Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant Scree

What is the mind? What is the mind of a human? What is the mind of the one who investigates the human? Can the human mind understand itself? Can a human mind understand the mind of an other? This is psychology.

Re: Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant S

Postby admin » Sun Feb 24, 2019 12:22 am

Transcendental Meditation [TM] and General Meditation Are Associated With Enhanced Complex Partial Epileptic-Like Signs: Evidence For "Cognitive" Kindling?1
by M.A. Persinger
Laurentian University
Accepted November 27, 1992
Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1993, 76, 80-82. © Perceptual and Motor Skills 1993  




The Personal Philosophy Inventories of 221 university students who had learned to meditate (about 65% to 70% Transcendental Meditation[TM]) were compared to 860 nonmeditators. Meditators displayed a significantly wider range of complex partial epileptic-like signs. Experiences of vibrations, hearing one's name called, paranormal phenomena, profound meaning from reading poetry/prose, and religious phenomenology were particularly frequent among meditators. Numbers of years of TM practice were significantly correlated with the incidence of complex partial signs and sensed presences but not with control, olfactory, or perseverative experiences. The results support the hypothesis that procedures which promote cognitive kindling enhance complex partial epileptic-like signs.

Intermittent, stereotyped stimuli that are presented at optimal interstimulus intervals are known to evoke responses whose quantitative and qualitative properties increase within susceptible media as a function of the number of stimulus presentations. Positive feedback subsequent to the resonance interaction between electromagnetic fields or mechanical vibrations and the natural frequency of the target medium is a common operation that is evident across all levels of scientific discourse. Repeated, brief presentations of electrical or chemical stimuli (Cain, 1989) to Limbic (pyriform) cortices and subcortical structures evoke successive increases in both the spatial distribution of paroxysmal (integrated) electrical discharges and the range in the characteristics of behavioral seizures.

One would expect "cognitive kindling" to occur as a function of the appropriate repetition of linguistic or ideational patterns. The subsequent changes would reflect the neural pathways by which the cognitive stimulus was mediated. Whereas negatively affective ideation concerning death to the self could ultimately recruit collateral neuropathways that mediate heightened vigilance (e.g., panic attacks), repetition of "novel" or unusual words could access other pathways that mediate positive affect. Although experimental kindling of limbic seizures in human beings would be unethical, there are multiple anecdotal cases where repeated meditation was associated with increased indicators of complex partial seizures (Persinger, 1984). For example, Young (1984) reported more frequent and intense incidences of lights and movements in the upper left visual field (indicative of right temporal lobe stimulation through Meyer's loop) as a function of meditation trials.

Because meditation, and Transcendental Meditation in particular, are operationally a cognitive kindling process (specific stimuli for 20 minutes once per day), one would expect meditators to display an increase in the range of complex partial epileptic-like signs (Persinger, Carrey, & Suess, 1980). To test this hypothesis, the Personal Philosophy Inventories (Persinger & Makarec, 1987) of 1,081 university students (ages 18 to 60 years), collected over 11 consecutive years (1981 to 1992), were evaluated. All analyses involved SPSS[x] software on a VAX 4000 computer. Two hundred twenty-one subjects indicated that they had learned to meditate; specific questioning during two of the years indicated that approximately 65 to 70% had taken Transcendental Meditation. Those who had learned meditation were significantly (F[1,1060] = 64.16, p< .001; eta = .25; there were no age data for 16 subjects) older (M = 28.6, SD = 10.3 yr.) than those who had not (M = 23.8, SD = 6.9 yr. old) learned. There was no disconcordance between the numbers of men and women who had learned to meditate (X[2]<2.98, p> .05).

Two-way analyses (sex, meditation) of variance (all dfs = 1,1077) and covariance (for age: dfs = 1,1076) for the dusters of control (for yes-responding and mundane phenomenology) items and complex epileptic items (Persinger & Makarec, 1987; Makarec & Persinger, 1990) showed that people who had learned to meditate displayed significantly (F=39.27, p<.001; eta = .19) more complex partial epileptic-like signs (M = 35%, SD = 21%) than those who had not (M = 27%, SD = 17%). There were neither sex differences (F = .007, p> .05) nor an interaction of sex by meditation (F = .66, p > .05). Covariance for age (F = 19.31, p< ,001) enhanced the difference (F = 54.77, eta = .23) between meditators and nonmeditators. There were no statistically significant differences between meditators and nonmeditators on the control clusters (F = 1.23); women endorsed more of these items (F = 18.47, 14.82) than did the men [grand M = 78 (10%)]. Covariance for age did not diminish the sex differences.

To discern which subclusters of complex partial epileptic-like signs were specifically elevated in the meditators, one-way analyses of variance (all dfs = 1,1079) were completed for each of 13 clusters of items that were derived from the major scale; these items infer temporal lobe phenomenology (Persinger & Makarec, 1990). Meditators endorsed significantly (p < .001; eta in parentheses) more experiences of paranormal phenomena (.16), automatic behaviors (.11), writing (keeping notes about personal thoughts .13), profound experiences from reading/reciting poetry/prose (.21), religious experiences (.21), visual anomalies (.15), auditory (hearing inner voice). vestibular (vibrational) experiences (.19), and sensations of "cosmic consciousness" (.21). There were no differences (F<2.00, p> .01) between meditators and nonmeditators with respect to olfactory, depersonalization, widened affect, limbic motor, or perseverative experiences. Discriminant analyses indicated that the three most important variables were religious, auditory-vestibular, and paranormal experiences.

To discern "duration dependency" of the effect, the 56 subjects (a subset of the 221 meditators in the previous analysis) who reported they had taken Transcendental Meditation specifically (most of these questionnaires were collected between 1981 and 1984) were compared to age-matched nonmeditators (n = 27) from this period. The former claimants were classified according to the duration of practice: 1 year, 2 years, 3-5 years, and more than 5 years; the consistency of practice was not assessed. One-way analyses of variance between people who had learned Transcendental Meditation specifically and the reference group (n = 27) indicated the former showed significant (F[1,181] = 50.25, p< .001) elevations in complex partial epileptic-like signs [44 (19)%, 15 (13)%], but not Ln (F< 1.50) control experiences [79 (13) %, 76 (13)%].

The strongest (p<.001) correlations (Spearman rho) between the duration of reported meditation experience and the phenomenological clusters were for: complex partial epileptic-like signs (.60) and sensed presence (.39) while the weakest correlations (p> .05) were for olfactory (.11), widened affect (.19), and control (.10) responses. These results support the hypothesis that meditation techniques encourage complex partial epileptic-like signs.

The positive association between the self-reported duration of meditation (an inference of repeated trials) and the frequency of complex partial epileptic-like signs (but not control experiences) suggests a specific "dose-dependence" relationship. Obviously a third factor, that enhanced the symptoms and encouraged continuation of meditation, could have been present. However, a causal relationship could explain the development of frank epileptic displays over the temporal lobe (Persinger, 1984) in subgroups of prolonged meditators as well as the myoclonic and limbic motor disorders that have been claimed by some experienced TM teachers who subsequently withdrew from the organization (e.g., TM-Ex Newsletter, PO Box 7565, Arlington, VA 22207).

If the general hypothesis is valid, then the elevation of complex partial epileptic signs among patients who display the phobic anxiety depersonalization syndrome (Harper & Roth, 1962), general anxiety, or the posttraumatic stress disorder may reflect variants of cognitive kindling that access different neuropathways which subserve these adverse experiences. Although meditation may enhance complex partial epileptic-like phenomenology and anxiety (Persinger & Makarec, 1987), one must emphasize that moderate elevation of these indicators in the normal population is also associated with creativity and suggestibility. These characteristics can sometimes facilitate adaptation.



1 Please send reprint requests to Dr. M. A. Persinger, Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario P3E 2C6, Canada.


CAIN, D. P. Excitatory neurotransmitter in kindling: excitatory amino acid, cholinergic, and opiate mechanisms. Neuroscience and Biobehauioral Reviews, 1989, 13, 269-276.

HARPER, M., & Roth, M. Temporal lobe epilepsy and the phobic anxiety-depersonalization syndrome: Part I. A comparative study. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 1962, 3(3), 129-151.

MAKARECK, K, & PERSINGER, M.A. EEG validation of a temporal lobe signs inventory in a normal population. Journal of Research in Personality, 1990, 24, 323-337.

PERSINGER, M.A. Striking EEG profiles from single episodes of glossolalia and Transcendental Meditation. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1984, 58, 127-133.

PERSINGER, M.A., CARREY, N., & SUESS, L. TM and cultmania. Boston, MA: Christopher Publ., 1980.

PERSINGER M.A., & MAKAREC K. Temporal lobe signs and correlative behaviors displayed by normal populations. Journal of General Psychology, 1987, 114, 179-195.

YOUNG, M.L. Agartha: a journey to the stars. Stillpoint, N H : Walpole, 1984.

Accepted November 27, 1992.
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Re: Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant S

Postby admin » Sun Feb 24, 2019 1:26 am

Relationship of meditation and psychosis: case studies
by Sujata Sethi, Subhash C. Bhargava
Department of Psychiatry, Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Rohtak, Haryana, India
Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2003;37(3):382.



The word meditation is much used these days, covering a wide range of practices with an ultimate aim of controlling the mind and enhancing psychological health. Altered perceptions, and surfacing of repressed memories and conflicts have been reported during meditation [1]. There have been few reports of precipitation of psychosis in vulnerable individuals [1,2]. We discuss the possible factors operative in the precipitation of psychosis in two meditators.

Case 1 Mr A, a 20-year-old male, presented with a one-month history of aggressive behaviour, inappropriate laughter and suspiciousness. Examination revealed delusions of persecution and of reference, and auditory hallucinations. Prior to the onset of illness he had been practicing intensive meditation for 4 days without communication of any kind with outer world; he had also been fasting, and sleep had been reduced. There was no previous personal or family history of psychiatric illness. A diagnosis of schizophrenia was made. Treatment with olanzapine was started with good response. The patient discontinued treatment after 3 months and again became symptomatic. Treatment was reinstituted and he responded rapidly.

Case 2 Mr D, a 30-year-old married male, was brought home by his colleagues from a meditation retreat centre as he started to exhibit bizarre behaviour on the sixth day of the retreat. At the time of examination, he appeared to be perplexed and exhibited bizarre religious delusions. His sleep was markedly disturbed. He was hospitalized and treated with risperidone. The final diagnosis was schizophrenia. Reportedly, he had had two previous psychotic episodes, each one after attending the annual religious retreat, and with complete interepisode recovery.

These cases raise the issue of whether meditation can induce psychosis. Fischer [3] described perception– hallucination–meditation on a continuum; creative, psychotic and ecstatic experiences on one end and hypoarousal states of Zazen and Samadhi on the other. Normal persons may travel freely between states [3]. Vulnerable individuals may get stranded at this stage and eventually have a psychotic breakdown, especially under stress. People with a previous history of psychosis have been recognized as more vulnerable to have a psychotic breakdown during intensive meditation [1]. Also, it is arguably not the meditation alone that is causal; the associated fasting, and sleep and sensory deprivation could be other factors contributing towards the precipitation of psychosis. On the other hand, there are data to suggest that meditation in moderation can be helpful in treating a range of psychopathology [4]. Review of the history from the two reported patients, as well as from the their families, did not suggest that these patients were psychologically unwell prior to attending the meditation courses.

Attending meditation retreats is a common and regular practice in northern India. When carried out under proper guidance and in moderation, meditation can enhance psychological wellbeing [1].



1. Walsh R, Roche L. Precipitation of acute psychotic episodes by intensive meditation in individuals with a history of schizophrenia. American Journal of Psychiatry 1979; 136:1085–1086.

2. Chan-ob T, Boonyanaruthee V. Meditation in association with psychosis. Journal of Medical Association of Thailand 1999; 82:925–929.

3. Fischer R. Cartography of the ecstatic and meditative states. Science 1971; 174:897–903.

4. Shafii M. Adaptive and therapeutic aspects of meditation. International Journal of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy 1973; 2:367–382.
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Re: Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant S

Postby admin » Mon Feb 25, 2019 5:44 am

Buddhist Teachers' Experience With Extreme Mental States in Western Meditators
by Lois VanderKooi
The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1997, Vol. 29, No. 131
Copyright © 1997Transpersonal Institute



Boulder, Colorado

In the past thirty-five years, Buddhism and its sophisticated meditation practices have attracted a large number of Western students, especially those in search of a psychologically oriented spirituality. Based on descriptive and qualitative research, this paper focuses on extreme mental states that can occur in emotionally fragile Western students undergoing intensive meditation and the adaptations that teachers have made to deal with these difficulties. Implications for the clinical use of meditation will also be addressed.


Goals and Methods of Practice

Freud approached Eastern practices with misgiving, equating mystical states with "oceanic feelings" and a search for "restoration of limitless narcissism" and the "resurrection of infantile helplessness" (Freud, 1961, p. 72). As Epstein (1986, 1988, 1995) points out, Freud was unaware of Buddhist methods and goals which involve the dismantling of narcissism and the notion of inherent selfhood. The process of reaching nirvana or the "Absolute" (italicized terms are defined in the glossary) is far from blissful, and nirvana is far from narcissistic grandiosity and self-absorption.

Buddhist training involves moral discipline (shila) to increase wholesome states of mind, training in concentration and mindfulness (samadhi), and training in wisdom or insight into the true nature of phenomena (prajna) (Brown, 1986; Goleman, 1988). The ultimate fruit of training is to end suffering by realizing the Four Noble Truths: that life is basically unsatisfying, that suffering is caused by attachment arising from ignorance about the nature of reality, that suffering can cease with release from clinging, and that freedom is realized by living the Noble Eightfold Path: right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. The three major defilements conditioning worldly existence, namely attachment (lust, desire, greed), aversion (hatred, anger, and aggression), and ignorance are overcome with realization of shunyata. Shunyata or "emptiness" is difficult to describe and explain, and there are doctrinal differences as to its meaning (Hopkins, 1983). It involves the "middle way" in that both inherent or independent existence and total non-existence are refuted. Through insight into the components of experience, one realizes that there is no "inherently existing I" and appreciates the representational and relative nature of reality (Epstein, 1989, 1990). One adopts neither an absolutistic stance involving belief in an eternal principle (godhead, self, eternal beyond) nor a nihilistic stance involving belief in voidness. One realizes that phenomena are interdependent and mutually condition each other. Realizing shunyata and interdependence, one lives with equanimity, wisdom, and compassion, fearless and awake to each moment of life. "In its true state, mind is naked, immaculate ... not realizable as a separate thing, but as the unity of all things, yet not composed of them; of one taste, and transcendent over differentiation" (Evans-Wentz, 1969, p. 211). It should be noted that there are degrees of enlightenment, and full enlightenment is more an ideal than an attainable reality. Brown and Engler (1986) found it extremely difficult to find people who had attained the last two paths of enlightenment (Nonreturner and Arhat) as outlined in early (Theravadan) traditional literature.

Buddhist meditation can be divided into two major branches, samatha, which stabilizes the mind, and vipassana, which is uniquely Buddhist and the basis of insight (Goleman, 1972a, 1972b; Gunaratana, 1985/1992; Lodro, 1992; Sole-Leris, 1986). Samatha practices involve concentrating on a prescribed object to attain tranquility and absorption. The mind gradually withdraws from all physical and mental stimuli except the object, and the usual conceptual mode of thinking is suspended. Mindfulness is used to guard against active senses and thoughts, which, on the one hand, scatter the mind, and, on the other hand, lend to a passive dullness which prevents clarity and focus. Body and mind become pliable as one progresses, and, in the end, one experiences samadhi or dwelling effortlessly, mind unified with object. In the Theravadan tradition, once adequate mindfulness and concentration are achieved, vipassana meditation begins. This involves paying "bare attention" to the rising and passing away of phenomena. One fully and precisely examines sensory and mental processes, moment by moment, to realize the nature of phenomena -- impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and lacking inherent essence or self (anatta). It is said that one of these marks of existence can serve as the gateway to nirvana and liberation from suffering.

As outlined by the Yisuddhimagga (a fifth-century work that supposedly collects the Buddha's teachings on meditative states), the process of realizing nirvana is fraught with troubling and sometimes excruciating states (Brown & Engler, 1986; Namto, 1989; Nyanamoli, 1976). Initially, confusion, hallucinations, disturbing feelings, and involuntary movements can occur as one gains knowledge of mental and physical states through increasing concentration and mindfulness. As samadhi is achieved, "pseudo-nirvana" experiences of rapture, tranquility, and bliss can be accompanied by frightening images, uncomfortable body sensations such as itching, heat, and stiffness, and gastrointestinal problems of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Then, sadness, irritability, extreme fear, and a deep sense of the insipid nature of life may manifest as one becomes more and more aware of the arising and passing away of phenomena. A desire for deliverance can emerge, and one may wish to discontinue practice. For example, the body may itch as though being bitten by ants. Later, when deciding to practice to completion, one may feel odd sensations such as being slashed by a knife. Finally, as equanimity is achieved and mindfulness and concentration become balanced and natural, practice becomes smooth and one may be able to meditate for hours.

There are many types of meditative practices, and even within the major divisions of Theravada (Southeast Asia), Zen (China and Japan), and Tibetan (Himalaya region) traditions, practices vary. Theravada practices (see e.g., Goldstein, 1987; Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987; Kornfield, 1977; Namto, 1989; Nhat Hanh, 1987) usually involve detailed mindfulness of the aggregates which constitute personality, namely those of form (body senses, postures, and movement) and mind (feelings of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neutrality, perception, mental states and contents, and consciousness itself). Initial practice involves developing concentration and mindfulness by alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation. The meditator focuses on the breath, then other sensations while sitting, and on the components of movement while walking slowly. When the mind wanders, mental noting is used to return to mindfulness. For example, when distracted by sound, the meditator notes "hearing" versus becoming lost in thoughts about the sound. Gradually, as skill develops, other objects are the focus, and the meditator develops "bare attention" or an awareness of phenomena without the usual self-consciousness and conceptual-perceptual elaborations. For example, in seeing or hearing something, one may see only color or hear vibrations.

Zen practices tend to focus more on concentration than detailed mindfulness, at least initially. Meditators are usually instructed to focus on the breath, first counting it and later just being aware of it without letting the mind wander. In the Rinzai tradition, once sufficient concentration is achieved, a koan, or question impervious to solution by logic, may be assigned. Some well-known initial koans are Chao-Chou's dog (Mu), the sound of one hand clapping, and your original face before your parents were born. The meditator becomes absorbed in the koan and eventually experiences kensho or breakthrough to an intuitive, nonconceptual experience. After that, other koans are assigned to deepen and extend the enlightenment experience (Loori, 1992). Shikantaza or "just sitting" is an alternative route and involves mindfulness as well as concentration by simply watching thoughts and sensations come and go (Goleman, 1972b). Rather than striving for kensho, proper posture and breathing are stressed, both to unify body-mind and to cut through attachment to the thinking mind. In both koan and shikantaza practices, attachment to thoughts lessens and then stops, and then the thinker too may disappear. Eventually, after years of practice, shunyata may be realized, and this realization penetrates daily life.

Tibetans utilize initial practices similar to those of Theravada and Zen except that they do not use koans (Gen Lamrimpa, 1992; Gyatso, 1991; Lodro, 1992; McDonald, 1984; Wangchen, 1987). Some schools emphasize philosophical analysis and study of texts, considering these as meditation because they help create wholesome states of mind and lay a foundation for later realization. Mandalas, visualizations, mantras, poly tone chanting, and complicated rituals are also used, which in conjunction with Tibetan cosmology and understanding of mind, can make practice complex indeed (Goleman, I972h). At advanced stages, more esoteric Tantric practices may he undertaken. Involving primal energy and emotion, these supposedly are quick paths to enlightenment ( i.e., they take only one lifetime) and provoke a wakefulness that is sharp in its ability to cut through habitual mind and pride. Because they can be dangerous and involve psychotic-like experiences, these practices require the guidance of a qualified teacher, and adequate ego strength and foundation in philosophy and meditation on the part of the practitioner.


Western psychology has usually focused on the short-term physiological and psychological benefits of meditation outside of a Buddhist context (see e.g., Carrington, 1977; Shapiro, 1982; West, 1987). As mentioned above, this study focuses on the experience of Buddhist teachers in dealing with problematic states that occur in some students during intensive meditation, some examples of which are described. Traditionally, although dealing with nonordinary states of consciousness (NSC) that occur during meditation, Buddhists did not deal much with extreme mental states, such as psychosis, because very troubled people were restricted from entering practice. With a focus on how prana or energy moves through channels in the body, Tibetan teachers probably have the most complex understanding of how extreme mental states can occur during meditation which is improperly done or excessive (Epstein & Rapgay, 1989). Buddhists also have not traditionally focused on dealing with students' personal history, emotions, and relationship problems. These have become more pertinent in the practice of Western students who often turn to meditation for psychological relief and help with problems in these areas. Brown and Engler (1986) note that unlike people in the East, many Westerners practice a form of self-exploratory therapy while meditating and consequently fail to develop the concentration and mindfulness which is necessary for formal meditation.

Descriptive and phenomenological research methods were used in this study because of 1) the historical and cognitive-subjective nature of the data, 2) difficulties in measuring such data "objectively" and in using a rigorous research design, and 3) the study's exploratory nature (Polkinghorne, 1989). Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a total of twelve experienced and sanctioned teachers, four each from Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan traditions, and four college-educated meditators who had major difficulties with meditation and volunteered to talk about their experience. Subjects were recruited through therapist and Buddhist contacts in Colorado. The teachers were asked about their meditation techniques and process and their experience with handling both vulnerable meditators and extreme mental states. The meditators were asked about their spiritual and psychological history and about the difficulties they encountered. Besides interviewing these subjects, the author attended nine meditation retreats led by various Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan teachers to gain personal experience with the meditation retreat milieu.

Three vignettes are presented to illustrate the range of motivations, personality structure, and experiences that meditators may have, and then teacher experiences are summarized to illustrate how they have adapted meditation practices to deal with meditator difficulties. Identifying information has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Meditator Experience (Three Vignettes)

Cracking the shell: Quest of unraveling.

Sara comes from an upperclass, ambitious family, which has no history of major mental illness. Her father, a successful businessman, wanted Sara to follow in his steps. She accordingly began work on a MBA, which was antithetical to her true desire to be an artist. In college, she generally felt depressed, saw a therapist a few times, and frequently turned to alcohol. She had an experience, however, while writing a paper about Blake, that everything was in her mind. This was freeing, and she felt that she had glimpsed a higher state of consciousness. After a year of misery in graduate school, she dropped out and turned to Zen, which was attractive because its simplicity and meditation practice promised freedom of mind despite life circumstances. Also, the Zen meditators seemed to constitute a more like-minded, understanding family than her family of origin.

Sara began working odd jobs and participating in all the activities of her Zen center. She attended morning, evening, and all-night sittings and seven-day retreats. The center was large, and she was "just a beginner," which meant that she did not have a position or duties. The center had a hierarchy of students with senior students playing major roles. Those who had "broken through" wore a special cloth, setting them apart. An "all or nothing" attitude pervaded the atmosphere, and people were encouraged to go to the extreme of practice. It was believed that the harder one worked, the longer and more one-pointedly one focused in meditation, the more likely one would experience kensho. The teacher, an American trained in Japan, was generally distant and formal. Sara admired him from afar, and they did not know each other well. She only talked with him during retreat interviews in which the teacher guides and tests each student's progress in meditation.

Sara does not remember whether students were screened in terms of their ability to handle meditation (this was in the mid-1970s). She said that one "had to be a good and devoted sitter" to attend a retreat. She never felt at risk in sitting strenuously and sat at least two hours a day when not in retreat. She had no problems until the retreat that preceded her psychotic break. That retreat occurred after she had seriously meditated for a year and a half. It was a seven-day retreat following another seven-day retreat that had ended a week before.

The retreat was intense. Sara meditated day and night with breaks for meals, chanting, work, and rest during the day and breaks for juice at night. She said that, fiercely intent on going deeper, she was able to sit full-lotus and did not experience pain. She had intense makyo (nonordinary sensations, perceptions, and emotions) but did not fear going crazy. The makyo involved mostly positive imagery except near the end, when there were demon-like faces. She also experienced going down a shaft, opening doors to different realities. At the end, she experienced an overwhelming sense of holiness and felt she had tapped into universal mind. She was able to let the makyo go and was sure she had broken through, as she could answer most of the teacher's questions, and he hugged her and seemed to appreciate her experience.

Following the retreat, Sara told others that she had broken through. Word got back to her teacher, and he told her otherwise. She thought that he just wanted her to go deeper, so meditated more. She experienced being like a bird in an egg, tapping to get out, and suddenly she heard tapping from the other side. She felt that God was revealing Himself and tapping to free her, and she was ready to "throw herself into the fire of consciousness to break through to His love." That was when she consciously decided to let her mind go. After that, everything seemed symbolic and had cosmological dimensions. She found her mind racing as she tried to figure everything out. She thought and thought and wandered around looking for her teacher, who she believed was God. Finally, she was hospitalized and received antipsychotic medication.

In the next few years, Sara went on and off medication and required further hospitalization. She returned to the Zen Center, but did not heed advice to take her medication, and eventually was not allowed to be there. She thought that she was going through an enlightening experience and did not understand people's concern. She felt hurt that they pushed her away.

Sara's experience in the mental health system was taxing. Few understood her experience and most were condescending. She felt that her mind was "unraveling," with all the major fears, desires, and "skeletons from the past" emerging into consciousness. She was helped most by a Buddhist psychiatrist who acknowledged the value and spiritual dimension of her experience and helped her remain grounded with medication and questions about mundane things.

Sara received a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
In trying to understand her experience, she assumes that she has some genetic, biochemical proclivity for psychosis and that her lack of control over the unraveling resembled schizophrenia. At the same time, the spiritual quest and her sense of release from past karma seemed different. Once the "unraveling" was complete, she felt more stable and peaceful than ever before and was able to discontinue medication.

Currently Sara meditates an hour a day. She follows her breath, thinks about things (though not in the prior searching way), and listens to her inner life. She lives alone and tries to live according to her ideas of simplicity and mindfulness. She believes that more intense meditation would be harmful. She also feels her spirituality is closer to Christianity at this point, in part because of her experience of God tapping at her shell.
She says that she does not often share her unique, personal, and somewhat mystical spiritual beliefs with others.

Terror alone: Snapping and song yet unsung.

Ada grew up in a "workaholic" home with parents too busy and striving to pay attention to a little girl. Sweets were soothers, and "happy and good" were the ways to be. As an infant, she was left to cry for hours, and she remembers three times of terror as a young child when she did not know where she was while in a familiar place. As a teenager, she experienced ecstasy while intensely writing poetry, which she felt was an avenue to a different type of consciousness.

Ada's involvement in meditation began in 1967 with TM (Transcendental Meditation), which helped calm her after a breakup with the "love of her life," Paul. Nine months later she entered a year-and-a-half practice of Vedanta, a form of Hindu mysticism, which involved meditating on a spiritual passage. Ada "upped the ante" after reading books by Watts (1957) and Kapleau (1965/1989) which describe Zen enlightenment experiences. She began practicing in earnest after meeting a Japanese Zen master in 1970 who was "dear and warm." Paul, also excited about Zen, came back into her life, and they sat and studied regularly with a group. It was a "high" time.

Ada was attracted to the "intensity, high drama, and do or die effort" of Rinzai Zen. It felt good to "bust her butt" and survive the pain of extended sitting. She does not remember which practice her teacher taught, but knows that she pushed herself to the limit. She took his words "just sit" to heart after seeking his help regarding a career in opera and a failed relationship with Paul. Thinking that her problems would be solved if she became enlightened, she meditated as much as possible. She attended at least one extended retreat a month with various teachers. When not in retreat, she sat for at least four hours a day and otherwise tried to remain in the moment. She felt peaceful and loving, more like herself than ever before. Veils fell from her eyes, and she experienced "everything just as it is." Yet, she still was unsure about her career. Conversations with others seemed trivial, and she cut off relationships and discontinued therapy. In retrospect, she thinks that her practice was an evasion of painful feelings, which would make themselves known at some point.

After six months of such practice, Ada attended a ten-day Theravada retreat involving concentration and mindfulness practices done alone in one's room. The teacher checked on each person daily and gave group talks. Ada had intense makyo during the retreat: crackling electricity traveled up and down her spine, and she felt profoundly relaxed as she recalled early memories of sounds and sights. Near the end of the retreat, she woke to an "absolute state" that she believed was kensho. First came cosmic pulsation with things flowing towards a single point and erupting back through it. Then appeared a sheet-like image with elements of reality floating. As she looked at them, she realized that they were her and that there was nothing in the universe except her. Rather than joy, she felt extreme fear and loneliness. The next morning, when she yearned for affirmation and advice, her teacher responded, "Now you know that you're afraid of being alone."

After the retreat and during the month prior to her "breakdown," Ada had another unbearable experience of loneliness. She also took LSD for the third time in her life and had a "terrifying trip" that involved disintegrating into bones. She willed herself out of that by refusing to accept it. She also was deeply "grabbed" (influenced) by Janov's "Primal Scream," and thought that if she reached and released her primal energy, she would be free. Then something "snapped," and she felt tremendous grief, then rage and terror. Only months later did she connect this experience to her grief about losing Paul.

The next few years were like "heavy labor with no rest" and "being in a tunnel without light." Ada could not talk about her pain and felt that people would lock her up if she did. She reentered therapy and tried other things as well: encounter and therapy groups, energy and body work, and Arica training, which involves meditation, yoga, body work, and psychological processing. The therapies never quite enabled her to reach and release her core problem. She also meditated and attended retreats, but found that her energies were too high to feel safe with meditation. She did not know how to transition back into the world of ordinary experience. She met with a Zen teacher who was also a psychoanalyst, but was not able to heed her advice because she (Ada) was too "freaked out" and emotionally disconnected. This teacher affirmed her kensho and "ripe" concentration practice, but advised that she needed more balance-work, singing, and a light meditation practice. Throughout this difficult period, she experienced one sign of hope: a dream of herself holding a tennis racket that resembled an Ankh, Egyptian sign of life.

Twenty years later and after even more therapy, Ada still struggles.
She believes that she has a borderline personality disorder and agrees with Engler's (1986) idea that you cannot go beyond yourself until you have a self. She does not meditate much for fear of what might come up but has worked with a Theravada-Zen teacher who meditated with her, demystified "enlightenment," and gave her feedback about her meditation. The technique of noticing what is prominent in the body and being with it helped her with pain a few times and offers hope. Ada says that when she first practiced, teachers were not psychologically sophisticated enough to ask about students' lives or to process emotional issues. She believes that she could have benefited from a moderate, gentle practice and advice to work, sing, and learn to relate better. I needed someone to investigate my big hurry and terrible race toward enlightenment, and to say that I was running from something."

Lost in thought: Twenty-four-hour practice.

Rose's family history involves mental illness: two siblings suffered psychosis or suicidal impulses, and her father, a physician and researcher, is riddled with phobias and compulsions. Rose's first psychotic episode occurred when she was nineteen and her second a year later. They were triggered by relationship stresses involving family and two gestalt therapists who she experienced as using her to work on their marital problems. The third occurred at age thirty-seven and the fourth at age thirty-nine. These related to not knowing her limits and becoming overextended and "lost" without realizing it. The last involved meditation, a "twenty-four-hour practice" as Rose calls it.

Rose first read a Buddhist book in her mid-twenties. She likes philosophy, thinking about mind and spirituality, and is interested in other cultures, and found Buddhism intellectually stimulating. Also, she felt frustrated with her psychosis and disliked the "deadening" effects of medication. She saw that TM helped a friend become less flighty and more able to be alone, and she hoped that meditation would help her gain control of her mind and be more content with herself. She did not begin meditating until her mid-thirties, however. At that time, stress over having a boyfriend in prison and exposure to Trungpa Rinpoche's (1969) Meditation in Action prompted her to seek instruction. She was told to follow her breath while sitting comfortably and to label any thoughts that arose as "thinking" and return to her breath.

Rose had two consecutive meditation instructors; she did not feel comfortable with either. She thought one was too strict and pushy about a particular type of training. She felt too intensely about the other and also worried that she was insensitive to him. Generally, she feels hemmed in and controlled by others' instructions. She ended up meditating on her own with little instruction and no supervision. She practiced at most three hours a week and generally did not meditate daily or at the same time every day.

Five years later, Rose met a Tibetan teacher who seemed to her to know what he was doing. He was not pushy about the practice, was careful about the effect of his words, and would stop if someone said he was going too far. He also tolerated doubt and skepticism and wanted people to think for themselves. She went to a weekend retreat that he led and was interviewed. Her only strange experience came before the interview. She felt driven to get up enough nerve to even have the interview and then experienced seeing a series of faces as she looked in a mirror. She had an "ordinary, down-to-earth conversation" with the teacher but did not mention the faces.

Rose did not tell her teachers about her prior psychotic episodes. They may have known about them through her therapist, but, if so, did not mention them to her. Her goal to overcome psychosis through meditation was never clarified.

The Tibetan teacher emphasized a "twenty-four-hour" practice of mindfulness as well as sitting meditation. This appealed to Rose and she began sitting for hours, letting her mind wander while half noticing her breath and other things. She discontinued her antipsychotic medication on her own a few months after the retreat. She also was working less, so she had less structure and contact with people. Moreover, the Los Angeles riots occurring after the Rodney King verdict of 1994 upset her greatly. Due to a foot injury, she then lost her usual way of stabilizing her mind, which was running. Running relaxed her and slowed her mind so that thoughts came more gradually and were more to the point. Around the same time, she saw another face in the mirror and began having intense fantasies involving reincarnation and Christian symbols. These experiences became more important than details of her everyday life, and she lacked her usual awareness and her usual fear that she was going too far. Her psychotic break occurred six months after the retreat.

Rose was hospitalized and she resumed medication. Her diagnosis has been paranoid schizophrenia. She finds the diagnosis hurtful and limiting, a label of being different and "all washed up." It also pressures her to become well and "enlightened." "Psychosis does not mean you're better or worse than others; it's just what has happened to a person in her life."

For her practice Rose now uses a Yoga tape that helps induce sleep through relaxation of different parts of the body. She thinks about seeing the Tibetan teacher again but does not feel ready to face questions about why she wants to meditate and see him. Her spirituality is private. She is trying to regain a sense of wonder and to accept her life, freed from the compulsion to be like everyone else.

Teacher Experience. Understanding of nonordinary states of consciousness (NSC).

The Buddhist teachers interviewed in this study (four Zen, four Theravadan, four Tibetan, all teaching in the U.S.) understand NSC as phenomena that often emerge as practice progresses. Similar to the "unstressing" cited in TM literature (Carrington, 1977; Goleman, 1971), NSC common in early phases of Buddhist meditation include disturbing emotions and fantasies, perceptual aberrations and hallucinations, memories, and proprioceptive sensations and movements (see also, Epstein & Lieff, 1986; Komfield, 1979). A Zen teacher noted that NSC at a later "preawakening" phase are different from earlier NSC. They tend to be either very alluring, often involving religious symbols and blissful feelings, or very frightening and evocative of doubt. Two Tibetan teachers noted that in advanced Tantric practices, visions of deified aspects of mind (yidams) can resemble psychosis in that they are both real and imaginary, external and internal.

The teachers defined psychosis as a problem of overidentifying with NSC and being unable to disidentify and let go. Also, several teachers said that psychosis involves an inability to function and respond in normal ways. Some Zen teachers noted that samadhi and kensho can involve a loss of functioning that can last from minutes to hours, however.

The teachers posited various reasons for NSC, some related to meditation and others not. All correlated NSC with deepening concentration, which seems to settle the usual discursive mind and allow other layers of mind to emerge, layers seen as tainted by the defilements of existence. The Theravadans especially emphasized that NSC emerge and become problematic when concentration is not balanced with adequate mindfulness, which can cleanse the mind of these defilements. Zen teachers suggested that incorrect posture and breathing also contribute. Tibetan teachers spoke of how an improper use of certain advanced meditation practices leads to an incorrect flow of energy in the body. All of the teachers noted that excessive effort and striving creates problems with NSC; the Asian teachers said that perhaps this was a bigger problem for meditators in the East because they have been culturally conditioned to seek enlightenment. Factors not related to meditation include health imbalances arising from lack of sleep, poor diet, and stress.

Dealing with NSC.

NSC are relatively common during intensive, prolonged meditation, and teachers are accustomed to dealing with them. Some Theravadans estimated that during a three-month retreat, about half of the students experience NSC. In dealing with these, teachers generally assure students that such phenomena occur with deepening practice but will pass. They try to help the student just observe the experience without denying, rejecting, or indulging it. They may supportively listen, such as when memories of trauma emerge, or on the other hand, they may make light of NSC that the student mistakes for enlightenment. Theravadans tend to focus on "mindfulness in the present moment" and may have the student "mentally note" the experience without getting caught up in its content. Zen teachers may correct the student's posture and breathing. A Tibetan teacher noted that he circumvents problems with NSC by checking for health imbalances that cause difficulties and has students start with a short practice and gradually increase time meditating as they gain insight.

When NSC is more extreme, a student may become paralyzed and unable to follow meditation instruction. At this point, most teachers advocate decreasing concentration on the meditative object, such as a koan or the breath; instead they ask the student to develop a more panoramic mindfulness of internal and external stimuli. This can mean "lightening up" and just watching the mind without judgment and effort to practice. Theravadans may have the student focus mindfully on the body or what is happening presently in the mind. Zen teachers may switch a student from a more concentrative koan practice, which tends to suppress unconscious material, to shikantaza or breath practice, which allows material to emerge more naturally and slowly. Teachers may also have more frequent interviews with the student, decrease the student's sitting time, and involve the student in "grounding" physical activities. A Tibetan and Theravadan commented that they sometimes confront a student's NSC as being "crazy." Some Theravadans have found that acupuncture treatment and heavier meals of meat and pasta can be helpful as well.

The teachers identified a number of signs that these extreme NSC could foreshadow a psychotic break. These include obsession with the NSC, more negative, fearful, and bizarre NSC, fear of going crazy, aberrant behavior, and emotionally disconnected "schizoid" states. One teacher thought that people prone to psychosis have more rage and self-pity and fewer moments of sadness and clarity than those who are not prone. Another teacher said that lack of humility is a sign of difficulty. These warning signs generally signal a need to discontinue or lighten up in practice.

The teachers found that psychosis, estimated to occur in far less that one percent of meditators, can develop at either initial or advanced stages of practice. During initial stages, it can rather easily occur in people with a history of psychosis; it relates to the student's inability to use meditation practices to stabilize the mind as defenses are relaxed. A Zen teacher said that he knows of a few cases where psychosis occurred after a retreat. He finds that stripped of their usual defenses, students can become depressed and overstimulated when they reenter ordinary life. In more advanced stages, psychosis is very rare because meditators have developed more equanimity or ability to observe and let go of mental content. Psychosis at advanced states usually relates to excess concentration and overexertion. The Tibetans called this a "sokrlung" disorder, which involves energy moving improperly in the body. Several teachers noted that Western meditators tend to give up meditation when they encounter difficulty. Few reach advanced stages of practice where meditation-related psychosis can occur.

If psychosis occurs in initial phases of practice, the student is asked to discontinue meditation and may be asked to leave the retreat or be hospitalized if they cannot return to ordinary functioning. A Theravadan said that, for more advanced meditators who develop true meditation-related psychosis, he may ask the student to focus on the state of mind as an object of mindfulness. If that fails, he may try to get at the deeper meaning of the problem or change the object of mindfulness. A Tibetan advised that advanced meditators need a qualified teacher to help with the practice used and to differentiate between psychotic states and true spiritual visions. Another Tibetan noted that advanced practices are meant to provoke confusion and extreme states. He tries to help people find balance between withstanding discomfort and knowing their limits so that they do not damage themselves.

Adapting to Western students.

The teachers reported that they have learned more about psychology in working with Western students, some with major mental illness and many with motivation to deal with psychological problems. Several teachers noted that they consult with mental health professionals regarding severe psychological problems in their students. Teachers who were demanding of students twenty years ago have become more moderate and gentle. They now believe that vigorous approaches help some students, but that in general, pushing students to "break through" does not facilitate integration of enlightenment experience and can damage students who are psychologically fragile. They emphasized knowing students so that practice can be tailor-made for each student's temperament and needs. Teachers with students who have a major mental illness said that they advocate moderation, teach initial mindfulness-breath practices, and increase their monitoring of the student's practice. Two said that metta or loving-kindness meditation can help as well, because such students often suffer from poor self-esteem. Many also encourage utilization of Western medication and therapy and restrict such students from attending retreats that last more than two days. Teachers also have instituted screening questionnaires and interviews to assess students' ability to handle meditation, asking about things such as prior history of psychosis and health status. Such screening has virtually eliminated problems with students becoming psychotic during initial practice, even though some students lied about their history. Teachers still have difficulty assessing students who do not have a history of psychosis. One noted that he knows of several high-functioning, articulate, and humorous people who had brief psychotic episodes during advanced Tibetan practices. Generally, teachers reported that too much effort and too much or too little anxiety can signal difficulties and that high-strung, emotionally volatile people have more intense and frequent NSC. The teachers tend to deal with these people by supportively listening and guiding, paying more attention than before to psychological issues. The Zen teacher who noted students' vulnerability after retreats has also started checking on fragile students a few days after a retreat.


It is apparent that Buddhist teachers have become more psychologically sophisticated in working with Western students over the past thirty-five years and have adapted traditional meditation practices to deal with extreme mental states that may arise during intensive meditation. The meditator vignettes illustrate some of the difficulties that can occur when a student's life, motivations, and vulnerabilities are not well understood, and when a student leaves the monitored and protected retreat milieu. The experiences of Sara and Ada suggest that narcissistic issues around grandiosity and borderline issues around abandonment can be activated in more advanced stages of meditation. They also illustrate how extreme effort to attain enlightenment can itself be a symptom and can create harmful imbalance in the mind and daily life. With such students, teachers may need to emphasize other aspects of Buddhist training besides meditation, e.g., relationships in the community (sangha) and moral precepts (shila). Rose's experience suggests that it may be difficult for students with a major mental illness to openly discuss their concerns with a teacher. Teachers may need to be more active with such students in discussing mental illness and being clear and supportive in their suggestions for practice. They can also foster community understanding and support.

Implications for the Clinical Use of Meditation

Meditation can enhance self-awareness and self-regulation, goals of most psychotherapies in working with a broad range of patients. Similar to expressive psychotherapies that aim at uncovering the unconscious, meditation has "derepressive" and destabilizing effects (Wilber, 1986). In both meditation and psychotherapy, one must deal with issues of personality structure, motivation, resistance, and relationship as the mind opens up to itself and becomes more integrated and stable.

This study has a number of implications for therapists who "prescribe" meditation or work with patients who meditate as a spiritual practice: 1) Most people will not have difficulties with meditation unless they meditate intensively. This is consistent with Glueck and Stroebel's (1975) findings that psychiatric patients benefited from TM at prescribed twenty-minute periods twice a day, but were prone to psychosis when meditating more. 2) Some meditative practices are more appropriate than others, depending on a patient's needs. Initial concentrative practices that focus on the breath can help patients calm themselves but, if engaged in over an extensive period of time, may result in NSC that are experienced as troublesome. Initial mindfulness practices involving breathing, mental noting, and awareness of body sensations may help patients become more grounded in the present. Metta meditation (Salzberg, 1995) can help develop a sense of kindness towards oneself and others. Any physical activity, including martial arts and yoga, can be an antidote for overwhelming thoughts and emotions. 3) Most meditators will discontinue meditation when frustrated or remain beginners because of the dedication, perseverance, and time it takes to develop meditation skills. As Allen (1995) points out, meditation and other self-regulation techniques are simple but require motivation and practice. Because of self-hatred, patients often fail to do things to care for themselves. Thus, resistance to self-care must be explored and encouragement to begin and maintain practice must be given. 4) Although Westerners tend to focus on Buddhist meditation, other aspects of Buddhist training, such as being a member of a community and practicing moral precepts, may be equally or more helpful for psychological and spiritual development.

In sum, Buddhist practices, as being adapted by teachers in the West, seem to offer a promising avenue of psychological and spiritual development. Possibilities for further study of the interface between Buddhist practice and Western psychology abound. For example, one could focus on the nature and use of transference in student-teacher relationships. A teacher in this study noted that he treats students differently at different stages of their practice: he is a parent in initial phases, a guide as the student becomes more independent, a spiritual friend who can also learn from the student, and finally not a teacher at all. Sexual relationships and the power differential between teachers and students have been topics of animated discussion and could be studied as well.


kensho-Zen expression for the experience of awakening or breaking through normal consciousness to realize one's true nature and the nonduality of the "Absolute" (nirvana) and "Relative" (samsara).

jhana (Pali) (dhyana. Skt.)-a degree of absorption on a continuum (eight jhanas altogether), beginning with a full break with normal consciousness that is characterized by absorption in the meditative object to the exclusion of other thoughts and sensory awareness.

koan-Zen teaching phrase or story that presents a paradox unsolvable through logic or reason. In concentrating on a koan and attempting to solve it, one is forced to transcend discursive thinking and realize a world beyond dualism. It is used to promote initial kensho and subsequently, to deepen realization.

makyo--Zen term for the deceptive, illusory sensations and feelings that arise in meditation.

nirvana (nibbana, Pali)-the "absolute" or unconditioned, uncreated, unformed realm beyond and underlying consensual. phenomenal reality (samsara), Awakening to nirvana and realizing it in samsara is the goal of meditation.

prajna (panna, Pali)-"insight wisdom." The definitive moment of prajna is insight into emptiness [shunyata], which is the true nature of reality.

prana-life force. "wind," or energy that in Eastern thought circulates through channels in the body and supports life processes.

Rinzai-one of the two major schools of Japanese Zen. Koans are an integral part of its practices.

samadhi-nondualistic state of consciousness reached when the mind becomes absorbed in an object through focus on the object and calming the mind.

samatha (Pali) (shamatha, Skt.)-"calm abiding" or "dwelling in tranquility." One of the two major branches of meditative practices in Buddhism. Samatha calms the mind and culminates in samadhi and jhana levels of absorption.

samsara-the "relative" or conventional, phenomenal reality conditioned by the three "unwholesome" roots (attachment, aversion, ignorance) that tie beings to worldly existence, which involves birth, sickness, old age, and death.

shikantaza- "just sitting," A form of Zen practice that involves a neutral, mindful observation of thoughts and sensations as they come and go.

shila (sila, Pali)-precepts or ethical guidelines for those on the Buddhist path. More broadly speaking, it refers to morality based on insight-wisdom.

shunyata (sunnata;Pali)-"emptiness." Central notion of Buddhism that phenomena, including "self," have no inherent or independent existence.

vipassana (PaU) (vipashyana, Skt.)-"special insight" or "clear seeing." One of the two major branches of Buddhist meditation practices. Vipassana develops prajna or insight-wisdom. It is sometimes used to describe Theravada meditation practices, which involve careful cultivation of mindfulness in early stages of practice. Technically, true vipassana does not begin until mindfulness and concentration are well-developed and balanced.

yidam-"deity" that practitioners visualize in advanced Vajrayana practices. Yidams involve primal energy and emotions.


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Re: Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant S

Postby admin » Mon Feb 25, 2019 7:47 am

Mania precipitated by meditation: A case report and literature review
by Graeme A. Yorston
St. Andrew's Hospital, Northampton, UK
Mental Health Religion & Culture, November 2001




Meditation is a popular method of relaxation and dealing with everyday stress. Meditative techniques have been used in the management of a number of psychiatric and physical illnesses. The risk of serious mental illness being precipitated by meditation is less well recognized however. This paper reports a case in which two separate manic episodes arose after meditation using techniques from two different traditions (yoga and zen). Other cases of psychotic illness precipitated by meditation and mystical speculation reported in the literature are discussed.


Meditation as a method of relaxation and dealing with everyday stress is becoming increasingly popular in the West with an estimated six million practitioners in the USA alone (Graham, 1986). A variety of techniques are in use but most owe their origins to oriental practices. Meditation has also been used as a therapeutic tool in psychiatry for behaviour modification (de Silva, 1984), as part of a holistic programme for chronic schizophrenia (Lukoff et al., 1986) and as an adjunct to dynamic psychotherapy (Kutz, 1985). A number of recent studies have examined the effects of meditation on physical illness (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1998;Wenneberg et al., 1997)

Meditation is generally considered safe with beneficial effects on mental health rather than as a potential trigger for psychiatric illness but there are reports in the literature of the hazards of meditation: Walsh and Roche (1979) described three cases of psychotic illness precipitated by meditation in subjects already diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia who had discontinued medication. Garcia-Trujillo et al. (1992) described a further two cases of acute psychosis precipitated by oriental meditation in subjects previously diagnosed as schizotypal personality disorder. Chan-Ob and Boonyanaruthee (1999) report a further three patients who presented with psychotic symptoms after practicing meditation. French et al. (1975) reported a single case of ‘altered reality testing’ after transcendental meditation. The precipitation of psychotic illness by Jewish mystical speculation has also been reported (Greenberg et al., 1992). Krieger and Zussman (1981) reported a case of a brief reactive psychosis in a Thai immigrant to the USA which occurred after confronting a family Buddhist mortuary ritual.

A review of the literature failed to reveal any cases of affective disorder being precipitated by meditative techniques. This paper reports a case in which two separate manic episodes were precipitated by periods of intense meditation using techniques from two different traditions (yoga and zen).

Case report

Miss X, a 25-year old self-employed, university graduate presented with a two week history of increased talkativeness, sleeplessness, over-activity and disinhibited behaviour. The onset followed a weekend yoga course that encouraged psychological release. She telephoned her instructor frequently, often in the middle of the night, offering undying love. She also pushed her hand through a window and sustained minor lacerations. There was no past psychiatric history but she had experienced brief periods of low mood 10 and six years previously which had resolved without psychiatric intervention. There was a family history of depression in her father who had received electro-convulsive therapy, and of late life depression in her paternal grandmother. Her birth and milestones were normal. There was no history of illicit drug use.

She was admitted informally to hospital but was detained when she became irritable and aggressive and insisted on leaving. At interview she shouted and tried to embrace some members of staff, but struck out at others. There was pressure of speech, thought disorder with flight of ideas, her mood was elevated and there were grandiose delusions including the belief that she had some special mission for the world: she had to offer ‘undying, unconditional’ love to everyone. She had no insight. A diagnosis of manic episode was made and she was treated with haloperidol 10mg daily and lorazepam up to 4mg daily and her symptoms were gradually controlled over the next six weeks. She refused mood-stabilizing medication.

At outpatient follow up she was noted to be mildly hypomanic on two occasions (the second after a sesshin or intensive Zen meditation weekend) but these episodes responded to chlorpromazine without admission to hospital. She agreed to a trial of carbamazepine 800mg daily which she took for two years. She also underwent twice weekly psychodynamic psychotherapy for over two years.

Two months after entering a Zen Buddhist retreat that she had been associated with for two years, she re-presented with a five-day history of sleeplessness, decreased appetite and labile affect. At interview she laughed inappropriately and had outbursts of activity – lying on her bed one moment, jumping off the next. She made stereotypical praying movements, was sexually disinhibited, restless, distractible and irritable. She was thought disordered with pressure of speech. Though admitted informally she soon insisted on leaving and attacked a member of staff. She was detained and transferred to an intensive psychiatric care unit for three days where treatment with haloperidol 6mg and lorazepam 3mg was commenced. Her mental state settled over the next eight weeks. She continued to refuse mood stabilizing treatment and re-entered the Buddhist retreat.


The precipitation of mania by meditation has not been described before yet descriptions of the altered state of consciousness (ASC) associated with contemplative practice abound in the mystic literature of different religions (Buckley, 1981). Zen is a Japanese school of Buddhism – the word itself derives from Sanskrit dhyana or meditation and it is meditation or mindfulness that forms the essence of the Zen philosophy of life. A euphoric state of enlightenment called satori is sometimes achieved by experienced monks (Humphreys, 1962). Thapa and Murtha (1985) compared the subjective accounts of ASCs in subjects with complex partial seizures, schizophrenia and meditators from ashrams and other religious organizations in India. They found the core experiential characteristics of perceptual distortion were common to all three ASCs but important differences existed such as only the meditative ASC being accompanied by a positive emotional effect. The authors did not include manic patients in their study so were unable to make direct comparisons with the experiences in mania. Lukoff (1988) however reported in a single case study that seven of the eight dimensions of mystical experience described by Stace (1960) were experienced by a manic patient.

There is evidence that mystical experiences have a neuro-biological basis possibly in the right temporal lobe (Fenwick, 1996) and contemplative meditation which can lead to such experiences can be studied in experimental conditions (Deikman, 1963, 1964). Lou et al. (1999) have shown a differential cerebral blood flow distribution in meditative states and normal consciousness.

Students practise Zen to develop concentration without thinking (Watts, 1962) but this can be difficult and novices are often bombarded by distracting stimuli – both external and intrapsychic which can continue after the meditation session leading to insomnia. There is evidence to suggest sleep deprivation may act as a final common pathway in the onset of mania (Kasper & Wehr, 1992; Wehr, 1991; Wright, 1993) and it is possible that it was the pressure of thought stirred up by meditation that disrupted the patient’s sleep and precipitated the manic episode in this case and in two of the cases reported by Chan-Ob and Boonyanaruthee (1999). Interestingly the patient herself likened both episodes of mania to a release of tension and blocked energy from years of not dealing with emotions in a helpful way.

Other evidence for psychological precipitants for mania comes from life events (Sclare & Creed, 1990) and expressed emotion (Miklowitz et al., 1986) research. These factors appear to be most important in the first episode of illness, the effects lessening with each subsequent episode. These observations have been suggested as evidence in support of the kindling hypothesis (Silverstone & Romans-Clarkson, 1989). The move to the retreat and adoption of a different lifestyle in this case must have been a significant stressor. Indeed, religious change in itself can be associated with psychiatric illness: Witztum et al. (1990) showed high rates of serious mental illness in converts to ultra-orthodox Judaism in Jerusalem and speculated that, for some, the conversion may have been an attempt to control emerging signs of psychiatric illness.

Other more established risk factors for mania in this case are the positive family history of affective disorder and the discontinuation of carbamazepine (Scull & Trimble, 1995).

The orthodox psychiatric diagnosis in this case was bipolar affective disorder. Grof and Grof (1986) have argued however that traditional psychiatric thinking fails to recognize the difference between mystical and psychotic experiences, tending to underestimate the potential for a healing and positive transformation of what the authors term a transpersonal crisis. It is important to remember that other cultures have and do classify what we now call psychoses in different ways and that, as Carey (1997) has advocated, knowledge drawn from different approaches should be respected and allowed to contribute to the scientific study of mental illness. The absence of previous reports of mania precipitated by meditation despite its apparent potency at inducing euphoric states of consciousness suggests that adequate practice and supervision may enable the subject to learn to control the emergence of intrapsychic material. If this is so, then it could have implications for reducing the risk of relapse in this patient and potentially in others. Thus, although our understanding of the psychology and neurobiology of meditation is growing (see West, 1987) for a comprehensive review) it deserves more study.



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Re: Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant S

Postby admin » Mon Feb 25, 2019 8:30 am

Schizotypy and mindfulness: Magical thinking without suspiciousness characterizes mindfulness meditators
by Elena Antonova a, Kavitha Amaratunga a, Bernice Wright a, Ulrich Ettinger b, Veena Kumari a,c,*
© 2016 The Authors.



a King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN), Department of Psychology, London, UK b University of Bonn, Department of Psychology, Bonn, Germany c NIHR Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK


Despite growing evidence for demonstrated efficacy of mindfulness in various disorders, there is a continuous concern about the relationship between mindfulness practice and psychosis. As schizotypy is part of the psychosis spectrum, we examined the relationship between long-term mindfulness practice and schizotypy in two independent studies. Study 1 included 24 experienced mindfulness practitioners (19 males) from the Buddhist tradition (meditators) and 24 meditation-naïve individuals (all males). Study 2 consisted of 28 meditators and 28 meditation-naïve individuals (all males). All participants completed the Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire (Raine, 1991), a self-report scale containing 9 subscales (ideas of reference, excessive social anxiety, magical thinking, unusual perceptual experiences, odd/eccentric behavior, no close friends, odd speech, constricted affect, suspiciousness). Participants of study 2 also completed the Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire which assesses observing (Observe), describing (Describe), acting with awareness (Awareness), non-judging of (Non-judgment) and non-reactivity to inner experience (Non-reactivity) facets of trait mindfulness. In both studies, meditators scored significantly lower on suspiciousness and higher on magical thinking compared to meditation-naïve individuals and showed a trend towards lower scores on excessive social anxiety. Excessive social anxiety correlated negatively with Awareness and Non-judgment; and suspiciousness with Awareness, Non-judgment and Nonreactivity facets across both groups. The two groups did not differ in their total schizotypy score. We conclude that mindfulness practice is not associated with an overall increase in schizotypal traits. Instead, the pattern suggests that mindfulness meditation, particularly with an emphasis on the Awareness, Nonjudgment and Non-reactivity aspects, may help to reduce suspiciousness and excessive social anxiety.

1. Introduction

Mindfulness is a translation of the Pali term sati that in meditation context refers to remembering to keep awareness of one's practice. Mindfulness practice normally proceeds in stages, starting from the mindfulness of bodily sensations to awareness of feelings and thoughts, ultimately aimed at developing a present-centered awareness without an explicit focus. These stages are apparent in most schools of Buddhism, as well as in Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR; Kabat-Zinn, 1990) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT; Segal et al., 2002). Mindfulness practice as incorporated in MBIs is often contrasted with more effortful concentration-based practices such as those taught in Theravada Buddhism (Bishop et al., 2004). The traditions of Buddhism most closely aligned with mindfulness as taught in MBSR and MBCT are Dzogchen and Mahamudra, which take a gentle approach to practice by letting go of any striving to achieve a particular mental state, and simply resting in a present-centered awareness free of emotional reactivity and conceptual elaboration (Dunne, 2011; Kabat-Zinn, 2011).

MBSR has been shown to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety, and to improve general well-being in a number of physical and psychological conditions (meta-analysis, Hofmann et al., 2010; Zainal et al., 2013), as well as in healthy populations (meta-analysis, Khoury et al., 2015). MBCT has been reported to prevent depression relapse (Teasdale, 2000), and to be at least as effective as anti-depressants (Kuyken et al., 2015). Mindfulness as a trait also inversely correlates with anxiety and depression in healthy individuals (Baer et al., 2004). Despite this transdiagnostic efficacy of MBIs, the relationship between mindfulness and psychosis is currently unclear.

There are persistent concerns that mindfulness might induce psychosis in vulnerable individuals and even in people with no previous history or known vulnerability to psychosis based on a number of single-case studies that appear to suggest that meditation can induce acute psychotic episodes in individuals with a history of schizophrenia (Walsh and Roche, 1979), as well as in people without a history of psychiatric illness (Sethi and Subhash, 2003; Yorston, 2001). However, as discussed in more detail by Shonin et al. (2014), in all these cases the individuals were involved in intensive meditation retreats, and it is unclear to what extent the meditation practices that the described cases were engaged with are in line with the approach employed in MBIs. A number of MBIs for psychosis conducted to date, although mostly preliminary, suggest that mindfulness practice of short duration can actually alleviate the distress associated with psychotic symptoms, such as hearing voices, and reduce depression and anxiety (Abba et al., 2008; Chadwick et al., 2008, 2009; Escudero-Perez et al., 2015; Moritz et al., 2015; Randal et al., 2015; Strauss et al., 2015; Tong et al., 2015; Ubeda-Gomez et al., 2015).

With a clinical prevalence of about 7 per 1000 in the adult population, psychosis is more common among the general population than previously assumed (Johns et al., 2004) and is expressed along a continuum (Verdoux and Van Os, 2002). Schizotypy is a psychological construct, encompassing a range of personality traits and cognitions that are similar to psychosis but less severe in nature (Ettinger et al., 2014). According to Raine et al. (1995), schizotypy is characterized by nine dimensions: ideas of reference, excessive social anxiety, magical thinking, unusual perceptual experiences, eccentric behavior or appearance, no close friends or confidants, odd speech, constricted affect and suspiciousness. Schizotypy clearly encompasses both psychosis-like symptoms and symptoms related to anxiety and depression.

The main aim of the present study therefore was to examine the relationship between regular long-term (N2 years) practice of mindfulness and the dimensions of schizotypy (Raine, 1991) in two independent studies. Based on the reviewed evidence for the positive effects of mindfulness on anxiety and depression, it was hypothesized that experienced meditators will score lower on the excessive social anxiety and constricted affect compared to meditation-naïve individuals. Given the lack of any direct data on this topic, no specific predictions were made in relation to other schizotypy dimensions. It was, however, anticipated that any associations present in both studies, even if with a small effect size,would represent true effects. Study 2, in addition to aiming to replicate the findings of Study 1, explored the relationship between the dimensions of schizotypy and the facets of trait mindfulness indexed by the Five Facets Mindfulness questionnaire (FFMQ) (Baer et al., 2006).

2. Methods

2.1. Participants and design

This investigation included two independent studies. Study 1 included 24 experienced lay meditators (19 males) and 24 meditation-naïve individuals (all males). The meditators were recruited from Buddhist centers across the UK via posters and advertisements. Meditators had to have been consistent in their practice for over 2 years, practicing at least 6 days a week for a minimum of 45 min a day, and were drawn from Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Meditation-naïve individuals had to have no experience of mindfulness-related practices including meditation, yoga, tai chi, chi gong, or martial arts and were recruited from a database of healthy volunteers as well as emails and circulars sent to the students and staff of King's College London. Study 2 included 28 experienced male meditators mainly from Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana and Triratna traditions of Buddhism, and 28 meditation-naïve male individuals, recruited in the same way as Study 1 using the same criteria.

Additional inclusion criteria for both studies included IQ N 80 as assessed by Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (Wechsler, 1999), age between 18 and 60 years, non-smoking and not drinking more than 28 units of alcohol per week. Participants with diagnosis of neuropsychiatric disorders, current or past, substance abuse and/ or regular prescription medication as assessed by the screening interview were excluded.

The study procedures were approved by King's College London research ethics committee. Participants provided written informed consent to their participation and were compensated for their time.

2.2. Assessment of schizotypal personality traits and mindfulness

All participants completed the Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire (SPQ) (Raine, 1991) which contains 9 subscales: ideas of reference, excessive social anxiety, magical thinking, unusual perceptual experiences, odd/eccentric behavior, no close friends, odd speech, constricted affect and suspiciousness. This 74-item assessment of DSM-III-R schizotypal personality disorder provides an overall score of individual differences in schizotypal personality in addition to the scores of the above-mentioned subscales. With high internal reliability (0.90), test–retest reliability (0.82), convergent validity (0.59) and discriminant and criterion validity (0.63, 0.68), it is considered a well-validated measure of schizotypy.

All participants of Study 2 also completed the FFMQ (Baer et al., 2006) to investigate the relationship between trait mindfullness and schizotypy. FFMQ has been derived from factor analysis performed on five of the most commonly used mindfulness measures. The five facets are observing (Observe), describing (Describe), acting with awareness (Awareness), non-judging of inner experience (Nonjudgment), and non-reactivity to inner experience (Non-reactivity) as assessed using Likert scale with 39 items. FFMQ has high internal consistency, ranging from 0.75 (Non-reactivity) to 0.91 (Describe).

2.3. Data analysis

Group differences in age, IQ, FFMQ and SPQ scores were examined using independent sample t-tests, run separately for the two studies. Given the significant difference in age and IQ between the meditator and meditation-naïve groups in Study 1 (Table 1), we examined the relationship of SPQ scores with age and IQ, and then re-evaluated the group difference in one of the SPQ subscales (no close friends) that showed a positive association with IQ (in Study 1), using analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) co-varying for IQ.

In Study 2, we examined the correlations between trait mindfulness (FFMQ) and SPQ (total and subscale) scores across both samples, and then separately in the meditator and meditation-naïve groups. Given the limited range of scores on some SPQ subscales, we report Spearman correlations (the same pattern of associations was observed with Pearson's r).

All data analysis was conducted using IBM Statistical Package for Social Sciences (version 22). The alpha level of significance (two-tailed) was set at p=0.05 in all analyses unless specified otherwise.

3. Results

Demographic characteristics of the meditator and meditation naïve groups, along with the descriptive statistics and group differences in SPQ and FFMQ scores, are presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Demographic characteristics, trait mindfulness and schizotypal scores of the meditator and meditation-naive groups.


3.1. Study 1

Meditators were older and had higher IQ than meditation-naïve individuals (Table 1). Meditators scored significantly higher on ‘magical thinking’ and significantly lower on the ‘suspiciousness’, ‘constricted affect’ and ‘no close friends’ subscales of the SPQ relative to meditation-naïve individuals. The two groups did not differ in total schizotypy scores (Table 1). Unexpectedly, there was a significant negative correlation between IQ and ‘no close friends’ subscale scores (across all participants, r=−0.324, p=0.04) and the significant difference between the meditator and meditation-naïve groups in ‘no close friends’ scores was abolished when we controlled for IQ (p N 0.20). IQ and age were not correlated with ‘excessive social anxiety’, ‘magical thinking’ or ‘suspiciousness’ (or with any other SPQ subscale) scores.

3.2. Study 2

The meditator and meditation-naïve groups were comparable on age and IQ (Table 1). Replicating the observations of Study 1, meditators scored significantly higher on ‘magical thinking’ and lower on ‘suspiciousness’ relative to meditation-naïve individuals. They also scored lower, at trend-level, on ‘excessive social anxiety’ (a weak trend also present in Study 1). As in Study 1, total SPQ profile did not significantly differ between the two groups (Table 1). Age and IQ did not correlate with SPQ (total or subscale) scores.

Meditators scored significantly higher on the Observe, Nonjudgment and Non-reactivity mindfulness facets of FFMQ compared to meditation-naïve individuals (Table 1). Across all participants (n = 56), there were negative correlations of ‘excessive social anxiety’ with Awareness and Non-judgment; ‘odd speech’ with Describe and Awareness; ‘constricted affect’ with Awareness and Nonjudgment; and ‘suspiciousness’ with Awareness, Non-judgment and Non-reactivity (Table 2). Both the meditator and meditation-naïve groups contributed to all these relationships, except for the negative correlation between suspiciousness and Non-reactivity, which was present mainly in the meditator group (Table 2).

4. Discussion

In line with our a priori hypothesis, meditators, compared to the meditation-naïve individuals, scored significantly lower on ‘constricted affect’ in Study 1, and showed a trend level for lower scores on ‘excessive social anxiety’ in both studies. In addition, meditators scored significantly higher on ‘magical thinking’, and significantly lower on ‘suspiciousness’ in both studies. In relation to the association between (FFMQ) trait mindfulness and (SPQ) schizotypy dimensions (Study 2), lower ‘excessive social anxiety’ and ‘constricted affect’ scores were associated with higher Awareness and Nonjudgment; lower ‘odd speech’ with higher Awareness and Describe; and lower ‘suspiciousness’ with higher Awareness, Non-judgment and Non-reactivity scores.

‘Constricted affect’ relating to a form of emotional blunting (Raine, 1991) appears to be positively affected only by the mindfulness practice styles of Dzogchen and Mahamudra (Study 1) which are most similar to the MBSR/MBCT approach, as this schizotypy dimension did not significantly differentiate the long-term meditators drawn from Zen, Vipassana, Theravada, Vajrayana and Triratna traditions of Buddhism from the meditation-naïve participants in Study 2. The ‘excessive social anxiety’ subscale relates to overt physiological changes along with a high degree of nervousness and anxiety (Raine, 1991). The finding of lower scores in meditators on this subscale, albeit non-significant, is in line with the notion that mindfulness training reduces anxiety (e.g., Khoury et al., 2015). Significant inverse correlations of lower ‘excessive social anxiety’ and ‘constricted affect’ scores with higher Awareness and Non-judgment scores suggest that mindfulness trait alleviates the so called negative symptoms of schizotypy via non-judgemental present-centered awareness, and this effect could be strengthened by mindfulness practice as suggested by significantly higher scores on the Non-judgment facet in long-term meditators, compared to meditation-naïve individuals. This is in line with preliminary evidence showing ameliorating effects of mindfulness training on symptoms of anxiety and depression in people with psychosis by reducing self-critical attitudes and developing non-judgmental present-centered awareness, as well as self-acceptance and self-compassion (review, Shonin et al., 2014).

Table 2: Spearman rank order correlations between mindfulness facets (FFMQ) and schizotypy (SPQ) dimensions in Study 2.


One of our novel findings is that meditators scored significantly lower on ‘suspiciousness’ in both samples. Although not specifically hypothesized, this finding is highly relevant to the clinical applications of mindfulness for the prevention and treatment of psychosis. From the time of Kraepelin, suspiciousness and paranoia have been considered to be among the main symptoms of psychosis (Kendler et al., 1996). These symptoms may stem from the avoidance of personal exposure and negative self-image, distorting reality in the process so as to strengthen impaired self-esteem (Bentall et al., 2008; Oxman et al., 1982). This avoidant nature is in contrast to mindfulness, which promotes direct engagement with reality and attention to all aspects of the present-moment experience non-judgmentally and non-reactively. Similarly, the distorted view of one-self and the characteristics of suspiciousness and paranoia are in contrast to greater empathy, compassion, and prosocial behavior associated with mindfulness (Condon et al., 2013). Given that a) paranoid schizophrenia is the most common type of psychosis experienced (Lieberman et al., 2012), b) suspiciousness/paranoia carries a high predictive power for conversion to psychosis in high risk individuals, alongside genetic risk and unusual thought content (Cannon et al., 2008), and c) we found inverse correlation between ‘suspiciousness’ and Non-judgement in meditators only, MBIs might hold promise in preventing psychosis in high-risk individuals.

Another novel finding of our investigation is higher score on ‘magical thinking’ in meditators in both studies. Given that ‘magical thinking’ was not associated with any of the FFMQ facets that were significantly higher in meditators compared to meditation-naïve individuals in study 2 and, as such, does not appear to develop due to mindfulness practice per se, the most likely explanation for this finding is that our mindfulness meditators were mainly practicing within Buddhist tradition. The ‘magical thinking’ subscale measures beliefs into such supernatural experiences as telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, and sixth sense, which are incorporated into Buddhist psychology and metaphysics, particularly in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The higher scores on ‘magical thinking’ in the face of low scores on other schizotypy dimensions are in line with research showing that having a context for unusual experiences and/or beliefs makes a difference in terms of whether they lead to diagnosable mental health difficulties or whether they become integrated into one's life without causing a functional disruption (Brett et al., 2014; Heriot-Maitland et al., 2012; Peters et al., 2016). It is also possible that people attracted to meditation practice within the context of Buddhist beliefs and metaphysics are higher on magical thinking to begin with, or that higher score on ‘magical thinking’ simply reflects greater openness to experience in meditators, rather than actual beliefs in these ‘supernatural’ constructs. The latter possibility is more likely given that trait mindfulness has been shown to be associated with greater openness to experience (Baer et al., 2004; van den Hurk et al., 2011), and there is an association between schizotypy and openness to experience (DeYoung et al., 2011). Mindfulness meditators thus may simply have greater open-mindedness towards what constitutes ‘magical thinking’ in the SPQ than the average population. Whether higher ‘magical thinking’ is an ‘artifact’ of Buddhist belief system or whether it indexes greater open-mindedness of mindfulness practitioners could be addressed by further research by recruiting long-term meditators that practice mindfulness within a secular setting.

Particularly relevant to psychosis is our finding that higher ‘magical thinking’ in meditators was not accompanied with higher ‘ideas of reference’. The ‘ideas of reference’ subscale measures the tendency to self-reference the experience, i.e. over-subscribe personal relevance and meaning to inner experiences and external events. Mindfulness practice, on the other hand, attenuates self-referential tendencies and associated brain dynamics (Brewer et al., 2011; Farb et al., 2007); the same brain networks are found to be hyperactive in people with schizophrenia (Whitfield-Gabrieli et al., 2009). The combination of high magical thinking and low ideas of reference is in alignment with the frameworks of psychosis that suggest that it is not unusual beliefs and/or experiences per se that constitute a risk for psychosis, it is rather their interpretation and hyper self-referencing (Peters et al., 2012). Given that unusual beliefs and thought content constitute risk for psychosis conversion (Cannon et al., 2008), the reduction of self-referencing might be another rationale for mindfulness-based psychosis prevention.

The observed pattern of inverse associations between the dimensions of schizotypy (‘excessive social anxiety’, ‘odd speech’, ‘constricted affect’ and ‘suspiciousness’) and the Awareness, Non-judgment and Nonreactivity facets of mindfulness suggests that trait mindfulness reduces negative dimensions of schizotypy, whereas mindfulness practice might have further ameliorating effects on ‘excessive social anxiety’ and ‘suspiciousness’ as these were lower in meditators compared to meditation-naïve participants. These findings may have important therapeutic implications, suggesting that a) future MBIs with a strong emphasis on the Awareness, Non-judgment and Non-reactivity aspects of mindfulness may be particularly effective in reducing anxiety-related symptoms, depression, and suspiciousness in psychosis; and b)mindfulness could be used as a therapeutic tool for psychosis prevention by addressing suspiciousness and paranoia in high risk populations.

Our investigation has a number of limitations. First, it examined the relationship between schizotypy dimensions and mindfulness in a cross-sectional correlational design, without any knowledge of the meditators' schizotypy scores prior to them starting mindfulness practice. Future research could examine the effects of shorter duration MBIs on the relationship between these traits. Second, this investigation was opportunistic, using two existing data sets (from two independent psychophysiology projects, Antonova et al., 2015; Kumari et al., 2015), consisting of mostly (Study 1) or only men (Study 2). Our findings thus cannot be generalized to women. Third, both schizotypy and mindfulness were assessed using self-report methods. While self-reports have their strengths, such as in depth, detailed data gathered directly from the participant, whilst limiting experimenters' bias, they also have limitations, such as socially desired responses resulting in underestimation or overestimation of actual traits. Given that people's perceptions of themselves are known to be poor predictors of their behavior (Baumeister et al., 2007), future studies, wherever possible, should incorporate experimental analogues of relevant phenomena (e.g. Atherton et al., 2016).

In conclusion, to our knowledge, this is the first investigation to have focused on the schizotypy profiles of experienced mindfulness practitioners. The findings demonstrated lower (trend-level) 'excessive social anxiety', as well as significantly lower 'suspiciousness' and higher 'magical thinking' in meditators relative to meditation-naïve individuals. These differences, taken together with the pattern of correlational observations (i.e. inverse associations between 'excessive social anxiety' and Awareness and Non-judgment; and between 'suspiciousness' and Awareness, Non-judgment and Non-reactivity), suggest that mindfulness training with emphasis on developing the facets of Awareness, Non-judgment and Non-reactivity may help to reduce social anxiety and suspiciousness in psychosis and related populations.

Role of funding source

The sponsors had no role in study design; in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; in the writing of the report; or in the decision to submit the paper for publication.


Elena Antonova and Veena Kumari conceptualized the study. Elena Antonova and Bernice Wright assisted with participant recruitment and data collection. Veena Kumari and Elena Antonova undertook the statistical analysis and prepared the first draft. All authors contributed to the final version.

Conflict of interest

The authors report no biomedical financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.


The research was funded by the Bial Foundation (282/14) and the John Templeton Foundation, the Positive Psychology Center of the University of Pennsylvania (13759). VK is supported by the Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, and the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust for some of her time.


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* Corresponding author at: Department of Psychology (P077), Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, UK.

E-mail address: veena.kumari@kcl.ac.uk (V. Kumari).
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Re: Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant S

Postby admin » Thu Feb 28, 2019 8:41 pm

Adverse Effects of Meditation: A Preliminary Investigation of Long-Term Meditators
by Deane H. Shapiro, Jr., Ph.D.
International Journal of Psychosomatics, Vol. 39 (Nos. 1-4), 1992 63
Manuscript submitted June 30, 1991 and accepted May 1 1992.



Adverse effects of meditation were assessed in twenty-seven long term meditators (average 4.21 years) both retrospectively (time one) and prospectively at one month (time two) and six months (time three) following a meditation retreat. At both time one and time three subjects reported significantly more positive effects than negative effects from meditation. However, of the twenty-seven subjects, seventeen (62.9%) reported at least one adverse effect, and two (7.4%) suffered profound adverse effects. When subjects at time one were divided into three groups based on length of practice (16.1 months; 41.1 months; 105 months) there were no significant differences in adverse effects. How the data should be interpreted, and their implications both for the clinical and psychotherapeutic use of meditation as a relaxation/self control strategy, and as a technique for facilitating personal and spiritual growth, are discussed. Limitations of the study and suggestions for future research are also offered.


Although the clinical use of relaxation strategies have shown positive effects in arousal reduction, there is a small but growing literature pointing out some of the potential adverse effects of these strategies. For example, Lazarus and Mayne (1) (p. 261) cited such negative effects for progressive, deep muscle relaxation as "relaxation induced anxiety and panic, paradoxical increases in tension, and parasympathetic rebound." There have been similar reports of negative effects for meditation (2-5). These reports indicate that meditation may be contraindicated for those with certain types of psychiatric illness (2); that too much daily meditation may precipitate psychiatric illness and impaired reality testing (4).

Most of these case reports were with short term meditators. However, in a reanalysis of his data, Otis (5) reported that negative effects of meditation (Transcendental Meditation) were stronger in 18 month meditators than in 3-6 month meditators. Further, even teacher trainees of TM with an average of 46.7 months practice, continued to report the same adverse effects. Otis concluded his study by noting that although 52-64% of his subjects did not list a single adverse effect, that the number of those reporting adverse effects was sufficiently high to warrant further investigation.

The current study can be seen as both a replication (with a different population) and an extension of the Otis study in two ways. First, adverse effects were assessed both retrospectively (as did Otis) as well as prospectively. Secondly, the longest term meditation group in Otis's study was 46.7 months, whereas in this study the middle group is 47.1 months, and the longest group is 105 months.


Subjects and Setting

Subjects were 27 individuals, 17 men and 10 women, with a mean age of 35.6 years (sd 13.2), who had signed up for an intensive Vipassana meditation retreat in Barre, Mass, and agreed to participate in the research study. This number who agreed to participate represented 25% of those who were attending the retreat. All subjects had meditated previously, with the average length of meditation experience 4.27 years (sd 3.32). Seventy percent meditated regularly, more than an hour a day. Two thirds had previously practiced Vipassana; and the remaining 33.3% practiced different types of concentrative or opening-up types of meditation (eg., mantra; silent; mindfulness; Soto Zen; breathing concentration; yoga; visualization). A little less than 1/4 of the group were married; over 70% had completed college; over 1/3 were atheist/agnostic; and over 50% were in professional careers.

Grouping by Length of Practice

For some of the analyses, the meditators were divided into three groupings based on length of practice. Group one (n= 10) had practiced two years or less. Test Time One average was 16.7 months practice, approximately 45 minutes a day, 80% regular meditators. Group 2 had practiced from over two years to less than seven years. Test Time One average was 47.1 months, approximately 45 minutes a day, 88.8% regular meditators. Group three (N=8) had practiced seven years or more. Test Time One average was 105 months, 75% were regular meditators, over an hour a day.

Nature of Vipassana Meditation

The meditative technique practiced at the retreat was Vipassana, part of the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. Vipassana meditation is a mindfulness type of meditation practice, a quieting technique designed to observe the mind and develop concentration. The individual is instructed to develop a "bare awareness," observing "whatever comes into awareness" without judging or evaluating (6). Individuals filling out the questionnaire had chosen either to attend a two week or three month meditation retreat. In the retreat, the day is structured into 45 minute to one and one-quarter hour segments beginning at 5:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. Formal meditation, both sitting and walking, occurs a minimum often hours per day. Further, the explicit demand characteristics of the retreat are that mindfulness meditation should be practiced at all times during the day, from when the eyes first open in the morning, to when they close at night. Silence at meals and all other times throughout the retreat is observed by the meditators except for sessions with teachers, which occur once every few days.

Method of Assessment

General effects of meditation were assessed via a paper and pencil questionnaire as part of two larger questionnaires on 1) Adherence, Expectation, Motivation; and 2) Mode of Control. The questions on Meditation Effects followed three prior questions asking 1) Why had the individual started meditation; 2) What did they perceive to be the qualities of a gifted meditator; and 3) What specifically did they hope to get from the current retreat. These questions were designed to assess "expectation effects." Subjects were then provided space to list (in an open ended format) the effects of meditation on their life under three categories 1) Positive influences 2) Adverse influences; and 3) General influences.

Data Collection and Analysis

A questionnaire was filled out before the meditators entered the retreat (retrospective-time one) and information was then gathered prospectively at one month (time two) and six months (time three) after the end of each retreat. Each individual who did not respond to the one month or six month follow-up within two weeks was sent a second form requesting compliance.

Three types of data analysis were performed: to compare responders to non-responders; to compare frequency of adverse effects to positive effects; and general descriptive statistics to examine the nature of the adverse effects. Regarding non-responders, of the 27 individuals assessed at time one, 16 (59.3%) ruled out the questionnaire at time two; and 13 (48.1 %) at time three. To assess whether there were differences in those who responded versus those who did not, a Fisher exact chi-square (7) analysis was used to compare differences between those who completed follow-up questionnaires and those who did not. Two four celled chi-square were performed. The first, comparing time one and time two, examined those who reported adverse effects and those who did not at time one in terms of those who took the assessment at time two and those who did not. The second chi-square made a similar comparison for time one and time three. There were no significant differences in either case.

To compare the frequency of adverse and positive effects, a non-parametric sign test (7) was used to compare the reporting of at least one adverse and/or positive influence. On the questionnaire an individual was free to report one or more adverse effects (or none) and/or one or more positive effects (or none). For this analysis, regardless of frequency or intensity, a person was given either a 1 or 0 depending upon whether there was at least one positive effect, and a 1 or 0 depending upon if there was at least one negative effect. The sign test was used to determine whether there were more of one type of effect than another.


Frequency of Adverse and Positive Effects Compared

Subjects reported significantly more positive than negative effects from meditation at time one (2 tailed p=.002); and at time three (p=.0215).

Adverse Effects

Of the twenty-seven subjects, seventeen (62.9%) reported at least one adverse effect at one of the three time periods. The frequency of adverse effects was not affected by length of practice (chi-square=3.68; df=2; p=.16). Yet the trend is in the opposite direction from what one might expect: the fewest individuals reporting adverse effects were in group one (40%), which had practiced less than two years; and the highest frequency of subjects reporting adverse effects was from group three (75%), which had practiced the longest, over 8.5 years. These results were similar both retrospectively (time one) as well as prospectively (time two, time three).

Two (7.4%) of the twenty-seven individuals suffered profound adverse effects of such intensity that they stopped meditating. Both subjects were male, but one was in group one (shortest length of practice) who had taken the two week retreat; and the other was in group three (longest length of practice) and had taken the three month retreat. The group one individual wrote at one month follow-up that the retreat left him totally disoriented: "confused, spaced out, quit meditation since retreat."

The group three individual noted at the six month follow-up:

My experience of returning from the retreat was a difficult one. The mind set values that the retreat cultivated felt out of synch with the world I came back to and I've been slowly digesting the transformative changes that the retreat generated. Lots of depression, confusion, struggle during the last six months....experienced some severe shaking and energy releasing; eventually injured my back and stopped doing Vipassana practice.

Of those reporting adverse effects, intrapersonal were mentioned by 13 (76.4%); interpersonal by three (17.6%); and societal by three (17.6%) (More than one could be listed by an individual).

Intrapersonal adverse effects could be divided, heuristically, into four groupings. The first was increased negativity, which included statements such as increased awareness of negative qualities and emotions within myself (e.g., more judgmental, increased negative emotions, more emotional pain; increased fears and anxiety; more high strung. The second was increased disorientation, which included statements such as "confused about who I am; "loss of orientation; "loss of self'; "becoming aware of how low my self image is, how often I get down on myself;" "a feeling of incompleteness, that I need something else"; decreased attentional clarity: more spaced out, confused mind, ego strain; less motivated in life. The third was addicted to meditation, including such statements as "attached to quiet and withdrawal"; feel I am missing something between meditation retreats. And finally, boredom and pain.

Table 1. Adverse and positive influences from meditation: Number of Subjects Reporting at Least One Adverse and/or Positive Influence.

Examples of worsened interpersonal relationships included "my family objects; I meditate as alternative to people; increased awareness of negative qualities of others, more judgmental of others, feel "false" superiority; increased discomfort with current friends; realize how bad my home situation is." Finally, examples of societal adverse effects included feelings of increased alienation from society; more uncomfortable in real world; hypersensitive to city environment; hard to adjust to the world.

Positive effects.

As noted in Table 1, eighty-eight per-cent (24 of 27) individuals listed positive effects at time one; 13 of 16 (81.3%) individuals at time two; and 12 of 13 (92.3%) at time three. These positive influences included greater happiness and joy; more positive thinking, more self-confidence; better ability to get things done (more effective); better problem solving; more accepting, compassionate, tolerant to self, and to others; more relaxed, less stressed, more resilient; better able to control feelings.


This preliminary investigation of long term meditators showed adverse effects occurring in 38% to 55.5% of the individuals reporting at different time periods. These figures, based on Vipassana meditation developed within the Buddhist tradition, is comparable to the 36% to 48% adverse effects reported in the Otis (5) study (with Transcendental Meditation developed within the Hindu/Vedic tradition). Further, rather than adverse effects decreasing based on length of practice, there is an increase in the percentage of those who report adverse effects based on the length of practice. This finding also replicates Otis's earlier finding that the adverse-effects of meditation (Transcendental Meditation) were stronger in 18 month meditators than in 3-6 month meditators, and even teacher trainees of TM with an average of 46.7 months practice, continued to report the same adverse effects. In this study, 75% of subjects with 105 months meditation experience reported adverse effects, compared to 40% of those with 16.7 months experience.

At first glance these data appear perplexing. With this high a percentage of self-reported adverse influences, why do these subjects continue to meditate, and even attend an intensive meditation retreat? Certainly one possibility is that the individuals must feel that, at some level, the positive benefits of meditation outweigh the negative. As noted, the data indicate that nearly 90% of the individuals at pretest cited positive influences of meditation; and expectation effects for the individuals regarding meditation at time one were 100% positive.

Second, individuals that listed an adverse influence often noted that there was a positive aspect to it, either currently, or within a philosophical context. One person noted; "-my family objects to my participation in the Buddhist way, but they enjoy being around me more". Another noted (time two) "brief but powerful experience of egolessness which brought deep terror and insecurity caused by reflex of mind. This is temporary; the fear will pass." At time three, this person said there were no adverse effects, noting that in meditation he is able to see that life is really "a roller coaster of powerfully pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Over time I learned the patience and forbearance and equilibrium to treat pleasant and unpleasant alike, with the same unattached awareness. This leads to a wonderful sense of strength and a lessening of fear." Thus, for some individuals, the adverse effects seem to be transformed over time, and are seen not as problems, but as something from which a person can learn.

One especially thoughtful and insightful explanation and description of this issue based on personal experience was given by another participant. His notes were quite instructive, and are therefore cited here in some detail.

As background, he noted that for two years he was disabled with active suicidal depression, including two hospitalizations and many forms of treatment, including psychotherapy, bioenergetic therapy, drug treatments of many kinds and electroconvulsive therapy. He stated that:

For me meditation is by far the most effective form of therapy... it is not a palliative; rather it eliminates the cause of mental suffering at its very roots. However, I have found in my own experience that I needed a certain degree of mental health and stability before I could undertake intensive meditation. Most psychotherapy seems to me a way of strengthening the ego. Meditation is a way of tearing it down.

The paradox is that one seems to need a relatively strong ego in order to endure its removal... Three months of intensive uninterrupted meditation seemed to me very much like a controlled breakdown, paralleling in many marked ways my own breakdown four years ago.

In order to reach a deeper stability, one becomes fundamentally destabilized. To undergo this, one needs considerable preliminary strength and faith. If that strength and faith do not exist, intensive meditation can be dangerous. One of my colleagues during the three month retreat was asked to leave early because he was becoming seriously unstable and delusive. Degeneration continued at home for a month and a half. Eventually he attempted suicide because he had "failed" to become enlightened. He is now hospitalized and is seriously mentally ill.

The above account suggest that for one individual, the adverse effects were part of positive personal transformation, but for his friend, they were not. Similarly, in this study, there were those for whom positive effects outweighed the adverse effects; but there were also two for whom the adverse effects forced the individual to stop meditating. And one individual noted that she realized that what she needed was psychological insight, not "bare awareness" of meditation.

Clinicians and health care professionals may use meditation as a relaxation technique (8) and as an adjunct in psychotherapy (9-11), and therefore should be aware of these possible adverse effects. Further, individuals may practice meditation for a variety of reasons, ranging from relaxation to personal and spiritual development (12,13). Some of these individuals may develop emotional, physical, and/or psychosomatic adverse effects, as this study indicates. Again, it is important that the clinician be sensitive to these adverse effects, the potential developmental issues, and the philosophical context in which meditation is being practiced. For example, the technique of meditation can occur within a context in which going beyond individual ego, learning surrender, and ultimate trust of the universe are positively valued. Meditation may be compelling for many individuals on different levels. Self-regulation goals can include mental peace and equanimity; and greater emotional discipline and concentration. Self-liberation goals can involve going beyond personal ego to an experiential belief about the sacred nature of the universe, a deepening of compassion; and an increased sensitivity and efforts to help end suffering in oneself and others. Depending upon the health care provider's orientation, these may or not be seen as signs of psychological well being or goals of positive health (14-17). Often a therapist may inappropriately pathologize that which does not fit neatly into his/her orientation.

On the other hand, the attainment of positive psychological and/or spiritual well being can be exceptionally difficult (16). At the risk of mixing nontheistic Buddhist and theistic Jewish metaphors, the sages of old reported in the Talmud nearly two thousand years ago the story of four Rabbis who entered Pardes to seek enlightenment. One dies, one becomes an apostate, one goes crazy; and only one returns with wisdom. These findings from this study cannot be easily dismissed, and suggest the critical importance of being sensitive to the adverse influences in short, as well as long term meditators. These potential negative effects may be true not only for meditation as relaxation, but also for meditation as a spiritual path.


Although collecting research data always presents some problems, collecting data from meditators presents special problems. For example, one commented "I found myself tense, angry, spaced out taking (the questionnaire) the second time (right after the retreat). I also found it painful and did not like doing it at all." Another noted "I am sorry to foul up your study, but I no longer feel able to make accurate generalizations about myself... one no longer knows 'what' one 'is' except in the moment -- which makes filling out this form nigh impossible."

Problems of the size of the sample, the low return rate, and the nature of questionnaire data in general, make it necessary to be cautious in generalizing from this study. Future research should attempt to determine whether it is possible to be more precisely predict, using psychological measures of defensiveness, ego strength, tolerance of ambiguity, attentional absorption, whether there is a certain subset of individuals who have more serious adverse effects. In addition, this study clearly highlights the importance of obtaining prospective, in addition to retrospective data. However, because this study so closely replicates the previous study of Otis, using a different meditation population, it does add one more piece to our understanding of adverse effects.

This article suggests a middle road, between uncritical hosannahs of meditation's effectiveness, and equally uncritical dismissal of that which does not neatly conform to the biases of rationalistic science. On the one hand, we as scientists and therapists may need to be open to exploring ultimate issues and world views which do not neatly fit within our preexisting paradigm. On the other hand, we also need to be careful that we not allow our belief systems to keep us from blindly seeing growth where there may in fact be harm occurring.



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8. Benson, H., The Relaxation Response New York: Morrow, (1975).

9. Shapiro, DH and Giber, D Z Medication and psychotherapeutic effects. Archives of General Psychiatry, 35,294-302,.(1978).

10. Kutz, I; Borysenko, JZ, and Benson, H Meditation and Psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychiatry 142:1,1-8, (1985).

11. Shapiro, D. H. Comparison of meditation with other self-control strategies: biofeedback, hypnosis, progressive relaxation: A review of the clinical and physiological literature. American Journal of Psychiatry, 139(3),267-274, 1982.

12. Shapiro, D. H. Meditation: Self Regulation Strategy and Altered States of Consciousness, New York: Aldine, (1980).

13. Shapiro, D.H. and Walsh, R.N, (Eds,) Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Aldine, (1984)

14. Shapiro, DH. Meditation, self-control, and control by a benevolent other: Issues of content and context. In Psychotherapy, Medication, and Health M. Kwee (Ed,) London: East-West, pp. 65-123, (1990).

15. Walsh, RN., The consciousness disciplines and the behavioral sciences. American Journal of Psychiatry, 137, (6), 663-673, (1980).

16. Walsh, RN and D. H. Shapiro (Eds) Beyond Health and Normality. Toward a vision of exceptional Psychological health New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 371-387.

17. Grof, S; and Grof, C. (Eds) Spiritual Emergencies: When Personal Transformation becomes a crisis. Los Angeles: Tarcher, (1989).

18. Shapiro, DH. The Role of Control and Self-Control in Psychotherapy and Health Care. New York: John Wiley, (in press).

19. Shapiro, DH. The Human Quest for Control. Los Angeles: Tarcher, (in press).

20. Shapiro, DH. The Shapiro Control Inventory (SCl): Measuring Personal, Interpersonal and Spiritual Sense of Control. Palo Alto: Behaviordyne, (1992).

Index Terms

Negative effects, Vipassana meditation, relaxation

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Deane H. Shapiro, Jr., Ph.D.
1009 Canyon View Drive
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Deane H. Shapiro, Jr., Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in Residence, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, California College of Medicine, University of California, Irvine. Portions of this article have been presented at the International Association for Applied Psychology (Kyoto, Japan, 1990); First International Conference on Psychotherapy, Meditation, and Health (Amsterdam, Holland, 1990); and the Institute of Noetic Sciences Third Annual Meditation Research Seminar (Esalen, Big Sur, California, 1991).
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The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant [EXCERPT]
by John Riley Perks [John Andrews]
© 2004 by John Riley Perks

Somehow during this winter of the retreat year my handle on what I thought of as reality was becoming a little insecure. Out of seemingly nowhere I started having panic attacks, rapid heartbeat, and hyperventilation. I was sure I was going to die on the spot and I was certain there was a ghost following me around the house. So I asked Rinpoche if he had seen any ghosts in the house.

"Only two," he replied.

I almost fainted.

One night I had a dream of talking to a woman in her late thirties. She was wearing a long dress and holding my outstretched hand. She was talking about building the farmhouse where we were staying. "When were you born?" I asked.

"May, 1853," she said.

I did the math in my dreaming mind, pulled my hand away and sat up in the bed, awake, with my heart racing.

When I was physically with Rinpoche I did not have panic attacks but I was certain that he was somehow the cause of it all. It did not occur to me that Buddha's message, "Nothing whatsoever should be clung to," applied to me. My Britishness was part of "me." I had made my living by being British and if I gave that up what would I become? American, French, Italian? I mean, you can't just become nothing. But the fear was growing in me that Rinpoche was somehow nothing -- a gap. How could "I" act as nothing? Where do you start? After all, the Path of Accumulation was the Path of Accumulating, not the Path of Nothingness. The Path of Accumulation meant that I was going to get something. Here I was being invited to jump into empty nothingness. Not even invited, I was being pushed -- caught between a rock and a hard place. My memories of war became a welcome and safe distraction. I felt that if I could keep these away from Rinpoche I could hang on to some semblance of sanity. Every time the world would start melting around him I would take refuge in the only thing left in my thinking mind, my memories.

Rinpoche said he would like to target shoot. I had my .38 revolver, which I had purchased to protect Rinpoche (some joke), and a .22-caliber single-shot rifle. Now I went out and purchased a ruger .223-caliber semiautomatic with a thirty-round clip. I set up a target area in the garden that resembled World War II in miniature, with plastic soldiers, tanks, and trucks. Rinpoche, Max, and I would go out and blast them. Rinpoche called them the Mara Army. "You could be victorious over the troops of Mara, Johnny," he said. That sounded good but what the hell did it mean? I looked up Mara in the encyclopedia and it said "Mara is the Lord of the Sixth Heaven of the Desire Realm and is often depicted with a hundred arms and riding on an elephant."

Oh, I thought, mythology. I felt better. It's not real. But just in case, I started to look for an elephant rifle. Perhaps a Winchester .375 H and H Magnum might do the trick.

One evening Rinpoche and I were sitting in the kitchen. Max rushed in from shopping in town. Now, the closet and basement doors were next to each other and both doors looked the same. The basement stairs were very steep and ran down about twelve feet. Max was distractedly talking to us as he took off his coat, opened the wrong door, and, not looking, reached in to hang it up. Rinpoche yelled, "Shunyata," as Max and his coat fell into the basement. Unhurt except for a few scrapes, Max climbed out.

"Rinpoche," said Max, "You should have yelled to stop me."

"Why?" replied Rinpoche. "You could have gotten enlightened."

That night we went out to dinner at the local inn. Rinpoche had me purchase some cigars and secretly put some gunpowder in one of them for Max. the three of us sat in the inn causally smoking our stogies, two of us waiting in anticipation for the other one to explode. This went on for some time until Max, with the cigar still in his mouth, took a big puff and the cigar let out a big whoosh rather than an explosion. Flaming sparks and smoke shot out across the room from the cigar. Max remained pretty cool and said, "Your idea, I expect, Rinpoche." The three of us laughed.

However, the truth was that Max was a nervous wreck, and beneath my dignified British facade so was I. Finally, Max asked Rinpoche if he could go back to Boulder for a few weeks. Rinpoche gave his okay and Max departed, leaving Rinpoche and me alone in a house surrounded by deep snow. By necessity Max left his dog, Myson, with us. One night after supper Rinpoche said, "Get Myson and bring him in here." I dragged the shaking dog into the kitchen and following Rinpoche's instructions I sat him on the floor and covered his eyes with a blindfold. I set up stands with lighted candles by either side of his head. Myson couldn't move his head without being burned. Rinpoche took a potato and hit Myson on the head with it. When the dog moved, the fur on his ear would catch on fire. I put out the flames. Now and then Rinpoche would scrape his chair across the tiled floor and whack him again on the head with a potato.

"Sir," I began hesitantly, trying to stop him.

"Shut up," snapped Rinpoche, "and hand me another potato."

I started to empathize with the dog. In fact, I became the dog. I was blindfolded and was banged on the head with a spud and if I turned my head my hears would burn and there was the squealing sound of the chair on the floor. Pissing in my pants I was that dog not being able to move, feeling terrified and at the same time excited. Finally, the scraping chair and the potato throwing stopped and we released the shaking dog, who ran upstairs to Max's empty room.

"That's how you train students," Rinpoche calmly stated to me.

"Jesus," I thought, "that's pretty barbaric."

Rinpoche had me change the telephone number so that Max could not call us before he came back. He arrived, bags in hand, concerned that he had not been able to reach us. Before he could say much else, Myson rushed in and jumped all over him in exuberant delight. Rinpoche deliberately scraped the kitchen chair across the tiled floor. The terrified dog shot out of the house and fled across the field. Max was shocked and pointedly asked, "Rinpoche, what did you do to my dog?"

"I don't see any dog," he replied, looking at me.

"I got it!" I said, with the realization of being blindfolded and having three things happen to you at once, knowing the scraping and the disappearance of the dog were both somehow illusion. In fact, it was all illusion. Everything was illusion, but real. Rinpoche smiled and warmly greeted Max.

Did I get it? Not then.

“It was summer of 1985. I "married" Rinpoche on June 12th of that year. I met him around May 31st at a wedding of Jackie Rushforth and Bakes Mitchell in the back yard of Marlow and Michael Root's home. That year, we had our wedding at RMDC a few days before Assembly, then we had Seminary and Encampment happened during Seminary.

That was the year he spoke of limited bloodshed and taking over the city of Halifax and the Provence of Nova Scotia. We were in the middle of the Mahayana portion of seminary teachings. For weeks, CTR (Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche) had been asking everyone he saw if they had seen a cat. He asked the head cook, the shrine master, and all of his servants if they'd seen one. We returned to our cabin late one night after a talk and there was this beautiful tabby cat sitting on the porch. I said, "Here kitty, kitty" and it came right over to me, purring and rubbing against my legs. I picked it up and said: "Here, Sweetie. Here's the cat you've been wanting."

I can't remember exactly which guard was on duty, but I think it was Jim Gimian, and of course Mitchell Levy. Someone took the cat from me and Rinpoche ordered them to tie him to the table on the porch. He instructed them to make a tight noose out of a rope so the cat didn't get away. He stood over his guards to examine the knots and make sure they were secure. I was curious at this point, wondering what this enlightened master had in mind for the cat. I knew there were serious rodent problems on the land and I assumed he wanted to use the cat for this problem.

Then, he instructed the guard to bring him some logs from the fire pit that was in front of the porch, down a slight slope. We took our seats. Rinpoche was seated to my right and there was a table between us for his drinks. He ordered a sake. The logs were on his right side, so he could use his good arm. (His left side was paralyzed due to a car accident that happened in his late twenties.)

The cat was still tied by a noose to the table. Rinpoche picked up a log and hurled it at the cat, which jumped off the table and hung from the noose. It was making a terrible gurgling sound. He finally got some footing on the edge of the deck and made it back onto the porch. Rinpoche hurled another log, making contact and the cat let out a horrible scream as the air was knocked out of him.

I said: "Sweetie, stop! What are you doing? Why are you doing this?" He said something about hating cats because they played with their food and didn't cry at the Buddha’s funeral. He continued to torture the poor animal. I was crying and begging him to stop.

I said, "I gave you the cat. Please stop it!" I'll never forget his response. He looked at me and said: "You are responsible for this karma" and he giggled. I got up to try and stop him and he firmly told me to sit down. One of the guards stepped closer to me and stood in a threatening manner to keep me in my place.

The torture went on for what seemed like hours, until finally the poor cat made a run for his life with the patio table bouncing after him. It was clear he had a broken back leg. I'm sure that cat died. I looked for him or the table for the rest of Seminary and never found either. I imagined him fleeing up the mountain and the table catching on something and strangling him.

I was completely traumatized by the event, but it was never spoken of again. Rinpoche told me the "karma" from this event was good. I was dumbfounded. A common feeling I had when around Rinpoche was that there were things going on that I simply could not understand. It seemed like other people, with a knowing nod of their heads, understood things on a deeper level than I. I was in fear of exposing my ignorance, so i learned not to question and to go with the crowd around him. They didn't appear to have any problems with what he did. Such was the depth of their devotion. I just needed to generate more devotion to Rinpoche and one day I might understand.”

-- by Leslie Hays

It was during this retreat in Massachusetts that Rinpoche started envisioning a developing the Kingdom of Shambhala. The Kalapa Court would be Rinpoche's home and it was to be in my charge. Instead of being Rinpoche's butler I would soon be Master of the House. I would become a Dapon in charge of the Court Kusung, or servant guards -- in Buddhist terms, Bodhisattva Guardians. Molly, one of Rinpoche's students, came down from Karme Choling. She was an illustration artist and she and Rinpoche together designed the Shambhala flag -- a white ground with blue, red, white, and orange stripes on the leading edge and the yellow sun in the white field. Rinpoche designed and drew the Shambhala arms of the tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon, which are soon on the cover of Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior (published by Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1984)

I was excited about this creative time. This was going to be a real kingdom with its location in Nova Scotia, Canada. I would be safe within that reality, or so I thought. One day Rinpoche said to me, "Well, you know, Johnny, someone has to ask me."

"Ask you what?" I said.

"Ask me to become Earth Holder, the Monarch of Shambhala."

"Well, I'll ask you," I replied.

"Great!" said Rinpoche. We planed the event for the Tibetan New Year. I cut a tree for a flagpole and Max planned a dinner. Then at sunrise on the New Year the three of us got up and dressed in our best attire. As the sun rose in the eastern sky I asked Rinpoche formally if he would become Sakyong for the benefit of all beings.

He replied, "Yes."

I fired off a twenty-one shot salute from my pistol and Max ran the Shambhala flag up the pole. We saluted and shouted "Hip, hip, hurray!" then followed up by singing the Shambhala anthem. Max and I went into the dining room and feasted with the new Sakyong. I was joyful and excited, but underneath, my uneasiness continued to alternately swell and subside. Somehow the reality of the "gap" was still lurking below my world of this-and-that. On an intellectual level that was still fairly primitive I had some understanding of Buddhism. I knew what it was supposed to look like -- peaceful, calm, wise, compassionate. I knew enough to say, "Yes, I got it," but at the same time it was not in my gut on a visceral level. I thought perhaps I should do a retreat, since it would give me a change to get away, relax, and get myself together before things went too far.

I could see myself robed, sitting under a pine tree in meditation posture with the sunlight playing on my shoulders and the wind in the pines. "Yes, that's it," I concluded, so I asked Rinpoche.

"Not a chance," he growled.

"But, Sir, I could finish my prostrations and do the other practices ... take the Vajrayogini abhisheka with David and the Regent and ..."

"No hope of that," he snapped.

Shit. I was trapped again, stuck in the life of a servant bursting with resentment. Then he gave me one of those smiles that light up the whole dark universe. It penetrated into my murk and dissolved it and I was better and worse off simultaneously.

"One day you will be Sir John Perks," he said.

Wow, I thought. Sir John Perks of the Kingdom of Shambhala. I was full of hope again.

Aloneness, when it hit, ruined my hopes and expectations. I was walking to the car in Greenfield, having done the shopping, when it struck. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of total aloneness and stopped dead in my tracks. There was no John Perks. There was nothing to be alone. Had "nothing" been a mental concept, it would have been something to hold onto. Then I panicked.

Only now, looking back, can I say that it was an overwhelming realization of nonexistence. The only way that I can convey what the experience was like is to ask the reader to imagine that all you think you are is totally fabricated. What you are is totally manipulated and conditioned by your own mind. Had I completely realized this at the time I would have died on the spot from a heart attack. For what was under assault was my thinking mind, its solid reality, what and who I thought I was. That which I thought was reality was, in fact, totally empty. This was the great "switcheroo," or turnaround.

Desperately trying to get back to what I still thought was my solidity I staggered to the car, trying not to hyperventilate. I managed to drive to the Howard Johnson's Motel bar. I ordered a double gin and tonic and drank it down like a glass of water.

"Are you okay?" asked the bartender. Where had I heard that phrase before?

"Fine, fine," I said and ordered another double. Sir John Perks had better get a suit of armor, I thought wryly.

But the attacks became more frequent. Then I had a realization. Sex! If I felt so alone why not have a partner? I asked Rinpoche if I could have a lady friend up on some weekends. To my surprise he said yes. So I invited a friend from Boston to visit. But it gave me no relief. In fact, it made the aloneness sharper and I felt as if I were going to die any second. One day at breakfast Rinpoche said to me, "Johnny, isn't it strange how orgasm and death feel the same?"

I blocked his words for the moment and panicked later.

Relief came several days later when he said, "Johnny, let's take a trip to London."

I pretended not to be excited, and to make sure, I asked, "To London, England, Sir?"

"Yes," he answered matter-of-factly. "We need to get some Shambhala medals made there and we could get some military uniforms." I brightened up. Trooping of the Colors meets sir John Perks. I had a mission.

"Let's stay at the Winston Churchill Hotel," he suggested.

National pride swelled in my chest. Shambhala was going to be British after all. As a safety procedure I went to the local doctor and got prescriptions of Librium and Tagamet for my panic and stomach pain. Sam, the publisher of Shambhala publications, was to meet us in London where he had an office. On the aircraft Rinpoche and I sat together. He was quite upbeat and talked about all the things we would do in London: restaurants, nightclubs, theater, and clothing stores. The air stewardess asked what we would like to drink. Rinpoche ordered his usual. "Ginandtonicus," pronounced as the name of the Roman general from the Asterisk Comic Books.

"You could teach people etiquette, Johnny," said Rinpoche. He went on talking about military uniforms, tuxedos, evening dress, balls, dancing, and formal dinners. Excitedly I joined in with further ideas. Rinpoche said, "Yes! Yes! Yes! Let's do it. We will grow old together." Bliss and joy returned, drowning out the emptiness.

And so it came to pass. In London we stayed at the Winston Churchill. We took the designs of the Shambhala medals to the jewelers to be made. We ordered uniforms at Grieves and Hawks on Savile Row -- a general's uniform for Rinpoche, a major's uniform for me. Rinpoche used his family name on the order form, Mr. C.T. Mukpo. I used my original birth name, John Andrews. The clerk looked at Rinpoche's form in a quizzical way and asked, "Who is Mr. C.T. Mukpo?"

I hesitated, my mind searching for a realistic answer. Finally I said the first true thing I had ever said in my life.

"I have absolutely no idea."


I felt my luck was turning. I believed that because I was willing to do anything to be close to Rinpoche -- especially the things that other people didn't want to do, like washing dishes, cleaning house, and ironing clothes -- I had somehow tricked Rinpoche into taking me on the retreat so that he could instruct me in how to become an enlightened siddha. It did not occur to me until years later that he was the one who had tricked me by going along with my whole trip. This was also the beginning of seemingly unrelated events that began to undermine my habitual patterns of operating.

It's interesting that Rinpoche was willing to go through my whole gun attachment with me even to the extent of making me his bodyguard. It was the beginning of his helping me create my ultimate fantasy world, with occasional hints that there might be other realities. These other realities had the effect on me of creating extreme anxiety and panic.

My mind could not grasp even intellectually the idea of impermanence or the idea of groundlessness. That challenged the idea of "I" being a solid entity. I was afraid of things I couldn't see and did not understand. And I was terrified of ghosts. Having experienced them in my early childhood they brought terror and panic. Rinpoche had the ability to make seemingly unimportant comments at the exact moment that they became magnified in my mind. It was his timing that terrified me. He seemed to be able to read my mind before the thoughts had been formulated. I began to have the uneasy feeling that I did not know what kind of being he was. And that meant that all my manipulated power over him to whatever end was useless. This brought up the interesting dilemma of how I was going to get what I wanted.

The acid trip where Rinpoche focused my mind by working with Duncan and the "great turnaround" was my first realization of looking at phenomena as they really are, without logical, intellectual, or other mental projections. Needless to say, that state didn't last very long -- a matter of hours; then I was thrown back to my ordinary mode of operation very quickly. My aggression in wanting to confront Max Rinpoche turned into playing tricks, so he introduced to my mind an alternative way of dealing with the situation which was more creative and playful. One might call it my early introduction to crazy wisdom, where one uses the energy as it arises then joins with it and presents reality. People say "Be here now." But for someone lost in illusions this makes no sense unless it can be shown in actual, ordinary, on-the-spot situations. That's what the crazy wisdom teacher does continually. Sometimes the student gets it and sometimes he doesn't. Most of the time, I didn't. But much later there was some realization.

The episode with Myson, the dog, blindfolded, sitting on the floor, reflected my basic state. The candles on either side of his head related to aspects of bad and good, or samsara and nirvana. The potato as a representation of the phenomenal world whacking one on the head was initiated by the guru. If one turns one's head one way or the other, one's ears catch on fire. At this point one is still blind. Reacting to the fear and pain by trying to escape, one is overpowered by even more emotional traumas. The conditioning aspect of scraping the chair across the floor formulates how one will react, thus perpetuating how we perceive the world. When the chair is scraped later on, in our confused state of mind we run because we are reminded of our basic pain. The sound of the chair is basic emptiness -- a state that we are most terrified of -- so we run.

The idea of my own death was extremely terrifying to me. It meant not only the termination of my bodily pleasures and delights but also the termination of what I had built up as the image of John Perks. The end of all of that created extreme anxiety, and somewhere within the deep recesses of my mind I panicked as my I-ness began slipping away. I would have run away, but I was in love with Rinpoche and he kept offering me new opportunities related to my fantasies to explore and feel safe in -- which of course he ultimately undermined. Although my devotion was somewhat primitive, it was there to stay forever.

Although I did not realize it at the time there seemed to be connections between the killing of the bird at the retreat and Siddha Vyadhalipa; between the hunting Mahasiddha Savaripa; and between the action with the dog and Mahasidda Kukkuripa. Later, while practicing the Sadhana of Vajrayogini and meditating on the actions of my guru while in retreat, I found my connection to these three Siddhas to be one of remarkable coincidence, in that I was able to take instruction from other beings such as birds, fishes, and dogs. And as examples, the compassionate lives of these Siddhas are always of great inspiration to me.


Spring came to the Massachusetts hill country with rain, mud, and peeping frogs. On one of our walks by the farm pond Rinpoche noticed the frog spawn jelly in the water. I explained how we could put it into an aquarium and watch them change into tadpoles. He seemed excited about that and helped me set up the aquarium next to his bed so we could watch the transformation every day. When Rinpoche awakened every morning we would peer into the aquarium and Rinpoche would exclaim, "Breaking out of the egg!" On the way to the bathroom he went, singing, "Breaking out, breaking out of the eggs."

Our bathroom routine was always the same I would prearrange the two kinds of soap, the shampoo, the towels, the toothpaste, toothbrushes, and the hairbrushes. I would follow Rinpoche into the bathroom and help him take off his kimono, which I hung on the door. Then he would peer into the mirror making faces and singing songs. This time it was the egg hatching song. I looked at my own image in the mirror and then over to his. I started to panic as I realized his image was not in the mirror. For a second, I stopped. Then, there it was, smiling and making faces. I was puzzled but I did not say anything, as I thought it was my faulty perception. As this began to happen more often, I felt that somehow he was playing a trick on me, so I paid extreme attention in the morning to the mirror antics. Nothing happened for several weeks, everything was quite normal, and I concluded that it had all been my hallucination. Then, when I was not expecting anything, he disappeared from the mirror again.

"How do you do that?" I asked him on the spot.

He chuckled and said, "You just do it."

While he was in the shower I handed him the soap and continued, "Is the trick with the mirror or my mind?"

"Both," he said, washing soap out of his hair. I was struck dumb. My reality was being stretched thin.

"You have a good heart, Johnny." Rinpoche's face is right in my face. His eyes are big and luminous, like two planets in space. "You have a good heart, Johnny," he says again. He smiles and the warmth of the sun washes over me penetrating throughout my body. Somehow I know I am dreaming, but I can't wake up. "You have a good heart, Johnny."

"But, Sir," I protest, "my ancestors were thieves, murderers, rapists, plunderers, enslavers, liars, hedonists, deceivers, destroyers, and I'm just a ghost." The pain of looking is horrendous. It's like a golden spear thrust into my heart.

I fall into the Thames and I am unable to swim. I touch the black mud in the river bottom, the sound of rushing water is in my ears. I enter midnight blue, vast and empty. The next thing I remember, I am sitting on the bank in the sunlight, my clothes muddy and soaked with water. I look around for my savior. There is nobody in sight. I must be a ghost, I think. Will I ever be human again? A living ghost, asleep, unable to wake up.

My mother does abortions. One young girl leaves a baby on the doorstep. It is small and delicate like a white porcelain doll. It has been carefully washed and wrapped in a white lace tablecloth. Its eyes are closed. Mother heats up the coal stove in the kitchen until it glows red hot. Picking up the dead child by the head, she drops it into the open flame and quickly replaces the metal round lid. In a few seconds the baby's head shoots out of the stove with the iron ring as a hat. Looking like a demon it discharges flames out of its eyes and mouth before descending, disintegrating in the heat. It is unnamed. No hands mourn the ashes.

Winnie comes for an abortion in a fur coat. She is always drunk. She stumbles against me, her whiskey breath enters my lungs. She vomits on the floor and my mother cleans it up. I wash down her coat.

"You have to go over to Winnie's house and clean it up. While you are there, go up to the bedroom and under the bed you will find cooking pots filled with money. Take some."

She thrusts Winnie's house keys into my hand. I take the train to Winnie's house, a few stops on the loop line. I open the front door and proceed up the stairs to the bedroom, but there is no doorknob on the door. Someone has taken it away so it can't be opened. But the ghost is clever. With a kitchen knife I open the door and there under the bed are many sizes of saucepans, pots, and kettles. I take the lids off them, one by one. The first is filled with pound notes, another with fives, and another with tens -- all stuffed full. I fill my pockets and rush home. Winnie is still sleeping on the couch, snoring her whiskey breath. I hand my mother the keys and three hundred pounds.

My father stands in the street at night, the searchlights swinging in the sky. Bombs are thudding, whamp. He has his rifle. Someone yells "parachutes." He opens the bolt and pushes a round into the chamber. The streetlights reflect off a white parachute carrying a flare. It floats out of the blackness. My father is wearing my mother's slip in the darkness. He put it on thinking it was his undershirt. He has on his army boots, his khaki wool pants, his tin hat, and he's holding his .303 Enfield rifle, but with my mother's lace-topped slip on his chest, in the flare light he looks like a ghost.

Five of us are living on a hill overlooking a placid pond with ducks and geese swimming in the still water. We are armed with various weapons, shotguns, and rifles. I yell, "Open fire!" The sound is deafening. The pond erupts. Nothing can live beneath the hail of lead missiles. Cordite fills the air. I run up the ridge and bayonet a Zulu. His blood spurts out from the aorta, splashing across the operating room wall. My gown and mask are drenched. The patient is dead within seconds, blood oozing over the green tile floor. The ping of the monitor stops. Helen is tied to the bed. Jeff and I are licking her body. Grace is sucking her vagina. Kay pushes me up against the shower wall in Taos. She holds me there, jerking me off into the raining water. Sperm runs down the drain. A chicken burns in the dustbin. I ride my butcher's bike, the basket full of meat, on a Saturday delivery. The "Keep Left" sign disintegrates. I fly through the air before I even hear the explosion. Blood runs from my nose and ears. The V-2 rocket has hit the next street. I vomit. "You have a good heart, Johnny." The pain of suffering is so intense, we all decide to become ghosts, like my father, his father, and their fathers in the mud trenches and the mothers coughing up dead babies, stacking them upon the parapets, fighting, unable to distinguish the living and the dead. Watch the game show as a ghost. Pretend over tea nothing is happening. Let me drink myself into painless ghostliness. The Nazi officer wants to shake hands in the middle of the death camp. The corpses are piled high, waxy skin over wretched bones. He offers his hand to the Allied officer. It is not accepted, as a bulldozer is plowing up the bodies. Jill is leaving Jeff. Henry is leaving Marcy and the kids. Chogyam is eating the leg of a dead baby in the charnel ground. The red sow-bitch is drinking pus out of a skull. Vajrasattva is in the mirror. I try to enter but I hit my face on the glass. It breaks my spectacles, cutting my face. Nancy is pretending none of this is happening by shopping at Bloomingdale's. William is bending down bare-bottomed waiting for the cane. Jenny is masturbating in the closet. Percy is dancing in Duluth.

Rinpoche says, "Johnny is hard to catch -- he's like a ghost."

Fuck you, I think. It's my right to run from suffering, to cry in the bottom of a hole for a million years, eating and screaming and fucking, trapped in a solid egg. It's my right, it's my ...

"You have a good heart, Johnny."

I cry out in my dream, looking around for my savior. There is no one in sight. Unable to swim I drown and become a ghost on the riverbank. Chogyam taps on the egg. I gasp and wake, dreaming into the day.

I listened to the sounds of the house. I could hear Rinpoche and his dog, Ganesh snoring down the hall. Max was still asleep. I wiped the sweat from my body, readjusted my thoughts, and went down the hall to the bathroom. As I showered I felt thankful it was only a dream. In time I could forget it. Ignoring the pain, I re-collected myself into the collection of images that maintained my self-illusion, dreaming I was awake.

Nevertheless, there remained in the recesses of my mind the paranoia that something was hidden. At unexpected times I was swept with the terror and uncertainty of my reality. My groundedness had begun to slip away and the terror of emptiness found me standing at the edge of an abyss.


My plans for moving to Nova Scotia proceeded. Some friends purchased an inn on the shore of the Bay of Fundy which I was to run as innkeeper. Rinpoche hosted a going away party for us at the Court. He gave a toast to "Johnny, the Pioneer" who was going to Nova Scotia to set up the Court and the Kingdom all by himself. I was happy to be going and sad to be leaving.

In Nova Scotia I had to deal with the reality of the poor economic prospect of running an inn in a remote area far from the tourist routes. While others were successful at running small businesses I was not, and earning a living became quite a struggle. During this time I was invited by the San Francisco and Los Angeles dharmadhatus to come and give talks on "The Kalapa Court." A tour was planned where I would start in Los Angeles and then proceed to San Francisco. Afterwards, I would go on to Boulder to be in attendance to Rinpoche at the Sakyong Abhisheka that Khyentse Rinpoche was to give to Rinpoche. Then I would go on to the military encampment before returning to Nova Scotia.

My first performance in Los Angeles went fairly smoothly but in San Francisco I began to have visions. The first one occurred while I was shopping for a pair of Highland dancing shoes to wear with my kilt. I began to notice points of light sparkling over everything. I put on my sunglasses but they were still there. I relaxed and began to enjoy the display while I waited for my companions to finish their meanderings. I sat down on a bench with a friend.

As we sit in silence a wind begins to blow around us in a circle, coming from a great blue lake off in the distance. As if we are looking at a movie screen, images of people climbing a mist­ shrouded mountain appear. They are dressed in ancient clothing and carrying weapons: bows and swords. They are involved in some sort of struggle against materialism. I recognize myself as "Dancer at the Gates of Dawn." Voices give messages. A crystal city of light appears across a great ocean and immense longing overcomes me. Other voices speak and in a flash I understand the whole of the Vajrayogini Sadhana. I understand that I have completely invented everything: my persona, my life, the pain, the pleasure, the good, the bad. The whole thing has been an illusion, something I have made up, completely fiction. The "I" never existed except in the self-created ghost. Then, suddenly, the vision ends and I am again sitting on the bench. The wind stops also.

I turned to my friend and said, "What the fuck was that?" Tears were streaming down her face.

She said, "I saw you with two women dressed in red. One was quite old and one was quite young and they were standing right next to you. The whole thing seemed so loving I just started to cry." What was immediate was the realization that I had caused immense pain to others through the propagation of my projection of myself. This self had been formed in the interaction of birth, mother, father, family, friends, and environment. Included in this realization was the painful truth that this "I" had done and would do anything to maintain the facade of that solid body of illusion. It would love, hate, fight, lie, flatter, conceal, be joyful, feign compassion, or anything else to confirm its existence. I was stunned by my recognition of this -- felt not on an intellectual level but as total realization beyond logic.

Over the next few days, unexpectedly, other visions would spontaneously create displays. Many were of past life situations. These were particularly painful to experience because the amount of suffering was condensed. It was like eating or taking into one's body both the visual and emotional experience of a Nazi death camp. When the visions seemed to be unending I became concerned that I was indeed going crazy. I had no control over these visionary events and my few attempts to relate them to my friends brought only alarm and concern to their faces: In secret places I cried a lot. I was alarmed at this world I had entered, in which I had no control or direction and no role except as a spectator.

I followed my original itinerary and traveled to the military encampment in Colorado. I went as the Lord Chamberlain Dapon, Sir John Perks, knowing there was nothing that existed in any reality. I was more than pleased to see Rinpoche, to whom I related the entire experience, along with the voice messages that were addressed to him. I asked him directly, "Doesn't one have to be careful when traveling in this world?"

He replied, "No, being careful is hanging on. Just let go." He continued, "The visions are our connection, your connection to me and the lineage."

"People think I am going crazy," I protested.

"Johnny," he said, "some people will love what you do. Others will hate what you do and others couldn't care less. Don't pay any attention to any of it."
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Re: Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant S

Postby admin » Sat Jun 22, 2019 1:53 am

The Dark Knight of the Soul: For some, meditation has become more curse than cure. Willoughby Britton wants to know why.
by Tomas Rocha
The Atlantic
June 25, 2014



Set back on quiet College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, sits a dignified, four story, 19th-century house that belongs to Dr. Willoughby Britton. Inside, it is warm, spacious, and organized. The shelves are stocked with organic foods. A solid wood dining room table seats up to 12. Plants are ubiquitous. Comfortable pillows are never far from reach. The basement—with its own bed, living space, and private bathroom—often hosts a rotating cast of yogis and meditation teachers. Britton’s own living space and office are on the second floor. The real sanctuary, however, is on the third floor, where people come from all over to rent rooms, work with Britton, and rest. But they're not there to restore themselves with meditation—they're recovering from it.

"I started having thoughts like, 'Let me take over you,' combined with confusion and tons of terror," says David, a polite, articulate 27-year-old who arrived at Britton’s Cheetah House in 2013. "I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought 'Kill yourself' over and over again."

Michael, 25, was a certified yoga teacher when he made his way to Cheetah House. He explains that during the course of his meditation practice his "body stopped digesting food. I had no idea what was happening." For three years he believed he was "permanently ruined" by meditation.

"Recovery," "permanently ruined"—these are not words one typically encounters when discussing a contemplative practice.

On a cold November night last fall, I drove to Cheetah House. A former student of Britton's, I joined the group in time for a Shabbat dinner. We blessed the challah, then the wine; recited prayers in English and Hebrew; and began eating.

Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, works at the Brown University Medical School. She receives regular phone calls, emails, and letters from people around the world in various states of impairment. Most of them worry no one will believe—let alone understand—their stories of meditation-induced affliction. Her investigation of this phenomenon, called "The Dark Night Project," is an effort to document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices.

The morning after our Shabbat dinner, in Britton’s kitchen, David outlines the history of his own contemplative path. His first retreat was "very non-normal," he says, "and very good … divine. There was stuff dropping away … [and] electric shocks through my body. [My] core sense of self, a persistent consciousness, the thoughts and stuff, were not me." He tells me it was the best thing that had ever happened to him, an "orgasm of the soul, felt throughout my internal world."

David explains that he finally felt awake. But it didn't last.

Still high off his retreat, he declined an offer to attend law school, aggravating his parents. His best friends didn't understand him, or his "insane" stories of life on retreat.

"I had a fear of being thought of as crazy," he says, "I felt extremely sensitive, vulnerable, and naked."

Not knowing what to do with himself, David moved to Korea to teach English, got bored, dropped out of the program, and moved back in with his parents. Eventually, life lost its meaning. Colors began to fade. Spiritually dry, David didn't care about anything anymore. Everything he had found pleasurable before the retreat—hanging out with friends, playing music, drinking—all of that "turned to dirt," he says, "a plate of beautiful food turned to dirt."

He traveled back and forth from Asia to home seeking guidance, but found only a deep, persistent dissatisfaction in himself. After "bumming around Thailand for a bit," he moved to San Francisco, got a job, and sat through several more two- and 10-week meditation retreats. Then, in 2012, David sold his car to pay for a retreat at the Cloud Mountain Center that torments him still.

"Psychological hell," is how he describes it. "It would come and go in waves. I’d be in the middle of practice and what would come to mind was everything I didn't want to think about, every feeling I didn't want to feel." David felt "pebble-sized" spasms emerge from inside a "dense knot" in his belly.

He panicked. Increasingly vivid pornographic fantasies and repressed memories from his childhood began to surface.

"I just started freaking out," he says, "and at some point, I just surrendered to the onslaught of unwanted sexual thoughts … a sexual Rolodex of every taboo." As soon as he did, however, "there was some goodness to it." After years of pushing away his emotional, instinctual drives, something inside David was "reattached," he says.

Toward the end of his time at the Cloud Mountain Center, David shared his ongoing experiences with the retreat leaders, who assured him it was probably just his "ego's defenses" acting up. "They were really comforting," he says, "even though I thought I was going to become schizophrenic."

According to a survey by the National Institutes of Health, 10 percent of respondents—representing more than 20 million adult Americans—tried meditating between 2006 and 2007, a 1.8 percent increase from a similar survey in 2002. At that rate, by 2017, there may be more than 27 million American adults with a recent meditation experience.

In late January this year, Time magazine featured a cover story on "the mindful revolution," an account of the extent to which mindfulness meditation has diffused into the largest sectors of modern society. Used by "Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs, and more," mindfulness meditation is promoted as a means to help Americans work mindfully, eat mindfully, parent mindfully, teach mindfully, take standardized tests mindfully, spend money mindfully, and go to war mindfully. What the cover story did not address are what might be called the revolution's "dirty laundry."

"We're not being thorough or honest in our study of contemplative practice," says Britton, a critique she extends to the entire field of researchers studying meditation, including herself.

I'm sitting on a pillow in Britton’s meditation room. She tells me that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine's website includes an interesting choice of words in its entry on meditation. Under "side effects and risks," it reads:

Meditation is considered to be safe for healthy people. There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not been fully researched.

By modern scientific standards, the aforementioned research may not yet be comprehensive—a fact Britton wants to change—but according to Britton and her colleagues, descriptions of meditation's adverse effects have been collecting dust on bookshelves for centuries.

The phrase "dark night of the soul," can be traced back to a 16th-century Spanish poem by the Roman Catholic mystic San Juan de la Cruz, or Saint John of the Cross. It is most commonly used within certain Christian traditions to refer to an individual's spiritual crisis in the course of their union with God.

The divine experiences reported by Saint John describe a method, or protocol, "followed by the soul in its journey upon the spiritual road to the attainment of the perfect union of love with God, to the extent that it is possible in this life." The poem, however, is linked to a much longer text, also written by Saint John, which describes the hardships faced by those who seek to purify the senses—and the spirit—in their quest for mystical love.

According to Britton, the texts of many major contemplative traditions offer similar maps of spiritual development. One of her team's preliminary tasks—a sort of archeological literature review—was to pore through the written canons of Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen Buddhism, as well as texts within Christianity, Judaism, and Sufism. "Not every text makes clear reference to a period of difficulty on the contemplative path," Britton says, "but many did."

"There is a sutta," a canonical discourse attributed to the Buddha or one of his close disciples, "where monks go crazy and commit suicide after doing contemplation on death," says Chris Kaplan, a visiting scholar at the Mind & Life Institute who also works with Britton on the Dark Night Project.

Nathan Fisher, the study's manager, condenses a famous parable by the founder of the Jewish Hasidic movement. Says Fisher, "[the story] is about how the oscillations of spiritual life parallel the experience of learning to walk, very similar to the metaphor Saint John of the Cross uses in terms of a mother weaning a child … first you are held up by a parent and it is exhilarating and wonderful, and then they take their hands away and it is terrifying and the child feels abandoned."

Kaplan and Fisher dislike the term "dark night" because, in their view, it can imply that difficult contemplative experiences are "one and the same thing" across different religions and contemplative traditions.

Fisher also emphasizes two categories that may cause dark nights to surface. The first results from "incorrect or misguided practice that could be avoided," while the second includes "those [experiences] which were necessary and expected stages of practices." In other words, while meditators can better avoid difficult experiences under the guidance of seasoned teachers, there are cases where such experiences are useful signs of progress in contemplative development. Distinguishing between the two, however, remains a challenge.

Britton shows me a 2010 paper written by University of Colorado-Boulder psychologist Sona Dimidjian that was published in American Psychologist, the official journal of the American Psychological Association. The study examines some dramatic instances where psychotherapy has caused serious harm to a patient. It also highlights the value of creating standards for defining and identifying when and how harm can occur at different points in the psychotherapeutic process.

One of the central questions of Dimidjian's article is this: After 100 years of research into psychotherapy, it's obvious that scientists and clinicians have learned a lot about the benefits of therapy, but what do we know about the harms? According to Britton, a parallel process is happening in the field of meditation research.

"We have a lot of positive data [on meditation]," she says, "but no one has been asking if there are any potential difficulties or adverse effects, and whether there are some practices that may be better or worse-suited [for] some people over others. Ironically," Britton adds, "the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in America is actually medicine and science, not Buddhism."

As a result, many people think of meditation only from the perspective of reducing stress and enhancing executive skills such as emotion regulation, attention, and so on.

For Britton, this widespread assumption—that meditation exists only for stress reduction and labor productivity, "because that's what Americans value"—narrows the scope of the scientific lens. When the time comes to develop hypotheses around the effects of meditation, the only acceptable—and fundable—research questions are the ones that promise to deliver the answers we want to hear.

"Does it promote good relationships? Does it reduce cortisol? Does it help me work harder?" asks Britton, referencing these more lucrative questions. Because studies have shown that meditation does satisfy such interests, the results, she says, are vigorously reported to the public. "But," she cautions, "what about when meditation plays a role in creating an experience that then leads to a breakup, a psychotic break, or an inability to focus at work?"

Given the juggernaut—economic and otherwise—behind the mindfulness movement, there is a lot at stake in exploring a shadow side of meditation. Upton Sinclair once observed how difficult it is to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Britton has experienced that difficulty herself. In part because university administrators and research funders prefer simple and less controversial titles, she has chosen to rename the Dark Night Project the "Varieties of Contemplative Experience."

Britton also questions what might be considered the mindfulness movement's limited scope. She explains that the Theravadin Buddhist tradition influences how a large portion of Americans practice meditation, but in it, mindfulness is "about vipassana, a specific type of insight … into the three characteristics of experience." These are also known as the three marks of existence: anicca, or impermanence; dukkha, or dissatisfaction; and anatta, or no-self.

In this context, mindfulness is not about being able to stare comfortably at your computer for hours on end, or get "in the zone" to climb the corporate ladder. Rather, says Britton, it's about the often painstaking process of "realizing and processing those three specific insights."

Shinzen Young, a Buddhist meditation teacher popular with young scientists, has summarized his familiarity with dark night experiences. In a 2011 email exchange between himself and a student, which he then posted on his blog, Young presents an explanation of what he means by a "dark night" within the context of Buddhist experience:

Almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, [and] disorientation. …The same can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. I would not refer to these types of experiences as 'dark night.' I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon. Within the Buddhist tradition, [this] is sometimes referred to as 'falling into the Pit of the Void.' It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling … it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it's Enlightenment's Evil Twin. This is serious but still manageable through intensive … guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases, it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive.

Britton's findings corroborate many of Young's claims. Among the nearly 40 dark night subjects her team has formally interviewed over the past few years, she says most were "fairly out of commission, fairly impaired for between six months [and] more than 20 years."

The identities of Britton's subjects are kept secret and coded anonymously. To find interviewees, however, her team contacted well-known and highly esteemed teachers, such as Jack Kornfield at California's Spirit Rock and Joseph Goldstein at the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts. Like many other experienced teachers they spoke to, Goldstein and Kornfield recalled instances during past meditation retreats where students became psychologically incapacitated. Some were hospitalized. Says Britton, "there was one person Jack told me about [who] never recovered."

The Dark Night Project is young, and still very much in progress. Researchers in the field are just beginning to carefully collect and sort through the narratives of difficult meditation-related experiences. Britton has presented her findings at major Buddhist and scientific conferences, prominent retreat centers, and even to the Dalai Lama at the 24th Mind and Life Dialogue in 2012.

"Many people in our study were lost and confused and could not find help," Britton says. "They had been through so many doctors, therapists, and dharma teachers. Given that we had so much information about these effects, we realized that we were it."

In response, Britton conceived of Cheetah House as a public resource. "We're still in the process of developing our services," she says. "Lots of people just come live here, and work on the study. Because they're part of the research team, they get to stay here and listen to other people's experiences, and that's been incredibly healing."

As a trained clinician, it can be hard for Britton to reconcile the visible benefits of contemplative practices with data unearthed through the Dark Night Project. More than half of her patients reported positive "life-altering experiences" after a recent eight-week meditation program, for example. But, she says, "while I have appreciation and love for the practices, and for my patients … I have all of these other people that have struggled, who are struggling."

"I understand the resistance," says Britton, in response to critics who have attempted to silence or dismiss her work. "There are parts of me that just want meditation to be all good. I find myself in denial sometimes, where I just want to forget all that I've learned and go back to being happy about mindfulness and promoting it, but then I get another phone call and meet someone who's in distress, and I see the devastation in their eyes, and I can't deny that this is happening. As much as I want to investigate and promote contemplative practices and contribute to the well-being of humanity through that, I feel a deeper commitment to what's actually true."
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Re: Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant S

Postby admin » Fri Jun 28, 2019 8:57 am

The mindfulness conspiracy: It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism
by Ronald Purser
Fri 14 Jun 2019 01.00 EDT Last modified on Tue 18 Jun 2019 06.49 EDT



Mindfulness has gone mainstream, with celebrity endorsement from Oprah Winfrey and Goldie Hawn. Meditation coaches, monks and neuroscientists went to Davos to impart the finer points to CEOs attending the World Economic Forum. The founders of the mindfulness movement have grown evangelical. Prophesying that its hybrid of science and meditative discipline “has the potential to ignite a universal or global renaissance”, the inventor of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, has bigger ambitions than conquering stress. Mindfulness, he proclaims, “may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple of hundred years”.

The social and political implications of this democratization of the screen are enormous. In the past, friendship and intimate exchange have been limited to local geography or occasional visits. Now you can play electronic tennis with a pro in Tokyo, interact with a classroom in Paris, cyberflirt with cute guys in any four cities of your choice. A global fast-feedback language of icons and memes, facilitated by instant translation devices, will smoothly eliminate the barriers of language that have been responsible for most of the war and conflict of the last centuries.


One night in 1983, I was having dinner with a friend who worked at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. During the evening, he mentioned that a breakthrough in the erection department was at hand. He said that a Stanford University research team was developing a pill that would give immediate control of your erections! The active ingredient was called yohimbe. This was a discovery of historic importance! It could mean the end of male insecurity, cruelty, and war! This could break the wretched addiction to prime-time television!

-- Chaos & Cyberculture, by Timothy Leary, Ph.D.

So, what exactly is this magic panacea? In 2014, Time magazine put a youthful blonde woman on its cover, blissing out above the words: “The Mindful Revolution.” The accompanying feature described a signature scene from the standardised course teaching MBSR: eating a raisin very slowly. “The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st century,” the author explained.

But anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary – it just helps people cope. In fact, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, mindfulness says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. And yet mindfulness zealots believe that paying closer attention to the present moment without passing judgment has the revolutionary power to transform the whole world. It’s magical thinking on steroids.

In 1969 the noted French political writer Jean-Francois Revel predicted that the United States was about to experience "the second great world revolution" — an upheaval that would complete the first revolution, the rise of democracy in the West. In Without Marx or Jesus he predicted the emergence of homo novus, a new human being. Revel believed that the undercurrent of spiritual concern in the United States, evident in the burgeoning interest in Eastern religions, presaged profound change in the only country on the planet free enough for bloodless revolution.

Revel saw the coming second revolution as an emergent pattern amid the chaos of the 1960s; the social movements, the new mores and fashions, protests and violence. Indeed, many of the activists were turning inward, a direction that seemed heretical to their comrades in the conventional Left. They were saying that they could not change society until they changed themselves. Irving Thomas, a social activist of the 1960s, recalled later:

A funny thing happened on the way to Revolution. There we were, beating our breasts for social change, when it slowly began to dawn on us that our big-deal social-political struggle was only one parochial engagement of a revolution in consciousness so large that it has been hard to bring it into focus within our reality.

And Michael Rossmari, one of the leaders of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and other leaders of the supposedly alienated campus rebels spoke in low tones of a curious development. In their thrust for change they had begun to experience "the scariness of real choice and possibility. ... There was a sense that the surface of reality had somehow fallen away altogether. Nothing was any longer what it seemed."

Was this what it meant to make the world strange and new again? Creating and naming the movement had "alleviated the responsibility for facing an unsought and terrifyingly wild field of choice in a universe in which somehow anything had become possible." Like the sorcerers in the popular books of Carlos Castaneda, Rossman and his friends had succeeded, however briefly, in "stopping the world." Confrontation was a less and less attractive strategy as it became more and more evident that, as Walt Kelly's cartoon character Pogo once observed, "We have met the enemy and they are us."

When the revolution went inside, television cameras and newspaper reporters could not cover it. It had become, in many ways, invisible.

To many of the activists idealism seemed the only pragmatic alternative. Cynicism had proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.

-- The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980sby Marilyn Ferguson

There are certainly worthy dimensions to mindfulness practice. Tuning out mental rumination does help reduce stress, as well as chronic anxiety and many other maladies. Becoming more aware of automatic reactions can make people calmer and potentially kinder. Most of the promoters of mindfulness are nice, and having personally met many of them, including the leaders of the movement, I have no doubt that their hearts are in the right place. But that isn’t the issue here. The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged. Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu points to the Ananda Sutta, where the Buddha stays silent when asked whether there is a 'self' or not ...

-- Anatta, by Wikipedia

What remains is a tool of self-discipline, disguised as self-help. Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems. A truly revolutionary movement would seek to overturn this dysfunctional system, but mindfulness only serves to reinforce its destructive logic. The neoliberal order has imposed itself by stealth in the past few decades, widening inequality in pursuit of corporate wealth. People are expected to adapt to what this model demands of them. Stress has been pathologised and privatised, and the burden of managing it outsourced to individuals. Hence the pedlars of mindfulness step in to save the day.

But none of this means that mindfulness ought to be banned, or that anyone who finds it useful is deluded. Reducing suffering is a noble aim and it should be encouraged. But to do this effectively, teachers of mindfulness need to acknowledge that personal stress also has societal causes. By failing to address collective suffering, and systemic change that might remove it, they rob mindfulness of its real revolutionary potential, reducing it to something banal that keeps people focused on themselves.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is often called the father of modern mindfulness. Photograph: Sarah Lee

The fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads. By failing to pay attention to what actually happens in each moment, we get lost in regrets about the past and fears for the future, which make us unhappy. Kabat-Zinn, who is often labelled the father of modern mindfulness, calls this a “thinking disease”. Learning to focus turns down the volume on circular thought, so Kabat-Zinn’s diagnosis is that our “entire society is suffering from attention deficit disorder – big time”. Other sources of cultural malaise are not discussed. The only mention of the word “capitalist” in Kabat-Zinn’s book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness occurs in an anecdote about a stressed investor who says: “We all suffer a kind of ADD.”

Mindfulness advocates, perhaps unwittingly, are providing support for the status quo. Rather than discussing how attention is monetised and manipulated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple, they locate the crisis in our minds. It is not the nature of the capitalist system that is inherently problematic; rather, it is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. Then they sell us solutions that make us contented, mindful capitalists.

By practising mindfulness, individual freedom is supposedly found within “pure awareness”, undistracted by external corrupting influences. All we need to do is close our eyes and watch our breath. And that’s the crux of the supposed revolution: the world is slowly changed, one mindful individual at a time. This political philosophy is oddly reminiscent of George W Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”. With the retreat to the private sphere, mindfulness becomes a religion of the self. The idea of a public sphere is being eroded, and any trickledown effect of compassion is by chance. As a result, notes the political theorist Wendy Brown, “the body politic ceases to be a body, but is, rather, a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers”.

Mindfulness, like positive psychology and the broader happiness industry, has depoliticised stress. If we are unhappy about being unemployed, losing our health insurance, and seeing our children incur massive debt through college loans, it is our responsibility to learn to be more mindful. Kabat-Zinn assures us that “happiness is an inside job” that simply requires us to attend to the present moment mindfully and purposely without judgment. Another vocal promoter of meditative practice, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson, contends that “wellbeing is a skill” that can be trained, like working out one’s biceps at the gym. The so-called mindfulness revolution meekly accepts the dictates of the marketplace. Guided by a therapeutic ethos aimed at enhancing the mental and emotional resilience of individuals, it endorses neoliberal assumptions that everyone is free to choose their responses, manage negative emotions, and “flourish” through various modes of self-care. Framing what they offer in this way, most teachers of mindfulness rule out a curriculum that critically engages with causes of suffering in the structures of power and economic systems of capitalist society.

The term “McMindfulness” was coined by Miles Neale, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, who described “a feeding frenzy of spiritual practices that provide immediate nutrition but no long-term sustenance”. The contemporary mindfulness fad is the entrepreneurial equal of McDonald’s. The founder of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, created the fast food industry. Very early on, when he was selling milkshakes, Kroc spotted the franchising potential of a restaurant chain in San Bernadino, California. He made a deal to serve as the franchising agent for the McDonald brothers. Soon afterwards, he bought them out, and grew the chain into a global empire. Kabat-Zinn, a dedicated meditator, had a vision in the midst of a retreat: he could adapt Buddhist teachings and practices to help hospital patients deal with physical pain, stress and anxiety. His masterstroke was the branding of mindfulness as a secular spirituality.

Kroc saw his chance to provide busy Americans with instant access to food that would be delivered consistently through automation, standardisation and discipline. Kabat-Zinn perceived the opportunity to give stressed-out Americans easy access to MBSR through an eight-week mindfulness course for stress reduction that would be taught consistently using a standardised curriculum. MBSR teachers would gain certification by attending programmes at Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness in Worcester, Massachusetts. He continued to expand the reach of MBSR by identifying new markets such as corporations, schools, government and the military, and endorsing other forms of “mindfulness-based interventions” (MBIs).

Both men took measures to ensure that their products would not vary in quality or content across franchises. Burgers and fries at McDonald’s are the same whether one is eating them in Dubai or in Dubuque. Similarly, there is little variation in the content, structuring and curriculum of MBSR courses around the world.

Mindfulness has been oversold and commodified, reduced to a technique for just about any instrumental purpose. It can give inner-city kids a calming time-out, or hedge-fund traders a mental edge, or reduce the stress of military drone pilots. Void of a moral compass or ethical commitments, unmoored from a vision of the social good, the commodification of mindfulness keeps it anchored in the ethos of the market.

This has come about partly because proponents of mindfulness believe that the practice is apolitical, and so the avoidance of moral inquiry and the reluctance to consider a vision of the social good are intertwined. It is simply assumed that ethical behaviour will arise “naturally” from practice and the teacher’s “embodiment” of soft-spoken niceness, or through the happenstance of self-discovery. However, the claim that major ethical changes will follow from “paying attention to the present moment, non-judgmentally” is patently flawed. The emphasis on “non-judgmental awareness” can just as easily disable one’s moral intelligence.

In Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King argue that traditions of Asian wisdom have been subject to colonisation and commodification since the 18th century, producing a highly individualistic spirituality, perfectly accommodated to dominant cultural values and requiring no substantive change in lifestyle. Such an individualistic spirituality is clearly linked with the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, especially when masked by the ambiguous language used in mindfulness. Market forces are already exploiting the momentum of the mindfulness movement, reorienting its goals to a highly circumscribed individual realm.

Mindfulness is easily co-opted and reduced to merely “pacifying feelings of anxiety and disquiet at the individual level, rather than seeking to challenge the social, political and economic inequalities that cause such distress”, write Carrette and King. But a commitment to this kind of privatised and psychologised mindfulness is political – therapeutically optimising individuals to make them “mentally fit”, attentive and resilient, so they may keep functioning within the system. Such capitulation seems like the farthest thing from a revolution – more like a quietist surrender.

Mindfulness is positioned as a force that can help us cope with the noxious influences of capitalism. But because what it offers is so easily assimilated by the market, its potential for social and political transformation is neutered. Leaders in the mindfulness movement believe that capitalism and spirituality can be reconciled; they want to relieve the stress of individuals without having to look deeper and more broadly at its causes.

Mindfulness is being sold to executives as a way to de-stress, focus and bounce back from working 80-hour weeks

A truly revolutionary mindfulness would challenge the western sense of entitlement to happiness irrespective of ethical conduct. However, mindfulness programmes do not ask executives to examine how their managerial decisions and corporate policies have institutionalised greed, ill will and delusion. Instead, the practice is being sold to executives as a way to de-stress, improve productivity and focus, and bounce back from working 80-hour weeks. They may well be “meditating”, but it works like taking an aspirin for a headache. Once the pain goes away, it is business as usual. Even if individuals become nicer people, the corporate agenda of maximising profits does not change.

If mindfulness just helps people cope with the toxic conditions that make them stressed in the first place, then perhaps we could aim a bit higher. Should we celebrate the fact that this perversion is helping people to “auto-exploit” themselves? This is the core of the problem. The internalisation of focus for mindfulness practice also leads to other things being internalised, from corporate requirements to structures of dominance in society. Perhaps worst of all, this submissive position is framed as freedom. Indeed, mindfulness thrives on doublespeak about freedom, celebrating self-centered “freedoms” while paying no attention to civic responsibility, or the cultivation of a collective mindfulness that finds genuine freedom within a co-operative and just society.

Of course, reductions in stress and increases in personal happiness and wellbeing are much easier to sell than serious questions about injustice, inequity and environmental devastation. The latter involve a challenge to the social order, while the former play directly to mindfulness’s priorities – sharpening people’s focus, improving their performance at work and in exams, and even promising better sex lives. Not only has mindfulness been repackaged as a novel technique of psychotherapy, but its utility is commercially marketed as self-help. This branding reinforces the notion that spiritual practices are indeed an individual’s private concern. And once privatised, these practices are easily co-opted for social, economic and political control.

Rather than being used as a means to awaken individuals and organisations to the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, mindfulness is more often refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.

Mindfulness is said to be a $4bn industry. More than 60,000 books for sale on Amazon have a variant of “mindfulness” in their title, touting the benefits of Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, Mindful Finance, a Mindful Nation, and Mindful Dog Owners, to name just a few. There is also The Mindfulness Colouring Book, part of a bestselling subgenre in itself. Besides books, there are workshops, online courses, glossy magazines, documentary films, smartphone apps, bells, cushions, bracelets, beauty products and other paraphernalia, as well as a lucrative and burgeoning conference circuit. Mindfulness programmes have made their way into schools, Wall Street and Silicon Valley corporations, law firms, and government agencies, including the US military.

The presentation of mindfulness as a market-friendly palliative explains its warm reception in popular culture. It slots so neatly into the mindset of the workplace that its only real threat to the status quo is to offer people ways to become more skilful at the rat race. Modern society’s neoliberal consensus argues that those who enjoy power and wealth should be given free rein to accumulate more. It’s perhaps no surprise that those mindfulness merchants who accept market logic are a hit with the CEOs in Davos, where Kabat-Zinn has no qualms about preaching the gospel of competitive advantage from meditative practice.

Over the past few decades, neoliberalism has outgrown its conservative roots. It has hijacked public discourse to the extent that even self-professed progressives, such as Kabat-Zinn, think in neoliberal terms. Market values have invaded every corner of human life, defining how most of us are forced to interpret and live in the world.

Perhaps the most straightforward definition of neoliberalism comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who calls it “a programme for destroying collective structures that may impede the pure market logic”. We are generally conditioned to think that a market-based society provides us with ample (if not equal) opportunities for increasing the value of our “human capital” and self-worth. And in order to fully actualise personal freedom and potential, we need to maximise our own welfare, freedom, and happiness by deftly managing internal resources.

Since competition is so central, neoliberal ideology holds that all decisions about how society is run should be left to the workings of the marketplace, the most efficient mechanism for allowing competitors to maximise their own good. Other social actors – including the state, voluntary associations, and the like – are just obstacles to the smooth operation of market logic.

For an actor in neoliberal society, mindfulness is a skill to be cultivated, or a resource to be put to use. When mastered, it helps you to navigate the capitalist ocean’s tricky currents, keeping your attention “present-centred and non-judgmental” to deal with the inevitable stress and anxiety from competition. Mindfulness helps you to maximise your personal wellbeing.

All of this may help you to sleep better at night. But the consequences for society are potentially dire. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has analysed this trend. As he sees it, mindfulness is “establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism”, by helping people “to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity”.

By deflecting attention from the social structures and material conditions in a capitalist culture, mindfulness is easily co-opted. Celebrity role models bless and endorse it, while Californian companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Zynga have embraced it as an adjunct to their brand. Google’s former in-house mindfulness tsar Chade-Meng Tan had the actual job title Jolly Good Fellow. “Search inside yourself,” he counselled colleagues and readers – for there, not in corporate culture – lies the source of your problems.

The rhetoric of “self-mastery”, “resilience” and “happiness” assumes wellbeing is simply a matter of developing a skill. Mindfulness cheerleaders are particularly fond of this trope, saying we can train our brains to be happy, like exercising muscles. Happiness, freedom and wellbeing become the products of individual effort. Such so-called “skills” can be developed without reliance on external factors, relationships or social conditions. Underneath its therapeutic discourse, mindfulness subtly reframes problems as the outcomes of choices. Personal troubles are never attributed to political or socioeconomic conditions, but are always psychological in nature and diagnosed as pathologies. Society therefore needs therapy, not radical change. This is perhaps why mindfulness initiatives have become so attractive to government policymakers. Societal problems rooted in inequality, racism, poverty, addiction and deteriorating mental health can be reframed in terms of individual psychology, requiring therapeutic help. Vulnerable subjects can even be told to provide this themselves.

Neoliberalism divides the world into winners and losers. It accomplishes this task through its ideological linchpin: the individualisation of all social phenomena. Since the autonomous (and free) individual is the primary focal point for society, social change is achieved not through political protest, organising and collective action, but via the free market and atomised actions of individuals. Any effort to change this through collective structures is generally troublesome to the neoliberal order. It is therefore discouraged.

An illustrative example is the practice of recycling. The real problem is the mass production of plastics by corporations, and their overuse in retail. However, consumers are led to believe that being personally wasteful is the underlying issue, which can be fixed if they change their habits. As a recent essay in Scientific American scoffs: “Recycling plastic is to saving the Earth what hammering a nail is to halting a falling skyscraper.” Yet the neoliberal doctrine of individual responsibility has performed its sleight-of-hand, distracting us from the real culprit. This is far from new. In the 1950s, the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign urged individuals to pick up their trash. The project was bankrolled by corporations such as Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Phillip Morris, in partnership with the public service announcement Ad Council, which coined the term “litterbug” to shame miscreants. Two decades later, a famous TV ad featured a Native American man weeping at the sight of a motorist dumping garbage. “People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It,” was the slogan. The essay in Scientific American, by Matt Wilkins, sees through such charades.

To change the world, we are told to work on ourselves – to change our minds by being more accepting of circumstances

At face value, these efforts seem benevolent, but they obscure the real problem, which is the role that corporate polluters play in the plastic problem. This clever misdirection has led journalist and author Heather Rogers to describe Keep America Beautiful as the first corporate greenwashing front, as it has helped shift the public focus to consumer recycling behaviour and thwarted legislation that would increase extended producer responsibility for waste management.

We are repeatedly sold the same message: that individual action is the only real way to solve social problems, so we should take responsibility. We are trapped in a neoliberal trance by what the education scholar Henry Giroux calls a “disimagination machine”, because it stifles critical and radical thinking. We are admonished to look inward, and to manage ourselves. Disimagination impels us to abandon creative ideas about new possibilities. Instead of seeking to dismantle capitalism, or rein in its excesses, we should accept its demands and use self-discipline to be more effective in the market. To change the world, we are told to work on ourselves — to change our minds by being more mindful, nonjudgmental, and accepting of circumstances.

It is a fundamental tenet of neoliberal mindfulness, that the source of people’s problems is found in their heads. This has been accentuated by the pathologising and medicalisation of stress, which then requires a remedy and expert treatment – in the form of mindfulness interventions. The ideological message is that if you cannot alter the circumstances causing distress, you can change your reactions to your circumstances. In some ways, this can be helpful, since many things are not in our control. But to abandon all efforts to fix them seems excessive. Mindfulness practices do not permit critique or debate of what might be unjust, culturally toxic or environmentally destructive. Rather, the mindful imperative to “accept things as they are” while practising “nonjudgmental, present moment awareness” acts as a social anesthesia, preserving the status quo.

The mindfulness movement’s promise of “human flourishing” (which is also the rallying cry of positive psychology) is the closest it comes to defining a vision of social change. However, this vision remains individualised and depends on the personal choice to be more mindful. Mindfulness practitioners may of course have a very different political agenda to that of neoliberalism, but the risk is that they start to retreat into their own private worlds and particular identities — which is just where the neoliberal power structures want them.

Mindfulness practice is embedded in what Jennifer Silva calls the “mood economy”. In Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, Silva explains that, like the privatisation of risk, a mood economy makes “individuals solely responsible for their emotional fates”. In such a political economy of affect, emotions are regulated as a means to enhance one’s “emotional capital”. At Google’s Search Inside Yourself mindfulness programme, emotional intelligence (EI) figures prominently in the curriculum. The programme is marketed to Google engineers as instrumental to their career success — by engaging in mindfulness practice, managing emotions generates surplus economic value, equivalent to the acquisition of capital. The mood economy also demands the ability to bounce back from setbacks to stay productive in a precarious economic context. Like positive psychology, the mindfulness movement has merged with the “science of happiness”. Once packaged in this way, it can be sold as a technique for personal life-hacking optimisation, disembedding individuals from social worlds.

All the promises of mindfulness resonate with what the University of Chicago cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”, a defining neoliberal characteristic. It is cruel in that one makes affective investments in what amount to fantasies. We are told that if we practice mindfulness, and get our individual lives in order, we can be happy and secure. It is therefore implied that stable employment, home ownership, social mobility, career success and equality will naturally follow. We are also promised that we can gain self-mastery, controlling our minds and emotions so we can thrive and flourish amid the vagaries of capitalism. As Joshua Eisen, the author of Mindful Calculations, puts it: “Like kale, acai berries, gym memberships, vitamin water, and other new year’s resolutions, mindfulness indexes a profound desire to change, but one premised on a fundamental reassertion of neoliberal fantasies of self-control and unfettered agency.” We just have to sit in silence, watching our breath, and wait. It is doubly cruel because these normative fantasies of the “good life” are already crumbling under neoliberalism, and we make it worse if we focus individually on our feelings. Neglecting shared vulnerabilities and interdependence, we disimagine the collective ways we might protect ourselves. And despite the emptiness of nurturing fantasies, we continue to cling to them.

Mindfulness isn’t cruel in and of itself. It’s only cruel when fetishised and attached to inflated promises. It is then, as Berlant points out, that “the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially”. The cruelty lies in supporting the status quo while using the language of transformation. This is how neoliberal mindfulness promotes an individualistic vision of human flourishing, enticing us to accept things as they are, mindfully enduring the ravages of capitalism.

Adapted from McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality by Ronald Purser, published by Repeater Books on 9 July and available at guardianbookshop.com
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Re: Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant S

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Part 1 of 6

Silencing and Oblivion of Psychological Trauma, Its Unconscious Aspects, and Their Impact on the Inflation of Vajrayāna. An Analysis of Cross-Group Dynamics and Recent Developments in Buddhist Groups Based on Qualitative Data
by Anne Iris Miriam Anders
Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, 80939 Munich, Germany
Received: 8 October 2019 / Accepted: 6 November 2019 / Published: 10 November 2019

Abstract: The commercialization of Buddhist philosophy has led to decontextualization and indoctrinating issues across groups, as well as abuse and trauma in that context. Methodologically, from an interdisciplinary approach, based on the current situation in international Buddhist groups and citations of victims from the ongoing research, the psychological mechanisms of rationalizing and silencing trauma were analyzed. The results show how supposedly Buddhist terminology and concepts are used to rationalize and justify economic, psychological and physical abuse. This is discussed against the background of psychological mechanisms of silencing trauma and the impact of ignoring the unconscious in that particular context. Inadequate consideration regarding the teacher–student relationship, combined with an unreflective use of Tibetan honorary titles and distorted conceptualizations of methods, such as the constant merging prescribed in so-called ‘guru yoga’, resulted in giving up self-responsibility and enhanced dependency. These new concepts, commercialized as ‘karma purification’ and ‘pure view’, have served to rationalize and conceal abuse, as well as to isolate the victims. Therefore, we are facing societal challenges, in terms of providing health and economic care to the victims and implementing preventive measures. This use of language also impacts on scientific discourse and Vajrayāna itself, and will affect many future generations.

Most of the monasteries, even those of the sects other than the dominant Ge-lug-pa, are richly endowed with landed property and villages, from which they derive much revenue. All, however, rely mainly on the voluntary contributions of the worshippers amongst villagers and pilgrims. And to secure ample aid, large numbers of Lamas are deputed at the harvest-time to beg and collect grain and other donations for their monasteries. Most of the contributions, even for sacerdotal services, are in kind, — grain, bricks of tea, butter, salt, meat, and live stock, — for money is not much used in Tibet. Other sources of revenue are the charms, pictures, images, which the Lamas manufacture, and which are in great demand; as well as the numerous horoscopes, supplied by the Lamas for births, marriages, sickness, death, accident, etc., and in which most extensive devil-worship is prescribed, entailing the employment of many Lamas. Of the less intellectually gifted Lamas, some are employed in menial duties, and others are engaged in mercantile traffic for the general benefit of their mother monastery. Most of the monasteries of the established church grow rich by trading and usury. Indeed, Lamas are the chief traders and capitalists of the country.

-- The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in its Relation to Indian Buddhism, by Laurence Austine Waddell, M.B., F.L.S., F.R.G.S.

Keywords: indoctrination and abuse in Buddhist groups; Vajrayāna; decontextualization of concepts; silencing of trauma; guru yoga; pure view; karma purification; crazy wisdom; mindfulness; trauma

1. The Inflation of Vajrayāna

Recently, severe damage to health has been reported in Vajrayāna groups, due to economic, physical and psychological abuse. It is the testimonies of witnesses and the victims themselves that reveal a covert attitude of personal enrichment and self-centeredness on the part of authorities and their entourages in painful detail. While the narrative of Vajrayāna (Patrul 1998, p. 440) as being a quick path to enlightenment, and the expansion of the Dharma with Tibetan Buddhism spreading to the West, has continued, quality of care has vanished at the expense of the quantity of centers considered as status symbols. The pattern of euphemisms for the retrospective glorification of religious authorities has become interrupted by those affected joining to begin to share their own stories of indoctrination, exploitation and abuse. This signifies a turning point in the historiography of Tibetan Buddhism. Unlike the structures and hierarchies defined in Buddhist monasteries, which were copied unreflectively into Buddhist seminar and retreat centers, the strategy behind establishing huge amounts of international centers involved appointing people who quite often were uneducated about their positions. They then established undemocratic group structures along with their masters, served their hidden agendas, and promoted decontextualized concepts. At present, that decontextualization of terms can no longer be separated from the silencing of trauma and a linguistic style rationalizing this. It has been facilitated by replacing the clear definitions of technical terms of Buddhist philosophy with an oversimplification of concepts, together with illogical reasoning, replacing logical conclusions with blind faith. In this way, neologisms, distorted concepts and selective quotations are now promoted as Buddhism. While an introspective, self-reflexive attitude, and the knowledge of Buddhist philosophy being an instruction for the individuals’ path to autonomy were lost, the identification with teachers (Anders 2019a, p. 35) and one’s own group were widely propagated as mainstream instead. The monetary inflow and prevalent tendency towards naively idealizing Buddhist ideals once seemed to prove the established position-holders and their entourages right, despite their ignoring the realities of people in those groups or suppressing their expression. But, over the years, enrichment based on massive processes of exploitation and submission, especially towards the feminine, and the depersonalization of group members, leading to economic, physical and psychological abuse, became evident. Beyond that, however, neologisms such as the concept of ‘karma purification’ were developed, meaning one person purifying another’s so-called ‘bad kama,’ or even part of his group implementing such an idea at his command. This reveals a strategy of masking human exploitation and traumatization by using spiritual guises and every available means to achieve concealment. As “all the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing […and] appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil” (Herman 2015, p. 7), these new rationalizing concepts have been supported by irresponsible authorities, making it even more attractive to “take the side of the perpetrator” (Herman 2015, p. 7) or obey his orders, which, in such contexts, was even referred to with the term ‘devotion’. Now that we are facing its impact on the group dynamics of people played against each other, and on the health of individuals leaving such groups, the question arises of how these mainstream misconceptions designed to silence the unspeakable (Herman 2015, p. 1) could ever be reversed, and their damage minimized inside as well as outside the established structures. Thus, the inflation of knowledge transmission of the Vajrayāna came about due to simplified concepts, suitable for the purpose of commercialization and manipulation, and the associated decontextualization of technical terms (Anders 2019a, p. 35) used in Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan medicine, which were then intermingled, ignoring their unconscious aspects, and used to silence trauma. In addition to significant damage to the health of the long-term practitioners and those students, who abandoned a lot in the process of becoming involved, or were severely exploited and then exchanged for others, this has resulted in severe disappointment, due to misguided spirituality. In such settings, the misinterpretation of devotion (Anders 2019a, p. 37; Kongtrul 2003, pp. 63–64) as blind trust is just one of the manipulative methods applied. Furthermore, the unconscious devaluation of the feminine in this context, which allows one to project one’s own unwanted fantasies onto those who are denied their own voice, leads to the unimaginable social isolation of the affected girls and women, which is supposed to condemn them to speechlessness and being forgotten.

The “tantric female sacrifice”

But are we really justified in speaking of a “tantric female sacrifice”? We shall attempt to find an answer to this difficult question. Fundamentally, the Buddhist tantric distinguishes three types of sacrifice: the outer, the inner and the secret. The “outer sacrifice” consists of the offering to a divinity, the Buddhas, or the guru, of food, incense, butter lamps, perfume, and so on. For instance in the so-called “mandala sacrifice” the whole universe can be presented to the teacher, in the form of a miniature model, whilst the pupil says the following. “I sacrifice all the components of the universe in their totality to you, O noble, kind, and holy lama!” (Bleichsteiner, 1937, p. 192)

In the “inner sacrifice” the pupil (Sadhaka) gives his guru, usually in a symbolic act, his five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch), his states of consciousness, and his feelings, or he offers himself as an individual up to be sacrificed. Whatever the master demands of him will be done — even if the sadhaka must cut the flesh from his own limbs, like the tantric adept Naropa.

Behind the “secret sacrifice” hides, finally, a particular ritual event which attracts our especial interest, since it is here that the location of the “tantric female sacrifice” is to be suspected. It concerns — as can be read in a modern commentary upon the Kalachakra Tantra — “the spiritual sacrifice of a dakini to the lama” (Henss, 1985, p. 56). Such symbolic sacrifices of goddesses are all but stereotypical of tantric ceremonies. “The exquisite bejeweled woman ... is offered to the Buddhas” (Gäng, 1988, p. 151), as the Guhyasamaja Tantra puts it. Often eight, sometimes sixteen, occasionally countless “wisdom girls” are offered up in “the holy most secret of offerings” (quoted by Beyer, 1978, p. 162)

The sacrifice of samsara:

A sacrifice of the feminine need not be first sought in Tantrism, however; rather it may be found in the logic of the entire Buddhist doctrine. Woman per se --– as Buddha Shakyamuni repeatedly emphasized in many of his statements — functions as the first and greatest cause of illusion (maya), but likewise as the force which generates the phenomenal world (samsara). It is the fundamental goal of every Buddhist to overcome this deceptive samsara. This world of appearances experienced as feminine, presents him with his greatest challenge. “A woman”, Nancy Auer Falk writes, “was the veritable image of becoming and of all the forces of blind growth and productivity which Buddhism knew as Samsara. As such she too was the enemy — not only on a personal level, as an individual source of temptation, but also on a cosmic level” (Gross, 1993, p. 48). In this misogynist logic, it is only after the ritual destruction of the feminine that the illusory world (maya) can be surmounted and transcended.

Is it for this reason that maya (illusion), the mother of the historical Buddha, had to die directly after giving birth? In her early death we can recognize the original event which stands at the beginning of the fundamentally misogynist attitude of all Buddhist schools. Maya both conceived and gave birth to the Sublime One in a supernatural manner. It was not a sexual act but an elephant which, in a dream, occasioned the conception, and Buddha Shakyamuni did not leave his mother’s body through the birth canal, but rather through her hip. But these transfeminine birth myths were not enough for the tellers of legends. Maya as earthly mother had, on the path to enlightenment of a religion which seeks to free humanity from the endless chain of reincarnation, to be proclaimed an “illusion” (maya) and destroyed. She receives no higher accolade in the school of Buddha, since the woman — as mother and as lover — is the curse which fetters us to our illusory existence.

Already in Mahayana Buddhism, the naked corpse of a woman was considered as the most provocative and effective meditation object an initiand could use to free himself from the net of Samsara. Inscribed in the iconography of her body were all the vanities of this world. For this reason, he who sank bowed over a decaying female body could achieve enlightenment in his current life. To increase the intensity of the macabre observation, it was usual in several Indian monastic orders to dismember the corpse. Ears, nose, hands, feet, and breasts were chopped off and the disfigured trunk became the object of contemplation. “In Buddhist context, the spectacle of the mutilated woman serves to display the power of the Buddha, the king of the Truth (Dharma) over Mara, the lord of the Realm of Desire.”, writes Elizabeth Wilson in a discussion of such practices, “By erasing the sexual messages conveyed by the bodies of attractive women through the horrific spectacle of mutilation, the superior power of the king of Dharma is made manifest to the citizens of the realm of desire.” (Wilson, 1995, p. 80).

In Vajrayana, the Shunyata doctrine (among others) of the nonexistence of all being, is employed to conduct a symbolic sacrifice of the feminine principle. Only once this has evaporated into a “nothing” can the world and we humans be rescued from the curse of maya (illusion). This may also be a reason why the “emptiness” (shunyata), which actually by definition cannot possess any characteristics, is hypostasized as feminine in the tantras. This becomes especially clear in the Hevajra Tantra. In staging of the ritual we encounter at the outset a real yogini (karma mudra) or at least an imagined goddess (inana mudra), whom the yogi transforms in the course of events into a “nothing” using magic techniques. By the end the tantric master has completely robbed her of her independent existence, that is, to put it bluntly, she no longer exists. “She is the Yogini without a Self” (Farrow and Menon, 1992, pp. 218–219). Thus her name, Nairatmya, literally means ‘one who has no self, that is, non-substantial’ (Farrow and Menon, 1992, p. 219). The same concept is at work when, in another tantra, the “ultimate dakini” is visualized as a “zero-point” and experienced as “indivisible pleasure and emptiness” (Dowman, 1985, p. 74). Chögyam Trungpa sings of the highest “lady without being” in the following verses:

Always present, you do not exist ...
Without body, shapeless, divinity of the true.
-- Trungpa, 1990, p. 40

Only her bodilessness, her existential sacrifice and her dissolution into nothing allow the karma mudra to transmute into the maha mudra and gynergy to be distilled out of the yogini in order to construct the feminine ego of the adept with this “stuff”. “Relinquishing her form [as] a woman, she would assume that of her Lord” the Hevajra Tantra establishes at another point (Snellgrove, 1959, p. 91).

The maha mudra has, it is said, an “empty body” (Dalai Lama I, 1985, p. 170). What can be understood by this contradictory metaphor? In his commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra, Ngawang Dhargyey describes how the “empty body” can only be produced through the destruction of all the “material” elements of a physical, natural “body of appearance”. In contrast to such, “their bodies are composed simply of energy and consciousness” (Dhargyey, 1985, p. 131). The physical world, sensuality, matter and nature — considered feminine in not just Buddhism — thus become pure spirit in an irreconcilable opposition. But they are not completely destroyed in the process of their violent spiritualization, but rather “sublated” in the Hegelian sense, namely “negated” and “conserved” at the same time; they are — to make use of one of the favorite terms of the Buddhist evolutionary theorist, Ken Wilber — “integrated”.
This guarantees that the creative feminine energies are not lost following the material “dissolution” of their bearers, and instead are available solely to the yogi as a precious elixir. A sacrifice of the feminine as an autonomous principle must therefore be regarded as the sine qua non for the universal power of the tantric master. These days this feminine sacrifice may only be performed entirely in the imagination. But this need not have always been the case.

“Eating” the gynergy:

But Vajrayana is concerned with more than the performance of a cosmic drama in which the feminine and its qualities are destroyed for metaphysical reasons. The tantric recognizes a majority of the feminine properties as extremely powerful. He therefore has not the slightest intention of destroying them as such. In contrast, he wishes to make the feminine forces his own. What he wants to destroy is solely the physical and mental bearer of gynergy — the real woman. For this reason, the “tantric female sacrifice” is of a different character to the cosmogonic sacrifice of the feminine of early Buddhism. It is based upon the ancient paradigm in which the energies of a creature are transferred to its killer. The maker of the sacrifice wants to absorb the vital substance of the offering, in many cases by consuming it after it has been slaughtered. Through this he not only “integrates” the qualities of the killed, but also believes he may outwit death, by [url=http://survivorbb.rapeutation.com/viewtopic.php?f=179&t=4076]feeding upon the body and soul of the sacrificial victim[/url].

In this connection the observation that world wide the sacred sacrifice is contextually linked with food and eating, is of some interest. It is necessary to kill plants and animals in order to nourish oneself. The things killed are subsequently consumed and thus appear as a necessary condition for the maintenance and propagation of life. Eating increases strength, therefore it was important to literally incorporate the enemy. In cannibalism, the eater integrates the energies of those he has slaughtered. Since ancient humans made no basic distinction between physical, mental or spiritual processes, the same logic applied to the “eating” of nonbodily forces. One also ate souls, or prana, or the élan vital.

In the Vedas, this general “devouring logic” led to the conception that the gods nourished themselves from the life fluids of ritually slaughtered humans, just as mortals consume the bodies of animals for energy and nourishment. Thus, a critical-rational section of the Upanishads advises against such human sacrifices, since they do not advance individual enlightenment, but rather benefit only the blood-hungry supernatural beings.

Life and death imply one another in this logic, the one being a condition for the other. The whole circle of life was therefore a huge sacrificial feast, consisting of the mutual theft and absorption of energies, a great cosmic dog-eat-dog. Although early Buddhism gave vent to keen criticism of the Vedic rites, especially the slaughter of people and animals, the ancient sacrificial mindset resurfaces in tantric ritual life. The “devouring logic” of the Vedas also controls the Tantrayana. Incidentally, the word tantra is first found in the context of the Vedic sacrificial gnosis, where it means ‘sacrificial framework’ (Smith, 1989, p. 128).

Sacred cannibalism was always communion, holy union with the Spirit and the souls of the dead. It becomes Eucharistic communion when the sacrifice is a slaughtered god, whose followers eat of him at a supper. God and man are first one when the man or woman has eaten of the holy body and drunk the holy blood of his or her god. The same applies in the relation to the goddess. The tantric yogi unites with her not just in the sexual act, but above all through consuming her holy gynergy, the magical force of maya. Sometimes, as we shall see, he therefore drinks his partner’s menstrual blood. Only when the feminine blood also pulses in his own veins will he be complete, an androgyne, a lord of both sexes.

To gain the “gynergy” for himself, the yogi must “kill” the possessor of the vital feminine substances and then “incorporate” her. Such an act of violence does not necessarily imply the real murder of his mudra, it can also be performed symbolically. But a real ritual murder of a woman is by like measure not precluded, and it is not surprising that occasional references can be found in the Vajrayana texts which blatantly and unscrupulously demand the actual killing of a woman. In a commentary on the Hevajra Tantra, at a point where a lower-caste wisdom consort (dombi) is being addressed, states bluntly, “I kill you, O Dombi, I take your life!” (Snellgrove, 1987, vol. 1, p. 159).

Sati or the sacred inaugural sacrifice:

In any case, in all the rituals of the Highest Tantra initiations a symbolic female sacrifice is set in scene. From numerous case studies in cultural and religious history we are aware that an “archaic first event”, an “inaugural sacred murder” may be hiding behind such symbolic stagings. This “original event”, in which a real wisdom consort was ritually killed, need in no sense be consciously acknowledged by the following generations and cult participants who only perform the sacrifice in their imaginations or as holy theater. As the French anthropologist René Girard convincingly argues in his essay on Violence and the Sacred, the original murderous deed is normally no longer fully recalled during later symbolic performances. But it can also not become totally forgotten. It is important that the violent origin of their sacrificial rite be shrouded in mystery for the cult participant. “To maintain its structural force, the inaugural violence must not make an appearance”, claims Girard (Girard, 1987, p. 458). Only thus can the participants experience that particular emotionally laden and ambivalent mixture of crime and mercy, guilt and atonement, violence and satisfaction, shuddering and repression which first lends the numinous aura of holiness to the cult events.

It thus seems appropriate to examine Tantric Buddhism for signs of such an “inaugural sacrifice”. In this connection, we would like to draw attention to a Shiva myth, which has nonetheless had an influence on the history of the Buddhist tantras.

In the mythical past, Sati was the consort of the god Shiva. When her father Daksa was planning a great sacrificial feast, he failed to invite his daughter and son-in-law. Unbidden, Sati nonetheless attended the feast and was deeply insulted by Daksa. Filled with shame and anger she threw herself upon the burning sacrificial altar and died. (In another version of the story she alone was invited and cremated herself when she heard that her spouse was barred from the feast.) Shiva, informed of the death of his wife, hurried at once to the scene of the tragedy and decapitated Daksa. He then took the body of his beloved Sati, laid her across his shoulders and began a funeral procession across all India. The other gods wanted to free him from the corpse and set about dismembering it, piece by piece, without Shiva noticing what they were doing.

The places where the fragments fell were destined to become holy sites known as Shakta pithas. There where Sati’s vulva came to land the most sacred location was established. In some texts there is talk of 24, in others of 108 pithas, the latter being the holy number of Buddhism. At Sati’s numerous graves cemeteries were set up forthwith, at which the people cremated their dead. Around these locations developed a many-sided, and as we shall see, extremely macabre death culture, which was nurtured by Tantrics of all schools (including the Buddhist variety).

In yet another version of the Sati legend, the corpse of Shiva’s wife contained a “small cog — a symbol of manifest time --, [which] destroyed the body of the goddess from the inside out. ... [It] was then dismembered into 84 fragments which fell to earth at the various holy sites of India” (Hutin, 1971, p. 67). This is indeed a remarkable variant on the story, since the number of famous Maha Siddhas (Grand Sorcerers), who in both the Buddhist and Hindu tradition introduced Tantrism to India as a new religious practice, is 84. These first Tantrics chose the Shakta pithas as the central locations for their rituals. Some of them, the Nath Siddhas, claimed Sati had sacrificed herself for them and had given them her blood. For this reason they clothed themselves in red robes (White, 1996, p. 195). Likewise, one of the many Indian cemetery legends tells how five of the Maha Siddhas emerged from the cremated corpse of a goddess named Adinatha (White, 1996, p. 296). It can be assumed that this is also a further variation on the Sati legend.

It is not clear from the tale whether the goddess committed a sacrificial suicide or whether she was the victim of a cruel murder. Sati’s voluntary leap into the flames seems to indicate the former; her systematic dismemberment the latter.
A “criminological” investigation of the case on the basis of the story alone, i.e., without reference to other considerations, is impossible, since the Sati legend must itself be regarded as an expression of the mystifying ambivalence which, according to René Girard, veils every inaugural sacrifice. All that is certain is that all of the originally Buddhist (!) Vajrayana’s significant cult locations were dedicated to the dismembered Hindu Sati.

Earlier, however, claims the Indologist D. C. Sircar, famous relics of the “great goddess” were said to be found at the Shakta pithas. At the heart of her cult stood the worship of her yoni (‘vagina’) (Sircar, 1973, p. 8). We can only concur with this opinion, yet we must also point out that the majority of the matriarchal cults of which we are aware also exhibited a phallic orientation. Here the phallus did not signalize a symbol of male dominance, but was instead a toy of the “great goddess”, with which she could sexual-magically manipulate men and herself obtain pleasure.

We also think it important to note that the practices of Indian gynocentric cults were in no way exempt from sacrificial obsession. In contrast, there is a comprehensive literature which reports the horrible rites performed at the Shakta pithas in honor of the goddess Kali. Her followers bowed down before her as the “consumer of raw meat”, who was constantly hungry for human sacrifices. The individuals dedicated to her were first fed up until they were sufficiently plump to satisfy the goddess’s palate. On particular feast days the victims were decapitated in her copper temple (Sircar, 1973, p. 16).

Naturally we can only speculate that the “dismemberment of the goddess” in the Sati myth might be a masculine reaction to the original fragmentation of the masculine god by the gynocentric Kali. But this murderous reciprocity must not be seen purely as an act of revenge. In both cases it is a matter of the increased life energy which is to be achieved by the sacrifice of the opposite sex. In so doing, the “revolutionary” androcentric yogis made use of a similar ritual praxis and symbolism to the aggressive female followers of the earlier matriarchy, but with reversed premises. For example, the number 108, so central to Buddhism, is a reminder of the 108 names under which the great goddess was worshipped (Sircar, 1973, p. 25).

The fire sacrifice of the dakini:

The special feature of Greek sacrificial rites lay in the combination of burning and eating, of blood rite and fire altar. In pre-Buddhist, Vedic India rituals involving fire were also the most common form of sacrifice. Humans, animals, and plants were offered up to the gods on the altar of flame. Since every sacrifice was supposed to simulate among other things the dismemberment of the first human, Prajapati, it always concerned a “symbolic human sacrifice”, even when animal or plant substitutes were used.

At first the early Buddhists adopted a highly critical attitude towards such Vedic practices and rejected them outright, in stark opposition to Vajrayana later, in which they were to regain central significance. Even today, fire pujas are among the most frequent rituals of Tantric Buddhism. The origin of these Buddhist “flame masses” from the Vedas becomes obvious when it is noted that the Vedic fire god Agni appears in the Buddhist tantras as the “Consumer of Offerings”. This is even true of the Tibetans. In this connection, Helmut von Glasenapp describes one of the final scenes from the large-scale Kalachakra ritual, which the Panchen Lama performed in Beijing 1932: A “woodpile was set alight and the fire god invited to take his place in the eight-leafed lotus which stood in the middle of the fireplace. Once he had been offered abundant sacrifices, Kalachakra was invited to come hither from his mandala and to become one with the fire god” (von Glasenapp, 1940, p. 142). Thus the time god and the fire unite.

Burning Dakinis

The symbolic burning of “sacrificial goddesses” is found in nearly every tantra. It represents every possible characteristic, from the human senses to various states of consciousness. The elements (fire, water, etc.) and individual bodily features are also imagined in the form of “sacrificial goddesses”. With the pronouncement of a powerful magic formula they all perish in the fire. In what is known as the Vajrayogini ritual, the pupil sacrifices several inana mudras to a red fire god who rides a goat. The chief goddess, Vajrayogini, appears here with “a red-colored body which shines with a brilliance like that of the fire of the aeon” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 443). In the Guhyasamaya Tantra the goddesses even fuse together in a fiery ball of light in order to then serve as a sacrifice to the Supreme Buddha. Here the adept also renders malignant women harmless through fire: “One makes the burnt offerings within a triangle. ... If one has done this three days long, concentrating upon the target of the women, then one can thus ward them off, even for the infinity of three eons” (Gäng, 1988, p. 225). A “burning woman” by the name of Candali plays such a significant role in the Kalachakra initiations that we devote an entire chapter to later. In this context we also examine the “ignition of feminine energy”, a central event along the sexual magic initiation path of Tantrism.

In Buddhist iconography, the tantric initiation goddesses, the dakinis are represented dancing within a fiery circle of flame. These are supernatural female beings encountered by the yogi on his initiatory journey who assist him in his spiritual development, but with whom he can also fall into serious conflict. Translated, dakini means “sky-going one” or “woman who flies” or “sky dancer”. (Herrmann-Pfand, 1996, pp. 68, 38). In Buddhism the name appeared around 400 C.E.

The German Tibetologist Albert Grünwedel was his whole life obsessed with the idea that the “heaven/sky walkers” were once human “wisdom companions”, who, after they had been killed in a fire ritual, continued to function in the service of the tantric teachings as female spirit beings (genies). He saw in the dakinis the “souls of murdered mudras” banished by magic, and believed that after their sacrificial death they took to haunting as Buddhist ghosts (Grünwedel, 1933, p. 5). Why, he asked, do the dakinis always hold skull cups and cleavers in their hands in visual representations? Obviously, as can be read everywhere, to warn the initiands against the transient and deceptive world of samsara and to cut them off from it. But Grünwedel sees this in a completely different light: For him, just as the saints display the instruments of their martyrdom in Christian iconography, so too the tantric goddesses demonstrate their mortal passing with knives and skulls; like their European sisters, the witches, with whom they have so much in common, they are to be burnt at the stake (Grünwedel, Kalacakra III, p. 41) Grünwedel traces the origin of this female sacrifice back to the marked misogyny of the early phase of Buddhism: “The insults [thrown at] the woman sound dreadful. ... The body of the woman is a veritable cauldron of hell, the woman a magical form of the demons of destruction” (Grünwedel, 1924, vol. 2, p. 29).

One could well shrug at the speculations of this German Tibetologist and Asian researcher. As far as they are understood symbolically, they do not contradict tantric orthodoxy in the slightest, which even teaches the destruction of the “external” feminine as an article of faith. As we have seen, the sacrificial goddesses are burnt symbolically. Some tantras even explicitly confirm Grünwedel’s thesis that the dakinis were once “women of flesh and blood”, who were later transformed into “spirit beings” (Bhattacharyya, 1982, p. 121). Thus she was sacrificed as a karma mudra, a human woman in order to then be transformed into an inana mudra, an imaginary woman. But the process did not end here, then the inana mudra still had an existence external to the adept. She also needed to be “sacrificed” in order to create the “inner woman”, the maha mudra. A passage from the Candamaharosana Tantra thus plainly urges the adept: “Threaten, threaten, kill, kill, slay slay all Dakinis!” (quoted by George, 1974, p. 64)

But what is the intent behind a fiery dakini sacrifice? The same as that behind all the other tantric rituals, namely the absorption of gynergy upon which to found the yogi’s omnipotence. Here the longed-for feminine elixir has its own specific names. The adept calls it the “heart blood of the dakini”, the “essence of the dakini’s heart”, the “life-heart of the dakini” (Herrmann-Pfand, 1992, p. 342). “Via the ‘conversion’ the Dakinis become protectors of the religion, once they have surrendered their ‘life-heart’ to their conqueror”, a tantra text records (Herrmann-Pfand, 1992, p. 204).

This “surrender of the heart” can often be brutal. For example, a Tibetan story tells of how the yogini Magcig declares that she is willing for her breast to be slit open with a knife — whether in reality or just imagination remains unclear. Her heart was then taken out, “and whilst the red blood — drip, drip — flowed out”, laid in a skull bowl. Then the organ was consumed by five dakinis who were present. Following this dreadful heart operation Magcig had transformed herself into a dakini (Herrmann-Pfand, 1992, p. 164). As macabre as this story is, on the other hand it shows that the tantric female sacrifice need not necessarily be carried out against the will of woman to be sacrificed. In contrast, the yogini often surrenders her heart-blood voluntarily because she loves her master. Like Christ, she lets herself be crucified for love. But her guru may never let this love run free. He has a sacred duty to control the feelings of the heart, and the power to manipulate them.

In the dakini’s heart lies the secret of enlightenment and thus of universal power. She is the “Queen of Hearts”, who — like Diana, Princess of Wales — must undergo a violent “sacrificial death” in order to then shine as the pure ideal of the monarchy (the “autocratic rule” of the yogis). Lama Govinda also makes reference to a fiery sacrificial apotheosis of the dakini when he proclaims in a vision that all feminine forces are concentrated in the sky walkers, “until focused on a point as if through a lens they kindle to a supreme heat and become the holy flame of inspiration which leads to perfect enlightenment” (Govinda, 1991, p. 231). It need not be said that here the inspiration and enlightenment of the male tantra master alone is meant and not that of his female sacrifice.


The “tantric female sacrifice” has found a sublime and many-layered expression in what is known as the “Vajrayogini rite”, which we would like to examine briefly because of its broad distribution among the Tibetan lamas. Vajrayogini is the most important female divine figure in the highest yogic practices of Tibetan Buddhism. The goddess is worshipped as, among other things, “Mistress of the World”, the “Mother of all Buddhas”, “Queen of the Dakinis”, and a “Powerful Possessor of Knowledge”. Her reverential cult is so unique in androcentric Lamaism that a closer examination has much to recommend it. In so doing we draw upon a document on Vajrayogini praxis by the Tibetan lama Kelsang Gyatso.

This tantric ritual, centered upon a principal female figure, begins like all others, with the pupil’s adoration of the guru. Seated upon two cushions which represent the sun and moon, the master holds a vajra and a bell in his hands, thus emphasizing his androgyny and transsexual power.

Vajra Yogini in the burning circle

External, internal, and secret sacrifices are made to him and his lineage. Above all this concerns many imagined “sacrificial goddesses” which emanate from the pupil’s breast and from there enter the teacher’s heart. Among these are the goddesses of beauty, music, flowers, and light. With the “secret sacrifices” the sadhaka pronounces the following: “And I offer most attractive illusory mudras, a host of messengers born from places, born from mantra, and spontaneously born, with tender bodies, skilled in the 64 arts of love” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 250).

In the Vajrayogini praxis a total of three types of symbolic female sacrifice are distinguished. Two of these consist in the offering of inana mudras, that is of “spirit women”, who are drawn from the pupil’s imagination. In the third sacrificial offering he presents his teacher with a real sexual partner (karma mudra) (Gyatso, 1991, p. 88).

Once all the women have been presented to the guru and he has absorbed their energies, the image of the Vajrayogini arises in his heart. Her body appears in red and glows like the “apocalyptic fire”. In her right hand she holds a knife with a vajra-shaped handle, in her left a skull bowl filled with blood. She carries a magic wand across her shoulders, the tip of which is adorned with three tiny human heads. She wears a crown formed out of five skulls. A further fifty severed heads are linked in a chain which swings around her neck. Beneath her feet the Hindu divinity Shiva and the red Kalarati crouch in pain.

Thereupon her image penetrates the pupil, and takes possession of him, transforming him into itself via an internalized iconographic dramaturgy. That the sadhaka now represents the female divinity is considered a great mystery. Thus the master now whispers into his ear, “Now you are entering into the lineage of all yoginis. You should not mention these holy secrets of all the yoginis to those who have not entered the mandala of all the yoginis or those who have no faith” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 355). With divine pride the pupil replies, “I am the Enjoyment Body of Vajrayogini!” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 57) or simply and directly says, “I am Vajrayogini!” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 57). Then, as a newly arisen goddess he comes to sit face-to-face with his guru. Whether the latter now enjoys sexual union with the sadhaka as Vajrayogini cannot be determined from the available texts.

At any rate we must regard this artificial goddess as a female mask, behind which hides the male sadhaka who has assumed her form. He can of course set this mask aside again. It is impressive just how vivid and unadorned the description of this reverse transformation of the “Vajrayogini pupil” into his original form is: “With the clarity of Vajrayogini”, he says in one ritual text, “I give up my breasts and develop a penis. In the perfect place in the center of my vagina the two walls transform into bell-like testicles and the stamen into the penis itself” (Gyatso, 1991, p. 293).

Other sex-change transfigurations are also known from Vajrayogini praxis. Thus, for example, the teacher can play the role of the goddess and let his pupil take on the male role. He can also divide himself into a dozen goddesses — yet it is always men (the guru or his pupils) who play the female roles.


The dreadful Chinnamunda (Chinnamastra) ritual also refers to a “tantric female sacrifice”. At the center of this ritual drama we find a goddess (Chinnamunda) who decapitates herself. Iconographically, she is depicted as follows: Chinnamunda stands upright with the cleaver with which she has just decapitated herself clenched in her right hand. On her left, raised palm she holds her own head. Three thick streams of blood spurt up from the stump of her neck. The middle one curves in an arc into the mouth of her severed head, the other two flow into the mouths of two further smaller goddesses who flank Chinnamunda. She usually tramples upon one or more pairs of lovers. This bloody cult is distributed in both Tantric Buddhism and Hinduism.

According to one pious tale of origin, Chinnamunda severs her own head because her two servants complain of a great hunger which she is unable to assuage. The decapitation was thus motivated by great compassion with two suffering beings. It nevertheless appears grotesque that an individual like Chinnamunda, in possession of such extraordinary magical powers, would be forced to feed her companions with her own blood, instead of conjuring up an opulent meal for them with a spell. According to another, metaphysical interpretation, the goddess wanted to draw attention to the unreality of all being with her self-destructive deed. Yet even this philosophical platitude can barely explain the horrible scenario, although one is accustomed to quite a deal from the tantras. Is it not therefore reasonable to see a merciless representation of a “tantric female sacrifice” in the Chinnamunda myth? Or are we here dealing with an ancient matriarchal cult in which the goddess gives a demonstration of her triune nature and her indestructibility via an in the end “ineffectual” act of self-destruction?

This gynocentric thesis is reminiscent of an analysis of the ritual by Elisabeth Anne Benard, in which she explains Chinnamunda and her two companions to be an emanation of the triune goddess (Benard, 1994, p. 75). [1]

Chinnamunda is in no sense the sole victim in this macabre horror story; rather, she also extracts her life energies from out of the erotic love between the two sexes, just like a Buddhist tantra master. Indeed, in her canonized iconographic form she dances about upon one or two pairs of lovers, who in some depictions are engaged in sexual congress. The Indologist David Kinsley thus sums up the events in a concise and revealing equation: “Chinnamasta [Chinnamunda] takes life and vigor from the copulating couple, then gives it away lavishly by cutting off her own head to feed her devotees” (Kinsley, 1986, p. 175). Thus, a “sacrificial couple” and the theft of their love energy are to be found at the outset of this so difficult to interpret blood rite.

A Kangra painting (c. 1800 CE) of Chhinnamasta.

Yet the mystery remains as to why this particular drama, with its three female protagonists, was adopted into Tantric Buddhist meditative practices. We can see only two possible explanations for this. Firstly, that it represents an attempt by Vajrayana to incorporate within its own system every sacrificial magic element, regardless how bizarre, and even if it originated among the followers of a matriarchal cult. By appropriating the absolutely foreign, the yogi all the more conspicuously demonstrates his omnipotence. Since he is convinced of his ability to — in the final instance — play all gender roles himself and since he also believes himself a lord over life and death, he thus also regards himself as the master of this Chinnamunda “female ritual”. The second possibility is that the self-sacrifice of the goddess functions as a veiled reference to the “tantric female sacrifice” performed by the yogi, which is nonetheless capable of being understood by the initiated. [2]


The broad distribution of human sacrifice in nearly all cultures of the world has for years occasioned a many-sided discussion among anthropologists and psychologists of the most varied persuasions as to the social function and meaning of the “sacrificium humanum”. In this, reference has repeatedly been made to the double-meaning of the sacrificial act, which simultaneously performs both a destructive and a regulative function in the social order. The classic example for this is the sacrifice of the so-called “scapegoat”. In this case, the members of a community make use of magical gestures and spells to transfer all of their faults and impurities onto one particular person who is then killed. Through the destruction of the victim the negative features of the society are also obliterated. The psychologist Otto Rank sees the motivation for such a transference magic in, finally, the individual’s fear of death. (quoted by Wilber, 1990, p. 176).

Another sacrificial gnosis, particularly predominant in matriarchal cults presupposes that fertility can be generated through subjecting a person to a violent death or bleeding them to death. Processes from the world of vegetative nature, in which plants die back every year in order to return in spring, are simulated. In this view, death and life stand in a necessary relation to one another; death brings forth life.

A relation between fertility and human sacrifice is also formed in the ancient Indian culture of the Vedas. The earth and the life it supports, the entire universe in fact, were formed, according to the Vedic myth of origin, by the independent self-dismemberment of the holy adamic figure Prajapati. His various limbs and organs formed the building blocks of our world. But these lay unlinked and randomly scattered until the priests (the Brahmans) came and wisely recombined them through the constant performance of sacrificial rites. Via the sacrifices, the Brahmans guaranteed that the cosmos remained stable, and that gave them enormous social power.

All these aspects may, at least in general, contribute to the “tantric female sacrifice”, but the central factors are the two elements already mentioned:

The destruction of the feminine as a symbol of the highest illusion (Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism)

The sacrifice of the woman in order to absorb her gynergy (Tantrayana).

Let us close this chapter by once again summing up why the female sacrifice is essential for the tantric rite: Everything which opposes a detachment from this world, which is characterized by suffering and death, all the obscuring of Maya, the entire deception of samsara is the shameful work of woman. Her liquidation as an autonomous entity brings to nothing this world of appearances of ours. In the tantric logic of inversion, only transcending the feminine can lead to enlightenment and liberation from the hell of rebirth. It alone promises eternal life. The yogi may thus call himself a “hero” (vira), because he had the courage and the high arts needed to absorb the most destructive and most base being in the universe within himself, in order not just to render it harmless but to also transform it into positive energy for the benefit of all beings.

This “superhuman” victory over the “female disaster” convinced the Tantrics that the seed for a radical inversion into the positive is also hidden in all other negative deeds, substances, and individuals. The impure, the evil, and the criminal are thus the raw material from which the Vajra master tries to distill the pure, the good, and the holy.[/b]

-- The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism, by Victor and Victoria Trimondi
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