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Death on the Path to Enlightenment
October 18, 2012 11:29 AM   Subscribe

"Every year thousands of westerners flock to India to meditate, practice yoga, and seek spiritual transcendence. Some find what they're looking for. Others give up and go home. A few become so consumed by their quest for godliness that it kills them."
posted by Lorin (63 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
This article made me feel approximately 300 percent better about my own deeply-ingrained cynicism, so for that, I sincerely thank you. True, I may not be as content with life as some of my more spiritual acquaintances, but at least I'm not becoming so "enlightened" that Darwinism takes me out.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:50 AM on October 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


Hmm. So sad, confused, spiritually unfulfilled people can overreact to the promise of fulfilment? Some people do this even when not apparently in distress? Well blow me down!

I'm not sure what calling this "India Syndrome" tells us that we don't already know about how some people end up following unhealthy "spiritual" paths.

It's sad that some people die in pursuit of foolish dreams, but some people die doing pretty much anything they want to do, healthy desire or no. Of course, most people come back physically fine, and many people grow out of their infatuation. Certain people sadly had to form Kula Shaker and subject us to their godawful music as part of the process of healing, but I guess we all have to take that one for the team.
posted by howfar at 11:50 AM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


I suppose this phenomenon is the high-minded equivalent to affluent westerners going to Thailand for debauchery and hedonism.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:57 AM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Beginning in 1997, I lived in India off and on for more than a decade. Westerners whose journeys had taken a wrong turn were commonplace there. The most notorious was Gary Stevenson, a Texan supposedly descended from Robert Louis Stevenson, who, after joining the Aghori—a group of wandering holy men who demonstrate the renunciation of physical and material attachments by covering themselves in cremation ash—could often be seen on the streets of Rishikesh begging for alms, using a human skull for a bowl.

Did India make him come unglued, or was he already unstable?


So this behavior unequivocally makes this guy "unglued"? I admit it is somewhat extreme, but who is to say that Stevenson didn't truly have some sort of spiritual revelation?

I get what the author is trying to say here, but a lot of it seems sort of breathless . . . don't go to India because IT WILL COOK YOUR NOODLE!!!!11
posted by exlotuseater at 12:03 PM on October 18, 2012 [13 favorites]


Interesting. It doesn't seem too far-fetched to me that deep levels of introspection combined with dislocation could elicit a freak-out. I don't think there has to be (or is) anything "psychic" or supernatural about it. Our minds are incredibly complex and built on some very base assumptions and collective experiences.
It reminds me a bit of a post months ago about the purported quitest room in the world, measured in negative dB. They had some challenge to last 30 minutes (or something) in there and no one had been able to do so yet.
Also: .
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 12:05 PM on October 18, 2012


This was an interesting read... I guess I sort of knew that things like this happened, but it seemed rather far away from me when I was there. I definitely didn't know that this was 'a thing' related particularly to India.

I spent a lot of time in the Ladakh region (Leh, in particular), but I was there to work, and it was a really strange environment to find myself in because of that. Virtually every foreigner I spoke to there was there to get in touch with their spiritual side, or party, or it seemed like a lot of the time, both. It ended a lot of conversations very quickly actually. I mean people did the whole 'politely interested in what you're doing here' thing until it started to involve science and the obvious lack of spiritualism. Still met a lot of nice people but I always felt like we were at cross-purposes. That and I was never very good at just letting strange men aggressively hit on me, so. That ended quite a few social engagements too.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 12:08 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Stories like Spollen's feel like Eastern versions of Into the Wild, the 1996 book about a young adventurer who died after trying to live off the land in Alaska.

Reminded me more of Angus MacLise, dead of malnutrition in Kathmandu at 41.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:08 PM on October 18, 2012


Very interesting. Compare with Jerusalem Syndrome.
posted by chicxulub at 12:13 PM on October 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


So this behavior unequivocally makes this guy "unglued"?

You just quoted an anecdote about people covering themselves in cremains and carrying human skulls around and you'll only allow this is "somewhat" extreme. I don't know what kind of lotuses you've been eating, but keep them far from me.
posted by psoas at 12:14 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


The first case, about the guy who disappeared while backpacking in the Himalayas, hardly seems especially notable. Sometimes backpackers disappear in the wilderness, even in the US. My immediate guess is that he fell into that waterfall, was drowned or died from the fall, and the body was washed downstream. It could have just as easily happened in the rocky mountains.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:15 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I suppose this phenomenon is the high-minded equivalent to affluent westerners going to Thailand for debauchery and hedonism.

Affluent Westerner here who spent three months in Thailand while on a 9 month around the world trip. I think I missed the debauchery. Not enough electricity and too concerned about contracting malaria.

That said, in every guest house I stayed, it was blatantly, painfully obvious who had just come from India. They were invariably insufferable.
posted by digitalprimate at 12:17 PM on October 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


And I laid traps for troubadours who get killed before they reach Bombay
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:18 PM on October 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


Reading this, I almost immediately thought of "Into the Wild". (Admittedly, I just read it fairly recently, but still)
posted by rmd1023 at 12:27 PM on October 18, 2012


Meditation-induced states are not universally benign. This is not very common, so it is unlikely to show up in the media. This kind of thing is not dissimilar to bad acid trips. They happen. I know a woman who is in a wheelchair because she jumped out a window on LSD, thinking she could fly. This is not just an urban myth.

Some meditation techniques, like the hyperventilating (supposedly kundalini-up-the-spine-producing) meditation session I attended once, taught by the quasi-Sikh Yogi Bhajan group 3HO, made me feel like I was tripping. I didn't go back.

Once I meditated all night long and couldn't really talk for a few hours.

Meditation is, for the most part, calming, and more, for those who like it. Its extreme effects are mostly benign, such as feeling the dissolving of all boundaries between oneself and one's environment. (There are neuropsychological theories about this...) I find this blissful, but I suppose it could feel scary to some.

Months of intensive meditation in a place where your usual social and environmental cues are absent could easily unhinge a person. Interesting article.
posted by kozad at 12:29 PM on October 18, 2012 [14 favorites]


don't go to India because IT WILL COOK YOUR NOODLE!!!!11

A wild eyed Spaniard came up to me at a conference in Barcelona last week and goes "OMG I LOVE Indian philosophy, it blew my mind, its so different, its this, its that, its the cheese on the moon bla bla bla"

Seems like India can cook your noodle without travel too.
posted by infini at 12:34 PM on October 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


These things may be possible, but I am highly skeptical. I believe when they happen, other factors may be involved, and also, these things must be exceptionally rare. Millions upon millions of people practice yoga and meditation around the world, and this is the first I've ever heard of either one of those things causing people to 'go crazy.' Then again, these statements are entirely based on my own feelings, so I could be a fool.
posted by PigAlien at 12:36 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


...and kozad captures exactly what I was trying to say, much better than I.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 12:39 PM on October 18, 2012


From the article
2. Paris Syndrome... physical symptoms resemble those of Florence syndrome but also include acute feelings of persecution.
...due to being surrounded by Parisians.
posted by howfar at 12:42 PM on October 18, 2012 [11 favorites]


drinking too much water will kill you too, but that doesn't mean that not drinking water is the way to go.
posted by facetious at 12:42 PM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


I learned from Dorothy: There's no place like home
posted by Postroad at 12:47 PM on October 18, 2012


Too bad India's my "home".
posted by infini at 12:53 PM on October 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


I guess I kind of feel like some people who are driven to travel to a far-away country in order to resolve some kind of spiritual or emotional problem that has been plaguing them are maybe already a bit unstable or a bit prone to extreme emotional states.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:59 PM on October 18, 2012 [10 favorites]


Indiahhhhhhhh! While at university I studied abroad studying Buddhism in Bodhgaya, the town where the girl jumped. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had (even though I had diarrhea for pretty much the entire 3-4 months I was there, woooo). It was a transformative experience, one where I mentally went deeper into myself than I ever have. I think it made me a little wonky in the head for a little while, but nothing serious. Let's just say your fashion sense and the number of days you can go without showering changes drastically. But I definitely intend to go back at some point.

Having said that, it's not for everyone. There were about 30 students in the program living in a Burmese monastery, and one guy had to go home early. It wasn't known from the beginning, but apparently he had some history of mental illness, and this program seemed to make it worse. In class he would answer a question correctly, but it was as if the words were correct but the way he answered it wasn't right, something was off. As far as I know he started believing he was enlightened and had some other strange encounters with the students, and that's when the faculty made the decision to bring him home.

So in other words, meditation and mental illness don't necessarily work well together, and can only exacerbate the problem.
posted by wilburthefrog at 1:03 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Eat, Pray, Disassociate
posted by thelonius at 1:05 PM on October 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


This happens closer to home, too. A few people - myself included - took vows of poverty and started traveling to feed the poor. I personally quit my salaried job, went around the Midwest, and am now in Texas helping a refugee shelter here. I am trying to help my moral and cultural crises by giving myself over - not to religion or some other profane thing, but to help for the poor.

As far as I can tell, the only difference between an ascetic and a homeless vagabond is how you market yourself. Unless you're wearing cremation ash.
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh at 1:13 PM on October 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


So this behavior unequivocally makes this guy "unglued"? I admit it is somewhat extreme, but who is to say that Stevenson didn't truly have some sort of spiritual revelation?

That is where my personal interest in the article lies. There is very little difference between psychosis and a bona fide spiritual revelation, and in my experience those differences are as much cultural as they are psychiatric.

I believe when they happen, other factors may be involved, and also, these things must be exceptionally rare.

I do believe they are rare but not completely imagined. It took me years to accept the idea that my psychotic experiences, whatever the explanation of the east or west, were in a way Real simply by virtue of my experiencing them. There's not abundant research on stuff like India syndrome or spontaneous kundalini awakening or shared psychosis, or any number of bizarre manifestations of madness--but not being in the DSM doesn't make them non-existent. While I find the statement that they are the result of "mixing and matching religious systems like Legos" rather broad, it doesn't seem so far off. Disciplines like Yoga and Buddhism at their most intense are extremely rigorous and disciplined. However cliched it sounds, they're not really meant to be entered into lightly without a framework to explain the phenomena they tend to induce.
posted by Lorin at 1:14 PM on October 18, 2012


Of course I'm perfectly open to the idea that a certain number of people who lose their minds just happen to be interested in spiritual practices, making their stories more interesting somehow than those whose delusions aren't exotic enough to merit writing about.
posted by Lorin at 1:22 PM on October 18, 2012


Growing up in India, Westerners who came to India in search of spirituality were mostly regarded with cynicism, with a touch of pity, at least in the circles I moved in. There are an awful lot of sketchy gurus out there. It seemed that every other week there would be a story about a new expose about an ashram -- strange sexual exploits, or torture, or being bilked of all one's money. That whole scene just seemed to attract a really dangerous blend of predators and prey -- exploiters and the vulnerable. My parents' attitude was always to stay as far away as possible.
posted by peacheater at 1:30 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I suppose this phenomenon is the high-minded equivalent to affluent westerners going to Thailand for debauchery and hedonism.


I wouldn't even call it high minded.

There's nothing particularly high minded about seeking a closer connection to the supernatural if you're doing it for selfish purposes.
posted by ocschwar at 1:31 PM on October 18, 2012


I never realized meditation was so scary. We had better forbid the youth from this. OMG the sky is falling.............
posted by caddis at 1:31 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are an awful lot of sketchy gurus out there.

As a cynical friend said back in the late '60s, hard to believe a continent with hundreds of millions of poor people would develop con men.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:37 PM on October 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


There's nothing particularly high minded about seeking a closer connection to the supernatural if you're doing it for selfish purposes.

As a History of Hinduism professor (Indian) with an otherwise impeccable grasp of American idioms once said to us in graduate school, "That opens up a whole new jar or worms."
posted by kozad at 1:39 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


The thing that's overlooked here is the number of people who fall prey to ecstatic religious experiences, such as speaking in tongues and exorcisms and such, right here in the states, who have never had any exposure to yoga or meditation. You don't need to travel to India to experience "India Syndrome", and you don't need to do yoga or meditation.
posted by PigAlien at 1:40 PM on October 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


There is very little difference between psychosis and a bona fide spiritual revelation, and in my experience those differences are as much cultural as they are psychiatric.

Except for the fact that a bona fide spiritual revelation would not be demonstrably detrimental to one's cognition or orderly thinking. If it's detrimental, it's not bona fide by definition, right?
posted by chimaera at 1:40 PM on October 18, 2012


Allow me to rephrase: There is very little difference between pyschosis and a bona fide spiritual revelation other than the fact that spirituality provides a positive framework in which to view the experience, whereas medicine provides a negative one.
posted by Lorin at 1:43 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


"a bona fide spiritual revelation would not be demonstrably detrimental to one's cognition or orderly thinking"

depends if a True Scottsman is experiencing it or not
posted by idiopath at 1:43 PM on October 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


I have spent a great deal of time in India -- at first as a student, later as part of my work. And there is no demographic of foreigners I find more disturbing than the spiritual tourists from Europe and North America (and to some extent, Israel). Part of this is, admittedly, my own cynicism at work: it seems to me that many of these people are traveling halfway around the world to a) enjoy the strength of their own nation's currency while b) staring at conspicuous poverty that has the "happy" effect of c) highlighting how privileged their own lives really are, which d) makes them feel more "grateful" for their own comfortable lives and thus, tada!, more "spiritually awakened."

Like I said, though, I'm aware that this reading predominantly reflects my own cynicism.

The other reason I find these spiritual tourists so disturbing is that too many of them seem to treat their daily lives in India like a game, to which no real consequences can attach. As a result, I have seen the most incredible instances of gullibility and naivete from such people. I won't even get into the drug use that abounds in certain "spiritual tourist" capitals throughout India (Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, Varanasi, Haridwar and Rishikesh, Pushkar...oy, Pushkar). But in general, "spiritual tourists" seem more likely to take tremendously stupid risks (both in what they do and whom they trust) than other demographics of foreigners in India. I'm not sure if this naivete is born of their explicitly spiritual agendas ("Keep an open mind"? "Accept all opportunities that arise"? or what have you), or of an Orientalist assumption that Indians, generally speaking, are more "spiritually enlightened," and a connected inability to grasp that people are people everywhere, and thus are capable of the same evils as well as the same virtues as folks "back at home."

At any rate, I do sense undercurrents among certain communities of foreigners in India, and *particularly* in those "spiritual tourist" hotspots I named above, that uncomfortably evoke, to me, the same kinds of mindsets that supported Orientalist and old-school colonialist behaviors. India is not a game, an amusement park, a playland designed solely to foster your self-exploration and spiritual development: it's a country full of people going about their daily lives, and you need to proceed with respect and caution, just as you would back at home, in your own part of the world.

Sigh. This has begun to turn into a rant, and an uncharitable and perhaps unfair one at that, so I'll desist. I should say, I've met some lovely people who are spiritually-minded who comport themselves with warmth, respect, dignity, and sensitivity no matter where they travel, India being no exception. I'm not saying all spiritually-inclined tourists are buffoons. But I've run into more than a handful of such during my times in India, and as I said -- I am often as alarmed for them as I am by them.
posted by artemisia at 1:44 PM on October 18, 2012 [40 favorites]


I would agree with chimaera on this one: a bona fide spiritual revelation does not usually impair one's ability to operate normally, although it may sometimes trigger occasional strange episodes. But "enlightenment", if you accept such a phenomenon, is certainly miles from psychosis.

In fact, this is the argument made by some in the Hippie Age especially against claims that LSD (sometimes called psycho-mimetic) induced spiritual experiences. Not that this is an argument anyone can win!
posted by kozad at 1:46 PM on October 18, 2012


chimaera: Except for the fact that a bona fide spiritual revelation would not be demonstrably detrimental to one's cognition or orderly thinking. If it's detrimental, it's not bona fide by definition, right?

I don't think that necessarily follows. There's no reason the universe has to be a nice place or make sense; you could have a horrible revelation that makes it impossible to difficult to deal with the normal world or function in society, but that doesn't mean it couldn't also be factually accurate. Philosophy has all kinds of concepts like this, many of which cannot be disproven, such as the brain in the vat.

What if you really were the brain in the vat, and somehow managed to find evidence of that? It might destroy your ability to function within the vat-world, but that doesn't mean it's inaccurate.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:49 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


you could have a horrible revelation that makes it impossible to difficult to deal with the normal world or function in society, but that doesn't mean it couldn't also be factually accurate.

Then it would not be psychosis. And I'm not making a "No True Scotsman" argument -- the definitions of bona fide spiritual revelation and psychosis are incompatible.
posted by chimaera at 2:06 PM on October 18, 2012


Artemisia, your first paragraph said nearly everything I've wanted to say, but been unable to articulate, about so many people who volunteer with the poor and/or in developing nations as a "spiritual/enlightening/character-building experience". Grar.
posted by windykites at 2:08 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


chimaera: Then it would not be psychosis.

It sure might look like psychosis to external observers.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:09 PM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


One more thing and I'll shut up, I promise.

But "enlightenment", if you accept such a phenomenon, is certainly miles from psychosis.

I don't believe that to be true. Psychosis is an evocative word that cannot help but sound violent, but it is not necessarily. Delusional psychosis as a break with the shared reality can manifest in many ways, which could be viewed as positive or negative. Naturally, medicine as champion of the shared reality at large, must view these as negative without exception.

Consider the idea of makyo in Zen Buddhism: "visions, hallucinations, fantasies, illusory sensations, fears and other mental and physical phenomena that may arise during zazen. In the widest sense, however, anything short of enlightenment could be called makyo." With a Roshi to guide you, these are spiritual experiences. Without, they're not.

I never realized meditation was so scary. We had better forbid the youth from this. OMG the sky is falling.............

I realize you are pointing to the sensationalism of the article, but mental illness as a counter indication for zazen is not unheard of. Bear in mind this is in the context of sesshin meditation which is much more intense than a casual daily practice.

Questioner: Can a neurotic or psychotic person do zazen?

Roshi: People who are highly nervous or seriously disturbed cannot do zazen. You don't appear to fall in either category.

Questioner: I wasn't thinking of myself.

Roshi: A mentally disturbed person who straightens himself out can benefit enormously from zazen, but he, even more than others, would need to work with a teacher.

Questioner: Roshi, what do you do when someone comes to your Center who is obviously neurotic or schizoprenic yet who wants to do zazen?

Roshi: Persons mildly anxious or depressed who have a sincere wish to practice are allowed to stay. After all, in the profoundest sense, who isn't neurotic. Who until awakening doesn't view the world myopically from the dualistic standpoint of self-and-other. Seriously disturbed individuals, however, could become worse through zazen and disturb others doing zazen. For these reasons they are advised to see a psychotherapist in whom they have confidence.

from Roshi Philip Kapleau's Zen: Merging of East and West
posted by Lorin at 2:12 PM on October 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


It sure might look like psychosis to external observers.

It indeed might -- and I would've never made my comment in the first place if the initial comment had said "there is very little difference between what may appear to be psychosis...." because psychosis has a fairly clear definition, and since the very term comes with a great deal of baggage and misunderstanding, it is counterproductive to casually use "psychosis" and "what may appear to be psychosis" interchangeably, considering the baggage aforementioned that comes with any sort of term that sounds like "crazy" in the vernacular.
posted by chimaera at 2:36 PM on October 18, 2012


Two weeks as an involuntary inpatient at the local nuthouse followed by a year of therapy and massive amounts of Lithium Carbonate cured me of my wild, religious, soul-searching wanderlust when I was 21. I'm mid 40's rat-racing now. If it were not for my two wonderful sons I'd still think I was robbed of my true path. I was one with the universe and perfectly happy. The real losers in these stories are the grieving families, not those searching for, or talking to "god".

Needless to say I'm an atheist now. If what I experienced wasn't real then there is no god.
posted by HyperBlue at 3:26 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Gita Mehta, an Indian essayist who has lived in the west, wrote in the '70s about the "Westerners [who] descended upon India disciples of a cultural revolution that proclaimed that the magic and mystery missing from their lives was to be found in the East". Karma Cola. It's a great read and I think it may have saved me from spiritual seeking when I later lived there.
posted by the fish at 3:47 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Dangers Of Meditation
posted by homunculus at 3:51 PM on October 18, 2012


Hanging this story on the peg of a missing backpacker is a stretch. A mysterious psychotic freakout on the road to enlightenment is one possibility, but drowning, a fall, a heart attack, homicide, depression-induced suicide all seem more probable.

A few lurid anecdotes, and photographic "evidence" that the missing guy looked thinner and scruffier after 9 months in India (who would have guessed) and stares at the camera intensely (because it's a passport photo)? Gimme a break.
posted by dontjumplarry at 4:27 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


This happens in Jerusalem so often psychologists call it Jerusalem Fever. People become so overwhelmed by the immersion in their biblical stories that they go crazy. Bishop Pike's death in the Judean Wilderness is a example of how this can lead to tragic consequences.
posted by humanfont at 4:46 PM on October 18, 2012


Consider the idea of makyo in Zen Buddhism: "visions, hallucinations, fantasies, illusory sensations, fears and other mental and physical phenomena that may arise during zazen. In the widest sense, however, anything short of enlightenment could be called makyo." With a Roshi to guide you, these are spiritual experiences. Without, they're not.

This is an important point. Thanks for participating in this thread, Lorin. Really interesting insights.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:44 PM on October 18, 2012


The Razor's Edge.
posted by ovvl at 6:38 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


...considering the baggage aforementioned that comes with any sort of term that sounds like "crazy" in the vernacular.

Psychosis may not be the right word for it, but there is a certain insanity to spiritual mindsets; especially at the more esoteric and experiential levels. How else to explain the mystics and the martyrs?
posted by Three Books at 11:06 PM on October 18, 2012


I've always felt that people banging on about India Syndrome, Jerusalem Syndrome, or any similar phenomena need to recalibrate their correlation-causation meters.

A small percentage of people may be subject to delusional episodes (including "first onset" episodes) in any context, but the possibility is slightly increased under the stresses of being in a foreign land & exposed to a lot of new ideas & sensations. If they happen to be in a place associated with a famous religion, those delusions will often take on some of the religious trappings local to that place - nothing very surprising there.

There's an interesting documentary on Israelis in India which is worth seeing for anybody with an interest in this area: Flipping Out, showing some aspects of the effort that goes into support & repatriation networks for the occasional Israeli tourist who loses the plot in India - often in the context of spirituality & drug use.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:03 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thailand has its fair share of people that go loopy too, in the absence of a lot of meditation or deep and meaningful consideration about the meaning of life. I've seen lots of people who consciously embrace a lifestyle very different to that of their former lives and then retrofit some spirituality or ethos onto it - buddhism, vegetarianism, hell - just even not wearing a watch and being bound by normal ideas about time.

Dope has its part to play. The idea of the doors of perception thing is fairly common with or without meditation.

But as important, in my experience, is that a significant number of people who leave their home country for somewhere like India or Thailand are already looking for a way out, or a conscious step away from, the pressures of their life back home. Put simply, many of them may already be experiencing depressive symptoms when they step off the plane.

Travelling to get away from something, going ascetic, or retreating into isolation are all part of the same story. They don't necessarily imply depressive symptoms, but they often correlate.

I disagree with the doctor in the piece who says that the problems cure themselves when people get on the plane to go back home. I think it's more likely that in having taken time out and then returning to their support networks people can get back on the path to being well again. But I don't think they just get off the plane and the sky clears.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:26 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've come to the conclusion that there is no baseline for sane. Everyone's got a few screws loose upstairs, it's simply that some folk never rattle the frame enough for them to fall out, as it were. Everyone has a breaking point where they will snap. Some folk have more loose screws than others, but ultimately the idea that anyone is perfectly sane is silly. Stay at home, in familiar surroundings, calming following your socially prescribed role and not many of them will come free. Amble off to a wildly different culture and get off your tits on bhang and you're going to have issues. Absolutely the same effect as people going on long Christian retreats - I was dragged along to one of those and there was a lot of meditative practice wrapped up in holy cloth. Be still and listen to the Holy Spirit. It works out much the same.

I've been meditating for a couple of reasons for years. When I was deep in my witchy phase, I'd use the silence to listen to "things" out in the ether. Same experience, different framework. These days I'd say most of what I encountered was the sound of those screws rattling around in their housings, and luckily I only every had one or two occasions when I fell off the deep end. Spiritual revelation is completely indiscernible from psychosis. Absolutely. They can be the same thing - the voice of the nihil sounds very much like the sound of all those loose screws hitting the floor.

Mitrovarr: There's no reason the universe has to be a nice place or make sense; you could have a horrible revelation that makes it impossible to difficult to deal with the normal world or function in society, but that doesn't mean it couldn't also be factually accurate.

Absolutely. It took me a very long time to be comfortable in the world again, and even then it was at a very, very tentative distance. It looked like psychosis. It was the realization that hat we are all just specks in the eye of eternity, spinning forever into the void, and that one hit me full force at age 14, after listening for the Holy Spirit for days and hearing nothing. My mother thought I was having a complete psychotic breakdown. These days I see that as a blessing - when there is no fate, then anything is possible - but to a kid raised firm in the bosom of the Just World Fallacy it was a pretty mindblowing moment.
posted by Jilder at 3:22 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Comparisons between the Mystical Path and Schizophrenic Reactions. From "Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness" by James Austin.

http://i.imgur.com/HMLZ2.png
posted by vira at 10:19 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


India syndrome may not be an officially recognized disease, but many doctors are convinced it's real.

I want proof this sentence was not written by a 15 year old. The burden is on you, Details.
posted by shushufindi at 11:04 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Regarding Gary Stevenson:

"Did India make him come unglued, or was he already unstable? There's no way to know for sure."

Forget my idea about the 15 year old. This article was written by two people: Simon Milligan and Manservant Hecubus.
posted by shushufindi at 11:09 AM on October 19, 2012


Mindfulness Meditation - a talk at Google by Jon Kabat-Zinn
posted by caddis at 11:47 AM on October 19, 2012


Karma Cola anyone?
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:08 PM on October 19, 2012


Can I get a Dharma-Burger with that?
posted by homunculus at 6:11 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I often have awful panic attacks when I try to meditate, unless it's one of those "relaxation" tapes where you never actually face any silence. I am starting to feel like this does not make me as much of a weirdo as I thought. That's a relief, kind of. I feel like I can legitimately stop trying now.
posted by windykites at 6:44 PM on October 19, 2012


Lord have mercy. I'll add my boring story to attempt to balance this out a bit.

I stayed at an ashram in Rishikesh for two weeks in 2009 in the middle of a one year backpacking trip. It was my first exposure to yoga and my first time meditating in a structured group setting.

We weren't locked in or required to even attend the meditation sessions, but the relative lack of stimulation vs. the bonzai levels of novelty I had otherwise been experiencing on the backpacking trip led to a lot of discomfort of the sort people often describe when they attend meditation retreats.

I loved the yoga, and have practiced it off and on since. I have been less committed with meditation, although I am off long-term traveling again and am attempting to make it consistent. The novelty vs. lack of novelty was a pretty interesting knowledge point regarding how my human mind functions.

Those two weeks were tied for last in terms of "spiritual intensity" for the entire trip. My 3 months in SE Asia doing very regular backpacker activities were personally profound and spiritual - I experienced deep love for the world and myself and fulfillment I didn't even know my body was capable of. That is how such things go - if you try to dictate "x experience is going to happen in y place because that's how it works" the universe is going to giggle at you and you're going to run into trouble.
posted by MillMan at 11:15 PM on October 19, 2012


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