By John Author
For centuries, Zen teachers have told us that practice is about the Great Matter—life and death. Don’t take that as hyperbole and gloss over it with typical Western conceit. Meditation can save lives… it can also end them.
Out of all the articles I’ve written, this one might be the most deficient in giggle-worthy material. It might also be the most important. This was written with the intent to spread awareness and save lives.
Megan Vogt lept from a catwalk under the Norman Wood Bridge, fell through a 120-foot void and met the rocks below. Megan developed psychosis after enduring a 10-day S.N. Goenka Vipassana retreat. Megan was 25 years old.
Megan accidentally fell 10 feet while trying to climb onto the catwalk. She got up, maybe dusting herself off, and tried again. She made it up there the second time.
That’s like if you’re planning to shoot yourself in the head, but the pistol goes off before you get the gun to your temple; you feel a whoosh as the bullet whizzes past your nose and slams into the wall. That’d be a thoughtful moment, wouldn’t it? There’d be the potential for clarity and hesitation. Imagine the state of mind required for you to raise that gun up again.
Before I go any further, I’d like to ask everyone who’s reading this to pause for a moment and offer metta to Megan’s friends and family. Let’s pause and ponder all the sadness in the world and vow to do our best to alleviate it, or at least not add to it.
Meditation is often sold as a wellness tool, a way to lift our spirits and calm our minds. I’ve never known this to be the case. Except for Samatha and a few other techniques, Buddhist meditations tend to be… invasive. They’re designed to combat delusion and affliction by exposing them to us firsthand.
We get to see how ignorant and lost we are, we get to sit naked in front of a full-length mental mirror that shows us how pathetic we really are. Then, while maintaining a cool clarity, we’re asked to accept everything that we see. When we accept it, we can see the true nature of delusion and affliction—which is none other than enlightenment.
Vipassana is one of the most in-depth and analytic meditations around. You will see every vulnerable inch of yourself. I’ve met a few people who’ve attended S.N. Goenka retreats. Most of them got a lot out of the experience, but they all say that it’s pretty freaking rough at times. It’s a 10-day retreat in which you meditate most of the day, and you can only speak to volunteer guides as needed; otherwise, you’re supposed to remain silent. The tradition has your doctor fill out some paperwork if you have any mental health issues.
Megan was being treated for anxiety, but she had no history of depression or psychosis. Her parents didn’t even find anything sorrowful in her diary. Megan’s doctor cleared her so, chipper and hopeful, she embarked on her last adventure.
When the retreat was done, the center’s volunteers had to call Megan’s parents to pick her up because she was in no state to drive. When they arrived, Megan didn’t believe that they were there; she believed that her sister was a projection. As a huge Yogacara fan, which could be called the projection-only school, it pains me so much to hear that word used in this context.
This is what can happen when the methods and teachings are unskillfully force-fed to someone by non-credentialed volunteers and a television set.
I’m not explicitly blaming the S.N. Goenka movement for this, but even though I don’t blame them, I can’t let them slide when anyone who’s attended a single retreat can then immediately become a facilitator.
That’s like making a toddler a track coach after they’ve their first step, or giving a pilot trainee a fully loaded passenger jet after one hour of flight time.
It takes a lot more than a 10-day crash course in something to have the know-how to guide others. I mean, I could be wrong: “The people running the center provided no explanation and shuffled Megan into her parents’ car,” shows a vast amount of empathy and skillfulness doesn’t it?
Megan’s suicide attempts began the minute her family escorted her from the center. First, she tried to dash back in to seek Refuge from a knife. In the car, she tried to jump out in order bash herself against the road. She was immediately taken to a psychiatric ward.
Megan had what one researcher is calling “self-induced depersonalization syndrome.” Nothing seemed real to her, and she felt haunted by whatever realizations she had while suffering through the retreat.
Despite all of the possible benefits of meditation, it’s entirely possible for it to topple you into psychosis, especially if you push yourself too much. If you haven’t meditated daily for at least 2 years, and attended a few 3-day retreats in that time, I definitely wouldn’t recommend a 10-day Vipassana sit-fest; it could break you—both your body and your mind.
Even if you have mental health issues and your PCP or counselor says, “I don’t see how meditation could be harmful,” remember that they’ve probably never meditated before, and if they have, it probably wasn’t an explicitly Buddhist meditation. If you decide to try out a Buddhist meditation, with our without their go ahead, be aware of your breaking point.
The Dharma is all about taking the Middle Way between extremes.
A little pain is fine, just sit through it; a lot of pain isn’t. A little restlessness, confusion, or anxiety is fine; a lot isn’t. Meditation is a balancing act; it’s like sitting poised on a pinhead. Neither too tight nor too loose; neither too intense or too mellow—you have to find and maintain equilibrium at all times. If you lose it, gently try to get it back again. If you can’t, then stop and try again tomorrow. Be kind to yourself.
Just because I like to sit as if there’s a sword dangling above my head that’ll slice me in half if I drift off or slouch doesn’t mean you have to meditate like that. I wouldn’t recommend most of the things I do to anyone else; I wouldn’t even recommend Zen if you have any other options available. It’s the most fulfilling endeavor of my life, but also the most challenging. If there were any other way, I would have taken it.
As Buddhists, it’s our responsibility to share this information with people. We can’t decorate the practice or sell it like a drugstore romance novel. It’s our duty to give people accurate information and earnest warnings. If we’re presiding over a retreat, it’s our obligation to know when someone needs to take a break or call it quits altogether.
Your students having aching knees is only a tiny portion of the potential hazards you could encounter. I recommend checking out this site and printing out pamphlets as needed.
This article is dedicated to Megan Vogt and those who love her.
Feature Image: (source)
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”