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Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/7/18 12:06 PM
Hello everyone, I have money saved up and the next eight months freed up. I have been very interested in delving deeper into meditation and mindfulness for several years, and have decided to dedicate much of this next period to my practice. I struggle with depression and anxiety, as well as ADHD, and am hoping to use meditation as a way to help work through these issues. I am a 25 year old musician who has been quite succesful thus far and have learned to succeed despite my struggles, but nonetheless have serious issues with happiness, stress, and concentration. I also suffer from near lifelong PTSD from a traumatic accident I was in when I was one year old, and meditation seems to be my one hope to begin to access this nonverbal part of my life and work through these issues. 

I have been meditating on and off for a couple years (mostly using the guidance of 'The Mind Illuminated',) but have never had the opportunity to really dedicate myself to it. I am of the mindset with most things I do to fully focus on something and dive into it completely, and that is what I hope to do with meditation. I have been resarching retreats and have narrowed it down to a short list that I'm interested in, and am looking to find the best and most productive manner in which to plan these.

I rise to challenges well and am not afraid of the difficulties that I'm sure I will face with the rigors of a vipassana practice. However, I have recently become aware of the mental health dangers that can arise from going into these unprepared, particurlarly regarding the dark nights and potential psychosis. I want to dive into this as much as possible, but do it in a way where I can mitigate some of these dangers. I am looking for any suggestions on the best way to structure this intelligently.

Right now on my list I am thinking about: 
Either an introduction course at: https://www.sirimangalo.org/courses/ or a 30 day retreat at TMC http://www.tathagata.org/schedule

Once I complete these, pursuing a 1-2 month solo silent retreat here: http://thehermitageretreats.com/support/ where I can take the discipline and knowledge of what I previously learned and apply it in a less rigorous environment

Finishing with a 30 day retreat at http://www.panditarama-lumbini.info. From my research, this seems to be a great place to really focus on the practice. However, the prospect of being in a remote corner of Nepal combined with the potential dangers of doing this makes me want to make sure to be well practiced before attempting. 

I am aware of the 10-day Goenka retreats, but have heard very mixed reviews and am a bit unsure of doing something like this without the guidance of a personal teacher.

I don't intend to spend the full 8 months meditating, but want to schedule these throughout in an intelligent manner. They don't need to be back to back. I am very open to any recommendations of other places to look.

One last note - I suffer from tinnitus (ringing of the ears). When I meditate on my own, I use white noise to cancel it out. However, I know this is not possible at a silent retreat. If anyone else suffers from tinnitus, how do you manage it with meditation? I am considering getting hearing aids that cancel it out for the retreats. It is an interesting concept to try to deal with it on its own, but with the other potential stressors of a retreat I fear it might be too difficult and become maddening.

Thank you all very much for any guidance.

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/7/18 12:43 PM as a reply to Sam Smith.
Sam Saunders:
 I have been very interested in delving deeper into meditation and mindfulness for several years, and have decided to dedicate much of this next period to my practice. I struggle with depression and anxiety, as well as ADHD, and am hoping to use meditation as a way to help work through these issues. I am a 25 year old musician who has been quite succesful thus far and have learned to succeed despite my struggles, but nonetheless have serious issues with happiness, stress, and concentration. I also suffer from near lifelong PTSD from a traumatic accident I was in when I was one year old, and meditation seems to be my one hope to begin to access this nonverbal part of my life and work through these issues. 

Welcome to the forum, Sam!

It sounds like you have quite a chunk of time to devote to spiritual practice which is super cool. But when I look at what you wrote above, it sounds like you want to use meditation as a way to treat depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD which are therapeutic goals rather than spiritual aims. There's nothing wrong with that at all, but it's not the same as cultivating insight using traditional Buddhist practices like vipassana where you basically shred reality as you have hitherto known it.

Now, plenty of people (including myself) have found that some of those issues do get worked out or at least improved over time with spiritual practice. But it's really more of a byproduct. And judging by the frequency of posts we get from people in trouble on this forum, there are also many who find that these problems get seriously worse with spiritual practice especially when they jump right into intense practice like retreats. 

So if therapeutic ends are what you want, it might be more prudent to do this in more conventional ways like therapy perhaps with regular low intensity meditation that's designed for that. Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness might be a helpful book for you to read as it covers PTSD, by the way.

If you DO want to embark upon a lifelong spiritual journey into the unkown, I'm still not so sure jumping into it with a bunch of intense retreats is necessarily the way to go if you have a lifelong history of unresolved PTSD plus anxiety/depression. That would be a lot to manage on your own and frankly there are probably very few teachers out there who would be prepared to adequately help you if you got into even just a little bit of trouble. Especially planning a 1-2 month solo retreat--those are really better suited to skilled meditators with years of experience under their belt. I would instead recommend getting a consistent daily home practice and working through whatever comes up in a safe environment where you have social support and access to a therapist. A woman who sat a retreat with me in Thailand had some sort of manic episode/psychotic break and they just brought her to the local mental hospital. "Too much piti," one of the monks said. Retreat centers just aren't prepared for mental health crises.

Best wishes whatever you decide to do!

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/7/18 12:58 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
Andromeda is right on this. You could be exposed to additional, unexpected stressors that cause more problems for you, not fewer. Maybe you can get some pre-retreat counseling from a therapist and then explain your issues to the teachers at the retreats you attend. You really owe it to them to be in the know so that they can help you better.

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/7/18 1:16 PM as a reply to Sam Smith.
Some teachers actually use ear sounds as a meditation object. The idea is to just notice whatever you're experiencing, so there's no need to really deal with tinnitus any more than you have to deal with anything else.

I'm wary of using meditation to help with depression, anxiety, and ADD - granted, meditation has helped me a lot with these things, but it's not guaranteed and it may even make things worse.

Have you read MCTB revised edition? My recommendation to you is to first read the whole book carefully, and next slowly sink into longer meditations. Try doing 2 hours a day for a week, then 3 hours a day, then 4. How much are you sitting now?

I just jumped into silent retreats at Goenka, ignoring what they say and just noting. It turned out ok for me but it can be a risky thing to do, especially with depression and anxiety, and for some time afterwards I was a huge asshole to everyone around me, easily triggered, oversensitive, frustrated, irritated, controlling, and so forth.

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/7/18 1:59 PM as a reply to Sam Smith.
Thank you all so much for in the information, it's a huge help. I am not by any means disinterested in the spiritual aspects of meditation, and keep an open mind to anything, but am most interested in a secular practice. My understanding from the books and research i've done is that meditation can be used effectively as a tool to regain control of a scattered mind, thus being a tool to combat ailments resulting in a lack of mental control.

I suppose I might have come off as a bit more unstable than I am in my initial post. I lead a productive life (graduated from a top university with high honors,) am social and have a good friend network, etc. I just nonetheless have issues that detract from the overall quality of my life, and I believe a lot of these can be attributed to my lack of 'control' (or whatever the proper term is) over my mind. I have found from my practice that I am gradually getting better at focusing and controlling my thoughts when they start to go to more depressing places, and I imagine with a more intensive practice this will improve.

What is generally the reason that people have these psycotic breaks or severe mental reactions? I have spent periods in isolation where I felt very conformtable, and in my limited practice of meditation have only seen good results. 

I have done therapy and tried many different means (medication, diets, etc.) to better myself. These have helped (other than medications, which I've tried to steer away from) but ultimately I think I need to find the power within myself to beat all of this. Thank you all again for the help.

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/7/18 2:44 PM as a reply to Sam Smith.
At sirimangalo, they keep you up for 3 days straight  towards the end and it is not disclosed before hand. I like it hardcore but this seems counterproductive. 

I have not been though so maybe check out some of the reports of the center on reddit stream entry. 

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/7/18 3:44 PM as a reply to Sam Smith.
Sam Smith:

What is generally the reason that people have these psycotic breaks or severe mental reactions? 

You don't come off as unstable so no worries about that.

As per your question above, this is an oft-discussed (and debated) topic and there's currently research being done, but nobody really knows for sure. Some teachers claim that their methods are "safer" than others for various reasons, but it isn't clear that this is necessarily the case and plenty of other teachers disagree. Humans are incredibly complex creatures. But the potential for negative effects is definitely more likely with high intensity, high dose practice such as in a retreat setting, especially when there is also sleep deprivation and partial/full fasting.

You might check out Willoughby Britton's Meditation Safety Toolbox.

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/7/18 5:59 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
Andromeda:
Sam Smith:

What is generally the reason that people have these psycotic breaks or severe mental reactions? 

You don't come off as unstable so no worries about that.

As per your question above, this is an oft-discussed (and debated) topic and there's currently research being done, but nobody really knows for sure. Some teachers claim that their methods are "safer" than others for various reasons, but it isn't clear that this is necessarily the case and plenty of other teachers disagree. Humans are incredibly complex creatures. But the potential for negative effects is definitely more likely with high intensity, high dose practice such as in a retreat setting, especially when there is also sleep deprivation and partial/full fasting.

You might check out Willoughby Britton's Meditation Safety Toolbox.
That & other useful resources for this topic are available here - https://www.reddit.com/r/streamentry/wiki/health-and-balance 

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/9/18 10:49 AM as a reply to Andromeda.
In the spirit of urging caution, here's a recent article from Willoughby Britton that describes some of the negative effects that can stem from mindfulness and other kinds of meditation - unintended effects, of course:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-6474413/The-dark-mindfulness-Growing-evidence-therapy-harmful.html?fbclid=IwAR2B2nkFi-mV9H9ftaObCq9ZBiPLiZGXK_SslrblCK3h2bJEKkxrY1TgW6Q

According to Dr. Farias, more than 20 studies – involving thousands of participants – over the past two decades have demonstrated the potentially damaging effect of mindfulness meditation.‘Many people have childhood traumas or underlying mental health problems that may be undiagnosed,’ notes Dr Farias. ‘Being forced to sit alone with their thoughts brings out dark memories which they can’t cope with.’ He believes the adverse effects have been overshadowed by a celebrity-fuelled ‘mindfulness hype’.

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/9/18 11:39 AM as a reply to Chris Marti.
One study found that half of individuals attending a mindfulness retreat felt more depressed, anxious and disorientated than before. One experienced delusions, eventually leading to a suicide attempt.

Yikes! What went on at that retreat? 

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/9/18 3:27 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
Thank you all again for all the help, it is really appreciated. I think I have a better idea of what I'm going to plan. I have recently been sitting very little, but am going to take the next couple of months to firmly reastablish my practice and progress with my personal practice. I have been meditating on and off for about 2 1/2 years following the TMI method, but need to find the discipline to be more consistent with a daily practice. There have been several month periods where I have meditated for many 80-120 minutes every day, and other periods where I don't meditate at all. During the periods where I was keeping a consistent practice, I definitely found some benefit with all the issues I described, but overall the experiences I gained were pretty mild, and nothing was mind-blowing in a good or bad way. I also took a course on transcendtal meditation and practiced that consistently for a decent bit of time, and found it was pretty effective with stress reduction. However, the cultivation and progression of mildfullness is what I am most interested in.

One reason I am so drawn to retreats is that I believe it will help me progress and find the means to create a disciplined practice. When I lived in Detroit I used to go to the once a week public meditation sessions at a meditation center, and found it relatively easy and productive to do 90 minute sits. However, at home, I often struggle to do much more than 20 minutes at a time. I know that this is ultimately on me to cultivate better self-discipline in this regard, but I still believe being in a certain environment would help me get there. 

It is a bit saddening to me to become aware of all of these dangers that I was previously ignorant of - but I guess it is much better to be educated on it then to embark on a dangerous practice. My plan as of now is: from January through March, establish a disciplined practice - progressing from an hour a day up to 3-4 hours a day. I will also set up weekly sessions with cognitive behavioral therapist. Towards the end of March, I will attend the 21 day introductory class at Sirimangalo. The staying up 3 days challenge is a bit odd and intimidating, but as someone that has dealt with insomnia and unintented sleep deprivation for years, it doesn't scare me all that much. I am a bit confused about the purpose, however. From the threads and reviews I've found, this session seems like a great way to learn from a teacher and gain the discipline of doing an intensive retreat, but be allowed to do it at my own pace and comfort level. If anyone has any suggestions of similar programs, I would love to hear about them.

From there, assuming a good experience, I will take a couple weeks off and return to a normal daily schedule, and continue to pursue my personal practice. A couple weeks after, I will do a solo retreat at the Hermitage in Guatemela. I understand that solo silent retreats are usually for very experienced practicioners, but the schedule there does not require overall intensive discipline. I would be free to pursue artistic pursuits, exercise, etc. while still having the time to spend a lot of time meditating. I believe this balance would lead to a healthier, more productive experience, while still allowing me to further cultivate my practice. 

After that, I will likely return to normal life and continue to practice and progress. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to do some of these more intensive retreats down the road once my personal practice is more established. I have not read MCTB (TMI has been my main guide,) but will work through that as well as the book on trauma and meditation.

My experience with trauma is sort of an interesting case, since I went through a horribly traumatic incident that continues to affect me in different ways, but it happened when I was 1 year old and pre-verbal, so I have no physical memories of it whatsoever. I wonder how something like this will manifest through intensive meditation. 

On a more positive note, aside from all of the (important) articles about these dangers - does anyone have links to articles about successes from meditation, particularly in the areas I have discussed?

Anyways, thank you all again. Please let me know if this plan seems to make sense and not pose unnecessary risks.

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/9/18 3:34 PM as a reply to Sam Smith.
Also, I would like to add - I am not inherently afraid of unpleasant experiences that may arise. In fact, one of the main things that draws me to meditation is the ability to access hidden tendrils of trauma and stressors, so that I can confront them and work through them. This is especially important to me due to my non-verbal traumas, which are nearly impossible to address in typical ways. The only ways I know of dealing with these are through meditation or psychedelic therapy (Michael Pollin's new book was quite eye-opening to me.) I have tried psychedlics before, and do believe in the potential merits (although also the potential terrors and issues,) but ultimately feel like the most sustainable and helpful mean to address these issues lies in meditation. So - not only am I open to addressing these unpleasant things, I am actively seeking it. However, I know this must be done in a very careful way, under correct guidance and methodology, as the last thing I need is to exacerbate and make these problems worse. The potential of disassociation is particularly scary to me, as it is something that I occasionally deal with now. 

If it is relevant, my trauma had to do with a bad head injury. Again, I am high-functioning and have not been cognitively impaired by this - but I do wonder if that is another part of this to address.

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/9/18 5:13 PM as a reply to Sam Smith.
I'm going to say this, just so you have it in your back pocket...

There's no shame in not following through with this plan. Meditation retreats are basically 960 minutes of meditation (~16 hours) a day, day after day, without any breaks. So if you find that you are having serious difficulties and need to quit and take a break, no big deal, it's completely normal to have difficulty under such circumstances. Honestly, if you reach your limit, that's your limit. It's completely okay to honor where you are at in reality, rather than comparing it to an ideal plan that was developed in the abstract. 

Having said that, best wishes!!

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/10/18 9:33 AM as a reply to Sam Smith.
Wow, lots of worry in this thread. Honestly, I would vote for
(x) don't worry.
If you do run into trouble where your teachers can't help you, you now know where to look for guidance, so you are prepared as good as possible.
But really, chances are that you'll be totally fine.
Meditation can help a lot with depression/anxiety/trauma, and it's totally worth a try.

One remark about the Ajahn Tong tradition: Again, don't worry. The system isn't inflexible. The determination exercise is given to you only if you are ready for it. Otherwise, it is modified (less sleep, but not no sleep) or not done at all.

As to your plan, this seems like overthinking the whole thing.
Maybe Ajahn Tong technique is a great fit for you, then you don't need to try all those other things, and you can just return to do more retreats in this tradition.
Maybe it's a really bad fit, then you should not go for a solo retreat, but instead look for another tradition that works better for you.
Maybe you find that you need to work on Brahmaviharas instead of pure mindfulness. How would you know beforehand?

I will though second the recommendation against the solo retreat. Doing one retreat probably won't adequately prepare you for this. You are still a beginner at this. Don't consider solo retreats until you have done at least a handful of guided retreats.
On the other hand, if Ajahn Tong school is a good fit for you, you could consider doing home retreats (at whatever location) where you can meditate as much as you want (though at least 2 hours per day) and have a phone call with a teacher after every 14 hours of meditation.

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/10/18 11:51 PM as a reply to Sam Smith.
 

I am not by any means disinterested in the spiritual aspects of meditation, and keep an open mind to anything, but am most interested in a secular practice. 
 
What are you considering as spiritual vs. secular here?
Are you familiar with the distinction between concentration and insight meditation? What do you do when you meditate? 
Short version: concentration meditation can be stabilizing and peaceful.  
Insight is designed to be destabilizing and bring your attention to suffering for the purpose of sending you on a long, difficult journey making you more and more aware of a very deep problem, so that you can finally solve it. You can call that secular or spiritual, or both. 
From what you've written, it doesn't sound like you're on that journey (aware of the problem) now. Do you want to risk starting it? If you haven't yet, it's probably better not to. That's why we're warning you. 
So you should probably stick to concentration meditation, and not do it for too long at a time - but even then you run risks. 

I suppose I might have come off as a bit more unstable than I am in my initial post. I lead a productive life (graduated from a top university with high honors,) am social and have a good friend network, etc. I just nonetheless have issues that detract from the overall quality of my life, and I believe a lot of these can be attributed to my lack of 'control' (or whatever the proper term is) over my mind. I have found from my practice that I am gradually getting better at focusing and controlling my thoughts when they start to go to more depressing places, and I imagine with a more intensive practice this will improve.  
My understanding from the books and research i've done is that meditation can be used effectively as a tool to regain control of a scattered mind, thus being a tool to combat ailments resulting in a lack of mental control.
 
If that's what you want, I'd strongly suggest not meditating more than an hour or two a day - a more "intensive" practice will not help you here. 
It's not that you came off as unstable at all - it's that insight meditation is designed to be destabilizing and to rob you of the illusion that you can control anything. 
I understand the temptation to "increase the dose" of meditation, as we say here. The problem is that you've been taking a very small "dose" (TMI) and meditating for longer time periods doesn't have the effects you want. 
I'd really strongly recommend exercise instead. It's much safer and targets what you want much better. Meditation can't be used the way you think it can - think of it as a very powerful drug. 
Or have you considered just doing metta? Or just developing the jhanas (and I don't mean the way TMI talks about them)? That might work better for you.  

What is generally the reason that people have these psycotic breaks or severe mental reactions? I have spent periods in isolation where I felt very conformtable, and in my limited practice of meditation have only seen good results. 
 
They're discovering the true nature of things, and they're unprepared, like you are... and intensive meditation has powerful effects. They are also doing insight meditation, though it's a risk even with concentration. 

I have not read MCTB (TMI has been my main guide,) but will work through that as well as the book on trauma and meditation.
 
Please read MCTB Revised before going any further. Please. It's not optional and it's not something you can wait on or "work through." It's not really a book you work through. It's **essential background information** you need before you start working through anything.  
Please, at least have some idea of what you are getting into. Reading it is much more important for you than meditating is right now. At least read it before you start anything "intensive" - you really don't know what you're doing. 
TMI is missing a lot of really important stuff. It really doesn't explain any of the theory or discuss the bigger picture, nor does it warn you about the rough stuff. It's a dangerous book. 

My experience with trauma is sort of an interesting case, since I went through a horribly traumatic incident that continues to affect me in different ways, but it happened when I was 1 year old and pre-verbal, so I have no physical memories of it whatsoever. I wonder how something like this will manifest through intensive meditation.  
 
You said a head injury, right? I don't think this is the main issue here and I'm not sure it's related to your anxiety, depression, or ADD. 

On a more positive note, aside from all of the (important) articles about these dangers - does anyone have links to articles about successes from meditation, particularly in the areas I have discussed?
 
No, because that's not how intensive meditation works. It takes over your life and your sense of self, and I don't mean that in some weird "spiritual" sense. 
But if you want to understand what meditation does and why, and what "successes" are possible, MCTB Revised is the best book there is for that. 

RE: Help needed planning several retreats
Answer
12/11/18 12:21 AM as a reply to Sam Smith.
shargrol:

It's completely okay to honor where you are at in reality, rather than comparing it to an ideal plan that was developed in the abstract.


 
Shargrol, as usual, is giving you a huge gold nugget of wisdom here. That's the whole path right there.

Sam, it seems like you want these retreats to change you. Thing is, they can't do that. All they can do is help you "honor where you are at in reality, rather than comparing it to an ideal plan that was developed in the abstract." That's it. That's the whole path right there. Meditation won't and can't change anything other than that. So if you want something else out of this, my suggestion is to try something more productive.