The Dark Side of Meditation

I’m guessing a lot of bloggers at one point or another, fall off the proverbial horse and fail to publish a post over an extended period of time.  Well, this is me getting back on the horse.  What you might not have heard from other writers is the excuse I am going to toss out explaining my literary absence.  Ultimately, the only excuse I have for not writing much (anything) lately is that I have failed to sit down at my desk and bang away on the keyboard.  While this is the truth, it leaves out the story behind my failure.

Readers of this blog will know I have written a good bit about my meditation practice and the silent retreat I attended this past April.  What I haven’t yet disclosed is what REALLY went down at this retreat.  No, I didn’t renounce all earthly possessions and join the monastery (though it was considered), but I did go through a rather unexpected change that has had some surprising and lasting effects.

Unbeknownst to me until April, there is a very real “dark side” to meditation.  While on this retreat and after very deliberate and long periods of meditation, on the 4th of 7 days, I experienced what I now know is called “The Arising and Passing Away” phase.  Before you think that I have rebranded this site as science fiction and quickly shut down your browser fearing Men in Black will be tracking you, bear with me as I do my best to defend my sanity here.

On this 4th day of the retreat as I sat in near darkness with about 100 other “meditators” in an old monastery that now functions as a retreat facility called the Garrison Institute in New York, my entire focus was following the inhalations and exhalations of my breath.  At around the 15-minute mark of a scheduled 40-minute sit, I noticed my breathing start to increase as though I was getting nervous about something.  However, there was absolutely nothing to be nervous about.  My mind was at ease, the grounds were beautiful, the food served was outstanding – everything I had experienced at the retreat provided a near blissful previous 4 days free of the stresses and responsibilities of our modern lives.

What then was causing my breathing to grow more and more rapid?  Soon my breathing was at a near panicked pace and something else strange was occurring – bright lights were beginning to flash behind my closed eyelids.  Where were lights coming from in a dark monastery in the middle of the woods?  Not sure what was going on, I decided to keep breathing, hopeful this weird episode would pass.  It didn’t pass, it only got weirder.

Doing my best to remain calm and keep “breathing through it,” I began to get worried as the bright lights started to be more than I could bear. It felt as though I was staring at the sun.  While there was a strong urge to open my eyes and abort on the meditation, there was a curious side that wanted to see where this experience was leading to, i.e. follow the bright white light!? In addition to worrying about the blinding lights, I was now beginning to feel a pressure growing in my head, similar to a simmering tea kettle. I get migraines every once in awhile, but this was no ordinary headache. This felt like my head might pop off!

Finally, after what felt like an eternity and before my head exploded, the pressure subsided and I thought I even heard a sound similar to a soda can or champagne bottle being opened (I can’t be certain that I actually heard this though).  Shortly thereafter, the bell rang to signal the end of the meditation and I was relieved to get the hell out of the hall and into some fresh air outside.

Nearly sprinting outside, I walked around the monastery, doing my best to figure out what had just transpired.  However, nothing like this had ever occurred to me while meditating. Rather than coming up with an answer, I soothed my soul with profound enquiry along the lines of, “what the f*ck was that?”  As my mind continued to race, I realized something else; my body was full of energy – negative, not fun energy, but energy good for aggressive activities like wrestling bears or taking multiple kicks to the nuts.  How did meditating give me the rush of 10 cans of Red Bull!?  Not knowing the answer to that question either, the thought arose that my “interesting experience” wasn’t yet complete. I needed to either go run a marathon or figure out where all this led.  Like a man ready to base-jump into the Grand Canyon, I took my meditation-induced-hyper-active-silent-self, back into the hall to FINISH THIS!

Surprisingly, the next meditation was fairly uneventful and didn’t include any fireworks, head popping, or metaphorical Red Bull guzzling.  When the 40 minutes were up, I felt pretty relaxed and back to my calm and silent retreater self.  While that day continued on without alarm, that night was a completely different story.

The previous 4 nights, I had no trouble getting to sleep.  At the conclusion of each day, I couldn’t wait to get a break from all the “me time” and shut my mind down.  However, the night of the “Red Bull and light show experience,” I wasn’t tired at all.  I had lain in my bed from 10pm until 4:45am, unable to fall asleep.  At around 4:45am, I finally crashed, but the sleep was anything but restful.  15 minutes later, I would wake up from the BATSH*T CRAZIEST DREAM I have ever had in my life, pulling my consciousness out of this dream state and finding myself shaking and sweating in my bed.  The content of the dream wasn’t the craziest part, it was the lucidity of it that really stood out.  I had had my first lucid dream and it felt more real than anything I have done since.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep that night and figured I had somehow lost my sanity back in the meditation hall.  Strangely, after getting only 15 minutes of terrible lucid dream sleep, I didn’t feel tired at all the next day.  I continued on with my meditation sits and the rest of the retreat was relatively uneventful.  When I returned home to Maryland, I thought the retreat had provided some interesting stories to tell close family and friends, but what I didn’t expect were the changes to come…

Over the following weeks, my home meditation practice became very, very intense.  I continued to experience lots of strange occurrences that I have chosen not to write about here as I don’t want any neighbors to throw me in a mental hospital.  With that said, daily life did become difficult to manage as my mood swings were unpredictable and I only had one desire – to meditate.  And meditate I did as my daily practice went from 1 hour a day, to on many days, over 4 hours in length.  Thankfully, I have a super supportive wife and I work from home, or my life would have been in shambles for sure.

After returning home from the retreat, I confided in a friend about the experience and the additional wild events that continued to pop up during my sits.  This friend (a daily meditator as well) gave me some confidence that I wasn’t crazy and recommended I read the book, “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha” by Daniel Ingram.  Feeling very unstable and wanting to find anything to prove to myself (and my wife) that I wasn’t losing my marbles, I quickly purchased the book and found what I was looking for.

What I found is that everything I had experienced was normal for someone who has a serious and daily meditation practice.  Around this time, I also started meeting with a meditation teacher who also confirmed what I had learned from the book.  What was confirmed is that I had experienced a phase of meditation called “The Arising and Passing Away” or the A&P which can result in quite spectacular events during and after meditation.  While this still seems like science fiction to me, what I have found is that meditation can be much more exciting than just sitting on a chair and watching your breath.

Unfortunately, what this book and teacher also told me is the phase that follows the A&P is commonly known as “The Dark Night” or “The Dark Night of the Soul.”  If you think this sounds like something out of an 80’s horror movie, I would agree.  In my experience, The Dark Night is way less fun and the better part of the last 2 months haven’t been the easiest to live through.  During this time, I have often found myself to be edgy, stressed, or uncomfortable for no apparent reason at all.  Not to overstate things, but at times, it feels as though life has been turned upside down (yeah, like Stranger Things).  With that said, these experiences have taught me much, gotten me to question more and have me passionate and excited to see what the future brings.

When I started writing this blog, I did so with the intent to speak my truth.  I believe there is enough bullshit in this world, and I take the words I put out onto the internet seriously.  I have fear about sharing something so esoteric and out of the ordinary for Western society to talk about.  If I had an employer to appease or a voting public to pander to, I would put this story in the deepest drawer of my psyche and never speak of it again.

Today, I feel as though I have gotten a greater hold on my life circumstances and I have a responsibility to share this story. Meditation is becoming very popular in the United States and in other Western Countries and I believe people should be properly informed of what can occur if you continue to develop a daily practice.

Approximately 5 years ago, I started meditating as a means to reduce stress.  I began by listening to guided meditations I found through podcasts and apps such as Calm.  While I read plenty of books and listened to a good bit of material, I don’t believe I ever heard someone say, “if you continue with a serious meditation practice, you could find yourself more stressed and more confused than before you started.”

In light of my recent adventures in meditation, I continue to believe that my daily practice is one of the most important aspects of my life.  The simple act of sitting and breathing has provided my life with more awareness, contentment, and riches than almost anything else.  Next to my family and friends, there is nothing I value more.  In light of these positives, when done over a long period of time, it has been my experience that meditation can throw one’s life in an unplanned and unstable direction.  I feel extremely fortunate and grateful for the support I have received from my wife and many family and friends.  Furthermore, I believe I am lucky to have gone through these phases during a time of my life when I had a very stable home and professional life.  I can only imagine how difficult it can be to experience this after starting a new job or entering a new relationship.

I understand these stories may appear too far outside the perceived realm of possibility for many of you.  I am ok with that.  Before April, I might not have believed much of the words typed here either.  While I hope everyone gets something out of this, this post is for those of you who have experienced something similar or something you can’t quite explain.  For me, the hardest part of this experience was the loneliness and confusion I felt.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t question my truth at times, and it felt destabilizing to imagine how modern society may view my perspective.  What I’ve come to realize is ordinary is just a construct we develop to give ourselves comfort that we know what’s going on.  If you find yourself needing something out of the unordinary to give you comfort, I hope you got it here.

For meditators or non-meditators, I offer the following resources explaining “The Arising and Passing Away” and “Dark Night.” Furthermore, I recommend the community Dharma Overground where you can find extensive discussion and support on The Dark Night.

Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners with 5 to 500 employees, helping them to work “on” their business not “in” their business.

2 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Meditation

  1. Pingback: Spiritual Journey – Fired & Free

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