TLDR: I'd rather just watch a video about what this guy is up to.

A little more than two years ago Ian Thorson died on a mountaintop in Arizona when he was about half-way through three-year silent meditation retreat. For three days his wife Lama Christie McNally sat by his side with a SPOT locator beacon, but rather than calling in for a rescue chopper, she tried to heal him with her own spiritual powers. It didn't work. He died. Only then did she press the button and call for help.

My book "A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness and the Path To Enlightenment" starts out with the question "why didn't she activate the beacon earlier" and ends with a series of unexpected revelations.

The search led me to investigate the circuitous route that Tibetan Buddhism came to America in the late 1800's as both a sincere quest for spiritual meaning and a spectacle put on by charlatans. Today the word "enlightenment" is often a hodgepodge of ancient wisdom, American exceptionalism, the law of attraction, and Christian views of heaven. It's almost impossible to extricate to original meanings of the ideas.

I would never have heard about the dark side of spiritual inquiry if I hadn't witnessed it myself. In 2006 a student of mine committed suicide on a silent retreat in India after she discovered that she was on the cusp of enlightenment during her meditations. The last words in her journal were "I am a Bodhisattva."

There's a lot more to say on the topic. A whole book's worth, actually. And that's why I'm here.


Want to know more about me? I'm an investigative journalist with Wired, Playboy, Foreign Policy, Discover and a few other places. I blog and publish articles on my website and wrote a book about organ trafficking a few years ago called "The Red Market" **: Proof?: gekogekogeko:

EDIT: Almost to Washington DC (I've been doing this AMA from a train). But I'll keep checking in today if anyone has any more questions.

Comments: 106 • Responses: 39  • Date: 

por_que_no5 karma

Is there perhaps some actual enlightenment that happens that allows these people to end it? Are we the ones not getting it?

P.S. Thanks for doing this. I'm reading through your website now. Fascinating.

gekogekogeko4 karma

There is no way that any of us can truly know what happens after death unless we experience it ourselves. That's just a fact of being human. There will always be ambiguity there. Perhaps my student WAS a Bodhisattva. However, barring any divine insight of my own, I believe it is important to look at the effects that people's actions have in the world around them. By that standard, it is difficult for me to embrace the idea that suicide during a spiritual inquiry is a positive outcome. I think we were given the great gift of being born into this world and it is important to make the most of it.

por_que_no2 karma

There goes my work output today. TIL that some members of Heavens Gate underwent voluntary castration.

I remember Lyall Watson mentioning some parasites that control the behavior of their hosts. Not suggesting parasites in these human deaths but there are so many far out possibilities of how our life experience can be influenced/altered. My brain hurts.

gekogekogeko3 karma

When I started researching the book I interviewed a Quaker intellectual who officiated at the funeral of one of the casualties from Heaven's Gate. It was intense.

On a related note: did you know that the Heaven's Gate website is still up?

por_que_no2 karma

How do previously rational humans become believers of crazy (to us) beliefs such as voluntarily dying to join an invisible spacecraft behind a comet? It makes me wary of any mind-expanding explorations or exercises like I might hit the trigger that renders me insane.

gekogekogeko1 karma

You know, your last sentence here was very similar to what my student wrote in her journal . . .

daturapiss4 karma

So what have you found out about kundalini syndrome? I've read quite a few reports on the psychic distress that one could under go should they reach this wellspring of fucked up.

One guru says it took him over a decade to recover from this numinous experience.

I've heard you can get it by accident/chance - ive also heard that you can get it through improper meditation technique.

John Weir Perry has a section in one of his books about a former army/navy employee who went through such an experience and wound up in the hospital with a form of psychosis - the experience itself was akin to ''enlightenment'' in that the officer in question thought that he was seeing dead souls. He also saw this ''world'' as a stepping stone to godhood - a destination that waits for all of us - those are his words.

Joseph Campbell aligns this anecdote with mythic parallels in his essay on schizophrenia - i believe it's called The Inward Journey.

Although now that i think about it Campbell and Perry's work may be outdated - they're still great reads though.

gekogekogeko5 karma

There's a chapter in my book called "Spiritual Sickness" where I look into these issues in depth. I've met several people who've explained "Lung" and "kundalini syndrome" as a sort of anxiety disorder that just can't be shaken. It can feel like an electric charge from the ground that shoots out the top of their heads. Another person described it like "becoming more and more like myself" where all of their personality attributes seemed to amplify.

The only current research on the topic comes out of Brown University where Willoughby Britton runs something called the "Dark Night Project"

Gullex4 karma

IIRC Thorston and McNally were followers of the "guru" Michael Roach, is that correct? Do you believe Roach to be an authentic teacher?

I have my own pet theory on why meditation can sometimes take a bad turn like your student experienced, if you'd like to discuss it.

gekogekogeko2 karma

Yes, Thorson and McNally were part of that group. Roach have Tibetan Buddhism about 70% right. But that last 30% that he gets wrong puts people so far off a productive path that I think it is dangerous to put too much faith in him.

Happy to hear your theories.

Gullex6 karma

I think Roach's attempt to teach people to satisfy their greed via Buddhism is...flawed to say the least. Very off-putting.


Suicide following the beginning of antidepressant therapy is a fairly well-known phenomenon, and the most recent theory I've heard for this is that the medication removes enough inhibition from the severely depressed person to allow them to follow through with the suicidal thoughts that are still present- so when you combine uncontrolled/unmonitored antidepressant use with a severely depressed person with suicidal ideation, this kind of thing happens.

I don't think it's farfetched to think a similar thing happens when a person with a history or predisposition to mental illness sustains an intense meditation practice, especially without the guidance of a teacher and/or physician. Pretty often we have people over in /r/meditation come ask about their severe depression and whether meditation will help, and I always advise them to tread carefully and implore them to seek competent medical advice as well as an experienced teacher.

gekogekogeko1 karma

That is very good advice. Meditation is powerful. And that can be good or bad depending on who is doing it.

firebathero3 karma

sorry to hear about your student. was the meditation/retreat the sole reason for the suicide, as in she reached her goal and she logically came to the conclusion that suicide was the final act or was it just mental illness? or was it the combination of both?


gekogekogeko3 karma

This is an important question that might never truly get an adequate answer. A lot of people in spiritual communities tell me that meditation cannot have a bad side, and that there must be something in the background of people who have bad reactions that explains how they went wrong. This is a fair point.

That said, life IS a pre-existing condition and everyone has baggage of some sort or another. Simply putting the blame on the individual can mask underlying issues that we really do have to deal with. What's more: even the traditions themselves have long known about spiritual sickness. There is a story in the Vinaya, about how one of the Buddha's meditation techniques caused his whole monastery to kill themselves. (I mention it in this video and in this article. There's also a whole chapter in my book examining this exact question.

firebathero2 karma

thanks for the answer. i just read your article and in it you say you collected six journals of people and spoke to the directors at the universities, was there any conclusion in respect to pre-existing mental conditions among these people? is deep meditation something that could trigger latent psychosis in the way cannabis is suspected of doing?

thanks again.

gekogekogeko8 karma

Researchers have long known that intensive meditation can cause people with pre-existing mental conditions to get worse. They've also shown that it can improve their states.

I'm going to answer the rest of your question in the form of an anecdote. Two days ago I was on stage at the Rubin Museum in New York with a neuroscientist from Harvard named David Vago. We were discussing the nature of tantric obsession from our two very different perspectives. One thing that he said that will probably stick with me for a very long time was that a few years ago he was trying to design a study on the positive effects of meditation with the most rigorous scientific controls possible. He needed long time meditators who had no prior history of psychopathology. He interviewed more than 200 meditators and couldn't find any.

So this begs the question: do people with underlying mental issues seek out spiritual inquiry in abnormally high numbers, or is there something in the techniques that instigates it. At the moment there is no definitive answer to this question.

wtf_reddit_ffs8 karma

Or does their "diagnosis" spread a net wide enough to catch everyone? I would say that is the most likely answer.

gekogekogeko2 karma

Could be.

deetro-1 karma

As a 22 year meditation practitioner and Zen Buddhist, you may want to consider not hosting meditation retreats. Your student realizing she is on the "cusp of enlightenment" is complete delusion, and any teacher I know of would have steered her clear of that delusional state of mind in a hurry.

Also, there is nothing mysterious about meditation. It is simply counting your breath or following your breath, or just "being" where you are at. Anyone that suggests counting your breath leads to suicide should probably see a therapist and not attempt any meditation.

I would personally only seek meditation instruction by someone who is in a living lineage and has been given transmission by someone who has received transmission from a teacher within the living lineage of the Buddha. They do exist, albeit very rare.

Good luck

TheHeartOfTuxes7 karma

Anyone that suggests counting your breath leads to suicide should probably see a therapist and not attempt any meditation.

Do you mean to say that?

It's not the mere fact of applying a number to a single breath, but the internal power plays and machinations that occur when it is repeatedly applied, contrary to the lax distraction that may be the basis of one's world view. It's the fact that many people conceive of the method as a challenge, or a battle of the mind, or the crux between being a 'good' versus 'bad' person, or a way to achieve the healing or freedom they desperately seek, that charges the meditative situation.

Do you deny that many (if not most) newcomers to meditation experience a greater than usual pressure to succeed at the task, either from themselves and their own hopes or self-blame, or from the Zen culture and how they receive it?

Even without misunderstanding ideal practice, it takes some time to digest the method and teachings. People don't just plop into error-free practice. Though the ideal is very, very simple the reality for a meditator may often be quite a bit more complex.

Mental pressurization may happen in both early and later phases of the meditative career. Early on, it can come with misunderstanding of the nature of practice. Or, as we see in some Zen traditions, pressure can be applied and increased by the teachers and the institution: "Your question must become intense like a hot iron ball in your throat! Harness all your resources toward this end!" The very act of breathing may be turned into a pressure-building, mind-altering act, as we see in the 'bamboo breathing' recommended by some Zen teachers (viz. Sekida).

Later in the meditative career, one may sense a chance for breakthrough or may experience disappointment or depression over one's perceived lack of progress, and as a result conscious or unconscious forcing may arise. There are many situations in which meditation can become the catalyst for self-harm, even if the ideal participation is very simple.

Meditators may indeed sense that they are "on the cusp" of something vast and earth-shattering. Whether they name it or not doesn't negate the experience of impending expansion or destruction. The dark night experience often includes these feelings of being on the brink of something overwhelming. Of course this is delusion. We all have delusion; that's why we practice. But that doesn't mean the experience and even the outcome is not real for the meditator. There may come a breakthrough, there may come an earth-shattering revolution. It needs to be met with wisdom and compassion: not huffed at as a ridiculous aberration, but responded to with proper care, appropriate context of form, and good teaching.

To say "it's simple, so there should be no problem" speaks of an unwillingness to respond to those who do have problems.

deetro-1 karma

Yes I mean it. Counting the breath is just counting the breath, and it leads to peace. Mental gymnastics and hypotheticals lead to problems.

gekogekogeko2 karma

It's not the counting breaths that put people in trouble. It's the baggage that they bring to the practices as well as their own expectations.

enigmaticblue3 karma

During your investigation into your book, did you meet people who claimed to be enlightened? And if so, how were they different from the average Joe?

gekogekogeko3 karma

I met Michael Roach, the leader of Diamond Mountain University, who has claimed many times to be enlightened (or, rather "on the path to seeing"). There were also members of the group who claimed similar things. I do not think they WERE enlightened, though.

I've also met the Dalai Lama. He was much more impressive. And he has never claimed to be anything more than an ordinary monk.

Gullex6 karma

Yeah. People of true vision generally don't feel the need to advertise it.

I've always thought that if someone goes around telling people "I'm enlightened", then it's time to walk away.

gekogekogeko1 karma

That's my rule of thumb, too.

walter_o_dim2 karma

Scott, thank you for alerting me to your book's existence. I'll be picking up the audio version on audible shortly to give it a listen. This brings back a mini wave of nostalgia related to people like David Koresh and the Heaven's Gate group in the 90s. My question: the mental illness aspect aside, do you see any cultural/socio-political triggers that give rise to these sorts of groups? i.e. Jonestown happened in the late '70s during uncertain economic times, Manson was during the turbulent late '60s, etc. Is there a connection?

gekogekogeko0 karma

Jonestown and Manson were more extreme than what I'm reporting on here, however it all sits on a continuum of sorts. Societal upheaval certainly drives people to search for spiritual answers. And sometimes those answers can take them farther away from a well-adapted life. Certainly, after the Civil War, WWI, WWII and Vietnam people reached out to esoteric traditions in order to understand how their worlds fell apart.

However, societal triggers also need a person with a background that is open to new ideas.

Fachow2 karma

Damn, super interest balls.

In your travels, have you ever encountered something and said, "woah, that is enlightenment right there,"?

gekogekogeko-1 karma

I've seen a lot of amazing things. But never enlightenment.

thehowittzer2 karma

Why do you think that spiritualism has such an effect on people? To the extent that it can make them become irrational? i.e. trying to heal someone using their spiritual powers.

gekogekogeko7 karma

As Westerners we were raised on stories of Jedis, bad-ass shaolin monks, Neo in the Matrix and superheroes of all sorts and I think many of us have deep seeded desires to be special in that way. Add to that our notion of American exceptionalism and the belief that if you just work hard enough and you can achieve anything and you have the makings of trouble. It certainly doesn't help that many eastern traditions actually DO say that a person can get enlightened in just one life time, and that a full fifth of the Yoga Sutras--the very first yogic text--is dedicated to cultivating superpowers.

Gullex3 karma

As Westerners we were raised on stories of Jedis, bad-ass shaolin monks, Neo in the Matrix and superheroes of all sorts and I think many of us have deep seeded desires to be special in that way.

You should come over to /r/meditation and see all the folks who want to find that special technique, trick, drug, or device that provides the "fast track" to progress in meditation. People want results now, and we have to remind them over and over that meditation is about forming a daily habit.

gekogekogeko1 karma

That's the crux of my book right there. I think I cross posted in R/meditation this morning. If not I'll do so right now.

Twinkie_Zombie2 karma

So... do yoga pants have super powers or not? I say they do.

gekogekogeko6 karma

I've heard that a lot of single guys really like yoga for some reason. . .

gekogekogeko2 karma

I'm on a train between New York and Washington DC at the moment. So if I disappear it's because I'm in some sort of internet Bermuda Triangle.

RawMuscleLab2 karma

Here's a weird question for you, but here it goes. How does one get a book published without paying for the print work themselves?

My Father's a PhD, he's nearly finished a book relating to Ancient Music, it's about 300 pages long and no one else has done anything remotely close to what he has in the English Language, this is his second book, the first was published by the University I think.

Is it simply contacting various publishers? Or how does one go about it? Printing his books himself isn't cheap from what we've been quoted..

gekogekogeko5 karma

There are a lot of ways to do it. The heart of the matter, though, is that you will need to get an agent.

Incidentally, I recently wrote an ebook on the subject of getting published. It might be useful:

You can also get it for free if you sign up for the mailing list on my website ( There's a link at the bottom to add your name and then you'll get a link to the PDF for free.

elcangri21242 karma


What do you think about native american and african spiritual beliefs? shamanism, yoruba etc

gekogekogeko1 karma

They're fascinating. I studied anthropology in graduate school and have seen some extremely odd things in my travels.

elcangri21243 karma

give some examples!

gekogekogeko2 karma

I've seen people overcome by possession. Seen people who believed they were cursed by witchcraft in both India and America, And had a professor named Neil Whitehead who wrote an amazing book called "Dark Shamans" about spiritual warfare in Guyana.

milagr05o52 karma

Two questions:

  1. Would you consider this Roach character a practitioner of Dark Dharma?

  2. Is the "dark night" similar to experiences described in the Dark Night of the Soul?

gekogekogeko1 karma

  1. I've never heard of "Dark Dharma" before, but it seems appropriate. Some have suggested that he might take spiritual teachings from Dorje Shugden if that means anything to you.

  2. Yes. Absolutely.

[deleted]2 karma


gekogekogeko0 karma

Two years. Tops.

Gullex1 karma

Invoking Poe's law....

Assuming you're serious, are you saying that everyone who practices meditation will experience samadhi in two years or that two years is the minimum length of time required to experience samadhi?

Or maybe you're totally joking. Hard to tell in text.

gekogekogeko4 karma

Sorry. Totally joking. I don't believe that samadhi is a medically-induced state. Though, there is some interesting psychedelic research out there, so who knows?

Seraph_Grymm1 karma

Every project you seem to involve yourself in is huge and you tackle some really remarkable topics.

What's your plan for your next big project?

gekogekogeko7 karma

I focus on long form investigations in magazines, but I'm happy to say that I don't have any immediate plans to put my life on the line working in war zones or snooping around in organ markets again.

I always conceived of my books as a sort of trilogy that started with the death of my student. The first book, the Red Market, examined the body as a physical object and I spent three years documenting all the ways that our flesh is bought and sold. The second book, A Death on Diamond Mountain, looked at the reasons that my student took her own life. I wanted to understand the mind during meditation. The third book--which I'm only getting started on--is about the human spirit and what great things our bodies might be capable of--either through meditation like practices, or through hacking our neurology with cutting edge science.

I like to think of the books as following a theme of "body", "mind" and next: "spirit"

clickstation1 karma

Hi Scott Carney!

I have to admit I haven't read your book.. So.. Did you find any evidence of (What's often referred to as) the dark night? Is everyone bound to experience theirs sooner or later? Is it always with the same severity?


gekogekogeko1 karma

Short answer: yes. Long answer is almost 300 pages long and available on Amazon.

That said, check out the amazing work of Willoughby Britton over at Brown University. She is currently in the third year of a research project on the "Dark Night"

lieutenantpage1 karma

Are you still around? This is very fascinating. What do you think it is about human nature that tends to discard moderation and veer into obsession?

gekogekogeko2 karma

There are probably many reasons to this, and many perspectives on how to answer it. That said, in my opinion, many of us want answers to life's big questions: why are we here? Why do bad things happen to good people? What does it all mean etc etc... Some people can't let those questions go or live with ambiguity.

lieutenantpage2 karma

I love the meta-obsessive triple reply. Thanks! Particularly I am interested in how powerful ceremonial drugs like ayahuasca and peyote can dramatically (and spontaneously) rearrange an individual's spiritual priorities. Have you witnessed anything like this? Maybe your book mentions it, I will certainly pick it up.

gekogekogeko2 karma

Yeah, I'm on a train between NY and DC and the coverage is spotty. I hit refresh too much :)

I'm interested in those issues, too. I have never been close to ayuhaska, but when I was in college I thought I saw god while I was on mushrooms.

gekogekogeko1 karma

There are probably many reasons to this, and many perspectives on how to answer it. That said, in my opinion, many of us want answers to life's big questions: why are we here? Why do bad things happen to good people? What does it all mean etc etc... Some people can't let those questions go or live with ambiguity.

gekogekogeko1 karma

There are probably many reasons to this, and many perspectives on how to answer it. That said, in my opinion, many of us want answers to life's big questions: why are we here? Why do bad things happen to good people? What does it all mean etc etc... Some people can't let those questions go or live with ambiguity.

cathedrameregulaemea1 karma

I'm posting because of the last 3 words of your submission....

Could you turn-coat and serve as an advocate for the polar opposites of the ideals which you've coalesced on - through your journey to enlightenment?

Go. :P

gekogekogeko4 karma

Enlightenment is real and only I have the secret to it. The only way I'll share it with you is if you sign up for my 2-day seminar for the low low price of $5000.

ego-check1 karma

Your article on the enlightenment trap seems extremely arrogant, as it appears to come from the perspective that you know better than the subjects you write about.

Just like the monks in Migalandika’s time, Emily believed that she had reached a sort communion with a divine truth. Enlightenment was a destination that she could observe just like a natural law. And her insight meant that she was infallible. Her journey was complete. At that point, what would it matter if she took her own life?

This passage from that article seems to be intended to be read sarcastically, like you are mocking the mindset. Can it not also be read straight truthfully? What she HAD reached a communion with the divine truth? What if she was infallible, and her journey complete? What exactly does it matter if she took her own life?

one thing that we do know is that people who claim to understand ultimate knowledge most often don’t feel that they need to follow the same rules as everyone else.

What exactly is the value in following the "same rules as everyone else"? This is the final line and seems to be some damning accusation, though I don't understand why. Can't everyone follow whatever rules they want, from a spiritual perspective?

gekogekogeko5 karma

Sorry you feel that way. As I've mentioned in numerous places before, I don't know anything about whether or not there is a divine world, or if she IS a bodhisattva, or if there is God, or if "enlightenment" actually exists. Those questions will have to wait until I've passed on. All I can say definitively is that these people's passing does not seem to improve the world. We have only one life to live, and I think we should make the most of the time that we have here.

ego-check-3 karma

Does not seem to improve the world to whom though? What does improve even mean? That seems very dualistic and very un-enlightened.....

we should make the most of the time that we have here.

It sounds like she did make the most of the time she had here. She just didn't have as much time as you think she should have had.

Those questions will have to wait until I've passed on

Seems like quiet a cop out if you are going to live a spiritual life and make a living writing about things of this nature... Plenty of people found these answers in their time here, and I think all of them would disagree with how you've tried to frame this "problem".

gekogekogeko5 karma

What point are you trying to make here? That because she took her own life that she probably did have an enlightening insight? That in the end, you are sure that she should have taken her own life?

You seem to be making a lot more categorical statements than I am.

ego-check-3 karma

Neither of those two points.

My point is rather that enlightenment exists in a place outside of duality, right-wrong, good-bad. Yet you are trying to frame it in a dualistic view in which you write with the assumption that you know whats good and bad, in a mocking tone that reeks of ego. (such as the sarcastic section I quoted)

To your points, I have no idea if she became enlightened or not. I believe she could have grasped enlightenment and still took the same actions, and I disagree with your notion that her actions were somehow wrong or "bad".

I don't think anyone should do anything... I do however think she had no choice in the matter, and that it was neither good nor bad that she jumped off that ledge. It simply is.

I think you dishonor her memory by calling her actions damaging, and writing as if you know better than she did. I think you should instead seek to understand her in an enlightened, non-dualistic way, and only then seek to comment on her memory. It seems as if your article seeks to "take away" her enlightenment, which to me seems like spitting on her grave. I don't know her specific reasoning, but I could certainly understand it...

gekogekogeko5 karma

I think we have some very profound disagreements on the nature of reality. Perhaps you should read other things that I've written.

Randomfinn1 karma

This is fascinating, thanks for writing on the topic. In the video you talked about how the civil war had such a huge impact on Americans that they turned to alternative religions. Did you see something similar after 9/11, which as an outsider seems to have had a disportinate impact on the American psyche, where people changed their relationship with religion/god?

gekogekogeko2 karma

After every major earth shattering conflict people seek spiritual answers, and usually the old order gets shaken up in the process. Similar to the "Great Awakening" after the Civil War, we saw a huge rise of spiritualism after WWI and WWII (remember the 1960s?)

I believe that the rise of ISIS is probably also in some way attributable to the years of desolation in the Middle East. People want to believe that the next world will be better than this one, and ISIS is happy to make the earth a living hell to achieve that aim.

reisang0 karma

I just saw your video, and was calling Ians death a “spoiler” in the book a mistake? I knew the guy, so I guess its hard to see the humor in this kind of jokes.

gekogekogeko2 karma

I didn't mean for that to be insulting. I often mix in humor in my public talks so that people don't get dragged so far down by the subject matter. His mother was in the audience.

arcanewaif0 karma

Do you have any prejudices you suspect you ought not to have, but would never easily admit to need to deal with?

gekogekogeko1 karma

I think that everyone has one bias or another, but I try to keep an open mind when I'm reporting. And, in the book, I try to point out where I might be bringing too much of myself into the project so that readers can navigate my own background at the same time they make up their own minds about the book. It's always a tricky affair.

jjswag120 karma

How enlightened are you actually? Are you like the next Buddha? If yes can I join your cult?

gekogekogeko4 karma

Hah! No.

I mean ... er... yes. Give me all your money.

-bang-0 karma

Hey Scott,

I'm a young writer interested in many of the same things that you write about: meditation, western new-age traditions, Buddhism etc. I have a lot of personal experience in these areas, but have never tried to have any of my work published. What do you recommend to young writers interested in long-form "literary" work?


gekogekogeko0 karma

I give a lot of advice to new writers on my blog which you can find if you snoop around on my website Or, you can take a gander ay my ebook on freelance writing which is $3 on amazon or free if you sign up for my mailing list.