Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dealing with "Spacing Out"

A commenter recently wrote me about drifting into trance states against her will. These sound like the symptoms of dissociation. To be more precise, many former cult members that I've worked with, particularly those who practiced meditation or chanting, experience nonvoluntary altered states of consciousness that seem similar to trance or temporary dissociative amnesia. People may experience not feeling real ("derealization"), feeling detached from themselves ("depersonalization"), having a fantasy or dream-like state, losing touch with surroundings, or forgetting where you are. A few have experienced dissociative fugue, a rare experience where one may find oneself in a new place without knowing how one got there.

It's said that everyone dissociates to a minor degree pretty much every day. Everybody's mind wanders from time to time. Dissociation only becomes a matter for concern when it interferes with daily life.

In the Transcendental Meditation Movement, we frequently talked about serious examples of these experiences without realizing it. We might call someone "spacey," a "space cowboy," a "Fiuggi Flipout," or equivalent terms. When I was in the TM Org as a Governor, it seemed a day didn't go by I didn't hear — or utter — similar terms.

Shortly after I left the TM Org, the joke lost its humor for me. You see I realized that I was one of the ones people were laughing at. I had just gotten used to various experiences over the years. Without realizing that others, in the real world, thought they were odd. When reading, pages might go by and I couldn't remember what I had read. I had the habit of suddenly staring off into space — even sometimes in mid conversation.

Others noticed this, of course. My ex-wife in particular got in the habit of touching me gently on my forearm to get my attention when this would happen. I almost invariably jumped — being unaware that I had lost awareness of my surroundings, sometimes for minutes at a time. I frequently closed my eyes under stressful circumstances — sometimes for seconds, sometimes longer.

Disconcerting to say the least for anyone attempting to talk with me.

When taking trips alone in the car, I found that I sometimes spaced out — maybe even blacked out. At the end of a trip I couldn't tell you what had been on the radio or landmarks along the way. I basically didn't remember the trip.

Once I drove an hour past my home exit before I "came to" and realized the situation. Another time, I drove 45 minutes in the wrong direction for an important appointment before I "came to." This didn't seem to occur when others were in the car.

I developed difficulty with speech shortly after learning the TM-Sidhis on teacher training. I would frequently forget what I was saying in the middle of a sentence. It become so commonplace for me to have trouble finding words, leading to stuttering, that my family began to joke about it — nervously. I eventually developed the habit of practicing saying sentences mentally before attempting to say them out loud — to avoid embarrassment.

I mention my personal experiences because they match dozens of similar stories that my clients have told me.

You can read more about dissociation here. (There are other articles referenced at that discuss dissociation.)

I have been very fortunate in that these troubling symptoms largely disappeared within a few years of leaving the TM movement, with work on my part.

If you are experiencing involuntary dissociation, there are a number of techniques you can try that may bring you relief if practiced over time.

Try the thought stopping exercises that I wrote about recently: "When the Mantra Won't Get Lost."

Pat Ryan, of TM-Ex, suggested some useful techniques back in the '90s that are quoted in an article by Louis Jolyon West & Paul R. Martin:

Dissociative and other symptoms resulting from contemplative cult practices may continue to be problematic in treatment long after other symptoms have improved. Contemplative symptoms can include inability to concentrate, relaxation-induced anxiety, and dissociative phenomena such as automatic lapsing into meditation, chanting, or trance-like states. Ryan (1993) found that one of the most effective methods to remedy "spacing out" is physical exercise. Exercise may also help to alleviate other contemplative symptoms, such as lack of awareness of bodily sensations, muscle tension, fatigue, and the association of these with emotional dysfunction or distress. Other helpful techniques include identifying aspects of the environment that create stimulus overload, slowly building up reading stamina by setting a timer and thereby gradually prolonging reading time, and learning to counter magical thinking through a specific series of reality checks. From Dissociation: Clinical and Theoretical Perspectives. Lynn, SJ and Rhue JW, eds. ©1994 The Guilford Press.

Some people report that practicing Buddhist mindfulness is helpful. This is a form of meditation in which you observe the functioning of the mind, rather than attempt to replace it with the mantra as you do in Transcendental Meditation.

Other techniques:

  • Ask a partner or friend to touch you lightly or call your name softly when it seems you are drifting off. When you become aware of your surroundings again, practice a thought-stopping technique.

  • Keep a journal of triggers: When you catch yourself trancing out, try to remember what you were doing, saying, or thinking just beforehand. This may very well be something that your mind is defending itself against by dissociation. If you are aware of your triggers, you can gain some control over them. You may also choose to engage in prolonged exposure therapy with a mental health professional.

  • If your dissociation is happening enough to disrupt your daily activity, I urge you to consider stopping meditation — at least until you get the unwanted experience under control.

If readers have found other techniques that have helped them with dissociation or trance states, please consider writing me at I'd be eager to share techniques that work with my clients — you could very well help many others recover!

John M. Knapp, LMSW

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