Before we begin, I should clear up something that should have been discussed long ago. I am not an ordained teacher in any path. I have not been given permission to teach, nor do I have any experience involving students. My opinions are my own, based on years of meditative practice and research on myself. My writings should not be read as representative of any spiritual or religious tradition. They are given in the hopes that they might help people and give them some context for the spiritual and meditative paths if they are on them, or about to embark.
This context was something that was largely absent from my initial forays into meditation. I had begun to read books on the subject and made some tentative steps towards daily sitting. I did not begin going to my local Zen Center until later on. Due to my stubbornness, I had not studied intensively with a teacher.
Without knowing what I was in for, I persisted with meditation as it slowly began to change everything I thought to be true. I went on a short retreat, and began reading and studying even more. Eventually, I reached a point where something inside had reached critical mass, and I began a shocking and terrifying transition that would last for weeks.
This transition loomed and I entered what could only be described as total psychic meltdown. I seemed to experience a complete range of psychotic symptoms including panic attacks, sleeplessness, inability to eat, and agoraphobia. I also experienced a range of ancillary states, including oceanic feelings, overwhelming energy, and intense bliss. I began having suicidal impulses. I also became aware of what I sensed to be a primordial terror of some of the most recessed parts of myself.
These feelings are difficult to describe due to their intensely personal nature. Imagine someone cut open your heart of hearts so deeply that you could see every part of yourself inside. Every malicious and evil impulse came up for me to understand and process. My lack of context did not serve me well in making this transition. Since my practice was largely self-referential, and I had not come across these experiences in my readings, I had no way to understand what was going on at that time.
I could no longer work, and lay in bed in fear. Somehow around this time I began to understand what was occurring inside me. I took up journaling, trying to put into words how I felt. It was like being on a bridge, with a drop into night below and darkness reaching up to touch the path on either side.
At this point I also began talking to teachers and psychotherapists, who all had different approaches to what was going on. My family was frightened for me, but was also genuinely caring and supportive. The teacher at the Zen Center referred to what was happening as a Crisis, and its associations of decay, collapse, and transformation stuck with me. He said that sometimes our self image is dropped in the practice, and sometimes it is burned away. This complemented what I was feeling at the time. As I did more research later on, I discovered how incredibly common this was for other practitioners.
Many traditions have described this phase in similar terms, with images of being forged, flayed, and remade. In this respect it becomes more than a mere metaphor, and describes an actual process of phase transition. The Crisis is a true test of our mettle, to allow us to open ourselves to all that is inside us, shattering our confines in the most painful of ways. The Crisis prepares us for an acknowledgement of our own freedom. It is our initial reactions and resistance against that freedom which cause us to enter some of the most protracted elements of the Crisis. The limited self we have built up only breaks down in its encounter with what is felt to be its other, as we digest these experiences.
I consider meditation and its associated trials to be some of the most significant events in my life. They healed me, returned my sense of freedom, prepared me for more fulfilling work in the world, and gave me the courage to try newer, creative endeavors. However, the Crisis is a frightening process, and sometimes people never return from it at all. In the book A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader, there is a brief discussion of mystical experience that very clearly emphases the dangers of these endeavors:
Our Rabbis taught. Four entered an orchard: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Asher [Elisha Ben Abuyah] and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them: When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say, ‘Water, water!’ For it is said, ‘He who speaks falsehood shall not be established before my eyes.’ (Ps. 101:7)
Ben Azzai gazed and died. Of him Scripture says: ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.’ (Ps. 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken. Of him Scripture says: ‘If you find honey, eat only what you need, lest you be overfilled with it and throw it up.’ (Prov. 25:16). Aher cut down the shoots. Rabbi Akiva departed in peace. (B. Hag. 14b) (34)
In his associated commentary, the author Daniel Horowitz elaborates:
Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma are damaged physically and psychologically by their visit to the pardes; and Elisha Ben Abuyah is understood to be spiritually damaged . . . One must be fully respectful of the Owner of the orchard before reaching and appreciating such heights. Because of this, not only is he not granted a full understanding of the pardes [the orchard], but he is led further astray into outright heresy . . . Only Rabbi Akiva was qualified, sufficiently mature, or had properly practiced the various aspects of the journey; only such a person was able to handle the experience and come back . . . Later mystics suggests that one who aspires to this experience must be willing to approach a ‘curtain of fire’ to merit consideration for admission to the inner sanctum. (Ibid., 36-37)
I would be remiss if I did not mention the specific dangers of meditation. A quick search of the internet reveals numerous articles on the subject that are worthy of time and attention. If you decide to meditate, read this literature first. Go and talk to meditation teachers in your area and see if they have had difficulties from their meditation. Even if you can find one to help lead you through the Crisis, it is still dangerous, with a unique path to the self, soul, and God that you must undergo yourself.