Friday, 17 October 2008

Fear, Mental Illness and Meditation: The Importance of a Teacher

I have heard so many different misguided opinions about how Buddhism is 'dangerous' and can cause 'psychosis' and even 'permanent mental illness'. I have heard leaders and the priestly class of other religions say this, I have heard psychiatrists say this and even some historians. They claim that the Kamikaze pilots in World War Two shows how twisted Buddhism can make one become. Some Psychiatrists will point to patients having psychotic breaks sometimes needing hospitalization and even having permanent mental issues caused by practicing some form of Buddhist meditation. This is definitely some scary shit! But of course this is mostly hearsay and horseshit. ('They' do talk a lot, don't they?) But why would people say this and is there any grain of truth to it?

My answer may shock you, but yes, I see that in some ways, practicing some forms of Buddhist meditation without some understanding of what you are going to experience and if you have a pre-existing mental condition with no teacher to guide you can create feelings of great emotional stress and extreme anxiety. Saying that, I want to quickly say, this is only a tiny portion of those that attempt it and many people with mental disorders have found great relief from practicing Buddhist meditation. Obviously, much of what the first paragraph says is fear mongering, religious bigotry and just folks who have a enormous misunderstanding of our Buddhist practice.

I have experienced great fear while sitting in ZaZen a few times, and to be honest I was scared shitless. After you practice for awhile, some may start to see the realization of the emptiness of self and see some smatterings of unbridled reality. If one is unprepared for such an experience, feelings of great anxiety and fear can suddenly swell up, and this is perfectly normal and common. I think for the vast majority of practitioners this does not pose a great problem. However, the impact of realizing the emptiness of self, ego and identity should not be underestimated. When one begins to realize all that he or she took as self, identity and reality is stripped naked of the minds conceptions, not only can it become a life changing, beautiful event but it can also shake one to the their crumbling foundation.

In Zen, it is said that one must pass away before the attainment of enlightenment. They don't mean to actually die, but the idea or notion of self or ego dies. I think this is just as significant as death itself though. I realize this can be confusing. Perhaps this may help a bit:

If you think why we have difficulty in our life you will understand how to accept the difficulty. Before you are, you do not realize that we are one piece of water or one piece of universe. You have fear. You have difficulty because you have feeling. You attach to the feeling you have just now without knowing just how this kind of feeling is created.

So to dip the water from the river is to feel the water, the value of each individual, the value of the person who uses the water. At the same time when we become aware of individual feelings we have the feeling of the value of the water. So we…because of this feeling we cannot use the water just materially. It is living being. Originally it was with the big river. So if the water becomes one with the big river, the water will not have any feeling to it. It will resume to its own nature. By resuming to its own nature they have composure, they will be very glad to come back to original water. If so, when you die what feeling will you have? I think it is like water. We are like water in the dipper.

So if someone takes us to the original river the dipper…the water in the dipper will be very glad. So if we come back to original home we will be very glad. We will have composure there. Perfect composure. It may be too perfect for us just now. Now we have some….because we are so attached to the individual existence like this so we have attachment. For us, just now, in this way we have some feeling of fear or fear of death but after we resume to our true nature there is nirvana. That is why we say to attain nirvana when we die. It is same word. We say ‘to take nirvana’ is to pass away…to pass away is not so adequate expression. ‘To pass on’.

~Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner Mind

We are dualistic, so what about the good stuff? When we seek truth with an honest motive, I think, although there may be some genuine difficulty, the realizations and understandings we have can transform our life or more importantly our mind's view of life to be more in sync with reality. We see people everyday, from every walk of life show great benefit from practicing earnestly, with a keen mind and right understanding. Today even many psychotherapists have adopted some Buddhist techniques of mindfulness and concentration in tandem with a cognitive therapy treating all sorts of different types of patients. My Zen Master once said that the appearance of fear is an encouraging sign of a students progression in practice. Weather it be Vipassanā, or ZaZen or some form of Tibetan Tantric practice, I think these forms of right concentration must be investigated or perfected in conjunction with right understanding, intention, mindfulness and effort. Perhaps, think about it like building a bridge across a river with no planks to walk on.

The ironic thing about this is the eventual appearance of fearlessness and composure. Once one begins to see beyond the shadow of self, then fear will begin to fade from the mind like a wave gently rolling back into the ocean. While I think it is more than possible for one to progress their practice by themselves, perhaps even to the attainment of enlightenment itself, most of us are in need of a teacher to see improvement. They can guide us, be our lifeline, show us where we fall and encourage us when we despair. I can not stress enough how much great wisdom and substance a good teacher can bring to us, to ease some of our worries and to explain some of our own fears. If you have the ability, I encourage you to find a teacher/monk/master, one that suits you and your choice of practice. Learn from others online or around you about the men and woman out there that do offer instruction, guidance and discipline, and make an informed decision.

So, is Buddhism dangerous? Perhaps, to a few, under certain conditions with no guidance or understanding. More importantly however, the thrust and tradition of Buddhism can mean the ultimate extermination of fear. Everything we do in life can be dangerous, getting out of bed, crossing the street or taking a shower can be dangerous. I believe our greatest danger we have, however, is not to reflect upon ourselves. Fearlessness is that perfect diamond embedded inside the boulder of fear.

"The only reason we don't open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don't feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else's eyes."
~Pema Chodron


  1. Nice post Kyle. BTW I think the kamikaze pilots are an example of the dangers of ideology - an ideology of supremacy and violence (and ideology dressed as religion) - it doesn't show the dangers of meditation.

  2. I have a severe mental illness (Schizoaffective disorder) and rather than making my situation worse it has helped alleviate my symptoms.

  3. Meditation and Buddhism in general that is.

  4. Justin - Agreed. It is definitely an ideology and not the practice itself. Thank you for the kind comments!

    James - I am so glad that it has helped you, as I know it has helped many people in similar situations. I do hope my post reflected that I thought that Buddhism and meditation can and is of great benefit to all people, including those with mental disorders. About 4 years ago I was pretty depressed and I felt that meditation and mindfulness helped me get pass that. Thanks for the comments!

  5. good post. I've found myself more than a little startled by experiences in meditation. I can understand how those could be harmful under certain circumstances, just as it's possible to overdose on vitamins.

    There are certain practices that are more prone to engender difficulties than others. Vipassana, in my experience, is pretty benign, and (for me, at least) the benefits have been enormous.

  6. This subject does come up quite a lot. Glad you are addressing it here. The way I take it is similar to a prescription. The 4 Noble Truths diagnose the condition (suffering) and provide a remedy (8 fold path)which includes meditation. The teacher's role could be likened to a nurse who assists you in applying the remedy appropriately.

    On the other hand some people, and I would include myself here most of the time (though I do consult teachers when necessary)just do what we can by way of the support that is at hand including research, study and contact on-line. It takes a lot of self-motivation to do it that way.

    Self-motivation however can go awry. I have encountered a few people who seem to just make it up as they go along. They get a very basic view and essentially construct their own religion that has little to do with Buddhism even though they may label it as such. That way is dangerous. They don't want to read any books or ask any questions. They think they already know all the answers and just sit until something that they assume is an answer arises.

    This is like forgetting to click the button on the television, assuming its not working and deciding to rewire the thing with a clothespin and a kitchen fork. Quite likely not going to lead to much except perhaps frustration or injury.

    Ultimately the best advice is when in doubt RTFM or should I say SSWT (See Someone Who Teaches).

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  8. It is very sad that some people do not understand the importance of meditating. It is very convenient to take some time every day to reflect about ourselves, and it does not mean we are insane.

  9. Thank you for this article, it helped me a lot

  10. Kundalini syndrome or its chinese equivalent qigong deviation... Look it up. Meditation guided or not can cause this debilitating neurological disorder. Meditation and the "awakening" it can cause can lead to seizures, significant memory loss and headaches among many other symptoms. I am speaking from experience as someone with no psychological or neuro history previous to meditation and after three months of meditation had a sudden eruption at the base of my spine and all the symptoms soon followed. I know of others who have ended up in the hospital after vippisana retreats. Does meditation cause these debilitating effects in a majority of people, no, but more than popular media would ever have you know. I would have given anything to have had unbiased info b4hand. There was a great article on this topic in The Alantic last month named "Dark Knght of the Soul" in relation to the real dangers of buddhistic style meditation. Please give it a read.

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