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When Emily O’Conner leapt to her death from the roof of a dormitory in the Indian town of Bodh Gaya, she believed she was a Bodhisattva—an enlightened being who didn’t need her body anymore. She was part of a group of American exchange students who travelled to India in search of spiritual experiences in the mid-2000s.
The leader of the exchange program was Scott Carney, a writer, ethnographer, and student of Tibetan Buddhism whose own thinking about spirituality was profoundly affected by O’Connor’s death. At the time, he dismissed the event as an isolated case, but as he continued his research he found hundreds of examples of “madness and meditation” as he calls them: suicides and psychotic episodes brought on by spiritual practice.
The results of Carney’s work are captured in his new book, A Death on Diamond Mountain, which tells the story of another seeker named Ian Thorson who died from dehydration and dysentery in the arms of Christie McNally—his former guru’s ex-wife—on an Arizona mountaintop in 2012.
The couple had been forced out of a Buddhist meditation retreat, ending up in a cave that was pock-marked with soot from the fires of Native Americans many years before. There they carried on their spiritual practices, but drank contaminated water as their supplies ran out even though they had a filter. When Thorson was close to death, McNally activated a GPS signal on her cell-phone to reveal their whereabouts, but he died before the rescue party reached them. His corpse weighed a hundred pounds.
Carney’s book is a gripping read—equal parts investigative journalism, thriller, and critical examination of spirituality in the West. But does it have anything to say to the vast majority of people who follow a spiritual path without descending into madness?
More to the point for readers of Transformation, did O'Conner and Thorson's fate hinge on their overemphasis on personal experiences to the exclusion of their role in a highly political world, including the world of spirituality and spiritual teachers? To find out answers to these questions, I spoke to Carney in May of 2015.
I began by asking him what really goes wrong in the cases he has studied—individual susceptibilities perhaps, or is there a broader pattern?
“These examples happen much more frequently than you might expect,” he told me. “A common factor in the tendency to pursue the spiritual life obsessively is that Westerners often have grandiose expectations of Eastern spirituality and religion. They forget that Buddhist and Hindu teachings were developed in a vastly different context, and so they may be out of line with contemporary needs and realities.
Many seekers in the West come from a Christian background, so they already have feelings of being special or chosen which feed into and out of ‘American exceptionalism’ and the search for human perfection. That then gets mixed in with Eastern traditions which say that you can develop special powers or reach a special destination through meditation and other practices. Put these things together and you have a powerful mix.
Eastern teachers were attracted by what they saw in the West, especially in the United States—things like wealth, open minds, high levels of education, and an eagerness to learn. So they took on lots of Western students, but these students lacked a toolbox to criticize and make sense of these new ideas, this syncretic mixing of traditions. There’s a uniquely American tendency to mix and match Eastern religious traditions like Lego pieces. Americans search for inner peace like they are competing in a sporting event.
It isn’t bad that Eastern faiths are coming to the West, but we have to accept that there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ spiritual inquiry. We need to go into these practices and question them, be critical and self-critical, and realize that all paths and their teachers are fallible and imperfect. You might receive something beneficial from them, or you might not. You might feel a connection to the divine, when in reality, you might just be crazy.
The goal of spiritual inquiry is not apotheosis or extinction, nor thinking that you are greater than anybody else, nor in possession of special powers, but that’s essentially what happens in these cases. We can learn from them, not just from the positive experiences—even in a bad lesson you can find good knowledge. We have to learn from the dark side of spirituality too. The real lesson of spiritual practice is that there are no right answers. Spiritual inquiry almost always ends in enigma.”
What’s also clear is that the details of spiritual practice and the characteristics of its teachers are also major factors. Ian Thorson, for example, studied under a controversial Buddhist guru named Geshe Michael Roach, “who promises wealth and good fortune to those who follow his teachings.” Thorson and Christie were staying at his “Diamond Mountain University” during their final retreat, a collection of Mongolian yurts sited on land rented from a Mormon rancher in Arizona.
Roach taught his students that “the truth can be unlocked through self discipline”—through the dissolution of the ego using intense meditation and the study of Buddhist Tantric texts. As a specialist in Buddhist thought Carney acknowledges the origins of these ideas, but he’s wary of encouraging Westerners to follow them to excess. Intensive practice can also lead to mental instability or madness—“could silence itself be damaging?” he writes at one point in his book. “The path to enlightenment can be riddled with danger. People can develop a kind of spiritual, mental and physical sickness,” called “Lung” (the Tibetan word for “wind”).
Along with critical inquiry, principles like balance, discernment, integrity and consistency are important factors in halting the slide into madness along the spiritual path—and in alerting seekers to the dangers it represents. Roach seems particularly weak in these respects. He made a fortune in New York’s diamond business while studying to be a Buddhist monk, and later co-wrote a bestseller to share his secrets with the business world.
“The greatest business people have a deep inner capacity,” Roach writes in his book, “they hunger—as we all do, but perhaps more strongly—for a true spiritual life.” In an echo of other scandals in the world of Eastern spirituality, his vows of celibacy were followed by bouts of enthusiastic sex with Christie, who was married to Roach before she formed a relationship with Thorson. It’s here in this murky undergrowth that the tendency of Americans to react uncritically to teachings from the East is most apparent.
The final theme in Carney’s research is social disengagement as a factor in spiritual psychosis. Towards the end of his book, he cites the experiences of Meredith Sagan, a psychiatrist and “breatharian” who believed she could survive on air alone. Seated “in a dark cave, eating only prana (breath)”, he writes, “she realized that life was a choice. She could stay in a state of bliss, a place where the broader community no longer mattered, or return to society and leave her transcendent experiences—no matter how real—behind her. Sagan chose life. Not everybody does.”
It’s a conclusion that sums up Carney’s findings, but is it a real choice or a false one for spiritual seekers who are trying to integrate both of these things together? After all, uniting ‘love and social justice’ has been the goal of many social-spiritual movements in the US and beyond. I put this question to Carney and this is what he said:
“No matter what the ultimate spiritual truth actually is, it seems to me that if there is a final judgment then we’re going to be judged at the end by how we’ve lived in the world. Spirituality can be great motivator, and if you go into these experiences and come out with the inspiration to do good in the world then that’s the perfect marriage. Spirituality should be motivating in this way. We have to live our lives the best we can.
I don’t just want to tell great stories. I’m interested only if they tell us something about what it means to be human in the world (his previous book took on the subject of organ trafficking). So in this book I’m writing about the point and pitfalls of spiritual inquiry. Instead of thinking of spiritual practices as good or bad in themselves, it is more fruitful to think of them as potentially powerful.”
How we use that power is down to us, I think Carney is saying, not our spiritual teachers or books or techniques. In making these choices, a critical and self-critical approach is vital, as are balance and common sense. Using spirituality as a springboard for an honest, authentic and reflexive engagement with the world is the only way to avoid ‘a death on Diamond Mountain.’
“Our bodies do matter,” Carney continued, “they are what underpin our ability to live usefully in the world. The spiritual isn’t more or less important than the material. You can experience both at the same time, albeit imperfectly. There’s no need to go to either extreme.
Don’t punish yourself to make the world a better place.”