Meditation and yoga have become hugely popularised as ‘secularised’ techniques which claim to significantly improve mental and physical wellbeing. But more recently, some researchers are suggesting that these techniques are not neutral or value-free; that they can even be dangerous when offered as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ panacea approach for all your mental health needs.
I resonate with this view. I have had my fair share of meditation and yoga experience, most of it positive, but I have also had some negative experiences too. And while I am cautious to label meditation experiences as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ (the point of meditation is to remain equanimous and not become attached to the experiences you have) the main reason these experiences are negative is because they were scary.
My pivotal experience was in 2019 when I undertook a 10-hour-a-day 10-day Vipassana Buddhist meditation retreat in Leh, Ladakh, Northest India. I had not heard of vipassana until I went to India to do my yoga teacher training course. On the course, lots of the women talked about the vipassana experience. Initially, I had thought that there was no way I would ever do that. However, as the weeks of the course progressed and I went off to continue my travels of India alone, I decided that I would do a vipassana course towards the end of my trip. Indeed, on my travels I met many others- many of which who were not yoga-enthusiasts like me- who had undertaken the vipassana retreat. It seemed like a traveller’s rite of passage: the act done to clear and cleanse the Westerner’s mind.
‘Vipassana’ means insight and is a Buddhist form of insight meditation whereby you come to see things 'as they really are.’ This is the form of meditation that the Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment with. Vipassana retreats are run across the globe by an organisation called Dhamma, which was founded by Mr S.N. Goenka who started teaching the technique in 1969. The technique-process has really not changed much since this time. Video seminars of Goenka are recorded and played each evening which accompany the meditation practice and progressive experience of the technique. Today, Vipassana courses are held in 341 locations in 94 countries, and many hundreds of thousands of people (if not more) have completed the course, including through extensive prison programmes!
This was the retreat centre. It is one of the most remote Vipasanna retreat centres in the world! A walk around the (quite limited) grounds amounted to our daily exercise.
Cutting to the retreat, all was going well for the first few days. On reflection, I was not trying my hardest to meditate and reach Samadhi- enlightenment- because I was daydreaming about all the things I would do when I have left. This dreamy imagination was fuelled by the fact I had just founded my own sustainable fashion brand, Flossophy Fashion, in Rajasthan and I was so excited for what was to come!
Day 7 was when things got tough. The experience was instantaneous. I was doing the body-scanning technique we had learnt, and I was doing it really fast because I thought that was what being ‘good’ at meditating meant (so wrong!). Suddenly I felt this really strong zapping or merging sensation through my whole body, culminating at my third eye. And then pain. A huge headache. Its hard to exactly remember from here because it was a few years ago, but every time I closed my eyes I was in pain and discomfort in the centre of my forehead. I could hear buzzing too. And I was scared. Tears started rolling and eventually I realised I could not meditate anymore so I left the dark hall and sat outside. Some other of the female meditators (men and women are completely separate for the retreat) happened to come outside and I told them what happened, even though one of the rules is ‘noble silence’- absolutely no speaking. One of them was a psychologist who said she had come to the conclusion that this was mental torture. Another asked me what would happen if I surrendered to it and let go. But I could not.
Claire from Australia- a friend for life!
I was still upset for a while and eventually sought the teacher’s advice. He told me clearly the technique was working, that my samsaras- the grooves and traits of our unique histories which are etched into our psyche -were rising to the surface. But it was working too fast, it was too intense, and every time I shut my eyes I was plagued with a headache.
That night I was convinced that I was going crazy and I was going to be sectioned. I started telling myself stories, imagining, and narrating potential outcomes from this insane episode I was experiencing. For the rest of the course, I took it easy, sitting at the back of the room. But I didn’t feel calm, equanimous, or content in the way I expected I was ‘meant to.’ Far from it.
Eventually, the course finished. We could speak to each other! One Indian woman said to me, “you had a really hard time didn’t you.” This annoyed me a little. Sure it was hard, but only because it was scary and intense!
Doing vipassana did not lead me to enlightenment. It did make me hyper aware though; I felt sensitive to a lot of things afterwards. My body and sensations; hearing; sight. During the course, I had felt all the atoms through the inside of my body: through one side, all the organs, and out the other! But I think I was taking it too fast- feeling all the sensations, but not remaining grounded in aparagriha – nonattachment.
I met some really cool nuns on the retreat! They said their regular meditation practice meant the experience wasn't particularly challenging for them.
From then to now, I have continued a meditation practice on and off and at a much lower intensity. I have come to realise that I am really sensitive and therefore meditation can be quite intense, especially if I am already feeling sensitively-inclined. For example, if I am experiencing a headache and am thinking about it a lot, meditation is not the best thing to do. But this is where my movement practices- such as yoga and dance- are great! Generally, I think this is something I will have to deal with slowly and carefully, being gentle with myself. I know how powerful meditation and other ‘secular’ Eastern-inspired techniques can be, especially if you have any underlying conditions or dispositions, such as increased sensitivity, anxiety, depression and so forth. This is what the research that I mentioned at the beginning of this post is starting to show, which will become increasingly important as more people pursue meditation practices.
Some pics of the inside and outside of the centre in Ladakh.
In this journey, education and guidance will be key. Knowing we are our own best teacher- that if something is unpleasant or worse, then we can and should back out. But also having seasoned teachers we can turn to with queries, who have experience with the practices, because these practices are not nothing! We often think meditation seems ‘boring’ and quiet- really like doing nothing at all. But when we come with this attitude and practice carelessly, we might encounter negative results, as well as ‘no results’.
I am currently waiting for a new book to arrive by Anna Lutkajtis called The Dark Side Of Dharma: Meditation, Madness And Other Maladies On The Contemplative Path which will shed more light on the less talked about ‘negative’ side of meditation practices. There are also a range of articles available online on this subject and some scholarly publications too. When meditation and mindfulness are being offered as the be all and end all for your mental and holistic health, I hope we realise how important this topic is. In my next post, I hope to continue along this theme by outlining my views on the secular versus religion debate. This is something which, as a student of Theology, Religion and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Cambridge, and a yoga teacher with a passion for the path as a way of life and source of community, I am hugely passionate about!
Until next time, Floss x
Smiles of freedom!
This was actually taken just in one of the dorms just before the retreat started! We got in a few words of chat before the 10-days of silence.