Home » Dark side of silent meditation retreat loved by Silicon Valley moguls: Woman, 22, took her own life while others suffer psychotic breaks after 11- hour sessions at wellness camp that’s like a ‘voluntary prison sentence’

Dark side of silent meditation retreat loved by Silicon Valley moguls: Woman, 22, took her own life while others suffer psychotic breaks after 11- hour sessions at wellness camp that’s like a ‘voluntary prison sentence’

by Marko Florentino
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A mother has expressed her heartache after her 22-year-old daughter killed herself during an intense meditation retreat.

Nathalie, from Ontario, Canada, told the Financial Times’ podcast, The Retreat, how her daughter Jaqui checked into a 10-day Goenka retreat in Merritt – but the ‘free spirit’ left early and took her own life.

The podcast examines the world of the Goenka network, which promotes a type of intensive meditation known as Vipassana, which sees people meditate for 10 to 11 hours a day over 10 days, in silence.

Some people who have been to the retreats referred to them as ‘like a voluntary prison sentence’ and accused the teachers of ‘exhibiting irresponsible behaviour, bordering on malpractice.’

Podcast host Madison Marriage says she has been receiving emails from desperate families who are looking to highlight the dangers of the meditation group by sharing the harrowing stories of their children, who suffered from hallucinations and psychosis afterwards.

A new podcast called The Retreat, from The Financial Times examines the world of the Goenka network. In episode three the host heard from Nathalie and Leigh, from Ontario, Canada, who's daughter Jaqui (pictured) checked into a Goenka retreat before leaving early to take her own life

A new podcast called The Retreat, from The Financial Times examines the world of the Goenka network. In episode three the host heard from Nathalie and Leigh, from Ontario, Canada, who’s daughter Jaqui (pictured) checked into a Goenka retreat before leaving early to take her own life

The FT explained: ‘Thousands of people go on Goenka retreats every year to learn Vipassana meditation. 

‘High-flying tech moguls in Silicon Valley rave about it. Getting a place on one is like getting Glastonbury tickets: they’re coveted. 

‘But some who go to these retreats suffer. They might feel a deep sense of terror, or a break with reality – and afterwards, they’re not themselves anymore.’ 

Host Madison added: ‘I found out that although most participants leave the retreats feeling okay, and some even feel euphoric, lots of people have experienced sheer terror during Goenka retreats around the world.’

Jaqui appeared to be a free spirit, she wanted to be an artist and had converted her van into a miniature house on wheels to travel around the country. 

The 22-year-old would post updates about her van life on Facebook and she found work planting trees on a farm in British Columbia in the spring of 2022. 

While there, Jaqui, who wasn’t new to meditation, decided to sign up to do the 10-day silent meditation retreat in Merritt. 

Her mother said: ‘She was a very spiritual person. She had been meditating daily, I would say, for a couple of years, she found it really helped her, just calm her.’

Jaqui appeared to be a free spirit, she wanted to be an artist and had converted her van into a miniature house on wheels to travel around the country

Jaqui appeared to be a free spirit, she wanted to be an artist and had converted her van into a miniature house on wheels to travel around the country

The President of India Pratibha Patil (L) Takes Blessings From Acharya S.N Goenka Founder Global Vipassana Foundation (R)

The President of India Pratibha Patil (L) Takes Blessings From Acharya S.N Goenka Founder Global Vipassana Foundation (R)

S.N. Goenka and his wife, Eillaichi, greet three Buddhist monks at a Burmese Monastery in Azuza where the Goenka's and their disciples stayed during their trip through Southern California

S.N. Goenka and his wife, Eillaichi, greet three Buddhist monks at a Burmese Monastery in Azuza where the Goenka’s and their disciples stayed during their trip through Southern California

S.N. Goenka, travelled around North America for three months an R.V. teaching as he went

S.N. Goenka, travelled around North America for three months an R.V. teaching as he went 

The Global Vipassana Pagoda is a Meditation dome hall with a capacity to seat around 8,000 Vipassana meditators near Gorai, in the north western part of Mumbai

The Global Vipassana Pagoda is a Meditation dome hall with a capacity to seat around 8,000 Vipassana meditators near Gorai, in the north western part of Mumbai

During the application process for the retreat, Jaqui had to complete a questionnaire probing her mental health.

In emails with the retreat Jaqui’s admitted that she had contemplated suicide seven years earlier when she was 14 years old.

She added: ‘I have not had any issues with suicidal thoughts in seven years. No considerations and absolutely no action.’ 

When she showed up at the centre, the volunteers that checked her in took her phone and the keys to her van. 

Jaqui embarked on 10 hours of daytime meditation starting at 4 am, with no dinner, talking or eye contact, and she watched old tapes of Goenka’s teachings at night. 

Nine days into the retreat, Nathalie received a phone call from the retreat staff to say Jaqui ‘left the course during the night’ and they weren’t able to locate her. 

Nathalie tried messaging and calling Jaqui that day but couldn’t get through and the following day she called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to file a missing person’s report. 

However Nathalie became alarmed when the retreat staff admitted that Jaqui had an emotional few days at the centre before her disappearance. 

She said: ‘The office admin person who had reached out to us got the assistant teacher on the phone with us, and all he basically said was she had a difficult day, she was crying.

‘She was obviously struggling. And so we said, “so you sent her to bed?” And he said something along the lines of, ”well, we were going to work on it tomorrow.”’

Nathalie knew something was wrong when police found Jaqui’s van, abandoned on the side of the road, 50km from the Goenka centre, but she wasn’t inside. 

Over the next week, an intensive search party with volunteers, friends and family was launched to find Jaqui, searching miles of woodland.

Nine days into the retreat, Nathalie (right) received a phone call from the retreat staff to say Jaqui (left) 'left the course during the night' and they weren’t able to locate her

Nine days into the retreat, Nathalie (right) received a phone call from the retreat staff to say Jaqui (left) ‘left the course during the night’ and they weren’t able to locate her

On the eighth day of the search police let the family know that they had found Jaqui’s body. 

Nathalie said: ‘It was just inconceivable. It was just unbelievable. And, I remember I fell to the ground. Uh, it was awful.’ 

During their investigation the police found that Jaqui left the centre between 9pm and 8am the next morning. She drove away in her van until it apparently ran out of petrol.

The police report claimed that staff at the retreat stated Jaqui was having a difficult time with classes.

It read: ‘She was having constant emotional episodes. Episodes were not uncommon. The ongoing nature of them was unusual. 

‘Jaqueline appeared ashamed of something she had previously done, but did not disclose what it was. Jaqueline did not show signs of suicidal ideation or self-harm though.’

Members of the public reported seeing a woman by a lake, 15km from where Jaqui’s van was abandoned.

The coroner determined the date of Jaqui’s death as October 2, 2022. 

Nathalie feels if the centre had flagged Jacqui’s distressed state sooner then it might have been possible to help her in time. 

She said: ‘She wasn’t just struggling the day that this happened. She had actually been struggling for days, and they even said to the RCMP that it wasn’t unusual for someone to struggle. 

‘It was unusual for someone to continually struggle for days. I had no idea the severity, of the possible severity, of the state that she might be in.’

Jaqui’s parents believe that the centre should have alerted the police and that Jaqui should not have been allowed to drive away in her van.

The retreats own website states participants will not have access to their vehicle for the duration of the course.

Natalie said: ‘Somehow she had her keys. And if your policy is to have people hand in their keys, there’s a reason for it. So enforce that policy.’     

This troubling experience is much more widespread than Jaqui as others have also experienced mental breaks while meditating, including twin sisters.

In the first episode host Madison received an email from a desperate father, whose daughters Emily and Sarah (not their real names), had spiralled into despair after getting involved in the meditation retreats.

Episode one followed Emily, a high-achieving Oxford student, who went on a series of retreats after taking a year out of her studies to ‘breath and travel’. 

After learning a lot about meditation while travelling around India, the student signed up to her first Goenka retreat once she returned home, at a centre close to her parents’ home in Herefordshire.

Speaking on the podcast Emily said: ‘The first night they tell you, “you should surrender to the whole process”. 

‘They say it’s like an operation of your mind. If you leave in the middle of it, it’s dangerous. It’s like leaving during an operation which is in the process of happening when you’re cut open.’

Even though she thought about leaving initially, she stayed and after day one she stopped being able to sleep, despite never having any sleep issues previously. 

The sleeplessness aside, she felt it had done her some good and she eventually signed up to volunteer at another retreat, however she said this one did something different to her mind. 

She said: ‘It really started to f*** me up, so I’d stopped sleeping. So I’d have major emotional, like big emotional reactions to things. And then I would have like lucid dreams, almost hallucinatory dreams, which I never had before. 

‘But the whole narrative that was like, ‘Oh, it’s good, you know, that’s what we’re here for. You’re feeling anxious or upset or anguished, it’s part of the process.”

Emily said she no longer was able to focus or think rationally, eventually she dropped out of university and started travelling alone, meditating for several hours a day as it was what the Goenka course recommended. 

She said: ‘My brain was like, falling apart and I wasn’t sleeping, and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I was kind of, like, slightly tripping the whole time.’

When Emily returned home her parents said she was ‘stick thin’ and she had looked like an ‘old woman’ but she refused to see a doctor. 

Emily’s dad Stephen said: ‘She was there physically and she could talk. But it was as if her personality had been removed.’

Emily’s mother Kate and Stephen started to look for ways to help their daughter and they called the Cult Information Centre, who told them that ‘psychosis can be brought on by meditation’ and they needed to get specialist help.

They contacted Graham Baldwin, the director of Catalyst, which is a charity that helps families and individuals who have been damaged by abusive relationships and groups.

Can meditation cause mania? 

Meditation can cause mania, depression, hallucinations and psychosis, psychological studies in the UK and US have found. 

However, 60 per cent of people who had been on a meditation retreat had suffered at least one negative side effect, including panic, depression and confusion, a study in the US found. 

And one in 14 of them suffered ‘profoundly adverse effects’, according to Miguel Farias, head of the brain, belief and behaviour research group at Coventry University and Catherine Wikholm, a researcher in clinical psychology at the University of Surrey.

The shortage of rigorous statistical studies into the negative effects of meditation was a ‘scandal’, Dr Farias told The Times.

He said: ‘The assumption of the majority of both TM [transcendental meditation] and mindfulness researchers is that meditation can only do one good.

This shows a rather narrow-minded view. How can a technique that allows you to look within and change your perception or reality of yourself be without potential adverse effects?

‘The answer is that it can’t, and all meditation studies should assess not only positive but negative effects.’

The British study involved measuring effect of yoga and meditation on prisoners, and its findings were published yesterday in the psychologists’ book, The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?.

Inmates at seven prisons in the Midlands took 90-minute classes once a week and completed tests to measure their higher cognitive functions in a ten week randomised control trial.

The prisoners’ moods improved, and their stress and psychological distress reduced – but they were found to be just as aggressive before the mindfulness techniques.

He told the family that it sounded like their daughter was in a state of psychosis from too much meditation and they needed to get her to stop meditating right away.

After six weeks Emily started to act and feel better, she started coming back in touch with reality, but she still wasn’t able to function properly in society. 

Unbelievably, Emily’s twin sister, Sarah, started to get into meditation around this time and became hooked on the same form of Vipassana meditation taught by Goenka.

After university Sarah was feeling a little lost and she was also struggling to find a cure for a debilitating nerve pain in her arms.

Emily, recommended going to a Goenka retreat as she thought meditation would help her sister. 

Sarah decided to go to a retreat centre in Herefordshire which initially actually helped her symptoms and made her feel incredible.

She said: ‘I remember finding it quite incredible what would happen if you observe, like if you stay that concentrated for a long time. It kind of felt like my mind was becoming very clear, very sharp, and I felt like I was getting into a state of mind that’s quite above ordinary.

‘It’s basically like a sober psychedelic experience. It’s very, very mentally altering. It was as if I’d taken psychedelic drugs for 10 days.’

Her nerve pain also completely disappeared and she said it felt like she had ‘cleaned her body.’

By the fourth day, Sarah felt overwhelmed by emotion and she broke down crying, however she was advised to stay at the retreat to finish the 10 day program. 

She said: ‘I felt like I kind of went to a different planet. I don’t know if that makes sense. I kind of felt like I could see through all the problems in the world and I just felt like my mind had been so transformed.’

However this also meant that she viewed her family in a new light and she was convinced they were ‘bad’.

She said: ‘Afterwards basically, I felt like I didn’t trust my family or I was always kind of convinced that they were like bad and that this was the way to be good and it kind of made me feel like… very euphoric, but also very at odds with everything in my life.’

Sarah eventually signed up for three more retreats , even flying to France for one of them, and eventually she became a volunteer at the Goenka retreats.

She said: ‘Once I’d started the whole thing, I felt like I couldn’t really function without it. I honestly just felt like I had to keep doing it.

‘They say that you’re becoming more independent, and more self-sufficient by practising meditation.

‘But actually the opposite is true. And I think it’s like anything that’s very mentally altering, it has the potential to become addictive.’

Sarah started struggling to sleep, sometimes only getting two hours a night, and after three years of meditation she broke down.

She said: ‘Felt like, um, something in my kind of psychological structure had been really just broken and really damaged.

‘I basically felt like I didn’t actually have any of my own trauma to surface, and it was kind of all this like trauma was surfacing from, I can only think of it as like from other lifetimes.

‘I felt like I was in a war zone, or I was like witnessing someone being raped, or I was like a perpetrator, and I was like, killing people. And that was kind of what was going on in my brain. It was horrible.’

Sarah began to spiral out of control and after six months of feeling this way she was in ‘full blown psychosis’. 

‘Basically, I was, like, hallucinating for like, probably three weeks straight, and I was convinced that I was like going to go to hell, and going to go to these places where all this, like, torture. And I was actually convinced at one point that I was going to die.’ 

Sarah’s mother Kate said she was living in fear that her daughter would take her own life and she hid all the medication in the house.

Herself and her Stephen slept in shifts to make sure one of them could keep an eye on Sarah at all times.

Kate said: ‘It was horrific. She would be wracked by these terrible sobbing fits. We’d try and take her out for a walk to try and relax her. She’d suddenly be convulsed with crying fits and be immobile.

She was so sick, she was making awful, awful noises, like growling, shrieking. Animal guttural noises and just screams.’

Eventually a local doctor put Sarah on a combination of medications that helped her to sleep and after years of sleep deprivation they began to slowly help Sarah.

Who runs the Goenka network?

S.N. Goenka was an Indian teacher of Vipassanā meditation. 

Born in Burma to an Indian business family, he met with Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who started to practise Vipassana meditation in 1937, and Goenka spend 14 years learning the technique of Vipassana from him.

Goenkaji’s mission become spreading his meditation technique around the world. He moved to India in 1969 and started teaching meditation.

In 1982 he began to appoint assistant teachers to help him meet the growing demand for Vipassana courses. 

He traveled yearly outside of India, visiting countries in Europe including the UK and France, he also visited North America, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Before he passed away in 2013, he left behind a comprehensive system for training and appointment of future teachers in the tradition. 

In all these places and more, centers sprang up dedicated to providing opportunities for learning and practicing Vipassana as taught by Goenkaji. 

The technique is taught at ten-day residential courses during which participants follow a prescribed Code of Discipline, learn the basics of the method, and practice sufficiently.

There are three steps to the training:

1. The first step is, for the period of the course, to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and intoxicants. The code of moral conduct serves to calm the mind. 

2. The next step is to develop some mastery over the mind by learning to fix one’s attention on the natural reality of the ever changing flow of breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils while observing sensations throughout the body. By the fourth day the mind is supposed to be calmer and more focused. 

3. Finally, on the last full day participants learn the meditation of loving kindness or goodwill towards all, in which the purity developed during the course is shared with all beings.

There are no charges for the courses – not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. 

All expenses are met by donations from people who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana, wish to give others the opportunity to benefit from it also. 

To become a teacher at a Vipassanā meditation centre: 

A student must have sat at least three 10-Day courses with Goenkaji or one of his assistant teachers.

Must be practicing this technique for at least one year.

Have not practiced any other techniques since your last course with Goenkaji or one of his assistant teachers.

Trying to maintain daily practice at the very minimum from the time of applying to the course

Trying to maintain five precepts (to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, telling lies, all intoxicants) at the very minimum from the time of applying to the course.

Must have local Teachers’ recommendation 

She started sleeping for 12 hours a night and she also stopped medication, but her cognitive function seemed slower. 

Sarah noticed she was struggling to do things that had previously been easy and her mother said she still worries desperately about Sarah’s mental wellbeing.

Kate added: ‘Sometimes she’s fine. Sometimes I see the girl I used to know in her. And then suddenly she crumples and she’s this little vulnerable, lost person.’ 

Host Madison contacted the people running the Vipassanā meditation in Merritt, Canada, that Jaqui attended, Jenny and Bob Jeffs, but they said they were ‘bound by rules regarding student confidentiality.’

They added: ‘Although the experience of hundreds of thousands of people who have successfully completed retreats since the early 1970’s is overwhelming positive, these courses are not for everyone. We take the safety and well-being of every student in our care extremely seriously.’

Bob said the centre ‘examines the suitability of applicants’ before retreats and tries to ‘dissuade people who aren’t ready’, saying they regularly review their processes to create a safe experience for all attendees and teacher training is continually improved. 



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