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Can meditation retreats trigger mental illness?

Before we get into the question of whether meditation retreats can trigger mental illness, I’ll share a personal experience from an intensive meditation retreat: The first time I ever lost all sense of my body while I was meditating, I was at a silent meditation retreat on Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan. Even though that experience was an expected outcome of the work we were doing there, it still, literally, blew my mind. Shortly after that meditation sit, we had a meal. At a silent meditation retreat, you typically all sit facing the same direction, at designated seats, eating mindfully in silence. I sat down in the wrong seat. This caused understandable chaos for everybody else, not least for the person whose seat I’d stolen, since he couldn’t actually tell me I was in the wrong seat. We were practicing silence! With much compassion, he expressed where I needed to be. He had, afterall, been staring at my back for a week while he ate. Check out more about that meditation retreat in this YouTube video: Intensive 7-Day Silent Meditation Retreat @ Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan

Even when I did get to my proper seat, it still felt like my body was only tenuously attached to my self. Another sneeze, a falling grain of rice, the clatter of the stainless steel soup ladle, could send existential shivers through my wobbly body. The previously unquestioned belief that self and body were one and the same had been thoroughly sliced and snipped. The thing is, this isn’t a problem or an adverse event of meditation at all. It’s as natural a part of meditating as struggling to stand up from the toilet after a quality leg day workout in the gym. 

But similar to any workout in the gym, it’s useful to approach your mental fitness workouts with the same level of care and focus on skillful technique. You can lift weights with proper technique and build physical fitness, or you can drop the weights on your foot and break your ankle. You can meditate with proper technique and build mental fitness, or you can spend five hours of the day on your meditation cushion practicing compulsions and fueling mental illness. You have options.

Is meditation harmful?

Symptoms people identify as negative meditation experiences tend to fit into two categories: 

1) Totally natural stuff that’s part of the meditation experience and people judge as negative. An example would be physical discomfort or anxiety / intrusive thoughts. That’s like somebody going to the gym and complaining they don’t like exercise because the weights feel heavy and they don’t like sweating. Learning how to interact differently with that stuff is the point of the work.

As the following article highlights, 73% of meditators in one study reported “unpleasant experiences” while meditating (Meditation Sickness: Bridging a Gap Between Medicine and Buddhism), to which this Guide would say: that means 27% of the participants in the study didn’t actually meditate. 

The misunderstanding of meditation practice comes from the way Western culture has co-opted mindfulness and terms like “Zen”. When somebody says they’re “going to get their Zen on”, a North American audience interprets that as relaxing, chilling out. They probably don’t know that the first student of Zen demonstrated his commitment to learning by CUTTING OFF HIS ARM to turn a snowy field red with his blood. Chill vibes.

A small figurine of a bald monk in brown robes with a tiny small on his face and big round shiny black eyes.
This happy monk is curious to explore any experiences that come up during meditation.

2) Trying to use meditation and meditation retreats as a compulsion to fix and control thoughts and emotions.

I’ve only done meditation retreats at Buddhist temples and at every single one, their retreat applications have specifically called out that the retreat is not for people struggling with mental illness and not for trying to control or fix emotions, feelings, etc. Trying to fix and control human experiences is major fuel for mental illness symptoms. If you want to use meditation to avoid anxiety, how is that different from somebody that drinks a bottle of whisky to avoid anxiety? If you’re trying to learn mindfulness skills to control intrusive thoughts, how is that different from somebody struggling with OCD that repeats a prayer in their head repeatedly to keep the bad thoughts out of their head?

Also be careful of chasing some special experience or transformation. It ends up being no different than trying to look for that perfect recovery solution and, as Zen master Hakuin explained back in the 1800s, it won’t end well:

“Much the same thing happens to a Zen student. He encounters a Zen master and sees his assertions demolished. He receives the master’s instruction and, eventually, he receives his confirmation. When that happens, he assumes, “I have attained my goal, concluded the Great Matter. The buddha-patriarchs themselves have nothing for me to envy."

“Unfortunately, in the end his views become distorted, withering into dry, stale things. He discovers that he is at odds with himself at all times, whether active or at rest. The light that seems to have come into his darkness shines without a trace of strength, so he lives down in a jackal den, or dwells in a cavern of disembodied spirits, burdened by an iron yoke around his neck and heavy shackles around his arms and legs.”

Hakuin would know this very well, as he experienced it first-hand with what he called “Zen sickness”. He wrote about a ringing in his ears, becoming timid and fearful, avoiding his usual activities, and going to many physicians but finding none of their remedies helped him. For anybody familiar with OCD or health anxiety, the symptoms Hakuin recorded may sound very familiar. The way out of it was for Hakuin to change how he approached meditation, both his goals and his practice. 

If we notice challenges following meditation, it’s like noticing pain after squats in the gym. It does not mean that squats caused you pain and people shouldn’t do squats. It is much more useful to consider that your form and method while doing squats is what needs to change.

5 tips to prevent problems on a meditation retreat:

  • Don’t go to a meditation retreat to get something. Instead, approach it as an opportunity to give. What do you want to give to yourself? What do you want to give to others? What do you want to give to difficult physical and emotional experiences? 
  • Talk to more experienced meditators and learn skills. This is just like you’d get guidance from more experienced weightlifters in the gym if you want to do the things they can do. 
  • Read a book or two. There’s thousands of years of written history sharing techniques and experiences with the sport of meditation. No need to reinvent the (dharma) wheel. 
  • Expect the brain to push back with things you find most painful. This could happen physically, emotionally, cognitively, etc. That’s not an “adverse event”. That’s to be expected when we cut out all of the unhealthy stuff we’ve been doing to cover up the pain inside. This video explore further: Meet Your Brain’s Characters
  • Practice. We wouldn’t find it strange if somebody signed up for a 5k race, with no practice or preparation, and then they injured themselves during the race or they just found it extremely unpleasant. But if they had started running and exploring it with curiosity, finding ways to make it fun, connecting with others, and building up to bigger challenges, they might enjoy the journey and the race very much. Meditation is the same.

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