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Although it has been claimed that meditation does help in several ways, I have read on the Internet that there are cases where psychotic episodes, schizophrenia and suicide tendencies arise after meditation retreats.

Where I have read that this has happened is in Goenka's Vipassana retreats, which are 10 days long retreats. In particular, the only way to start at Goenka's retreats is first with a 10 days retreat.

I did one of those retreats without any unhealthy consequences, but I do confess that during the retreat I was kind of 'watching' myself to avoid any unhealthy episode.

  • Is there any explanation to this unhealthy responses to meditation retreats?
  • Is it clear why this happens?
  • Is there any way to minimize chances to get that wrong ?

In articles of Vipassana Research Institute it is kind of stated that the main source of this problems is that meditators have tried 'other traditions'. Is this a credible scientific answer?

Some references I found on the web:

  • Can you give reference to the mentioned article. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Sep 25 '14 at 3:22
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    Sankharas coming up? That's how I would observe it. Although I can't deny having similar feelings. But if you pull through, the clarity on the other side is worth practising for. – user3743672 Sep 25 '14 at 3:57
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    Some references are now included. – user3275957 Sep 25 '14 at 15:27
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    Updated answer to add a bit more information on ego defence mechanism. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Sep 25 '14 at 15:59
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    Expanded section on mixing techniques. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Sep 26 '14 at 3:55
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Things can go wrong in meditation. Some of the are as follows:

  • If you are not equanimous, i.e., you are reacting to different situation thus creating negativity. This can accumulate to an extent this might be very dangerous.
  • The basis of your meditation is greed, hatred or delusion. There are some techniques where the basis is this hence can easily go wrong. You have to be very careful and have a teacher to guide you if you do this type of meditation. E.g. in Kasina meditation you develop some attachment to the device. This should be very subtle but incorrectly practicing this can lead to an imbalance. In foulness meditation if you practice too much you might become polar to the other end where you even dislike your self and attempt suicide. This has happened in Buddha's time also.
  • Meditation you are area of different fears and other phobias and you closely be aware of them. This can result in imbalance of the mind if you are not strong and steadfastly equanimous. This can start tipping you over to the wrong direction.
  • If you strive way too hard always mindful of your progress and what you achieve you are continuously creating negativity hence you can fall into depression and anxiety. You should always do meditation for without attachment to the outcome or progress. You have to be balanced and equanimous.
  • You are trying to concentrate too much. This leads to disappointment when you fail. You are then accumulating negativity.
  • Meditation brings new experiences and sensations. If you react to them will cause problems as you are creating negativity.
  • You should be mindful of any polarity you have (temperament) you have and be sure you stop a particular type of samatha meditation when you are neutral if you do samatha
  • You have be be extremely mindful of the 5 hindrances and defilements and further be mindful that no Tanha or Upadana is in play. Sometimes you might be inadvertently developing some of these. If this continues you will go out of control so make sure you are on track. E.g. if something you are doing meditation is making you irritated, if you do not notice it soon enough and make amends to properly practice this will become stronger and can lead to depression. If you have doubts you this will have proliferation of thinking and logic followed by restlessness.
  • You have to be equanimous when Sankara comes up. Meditation shakes up Sankara. This means if you have something like mild depression, the intensity of this will also increase, as more and more Sankara comes up. The plus side is sooner it passes away better you become as this will eventually pass away.
  • Also we have built in to our self some form of ego defence mechanisms. Letting go of ego or perception of I or self can also cause lot of trauma. Best is to stay put, being equanimous and without reacting as reacting will cause more conditioning.

What is needed to be done is (so things don't go wrong):

  • you have to always be equanimous
  • you have the right concentration and awareness, i.e., not based in a slightest trace of attachment, hate, delusion and always be mindful of the arising and passing of sensation with 1) not reaction (equanimous) 2) looking at the 3 marks of existence
  • stick to Sathipattana and Anapana if you do not have a well experienced teacher
  • alway be mightful where any negativity arises even in meditation, i.e., you reaction to sensation / feelings
  • sensation / feeling is as part of us (5 aggregates), it also appears in the 4 noble truths (dukkha is also a feeling), dependent origination, Satipatthana. If you do not give adequate emphasis to this then you might not be practicing the right type of awareness or concentration. (see: Vedanā in the Practice of Satipaṭṭhāna)

One VRI reference I found where other techniques were discouraged: My experiences with Goenkaji. Here what is discouraged is the practice of Mantra and Tantra in the same time as practicing Vipassana. Though statistical / clinical trials may have not been done to the extent of drug approvals, this perception may have been formed based on experience. So to avoid danger it is best to accept it at face value.

Also see:

4

As this is a science driven question I will try to give a science driven answer first and then an additional comment.

People can have a nervous breakdown anywhere, watching TV, in a elevator, working out... I can find no scientific evidence that meditation can create such thing, I can say that for 2 reasons:

1- As far as I'm aware there is no group analysis or long term study on meditators (comparing to a non meditators group) to support that claim.

2- As far as I'm aware, there is no scientific evidence coming from reliable source or based on brain scans that might even suggest that.

That was the scientific answer from my point of view, based on my experience and limited knowledge of the subject.

Now comes the problem........meditation don't create problems, but can bring them to surface and make you deal with them, so it is strongly advised to meditate under a teacher specially if you have big traumas and issues, they can all come up strong during meditation.

  • I have no problems with downvotes, but it is more useful if the person explains what is wrong with the answer, it would be a good feedback, honestly I fail to see a reason for downvoting... thanks! – konrad01 Sep 25 '14 at 0:51
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    Do you have evidence for saying, "There is no analysis" and "no evidence": can you know/prove that those do not exist? How thorough was your search of the literature? Has it been studied? Would it more accurate to say, "I don't know of any analysis/evidence", instead of "There is no"? If there's a novel theory (e.g. "meditation can cause psychosis") it might not be "scientific" to reply, "I don't know any evidence, therefore the statement is untrue." Some closely-related replies would be fine, e.g. "I know of no evidence for believing the statement." Can a brain scan even detect psychosis? – ChrisW Sep 25 '14 at 14:21
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    If you're going to state unequivocally that there is or is/is not scientific evidence supporting a claim, you need to be able to back it up. Your statement reminds me of a debate several years ago about the effectiveness of a particular form of alternative healthcare: A conventional doctor was discouraging the use of this form of healthcare and stated that there was no scientific study showing that it was helpful. A practioner of that form of healthcare responded by asking how many scientific studies had been done; the doctor was forced to answer that there had never been a study about it. – GreenMatt Sep 25 '14 at 14:46
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    @konrad01: This isn't meant to be personal, just a statement about comments on the web: Since I don't know you, I have no idea how credible you are. Unless I've missed something, you haven't said if there has ever been a study about meditation and mental health problems. It would not take much more effort to state something like "A study has shown ..." and then post a link if you have one. It should not take a lot more time to read that either, unless the study article is long, but the reader can decide if/when to read the study. At least then there would be back up for your scientific answer. – GreenMatt Sep 25 '14 at 15:44
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    I think the point is less about the lack of back up and more about formulating something with certainty without having gone the actual lengths to verify it and be able to point at them when someone interested in checking by themselves need it. Even in scientific papers we write "we don't know of any studies that ...". In MN 27 and SN 47 i think buddha exposed similar concerns – Thiago Sep 25 '14 at 16:17
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I would be extremely suspicious of claims that. As a general rule of thumb, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Saying that meditation can cause psychosis sounds like a pretty big claim to me, so I'm inclined to set that aside until there is some solid evidence to back it up.

A lot of so called 'unusual' things can happen during meditation, but I wouldn't call any of them psychotic breaks by any means. The most common thing is for people to see things like lights during seated meditation or to have sudden waves of goosebumps, and occasionally you can have sensations of falling or body parts vanishing or moving. For some people there are stages when things feel unfamiliar or strange for a while, but these experiences fade away as long as you keep practicing correctly.

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I think the question should be reworded to, if someone has a psychological breakdown, permanent or temporary, is this caused by the meditation retreat or is this a consequence of this person being vulnerable or unready to dive into the depths of meditation.

Because I know people that have bawled their eyes out for a two day retreat, I did not see them blaming the retreat or meditation. In fact they went back to their life with no apparent damage. Knowing what you are ready for is part of being a good student.

An organization that does not give a novice shorter possible retreats may have overlooked that we are not all at the stage and some of us are not ready for a 10 day retreat. Friends have told me that they meditated on a daily basis for a year or two before they felt they were ready for a longer retreat. The real problem with longer retreats is that our crutches get taken away and we may find ourselves in unfamiliar places that we could interpret as scary. Some people have developed the observer to the point where this is no big deal. Others clutch themselves in the fetal position and find themselves thrown into uncharted territory.

I am a modernist with the belief that we should not put people in situations they are not prepared for. This is not a way for a wise teacher to proceed in my opinion. If you sign up for a teacher or method that is very strict and inflexible, one should expect to endure a testing of greater proportions. Let's not blame meditation, let's reexamine those who throw people untested into extreme situations without a safety valve and those who throw themselves blindly into retreats when they are not ready to face or accept the reduction or shrinking of the personal self.

  • "we should not put people in situations they are not ready for" +1 – user3743672 Sep 25 '14 at 4:04
  • Edit: Added paragraphs to increase readability. Please roll-back if not agreeable. – Lanka Jul 31 '15 at 14:05
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Any reasons to make such claims? Links? References?

People can experience certain states of consciousness during meditation which could be described as dream like states, and clinically they are probably nothing more than lucid dreams... But there is absolutely no evidence for it to have any negative side effects. In fact, mindfulness courses are considered to be helpful for people with psychosis and suicidal tendencies.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25218397

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24785766

Also, it's not helpful for anyone dealing with psychological problems themselves that are looking into something like meditation to find some completely unfounded claims on a forum about someone that "read something somewhere on the internet" which can lead people, in particular with anxiety, to not do something that is very well proven to be beneficial for them.

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If one has right view or partiality to no view then most "threats" that happen in the course of practice would be transcended.

  • That's an answer to a different question, i.e. "When meditation goes right". Psychosis affects approximately 1% of the general adult population. For the people who are affected by it, psychosis and related symptoms might make "right view" difficult to practice. – ChrisW Sep 25 '14 at 14:51

protected by Lanka Jul 4 '15 at 14:01

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