‘All of hu­man­ity’s prob­lems stem from man’s in­abil­ity to sit qui­etly in a room alone’

Esquire (UK) - - Culture - — Blaise Pas­cal, 1662

the po­lice stayed calm and the bud­dhists were calmer, but by then there wasn’t much any­one could do. In the hours pre­vi­ously, I had come to be­lieve, si­mul­ta­ne­ously and se­quen­tially, that I was: dead, alive, om­ni­scient, im­mor­tal, nonex­is­tent, gay, straight, tele­pathic, a flower, a pulse of pure en­ergy and a nu­clear bomb. And that was the good part, rel­a­tively speak­ing. By the time I was hand­cuffed and led to an am­bu­lance, my trou­bles, or at least this episode among them, were just un­der­way.

It is not the con­clu­sion one pic­tures to a med­i­ta­tion re­treat: a shack­led, rant­ing, mid­dle-aged man be­ing taken to hos­pi­tal un­der po­lice su­per­vi­sion. Ideas like mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion are sold largely by im­ages of good-look­ing peo­ple and un­fur­rowed brows. Yet it wasn’t up­beat mar­ket­ing that led me to a 10-day, silent sanc­tu­ary on the Welsh bor­ders, but a man on fire.

Forty years be­fore flunk­ing out of Bud­dhism in chains, I chanced upon Mal­colm Browne’s 1963 pho­to­graph of Thich Quang Duc, a monk, sat, burn­ing to death by his own hand in an act of protest at a cross­roads in Saigon, South Viet­nam. “As he burned he never moved a mus­cle,” said The New York Times jour­nal­ist David Hal­ber­stam, a wit­ness to it, “never ut­tered a sound, his out­ward com­po­sure in sharp con­trast to the wail­ing peo­ple around him.”

I was young when I found the hor­rific im­age but I saw in it, also, proof that there was an­other way to be be­yond than the swirling, self­sus­tain­ing sys­tem of hopes and re­grets al­ready es­tab­lished in my rest­less brain.

Decades later, a col­li­sion of life crises (mar­i­tal, pro­fes­sional, med­i­cal and fa­mil­ial) and a kind of emo­tional in­sur­gency — a re­lent­less sense that there was some­thing be­yond or be­neath all this — pro­pelled me first into med­i­ta­tion, and then to the re­treat where, if en­light­en­ment were not forth­com­ing, at least I would have spent some time without my phone. What could go wrong?

A sim­ple, con­tem­po­rary def­i­ni­tion of med­i­ta­tion is “a fam­ily of self-reg­u­la­tion prac­tices that fo­cus on train­ing at­ten­tion and aware­ness in or­der to bring men­tal pro­cesses un­der greater vol­un­tary con­trol.” Writ­ten ref­er­ences date back to 600BC. Tech­niques and tra­di­tions vary, but the most prom­i­nent asso­ciations are with Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy, and there are few spir­i­tual schools of thought or re­li­gions which do not ac­com­mo­date some prac­tice which might be de­scribed as med­i­ta­tive.

Med­i­ta­tion’s modern off­spring, “mind­ful­ness”, has its roots (as a phrase) in the 20th cen­tury. Where one be­gins and the other ends is the sub­ject of much de­bate. Suf­fice to say whether you’re sit­ting silently in a monastery or star­ing at a smart­phone in your sis­ter’s spare room, if you are tak­ing time out to ob­serve your thought pat­terns and breathe in a con­scious man­ner, one or both terms have you cov­ered.

What be­gan in an­tiq­uity abided and bloomed into a bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try in the US alone. Be it through ashrams or apps — there are over 1,300 now, and the Headspace app has been down­loaded close to 35m times — med­i­ta­tion has been touted as a panacea for ev­ery­thing from child­hood trauma to pal­lia­tive care. There is plenty of ev­i­dence, em­pir­i­cal and anec­do­tal, that in many of these ar­eas it does have pos­i­tive re­sults. So, I read some books, looked on­line, sat, and watched what my mind did.

From 15 min­utes of sit­ting a day I felt sub­tly but tan­gi­bly changed. “Men­tal pro­cesses” were def­i­nitely “un­der greater vol­un­tar­ily con­trol”. I was no Bud­dha, but I was demon­stra­bly less volatile. I had a taste for it and was soon seek­ing ways to do more. Much more. I booked the re­treat. The per­cep­tive among you will note this is pre­cisely the kind of de­sirous be­hav­iour pat­tern that med­i­ta­tion is of­ten de­ployed to break, but Nir­vana wasn’t built in a day.

deep in the here­ford­shire coun­try­side at the tail end of June, the re­treat I at­tended felt and looked like the apex of seren­ity. The dis­ci­pline cho­sen by me and around 150 other at­ten­dees — an ide­al­is­tic mix of ages, races and gen­der — is known as Vi­pas­sanā which, they will tell you, means “see­ing things as they re­ally are”. We de­camped cheer­fully from coaches and cars, gave up our phones, agreed not to speak for a week-and-a-half and wan­dered off to bil­lets on the sprawl­ing for­mer farm. The at­mos­phere prior to the com­mence­ment of si­lence (you can talk with the re­treat lead­ers at al­lot­ted times, if need be) was one of warm, col­lec­tive an­tic­i­pa­tion, some­where be­tween a school trip and a fes­ti­val.

At 4am the next day, we were awo­ken by a gong. And so be­gan an 11-hour daily pro­gramme of med­i­ta­tion, punc­tu­ated oc­ca­sion­ally by veg­e­tar­ian food (un­til mid­day, af­ter which it was fruit only). In the evenings, we gath­ered to hear the teach­ings of the course’s founder, Satya Narayan Goenka, an avun­cu­lar but de­ceased Burmese/In­dian busi­ness­man and Bud­dhist scholar whose post­hu­mous ad­dresses were screened nightly. They came to pro­vide a kind of group re­lease; we laughed, and not just as coun­ter­point to the si­lence. Like other spir­i­tual teach­ers, and some stand-ups, Goenka walked a fine line be­tween prac­ti­cal philo­soph­i­cal in­sight and ob­ser­va­tional com­edy.

Af­ter sev­eral days of si­lence, ser­mons, slen­der ra­tions and pre-dawn starts, some­thing sig­nif­i­cant shifted in­side me. The in­ner di­a­logue ceased, re­placed by an out­break of peace so fun­da­men­tal as to tran­scend what I could or can still share with lan­guage. And I could see and sense, even if I couldn’t speak to the oth­ers, that this was hap­pen­ing among them too.

The power of such a reve­la­tion, that ev­ery­thing you might have hith­erto in­sisted you con­sisted of was in­stead an il­lu­sory con­struct which can, through self-ex­am­i­na­tion, van­ish and be re­placed by some­thing best de­scribed as love… that can take some get­ting used to. The im­pli­ca­tions for your “self” (by this point a mi­nor­ity share­holder in that which you per­ceive your­self to be) and so­ci­ety (all con­flict, and thus much of his­tory, be­ing by these terms an avoid­able mis­take) are con­sid­er­able. But be­fore I could as­sim­i­late this, or per­haps be­cause I couldn’t, the lim­it­less love be­came a gru­elling fear, mu­tat­ing into the con­vic­tion that I, per­son­ally, could bring about the end of

ev­ery­thing, since the macro­cosm of our uni­verse seemed so clearly and pre­car­i­ously con­tained within the mi­cro­cosm of my be­ing. Say this like you mean it, act stub­bornly on your pro­nounce­ments, and they will come for you with hand­cuffs too.

Psy­chosis is, I sus­pect, a lit­tle like fall­ing in or out of love: some­thing on the cusp of the per­sonal and the uni­ver­sal that each of us ex­pe­ri­ences dif­fer­ently. Be­tween the am­bu­lance ride and the obliv­ion of se­da­tion, I was held in a room with two po­lice of­fi­cers at the lo­cal A&E. They looked on rea­son­ably be­nignly as I did my best to con­vey what I was feel­ing which, among other stark hal­lu­ci­na­tions and a roil­ing, pri­mal fear, was that I was dy­ing and be­ing re­born ev­ery 90 sec­onds or so. I can’t re­ally de­scribe what that is “like” since the one com­pa­ra­ble event is largely un­re­mem­bered and the other un­know­able, but it felt real and it was gru­elling, and, in the end, I was beg­ging them to knock me out.

All this was much to re­flect on as I re­cov­ered (to some ex­tent) in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal over the next 48 hours. How had I fallen so hard and wide of the mark of med­i­ta­tion, of some­thing so seem­ingly be­nign? Oth­ers on the re­treat had be­come emo­tional, openly weep­ing (as I had done) but no one else had begged to stop, only to refuse to leave and then been forcibly re­moved.

What I did know, was that I had been “here” be­fore. And not in a past life. In the midNineties, in my mid-twen­ties when I was work­ing as a jour­nal­ist in Lon­don, I took enough recre­ational drugs to keep me awake for nine days, at the end of which I was psy­chotic, sec­tioned, se­dated and held in hos­pi­tal for four months. That might sound dra­matic, but I did it to my­self and for all I know the treat­ment (in­clud­ing drugs since with­drawn from use) and the in­car­cer­a­tion saved my life. Cer­tainly, it shaped it.

The ad­van­tage of this, in­so­far as it had one, was that when my mind dis­in­te­grated for the sec­ond time, I had some sense of what I was in for, and I knew I could get back. Maybe. Even naked ter­ror takes the oc­ca­sional break, and the sense in those mo­ments that there is a way out, is in some ways all you need to carry on.

This time I was in and out of hos­pi­tal in one week­end. With a month’s worth of an­tipsy­chotic med­i­ca­tion, I had some de­ci­sions to make. It seemed clear to me that if I could reach such an al­tered state through in­tox­i­ca­tion and in­som­nia once, and then do it again 20 years later through si­lence and con­cen­tra­tion, then that state was “real” and not a fig­ment of my imag­i­na­tion or the symp­tom of an ill­ness per se.

I didn’t want to stay med­i­cated (my pre­vi­ous stint had lasted a decade), and I un­der­stood that the rules of the re­treat meant that as I had left be­fore the end, I could not go back. Vi­pas­sanā makes it clear in its lit­er­a­ture re­gard­ing “se­ri­ous men­tal dis­or­ders” that: “Our ca­pac­ity as a non-pro­fes­sional vol­un­teer or­gan­i­sa­tion makes it im­pos­si­ble to prop­erly care for peo­ple with these back­grounds.”

I had been screened out at the ini­tial ap­pli­ca­tion be­cause of my his­tory and then, af­ter go­ing into de­tail, ac­cepted, as my prior is­sues were so long ago. I was thrilled to be ad­mit­ted and delu­sional when I left, but bar­ring some emails and a fol­low-up phone call, early ex­its from Vi­pas­sanā are fi­nal. Tossed from what had seemed briefly to be heaven, I went back to my el­derly folks, weaned my­self off the meds, and got thor­oughly de­pressed.

In the weeks that fol­lowed, I be­gan to google “med­i­ta­tion”, “men­tal ill­ness”, “ma­nia” (as my ex-wife pointed out, I ought re­ally to have done this be­fore­hand). But it was then I found that far from be­ing alone in this, I was one of many who had learned the hard way that at a cer­tain level, for some prac­ti­tion­ers, some­thing like psy­chosis is part of the med­i­ta­tive pro­gramme. And that not ev­ery­one who goes through that sur­vives.

dr daniel in­gram is a re­cently re­tired, front­line ER physi­cian who worked in one of Amer­ica’s largest trauma cen­tres in Huntsville, Alabama. He left trauma medicine in his late for­ties, he says, since, “you see some ex­tremely bad stuff in high quan­ti­ties, it starts to take its toll… it is in some ways a younger per­son’s game.” In­gram is also the au­thor of Mas­ter­ing the Core Teach­ings of the Bud­dha, a sem­i­nal and sub­stan­tial text which, along­side a busy on­line fo­rum which he mod­er­ates, has be­come a re­source for those for whom the vogue for med­i­ta­tion re­vealed the void. One of his con­tentions is that de­spite mil­len­nia of ex­ist­ing wis­dom about what can and will hap­pen when you close your eyes and fol­low your breath for long enough, modern ver­sions of these prac­tices are of­ten mis-sold.

“This dream of peace and well­be­ing, hap­pi­ness and con­tent­ment, men­tal health and emo­tional clar­ity,” says In­gram, “[doesn’t recog­nise] that some rea­son­able pro­por­tion of peo­ple will also be cat­a­pulted into full-on, deep-end spir­i­tual de­vel­op­ment by cross­ing what the Bud­dhist tra­di­tion I come from calls the ‘Aris­ing and Pass­ing Away’ stage. And then they’re off and run­ning in this whole dif­fer­ent end of de­vel­op­ment, which, as you now know, is quite a dif­fer­ent thing than what most peo­ple signed up for.”

An irony of find­ing In­gram’s work was that my own “mad­ness”, the sin­gu­lar­ity of which I was both scared and per­versely proud of, was made fa­mil­iar, if not quite mun­dane. In a broad sense, he has heard it all be­fore.

“You crossed the ‘Aris­ing and Pass­ing’ and hit the stan­dard ‘Dark Night’ stages, just as one would pre­dict,” he ex­plains. When I tell him about the birth-and-death cy­cling, which I had taken to be par­tic­u­larly trou­bling and pro­found, he just says, “Nice”. These chal­leng­ing but nav­i­ga­ble “stages of in­sight”, he ex­plains, are as old as med­i­ta­tion it­self. They have, how­ever, been largely omit­ted from the modern con­ver­sa­tion.

The Vi­pas­sanā re­treat I vis­ited is part of a global, free-to-at­tend fran­chise run on the guide­lines es­tab­lished by Goenka. The regime there, says In­gram, is, “ab­so­lutely per­fect for get­ting peo­ple across the ‘Aris­ing and Pass­ing Away’, [but] not nor­mal­is­ing the next stages.” These stages are of­ten trau­matic, known col­lo­qui­ally and his­tor­i­cally as the “Dark Night”, and bear lit­tle or no phe­nomeno­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence to the med­i­cal clas­si­fi­ca­tion of men­tal ill­nesses, par­tic­u­larly bipo­lar dis­or­der. Ac­cord­ing to In­gram, with the right ex­pec­ta­tions and sup­port, the stages are tem­po­rary. Without it, “peo­ple crash out into the world a to­tal wreck. I’ve had a hun­dred of these calls, more, I couldn’t pos­si­bly count them,” he says. “If you go on­line, the num­ber of re­ports of this hap­pen­ing is thou­sands. So many I’ve lost track of them all.”

Three months be­fore I en­tered Vi­pas­sanā, Me­gan Vogt, a 25-year-old Amer­i­can woman left a near-iden­ti­cal cen­tre in the US “in­co­her­ent, sui­ci­dal and in psy­chosis,” ac­cord­ing to re­ports in the lo­cal news. Ten weeks af­ter she left the re­treat she took her own life. Un­like me, Vogt had no his­tory of men­tal ill­ness or drug use. She would not have pre­sented any is­sue at the ap­pli­ca­tion stage or known what hit her on the re­treat. Nor did her fam­ily, or, it seems, the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als to whom she was re­ferred.

A spokesman for the Vi­pas­sanā Trust, which man­ages the net­work of re­treats in the Goenka tra­di­tion, ac­knowl­edged that Vogt’s case was “hor­ren­dous, tragic and trau­matic” but that such out­comes were “ex­cep­tion­ally rare”. He told me 1.2m new stu­dents have used their re­treats since 2001, and they have ac­cepted more than 200,000 since 2016. He also said that this case, and any other “se­ri­ous in­ci­dent”, was sub­ject to an “in­ci­dent re­view”, and that

I had come to be­lieve, si­mul­ta­ne­ously and se­quen­tially, that I was: dead, alive, om­ni­scient,

im­mor­tal, non-ex­is­tent, gay, straight, tele­pathic, a flower, a pulse of pure en­ergy and a nu­clear bomb.

And that was the good part, rel­a­tively speak­ing

the Vi­pas­sanā Trust’s ob­jec­tive in these mat­ters was to “check our­selves that ev­ery­thing is be­ing done, and if not then make some changes and tighten it up”. He added that any stu­dent, re­gard­less of how they exit or whether they fin­ish the pro­gramme, is wel­come to con­tact them for sup­port or even to reap­ply.

When I asked if the Vi­pas­sanā Trust felt that med­i­ta­tion in its tra­di­tion could in any way cause symp­toms that might be termed as men­tal ill­ness, the an­swer was an un­equiv­o­cal, “No.”

And as to whether any­one ex­hibit­ing such symp­toms must have prior dis­po­si­tion? “Yes. Ab­so­lutely.”

So some­thing like psy­chosis is not ac­tu­ally a de­sirous out­come for the med­i­ta­tive process?

“That [psy­chosis] is ab­so­lutely noth­ing to do with Vi­pas­sanā in our tra­di­tion. That is be­yond the bounds and ir­re­spon­si­ble. Med­i­ta­tion and mind­ful­ness have got to be prop­erly done, we’ve got to have pro­ce­dures set up like we do. It doesn’t mean we are per­fect. We dis­cuss things that were tricky: ‘Did I make a mis­take?’ ‘What was the feed­back from the stu­dent, from the course man­agers?’ We learn and we get bet­ter.”

With the help of tech­nolo­gies such as func­tional Mag­netic Res­o­nance Imag­ing (fMRI) and elec­troen­cephalo­grams, Pro­fes­sor Wil­loughby Brit­ton has ob­served many med­i­tat­ing brains. She is the co-di­rec­tor of the clin­i­cal and af­fec­tive neu­ro­science lab­o­ra­tory at Brown Univer­sity in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Is­land, and also one of the au­thors of The Va­ri­eties of Con­tem­pla­tive Ex­pe­ri­ence (VCE), a ma­jor qual­i­ta­tive study of chal­lenges faced in med­i­ta­tion.

“I was work­ing at an in­pa­tient psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal, and dur­ing that year there were two med­i­ta­tors that came off re­treats psy­chotic and needed to be hos­pi­talised. Two in a year seemed a lot to me, so I asked the med­i­ta­tion teach­ers I knew, how of­ten does this hap­pen? They looked kind of sheep­ish and were like, ‘It’s not that un­com­mon’,” Brit­ton re­calls. “So, I got the sense there was a lot that was not be­ing talked about. That was the be­gin­nings of the VCE study.”

Brit­ton spent a decade on the study, pub­lished last year. “More than 60 per cent of the peo­ple re­port­ing their own dif­fi­cul­ties were

ac­tu­ally teach­ers them­selves,” she ex­plains. “So, this isn’t just peo­ple who don’t know what they are do­ing, or peo­ple who are show­ing up who have men­tal ill­nesses. These were the teach­ers.”

Since Brit­ton’s pro­ject went pub­lic, she has been be­set with peo­ple seek­ing guid­ance. “I’ve had over 500 peo­ple con­tact me, I get emails, Face­book… re­fer­rals from med­i­ta­tion cen­tres and med­i­ta­tion teach­ers who feel like they’re not sure what to do. I work with peo­ple who have dif­fi­cul­ties and run a sup­port group ev­ery week; it cov­ers eight dif­fer­ent time zones and we all Skype in from dif­fer­ent coun­tries. That’s also been a big part of what’s in­form­ing not just the re­search study but also my on­go­ing work with peo­ple who are ac­tively in cri­sis… they don’t know where else to go.”

Brit­ton con­firms what Daniel In­gram has ob­served: you don’t need to spend days on a re­treat for this to hap­pen. “I am,” she says, “see­ing peo­ple who get into trou­ble us­ing apps.” (Headspace says its cus­tomer ser­vices team, “is pre­pared to rec­om­mend ap­pro­pri­ate re­sources to our mem­bers should the need arise.”)

How does Brit­ton think her work might make things more man­age­able for peo­ple who find them­selves in cri­sis in the years to come?

“A gen­eral aware­ness that these things hap­pen and what they are; ev­ery­one should know that, not just providers, but peo­ple who are con­sid­er­ing med­i­ta­tion. Right now, they just have such an overblown idea of what it can do for them, and that it’s good for ev­ery­thing with no side ef­fects; and that just needs to be more ma­ture and more re­al­is­tic,” she says. “I will know that things are bet­ter when peo­ple stop call­ing me. That hasn’t hap­pened yet but I’m hop­ing that as we train not just med­i­ta­tion teach­ers but also clin­i­cians, there will be a whole new species of clin­i­cian that can help peo­ple nav­i­gate this ter­ri­tory.”

The mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion here, per­haps lit­er­ally, is where what we think of as men­tal ill­ness ends and what Daniel called “deep­end spir­i­tual de­vel­op­ment” be­gins. Brit­ton has spo­ken pre­vi­ously about the dan­gers of “pathol­o­gis­ing the spir­i­tual and ro­man­ti­cis­ing the patho­log­i­cal”. The is­sues are as old as the prac­tices, and, like the neu­ral pro­cesses be­hind them, noth­ing we can an­swer defini­tively now.

It is clear that med­i­ta­tive prac­tice, as it re­lates to men­tal ill­ness, cuts both ways. It can help you out as much as it can pull you in. At Good­mayes psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal in Es­sex, con­sul­tant psy­chi­a­trist Rus­sell Raz­zaque works both sides of the street, of­fer­ing med­i­ca­tion and med­i­ta­tion to those in his care.

It is a blis­ter­ingly hot day when we meet at the se­cure unit where he works. A pa­tient is play­ing Lionel Richie’s “Hello” loudly and re­peat­edly over their phone in a court­yard be­low us. Raz­zaque of­fers to close the win­dow but speaks with a clear, quiet in­ten­sity that ren­ders any acous­tic coun­ter­mea­sures un­nec­es­sary.

“I did a mind­ful­ness group on the se­cure ward, where young men come be­cause they’ve been vi­o­lent. The story tends to be that they’ve been acutely psy­chotic which has led to that [vi­o­lence], and that gets them to me. We ran the group for the pa­tients and staff to­gether, and those who were find­ing things dif­fi­cult, they didn’t come be­cause it was too much for them.

“I think it’s al­ways very im­por­tant for it to be vol­un­tary. You could never say, ‘This is one­size-fits-all, every­body should have this at some stage’. I’ve never pre­scribed it to any­body. But we had the group ev­ery day for half an hour, and any­one who wanted to could drop in. Some­times peo­ple would come once and then not come back, other times peo­ple would come reg­u­larly and say, ‘This is re­ally mak­ing a dif­fer­ence’.”

So, it works then? “But there needs to be a lot of flex­i­bil­ity.”

It seems sur­pris­ing that a se­cure NHS men­tal health unit has a more flex­i­ble ap­proach than some re­treats. When I out­line the regime at Vi­pas­sanā, Dr Raz­zaque re­sponds, “That is the hard­est-core of all the ones I’ve seen. I have never been on one and I don’t think I would, it sounds pretty scary. Very long sit­tings, lack of eat­ing. If I was liv­ing in a monastery for five years, then maybe at the end of that, that might be good for me. So, yes, there cer­tainly are some that are very hard, and for some peo­ple to go through that, fine. But per­son­ally, as I said, it isn’t for me.”

Along­side Dr In­gram’s work and Pro­fes­sor Brit­ton’s stud­ies, Dr Raz­zaque’s book Break­ing Down is Wak­ing Up was in­stru­men­tal to my re­cov­ery. It is a re­mark­able work, ref­er­enc­ing ev­ery­thing from poetry to quan­tum the­ory in its assess­ment of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween mind, mat­ter and what might be de­fined as mad­ness. It also con­tains the most re­lat­able as­sess­ments of the “process” of psy­chosis I have ever heard.

“The truth,” Raz­zaque says, “is that life is a lot more mys­te­ri­ous than we give it credit for. Ninety-five per cent of the known uni­verse is ut­terly un­known and un­know­able to us. This isn’t prop­a­gated in pub­lic dis­course enough, be­cause of which peo­ple are led to this ma­te­ri­al­ist, re­duc­tion­ist idea of re­al­ity which leaves them feel­ing bereft. It leaves them feel­ing dead in­side and as a re­sult you get more peo­ple hav­ing break­downs think­ing, ‘What is the point of it all?’ I do think that’s one of the fun­da­men­tal rea­sons why men­tal health break­down rates are go­ing up… If you’ve been through those se­vere ex­pe­ri­ences you’ve been fur­ther out than the rest of us and that’s some­thing ben­e­fi­cial for us. In some an­cient com­mu­ni­ties that was a qual­i­fi­ca­tion for be­ing a shaman or a wise per­son.”

In a crazed world, per­haps the men­tally ill and those driven to prac­tices whose out­comes re­sem­ble mad­ness are just our first re­spon­ders.

“So­ci­ety needs this [con­ver­sa­tion],” Raz­zaque be­lieves. “I think we can be saved as a species… if we open those doors up, have those [out­ly­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal] ex­pe­ri­ences be heard more. It’s not just like say­ing, ‘Open the hos­pi­tal doors and let every­body out’. That’s never go­ing to be the case. It’s a thin line, some­times it will be [hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion], other times it’s just a case of get­ting fam­i­lies to­gether to try and un­der­stand what the in­di­vid­ual’s ex­pe­ri­ence is and work­ing it through.”

It has taken me two decades to in­ves­ti­gate what had hap­pened to me, and I am still putting it to­gether. As­sem­bling these sen­tences is it­self a part of that. What hap­pened on the re­treat and be­fore has be­come a bridge to un­der­stand, hav­ing come apart, how I, and maybe all of us, are put to­gether. I feel obliged to dis­cuss it in case there is some wis­dom there which oth­ers might recog­nise or ac­cess and ex­plore, ideally in a less dras­tic and dan­ger­ous fash­ion. I feel fine now, mostly. I can get back to that place be­yond words, some­times. I’m not sure I would want to go through it all again to get there, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“What has al­ways been true,” says Dr Raz­zaque, “is that when we’re talk­ing about men­tal health prob­lems and emo­tional prob­lems, we’re ef­fec­tively talk­ing about the very na­ture of con­scious­ness. And no­body re­ally knows what con­scious­ness is. Un­til we can de­fine the base of what we’re talk­ing about, how can we de­fine an ab­nor­mal­ity of con­scious­ness? I don’t think you’ll find a def­i­ni­tion of con­scious­ness that’s in­dis­putable, that works. I firmly be­lieve our brains aren’t big enough to un­der­stand the fir­ma­ment we’re in. A fish in water doesn’t re­ally know it’s in water.”

Un­til, per­haps, it jumps.

How had I fallen so hard and wide of the mark of med­i­ta­tion, of some­thing so seem­ingly be­nign? Oth­ers on the re­treat had be­come emo­tional, openly weep­ing, but no one else had begged to stop, only to

refuse to leave and then been forcibly re­moved

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