Shouting in a Silent Room:
Rethinking Meditation and Serious Mental Illness
Cassandra Tribe, Master
Dragon Mountain Ch'an Temple and Zen Community Centre
Patriarch's Vision Vol 1 No 3
International Ch'an Buddhism Institute
Dusty is indolence.
Dust comes in its wake.
With knowledge and vigilance,
Draw the arrow of suffering from yourself.
The use of movement and meditation within group recovery practices for persons with Serious Mental Illness (SMI) is a contentious practice in the United States. Part of the struggle comes from the problems inherent to this community and the other stems from the lack of practical and traditional training in meditation by the facilitators and program designers. A recent year-long initiative introduced a traditional program of Chan meditation and movement to a community centre for those with Serious Mental Illness to examine the viability of movement and meditation in a population identified by Any Mental Illness. The hope was to gain a better understanding of the problems with meditation and Serious Mental Illness and to suggest what potential resolution could be.
What was discovered was that the majority of the problems associated with using meditation as a complementary or support practice with those with Serious Mental Illness stemmed from the inadequate training of the facilitators and program designers. It was not the result of anyone with a Serious Mental Illness being unable to manage their reaction to meditation. In examining why the training and programs were inadequate, the core problem stemmed from the Westernization of traditional Chan practice to increase its accessibility to Western culture has resulted in a dilution of its ability to be effective by making the current practices and mind-sets of facilitators too rigid to be able to respond to what is happening in the moment.
By further following the hypothesis that the principle of the mass line theory could be applied within this setting to correct the approach of the facilitator and the design of the program, an effective and supportive meditative practice could be developed and used by persons with Serious Mental Illness, as well as Any Mental Illness as it would be rooted in the traditional teachings and practices informed by the community involvement. It was also believed that by using the mass line results as a guiding tool a new program for training facilitators could be implanted to restore flexibility, presence, mindfulness, discipline and compassion to their education.
Where perception of danger lies, rigidity and exclusion thrive.
Two forces are at work in the social welfare system that has prohibited meditation from being effectively introduced as a supporting or complementary therapy for those with Serious Mental Illness and Any Mental Illness. The first is the standard declaration by the U.S. Department of Health that has discouraged the use of meditative practices with mentally ill consumers because of a perceived risk of dissociation, disturbance and inducement of psychosis or delusions. The second comes from the adaptation of the traditional Chan practices to popular alternative culture within the American society that has reduced the focus of the practice to one of self-focus and individualized experience. The lack of contextual study of the sutras, diligence in practice and the promotion of patient practice over a form of rapid achievement have allowed a diluted form of Buddhist practice to be embraced by the alternative culture. The unfortunate effect of going too far in adapting the traditional practice to a culture is that the meaning and effectiveness of the practice, with or without fidelity to the beliefs - has lost its ability to provide for a check for the mental stability, intent and methodology of the practitioners promoting it as a treatment for the reduction of stress and anxiety in those with mental disorders of any degree.
Rather than promote a more independent and freer interpretation of Buddhist practice and belief that leads to greater accessibility and application; the removal of discipline and structure has led to a preponderance of schools and practitioners that are more engaged with individualistic interpretations that cling to a kind of materialism and reject change, adaptability, flexibility and responsiveness as a value in community practice. The duality of sudden enlightenment and revelatory enlightenment of the Chan tradition has made it particularly susceptible to adoption by those who under less kind circumstances would be considered narcissistic seekers of a cult of personality.
Core to the identity of these practitioners is the presentation of meditation as having a specific goal, as well as all experiences and beliefs systems being but only differently voiced versions of the same universal experience. This individualistic and self-centred interpretation of traditional practice has gained a strong foothold in the Western world as it retains the individual as the centre of the essence of all cycles, removes the need for training and supervision, and establishes a role in which authority is not to be questioned or constructively criticized. When this is combined with the recent scientific studies of certain types of meditation that have quantitatively defined a physical effect for the practice - the result is the creation of a false behavioural operand that can only lead to failure, as well as harm when introduced to a marginalized and vulnerable community along with a complete invalidation of the social capital of marginalized communities by refusing them the value of their unique identifiers.