Silent meditation retreats under scrutiny after ‘free spirit’ artist, 22, killed herself during 10-day stay

A heartbroken mother has emotionally recounted how her 22-year-old “free spirit” daughter killed herself during an intensive 10-day meditation retreat — and is warning others about the potential dangers of the ancient mindfulness practice often compared to “surgery of the mind.”

Nathalie St-Maurice, of Ontario, Canada recalled on a recent episode of the Financial Times’ Untold podcast series, “The Retreat,” how she learned that her daughter, Jaqui McDermott, took her own life in October 2022 after attending a Vipassana retreat.

“It was just inconceivable. It was just unbelievable. And I remember I fell to the ground. Ugh, it was awful,” she said.

Jaqui, an experienced meditator, had been traveling the country in a van she converted into a mobile residence, posting dispatches about van life on her Facebook page as she went where the road took her.

She had been working a job planting trees on a farm in British Columbia in the spring of 2022 when she decided to sign up for one of Indian guru S.N. Goenka’s retreats in Merritt, Canada.

The retreats include lengthy periods of silent meditation each day, lasting up to 10 or 11 hours. Attendees live in spartan quarters, and must refrain from reading, writing or even speaking to fellow students.

The 2,500-year-old form of meditation — also known as “surgery of the mind” — has garnered renewed attention in modern times as wealthy celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and pop star Katy Perry count themselves as practitioners.

The application process included a questionnaire about her mental health history, in which Jaqui admitted she struggled with suicidal thoughts as a teenager, but said she’d had no such thoughts for seven years.

Upon arriving at the meditation facility, volunteers took her phone and van keys for the duration of the retreat, as was the center’s policy.

After nine days of intensive daily meditation — 10-hour sessions beginning at 4 a.m. — Jaqui “left the course during the night” and staff members were unable to locate her.

Nathalie would later learn that Jaqui had been experiencing emotional upheaval in the days leading up to her disappearance.

“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,” Nathalie told host Marriage.

“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.’”

After frantic failed efforts to reach her missing daughter, Nathalie learned that police had located her van about 30 miles from the meditation center, parked on the side of the road.

She recruited friends and family in the search, who for a week combed the woods in search of the young aspiring artist. But on the eighth day cops delivered the devastating news: Jaqui’s body had been found.

Cops later determined Jaqui had left the center sometime between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. the next morning, apparently abandoning her van once it ran out of gas. The coroner determined she had died on Oct. 2, 2022.

A subsequent police report viewed by Untold detailed Jaqui’s struggles during the retreat, including that she was having “constant emotional episodes” and that “the ongoing nature of them was unusual.”

“Jaqueline appeared ashamed of something she had previously done, but did not disclose what it was. Jacqueline did not show signs of suicidal ideation of self-harm though,” the report read.

Devastated by the loss, Nathalie said on the podcast that she believes her daughter shouldn’t have been allowed to drive away, and that her life could have been saved if the center alerted authorities sooner.

“Somehow she had her keys. If your policy is to have people hand in their keys, there’s a reason for it. So enforce that policy.”

Every year thousands take part in Goenka network’s 10-day retreats to learn Vipassana meditation, which are free to attend — including food and accommodations.

The program is entirely funded through donations from past participants who wish to share the experience with others.

A message seeking comment sent to Vipassana Meditation Centre of B.C. in Merritt was not returned.

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