I Got Kicked Out of Vipassana: Psychotic Break or Spiritual Emergency
I entered Vipassana, a 10-day silent meditation course, with the hopes of gaining a renewed sense of clarity, grounding, and calm. I left halfway through feeling traumatized, fragile, and in a state of paranoia, fear, and dissociation. I felt like I was in between dimensions and not wholly present in this one, the one where I am a woman living in the year 2019 on planet Earth. I write this nearly two months after leaving the course, and I can tell you that I will never be the same. According to my naturopathic doctor, my nervous system has gone into stress overdrive and survival mode. One thing I have learned from the Vipassana technique is anicca — impermanence, accepting reality as it is. And as it is, I am rebuilding.
Allow me to rewind and introduce myself. My name is Veronica Lombo. I am 32 years old. I am originally from Santa Ana, CA, and I currently live in Brooklyn, NY with my husband, Henry, and my cat, Philip. I started practicing yoga in 2005 and teaching in 2009. I have been meditating daily for 3 years with Transcendental Meditation, mantras, and pranayama. To be completely transparent, I have had a history of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Since 15, the age I began self harming, I have been a seeker, called to learn about the workings of the mind and curious about different healing modalities. I am not one to shy away from deep inner work, and I believe it’s necessary to understand the self, grow, and move forward. I also believe that many people who struggle with mental health conditions are sensitive to energy and are able to tap into a greater level of empathy and psychic awareness. We have gifts that are not yet understood by western medicine or conventional logic.
I knew several people whose lives were positively changed by the Vipassana course, and I was inspired by them to apply. Some of those people were yogis (long term and new), some worked corporate jobs and never meditated or practiced yoga, and some were spiritual and had non religious beliefs in a higher power, but didn’t have a consistent practice. A few struggled with depression. I was optimistic about the experience.
After applying, I was screened via email and phone. The course representatives wanted to make sure that I was comfortable experiencing uncomfortable emotions. I assured them I would be ok. When I received the email that I had been moved off the waitlist and accepted, I was thrilled!
The Vipassana Low Down
Henry and I arrived at the Southern California Vipassana Center in Twenty Nine Palms on Day 0. This was an evening to settle in, meet our roommates and enjoy a light dinner. Speaking was allowed until 6pm, when the first meditation began. Each day thereafter we followed a similar schedule.
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher's instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher's instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room--Lights out
The men and women were separated, and the Dhamma Hall (the designated meditation area) was the only place where members of the opposite sex inhabited a shared space for an extended period. The course was mainly taught through prerecorded audio and video of S.N. Goenka, a now deceased teacher credited with bringing Vipassana to an international secular audience. Two long-time practitioners and devotees served as the course teachers on site to supplement the tapes. An older Indian woman named Arvinder guided the women.
Day 0: Not talking is nice! This Joshua Tree sunset is beautiful! I’m so grateful not to hear other people’s annoying voices.
Day 1: Oh this is some Handmaid’s Tale shit... heads down, no eye contact, no gesturing, no talking. Blessed be the mutha fuckin fruit. Seriously blessed be this fruit because it’s what I’m eating for dinner and I ask that this nourish and satiate me and keep me full and not hangry.
Day 2: I am going IN on this walking path. Arm pump. High kick. Lunge.
(The walking path was an area designated specifically for walking. At a normal pace, the entire path took about 7 minutes to walk. It was not uncommon to see students squatting to watch ants or other insects go about their process. This was a valuable area to help process all that was happening.)
The first few days of Vipassana focused on simple anapana meditation, a practice of concentrating one’s attention on the air passing through the nostrils and the sensations in the triangular area of the nose. I witnessed myself moving from eager, to bored, to having a couple bufo-style reactivations where everything was still, and I felt consciousness beyond my physical form, union with all that is. These dissociative moments felt comforting and peaceful.
The food was simple but pretty tasty. Breakfast options consisted of cereal, toast, oatmeal, and cooked prunes with orange and cinnamon. I usually ate oatmeal with prunes, peanut butter, topped with sunflower seeds, and sometimes a piece of toast with olive oil. Lunch always had a salad option. The romaine leaves unfortunately lacked substantial nutritional value, but the mystery dressing hand labeled “sun soy” with masking tape was delicious. In addition to the salad, there was some sort of hot entree (lasagna, tacos, soup, steamed kale). I smiled when I saw the taco option because I knew Henry was going to eat the beans and fart up a storm. Dinner was two pieces of fruit (options: banana, apple, sometimes pear).
I didn’t go to bed hungry. But I started to feel myself become more fragile, like I was witnessing myself become smaller inside the shell of my skin. At the time I attributed this shrinking feeling to the lack of a yoga practice, but in hindsight I see that the food I was consuming was not enough to nourish and ground me. Yoga was not allowed because the course administration considered it a distraction to other students. Yoga postures were allowed inside your room if you did not disturb your roommate. With the curtain around my bed drawn, my yoga practice consisted of legs up the wall, supine spine twist, and a long held wheel.
It was very interesting to see the same women all day everyday, whose names for the most part I did not know, with the exception of my roommate. I watched some of them church up their fruit dinner with elaborate plating, cinnamon, and honey. I noticed other women develop the same patterns as me, filling their free time (there’s A LOT of it) with beautifying processes like brushing and flossing after every meal, face masks, and face picking that would rival Doctor Pimple Popper’s methods.
In hindsight, I should have known that I was becoming airy and ungrounded by the end of day 1 and needed to do something to weigh myself down, but I didn’t. I thought, “If other people can do it, so can I.” I brushed aside the fact that each of us is different and has a unique life experience here on earth. As advised, I surrendered to the process and let go of all meditation techniques I was accustomed to. I let go of the protection and grounding mantras, the grounding cord visualizations, the breathing exercises. I was literally and figuratively open.
On Day 2, I met with the teacher, and told her I was feeling ungrounded during moments in meditation, and that things were sometimes scary, that I felt like I could float away, and that I might not come back. She told me all I had to do was open my eyes. Meetings with the teacher took place after lunch and were limited to 5-minute intervals. If you went over the time limit, the course manager who was outside watching the clock, would ring a bell.
When Shit Got Real
On Day 3, I witnessed old thought patterns come up. I grew up Catholic and went to 12 years of Catholic school. Even though I’m not part of the religion anymore, I still struggle with letting go of guilt and self forgiveness. I replayed previous “sins” and tried to observe them without reaction or judgment. I repeatedly told myself, “I did the best I could with what I knew at the time.” Old thought pattern, “I’m a bad person. I’m a piece of shit.” New loving thought, “I’m a good person. I deeply and completely love and accept myself. I am doing the best I can.” I watched my body contract, tense, and release. Although this was a difficult day, I was still able to sleep.
Day 4 started off just like the previous days. I woke up. Meditated in my room. Ate oatmeal and prunes. Pooped. Did the walking path 3x. Showered. Meditated. Ate lunch. Meditated. Shit hit the fan when I started practicing Vipassana in the second half of Day 4. On paper, the technique is a slow body scan that begins at the top of the head, extends the whole range of the scalp, down the face, and continues down the body, moving inch by inch. We listened to pre recorded guided instructions from Goenka, and the whole process was 1.5-2hours. 5 minutes into Vipassana, something in my crown chakra exploded open and I clearly saw a woman’s face morph into an alien’s face that stared straight into my eyes, and was two inches away from my face. I was shocked, scared at first, but then comforted by its presence. The being showed no emotion and said nothing explicitly, but immediately my gut told me, “I am divine. I am divine. I am divine.” (A few psychics have told me that I am an Arcturian starseed, and upon further googling, I discovered that the being who appeared to me fit the description of an Arcturian. He was wearing a regal blue velvet cape.)
After that vision, I felt a surge of high-voltage energy flow through my body and break apart all trauma that had been hiding in my cells. I was now open and aware of all shadow that was within not only me, Veronica, but within my DNA, the DNA that had been passed down to me from my parents and their parents and their ancestors. I had just peed, but I felt like I already had to pee again. Note to self: Bladder meridian issues. The bladder meridian is responsible for fear. I am experiencing fear. Fear is consuming me. I stayed seated, but my body shook, and the only word I can use to describe what happened is terror. It was not old memories, or traumatic experiences from the past that came up. These fears were new. I saw images of car accidents and people dying. I saw destruction. But it wasn’t like looking at a painting on a wall. It was as if I was living the experience of each of these things. What I felt was primal, ancestral. I felt like I was living in war, in the jungle being hunted for my life. (I am a 1st generation Filipino American and my ancestors were indigenous Filipinos.).
Right after the last sit that evening, I approached the teacher to explain the fear that was surfacing. She told me to make an appointment for an interview the following day and to just try and relax. I went back to my dorm, got ready for bed, and tried to sleep. I couldn’t do it. The terror that had come up in the meditation hall was now magnified. I cried as quietly as I could, so as to not disturb my roommate. I sat on my twin bed, behind the cream colored curtain that allowed us privacy, knees tight to my chest, mentally repeating “There is nothing to fear. There is nothing to fear. There is nothing to fear. God be with me. God be with me. God be with me.” My body trembled. Even with eyes open, I began seeing shadow figures and demonic faces. I was not on any drugs, and I was trippin. I busted out every tool in my tool kit. Emergency Ganesh mantras. Hail Marys. Deep breathing. CBD. Sleep and anxiety supplements recommended by my naturopath. Nothing seemed to help. I heard clear voices as if someone was speaking directly into my right ear. The robot voice was the one that freaked me out the most. I honestly cannot tell you what the voices said because I was not open to listening at this point. I was freaking the fuck out. In a regular situation, I probably would have screamed, and/or loudly exclaimed, “What the fuck?” But I was in Vipassana, and there was to be none of that. Aside from the voices, and my own internal dialogue, it was eerily silent.
I decided to clean the bathroom. I was already signed up to clean the next day, and I figured it would be a good use of my time and perhaps an effective way to release some of this overwhelming energy! As I scrubbed the showers, sinks, and toilets, I tried to remain focused on the item in front of me so as to not pay attention to the shadow figures in my peripheral vision. An hour later, I went back to my room, and faced the same situation. Eyes wide open, heart racing, body trembling, it felt like I was falling further down the hole into another dimension.
My intuition told me that I had to leave. Something was up, and if I stayed, I knew that I would not be able to come back to reality. I remembered the advice another respected yogi had told us, “Whatever you do, don’t leave.” I felt inner conflict, and was torn between what others had said, and what I felt I needed to do to take care of myself. I put my pride aside, and accepted that I needed help, and could no longer deal with the situation alone. With flashlight in hand, I walked down the dark dorm hallway, and headed towards the course manager’s dorm. It was in a separate building, and I felt paranoid walking over, continually looking over my shoulder every 5 seconds, and coaching myself, “Inhale. Exhale. You can do it. You’re almost there.” I knocked twice on the course manager’s door. I waited a few minutes. No answer. I knocked again. Still no answer. The once polite knocking was now replaced with full on door pounding. Brenda finally answered, sleepy eyed, but welcoming. She said she needed a few minutes to put some pants on, then invited me in. Red eyed, shaky, and frail, I said, “I need to go home. I’m having visions. I don’t feel safe. I don’t know what to do.” I don’t really remember what she said, but it was comforting to be able to speak to another person, and have them see me. I appreciate the boundaries of Vipassana in facilitating a solo experience, and it was in this moment I realized how comforting, and valuable human connection truly is. Brenda walked me over to the staff area of the dining hall, and I felt like I was seeing behind the curtain. She offered me something to eat or drink, but I didn’t want to break the rules. Would I get in trouble if I had something to eat? “I’ll have some water please.” She called the teacher, and five minutes later Arvinder arrived. She also asked if I wanted something to eat or drink, and something about the way she asked made me feel like it was ok. “A banana sounds good,” I said.
For the next two hours, I sat with Arvinder crying, and in a state of terror and shock. I asked her why this was happening to me, and she said they just never know. She asked me about the screening process, and reminded me that I had consented to being ok with uncomfortable feelings arising. I assured her that I thought I was prepared, but I didn’t realize how uncomfortable things would get. I didn’t realize I would be seeing non-human entities, and I didn’t really think about having to comfort and soothe myself without the support system I had worked to cultivate in my everyday life — grounding foods, yoga asana, physical touch and hugs from my partner, assuring words of family and friends, human connection. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go home that evening after sitting with Arvinder. After two hours, she said I should go back to my room and try to sleep. She said she would speak to her superiors, and that we would talk again tomorrow. I returned to my dorm and, after an hour, fell asleep for two hours.
The next morning I woke up, and the course manager was waiting for me. She said I was to eat breakfast and then meet the teacher. After oatmeal and prunes, I walked over to meet Arvinder. She said she had spoken to her higher up, and that I was to stop the meditation technique immediately and leave. There was no choice at this point. She told me that the male teacher was speaking to Henry at that very moment, and that he would also need to leave because he was my main source of support. I was to pack up my stuff while everyone was in the meditation hall so that the other students would not be disturbed or alarmed.
I felt angry with myself for being in this situation, for feeling this way. I thought of the other people I knew who had completed the course, and I felt like a failure. No one else had spoken of visions. Why was I different? Why did I have to be such a weakling and not be able to withstand this situation? Why was I so sensitive? Why was this happening? If psychic senses are a gift, I was pissed about having this gift. Would I have to go back on medication? Would I have to go back to the mental hospital? It was my fault that Henry had to leave. There was some sense of relief, but how would I explain to everyone why we left early?
I went to the staff side of the dining hall where a staff member would meet us, drive us to the Starbucks in town, and drop us off to catch an Uber. I saw Henry and felt guilty and comforted. He had the same smile he always has when I am crying and in distress. The kind of smile that says, “I love you and your rainbow of emotions, and I’m here for you, and what happened this time?” All I could do was apologize. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
For the month afterward, I was unable to do things alone. Normal tasks like going to the grocery store or the laundromat were terrifying. I felt frail and foreign in my body, like hopping into other dimensions could happen in a flash. It sometimes did. I felt completely ungrounded, unsafe, and unable to function as a participating member of society. I was scared to close my eyes for fear of seeing disturbing images or being visited by aliens. (In a weird way, I knew that the alien was not there to harm me, but I wasn’t ready for that communication.) I couldn’t sleep. I felt wired and tired.
Prior to Vipassana, I knew that I was highly empathic, intuitive, clairsentient, and claircognizant, but after this experience I was flooded with a whole new range of sensitivities that I did not know how to handle. Now, I knew not only everything about everyone (feelings, struggles, blockages, limiting beliefs, opportunities for growth), but I understood the intensity of fear and darkness present in the world on a new level. I could feel that all minds were connected, and that each thought is powerful and not insignificant. Colors were brighter. Sounds were louder. And I could tap into other people’s feelings even more than I could before, even when they were not in my physical presence. I was grateful that the week after leaving Vipassana we stayed in California at my parents’ house; it felt familiar and comforting.
When I returned to NYC, I didn’t want to be around people. It was just too much to handle. I isolated myself for two months. I had once been a coffee lover, and now any kind of caffeine set me on a rollercoaster of panic. After speaking to my naturopath, who for the past year, had helped me taper off 15 years of antidepressants, I learned that my body had gone into a stress response and was on fight-or-flight mode at all times. This explanation made sense. I told her that I thought I was going through some sort of spiritual awakening, that there was a lot of energy movement, that I was doing great before Vipassana, and I now felt like I was very low, or even starting over. She suggested a new protocol that included ashwagandha and magnesium taurate to help calm my nervous system and support my adrenal glands.
I don’t know anyone personally who has gone through an experience as dark or long lasting as mine. Although I had the support of family and friends, I felt alone. Just as I did at age 15 searching depression and self harm, I took to the internet to learn more about what I had gone through and what I was currently experiencing.
Even now, it feels as if my consciousness and energy has expanded massively and my little physical human body was simply not prepared to contain the magnitude of it all. It was a lot at once. I learned that what I experienced has different names: dark night of the soul, spiritual emergency, spiritual crisis, meditation sickness, kundalini awakening. Among tribes, an individual who undergoes this type of inner journey is said to have had a “shamanic initiation,” After the experience, the individual is typically trained to become the next healer of the tribe.
If I had sought traditional mental health help, I probably would have been labeled as having had a psychotic break, and put on an antidepressant, an antipsychotic, and a sedative. There would have been no conversation about consciousness expansion, or about the ancestral trauma I was releasing, or about how to integrate what I had learned. According to WebMD, psychosis is when you lose touch with reality or see, hear, or believe things that aren’t real. Was I experiencing psychosis? Should I have been hospitalized?
I believe that the lines between psychotic break and spiritual emergency can be blurry, and that it is not an either/or situation. Psychosis can be a symptom of a spiritual emergency, and a spiritual emergency is an opportunity for growth and transformation. Colored by my experience within the mental health complex, I believe that many people labeled clinically as “mentally ill” (myself included), are actually gifted in ways that our society operating in 3D reality does not understand. Rather than medicate and label people, destine them for a life married to pharmaceutical drugs and all their nasty side effects, could we instead help them recognize their gifts, cultivate them, and use them for the benefit of the world?
I am not sure if any guidelines are given to students who complete the course as to how to integrate back into society, but personally I was given none upon early dismissal. I am grateful that I have cultivated a spiritual practice of my own, and have people around me who love me, but I know that others do not have this privilege.
I am not perfect, nor do I have all the answers. I share the above experience with you in hopes to let you know that:
-If you have gone through a similar experience, you are not alone.
-If you are energetically sensitive, Vipassana may not be as much of a grounding experience for you as it is for many people. This is not to dissuade you from embarking on the experience. I believe that everyone is different, but I advise you to proceed with caution.
-If you feel the need to leave Vipassana early, you are not a failure.
-If you are experiencing a spiritual emergency, know that the feelings will pass. This is an opportunity for old wounds to heal, and more light is on the other side of this darkness. The more easily you can surrender to the flow and allow, the easier this will be.
For tips on how to ground yourself during a spiritual awakening, check out this post.