New Times,
New Thinking.

When meditation goes wrong

A new podcast uncovers a wellness retreat linked to mental breakdowns and suicides.

By Rachel Cunliffe

 When we consider addictions that can drive seemingly stable people to mental breakdown, we don’t tend to think about meditation. So how did healthy twin sisters end up so addicted to intensive meditation retreats that they are still “in recovery” years later?

That question drove Madison Marriage, the special-investigations editor at the Financial Times, to look into the Goenka network and the Vipassana meditation courses it runs all over the world. This is a four-part series, so it comes as no surprise the twins are not alone: while many rave about the benefits of the intensive ten-day silent retreats, some participants come away feeling their minds have been damaged in irrevocable, life-ruining ways. They suffer debilitating insomnia, anxiety, paranoia, terror, delusions and hallucinations. In the past seven years, there have been at least two deaths by suicide linked to Goenka retreats.

Marriage resists the urge to sensationalise, remaining sympathetic yet understated as she deals with these horrors. She learns there is substantial evidence for meditation-induced psychosis. Experts and participants liken the experience, which includes rigorous sensory deprivation, to a psychedelic trip. Both attempt to achieve altered states of consciousness.

There can be significant benefits – increased self-control, a sense of inner peace, perhaps even improved physical well-being – but there are also risks. Risks that participants are not warned of when signing up. Risks that those running retreats are not trained to handle, and that the network still refuses to admit exist.

I went into this expecting a tale of corruption, abuse and financial exploitation. In some ways, it sounds a lot like a cult. But no one is making any money and there is no cult leader (Satya Narayan Goenka, who popularised the technique, died in 2013). Instead, this story “is about a growing number of untrained people playing at the margins of some dangerous forces, all under the seemingly innocuous guise of self-improvement”. Which, in its own way, is even more terrifying.

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The Retreat
Financial Times

[See also: The strange history of the pill]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024