Buddhists on the Funny Farm

A bunch of people have sent me an article that appeared recently in Esquire magazine called The Other Side Of Paradise: How I Left A Buddhist Retreat In Handcuffs by Michael Holden.

The opening paragraph says, “The police stayed calm and the Buddhists were calmer, but by then there wasn’t much anyone could do. In the hours previously, I had come to believe, simultaneously and sequentially, that I was: dead, alive, omniscient, immortal, non-existent, gay, straight, telepathic, a flower, a pulse of pure energy and a nuclear bomb. And that was the good part, relatively speaking. By the time I was handcuffed and led to an ambulance, my troubles, or at least this episode among them, were just underway.”

Later in the piece we learn that, some years before this happened, the author used to do a whole lot of drugs. He says, “I took enough recreational drugs to keep me awake for nine days, at the end of which I was psychotic, sectioned, sedated and held in hospital for four months.”

But you don’t have to do a lot of drugs to end up like this, says the author. He relates the story of 25 year old Megan Vogt who “left a near-identical center in the US ‘incoherent, suicidal and in psychosis,’ according to reports in the local news.” Ten weeks later she committed suicide.

Both Mr. Holden and Ms. Vogt experienced their traumas during 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats hosted by followers of the Goenka tradition founded by a Burmese Buddhist scholar named Satya Narayan Goenka, who passed away in 2013.

I’ve never attended a Goenka retreat. But I’ve heard about them for a long time. The reason I’ve never attended one is that they always sounded like too much too soon. Even now they sound like too much too soon, and I’ve been at this meditation stuff for thirty-some years!

Ten days of complete silence, waking up at four in the morning and doing up to ten hours of meditation per day is the kind of thing someone might be ready for after five or ten years of meditating every day and regularly attending shorter retreats of three to five days. It’s definitely not something I would encourage a beginner to do. Shoot! I never even did a three-day retreat until I’d been sitting daily for over a decade. And even that was a major shock to the system.

I’m not sure what the average Esquire reader is going to make of this article. Probably that meditation is scary and no one should ever do it. I hope not too many of them decide that. I think it’s a good thing articles like this are being published in the mainstream media these days.

The current craze for mindfulness has encouraged a lot of people to get into the meditation game without any real qualifications. I keep saying this same thing. But I think it’s important. Meditation is not a trivial matter. Sure. The initial stages of practice generally produce feelings of well-being and calm mixed with crushing boredom. But if you go into it more deeply, you’re going to start discovering stuff that will challenge your core beliefs and understandings about who you are, what the world you’re living in is, and what you ought to do about that.

If you don’t have the proper grounding when that stuff starts coming up, you might end up going a little koo-koo. Or even going seriously koo-koo. And if the person teaching you meditation hasn’t gone through that experience themselves, they’re not going to have any idea how to handle it. In fact, I have gone through those stages myself and I can tell you that handling someone else who is going through that stuff is not easy even for me. I’ve never had to call the guys with the white coats and butterfly nets — yet. But I can see how that could become necessary.

Most of the Esquire article is stuff I’ve heard before and know very well. To me, the article only gets really interesting near the end when the author mentions Russell Razzaque who wrote a book called Breaking Down is Waking Up. I never heard of Mr. Razzaque before I read this article, nor have I read his book. So this is not an endorsement of him or of the book.

But I do like some of the quotes from Razzaque that the author of the Esquire article uses. Here’s my favorite: “The truth is that life is a lot more mysterious than we give it credit for. Ninety-five per cent of the known universe is utterly unknown and unknowable to us. This isn’t propagated in public discourse enough, because of which people are led to this materialist, reductionist idea of reality which leaves them feeling bereft. It leaves them feeling dead inside and as a result you get more people having breakdowns thinking, ‘What is the point of it all?’ … If you’ve been through those severe experiences you’ve been further out than the rest of us and that’s something beneficial for us. In some ancient communities that was a qualification for being a shaman or a wise person.”

That, to me, is the crux of the whole matter. We have built up a human worldview that most people no matter where you go hold more-or-less in common. There are important variations from culture to culture, and even from person to person. But most of us accept the basic outlines.

We accept that human beings are each discreet, autonomous individuals, that we have a core individual self, that we were born one day and on that day our existence began and that one day we will die and our existence, at least in our current form, will end on that day. We believe these things because most of them seem self-evident. I have thoughts that you will never know. I have memories that are different from yours.

Furthermore, the basic materialistic outlook holds sway for most people these days. We can measure material things and agree upon those measurements. Therefore, material things must be real. If that’s true, then the basic real stuff of ourselves and of the world we live in must be matter. Even if we say we don’t believe this, most of us behave as if we do. When we try to behave as if this isn’t true — for example, by jumping off a tall building because we think we can fly under our own power — we fail.

But if you get deep enough into a meditation practice, all of these rational, common-sense ideas start to seem questionable. You find that you can no longer define yourself or the world you live in as easily as you did before. Even the most basic, self-evident ideas you’ve held all your life start to come apart.

When that happens, you find that you need something to help you navigate this new understanding — or, I should probably say, lack of understanding. You need a philosophy and you need a community. Without that, there is a strong possibility you’ll go off the rails and will need more radical kinds of intervention to get you back on track. Handcuffs and psych wards might be the only answer.

Buddhists have been working for the past 25 centuries on coming up with support systems for this sort of thing. They’re not perfect. They might seem kind of weird. They might even seem religious. But they’ve been doing the job reasonably well and they continue to improve. I see no reason to throw away all of that research and development just because it doesn’t help me sell meditation to the masses.

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