A new podcast examines the perils of intense meditation

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Imagine it’s a crisp clear winter day, and you’re skiing down a mountain, feeling exhilarated. All of a sudden, you lose control of your skis. You’re hurtling down towards the base of the slope, and all you can feel is abject terror.

That’s how one young man explained his emotional state during an intensive meditation retreat. It was one of several troubling accounts reporter Madison Marriage heard while reporting Untold: The Retreat, a new investigative podcast series from the Financial Times and Goat Rodeo.

The four-episode series focuses on retreats held by the Goenka network, teaching a popular meditation technique called Vipassana. Participants follow a strict schedule, waking before dawn and meditating silently for 10 days, 10 hours per day. They eat just two vegan meals each day.

Meditation and mindfulness have many known health benefits, including helping to process trauma and manage anxiety, improve eating habits, and ease chronic pain. While many participants say Goenka retreats changed their lives for the better, The Retreat tells the stories of individuals whose mental health deteriorated during a 10 day retreat – or for some, after several 10-day retreats.

Some spent time in psychiatric units, and two participants whose families spoke to Marriage, took their own lives.

Marriage interviewed nearly two dozen people who had attended Goenka retreats in different countries, including the U.K., the United States, France, India, and Australia. According to these former participants, retreat staff all over the world had a similar reaction when they were approached with mental health problems. “They’re going to be telling you the same thing, which is keep meditating even if you’re in severe emotional distress,” she told NPR.

A global organization, the structure of the Goenka network is decentralized. The Financial Times reached out for comment to lead teachers at several Goenka centers, including the centers in Delaware and British Columbia where participants had died by suicide after exhibiting signs of psychological distress. But they declined to do an interview or answer specific questions on the record.

Bob Jeffs, director of one Goenka center near Merritt, British Columbia, told the producers of The Retreat in a written statement that his staff assess applicants before retreats and tries to dissuade people who are not ready: “Although the experience of hundreds of thousands of people who have successfully completed retreats since the early 1970’s is overwhelmingly positive, these courses are not for everyone. We take the safety and well-being of every student in our care extremely seriously.”

NPR contributor Andrea Muraskin spoke with Marriage about what her investigation uncovered about the mental health risks of meditation retreats.

Content retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2024/03/31/1241784635/meditation-vipassana-dangerous-mental-health.

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