Megan Vogt loved traveling, adventure and the outdoors.
She saved every penny after high school to buy a camper for a three-month tour of national parks with her boyfriend.
After that, she graduated from community college and saved money for an 18-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon with a group of friends.
Last year, Vogt joined AmeriCorps and then worked on organic farms in California to learn about sustainable agriculture.
At home in Delta, Pennsylvania, she introduced friends to caving, whitewater kayaking, and river tubing and she taught children how to ski.
But Vogt’s fun-loving life changed drastically in March.
That’s when Vogt, 25, attended an intensive 10-day meditation retreat. She had heard about the benefits of meditation from friends on the West Coast and wanted to try it, with the hopes it could illuminate her future.
But the retreat proved more difficult than anyone imagined.
Instead of emerging from the course enlightened, Vogt exited incoherent, suicidal and in psychosis.
Ten weeks later, she was found dead under the Norman Wood Bridge. She had leapt from a catwalk underneath the bridge, falling 120 feet, falsely believing that she had to die to save the lives of her family and others.
“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.”[….]
Vogt wasn’t the first to die by suicide after a meditation retreat, according to experts who are aware of other cases. And she wasn’t the first to go into psychosis or experience serious mental issues after taking a grueling course, which can involve 10 hours a day of strict meditation.
While such tragic outcomes are rare, there is a growing body of research that highlights the possible dark side of intense meditation.
The research highlights the need for greater education and potentially, reforms, around meditation centers.
While Megan had anxiety and was taking medication for it, she was never previously suicidal, her parents said. Instead, her parents say her private journals reflected happiness and gratitude. She was planning to return to canyon country in April, at the conclusion of the retreat.
“She was so happy about that and the retreat,” her mother Kris said. “She thought it was going to be such a good thing for herself.”
While meditation has been widely touted for its psychological benefits, much less attention has focused on the potential psychological downsides.
The difficulties have been documented in Buddhist traditions, according to researchers from Brown University who are currently studying effects of meditation.
A news release about the research noted that Tibetans refer to a wide range of experiences — some blissful but some painful or disturbing — as “nyams.” Zen Buddhists use the term “makyo” to refer to certain perceptual disturbances.
“While the positive effects have made the transition from Buddhist texts and traditions to contemporary clinical applications,” according to the news release. “The use of meditation for health and well-being has obscured the wider range of experiences.”
In 1992, David Shapiro, a professor at UCLA Irvine, published an article about the effects of meditation retreats. After examining 27 people with different levels of meditation experience, he found 63 percent had suffered at least one negative effect and seven percent had experience a profoundly adverse effect.
Recent definitive research, however, is lacking, making it hard to know how common serious problems are, how they intersect with previous mental health diagnoses or what determines a meditator’s trajectory from meditation.
Negative outcomes may be underreported, some experts believe, as meditators may keep their problems to themselves for believing they were “doing it wrong.”
Also, no single agency tracks problems stemming from meditation retreats, although several researchers are tracking cases that have come to their attention.
A yoga instructor from the United Kingdom who had her own bad experience with psychosis in 2001 at a meditation retreat, for example, launched a website this week to raise awareness of mental health issues in relation to meditation practice.
Meanwhile, Geoff Dawson, an Australian psychologist , said he has had clients come to him after distressing experiences at retreats.
A mother contacted Dawson earlier this year to report that her son died by suicide after attending a retreat in the tradition of S.N. Goenka, the same kind attended by Megan Vogt.
The center that Vogt attended in Claymont Delaware, the Dhamma Vipassana Meditation Center, uses the traditional teachings of the spiritual leader Goenka, who died in 2013.
His daily lessons have been videotaped and are played nightly for meditators at retreats. So there is no “main teacher” on site.
Instead, volunteer assistant teachers are supposed to guide meditators on site but their qualifications are unclear.
There is generally one lead assistant teacher who is supposed to be trained. The woman who lead Vogt’s retreat said she was from Cambodia.
The other volunteers may have no training. The only requirement is that they have attended at least one previous meditation course.
A man named Arun who answered the phone at the center Wednesday was unaware of Vogt’s death until PennLive called. But he immediately recognized her name.
“She has been calling,” he said. “We had been dealing with her…I know about this woman because I have dealt with her and I have talked to her.”
Arun, who declined to provide his last name, also said Vogt had emailed the center several times. He declined to answer any questions about how the center operated or the qualifications of volunteers on site.
“I spoke to the management here and they’re sorry this happened,” Arun said. “We want to contact the parents to find out what happened. We don’t know how this happened. There is nothing to add to it.”
Vogt’s parents shared the emails that Megan exchanged with the retreat center with PennLive.
“Hello, My name is Megan Vogt,” said one email dated May 4. ” I took the vipassana course that was held March 15th to the 26th. I think something very profound happened to me during the course. I ended up in the psyche ward for 8 days directly afterwards. I have memory loss; There is about a week gone during and after the retreat that I can not remember/ is very fuzzy. I am now trying to get back to my normal life but I am having some trouble focusing; my mind keeps going back to the retreat and trying to figure out what happened. I was wondering if I might be able to schedule an appointment with Yanny Hin to shed light on my situation. I would also like to apologize for any disturbance I may have caused during my last few days there.”
A person at the center wrote back on May 4:
“Hi Megan, Forwarded your email to Yanni. Take care of yourself. With Metta.”
There was no response from Yanni in Megan’s email box, according to her parents.
A few weeks later, Megan again wrote the center.
“I am still having a really hard time getting back to “normal” after the retreat,” Megan wrote in a May 30 email. “My mind lives in a continuous time loop reliving it over and over. I know the whole point of the practice is letting things go but I’m having a very hard time. I think it’s a sign that I need to give up my life for a more pure one. How would I go about doing that?”
A person at the center wrote back the same day:
“Hi Megan, Very sorry to hear that you are still having trouble. Have forwarded your email to Yanni. Did you speak to any one else other than Yanni? If Yes, did you prefer that Teacher? With lots of Metta, Arun.”
Again, there was no additional response, according to Megan’s parents.
Exactly one week later, Megan was dead. She told her parents she was supposed to die at the retreat. And because she didn’t die there, she told them, she had condemned her family and had to die to make it right.
“Mom, you are my favorite person in the world,” Megan wrote in a final note. “I love you so much. I am so sorry, but I couldn’t keep running from what was supposed to have happened. I couldn’t function.”
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.
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.
The retreats are free of charge and run by volunteers, which opens access to everyone, but also limits the kind of professionals who can be on hand, experts say. (People who attend the retreats can make donations after they finish their initial course.)
Goenka retreats have been compared to a boot-camp style, by experts, where meditators are supposed to follow orders and finishing is the ultimate goal.
Allison Mallard attended a 10-day course at the same center as Vogt in Delaware in 2015 but left early after she was denied her anti-inflammatory medication and permission to call her doctor when a chronic medical problem flared up.
Meditators are only allowed to talk to one leader during one minute each day. When Mallard used her minute to complain or ask for a medical accommodation, she said she was told “pain is a part of the process. You’re supposed to meditate regardless and that is the cure.”
The leader didn’t seem to hear what she was saying, Mallard said, and also didn’t speak English very well.
“She didn’t have a conversation,” Mallard said. “It was just one way… I got the feeling that this person should not be in charge of other people’s health.”
The center takes meditators’ cell phones when they check in so meditators don’t have independent access to make calls.
Mallard decided to check out early.
“The person running it wasn’t very sophisticated,” Mallard said. “I don’t think they are trained for adapting to non-standard situations. I don’t believe I’m the only one out here…I totally did not feel safe.”
When Mallard shared her story with PennLive, she did not know about Vogt’s experience at the center.
The center, which opened in 2014, is one of several Goenka centers across the United States and world that all adhere to the same process and traditions.
When Vogt signed up for the session in March, she disclosed her anxiety diagnosis and medication. The center then sent follow-up paperwork which Vogt’s health care provider signed, vouching that Vogt was stable and didn’t have panic attacks or other problems that would preclude her from participating.
Vogt called her mother on the way to the center in March and they chatted until it was time for Vogt to surrender her phone.
“I’ll talk to you in 10 days,” Megan said cheerfully to her mother, Kris.
“Little did we know,” her father Steve said, “that was the last time we’d see the real her.”
At the end of the 10 days, instead of hearing from Megan, someone from the center called her parents and said they needed to come get her. Megan was “confused,” they said, and in no condition to drive.
Kris Vogt asked to talk to her daughter but was told Megan could not come to the phone.
Megan’s parents and sister drove the 90 minute drive to the center.
“Never, ever, was I prepared to see what I saw,” Kris Vogt said.
AFTER THE RETREAT
The volunteers at the center didn’t say much. When Megan’s parents asked if she was taking her anxiety medication, the volunteers didn’t know what they were talking about.
The volunteers allowed only the mother to see Megan initially.
“Kris came back 15 minutes later in shock,” Steve Vogt said.
All three of them then went into the room where Megan was, but she would not make eye contact with them.
Megan didn’t believe her sister, Jordan, was physically there. “You’re a projection,” Megan told her.
“You could tell she didn’t know what was real,” Jordan Vogt said.
The people running the center provided no explanation and shuffled Megan into her parents’ car.
“As the guru and leader of the retreat, she should have had some insight for us,” Kris Vogt said. “She could have said maybe this happens sometimes. But all she said was to Megan, ‘Be strong.'”
Megan Vogt tried to bolt back into the center, asking for a knife to kill herself. They got Megan back into their vehicle and starting driving home.
Vogt immediately began trying to kill herself by attempting to jump out of the moving vehicle. Steve Vogt was driving Megan’s truck and could see the doors of his wife’s vehicle flying open on the highway.
Megan’s parents drove her straight to the mental ward of a hospital, where Megan stayed for more than a week. She got a prescription for 30 days worth of medication for psychosis and Megan’s mother took a month off of work to stay home and take care of Megan.
Megan seemed to be doing better at times, but other times, the lingering effects of the psychosis were obvious: Megan would become withdrawn during social events or get lost going to a relative’s house that she frequented.
During Megan’s attempted recovery, she started remembering bits and pieces of what happened at the retreat.
“She was trying to piece everything together,” her sister Jordan said. “But she couldn’t get a coherent story. She didn’t know the meaning or connections.”
She told her parents that she recalled having problems about halfway through the retreat and by day seven, she didn’t know who she was or why she was there. Yet no one called her parents or intervened.
Instead, the center assigned a volunteer to watch Megan as she continued to mediate for three more days.
In the weeks after the retreat, Megan regularly saw a therapist, including the night before she died.
EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Meditation leaders say they typically have a psychologist or expert on site at retreats who can intervene quickly if a meditator shows signs of trouble.
A meditator then can be pulled from meditation to do a “grounding” activity such as walking or working in the garden. Sometimes meditators can be sent home.
Meditation retreats easily lead people to sense the world differently, according to Miguel Farias, a research psychologist who co-wrote a book called the Buddha Pill about the effects of meditation.
“The hearing gets sharper; time moves more slowly,” he wrote about meditation in an article for the Independent about his research. “But the most radical change that can occur is in what (another researcher from Brown University) calls “the narrative of the self.”
Try this out, Farias recommends in an article: “Focus on the present moment, nothing else than the present moment. You may be able to do it easily for a very short time. However, if you try extending this “presentness” for one or two hours, and keep trying for some days, your usual sense of self – that which has one foot in the past and the other in the future – collapses. The practice may feel great for some, but for others it is like being tossed around a roller coaster.”
When asked how meditation could trigger psychosis, Farias told PennLive there aren’t any systematic studies to answer that question.
“One possibility is that the experience of an altered sense of self, which can be stimulated by meditation, might be perceived as a negative experience which then further stimulates and reinforces a deep fragmentation of the self,” he said.
One of Farias’ collaborators, Jane Reed, who has also studied meditation, said people who go into a psychotic state from intense meditation could be “wired up that way so their body’s response to the practice of these meditation techniques leads to the cul-de-sac of psychosis while another person’s response to such practices is to develop insight and wisdom. The trouble is people probably don’t know how they are wired up until they engage with the practice.”
People with known anxiety issues probably should ease into meditation to test their tolerance, experts say.
While Dawson has seen negative health effects in clients from bad meditation experiences, he said the field of meditation should not be stigmatized. Instead, he said, people need to become more informed, meditation centers should better vet participants and mandatory warnings may even be in order.
“I think government oversight is too heavy handed,” he said. “However I think those of us in the Buddhist/psychology profession have a responsibility to expose it as unsafe practice for vulnerable people.”
Some interesting posts from different people on the website I quoted the article from. One stated:
I had a horrific psychotic episode triggered by excessive mediation. No one warned me that this could happen. I had previously been mentally stable my whole life. I was meditating for about 90mins a day for months very intensely. I started hallucinating and ended up seriously physically hurting myself many times. I was sectioned and locked up in a mental institute for 6 months.
Another stated something similar:
What a tragic story – I’m sad to hear anyone has had to experience this. I did a Vipassana course a year ago and it definitely left me questioning the safety of the method. When you consider the way we’re affected by changes in diet and sleep patterns (you eat at 6am and 11am then fast, and sleep from 9:30pm – 4am), the body’s response to pain (sitting in meditation for ~11 hours a day hurts!), submitting to authority, disconnecting from technology and our support networks, and being pushed deeper into your own thoughts (which happens even though that’s not technically the practice of Vipassana) it’s understandable that these ten days can have a significant psychological impact.
I had a really tough time on day 6-7 when I completely lost touch with reality and convinced myself I was being hunted down to be punished for murdering someone in a past life. Then spent the evening discourse panicking that I’d forgotten how to breathe. I talked to the ‘teacher’ about my concerns at the end of the day because I was truly starting to get worried about my mental state, and she just repeated lines we’d heard the whole time on cassette – ‘focus on the sensation’.
True, I made some really important realisations during the course, one of which was that I can eventually snap myself out of that kind of mania. But I was in a fairly good state before I went in, so I hate to imagine what that part would have been like if I’d started on shaky ground.
Another stated the potential dangers of eastern meditation:
Buddhist meditation can be dangerous (I speak from experience). It can open a person’s soul up to some very dark forces. If you have to meditate, don’t empty your mind, but meditate on verses from the Bible (e.g., Psalm 23, or the Lord’s Prayer), to be safe and keep the dark forces away.
For more information about New Age meditation opening up oneself to demons.
If you had any negative experiences by practicing meditation, please share. If you need prayer, please feel free to contact me.
If you don’t know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior you can receive Him into your heart and He can deliver you from darkness and sin and have your name written in His Book of Life.
If you are sincere you can say this simple prayer to the Father (it doesn’t have to be word for word):
“God, I recognize that I have not lived my life for You up until now. I have been living for myself and that is wrong. Please forgive me of all of my sins just as I forgive others. I need You in my life; I want You in my life. I acknowledge the completed work of Your only begotten Son Jesus Christ in giving His life for me on the cross, I believe in my heart Jesus is Lord and was raised from the dead and I long to receive the forgiveness you have made freely available to me through this sacrifice. Come into my life now, Lord. Take up residence in my heart and be my king, my Lord, and my Savior. From this day forward, I will no longer be controlled by sin, or the desire to please myself, but I will follow You all the days of my life. Those days are in Your hands. I ask this in the Lord and GOD Jesus’ precious and holy name. Amen.”