Delving into the ‘dark side of enlightenment’

This NPR interview Sunday morning caught my ear from the moment it touched on what sounds like India Syndrome:

Back in 2006, he was leading a program for American students in India. They learned about Buddhism, practiced meditation, and one day, they undertook a particularly dark exercise: It involved imagining themselves as decaying corpses.

Afterwards, one of his brightest students told him it was the most profound experience of her life. That night, she described herself in her journal as a “bodhisattva,” just before jumping to her death from the roof of the retreat center. “And this, to me, was this horrifying experience,” Carney says. “How could something that is so wonderful, how could go so terribly wrong? I spent the next six years collecting journals of other people who’d had similar experiences. And then when I found out about Ian Thorson’s death in 2012, I knew that I wanted to tell the story of spiritual sickness through his eyes.”

NPR touts this as the “dark side of enlightenment,” which is as good a way to sum it up as I can think of. I’ve heard similar stories, including ones seemingly resulting from untethered pranayama.

The interview, of course, is tied to a book, and the author Scott Carney makes one particularly valuable point:

And I believe that very intensive meditation might be able to accentuate some of these underlying proclivities in us, and push us over the edge. It’s a problem that we know about in the traditions and yet you don’t really talk about it in the community at large, because I think a lot of people feel that if you mention that there’s this dark side to meditation, that you’re undercutting the very credibility of the techniques in the first place. But I don’t understand why we can’t have both, right? Why can’t we say, these things can be wonderfully good for you, but maybe like a drug, it’s better thought of as powerful, and used in a way that is responsible.

That sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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