Invisible Friends

A woman, Katrina, came by for a session, after studying Tibetan Buddhism intensely for the previous decade. She was good looking, 37, with a beautiful aura about her. She had been doing certain Buddhist visualizations for seven years, and one of the techniques she had been doing was to visualize her teacher as the incarnation of Buddha, then see him sitting in her crown chakra. And then merge with him.

OK, this is a traditional technique. And it was interesting for a while. A living connection to Buddha, at the top of my head! But then it started feeling a little crowded there in her head – with her teacher and Buddha always there, watching her. But over time she found herself becoming inhibited as he got more and more inside her head, controlling her.

It was a complex and in many ways a rich relationship, for the lama was worshipping her at the same time he was using magic and incantations to control her. He was feeding off her energy at the same time he was creating her to be the incarnation of a dakini. After awhile, she found herself unable to enjoy sex with her husband. She felt like her teacher was always spying on her. She also quit her job as a yoga teacher, because she felt disconnected from her students and the other teachers in the studio.

When I met her, she had been divorced from her husband for several years, and living off the settlement money. She also distanced herself from her Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher. She was afraid to break up with him, afraid that some sort of horrible backlash would shatter her life, but she had worked out a gradual way of distancing herself from him.

Talking to her was like interviewing a walking manual for How to Make Yourself Miserable in Meditation: Advanced Techniques. There was one revelation after another. We found out that years earlier, before the divorce, she had visualized her Tibetan teacher so totally that it was as if he was in bed with her when she was with her husband, he was there as a third person. And she liked it, once or twice. But then, she couldn't tell her husband about it. How do you explain something like that? The whole thing started to feel very creepy, and that started to drive a wedge of alienation between her and her husband. No one talks about this stuff.

Katrina was actually in the midst of three divorces: from her husband, from her career as a yoga teacher, and from her Tibetan teacher. And maybe a fourth divorce, from herself, from seeing herself as the Very Special Student of her teacher. She was beginning to realize that she couldn't trust her teachers, or herself.

I never found out if she was actually having sex with her Tibetan teacher. I did not ask and did not want to know right then. Usually, there is some sexual contact, but it takes quite a few sessions for people to confess to something like that. It is extremely common and many American women are wearing a Scarlet Letter, written in Sanskrit or Tibetan, because they have been lovers with the teacher, until he dumps her for a younger woman.

Playing House

Let's change the name slightly and instead of saying Katrina was practicing Tibetan Buddhism, say she was playing house. Ok I'm the good little girl, and there is the altar with a statue of Buddha on it. I am making house for Buddha in my head. OK, now I am going to bow down to the statue again and again. If you saw an adult woman spending hours playing house with Buddha as an imaginary friend, and becoming increasingly dissociated from her daily life, you would worry a bit. There might be an intervention.

If this was a psychiatric drug Katrina was taking, then some alert psychiatrist would have observed: "The patient experienced loss of libido and consequent damage to her bonding with her husband. Her primary relationship was thus weakened, and she turned to a fantasy relationship, having long, detailed conversations with the mental image of a Tibetan. She then engaged in compulsive apotropaic behavior, doing 100,000 prostrations to a photograph of a dead Asian male on her altar. Becoming increasingly disconnected from her life, she quit her job, divorced her husband, and is now floating in limbo. Also, she has a severe knee injury from kneeling on the brick floor of her altar room."

People who take psychiatric drugs – SSRI's – Paxil, Zoloft, Prozak, often speak very honestly about the benefits and negative side effects of the drugs. But honesty almost does not exist in the field of meditation. There isn't even the language for it. And it's as if there is a total taboo on even speaking realistically about meditation. Is it because meditation is still viewed as something so precious that it can't possibly have bad side effects? I don't actually know.

But one thing Katrina has to show us – new chapters are being written daily for how to make yourself Miserable in Meditation!

The taboo you really need to break is the taboo against being healthy, lively, and free. This is the scariest taboo of all, because when you approach the activity of meditating in a healthy way, you violate all the dysfunctional rules you may have learned along the way: don’t feel, don’t think, don’t wiggle, don’t ask questions, don’t be angry, don’t be sexual, don’t doubt, don’t be a rebel, don’t do it your own way, do it the official way.