Finally, we have the slippery question of mental illness. In addition to the powers sometimes causing people who have not adequately trained in morality to behave like assholes (pardon the vernacular), the powers can also lead to people getting really, really weird. It is not always easy to distinguish conditions like schizophrenia, a transient psychotic episode, or bipolar with psychotic features from the side effects of strong concentration and natural talent. Further, if you want to get to know about your shadow side, the powers are a crash course. While Buddhism has its own take on delusions and mental afflictions, for this section I am going to wax western psychological.
For instance, it might be very educational to have your relationship issues with your parents manifest as two large, slobbering demons who hurl flaming stuffed animals at you while you are traveling out-of-body on your way to the Grand Canyon, but it can often take lots of time and reflection to figure out how these sorts of experiences make a practical difference in our lives. That is the easy stuff; the problem comes when the effects of the powers don’t let up even when you stop practicing and are trying to function in the ordinary world. This is when it is time to connect with people who can help stabilize you until the destabilizing effects calm down or resolve, assuming they will, which is not always the case.
Strong insight and concentration practice, even when that practice wasn’t dedicated to the powers, can make people go temporarily or permanently (or for the rest of that lifetime) psychotic. The more the practice involves creating experiences that diverge significantly from what I will crudely term “consensus reality”, and the longer one engages in these practices, the more likely prolonged difficulties are. It is of note that a significant number of the primary propagators of the Western magickal traditions became moderately nuts towards the ends of their lives.
As one Burmese man said to Kenneth, “My brother does concentration practice. You know, sometimes they go a little mad!” He was talking about what can sometimes happen when people get into the powers. Remember, many of these experiences are enough grounds for a diagnosis of mental illness in the conventional medical world, so seek the guidance of those who simultaneously appear to be quite sane and functional who also actually know how to navigate skillfully in this territory. Finding these qualified people is difficult but well worth the effort.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5 ) does give some wiggle room for expected, accepted altered states and experiences that happen in a standard religious or spiritual context. Pentecostals speaking in tongues is a good example, but we should be wary of using that wiggle room too readily if our level of functioning in the ordinary world has suddenly dropped, as something more serious may be going on. To use the example of the Pentecostals again, they tend to manifest gifts of the spirit such as speaking in tongues in church, where that is considered normal, but then at their workplace they may act just like everyone else, meaning they can turn it on and shut it off. That’s really the key point. To bring this into a more meditative context, if you have learned to visualize, say, a tantric deity, and that deity sometimes appears to interact with you when you are doing formal practices, that is not necessarily crazy, unless that deity starts telling you to do something harmful, and you start to take that seriously—that’s obviously a whole different situation, and requires help immediately.
Then there are effects that persist in the world when you stop practicing. If you find that you are still acting strangely or perceiving the world oddly, such as hearing voices that are telling you to do things (particularly harmful things or things that would disturb you and others), seeing frightening shadows, demons, or dead people around you that you think might be real, being paranoid, getting odd reactions from those around you that you can’t explain, becoming obsessive about strange things (I had a competent meditator friend who got temporarily fascinated by everything that was yellow, for example), having people say they are worried about you, living in a clearly altered universe, and the like, I strongly recommend that you talk with a professional.
There are many and varied opinions on how meditative practice relates to mental illness, and it is likely vastly more complicated than any of us appreciates at this point. The science of this is currently in its infancy. I know those who are certain that strong practice made someone they know or themselves mentally ill. I also find entire online communities of those with mental illnesses (such as The Icarus Project found at http://theicarusproject.net), where you can find members who feel that they have benefitted from the stabilizing effects of practice. Thus, at this point, it appears to go both ways.
There is a reason that many meditation centers have questionnaires about physical and mental history, previous and current medications, psychiatric diagnoses, and the like, as they know that those who are less stable don’t always do well when things get weirder or their concentration gets ramped up. Some of my bipolar and schizophrenic friends who meditate have strongly encouraged me to include something that says to avoid the high-intensity techniques that I present here, to keep things more grounded in physical activities or somatic practices, to use much lower doses of meditation, to practice very gently, and avoid visualization and mantra practices unless you are working very closely with a qualified teacher. Being physically ungrounded, practicing frequently and intensely, and doing visualization and mantra practices without qualified guidance can increase the risks of meditation practice going wrong.
You can find lots of information of varying quality about these topics on the internet. If you are worried about the effects of practice on your mental health for whatever reason, check around, start slowly, avoid extreme changes, and keep in the loop someone who is qualified to help manage this sort of practice. Even if you are a strong practitioner, if you are doing high-intensity practicing, there is lots to be said for having friends around with whom you can talk if you start to feel you are getting too far out there.
That said, there are clearly those who once were sane and healthy who have flipped out when they started practicing hard, and it is an obvious myth that you must have something wrong with you to have these practices precipitate a psychotic, manic, or depressive episode. The practicing hard part is more a question of probabilities. Unfortunately, as we get more data, it becomes clear that these experiences can also happen to previously very sane, functional, ordinary people who practiced at doses that I would have previously considered nearly homeopathic. This is something that many of the people teaching them, such as social workers and clinical psychologists offering mindfulness-based therapies and meditative practices, are often entirely unprepared for, which is a truly ironic situation. It is sort of like an asymptotic curve where the tail never quite touches zero, meaning that we can’t promise that any dose is necessarily 100.0000000 percent safe, though there is clear dose dependency of side effects for many people, but not all. Those interested in the science of these unfortunate effects should check out the work of Dr. Willoughby Britton and Dr. Jared Lindahl.
This section is the package insert with the fine print that is telling you all the bad stuff that can happen. As a hopefully rational person with what I hope is good decision-making capacity, you can choose to get into this stuff or not and, if you get into it, decide how far you wish to push it. One day hopefully we will have good predictive criteria of who is at higher risk for the negative side effects, know vastly more about how to prevent them, and address situations skillfully when they occur, at the same time as allowing people to make good progress to develop the mental skill sets they wish to develop. I would bet that those with the best morality practice will do better, but it is clearly no guarantee that bad things won’t happen in meditation, as I know some extremely moral, kind, previously quite sane, balanced, and functional people who lost it on the cushion and thereafter for some period. In the meantime, realize that meditation, like any other aspect of the phenomenal world, is not perfectly safe. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something or just doesn’t know what they are talking about.
Aside from the question of genuine mental illness and temporary psychosis, tinkering with visions and other extrasensory experiences, such as traveling out-of-body, bi-location, etc., can sometimes cause us to feel ungrounded, disconnected, otherworldly, and scattered for hours or even days afterwards, something I call a “siddhi hangover”. For those who have experienced the effects of strong hallucinogens, it is very much like the post-trip integration phase that can last for days or much longer. Exercise and focusing on anything physical can help with this, as well as just tending to simple, daily, routine tasks, like paying bills, volunteer service in a soup kitchen, or sweeping the floor.
I would suggest care and caution in dealing with all the visions and other unusual experiences that might arise in practice. The primary danger is taking them too seriously and thus assuming they are more important than they really are. It may be a good idea to leave them until very late in our practice unless we have someone around to guide us through their skillful use, or unless we are quite balanced and have been for a significant amount of time, and have a good sense of humor about them. If not, they can very easily magnify our less desirable aspects, and only serve as long psychedelic and manipulative tunnels to nowhere or to destruction.
I remember a letter from a friend who was on a long retreat in Burma and was supposed to be doing insight practices but had slipped into playing with these sorts of experiences. He was now fascinated by his ability to see spirit animals and other supernormal beings and was having regular conversations with some sort of low-level god that kept telling him that he was making excellent progress in his insight practice—that is, exactly what he wanted to hear. However, the fact that he was having stable visionary experiences and was buying into their content made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t doing insight practices at all, but was lost in and being fooled by these.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If we are looking for another way to address our content and issues, visions of things like spirit animals can be helpful, particularly in the right cultural context. But it’s crucial not to mix up content and fundamental insight. It is also worth noting, as my friend wished me to point out in this volume, that after a few days of this he realized that the demigod wasn’t giving him useful advice and so he started ignoring it and it went away and he got back to insight practices.
Speaking of crazy (which I realize is not the most professional of terms, but bear with me here), I really like good ol’ Siggy Freud’s definition of mental illness, which is: those things that interfere with love and work. As an emergency medicine physician, spent a lot of time taking care of people who have various mental illnesses, with the most common being anxiety, depression (sometimes with psychotic features), the personality disorders, substance abuse and dependence, bipolar disorder, and the schizophrenia spectrum disorders. A reasonable number of patients have experiences that might be classified as falling into the powers category, such as auditory and visual hallucinations, as well as various experiences such as the sense of thought insertion and the like. So how do these individuals’ experiences differ from those of the practicing meditator and should they be conceptualized and managed differently?
These are important questions, and they deserve much attention. Distinguishing between meditation side effects and mental illness is sometimes easy and at other times quite difficult. Deciding what treatment might be best is also not always straightforward. I will do a very basic discussion of it here, but it is a very complex topic that deserves much more study and research. Being a pragmatic contemplative at heart, I tend strongly towards placing emphasis on functionality.
On one end of a hypothetical spectrum, we have people who are overtly psychotic and have profound impairment in their ability to deal with reality, stay safe, and interact safely with others. This can happen to people with mental illness and to meditators. In that moment, whether it the symptoms result from meditation side effects, a mixed depressive/manic bipolar episode, or the beginning of schizophrenia, for example, is not as important as immediate stabilization, which means immediate emergency psychiatric medical treatment. Even if the crisis was just some meditation-induced episode that is not likely to recur, getting through the short term with everyone remaining unharmed is the first order of business.
As an aside, please do not assume that meditation will allow you to come off your meds if you are on meds for something like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. It is not that gentle meditation can’t help some people with mental illness, as it can, but it can also greatly increase mental instability at times, so keep whoever helps you manage your illness in the loop about what is going on with you if you get into meditation, and be honest with them about what you are experiencing.
On the other end of that hypothetical spectrum, we have more benign phenomena, such as just seeing a vision of some flowers or hearing a choir of angelic beings while meditating and without other complexities issuing from these experiences. Conceptual frameworks that use that simple, harmless, and possibly beautiful experience as justification to add pathological labels, such as psychosis or hallucinations, would also be doing harm where none needed to occur. Plenty of meditation experiences are just meditation experiences, the byproducts of strong concentration and nothing more. They do no damage, cause no trouble, impair no function, and so require no pathologizing label, intervention, or undue negative reaction.
And then we have the large middle region of the spectrum, where it gets complicated. Many people that others would consider totally nuts live very functional lives. They heal with their hands, predict the future, see ghosts, talk to fairies, perform compassionate exorcisms, and manipulate their qi. They also hold down normal jobs, pay their bills, have healthy relationships, and raise their children just fine. In short, they are solid citizens, true mensches, to use the Yiddish. The vegetables they grow by following the instructions of the garden gnomes turn out beautifully. Some people believe that Earth is about 6,000 years old and was created in six days by a divine being, and they do so while maintaining excellent practices as physicians, thus contributing valuable service to their communities.
Unusual suffering is not occurring due to their odd paradigms and magickal experiences. They may have been raised that way and it is totally normal to them, just how life is, and so it causes them no obvious difficulties and, instead, may enhance their lives. You might think it is weird, but it is not impairing their functioning in the world.
On the darker end of things, there are people who have a much easier time having some level of functionality when their internal experience is challenging, meaning specifically that their inner world is chaotic, irrational, and filled with powerful, volatile, frightening, and confusing experiences that are outside the previous scope of things they learned to handle well. They work their jobs, interact with friends and family members, and nobody can tell when those experiences are happening. Then there are those who, in the face of those same powerful experiences, might manifest extremely harmful actions and reactions, such as abject panic and violent behavior. Those who can stay at a sensate level and just notice each sensation happening, rather than reactively freaking out, are going to do a lot better in general. Those who also have supportive and knowledgeable people with whom they can discuss what they are experiencing along with a language and conceptual framework to discuss it straightforwardly are also likely to do a lot better.
One of the basic tests of whether people should pursue intensive practice is the degree to which they fall into one of these more functional categories with respect to managing difficult experiences. This is the formal psychological concept of “ego strength” showing its head again. Ego strength is essential for facing and processing these experiences well, or, at the very least, for keeping the actions we do with our body, speech, and mind from causing damage to anyone or anything—in short, for keeping our shit together.
On another tangent, both mental illness and insight can and often do coexist. I have some very skilled meditation friends who have at times suffered from some significant mental illnesses. Many people get into meditation to deal with their own internal complexities. Further, mental illness may arise that might appear unrelated to our meditation practice. People often start meditating in their twenties or thirties, which is also a common time for initial manic episodes and, in some, the development of schizophrenia. Depression and anxiety (some of which may result from authentic, natural insight into the first noble truth of suffering) are also common reasons for people to start meditating.
Personality disorders are also quite common across all groups of people, including meditators, and this includes the relatively troublesome Cluster B diagnoses from the DSM-5 of borderline, antisocial, narcissistic, and histrionic personality disorders. As mentioned before, these are diagnoses you should read up on and understand well if you are going to teach meditation (or interact with the public at all), particularly if you think you fall into one of these diagnostic categories. Meditation in high doses can produce intense experiences and rapid changes that can exacerbate these conditions. Being able to adopt a paradigm that embraces both the theory regarding the side effects of meditation and the standard psychological theory can be very useful, as it is often not clear exactly where one ends and the other begins. We certainly shouldn’t blame every negative psychological difficulty that happens to meditators on either mental illness or meditation, but instead do our best to sort out the features of these conditions with those who are well informed about both.
In the meantime, if experiences get too wild for you to handle, the first general principle is stop meditating. This also involves a paradigm shift for many, as they may believe that persevering in meditation at all costs is the best option to help make them saner. This is not always the case. Recall the advice we saw with the progress of insight and the Dark Night and its potential side effects—get grounded, do some exercise or other physical activity like gardening or hiking, do routine distracting tasks, watch movies whose content won’t exacerbate your condition, eat heavy foods, and play sports, but perhaps avoid high-intensity video games.
Also, make heartfelt, formal, clearly-verbalized resolutions that the problematic experiences stop immediately and that ordinary reality be restored—a good example being, “I formally resolve that I will not experience or use these powers (name them here) until I formally resolve otherwise,” or, “May these destabilizing experiences stop, and may stability and a high level of normal function return immediately.” Feel it. Mean it. Believe this will work. If it doesn’t work the first time, say it again, and repeat as necessary. Those all greatly increase the chances that this will work. You might have spent hours or days getting yourself into this mess through strong practice, so you might have to spend hours or days working hard to shut it down: apply at least the same degree of diligence to this braking work as you did to the work of acceleration.
It is amazing the degree to which we can be so fascinated by the freaky stuff that we lack the perspective to step back and just call a halt to the madness, as it were, so don’t get sucked into that trap. It is also possible to get so identified with far-out experiences, even those that are causing problems, that we cling to them with morbid curiosity. Recognize this immediately if it happens and put a stop to it.
Notice that sometimes the powers seem to completely preclude the possibility of practicing insight in relation to them, that is, noting their three characteristics throughout. When we can remember to do that, and if we have the skillset, shredding the experiences of the powers with consistent, sustained, and analytical insight practice can rapidly cause those sensations to scatter like confetti and break up unhealthy fascination. The insight method of shredding them with rapid-fire investigation was my primary strategy for dealing with the powers for my initial two years or so until I got much more established in my practice and became more comfortable and competent in dealing with unusual experiences.
Sometimes it is simply best to put your mental foot down and just say, ”No!” At times, there can be subconscious manifestations of our psychological issues that come up in a magickal, meditative form. Often, we are not very mature in relating to our deeper issues when they come up this way. Waxing Western psychological again, read up on the mature and immature coping mechanisms: just type “mature and immature coping mechanisms” into any internet search engine. Apply the mature coping mechanisms to the powers and your practice and life in general, and you will do better.
The next essential piece of advice for those having a hard time, as already mentioned and which cannot be overstated, is to immediately speak with people who know about both mental illness and meditation. If you can’t find those with that dual competence in your area (as they are hard to find at the time of this writing), then start with those who know about mental illness and how to treat it, and don’t try to go it alone. In my ideal world, one day we will be able to find those with dual competence easily, as the necessary theory and training will be widely available through the standard healthcare educational channels.
In fact, as meditation is spreading seemingly everywhere, this had better happen fast or there will be even more trouble in the meditation world than there already is. When relating your experience to those who can provide stabilizing care, try to avoid dharma terminology and stage/state labels, because the chances that a garden-variety mainstream mental-health provider will know such terms is nearly zero at this point. They will know all about how to stabilize psychosis and bipolar-like manifestations, so just stick to ordinary non-dharmic terms for the disturbing symptoms and they will likely find them less confusing and alienating.
That brings me to the question of community support and the powers. If you are going to explore the powers, I highly recommend that you have people to talk with about them and that you set this up ahead of time. As noted in the “Foreword and Warning”, becoming an accomplished practitioner of the powers can be very alienating. Reasons for this alienation include the time commitment generally required, the likely lack of available people in your area who will be able to understand what you are talking about (unless you are training in one of the few communities that is well-versed in them), and the paradigm-divergence that can occur as your experience becomes vastly different from that of those around you. All these can tempt us to be lone wanderers in strange lands. I highly recommend that you not be. Instead, reach out and cultivate friends who are good at these things and can serve as sounding boards for your practice, particularly regarding the powers. Ideally, these supportive friends will:
• be sufficiently accomplished so that they have a basis of experience to be able to understand whatever you are going through;
• have a sufficiently similar vocabulary and conceptual background to yours to be able to understand what you are talking about;
• be sufficiently versed in the dangers of practice to be able to identify when you are getting into trouble;
• be sufficiently stable, secure, kind, ethical, and psychologically mature so that they are not intimidated by or in competition with your practice, prone to other bad behavior, or prone to giving bad advice or freaking out when you tell them about whatever you are going through;
• be blessed with that precious spirit of co-adventuring comrades rather than teacher vs. student, rival vs. rival, or other unhealthy conception of the relationship between you;
• keep things down-to-earth, practical, and real whenever possible;
• have a good sense of humor and an ability to roll with things, maintain perspective, and take things in stride;
• know when to refer you to someone with more skill or capabilities than they have (such as inpatient psychiatric facilities, or a more senior dharma teacher) when the situation is beyond their ability to handle. Just as we who work in emergency departments know how to stabilize and then transfer to a higher level of specialized care those patients who have illnesses that are beyond our capabilities to handle in our facility, just so meditation teachers should know how to recognize when people get into territory beyond their knowledge and competence and to whom they should refer the practitioner in question (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) kids: take note).
If you can cultivate friends like these, it will be of immense benefit to you and to them, and your practice will likely be much stronger, and if you get into trouble, you are much more likely to do well if you have good support and sane reference points than if you don’t.
This applies to all aspects of practice, not just the powers, but, as the powers are the aspect of practice that is most prone to causing problems, it applies most of all to them. Even better, if you can be this sort of friend to others, that is true generosity, true and useful support, and to the degree that you are able to do this you will be doing true good in the world. It is the ideal to which I myself aspire. Unfortunately, the more explicitly magickal communities tend to be the worst communities in terms of competition, petty power bullshit, posturing, alpha-person domination, manipulation, and the like, with other forms of meditation communities being a close second. That doesn’t mean that this trend needs to continue, and in general it means that the people you are around probably don’t have that strong a practice; if they did they would be just fine and wouldn’t likely be so psychologically immature.
In that same vein, people can get really into the powers, and really into themselves for having them, as I know well from my own practice and the practices of plenty of my co-adventurers, though people with very strong morality and insight are less prone to this sort of finely honed stupidity. Still, the powers are extremely seductive, and seduction is both hard to recognize and to insight your way through. Stories abound of gurus who were all into whatever powers they thought they had. It is a potential source of profound arrogance, role-abuse, and power-tripping, as well as the staggering crashes and scandals that tend to follow. Avoid those ways of relating to the powers like the plague. Instead, rank strong morality as among the greatest of the powers, second only to the wise and liberating clear perception of sensate reality.
If you find some of the less skillful reactions to the powers arising in you: acknowledge them, note them, and compensate for them with whatever skillful attempts at humility, empathy, and morality you can muster until you get over yourself. Do basic insight practices on the sensations that make up those feelings and reactions. The classic argument that the powers will help you sell good dharma and get people attracted to meditation and the like is an exceedingly slippery slope, and good people fall right off that cliff all the time, whereas the psychopaths and narcissists with powers may have already been there waiting at the bottom. The “powers as advertising” argument was explicitly refuted by the Buddha, at least when he wasn’t using the powers to advertise Buddhism.
Playing around with powers can also bring up really screwed up stuff from our subconscious that we are just not ready or able to handle skillfully, causing “siddhi bleed-through” into our lives that can range from simply unhelpful all the way to extremely destructive. These powers-fueled issues can sometimes be very hard to integrate. I have spent days pondering some of my stranger experiences, with that contemplation significantly distracting me from the important ordinary tasks I needed to be paying attention to, only to realize days later that I had come to no useful conclusion about what the experience “meant”, why it happened, or whether it led to anything useful for myself or others.
When exploring any meditative technology, there is no free lunch. You always end up being forced to face some further challenge having to do with personal or spiritual growth, either then or shortly thereafter. There doesn’t seem to be any getting around this.
Further, if you have enough of these experiences, you will very likely come across a number whose causes, meanings, and practical implications stubbornly defy attempts to understand them at a conceptual level that can then be integrated behaviorally.
Back on a positive note: plenty of people get into the powers and do okay for a while. They handle them well, relate to them well, and get many insights out of them. They can be loads of fun with the right attitude and totally fascinating in a good way, encouraging us to explore our psyches, hearts, and minds in truly remarkable ways and to use those remarkable talents to do good.