Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Terrible and Traumatic Experience at Goenka Retreat

On a Goenka Vipassana discussion board called, a participant named Tristan writes:
I wish I could say wonderful things about my experience but I can't. I stayed the full ten days, many of them filled with incredible hallucinations, from being inside an egg, to being a bird-like animal with broken wings, to following tunnels through my brain, to feeling completely connected to the universe. No problem, I told myself, it's just sensation. I'm perfectly safe. On the last day of the retreat, listening to the last lecture, I let out a huge scream and fell down.
Tristan says he became psychotic and ended up in a psychiatric hospital for several weeks.
With Goenka's courses there have been a number of failed suicide attempts in India, including one that resulted in a broken spine and another in which the survivor suffered a ruptured lung and a fractured skull. Researchers at Goenka's headquarters at Igatpuri looked at cases concerning nine persons who'd harmed themselves after a course, and they found all had either practiced other forms of meditation, used healing techniques, or used drugs prior to doing a course. They consequently attributed the serious mental disturbances following the retreat not as side effects of the meditation technique, but to the practice or use of these other things.
But a woman who recently contacted me said her son did a Vipassana course in January in New Zealand, found it to be a very positive experience that produced many good feelings of love and so forth, but that within a few days of his return he'd had a "psychotic episode." He was committed to a mental hospital where he responded well to medication and is now on antidepressants. Her son had no history of mental instability, nor was there any such history in the family. He had never tried meditation before nor had he taken drugs.
Geoffrey Dawson, a Sydney-based Zen meditation teacher and psychotherapist, has come across twenty people who had mentally distressing experiences as a result of attending courses at the Goenka Vipassana Retreat Center in Blackheath (located in the Blue Mountains of Australia). Dawson says these meditators became fragmented rather than integrated and their experiences included panic attacks, depressive episodes, or both that in most cases persisted months after the retreat ended. There were also some manic episodes, one of which later became diagnosed and treated as a bipolar disorder. Dawson was also contacted by a woman whose daughter had been to a retreat. Her friends and family noticed she became withdrawn and obsessive afterwards. Her psychological condition deteriorated and some months later she became psychotic. Within eighteen months she was hospitalized and committed suicide.
Dawson maintains it is of utmost importance to give people a gradual introduction to meditation retreats, something that is lacking in Goenka's [and others] approach. Dawson is highly selective about who can do his retreats. He starts people on regular daily meditation along with one group meditation per week, then introduces them to one or two day retreats and gradually introduces them to a longer retreat.
Dawson suggests that "if a gradual approach to meditation retreats is adopted, supportive processes are put in place during retreats, and follow-up care is provided," while it's not guaranteed participants won't have adverse experiences, "it can certainly help prevent and minimize the development of mental disorders.
" Colorado-based clinical psychologist Dr. Lois Vanderkooi, who has written on meditation-related psychosis, points out that screening is important when intensive meditation is involved and suggests that it can be done easily with a questionnaire that asks about psychiatric history.
Questionnaires are now used for Goenka's retreats. He says retreats aren't recommended for people with serious psychiatric disorders as it is unrealistic to expect that Vipassana will cure or alleviate mental problems. Application forms have questions such as, "Do you have, or have you ever had, any mental health problems such as significant depression or anxiety, panic attacks, manic depression, schizophrenia?" There is also a question, "Have you had any previous experience with meditation techniques, therapies, or healing practices?" This particular question allows Goenka to screen out people who practice a spiritual therapy called Reiki. He says there were many cases around the world where mixing Reiki and Vipassana meditation harmed Reiki practitioners to the extent that some of them became mentally imbalanced. Goenka argues that such practices "attempt to alter reality by means of calling on some external force or autosuggestion (such as self-hypnosis). This prevents the practitioner from observing the truth as it is."
But are questionnaires enough? They can hardly screen those people who have undiagnosed psychiatric disorders. They also rely on people telling the truth. People may feel reluctant to fill them out honestly in case they are barred from participating in a retreat. The Icarus Project, a web community supporting those with mental illnesses, regards questionnaires as "arbitrary, intrusive, and discriminatory" and claims that retreat applicants "simply hide their psychiatric history on the application to avoid stigmatization." They also write that people with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder have not only completed meditation retreats, but discovered that meditation is a valuable recovery tool.


  1. yeah - goenka - i had problems and you'd think you would get support - they banned me from courses even after i was well - they can be very
    "difficult" to those they want to sideline....

  2. sorry to hear that. what kind of problems did you have if i may ask?

  3. thats a good question - they wouldn't tell me directly - they asked me to write them a letter explaining why i thought i had been banned - I still don't really know why and they make no moves to allow one to come back except sit a full 10 day course...

  4. You are lucky you did get banned. It is a very problematic group. You really don't need to sit in a 10 day course. Meditation can cause serious psychological problems. I have some posts up on the Dangers of Meditation. You can find them by clicking on the link at the top right side of this blog under Table of Contents.

  5. I have been practicing vippassana for more then 5 years, meditating an hour or two or three a day, etc.

    It is understood that you may face difficulty, and that the facility, and even the assistant teachers may not be perfect for what you need. They are all run by volunteers, and no one is perfect. I think that this is an important issue, being traumatized by a course, but we must see this in perspective.

    thousands of people join these courses every month, all they are doing are observing sensations, natural sensation, there is no god, no imagination, just observing the reality of their own mind. And this is the most difficult thing one can ever do! Pain, trauma, desires, everything, especially the most strong tendencies of your mind, buried and on the surface, has the potential now to enter you pure conscious state and be shed. If you experience your anger without reacting, experience the sensations, then you weaken the tendency of the mind to react with more anger as these sensations arise. As it is with everything else.

    Why would thousands join this often extremely painful purge, unless they saw benefits? I have seen that quite the opposite to what is mentioned here is more often the case. People come in with depression, and just miserable in general, or even heroine addictions, etc., and they come out cured! One such person had a constant huge smile on his face, and I wouldnt believe that prior he had been deeply depressed and on multiple medications.

    The reason he was cured is because finally he just got all the courage and said I am going to sit with this heavy weight of depression, I will not move, I will just be aware of the sensations. With such a strong determination, the weight finally shattered and he came out as light as a butterfly.

    I too, came out with some trauma, the trauma was already there, but now it was on the surface. I did not come out smiling (which is actually the rare case, mos people come out smiling). I had realized that my whole life I had been reacting with hatred, passion, fear, and unstable mind causing pain for myself and pain for others. But during the course I saw to much, with developing the balance of my mind enough to be able to clear all that negativity. I thought so many angry things about the teachers, the course, how could they let all these things happen to me? How come they say I should come out smiling? I am a terrible person, and anything I do is out of blind reaction.

    But on a deeper level I knew that I had done an actual great job, had developed such a clear and focused mind that I was able to penetrate deeply into my own self, and hence the purge and uprising of all these stored tendencies, negativity, emotional trauma I had accumulated over my life. Now that they were on the surface I just had to be aware and compassionate to myself, just observe them arising and passing away, just continue my meditation practice on my own.

    I did, and 5 years later I can tell you that I am much more compassionate, mature, a hard worker, able to see clearly, etc. then I was before, and the majority of this I can point to my meditation practice.

    Not everyone is ready for this, and it wont be easy, but we are constantly in a deep state of misery at the moment, always looking for happiness in the future or in impermanent objects around us. Always feeling at unease. This meditation as well as many other paths have been developed to help. But if you have an ailment you may need surgery, and surgeries sometimes go wrong, especially since you are the surgeon, and the patient, at the same time. But you can also keep working, and work correctly and you will be able to overtime become better and better at living life.

  6. Well said Anon,I have a similar experience. For a while in the begining I felt like I was a secret agent of depression as I slowly learnt how to feel it without expressing it, Eventually the volume of self criticism became lower and restricted to the back of my mind untill it disappeared . sometimes it resurfaces but I give no importance to it , just let it be there with awareness and it goes away. I do need to keep my practise daily and I go back as much as I can for another ten days course. Soon I will be willing and ready for a twenty days coursen and life is just getting better and better !!!