A 25 year-old Pennsylvania woman committed suicide after attending an intense 10-day meditation retreat at the Dhamma Vipassana Meditation Center in Claymont, Delaware that left her psychotic and suicidal.
Christine Vendel of PennLive.com is reporting on the story of Megan Vogt, a fun-loving young woman from Delta, Pennsylvania who heard about the benefits of Buddhist-style meditation from friends in California and decided to give it a try.
She signed up for a 10-day retreat at the Claymont facility which uses the traditional teachings of a spiritual leader named Satya Narayan Goenka (1923 – 2013) who was a Burmese-Indian teacher of vipassana meditation. His meditation retreats are described as being “austere” because they are silent – no reading or writing permitted – and consist of grueling schedules of concentration and meditation of up to 10 hours a day. Meditators receive instruction from Goenka himself, via video, with only volunteers nearby to offer assistance to retreatants.
“The Goenka retreats have drawn their share of criticism for the way in which they are set up, which is different from some other retreat centers,” Vendel reports. “The Goenka retreats, for example, require an initial 10-day course instead of shorter initial courses for people with no experience in meditation to see how they tolerate it.”
Because the retreats are free-of-charge and run by volunteers, experts say this limits the kind of professionals that are on-hand should anyone experience problems during the retreat.
When Vogt headed into the retreat in March of this year, she was her usual happy self. The center was aware that she was taking anxiety medication and her healthcare provider signed documents vouching for her stability. On the way to the retreat, she spoke with her mother until she arrived at the center where she had to surrender her cell phone.
"Little did we know, that was the last time we'd see the real her,” said her father Steve.
Ten days later, someone from the center called to say they needed to come and get Megan because she was “confused” and in no condition to drive. Her parents and sister undertook the 90-minute drive to the center where they found Megan in an incoherent state. She refused to make eye contact with them and kept telling her sister, Jordan, that she wasn’t physically there, but just “a projection.”
"You could tell she didn't know what was real," Jordan Vogt said.
The volunteers offered no information about what happened to her. The only thing they could say to Megan as she was being ushered into the car was, “Be strong.”
This was just before Megan tried to bolt back into the center to find a knife to kill herself.
The family managed to get her into their car and, with her father following behind in Megan’s truck, began the long drive home. During the trip, Megan repeatedly tried to kill herself by throwing herself out of the car.
As a result, her parents drove her straight to the mental ward of a hospital where Megan stayed for more than a week. She was given a 30-day prescription for psychosis and sent home.
She seemed to be doing better at times, but was still not herself, the family said. She was withdrawn during social events and got lost at a relative’s house even though she had was very familiar with it.
During this time, she would also remember bits and pieces of what happened at the retreat.
"She was trying to piece everything together," Jordan said. "But she couldn't get a coherent story. She didn't know the meaning or connections."
Megan said she remembered having problems about halfway through the retreat and yet no one intervened. By day seven, she no longer knew who she was or why she was there. Instead of calling her parents and sending her home, she was assigned a volunteer to watch her as she meditated for the last three days of her stay.
In the weeks after the retreat, Megan regularly saw a therapist, including the night before she died. But nothing seemed to work. She just couldn’t snap out of it.
Ten weeks after the retreat, she leaped from the Norman Wood Bridge, falling 120 feet to her death.
"Please forgive me for doing this," she wrote in a final note to her boyfriend Brian Dorsey that was jotted on a piece of mail. "I remember what I did at the retreat. I finally got that memory. I can't live with me."
Megan’s tragic story is shining a much-needed light on the dangers that are inherent in the meditation craze that is sweeping through the country. Experts say she’s not the first to die by suicide or experience serious mental issues after participating in these retreats. A growing body of research is finally coming to light about the dark side of this kind of intense meditation and is highlighting the need for more education of meditation leaders as well as for meditation center reforms.
For example researchers at Brown University conducted research in which they documented the experiences of 100 meditators who used Buddhist meditation techniques from the Theravāda, Zen and Tibetan traditions. Based upon their interviews with participants, they developed a list of 59 experiences involving emotions, moods, motivation, will, bodily sensations and other “influencing factors.”
“ . . . [A] commonly reported challenging experience in the perceptual domain was hypersensitivity to light or sound, while somatic changes such as insomnia or involuntary body movements were also reported. Challenging emotional experiences could include fear, anxiety, panic or a loss of emotions altogether.”
Sometimes the experiences were desirable, such as feelings of unity or oneness with others, the researchers report, but others say they went too far, lasted too long or left them feeling violated, exposed or disoriented.
“Others who had meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats reported that the persistence of these experiences interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.”
The duration of these experiences varied widely, ranging from a few days to months to more than a decade.
Experts say negative outcomes from popular meditation techniques such as mindfulness and the vipassana meditation that Vogt was employing, may be underreported simply because meditators think their problems are the result of “doing it wrong” rather than because the techniques themselves can be dangerous.
Whenever we employ a mental technique that requires us to either blank the mind or employ an excessive fixation on a single point, we risk putting ourselves into an altered state of consciousness which is physically, mentally, and spiritually dangerous.
These dangers are so real, in fact, that some meditation centers are now insisting that teachers have PhD’s in clinical psychology.
Chances are, if Megan Vogt had been forewarned about the dangers of engaging in this type of meditation, a bright and clear-headed young woman like herself might have opted not to participate – and would still be alive today.