Obsession and Madness on the Path to Enlightenment

Retreat Yurts at Diamond Mountain Arizona. 

In pursuit of a story about the enigmatic death of a Buddhist retreatant, a writer risks his own mind as he digs into the heart of the mystery.

by Scott Carney

How much should someone strive to know their own soul?

It is a question I have struggled with for the better part of a decade after an incident that taught me that intensive meditation has the potential to unleash unexpected consequences. In 2006, I took a job leading American college students on an abroad program through holy sites in North India. The highlight of the program was a ten-day silent meditation retreat in Bodhgaya: the spot where Buddha achieved enlightenment almost three millennia ago. When the meditations were over, I had a conversation with one of my students—a whip-smart 21-year-old Southern belle named Emily O’Conner (not her real name)—about her retreat. She said it was the most profoundly moving experience of her life.

That night, while the other students chatted enthusiastically in the temple, Emily climbed to the roof of one of the dormitories, wrapped a khadi scarf around her face, and jumped. A student on his way to bed found her facedown on the pavement. According to the coroner’s report, she had died on impact.

I was charged with returning her remains to America. Somewhere along the way, the Indian police gave me her journal. On the eighth day of the retreat, she’d written in flowery cursive, “Contemplating my own death is the key.” Then, a few paragraphs later, “I’m scared that I will have this realization and go crazy.” One of the last things Emily wrote, in the same steady hand, was “I am a Bodhisattva.” She believed she was well along the road to transcendence.

There are many explanations for why Emily decided to take her own life. Maybe she had misunderstood the meaning of “enlightenment.” Maybe she had underlying mental instabilities that just happened to manifest themselves during intensive meditation. For all I knew, she was a Bodhisattva and continuing on her journey in another realm. However, here on earth I worried that enlightenment might not be all that it promised.

The death of a second meditator, Ian Thorson, this time in the mountains of Arizona, made me suspect that there was an unspoken mystery at the heart of these transformational techniques. The story of Thorson’s death is complicated, but to recount it briefly: Geshe Michael Roach, the first American to receive a Geshe degree (the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a PhD), spent years studying in India as a monk before eventually becoming a controversial guru who had made millions in the diamond industry in New York. Roach soon acquired a large following of students who saw value in the belief that great wealth could be a sign of good karma. Ian Thorson joined Roach’s retinue in the late 1990s, a few years before Roach planned to start a three-year silent meditation retreat along with a handful of his most attractive female students. Thorson soon became one of Roach’s most dedicated followers…




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