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Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?

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After a year of lurking I've decidede to jump on board, so: Hello, every one, I am Niller from Denmark emoticon

I’ve come to a place in my practice where I could use some advice from more experienced meditators. This is a very long post, so I’ll give you the tl;dr version here: After my 4th Goenka retreat I had a psychotic meltdown, and I am not sure where to go with my practice now.
 
First I’ll provide some info about the theoretical resources I am familiar with and the practice I’ve been doing so far. Then I’ll describe what happened during this latest retreat and in the following days. And finally, I’ll ask you guys some questions.
 
Theoretical resources
The two dharma books I return to most often are Culadasa’s The Mind Illuminated and Daniel Ingram’s MCTB. I’ve seen every YouTube video and listened to every podcast episode involving these two inspiring guys. Apart from that I’ve read some 25 dharma books, mainly from the (modern American interpretation of the) theravada tradition. Among my favorites are Brasington’s Right Concentration, Catherine’s Focused and Fearless, Gunarata’s Mindfulness in Plain English, Kornfield’s A Path with a Heart, Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught, Wallace’s The Attention Revolution and Wright’s Why Buddhism is True. I’ve skimmed through Mahasi Sayadaw’s Manual of Insight, but found it too try, except for the excellent chapter with specific instructions.
 
Practice so far
I got initiated to meditation two years ago on a Goenka retreat. Since then I’ve been meditating regularly, doing two daily hours of sitting and so far four Goenka-retreats plus some private 4-6 day retreats, so all in all about 2000 hours of mainly anapanasati and body scanning with the occasional metta and the occasional fire kasina.
         The first six months or so I followed Goenka’s instructions, after that I switched to following The Mind Illuminated, and I am presently working with stage 6 and 7. The main reason for switching was that I liked the idea of ”wet” vipassana and wanted to improve my shamatha-skills, partly to avoid the infamous Dark Night, partly because I had experienced some sort of jhana on the first Goenka retreat. This is at least what a Goenka-trained assistant teacher told me after listening to my description of the experience, although he refused to go into details about it. My own guess is that I accidentally slipped into a weak and unstable version of 3rd jhana. I stayed there for about an hour, but never managed to get back there, a least on that first retreat.
         As to the nanas, my guess is that I hit the A&P on the same occasion, and that I’ve been at A&P on each of the following retreats: Immense clarity in the sensory field, including the 6th sense door (very few verbalized thoughts and each one with a lot of ”space” around) amazing visuals, some times even with open eyes, violent and super weird body sensations, ultra vivid dreams etc.
         I have of course had my fair share of monkey mind and back pain, but have not experienced any real down sides to meditation until a week ago. On the contrary: The practice has had an immensely positive effect on my mental well-being (much less stress and anxiety), relationships, substance (ab)use etc. So it was much to my surprise when I, last Monday, gradually realized that I had been committed to a psychiatric hospital on day 10 of my latest retreat.
 
The retreat that ended in a psychotic meltdown
So what happened? Well, I went to the retreat with somewhat confused expectations. Part of me wanted to just follow instructions and hopefully go for Stream Entry, but another part of me wanted to explore the jhanic territory, so I decided that if I got strong enough concentration plus some pleasant physical sensation to use as object (Brasington’s method), I would go for jhana. I quickly found out, though, that the meditation was doing its own thing, and that I (i.e. ”I”) was not in a position to choose here. Perhaps it is not so easy for a newbie as me to distinguish shamata and vipassana when meditating (on a conceptual level I do understand the difference).
         Anyway, the first 6 or 7 days things went fine: Some distractions and minor physical discomfort the first two or three days, but concentration got steadily better, the speed went up, and around day 4 I hit A&P: Electric buzzing in the entire body for about ten seconds, including a loud noise in both ears, vivid visuals, even with eyes open, seeing faces and letter/numbers everywhere etc. Compared to my earlier retreats, my equanimity was much better this time, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the strange phenomena, but kept working harder, and from day 6 or 7 I skipped all breaks and was basically meditating 24/7. At this point I didn’t sleep more than four or five hours, waking up before the morning gong at 04:00. Dreams and open-eyed visuals got still more vivid.
         On day 7 I again accidentally (meaning: I had not set an intention to do so) slipped into the third jhana, a more stable version than on my first retreat, body completely at ease, body sensations and sounds somewhat distant, mind entirely content and quiet, a softly sloshing, greyish light in the visual field, an overall feeling of sitting on the bottom of the ocean. I decided to try to rise to the second jhana, using Brasington’s instructions, and I managed to lift contentment to calm joy, things got slightly more agitated, the light in the visual field turned red, but was still quit soft and foggy. Still strong equanimity and ultra sharp focus.
         The night between day 7 and 8 I was in a weird state of mind, somewhere between jhana and lucid dreaming. The room I slept in was pitch-dark, and it made no difference if I had closed or open eyes: I now had visuals in perfect 3D, among other things a red, black and white, plastic-like spaceship that could have been from a Pixar movie. This spaceship was showing me (so I felt) 2D animations in black and white. Still I was very equanimous, not the least afraid and only very quietly, distantly excited about what happened. I had a feeling that the spaceship and its animations were teaching me some very important things (I can develop this point more if necessary).
         Day 8 I again (still without any felt intention) went into jhanic territory, this time maybe touching the fourth jhana (even more quiet, but still very alert, sounds more distant, body sensations almost gone, visual field almost dark, a very “spacious” feeling), and I tried to do vipassana from within the jhana, i.e. tried to notice the three characteristics, tried to deconstruct the experience. At one point the entire visual field was the most beautiful starry sky, and there was a wobbly sensation down each side of the body so that it felt as if I was lying in the ocean watching the night sky. I slowly opened my eyes and managed to keep them half open so that I could see the meditation hall and still ”be” in the ocean watching the unfamiliar constellations.
         From around day 9, a Friday, until the following Monday, my memory is unclear as to the order of events, but words came to play an important role. I am a man of words, working in my daily life as a writer and translator, so during the last two years I’ve crafted dozens of verse pairs that I use to remind my self of my intentions and motivation and to formulate my metta. Each verse pair is said inwardly on an inbreath and an outbreath. These verses turned up in my mind at this point in a mantra-like way. Especially the metta-verses came in handy as some strong physical pain arose in the chest area, and so the inward recitation of these verses helped me keep my equanimity, which was by now getting less stable.
         From here it gets really foggy. I remember shutting my self into the bathroom, refusing to turn up in the meditation hall, having a discussion with some servers and the assistant teacher about why I could not be in the meditation hall, and at this point there was a lot of fear in the system. I vaguely remember being driven to the hospital, committed to the psychiatric ward, refusing to take a pill I was offered, being injected against my will, taking my clothes off and doing a lot of weird shit, all the time feeling immense terror, the worst sort of fear I have ever encountered. Paranoid thoughts about the people around me being part of a West World-like simulation, me being the only real human, everybody conspiring against me etc. For about 48 hours there were huge amounts of Fear, Misery, Disgust and Desire for Deliverance in a constantly rumbling Re-Observation.
         It was not until I heard the voice of my fiancée on the phone that I started to return to consensus reality. From there on I quickly recovered, by Monday evening I was again very equanimous, although completely exhausted. I was by now taking anti-psychotic medicine of my own free will.
         Tuesday of this week I was discharged, and writing this I am still on the medicine, still weirdly okay, actually totally okay with what happened and happens. None of the Dark Nighty stuff is here anymore. Since I got back home I’ve been meditating just twenty minutes once or twice a day, and it is very hard to find any focus, probably due to the medication and the exhaustion, but I am totally fine with that as well, no frustrations. Happy, actually.
 
Questions
1) How does this compare to the sixteen stages of insight?
2) Was I actually in 3rd, 2nd and 4th jhana?
3) What might be ahead of me now?
4) What should I do with my practice now?

RE: What was this, and what should I do now?
Answer
11/15/19 9:55 PM as a reply to Niels Lyngsø.
Hi Niels,

I'm sorry to hear about your experience with what I've heard some folks call "negative outcomes". Unfortunately, meditation has become something of a "health and wellness" fad, and the media has lost sight of the fact that it has been for Buddhist monks primarly a tool for powerful psychological transformation. That transformation can also go off the rails, as you experienced, and as I did too, which you can read about here. I too ended up in the psychatric ward of a hospital, though they didn't inject me with anything against my expressed wish. I was prescribed an antipsychotic which I took for about three months, then went off it and have not been back on since. I had no history of mental illness, nor was there any in my family.

My suggestion would be to stop meditating for a while, and in particular, I would not recommend going to Goenka retreats. I know there are folks here who have had good success with Goenka retreats, but most reports I've heard of people having negative reactions to meditation come from Goenka retreats. The problem with the Goenka retreats is that the teachers have no personal connection with you, and I have found that, for myself, the personal connection is important. In my case, the retreat was not a Goenka retreat, but was run by a Burmese saydaw who was cold and distant and really didn't seem to care much about anything.

The other recommendation I would make is to bring in some heart practices, like metta, and maybe look into practicing with a group. I find that doing retreats with my wife is really great, she helps to ground me in a way that doesn't happen when I go off by myself. While she isn't a big meditator (she doesn't have a daily practice for example) we go to retreats together now and then, and did practice together with a Zen teacher and community in the '90's.

As for your questions, I am not expert in the maps and really can't answer any of them, but I wish you luck and hope you manage to pull your practice together again. I've found through the years that my practice nourishes my life in a way that is hard to express, and has very little to do with attainments or anything like that.

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/18/19 12:08 PM as a reply to Niels Lyngsø.
Hello Niller,

Thanks for your honest testimonial which seems quite important to me, as it shows how things can get REALLY out of control. I am really happy you got out from the hospital with minimum damage.
I would also think it would be prudent to stop meditation altogether for a while until you make a little sense of what happened to you... And that you feel really stable again.

I have started a thread here [https://www.dharmaoverground.org/discussion/-/message_boards/message/14719066#_19_message_14719066] which I hoped would help people make sense of their experience in this tradition. I would recommend you read it and see if you find anything of value there.

About your experience, to make it short, it seems to me (I could be wrong of course) that you powered your concentration way beyond your insight abilities. I can only guess from your post but, if you were in a jhanic mode of practice, you had to be sensitive to stillness, so you were probably not doing the body scan from day 4 in the way it is taught: going back to scanning part by part whatever the state of flow, unification or bliss you are in. That is important as it prevents you from relishing the subtle experiences.
So when the pain came in your chest, did you focus there reinforcing your concentration with the mantra? Goenka advises with good reasons not to stop anywhere for more than a minute or two (and only in case you do not feel sensation on this part of the body), the attention should stay in movement. And it might have escaped you, but he strongly emphasises NOT to mix techniques and, though he does not give good reasons for it, I believe there are some. One is that anapana as it is taught will not let you go deeper that you can deal with when it comes to insight (the deepness of your concentration depends directly on the "purity" of your mind).
And I have a theory that focusing on the chest area for more than a couple of minutes when there are painful sensations there (and that you are really concentrated) can really get you beyond your limits... Actually I could feel the danger myself the first time I did it on a thirty day retreat, and the sensations were very subtle. I am still impressed, though, by the intensity of your... experience!

Re your question 1) How does this compare to the sixteen stages of insight?
It looks like you experienced the "psychotic breakdown" ñana! and hooray, you woke up from it... The consequences could still have been worse... It is no joke, I think this is the limit of the "going for stream entry" approach (but not use the noting technique which is designed to get you there efficiently... and more or less safely, although you have the dukkhas ñanas where you can fit anything that goes wrong), mixing it with Pa Auk approach (let's get to 4th jhana and investigate the three characteristics when coming out of it) poorly understood as you assumed you did vipassana from inside the 4th jhana (impossible in the Pa Auk tradition as they teach hard jhanas, the stillness is too perfect to be broken by investigation without leaving the jhana... And of course never use the Goenka approach as it is not powerful or efficient enough! So, to put it bluntly, you were not doing a Goenka retreat, the title is misleading.
If I were you, I would seriously question my goals and, when you get your things together, choose one approach (whichever suits you) and stick to it. It is indeed possible that you have very good concentration abilities, so find a way to use them in a safe way. Or balance it with true insight practice...
I would not point to the center for responsibility in your episode. ATs are distant, yes, and not after you, but you can go to them whenever you need. But for this you need to be open about your practice... And there are two main reasons for people ending in the psychic ward during or at the end of a retreat: mixing techniques and hiding that you stopped taking your mood regulation medication without control... Although I do not want to imply that using pure Goenka technique will prevent any problem. This I do not know... Oh yes, another way to get into deep trouble (that does not concern you but I include it for other readers) is when you deal with the intense pain of gross solidified sensations during the whole retreat without being able to disembed from the pain (by experiencing the impermanent, vibrational quality of the painful sensation) to the point that your mind sinks in repression and denial... Usually this happens if you could not build up enough concentration during the first part of the retreat.
I will soon write something on the progress of insight as I understand it in this tradition. I hope that you recover quickly, reflect on your practice and pick up a more balanced approach from then on.
My two cents anyway, I hope you find something that helps you in all this, and that the tone does not come out too rude. I really wish you the best.

May you find true peace, true happiness, and be liberated from suffering
With metta
Smiling Stone

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/18/19 12:52 PM as a reply to Niels Lyngsø.
I think you posted also on reddit SE, which is good.  But adding here that this is a good set of resources: https://www.reddit.com/r/streamentry/wiki/health-and-balance 

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/18/19 1:27 PM as a reply to Niels Lyngsø.
 
Questions
3) What might be ahead of me now?
4) What should I do with my practice now?
svmonk:
...I would not recommend going to Goenka
retreats. I know there are folks here who have had good success with
Goenka retreats, but most reports I've heard of people having negative
reactions to meditation come from Goenka retreats. The problem with the
Goenka retreats is that the teachers have no personal connection with
you...

Hi Niels.

Goenka-retreats are like playing with fire. Not long ago a young lady who was stable in general took her own life after her first Goenka. It is an attractive opportunity for people with secular mindset and little money, especially when Goenka-retreats are so widely available. The shortages of this system are so severe, however, that I do not recommend these retreats for anyone else, except those who have 5+ years of solid training and retreat experience. The training style and schedule they have at Goenka is not for beginners, especially without teachers. One has to be a complete idiot and quack to set up a system like this without meditation experts overseeing everyone joining.

Even after 2000 hours of training, Niels, you got sucked into the unknown and didn't even know it. Based on your account, I'd say it started going off the rails on day 6. A trained teacher would have seen that. Goenka-teachers have been loudly critisized for their incompetence. I think Christopher Titmuss had a good article about these problems.

If I were you, I'd spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what happened and how. Talk with other ex-Goenka's, I think there is a online group for Goenka survivors. Don't rush back into it, like nothing happened. Find a teacher with who you can have one-on-one relationship and who is easily accessible. Then start over.

Good luck and blessings.

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/18/19 3:32 PM as a reply to Niels Lyngsø.
Niels Lyngsø:
 
but kept working harder, and from day 6 or 7 I skipped all breaks and was basically meditating 24/7. At this point I didn’t sleep more than four or five hours, waking up before the morning gong at 04:00. Dreams and open-eyed visuals got still more vivid.
        
This spaceship was showing me (so I felt) 2D animations in black and white. Still I was very equanimous, not the least afraid and only very quietly, distantly excited about what happened. I had a feeling that the spaceship and its animations were teaching me some very important things (I can develop this point more if necessary).
        
Questions
1) How does this compare to the sixteen stages of insight?
2) Was I actually in 3rd, 2nd and 4th jhana?
3) What might be ahead of me now?
4) What should I do with my practice now?

There's a lot of colourful events happening there. You seem to have exemplary concentration abilities. With the ability to concentrate like this one does not need to move so quickly. Day 6 is where you began to lose it. You neglected your physiology in favour of altered states. The body needs to function in its usual ways: food consumption and sleep. Now that you have determined you have a knack for concentration, there is no pressing need to charge through this process. Insights came far too quickly for your cognitive mind to process. One should consider gradual exposure to insights through a softer practice.

Iv'e highlighted the spaceship event - and this applies to other similar events - as a point of interest. In my practice I have always ignored all visual phenomena. They are mental distractions created by a fearful mind and if you buy into them, you're buying into the illusion of mind. I've seen some incredible things at such immense detail but I've trained myself not to become caught by them. I can acknowledge their presence but I won't make a story out of them. Doing so can be a doorway to psychosis no matter how relevant they may seem, including sublime images of Buddhas.

How does this compare to the sixteen stages of insight? I don't know. What's your feeling?

Was I actually in 3rd, 2nd and 4th jhana? I don't know. What's your feeling?

What might be ahead of me now? You could have more of the same but I wouldn't recommend that for the reasons you've shared. Pull back on the heavy practice and reduce the pace. Let things come in slower so that your cognitive mind can hold and assimilate the insights.

What should I do with my practice now? By meditating twice per day at a comfortable 20 minutes per session is a good response to the reflections on your previous experience. So, on some level, you have the answers.

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/18/19 4:38 PM as a reply to Niels Lyngsø.
I think this type of thing can happen to some people and spreading awareness etc can help prevent further incidents, so kudos.

My first question would be;

At day 7-8 you started to have hallucinations of spaceships and thought they were trying to give you an important message. From an outsider this would look like an immediate obvious warning sign to back off from whatever you were doing. Personally I would have stopped practice and stayed in my room bar group sittings and slept and would ignore any hullications until they subsided. It would be interesting to know your thoughts and perspective at this stage, and why seemingly no alarm bells started going off for you.

It appears the hallucinations, lack of sleep, and huge amount of meditation tipped you into full blown psychosis.

I'm not an expert or have no idea of long term implications of what this means for your mental health. In terms of meditation I'd obviously start slow, try not to make a big drama out of this episode and learn of the causes and conditions for future, i.e. stop blocks you can have in place like stopping meditation anytime you get visualisations apart from nimmitas.

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/18/19 4:46 PM as a reply to Kim Katami.
Kim Katami:
 
Questions
3) What might be ahead of me now?
4) What should I do with my practice now?
svmonk:
...I would not recommend going to Goenka
retreats. I know there are folks here who have had good success with
Goenka retreats, but most reports I've heard of people having negative
reactions to meditation come from Goenka retreats. The problem with the
Goenka retreats is that the teachers have no personal connection with
you...

Hi Niels.

Goenka-retreats are like playing with fire. Not long ago a young lady who was stable in general took her own life after her first Goenka. It is an attractive opportunity for people with secular mindset and little money, especially when Goenka-retreats are so widely available. The shortages of this system are so severe, however, that I do not recommend these retreats for anyone else, except those who have 5+ years of solid training and retreat experience. The training style and schedule they have at Goenka is not for beginners, especially without teachers. One has to be a complete idiot and quack to set up a system like this without meditation experts overseeing everyone joining.

Even after 2000 hours of training, Niels, you got sucked into the unknown and didn't even know it. Based on your account, I'd say it started going off the rails on day 6. A trained teacher would have seen that. Goenka-teachers have been loudly critisized for their incompetence. I think Christopher Titmuss had a good article about these problems.

If I were you, I'd spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what happened and how. Talk with other ex-Goenka's, I think there is a online group for Goenka survivors. Don't rush back into it, like nothing happened. Find a teacher with who you can have one-on-one relationship and who is easily accessible. Then start over.

Good luck and blessings.
I actually really enjoyed my Goenka retreats, it was my first ever retreat and I loved the atmosphere and how perfectly set up for meditaiton it is.

I think it's important to note; 

1) the percentage of people who have an episode on this retreat is small
2) we have no data to compare this to other retreats
3) there was a women poster on here recently who had a psychosis outbreak at Gaia house recently which is one of the friendlist dharma centres. They also have way less yearly retreatants then Goenka


4) Goenka retreats only have 3 hours of manditory group mediation - it isn't as hardcore as it's made out. You can sleep in your room for the rest of the day if you so please
5) There are tons of course managers, volunteers, assistant teachers around on a day to day basis who are approachable. I spoke briefly to course managers sporiadically thoughout my retreats - some were great people, and gave encouragement during retreats.

I think Goenka retreat have both some valid crtitiscm (what doesnt?) and also gets an overly bad rep, mainly from people who haven't been.

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/19/19 8:00 AM as a reply to Niels Lyngsø.
Hi Niels,

based on your description and my own experience, my guess about what happened is that:
the harder you work, the bigger challenge you get (with high rewards if you pass the challenge).
On my first Goenka retreat, I was also pushing myself to the limit. I had a growing fear over a few last days that resulted in a panic attack on the evening of day 10. Unlike you, I eventually managed to calm myself down with breathing exercises. An hour later, when I was in bed hoping to fall asleep, the fun started with electric discharges througout my body and lightning in my eyes. I knew nothing about insight stages and was too exhausted to deal with whatever might come. So I distracted myself and it all stopped.
Only a few years later I compared my experience with MCTB descriptions and realised that I had got to the equanimity stage but reacted to the sensations with aversion. What a mistake!
I am guessing you were on a similar path but pushed yourself a little bit too hard, slipped a little and things spiralled out of control.
As for the near future, I do agree that you should take a break and restart when you feel ready. I wouldn't rush to denounce Goenka style but choose according to your own circumstances, preferences and support available.
Take care,
pieva

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/19/19 8:06 AM as a reply to Tom C.
I agree Tom, I've done quite a few of these ten day retreats and have neither experienced significant problems myself nor known anyone who has. As you say it is not without its criticisms or potential pitfalls, but like you I found the whole experience really beneficial and inspiring. Your point about being able to pace yourself is very valid, as I did more of the ten day retreats I learnt to exercise more, take more time away from the meditation and just generally relax a lot more than my first retreat there where I was going hell for leather and observing every rule and the exact timetable.
It's a fine technique in itself and also lays a great platform for other practices that people may wish to move on to. Do you have a link to the person who had problem at Gaia House, this is also a place I'm well familiar with.

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/19/19 9:29 AM as a reply to Matt Perry Clark.
I can't find any reference to it but I'm pretty sure - https://www.dharmaoverground.org/discussion/-/message_boards/message/16203906 this women's experience was at Gaia house. 

I've been at Gaia house and Goenka retreat - I don't see much difference personally. Goenka retreats were group retreats and Gaia house personal.

Goenka long course centre in UK with Pagoda with inidividual meditaiton cells is for me the best purpose built meditation centre I've stayed at.

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/19/19 2:28 PM as a reply to Tom C.
Oh great, I've got a three day course up there just before Christmas but I've not seen the pagoda finished yet emoticon

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/21/19 6:40 AM as a reply to Niels Lyngsø.
Thank you for all the kind words and constructive advice – great to be on board here. I am currently working on finding a teacher, practicing carefully twenty minutes a day and slowly and gradually getting off the medication (following the advice from a psychiatrist).

RE: Goenka-retreat ended in psychosis or dark night? What do I do?
Answer
11/21/19 7:48 AM as a reply to Niels Lyngsø.
Hey Niels, nice to hear from you!
Take care of yourself and take it easy.
Goodluck with your practice and with your life
Wishing you the best
Metta
Smiling Stone