I read one story where the person who had one of these “bad meditation trips” reported losing interest in food and sex and everyday worldly pleasures, in his job , and in some of his personal relationships. And this terrified him and depressed him, because these results were completely opposite to his personal goals!

Well, duh. Even the most cursory familiarity with the Pali texts and teachings would inform a person that the gradual reduction of interest in food, sex, worldly attainments and occupations, and most of our complex social networks and relationships, is considered to be a natural and essential part of progress along the path. Has it escaped people’s notice that the Buddha abandoned his family, his clan and its obligations, his former occupation as a warrior, and his delicate life of sensual pleasure and gormandizing to wander as a solitary renunciant?

The reason, presumably, these outcomes do not always induce terror and depression in the practitioners of the true Holy Life is that while such practitioners are turning away from these worldly goods and pleasures, they are turning toward the blessings of peace, spiritual friendship, non-egoistic love, the bliss of real freedom and the unsurpassed goal of the holy life that seems to be getting increasingly near, and the subtle taste of which is growing more pronounced. So they are not only experiencing a sometimes disturbing emptying of their life of all its customary meanings and purposes, but at the same time a gradual filling of their life with something freer, purer and higher.

But if you think Buddhist meditation is some kind of samsaric enhancement technique that is going to give you better and more “tantric” orgasms, more relish of your delectable foods, more confidence, power and success in your worldly occupation, and a busy, involved network of friends, relatives and social connections, I think you are probably barking up the wrong tree.

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The wisdom of that practice gladdens my heart. Good on you.

  • Question:
    In your retreats how often does every participant have at least a brief, private conversation with the leader or another mature practitioner?
    It seems to me that a brief daily ‘check in’ would be smart.

In my opinion most people, Buddhists and others, would benefit by at least a cursory introduction to CBT - Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s a structured process of first being mindful of certain types of thinking (frameworks) that lead to unhappiness, depression and/or anxiety. All-or-nothing thinking is one example. Then some strategies for considering alternative, but equally rational, frameworks that lead to more calm, peaceful states.


I know of several self-development programs in the USA that also use a psychological screening process before the events and continued vigilance during the retreats. And sometimes participants become aroused and are pulled out and given a refund. To me all this seems normal and expected - traditions about “the village idiot”, fools and “madmen” were based on fact.

In the design of Goenka retreats one can go for days (and perhaps 9 days?) without speaking with anyone. I got through my Goenka retreat by slipping off several times with a co-conspirator for a frank discussion of what we were going through. In my opinion this breaking of the rules was the sane and wiser thing to do. For all know Goenka may expect and quietly condone that practice as long as it doesn’t disturb others.


FYI: I know someone who practiced zen meditation in the midst of an episode of depression. There were days when they reported it was like being attacked by Mara. On some days they stopped the sitting practice and took a vigorous walk or a run instead. That seemed like the enlightened thing to do to me too.

<irony alert!> I have little doubt that the phrase was much older.

See

I offered daily review of the meditation practice, which in hindsight was probably excessive. Every 2-3 days would have been adequate. There was also another advanced practitioner who could be approached. A few people did and seemed to find it useful. She would then discuss any concerns with me.

Depression can be an insidious thing- it is possible some didn’t know they were becoming depressed and may not always report it. If someone doesn’t really want to let the organizer know, there is no way to discover it. Participants would dressed simply, talk little, an eat two meals a day, and move silently- which could hide any outward manifestions of depression.

I know one person who left a psychiatric ward and went directly to a meditation retreat, hoping it would perhaps be the solution to everything despite advice to the contrary. We had no idea what happened to this person.

with metta

The “keep sitting” instruction is also common in Zen settings, where psychotic episodes are considered perfectly normal (though not required, and not everyone has them). Zen calls such mental breakage “makyo” and considers it to be the last gasp of an ego that doesn’t want to let go of pretending to be in charge. Having had some psychoses during a period of major depression, the cavalier approach is worrisome to me.

My second “breakthrough” was accompanied by a serious panic attack that lasted about eight hours. The first was astonishing and delightful, but the second was not. Both happened before I knew anything about Buddhism or meditation practices, so I didn’t know anyone to contact about the experiences, and couldn’t figure out how to even talk about them-- how could I describe something in which what I think of as “me” was whisked away? My best guess was that I’d become insane, and lived with some general anxiety about that for about a year.

I am sorry to hear this. It might be of interest to know there are no records of any lay person going on retreat in the EBTs. In one sutta Ven Sariputta asks Anatapindika (Buddha’s main benefactor) to stop giving and spend time in seclusion (incidentally, it doesn’t sound like he heeded the advice). There is also a place where an elephant care taker’s son says he practices the four foundations of mindfulness ‘from time to time’, which could be as and when opportunity presents itself. This is an area of interest to me as most people are very busy and have little time for intensive practice. The fourth (non-samatha or vipassana) option of the Yuganadda sutta sounds interesting but little is known about it.

"Then there is the case where a monk’s mind has its restlessness concerning the Dhamma well under control. There comes a time when his mind grows steady inwardly, settles down, and becomes unified & concentrated. In him the path is born. He follows that path, develops it, pursues it. As he follows the path, developing it & pursuing it — his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed. AN4.170

with metta

That sounds like someone who awakens naturally, like they just tend toward awakening, without any teaching or even conscious effort.

Yes, it is as if he has brought his thinking (speech and behaviour?) in line with the teachings and all (s)he has to do is wait for the Dhamma-eye to arise (‘the path is born’). He then develops the Noble Eightfold Path further until arahanthood.

Having said that it is likely to be the least favourable method, as often the dhamma in the sutta are in order (and when people debate they say 'your dhamma is not even in order, etc!).

With metta

Yeah for sure, I actually get the sense that it is someone who doesn’t even know what “the path” or the “Dhamma” is. They just naturally see what must be done to be released from suffering and the path just arises in them without even thinking about it. Maybe it’s kinda like those people that have those awakening experiences, without any knowledge of buddhism beforehand, like Eckhart Tolle (not necessarily him because I don’t think he took it all the way to true and complete awakening, but people like that). I don’t think that last one is something you can actually work toward. If you are already buddhist than it already excludes you from it. Obviously it must be a ridiculously rare thing. Either it just happens to you naturally or you take one of the other options. Also, I would make the distinction between this and a Buddha arising in the world. A Buddha comes to it naturally but they are geniuses about it and go on to teach everyone. I think these people don’t even really know what they did, they just did it, and so maybe they try to teach a little, but it’s nothing like the full teachings of the Buddha.

Are you talking about PacekkaBuddhas? It sounds like the AN4.170 quote was about one of the Buddha’s disciples - I don’t think such a person awakens ‘on their own.’