Further Reading: “Death on the Path to Enlightenment: Inside the Rise of India Syndrome”

Further Reading is a new blog feature in which we take a deeper look at topics from stories featured on Longform. It is produced along with Pitt Writers.

Last week Longform picked a Details piece by Scott Carney on the sometimes-perilous journey of Westerners seeking spirituality in India. Carney tells the stories of several young people, including a 28-year-old named Jonathan Spollen, who have gone missing, lost their minds, or both:

Stories like Spollen’s feel like Eastern versions of Into the Wild, the 1996 book about a young adventurer who died after trying to live off the land in Alaska: They’re tales of willful idealists whose romantic notions of remote lands lead them to embark on quixotic journeys.

In case you missed Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless’s story, here’s Jon Krakauer original article for Outisde: “Death of an Innocent.” And here’s more reading on yogis, meditation, and, of course, the Beatles in India:

Fasting Fakir Flummoxes Physicians
Rajeev Khanna • BBC News  • November 2003

The strange case of Prahlad Jani—a yogi who claims not to have eaten for years.

"I feel no need for food and water," says Mr Jani, who claims he was blessed by a goddess at the age of eight and has lived in caves ever since.

Chöd: An Advanced Type of Shamanism
Dharma Fellowship Member Library

There are many types of meditation to experience in India. Carney mentions “[a] practice known as Chöd [which] involves meditating over actual decaying corpses in a graveyard.” Learn about this fascinating activity from the Dharma Fellowship:

In Chöd-practice, the yogi or yogini journeys into the night world—the dangerous regions of ghosts, spirits and the damned, to bless all souls lost for a time on the wheel of existence. The selflessness of the practitioner’s compassion, his or her contact with spirits of the other-world, and the making of himself into a vehicle of healing, all tends to become a path for the hero to win the noetic Mind-Jewel of true awakening. 

The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation
Michael Finkel • Men’s Journal • August 2012

For a more lighthearted look at the agony and benefits of a silent meditation retreat, see this dad fight through back pain and “waterfall” thoughts:

Every group session begins with the same words from Goenka: “Start with a calm and clear mind.” Then he goes on to give further advice. But I can’t even get to step one. Everyone else in the room, it seems to me, is floating gleefully on a crystalline lake. I realize I can quit; I’m not being held here against my will. But there’s a part of me that believes a breakthrough is imminent. I’m a bull-headed man. I know how to endure. I once ran 100 miles in a single day (in 23 hours and 48 minutes, to be precise). I’m absurdly competitive – I can even turn something as airy-fairy as a meditation course into a kind of sporting event. And if all these other people are still here, no way am I leaving. This isn’t dangerous. I’m not climbing some 8,000-meter peak or crawling through a war zone. All I have to do is sit. Simplest thing in the world. So I soldier on.

But something happens to me. Something bad. It might be bearable to suppress my natural extroversion – to shut me up completely. Or you can corral my need to run or bike or swim or climb – to immobilize me completely. But the combination of the two is deadly. I have actually climbed an 8,000-meter peak; I have crawled through war zones. And let me tell you: Both of those are way easier than Vipassana. This coddled and calm environment generates in me a frightening rage. I begin to hate my fellow students. I hate the teachers. I hate the Dharma Servers. I hate Goenka. I hate the food and my bed and my cushion and my cell. I hate Vipassana. I hate myself.

The Medical Tourist Returns
Laura Moser • Slate • March 2006

Not all Westerners go looking for spiritual revival; some are medical tourists. Laura Moser hopes a yoga retreat in famous Rishikesh will heal her injured shoulder:

The streets of Rishikesh teem with earnest foreigners like Belinda, independently financed South Asia-lovers from France, Italy, Israel, Japan, and all corners of the British Commonwealth—just about everywhere except America, in fact. They sit with erect spines inside the town’s pizzerias and rhapsodically compare medicinal baths in heavily accented English, the common tongue. The town’s real activity takes place inside the ashrams and yoga centers that offer around-the-clock yoga instruction.

Meditation on the Man Who Saved the Beatles
Allan Kozinn • New York Times • February 2008

The Beatles find creative inspiration in India:

But whatever other powers transcendental meditation had, under its influence they wrote like demons. The main body of evidence is the White Album, a two-disc collection of 30 songs, more than twice the number on any previous Beatles album. And that doesn’t count two songs — George Harrison’s “Not Guilty” (which bears traces of bruised feelings over the maharishi incident) and “What’s the New Mary Jane” — that were recorded during the White Album sessions but left unreleased until “Anthology 3,” in 1996.

Robyn Jodlowski


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