Meditation Be Bad for You?
by Mary Garden
Published in the Humanist, September/October 2007
Back in 1979, when I was living in Pune, India, as a starry-eyed devotee of the infamous guru Bhagwan Rajneesh, something happened that has disturbed me to this day. A man who had just come down from Kathmandu after completing a thirty-day Tibetan Buddhist meditation course killed himself. I had met him the night before, and we'd had coffee together. I don't remember what we spoke about, but he was friendly and didn't appear distressed. But the next day he climbed to the top of the multi-storied Blue Diamond Hotel and leapt off.
The Bhagwan, at his first lecture after the man's suicide, tried to reassure us by saying the man had already reincarnated as a more enlightened soul. But I was quite upset and remember thinking how strange it was that someone should kill himself after a meditation course. Isn't meditation something you do to get--at the very least--peace of mind? I wondered whether he might have had a mental illness and perhaps shouldn't have taken the course in the first place. Even if he had, shouldn't the meditation have helped? It didn't occur to me that the meditation itself might have caused a mental imbalance that tipped him over the edge--that meditation could be dangerous for some people.
(Bracketed by Corboy for emphasis)
Has such a notion ever appeared in the mainstream media, let alone the myriad New Age magazines?
In recent years neuroscientists have been examining the effects of meditation on the brain. Professor Richard Davidson of Wisconsin, a long-term Buddhist meditator himself, claims that meditation can "change neural states in circuits that may be important for compassionate behavior and attentional and emotional regulation." However, other scientists argue that Davidson's claims are unsubstantiated and that his studies have serious flaws ranging from experimental design to conclusions. Dr. Nancy Hayes, a neurobiologist at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, says that Davidson and his supporters promote research before it has been replicated. And what is really interesting, but never highlighted, is that Davidson himself points out that, for psychologists using meditation to treat their patients, "Meditation is not going to be good for all patients with emotional disorders and it may even be bad for certain types of patients."
Dr. Solomon Snyder, head of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, warns that during meditation the brain releases serotonin. This may help those with mild depression but too much serotonin can cause, in some, a paradoxical relaxation-induced anxiety. Instead of relaxing during meditation, these people become distressed and may even have panic attacks. Snyder says that in some cases of schizophrenia, meditation can launch a person straight into psychosis.
And what about all those good feelings one can experience in meditation? Is there another explanation, for example, for that transcendental feeling of being one with the universe?
Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of long-term practitioners of Buddhism while they were meditating and compared them with images taken when they were not. Newberg saw that blood flow to the posterior superior parietal lobe decreased during meditation. This area of the brain determines the boundaries of one's body in relation to the environment and allows us to navigate a complex three-dimensional world without bumping into things. "We know that the posterior superior parietal lobe plays that particular role because there are patients with damage in this same region who literally cannot move around without falling," Newberg reports. "They'll miss the chair they intended to sit on, and generally have a fuzzy understanding of where their body ends and the rest of the universe begins." He says that when people have spiritual experiences and feel they become one with the universe and lose their sense of self, it may be because of what is happening in that area of the brain. "If you block that area, you lose that boundary between the self and the rest of the world." Were the Buddhist meditators merely experiencing an odd side effect of submitting their brains to unusual conditions?
Dr. Michael Persinger, a professor of neuroscience at the Laurentian University in Canada, studied 1,018 meditators in 1993 and found that meditation can bring on symptoms of complex partial epilepsy such as visual abnormalities, hearing voices, feeling vibrations, or experiencing automatic behaviors such as narcolepsy. Note that epileptic patients who suffer from seizures in the temporal lobes have auditory or visual hallucinations, which they often interpret as mystical experiences. Some are convinced that they conversed with God.
In recent years Persinger set out to investigate so-called "mystical" experiences under controlled laboratory conditions. He got volunteers to wear a helmet fitted with a set of magnets through which he ran a weak electromagnetic signal. Persinger found that the magnetically induced seizures in the temporal lobes generate the same sort of hallucinations and mystical experiences reported by epileptic patients. Four in five people, he says, report a "mystical experience, the feeling that there is a sentient being or entity standing behind or near" them. Some weep, some feel God has touched them, others become frightened and talk of demons and evil spirits. "That's in the laboratory," Persinger notes, referring to subjects' knowledge of a controlled environment. "How much more intense might these experiences be if they happened late at night, or in a pew in a mosque or synagogue?"
Does this indicate that so-called mystical experiences may be caused by seizures, by a temporary malfunction of the brain circuitry triggered by abnormal conditions such as sensory deprivation or decreased blood flow to the parietal lobe? Is that what happened to me?
In addition to the neuroscientists' findings, there is anecdotal evidence that shouldn't be overlooked. Clearly there are potential dangers with long meditation retreats, particularly for beginners
Theres the Dharma scene, which can range from authentic and deeply honorable persons who have done much good to highly commercialized versions of it, where, on the basis of some gadget or quickie weekend, you are promised access to some special *trademarked* state of mind.
And...if you dare critique this commercialized gadget Buddhism, you get accused of violating Right Speech.
When news of the death lodge first emerged everyone called it a tragic accident. As more information came to light everyone called it negligence. As we continue to look into the James Ray scandal we begin to see a larger picture, a pattern of abuse growing in severity that resulted in at least four deaths, possibly five.
I fully expected Nightline to divulge all the dirty little experiential events at James Ray’s other seminars since they were speaking to former JRI employee Melinda Martin. They didn’t though, so it looks like it’s up to me.
The death lodge was not James Ray’s first attempt to cook people. I’ve heard reports that both his Modern Magick and Practical Mysticism seminars include an event where participants walk across a bed of hot coals and lots of people have been badly burned because of this. The worst example I heard of this was at a retreat where approximately 80% of people received second or third degree burns. Now, I don’t know a whole lot about fire-walking and it seems like a pretty bad idea to me, but plenty of people have reported walking across coals without any injuries at all. In the retreat mentioned above, where the majority received burns, it appears to be due to the accelerant James Ray “spilled” on the coals and sections of the dirt where participants were walking barefoot.
What are some other features of the Modern Magick retreat, besides the human barbeque? James Ray also drugged participants. I repeat - James Ray drugged participants. Hallucinogenic breathing techniques are one thing, but James Ray goes above and beyond that and actually drugs his victims with some sort of hallucinogenic muscle relaxer.
What is this drink he coerces people into consuming? I don’t know, but we have a pretty detailed description. It’s a thick liquid described as mud-like. It tastes like dirt and definitely had mind-altering effects. James Ray described the substance as a sort of truth serum, claiming that it would release inhibitions and allow participants’ honest feelings to come out. Participants drank about four cups of this and it produced a heavy bloated feeling. Another notable side effect was that participants pooped black insanity for a couple of days. If anyone has ideas as to what this drink might be or what it’s made of please let me know in the comments.
Another activity at Modern Magick is something called “Dreamers and Dreamed”. Participants were put on silence and not allowed to talk to anyone and then had to wander around to different “stations”. At these “stations” the participants were supposed to hold their arms out in front of their face and look at their palms. They would then flip their hands to look at the back and say something like “Is this real or is this a dream?” after they had done this at the different stations they would go back to the classroom and lay down on their mat. They would rest for a bit and then they were supposed to get up and do the exact same thing, over and over again. This went on for about two hours, maybe longer. It was stressed to participants how important it was to do the exact same routine without variation.
What does this exercise signify? I’m not sure yet, but I think it’s a little odd that between 300 and 600 participants were wandering around the host locations all zombie like, in a trance, not talking, and nobody questioned this.
The most worrisome description of the Modern Magick seminar actually comes from the description of the breathing exercises. James Ray told participants that some may feel like taking off their clothes during the exercise and that staff members would be walking around to cover them with blankets and keep them from being exposed. They were also told that people might be doing things like gyrating hips, etc. James Ray stressed the importance of everyone staying on their own mat and to stay focused on themselves and not others. This setup is so ripe for abuse that I shudder to think what James Ray really meant with the trigger phrase for this activity – “Exactly what you need is exactly what you get.”
The Spiritual Warrior retreat ended with the grand finale of the death lodge and Modern Magick ended with no less of a shocker. James Ray had the same type of lead up saying things like “You’re not out of the woods yet! I have one more thing planned for you.” He also stressed that every single person there had to do it, had to participate. Then he brought out the snakes.
There were large fish tanks filled with writhing, squirming masses of serpents. Participants were told they had to reach through the snakes and grab a key from the bottom of the tank. James Ray told participants these were the keys that unlocked the door to their future. The snakes were all different sizes and species, but James Ray never said whether they were venomous or not.
Now, I’m sure some people are thinking “But James Ray would have to be psychotic to have hundreds and hundreds of people put their hands through five or six inches of venomous snakes!” and, well, yes. Yes, he would. In fact, snake handling is illegal in many states so I definitely think we should find out exactly what types of snakes James Ray was using, and if he had the appropriate exotic animals permits required to have snakes in that quantity. If the serpents were in fact vipers, then I suspect James Ray and staff will be looking at a whole new slew of charges.
Speaking of James Ray’s staff, it turns out that sometimes their job descriptions include things like “pretend to be a participant”. Greg Hartle has done this on more than one occasion.
Other reports of dangerous activities and injuries at James Ray seminars include bending rebar between two people’s necks, breaking arrows on necks (with sharpened metal point!), multiple broken bones from multiple activities – including standing meditation for hours resulting in falls (don’t forget Lorena Bathey’s arm), torn muscles/ligaments, walking on hot coals, and of course all the dangers of the Spiritual Warrior death lodge retreat.
I promised y’all descriptions of the other James Ray retreats, but then last night we found Greg Hartle’s death tweets and I got distracted. You see, on October 2nd, 2009 Greg Hartle tweeted about another suicide. Yep, that’s right folks. Greg Hartle not only witnessed Colleen Conaway’s “suicide” and then helped cover it up, but he’s also the very same Greg who helped James Ray lead the secret call to survivors. Now it turns out that right before the Spiritual Warrior retreat there was another death - a seemingly unrelated “suicide” of Andy Richter, Managing Partner of Terralever.
On October 2nd at 10:56 PM Greg Hartle tweeted from his phone, "Talking to @angelaleavitt about a friend's suicide last night." This was mere days before Greg headed off to work for James Ray at the Spiritual Warrior retreat and we all know how that ended. I’m not great at math, but to me that adds up to five dead people in three months that are all connected to James Ray International.
What do we know about Andy Richter? Well, this obituary certainly doesn’t make the man sound like a prime candidate for suicide. How did Andy Richter know Greg Hartle? Did he know James Ray? Did he ever attend a James Ray seminar or retreat? I don't know yet, but lets find out. I mean, it might be a coincidence but even four "accidental" deaths is four too many.
People have been going on about the "dangerous unregulation" of the self-help field, but in reality it is unheard of for a company or guru to have five deaths connected to them. In fact, deaths are extremely rare at self-help seminars. There are some reports of psychological breaks leading to suicide, but I've never before heard of it happening during an event like in the case of Colleen Conaway. Plain and simple, 99.9% of the time the worst thing that happens at a self-help seminar is wasted time and wasted money.
No death deserves to go unnoticed. Let's make sure Andy Richter's death gets the attention and respect that he deserves.
For example, the drink is probably Kava Kava, which James Ray copied from Tony Robbins.
Same with the firewalking, James Ray copied it from Tony Robbins.
The snake stuff is also copied from Tony Robbins and NLP, as they used to use rubber snakes and stuff to try and get people over snake phobias. James Ray just took it further.
So its the same James Ray pattern, he copies and steals material from others LGAT seminars, and then makes it far worse and more dangerous and damaging.
And the rest of the James Ray stuff is deep, powerful trance induction and suggestions. Its not Magick, its trance induction. That is what he does.
As far as the hand-staring, "is this real, is this a dream" , going back and forth to their mats, that is standard hypnotic stuff.
That is called Fractionation. FRACTIONATION
There are many links about it. [www.hypnosis-online.co.uk]
You take people in and out of trance, over and over, to get a deeper state of trance. The goal is to get them into such a deep trance they start to hallucinate.
Of course, dosing people with drugs/herbs is going to make that easier.
There is NOTHING mysterious about James Ray's techniques whatsoever. There is no Magick.
Its just about power and control, and using trance/hypnosis and other techniques to access people's unconscious minds, and then James Ray uses that power for his own advantage, like getting people to hand over 10's of thousands of dollars to him.