Dark Night of the Soul? When meditation brings it on…

goldie hawnBy Gary Weber

Meditation, particularly mindfulness and transcendental meditation (TM), has become so popular that “everyone” is doing it.  Last month Goldie Hawn gave mindfulness sessions at Davos, Switzerland @ the World Economic Forum, where business and political leaders gather, typically to discuss things like trade alliances and mergers.  This year, there was a “mindfulness” panel and 25 sessions on wellness, mental health and the bad effects of technology on the brain.

Not surprisingly, as “everyone” is doing it, many folk are doing it themselves (DIY) w/little or no supervision, teaching or on-going coaching, w/the potential for adverse consequences.

A recent article “Enlightenment’s Evil Twin” by Jeff Warren in Psychology Tomorrow, highlighted the problems that mindfulness meditation can lead to as one pursues it more deeply w/o capable coaching or preparation.

IMHO, the title, “Enlightenment’s Evil Twin” is unfortunate.  Branding phenomena that can be encountered in the process of awakening as “evil”, pathologizes the process and impedes dealing w/it.  “Twin” implies that “enlightenment” has an opposite, equally-prominent and likely counterpart; that is not correct.  As we will see, the attitude toward the “nondual” state is a critical element in what problems manifest.

Jeff recently covered my “no thoughts” state and the research in which i was a subject/collaborator @ Yale w/Jud Brewer (now @ U Mass), also in Psychology Tomorrow, discussed in the blogpost “The Neuroscience of Suffering…And Its End…’no thoughts’?“.

Jeff, a great story teller, told the story of Hans, who started in TM and then ended up in vipassana, a popular and important branch in mindfulness, studying w/Jeff’s teacher, Shinzen Young, one of the most popular contemporary Buddhist teachers.  One morning, Hans found that “the ‘self’ had without any warning disappeared…it was the most terrifying and alienating thing that ever happened to me”.

shinzen young 2The article discusses this “hidden”/infrequently discussed issue – the negative aspects of mindfulness meditation.  Shinzen describes “enlightenment” as “the most profoundly positive experience” of folks’ lives which “allows a person to live ten times the size they would have lived otherwise, it frees them from most worries and concerns, it gives them a quality of absolute freedom and repose.”

But, once in a while, something goes wrong in mindfulness meditation and in TM as described in “Collision With the Infinite: A Life Beyond the Personal Self” – Suzanne Segal’schronicle of her TM crisis.  Han’s and Suzanne’s crises are known by Christians as “The Dark Night of the Soul” (DNoS) and by Buddhists as “the pit of the Void”.

suzanne segalAs Shinzen points out, DNoS is pathologized by contemporary psychologists as “depersonalization and de-realization disorder”.  Few psychologists know anything about nonduality.  Suzanne’s great difficulties w/psychologists demonstrate this.  Suzanne was finally “rescued” when she found a Zen teacher and a prominent advaita teacher.

The most prominent researcher on DNoS is Willougby Britton, a serious meditator, clinical psychologist and assistant professor @ Brown University, who has also encountered this problem herself.

willoughbyBritton has characterized what types of folk are susceptible to “impairment” by DNoS, which she defines as “the inability of an adult to work or take care of children” which she found has an average duration of three years with a range from 6 months to 12 years.  (As these are “worst case” situations, numbers are lower for a general population.)

Britton has said that “serious complications that require inpatient psychiatric hospitalization is probably less than one percent of meditators”.  Similarly, Shinzen Young indicates that a true DNoS is something he has only seen “a few times in his four decades of teaching”.

Britton did not find any correlation to prior psychiatric or traumatic history.  She identified two susceptible demographics: a) men, 18 to 30 years old, who go to Asia and do 10 to 20 hrs of meditation/day, and b) middle-aged women w/an hr/day practice who go to “say, Spirit Rock Meditation Center (vipassana – Insight Meditation Society is another) for the last 10 to 20 years”.

220px-JohnCrossi suspect that correlations might also exist to initial (not current) religious background.  Arguably the Judeo-Christian religions have an underlying ethos of “suffering”, which would support a DNoS experience.  The stories of Bernadette Roberts and Mother Teresa, who both experienced DNoS, also point to this.  As discussed in the blogpost “The process of nondual awakening…a new model…”, Christians and some Buddhists (previously Judeo-Christians?) often stop at an intermediate point.

As Shinzen points out, “…almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, disorientation, and heightened sensitivity to internal and external arisings.  The same thing can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities.  For the great majority of people, the nature, intensity, and duration of these kinds of challenges is quite manageable.”

Britton importantly found that “Just talking about the experience with someone and hearing that none of it is new … has a hugely positive effect on people.  That’s eighty percent of what needs to happen.  Just normalizing the experience.” and “Length of impairment is directly related to how much access the student has to a good teacher.”

Despite his efforts on the phone over months w/Hans, Shinzen was reportedly unable to mediate Hans’ symptoms which became more acute.  Hans’ healing began with his re-engaging serious physical practices – “Pilates, weight-training, yoga” –  to integrate the psychological changes into his physical body.

IME, this has been one of the glaring weaknesses in many/most meditational approaches; the lack of physical practice to “embody” the big changes in “body-mind”.  Many stories locked in the physical body will only be accessed w/serious body work.

That is why the first “practices” discussed in my “Happiness Beyond Thought: A Practical Guide to Awakening” were yoga posture flows.  i have done yoga every day for forty years (except for 2 weeks after abdominal surgery).  i can’t imagine what my “spiritual” practice would have been like w/o daily yoga.

Interestingly, one of the practices that Shinzen uses to deal w/DNoS situations is self-inquiry.  IMHO, a vulnerability in traditional Buddhist practices in later stages is the lack of self-inquiry, i.e. Who is having, accumulating, and becoming the possessor of these experiences?  If (s)he is not deconstructed along the way, (s)he will become THE problem.  Who is having this DNoS?

There is also a danger of “scripting” in DNoS.  Some teachers have insisted that DNoS is an essential part of the awakening process.  If folk are told that enough times, it will become “scripted in” and will more likely manifest.

Britton has done some research on identifying indicators of awakening.  The paper “A phenomenology of meditation-induced light experiences: traditional Buddhist and neurobiological perspectives“, describes meditation-induced experiences w/light that are considered to be indicators of meditative proficiency and the ability to inhibit irrelevant inputs from impinging on attention.

yasutani roshi 2Many meditative traditions treat these “light experiences” as “makyo“.  These are described by Yasutani Roshi, an iconic Rinzai Zen master, as “the phenomena – visions, hallucinations, fantasies, revelations, illusory sensations” – which can “become a serious obstacle to practice only if one is ignorant of their true nature and is ensnared by them.”   That is one of the reasons that some traditions sit w/their eyes open, partially, or fully.

Yasutani Roshi goes on to say that makyo vary “according to the personality and temperament of the sitter”.  It would be unfortunate if one particular kind of makyo was taken to be the indicator of progress in meditation simply because we are currently able to measure it.

So what do you do if you find yourself in DNoS or something you might regard as “loss of your ‘personal self'”:

a)  Find someone to work with who knows nonduality/advaita to put this experience in context.  It is unlikely that you will find a psychologist.  It can be the best thing that ever happened to you, but you’ll never believe that as long as everyone around you believes it is “evil”.

b)  If you can’t find someone, read anything by Ramana Maharshi or Nisargadatta Maharaj.

c)   If you need a psychotherapeutic approach to nonduality, read “The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy”.  Leading psychologists in this space are John Prendergast and Peter Fenner.

d)  Engage in physical exercise of your choosing, like yoga, and do some simple self-inquiry like “To whom has this Dark Night arisen?”, and “Where is the one who has this Dark Night?”

First published on happiness beyond thought

More posts on the Dark Night from Beyond Meds:

and posts on: Meditation – not all bliss and roses