Episode 216 :: J.A. Kempf :: Unplugged

| December 27, 2014 | 2 Comments


J.A. Kempf

James Kempf joins us in our second Unplugged episode to talk about the problems he encountered in the practice, and wrote about in his book, Silicon Valley Monk: From Metaphysics to Reality on the Buddhist Path.

How many of you have been on a retreat, and noticed that someone had significant emotional or mental problems arise? When a researcher asked this question at a recent conference, every hand in the room went up. The fact is, problems do occur, and not necessarily during retreats or even associated with retreats. They may happen weeks or months later, to people with no known history of any kind of emotional or mental difficulties. Knowing that we simply don’t know, the problem remains, what’s it like when that happens, and what do we do about it? This new series, Unplugged, sets aside the exploration of teaching, practice, and research, and instead allows an open and brave sharing of our humanity, and the sometimes difficult path we travel. Episode 205 with our friend Katherine MacLean was the first, this is the second Unplugged.

Dr. James Kempf graduated from University of Arizona with a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering in 1984, and immediately went to work in Silicon Valley. James is a long time Buddhist meditator with formal practice in both Zen and Vipassana.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice ginger spice tea.


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Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez

The music heard in the middle of this podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. You can visit his website to hear more of his music, get the full discography, and view his upcoming tour dates.

Category: The Secular Buddhist Podcast

Ted Meissner

About the Author ()

Ted Meissner is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has been a meditator since the early 90’s, has been interviewed for Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts, spoken about mindfulness with various groups including Harvard Humanist Hub, and has written for Elephant Journal and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. Ted’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture. Ted teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society, where he is the Manager of Online Programming and Community Development.

Comments (2)

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  1. David S says:

    James, thank you for writing your book. A year or two year ago I read about how some people on retreat can experience very disturbing states of mind, and I also came across the Cheetah House site. More recently, prior to when you posted on SBA about the release of your book, I had talked with a friend who, as a therapist, was being consulted with about whether or not a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia would be allowed to go on retreat. This subject is an important one which needs much more open discussion. I think your account is very helpful in documenting such an important and hidden subject, and hopefully in generating more discussion by teachers and meditation retreat centers with those they serve.

    I would be interested in hearing more about your experience post-recovery of how you view such practices and those experiences you’ve had. You call the visions you had hallucinations but how do you understand the content of all the rest? Like your ‘opening’, or the past life impressions? Or, the impressions that you knew things prior to them happening? At this point do you think these too were all products of your mind?

    One aspect of this interview that surprised me was your answer to Ted’s question of what you thought may have brought on your hallucinations, and your response of not knowing. I appreciate that there would be many facets to such a discussion, and some being not known, but as I read your account the decision you made to focus upon changing the world seemed to me to be the pivotal moment. I would assume on a concentration retreat everyone would be intending to follow along some method of concentrating on an object. With the intention to become concentrated one would also encounter many of the mind’s tendencies to wander away into its own creation. So as I read of this decision you made to focus on saving the world, it occurred to me that you were probably not following the practice and instead letting yourself go deeper into your mind’s creations, leading you farther away from the practice of concentrating upon an object of attention and that of viewing all experience as an object. What do you think?

    Not having had any similar experiences I can only imagine that because the experiences were very real it was difficult to remain objective about them. You were in the center of a very moving story. In this regard I wonder about the importance of orienting one’s intentions to maintain the practice at hand even under very trying circumstances. If one wasn’t clear about such an intention things could get away very quickly. I’ve heard that for those practicing jhanas that prior to entering they can set their intention to move their attention away from the predominant experience onto the next. When in a state with little to no thinking this setting of the intention plays a critical role in guiding their progress. I would guess this general issue of maintaining the intention of practice is important in difficult states as well. What do you think?

  2. svmonk svmonk says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    Regarding whether someone with schizophrenia should go on retreat, I am not a psychotherapist and therefore cannot make any recommendations, though I could imagine someone with schizophrenia might have a very difficult time. My own experience coming out of an intensive retreat is that one’s experience of reality seems quite fluid and changable for a time, then begins to settle back into the patterns of everyday existence, with in many cases various changes, some of them quite deep. Intensive retreats in which profound spiritual openings occur, such as are described in the book, do not occur often and the challenge when they do is to integrate the opening into one’s daily life. This integration becomes problematic when the experiences don’t conform to any particular teaching or predefined pattern.

    I actually do not know what brought on the visions, hallucinations, and fantasies at the 2011 retreat. On a physical level, probably there was some change in my brain chemistry which set up the right conditions for my mind to interpret sensations in a particular way. On a more spiritual level, my desire to save the world stemmed from the Bodhisattva Vow: “I vow to liberate all beings”, the arising of which is bodhicitta. If you interpret this on a conventional level, as I did then, the challenge becomes so overwhelming that it could cause one to go insane and I did. But my understanding now is that the Bodhisattva Vow is more like a koan, you embody it in the way you live your life, helping others in any way you can, so that you become it and it becomes you.

    It is indeed true that keeping one’s intention on maintaining the practice being taught in a retreat is important. Going into the retreat and for some 5 years before, my intention had been to achieve jhana and I did strive for that. But when a mind oriented strongly toward bodhichitta enters a profound meditative state, bodhicitta typically comes to the fore and takes over the progress of the meditation, pushing the practice intention to the side. When difficult states arise, bodhicitta can ground the mind in an intention lacking in self, helping the mind to weather the difficult states more easily.

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