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A new podcast examines the perils of intense meditation

Michael H.
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Imagine it's a crisp clear winter day, and you're skiing down a mountain, feeling exhilarated. All of a sudden, you lose control of your skis. You're hurtling down towards the base of the slope, and all you can feel is abject terror.

That's how one young man explained his emotional state during an intensive meditation retreat. It was one of several troubling accounts reporter Madison Marriage heard while reporting Untold: The Retreat, a new investigative podcast series from the Financial Times and Goat Rodeo.

The four-episode series focuses on retreats held by the Goenka network, teaching a popular meditation technique called Vipassana. Participants follow a strict schedule, waking before dawn and meditating silently for 10 days, 10 hours per day. They eat just two vegan meals each day.

Meditation and mindfulness have many known health benefits, including helping to process trauma and manage anxiety, improve eating habits, and ease chronic pain. While many participants say Goenka retreats changed their lives for the better, The Retreat tells the stories of individuals whose mental health deteriorated during a 10 day retreat – or for some, after several 10-day retreats.

Some spent time in psychiatric units, and two participants whose families spoke to Marriage, took their own lives.

Marriage interviewed nearly two dozen people who had attended Goenka retreats in different countries, including the U.K., the United States, France, India, and Australia. According to these former participants, retreat staff all over the world had a similar reaction when they were approached with mental health problems. "They're going to be telling you the same thing, which is keep meditating even if you're in severe emotional distress," she told NPR.

A global organization, the structure of the Goenka network is decentralized. The Financial Times reached out for comment to lead teachers at several Goenka centers, including the centers in Delaware and British Columbia where participants had died by suicide after exhibiting signs of psychological distress. But they declined to do an interview or answer specific questions on the record.

Bob Jeffs, director of one Goenka center near Merritt, British Columbia, told the producers of The Retreat in a written statement that his staff assess applicants before retreats and tries to dissuade people who are not ready: "Although the experience of hundreds of thousands of people who have successfully completed retreats since the early 1970's is overwhelmingly positive, these courses are not for everyone. We take the safety and well-being of every student in our care extremely seriously."

<em>Untold: The Retreat</em> is a podcast from<em> The Financial Times</em> and Goat Rodeo.
/ The Financial Times
/
The Financial Times
Untold: The Retreat is a podcast from The Financial Times and Goat Rodeo.

NPR contributor Andrea Muraskin spoke with Marriage about what her investigation uncovered about the mental health risks of meditation retreats.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Andrea Muraskin: What is Vipassana meditation and how is it taught at Goenka retreats?

Madison Marriage: Vipassana meditation is a type of meditation, which is ancient, its roots go back thousands of years... These retreats teach Vipassana meditation through the teachings of S. N. Goenka. And he's a kind of guru at the heart of this network, who founded the first meditation retreats back in the 1970s, and they've really proliferated.

Goenka's technique is that you spend a few days focusing on just one area of your body, and then it expands. And you have to shift your focus to different parts of your body. You wake up at 4 a.m., you start meditating at 4:30 a.m. You have a break at specific times, your day ends at 8, 9 p.m. And then in theory, you go to bed.

Muraskin: What did you discover about the Goenka retreats and mental health?

Mariage: I don't think many people associate the word meditation with anything negative. It sounds relaxing and something that you might do to help soothe yourself. And that's exactly the reason why a lot of people go off and do these retreats. They're looking for something that's going to help them to feel a bit more relaxed, a bit more calm, having a better headspace, that kind of thing.

I've now interviewed dozens of people who've done these retreats and have had the complete adverse reaction. It's almost like kind of jumping off a cliff in terms of their mental health. Some of these people have done two retreats or three retreats or ten retreats and really loved them. But there is a specific retreat where something in their mind clicks or breaks or snaps. Those are the kind of words that they've used.

Psychosis is really common. So [are] hallucinations, physical pain, like electrical zaps going up and down their bodies. In the first episode, [one young woman] describes it as being like stuck in a torture chamber for her mind.

The big one is terror, abject terror. I had one person email me this week saying, 'Thank you for making this podcast because I thought I was alone.' And he said that he would rather saw his own arm off than go back to that mental headspace.

One man in Britain ...was escorted out of a Goenka center in handcuffs by the police because he had to be sectioned at the local hospital and he wouldn't go voluntarily. There are people leaving these centers and heading to psychiatric units.

Muraskin: What did you learn about what's happening in the brains of people who have these adverse experiences with meditation?

Mariage: So we've interviewed several experts about what meditation does to the brain and one of the foremost experts we spoke to said it's a bit like a stimulant. So having lots of coffee or too much of any stimulants can end up having the opposite effect where instead of doing something good for you, it starts doing something bad, and it can begin to feel a little bit addictive. But there are limits to what the scientific community knows about the human brain and how and why it works in certain ways.

Muraskin: One of your interviewees told you she felt as if she had become addicted to meditation. There's no official diagnosis for meditation addiction in psychology. But did you speak to others who had experiences similar to addiction?

Mariage: Yes. Lots of people said that their first retreat or first several retreats really helped them and really brought them to quite an exciting spiritual plane. It almost sounds kind of mystical and godlike – you're on cloud nine mentally, and they come out and they feel calmer. They know how to process their thoughts better. Their life feels easier as a result. So they go to another. And they have kind of similar feelings, maybe not quite as intense.

And then the feeling starts to fade. So they do another retreat. And then a lot of people said that they ended up struggling to sleep. So they would meditate more because they had initially felt that meditation would help them to sleep because it had made them feel calmer at first. But effectively, they end up meditating through the night, all day, every day for weeks or months on end.

And then, I think maybe this comes back to your earlier question about impact on the brain – I would argue it's perhaps not meditation per se that is harming people's brains. A lot of the people I spoke to ended up having severe sleep deprivation. And it is clinically proven to be extremely bad for your brain not to sleep.

Muraskin: We've heard from several of our readers over time that they benefit from mindfulness and meditation. If somebody reading this interview becomes concerned, and thinks, I like my meditation practice, but should I be worried now, what would you say to someone like that?

Mariage: So the consensus from the psychologists and psychiatrists and academics I spoke to is that amounts of meditation up to half an hour a day on the whole is usually completely fine.

[The problem is] the extremity of this particular practice. Ten hours a day of meditating without any physical movement. You're sitting on the floor cross-legged with your eyes closed, meditating for 10 hours a day. You're put on a vegan diet. So for a lot of people that's far fewer calories, often at half of what they're usually used to. And there's no dinner. There's an element of sleep deprivation. And your sensory world is being massively diminished. And it's that which I think is driving people to quite extreme outcomes.

Muraskin: Do you think the psychological problems that came up during retreats could be explained by underlying mental health issues that the meditators had before they began meditating?

Mariage: I think that's a really difficult question because how can anyone know whether they have a mental health problem? You're meant to fill out a form before you go to one of these retreats and state whether or not you've ever had any kind of mental health issue or history of drug abuse. And if you've never had a mental health problem, you will of course say no and no, and in you go.

And I've spoken to people who say that they were completely stable prior to doing one of these retreats, had never had a mental or physical problem in their lives, and had never tried drugs, and they have gone in and they have emerged completely broken.

I actually think it's irrelevant whether or not somebody had a mental health issue beforehand, because the evidence that I've seen is that the particular format of these retreats can push people past their limits.

Muraskin: Based on your interviews with participants, is it difficult to leave a Goenka retreat early?

Mariage: Yes, it is difficult to leave a retreat early. [If you express the desire to], you're effectively gaslighted into staying.

You're told, oh, you might just be on the cusp of a breakthrough. The founder of this network died a decade ago, but it's still his voice and his teachings that are imparted at all of the retreat centers ...warning people that doing [this] practice is like undergoing surgery of the mind, and to leave halfway through is like walking out of an operation before you've been stitched up by the surgeon.

There was one man who said that every time he closed his eyes he could see streams of bubbles everywhere. And he didn't want to leave because he kind of wanted to fix that. and he thought, I might be stuck seeing streams of bubbles forevermore if I leave before the end of this.

At a lot of these centers you also hand in your keys and phone at the beginning, and that's quite an overt cue that you're here for the full period. You can of course go and ask someone and insist that you want them back, but several sources told me that when they expressed a desire to leave, they were pressured not to.

Muraskin: What did your sources –the meditators that experienced harm or their families – think needs to change to make these retreats safer?

Mariage: So first and foremost, warn people before they go in that mental health problems or kind of psychological distress is possible. It's a bit like putting warnings on bottles of medication that, you know, a tiny percentage of people with this prescription might have an adverse effect.

Secondly, they would like to see mental health practitioners on site. So rather than telling everybody to keep meditating, they need to be able to figure out better when somebody needs a bit more support and what that support should be.

Thirdly, they need proper emergency protocols. So for the two women who lost their lives after attending retreats, the horse had already bolted by the time their parents were contacted. I think it needs to be a lot more proactive in terms of reaching out to emergency contacts.

Muraskin: I can imagine you've received some pushback on the podcast from people who've really benefited from Vipassana retreats. What's your response to people who say you've painted the Goenka network too negatively?

Mariage: We've had a couple of emails from people who say this is really one-sided, you're not looking at the positive experiences at all, this has changed my life for the better.

But the podcast isn't about the people for whom this works.... The purpose is to scrutinize harm that is being done to people and to question why isn't the organization itself doing more to prevent that harm.

Andrea Muraskin is a contributor to NPR's Shots blog and writes the weekly NPR Health newsletter. She lives in Boston.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Muraskin manages the social media and website for Sound Medicine News, and contributes web and radio reporting. Prior to joining the Sound Medicine News team, she was a freelance reporter and producer, notably creating the radio feature series’ The Neighborhood Project, The Life Stories Project, and Constitution Indiana at 90.1 WFYI. Andrea was a radio coach for the Indianapolis-based youth media organization Y-Press, where she had the privilege of working with some of the world’s best teen journalists.
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