Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Theravāda in the 21st century - modern applications of ancient wisdom

Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Postby atraveller » Thu Aug 16, 2012 1:59 pm

Dear all,

This is my first day on DhammaWheel. Sorry for the long post but I thought its best to give some context.

My husband and I have been Buddhist practitioners and mediators. My husband more so than me and he is also a meditation teacher in our local community. As you may know people have certain expectations of meditation teachers and how they should behave. Other than that we have been an “normal family” – if there is ever such a thing – progressing in our careers, mortgage, baby etc etc. My husband has several sides to him. His knowledge in the Dhamma is very impressive. He is also skilled in meditation – jhana/vipassana etc. However he also has strong sensual desires, desires which have also led to him breaking the third precept more than once. He also had a bad family history of mental illness and has suffered with depression. Last year he had a psychotic episode where he had a delusion that he was the Matteya Buddha, a great teacher with psychic powers and was on a mission to save the world. He nearly took some drastic action but the delusion subsided after a while. This year following the use of anti-depressants he relapsed again. His behaviour was so aggressive and out of character and has now been diagnosed with bipolar. He showed a lot of typical bipolar manic symptoms which don’t really go hand in hand with his image as a meditation teacher. These include the aggressiveness, ego and sexual indiscretions (this time aimed at the baby’s nanny!). The delusion of a Buddha was not so present this year, but it was more that “I am meant for bigger things” “I can unite all religions” “I should help thousands of people attain enlightenment” etc.

He has now been put on a medication called Lithium which must be monitored closely. But even now there are days when he threatens to leave and join a forest monastery – he says it will be easier as a forest monk rather than to live a monogamous lay life and be a father. To me however, being a Buddhist forest monk sounds like a hard life (not easy anyway) especially given his mental condition/mood instability. He also seem to think he can be fully enlightened very soon – around 6 months.

Here are my questions to which I am hoping you can provide some guidance based on your practice.
(1) Is it advisable for someone with a serious mental illness and on medication to ordain as a monk? Specially if the aim is to ordain in a country like Sri Lanka in a forest setting?

(2) If someone has a mental illness/mood instability and a mania of Buddha/world teacher etc, what type of meditation will be useful? He clearly wants to practice. Vipassana seem to make him depressed and want to run away more. Metta seem to help so far but not sure if that works for manic and elated mood!

(3) Is there any meditation/dhamma teacher who may be skilled at advising someone with mental illness? Preferably available over email/phone call. I think my husband could use a good mentor at this point - all thins time it was only one sided him being a mentor to others.

Your thoughts and advice would be invaluable and much appreciated! Needless to say all this is hugely stressful to me and may have a lasting impact on our baby's life. May the good karma of your dhamma dana help you in your path to enlightenment!

With much gratitude

atraveller
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Re: Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Postby gavesako » Thu Aug 16, 2012 2:57 pm

In Western monastic communities, there have been many such cases of people coming with grandiose ideas and mental problems wanting to ordain. Sometimes such cases have deteriorated into full-blown psychosis due to intensive meditation. For this reason, there is a 3-stage process before one is admitted into the Sangha as a fully ordained bhikkhu in the West, which takes about 2 years. In the meantime, candidates can be observed and screened by the resident monks and the teacher. If you husband behaves and speaks in the way you describe, he probably would not even be admitted as a long-term lay resident in the monastery, or he would not make it past the second stage in the training. Usually such people stand our pretty clearly and have conflicts with others, so they are asked to leave. Also people on medication are better advised not to do intensive meditation in isolation. There are better ways to live a wholesome life and make progress on the path.

Unfortunately, such people might choose to go to Asia where they will easily find a place to ordain quickly as monks and then it might end in disaster...
Bhikkhu Gavesako
Kiṃkusalagavesī anuttaraṃ santivarapadaṃ pariyesamāno... (MN 26)

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Re: Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Postby LonesomeYogurt » Thu Aug 16, 2012 9:34 pm

It is definitely a bad idea for a mentally ill person to ordain in any setting.

I would recommend concentration exercises/jhana, metta bhavana, or perhaps just placing meditation on hold while mental health issues are worked out.

I don't know of any offhand but it might help to know what tradition he is from.

I wish you the best. I can't imagine how stressful such a situation must be. You seem to be handling it with admirable compassion and equanimity. Please do not, amidst your troubles, forget that your spiritual development is important as well. Too often a mentally ill partner can distract from the proper care and compassion you need to give yourself.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti Sutta

Stuff I write about things.
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Re: Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Postby befriend » Thu Aug 16, 2012 11:44 pm

you can write a letter to tara brach, she is a prominent buddhist teacher who does a lot of work with healing. she has a website. i myself am a bi polar buddhist, and have just started using a technique of hers. ill let you know how it goes. im sorry to hear about that. he might need more medication i saw a book called yoga for healing. check that out on amazon.
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Re: Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Postby David N. Snyder » Fri Aug 17, 2012 12:22 am

It doesn't sound like he would make a good monk, due to interpersonal problems that might arise as the Venerable noted. Also the struggles with sensual desires would most likely effect his time as a monk.

It doesn't sound like he is much of a good husband either. If he is repeatedly violating the third precept, that is not fair to you and it is possibly putting you in danger. He could be spreading an STD (or worse) to you. I admire your compassion and patience, but be sure to take care of yourself too.
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Re: Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Postby TravisGM » Fri Aug 17, 2012 3:48 am

David N. Snyder wrote:It doesn't sound like he would make a good monk, due to interpersonal problems that might arise as the Venerable noted. Also the struggles with sensual desires would most likely effect his time as a monk.

It doesn't sound like he is much of a good husband either. If he is repeatedly violating the third precept, that is not fair to you and it is possibly putting you in danger. He could be spreading an STD (or worse) to you. I admire your compassion and patience, but be sure to take care of yourself too.


This is always the tough medicine to swallow. You love him dearly, we can see that here due to your concerns about him. But you cannot expect to love anyone until you learn to love yourself. If you can handle him and the issues without suffering, stick with it and more power to you! But if you cannot, which is O.K., you need to escape the suffering. Learn the way, be happy and maybe one day you can teach him :)

Good luck and with all the metta I posses,
TravisGM
To be happy...
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Re: Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Postby reflection » Fri Aug 17, 2012 7:48 am

I have no nearby experience of people with serious mental illnesses, so I can't really say something about that. However, I agree with people above who said he probably wouldn't make the greatest monk.

Also, if his mental illnesses seem to be getting worse, perhaps he should stop meditating at all. I personally belief meditation is wonderful in general, but perhaps he is practicing a very wrong method, partly due to his illness. As you say, his vipassana seems to make him depressed. If that's indeed the result of the practice, something goes wrong there.

However, if metta works well, as you say, than perhaps he should practice that. Metta does also involve equanimity, the ability to be more stable and less swept away by emotions. So while I really can't really speak for serious mental illness, perhaps it could provide a relaxation of the manic depression.

But the main reason for this post is to wish you all the best and all the strength you need.

With metta,
Reflection
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Re: Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Postby atraveller » Fri Aug 17, 2012 9:36 am

Thank you everyone for your kindness! Befreind - thanks for the information on Tara Brach. Reflection - I think your point re equanimity might be very useful. It may be the balancing point for manic depression. I was wondering does anyone know a meditation technique for equanimity/upekkha? I've not see this meditation been practiced actively. LonesomeYogurt - he is Theravada - South Asian tradition and has practiced samatha and vipassana meditations.

I care for him deeply and would hate to see his downfall. There is an amazing side to him - and he may have made a great monk under very different circumstances. But we are where we are now. As the Ven says I believe there are better ways to live a wholesome life in this case. I try to practice of metta and patients as much as possible these days. I hear the concern in your replies though...thank you so much and I would keep that in mind if it comes to a difficult decision in the future.
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Re: Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Postby reflection » Fri Aug 17, 2012 9:49 am

atraveller wrote:Thank you everyone for your kindness! Befreind - thanks for the information on Tara Brach. Reflection - I think your point re equanimity might be very useful. It may be the balancing point for manic depression. I was wondering does anyone know a meditation technique for equanimity/upekkha? I've not see this meditation been practiced actively.

Well, usually metta does the job quite well because metta is not just loving kindness, it is loving kindness towards everything equally. So it embraces things as they are. Therefore, alongside metta, equanimity arises.

But again, perhaps it may be better for him to back off from meditation for a while to see things from a different perspective. I don't know, but I would keep the option open.
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Re: Mental illness in meditators - advice needed

Postby Alobha » Fri Aug 17, 2012 10:43 am

atraveller wrote:I care for him deeply and would hate to see his downfall. There is an amazing side to him - and he may have made a great monk under very different circumstances. But we are where we are now.


As the situation will change sooner or later, please also keep in mind that if he would ordain now and break the third precept, he would be expelled from the Sangha for life. The same could happen if he claims to be the next Buddha after ordination. I guess expulsion from the Sangha for life is something he would regret very much once he comes to his senses again.
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