The meditation retreat began in mid-September. For three months, I would be expected to maintain continuous noble silence: no talking, no cell phones. Teachers would give daily dharma talks, but the only actual conversations I’d have were private biweekly student-teacher check-ins that lasted about twenty minutes.
For weeks, I spent upwards of eight hours a day in formal practice, alternating between hour-long periods of sitting and walking meditation.
By the time the leaves had fallen in the nearby forest, I was sleeping only a few hours each night. During the witching hours, when the dharma hall was empty, I would practice walking meditation. Nighttime was when the meditation masters, both living and dead, would visit me. They gave me special dharma instructions. Sometimes they just laughed or smiled, cheering me on.
At first, the lightspeed experience was unsettling. Like in a science fiction movie, my mind was being transported through hyperspace. Bright lights were zooming by. At the end of the tunnel was this shape-shifting thing—something I couldn’t quite see but knew to be profoundly funny, horrifying, and tragic.
I was sure awakening was just around the corner. I decided that I should resolve to sit in lotus posture until I reached sotapanna, the first stage of awakening. When I explained this to my teachers—the real-life ones who were in charge of the retreat center—they didn’t understand.
“We want to make sure you’re okay,” a gray-haired senior teacher told me. “We’d like you to move out of the dormitories. There’s a little cottage across the street where you can stay with Alex and Phoenix.” This particular teacher was a polite Midwesterner, and she left out the part about how I was being put on twenty-four-hour suicide watch. Alex and Phoenix were the staff assigned to watch me.
In recent years, reports of people suffering emotional breakdowns during meditation retreats have surfaced in mainstream publications. In 2021, Harper’s magazine published an article about Megan Vogt, a twenty-five-year-old woman who tragically took her own life three months after attending a meditation retreat. Megan believed she was having a spiritual crisis, not a psychiatric one, but the article quotes medical professionals and researchers who warn that meditation retreats can cause psychotic breaks.
Psychiatrists rarely tell the stories of people like me. I was diagnosed as psychotic in my early twenties, but the deeper I went into treating my “psychosis,” the sicker I got. Meditation was one of the ways I found a path forward.
My parents, who are White and followed Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1990s, introduced me to meditation when I was little. Before the three-month retreat, I had sat over a dozen retreats in the Theravada tradition. Those months in silence were a way of testing my own limits. Was I crazy? What does it mean for someone who experiences voices and visions to find refuge in Buddhism? To help answer these questions, I spoke with three Buddhists, each from a different lineage: Phrawoody, a monastic in the Thai Forest tradition; Anna, a Tibetan Buddhist lay practitioner; and best-selling author and Zen priest Ruth Ozeki. Together with my own story, these voices present an array of tales about the unseen world and our relationship to it.
An hour east of Portland, in Sandy, there is a Theravada Buddhist hermitage called Oregon Ariyamagga Okasati Refuge. Located on five acres outside of town, the refuge is home to four Thai-born Buddhist monastics, led by a charismatic abbot named Phra Ajahn Vuttichai Chookaew. Phrawoody, as he is best known by his students, was ordained in 1995 and moved to the United States in 1999.
I asked Phrawoody why people experience voices and visions, and he told me there are many possible reasons. For some people, he said, it’s like they’re tuning into a radio frequency. When someone has a weak mind, Phrawoody says, they might accidentally discover “some layer or realm, some frequency of beings.” A weak-minded person cannot communicate with the beings in that realm. “They just hear it,” Phrawoody says.
In other cases, people communicate with deceased beings through dreams. When someone dies in Thailand, it is traditional for family members to perform a cremation ceremony, which helps the deceased travel to a better realm. It is also common for the recently deceased to visit their loved ones in dreams. “They have to wait until people are in a half-asleep, half-awake state,” says Phrawoody.
Thai cremation ceremonies are overseen by Buddhist monastics, but Phrawoody believes that the existence of unseen beings—and the practices that allow us to interact with them—is not inherently Buddhist. “This is the nature of human beings,” he says. “Any group, any nation, any language in this world—they have had these experiences.” These practices, Phrawoody explains, date back “before anything, even before the history of the world began.”
In Phrawoody’s lineage, there are many stories of unseen beings interacting with the human realm. Phrawoody is a senior student of a prominent, eccentric Thai monk named Phra Ajahn Jamnian Seelasetho. In addition to being a meditation master, Ajahn Jamnian is known throughout Southeast Asia as a traditional healer. “He’s been a healer since he was eight years old,” says Phrawoody. “We can call him a healer, but in my point of view, I don’t call him a healer. He’s just helping people to wake up.”
Once, when Ajahn Jamnian and Phrawoody were invited to lead chanting in a temple in Taipei, Taiwan, a woman in the audience began wailing and rolling around on the floor. “Suddenly the woman changed her way of speaking,” says Phrawoody. She was acting like she was possessed by a spirit, which her family members said had been living inside her body for more than twenty years.
The spirit explained to Ajahn Jamnian that it was stuck in the woman’s body because it didn’t know where else to go. Ajahn Jamnian promised that he could help the spirit go to a better place and gave it instructions on how to leave the body, which included a mantra for the spirit to chant while Ajahn Jamnian tapped on the woman’s head with a stick. It worked, says Phrawoody.
When I ask Phrawoody if he thinks Buddhism can be helpful to people who are struggling with voices and visions, he says it depends on the circumstances. When someone is experiencing a lot of fear, Phrawoody says, it doesn’t matter if it’s a doctor or a Buddhist who is trying to help—if the person doesn’t trust the method, the method won’t help them. When people are weak-minded, he says, “they want to do what they want. They will not follow a way that they don’t believe in.” Phrawoody says people just need to wake up from their state of confusion and fear, and there are many ways to do that. “I cannot say that Buddhism can help, because anyone can help,” says Phrawoody. “Anyone can help people to be alert and to be awake.”
It was the day before Thanksgiving when the retreat staff told me, “We just don’t have the resources to support you.” After three days on suicide watch, I was being kicked out.
While at the retreat center, I didn’t experience myself as being in crisis. I never requested to be put on suicide watch or asked to be evaluated for a psychiatric emergency. I thought it was wrong for the retreat center to kick me out—I was having a spiritual awakening, and even if it wasn’t the enlightenment experience I thought it was, I didn’t need to be ostracized from the community.
I had been in silence for more than two months, and returning to the regular world so suddenly was overwhelming. What if that meditation retreat was part of a CIA operation, and they kicked me out as an experiment? Having discovered their plot, I realized the secret agents were going to kill me. I ended up in the emergency room of a local hospital, where the staff continued to perform psychological experiments on me. They kept interrogating me, asking intrusive questions, and denying me food and water. I refused to answer their questions, and they led me through a large metal door to the locked part of the emergency room, where they hold patients when the inpatient psych unit is full.
“You’re going to kill me!” I screamed. I wanted to look every hospital staff member in the eye so they would have to see me as a human being before they pulled the trigger. “You can put a bullet in my head,” I said.
A half dozen nurses and security guards pushed me onto a gurney. When they removed my pants, I assumed I was being sexually assaulted. They stabbed me with two hypodermic needles, one in each thigh, and injected me with two powerful medications, an antipsychotic and a benzodiazepine. When I came to eighteen hours later, I was released to the care of my father, who had arrived in the area that morning. In the months following my hospitalization, whenever I felt a strong emotion, even ordinary states of happiness or frustration, I was reminded of the violence I experienced in the emergency room. I worried they would lock me up again.
Anna is a Tibetan Buddhist living in Ashland. In her late forties, she is a lay practitioner in the Nyingma school. (For privacy, Anna asked to be identified only by her first name.) Anna was raised in the Pacific Northwest. Her mother is a Catholic immigrant from Vietnam; her father, who is White, converted to Tibetan Buddhism (also known as Vajrayana Buddhism) when Anna was in her twenties.
In Anna’s home, there is a shrine set with traditional Tibetan Buddhist items such as a butter lamp, incense, and seven bowls of water. The shrine serves many purposes, including a way to welcome unseen visitors. “It’s an offering to somebody coming to your house,” says Anna. “You have a butter lamp for light, because you turn on the light and make a home [for] this unseen being.”
“I’m adamant about Tibetan Buddhists hosting these beings,” says Anna, “because these beings are compassion.” Anna says humans’ relationships with these unseen beings have been ongoing for thousands of years. “Tibetans have hosted them, made homes for them, loved them, and been loved by them,” she says. “These beings are the highest beings that I feed and take care of and [that] I’m in a relationship with.”
Anna is also in relationship with dream beings who visit her while she sleeps. As a young adult, she was a politically active performance artist and dancer. Coming of age during the Gulf War, she felt very angry. Anna experienced an existential crisis in her twenties. “I don’t even know what my diagnosis was,” she says, “but I’m pretty sure it was extreme.” Anna sought treatment with a Jungian analyst and developed a relationship with her dreams as a way of navigating the world.
Around this time, she had a dream about Buddhism. “These Buddhist monks came to me in the dream and said, ‘You are Buddhist.’” A few months later, Anna’s dad offered her an opportunity to go to Bloomington, Indiana, to attend a ten-day Kalachakra ritual. While reading the traditional texts associated with the ritual, Anna was overwhelmed with emotion. “I just began crying all of these tears,” she says, “because as I was reading it, it was like I was remembering. It wasn’t like I was learning; I was remembering.”
Anna and I met through the Hearing Voices Network, a peer-based support group for people who experience voices, visions, and related phenomena. Together, we founded a local Hearing Voices Network group in Medford. In the group, people are free to interpret their experiences in any way—meaning if someone understands their voices as spiritual in nature, the group doesn’t judge or lecture them. We don’t try to convince people that they’re sick, or force them into a particular form of treatment. We offer a way out of isolation, a sense of community with others who have been there.
Anna has never been hospitalized or medicated because of her experiences. That could have easily happened when she was a young adult, she thinks, if she had been subjected to more mainstream mental health services. “I’ve talked to people who have been through similar experiences,” she says, “and I’m horrified.”
Anna didn’t formally convert to Buddhism until age forty. She found herself living next door to a Tibetan Buddhist gompa in rural California. It was there that she took refuge in a Nyingma lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhists practice a form of lucid dreaming called dream yoga, which includes viewing the waking world as illusory. Learning from the teachers in her lineage about their relationship to the dreamworld was an important part of Anna’s developing practice. In her lineage, one of the key meditations is focused on Red Tara, a Buddhist deity who embodies the feminine aspects of a Buddha. “Our rinpoche, it was said that he dreamed of Red Tara,” says Anna. “It made me incredibly happy to hear that. Here’s an entire group of people who dream together. Tara, you don’t necessarily see her—but she’s the dream, and she’s as real and unreal as a dream.”
I never sought professional mental health treatment after being forcibly hospitalized. It’s been five years, and I haven’t been hospitalized since, nor have I taken antipsychotic medications.
In the weeks after being hospitalized, I looked to Buddhist teachers for spiritual counseling and perspective. One teacher, who I had practiced with since I was thirteen years old, said she was no longer willing to meet with me because she wasn’t an expert on mental health. The bhikkhuni nuns at Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery, who I had also known for a number of years, were the most supportive. They didn’t have definitive answers about what had happened or what my experiences meant, but they made it clear I was still welcome to visit their community.
When I started attending Hearing Voices Network peer support meetings in 2019, I was struck by how many people in the community were also interested in Buddhism. Best-selling author and Zen priest Ruth Ozeki researched the Hearing Voices Network for her most recent novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. This book—and Ruth’s earlier novel, A Tale for the Time Being—prominently features Buddhist characters and themes. Set in an unnamed city along the Pacific coast, The Book of Form and Emptiness tells the story of Benny Oh, a young boy who hears the voices of inanimate objects.
Ruth and I first connected during a panel discussion I facilitated. The discussion also included Jeannie Bass and Claire Bien, two voice-hearers and board members of Hearing Voices Network-USA. Claire is a Zen practitioner, but Jeannie does not meditate. During the panel, Jeannie explained that she was hospitalized during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when clinical staff were pushing mindfulness as a coercive panacea.
“If you were in the mental health system, you were being forced to go in a group and forced to meditate … or you [couldn’t] go out for your cigarette break,” Jeannie said. “For those of us that were in the system then, like me, I have a really hard time making peace with it.”
When I called Ruth Ozeki again this spring to discuss our shared interest in voice-hearing and Buddhism, she said she believes that voice-hearing takes place along a spectrum. She often hears the voices of her characters as part of her writing process. After her father died, Ruth continued to hear his voice as he was clearing his throat and calling her name. “When I was hearing my dad’s voice,” she says, “it really made me think hard about what it is to hear voices, and which of these voices are pathological and which of them are creative—what’s the difference?”
As a teenager, Ruth spent time in a locked psych ward, but she didn’t get ensnared within the mental health system. “I was never diagnosed with any particular condition,” she says. “I just figured that I was the way I was because I was a writer—that was my diagnosis. Writers were crazy, right?”
Ruth was raised in Connecticut by her Japanese mother and White American father. After college, she spent eight years living in Japan. Japanese culture and its expressions of Buddhism and Shintoism are influenced by animism, Ruth explains. “In an animist tradition, of course there are voices,” she says. “Of course things speak—why wouldn’t they?”
In Japan, there is a traditional ceremony called hari-kuyō, which serves as an annual memorial for broken pins and needles. “If you have something like a needle or a pin that’s been useful to you all your life,” Ruth explains, “you’re not just going to throw it away.” Hari-kuyō is a way of recognizing one’s relationship with the world of things, Ruth says. “They do a memorial service for all of the broken pins and needles from the village that gave their lives to serve the people of the village.”
This orientation toward the unseen was alive in Ruth’s grandparents, who were also Zen practitioners. “My grandmother made tea for my grandfather every morning, even though he’d been dead for years,” she says. “She talked to him, and I’m sure she would have told you that he talks to her. It’s just a different way of drawing lines between the living and the dead, the inanimate and the animate. The communications are just a little freer.”
Ruth meditated on and off throughout her life, but she got serious about it in her late thirties as a way to cope with her parents’ aging. In 2005, Ruth was ordained in the Soto Zen tradition under teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer.
When I ask Ruth about the relationship between voices and Zen teachings on emptiness, she talks about the sense gates. In Buddhism, there are six sense gates: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and body, and the mind. “The sensation perceived by the mind is thought or emotion,” Ruth explains, “which means that thoughts and emotions are simply senses.” Like sounds and smells, thoughts are “passing phenomena, passing sensations … I don’t have to identify with all of that mental phenomenon,” she says. “It’s not ‘me.’”
The Book of Form and Emptiness is named after a key Buddhist text called the Heart Sutra. This sutra, or discourse, is narrated by Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who is known in Japan as Kannon. Kannon is the perceiver of the world's cries and is depicted with a thousand arms, an eye in the palm of each hand. “It’s a way of very subtly disrupting normal sensory perceptions … which is related to voice-hearing,” Ruth says. “This cross-sensory, synesthetic ability to take in the suffering of the world—to hear with the eyes—that is what generates compassion.”
TagsSpirituality, mental health
1 comments have been posted.
OK, full disclosure first: I'm Derek's father. However, being as objective as I can about something that I experienced from the sidelines, I want to say that the writing about what you lived, Derek, is excellent. It's eloquent, personal and emotionally moving, but while maintaining sufficient distance from the events that you describe them clearly and with compassion, compassion for what you went through as well as what others have experienced. It's pretty shocking that the Buddhist community, which encourages practitioners to go deep, to experience the full depth of what is happening, then becomes frightened when someone has an experience that is not considered mainstream, not considered to be according to the rules. Having been a therapist for many years, I can report that the same thing happens in therapeutic treatment. One is encouraged to allow themselves to have all of the emotions and feelings related to their experience, but as soon as it looks scary, most therapists call the hospital, sometimes forcing the patient into treatment at the exact time that they should be with the patient, not turn into a willing accomplice in a punitive system. So in both cases, therapy and meditation, the ones who the patient or practitioner has been encouraged to trust is all too often abandoned at the most critical point in the work. Thank you, Derek, for writing so eloquently about your experience. I'm sure that many readers will relate to what you have written and be grateful for your putting a voice to their experience as well as your own,.
Leon Pyle | August 2023 | Portland, OR