Ed Podvoll and Jeff Fortuna

Dear friends,

It is an honor to keep alive the legacy of my friend, colleague, and mentor Edward Podvoll, and the second edition of his remarkable classic, Recovering Sanity.  This Entry is a continuation of Journal Entry 003 “Recovery Is Non-Linear” where the Windhorse Legacy Group explored the living significance of this book. There are interesting aspects to this current Entry. The photo is of Dr. Podvoll and myself in 1985, in the early phase of developing the Windhorse work.  The main element is Dr. Podvoll’s “Preface To The New Edition”, which was published in 2003 just months prior to his death.  He wrote this Preface as he was returning from his 12-year meditation retreat in France to the Windhorse Boulder community who loved him.  This was to be his final opening out.  He hoped to recover from the illness that would then take him over the next 12 months…  The Preface is his final and heart-felt statement on the significance of his book and the Windhorse work, written 12 years after the publication of the First Edition under the original title of The Seduction of Madness. We conclude with his biography and a collection of endorsements of his book by many of his esteemed friends, all well-known authors in the fields of spirituality and mental health care.  Dr. Podvoll has now been gone 15 years, yet his voice remains strong and clear.  He continues to point out the truth that recovery from extreme mental states is always possible, especially when supported by sane healing relationships.


Enjoy, Jeff Fortuna.

Preface to the New Edition

The encounter of Buddhist meditation practice with Western psychological treatment has been gradual but continuous for the past thirty years, and the result has been both subtle and revolutionary.

When trained psychotherapists began to experience the deeply personal insights of their meditation practice, it changed their lives. What they were learning turned Western psychology upside down, because they were exposed to a whole new way of seeing mental suffering and mental healing. A piece of history was repeating itself: When William James first heard lectures on meditation by a hindu monk, he announced that such psychology was the wave of the future, and he ended his researches in behavioral psychology and turned his attention to the psychology of religious experience, from which came the monumental Gifford Lectures of 1902. It is always tremendously exciting when a therapist discovers this fresh view, but at the same time it creates chaos in their life. In 1974 I became one of those therapists.

Although I had completed extensive training in psychoanalysis and was already a teacher of that discipline, what I was discovering with the practice of meditation made it impossible for me simply to continue in the same way.

Almost as soon as I learned the technique of sitting meditation and started to practice it, it seemed as though I had been waiting my whole life to do just that. Very quickly, I knew that I wanted to explore my mind and my existence in this way, and I began to practice diligently for three hours each day. After one year I resolved that meditation was to be at the center of my life.

During the first three years I experienced a more subtle level of mind and its movements than can ever be seen in psychoanalysis. It was below and before the level of speech and communication, far more fleeting and delicate than the most open levels of free association or stream of consciousness. Gradually, I understood a new dimension of mental suffering that I had only glimpsed during psychoanalysis. But I had no idea of its almost instant-to-instant activity: the continuous burden imposed on the mind for self-justification, self-righteousness, self-centeredness. It was a microscopic view of subtle and deeply ingrained ego-habits in action, going on below the surface and becoming the basis of interpersonal dialogue. I recognized it clearly as a universal ordeal.    I began to understand my patients differently. No matter how disturbed they were, their basic psychological ordeal was the same as my own. I felt more openness and kindness toward them and spoke more easily and directly with them. But my communications with professional colleagues were not so easy. I was unskilled, or more often just unable to discuss with them the new directions that my work and life were taking.

A huge gulf separates conventional psychological treatment and the forms of therapy that emerge from the discipline of meditation. That gulf could be called the problem of ego. The singular effect of meditation is the gradual softening and dissolving of one’s self-absorption and egoistic impulses, a gradual relaxation and opening. But conventional psychology insists that one strengthen the notion of ego-identity through various strategies of self-assertion, self-empowerment, distinctiveness from others, and personal security. From this point of view, sanity is related to the power of the ego’s abilities to secure its territorial demands, and mental disturbance arises from a crisis, a breakdown of ego’s stability, or its failure to develop along the genetic and cultural plans that shape it.

No person is more responsible for proclaiming this ego view of sanity than the great psychoanalyst and humanitarian Erik Erikson. When I told him of my meditation practice and that I had recently taken Buddhist “refuge”-a commitment to living the Buddhist spiritual journey-he said, “What you are doing is in complete contradiction to my life’s work.” Only much later could I fully appreciate his insight and understand our meeting as a metaphor for the collision of two psychologies. The following year, 1977, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, to teach at the fledgling Naropa Institute, as well as to continue freely my own Buddhist practice and education.

In this book I have tried to bridge the differences between the Buddhist understanding of non-ego and the Western ideology of ego psychology by using the language of internal experience. The many clinical examples and case histories in this book point to the experience that the seed of madness is present in everyone, that there is a natural affinity for the mind to seek personal self-expansion, and it will create a continuous stream of illusions to do so. Any emotion can be used in this demand for a solid, expansive, self-defending illusion. Each emotion, when not kept in its own place, can become like a spreading poison that unbalances the mind. This is not technical or professional language, but living language. Cupid is blind, it’s said. So is vengeance. The propensity for delusion is ubiquitous. All of Shakespeare’s dramas-and even his comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream-make just this point.

There is also another seed within us, even more important than the seed of ego: it is the seed of sanity, a human instinct of clarity, present in everyone as a brilliant, clear awareness capable of spontaneously cutting through the self-deception of madness. It is an instant of opening and wakefulness that brings one back from wandering in the world of dream. It usually requires some attentiveness even to notice such an event, and certainly a background of meditative discipline makes these flashes of wakefulness more recognizable and frequent. But they are also made more accessible by a variety of disciplines that cultivate body and mind synchronization.

Each chapter of this book demonstrates that alongside and embedded within psychotic suffering, there exists always a potential clarity and openness of mind and heart. Anything that can truly be called therapy or treatment should be able to make this clarity of mind available as much as possible. In fact, at the Naropa University in 1981 we began to practice this kind of treatment and established therapeutic communities, collectively called the Windhorse Project, that continue to this day.

There is also another purpose for this book that goes beyond the needs of health professionals who care for deeply disturbed people. The principles and the work described here can serve as a companion to anyone on the spiritual path of compassion. There are now many more practitioners of meditation than there were when I wrote this book, and still more people than there were then who practice a variety of traditional mind-body disciplines who will find this work to be contemplative discipline in action.

For practitioners of meditation in particular, this book is something of a text or guide to the extremes of mind that someone they know-perhaps they themselves, a family member, or a friend on a spiritual journey-has certainly endured. The book conveys immediately useful information about relating to the mind and environment of someone in crisis. It may be useful for personal spiritual understanding as well: a tour and reminder of the extremes of emotional realms, the ever-present invasiveness of ego distortions within one’s practice, and the grotesque proportions that spiritual materialism and the greed for spiritual experiences can take. The contents of this book can eventually be verified within one’s own practice. One can become better able to recognize when someone is in trouble, and one can become more helpful in guiding psychologically fragile people who wish to practice spiritual discipline.

At the end of two years of work writing the first edition in 1990, I felt relieved at completing what had to be done, but not nearly as much as one might expect. An uneasiness pervaded the conclusion of this work as I became keenly aware of my continuing ardor for meditation discipline and the huge task of internal work that faced me. I felt unable to continue my life in a meaningful way until I could follow this increasingly strong instinct that was growing in me, ripening over sixteen years of practice, moving me to do a long-term meditation retreat. All other future plans dissolved into insignificance.

Soon after the book was published, I traveled to India, first living in an ashram in southern India to continue my six years of practicing hatha yoga, with the intention of then making a traditional pilgrimage to Buddhist sites. But over the next three months my longing and devotion to my Buddhist teachers and lineage intensified, reaching a critical point of seizures of migraine headaches, day after day, until I felt my life to be in danger. Something was wrong, life was going quickly, and there was no time to waste.

Single-mindedly I left the ashram and traveled to New Delhi where I might have the best chance to find lineage teachers who could give me direction. Then suddenly came a remarkable series of meetings that quickly opened the way for me to enter a meditation retreat in France, where I remained for the next twelve years.

After such a fortunate opportunity to practice, many people ask, “What do you have to say?” It is in the form of a prayer, a wish, an entreaty for the people of the world who, during the time I have been away, definitively passed from the age of anxiety into the age of terror. This prayer comes from the practice of Chod, known as “cutting through ego clinging, ” or severance of emotions that become like demons who uncontrollably afflict the mind, as with the urge for revenge, for example :

May all Karmic debts come to an end,

May the links of vengeance be cut,

May there always be joy and happiness,

And may there be liberation from suffering.

With this new edition of Recovering Sanity, I also offer two appendices to bring this work further into direct application. The first, called “Psychotherapy, ” was written as an introduction for students to train in individual psychotherapy within the Windhorse context. The second, called “The History of Sanity,”was written for clinical psychology students at Naropa University to highlight further the subtle dimension of brilliant sanity.

As this work is an outgrowth and expression of my Dharma practice and always-moving journey, I thank from the depths of my heart the teachers who have encouraged me always to go further: my root teacher, the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche; my master of retreat, the Venerable Lama Gendun Rinpoche; and the kindest of friends, the Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche.

I thank especially Jeffrey Fortuna for his commitment to making this new edition happen and for his steadfast leadership in bringing the Windhorse project into the future . I thank also Lama Khedrup for her pioneering effort and generosity to the Windhorse community. With great admiration and respect I wish to thank all the directors and staff of the Windhorse projects, whose excellent care of people continues to make recovery possible.

I thank Samuel Bercholz and Emily Bower at Shambhala Publications for their trust and effort in making this work available again. With gratitude I thank Anne Munck for her editorial and technical assistance throughout the preparation of this new edition.


March 2003





“Recovering Sanity is unique and refreshing – it stands out among other books on Buddhism and psychotherapy. Dr. Podvoll manages to combine a keen eye for detail with the long-term Buddhist meditator’s profound insight into the nature of the mind.” – Traleg Kyabgon, author of The Essence of Buddhism.

“Recovering Sanity is a must-read book on the healing arts of the East and West. It shines rays of compassionate wisdom for all who are in need of recovering their mental health.” – Tulku Thondup, author of The Healing Power of Mind

“This extraordinary book describes Ed Podvoll’s pioneering work in healing psychosis. It challenges the current medical and psychological approaches to working with psychological disorders, and opens the doors to the life of the mind that have long been closed. This book offers great possibilities not only to those touched by mental illness, but to all of us we examine our lives in the light of a profoundly intelligent and compassionate spiritual perspective.” – Joan Halifax Roshi, Abbess, Upaya Zen Center

“Dr. Podvoll’s important work provides valuable insight into understanding psychosis through the application of principles from the Buddhist science of the mind. Recovering Sanity also addresses universal pain and confusion, and the natural human longing to undertake the journey of transcendence. I recommend Dr. Podvoll’s work not only to those interetsed in healing psychological injuries, but also to those in all walks of life who wish to transcend mental suffering.” – Dzogchen Ponlop, author of Wild Awakening

“A remarkable book, extremely creative and powerfully written… careful observations made by a brilliant clinician and a wise and humane therapeutic approach…” – Irvin Yalom, M.D., author of Love’s Executioner


Edward M Podvoll, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, founded the Contemplative Psychotherapy Department at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and directed it for twelve years. During that time he also founded and was the medical director of the Windhorse Project, a highly lauded treatment community known for its compassionate care. Dr. Podvoll had returned to Boulder after twelve years of Buddhist meditation retreat and resumed his training of the Windhorse Project therapists.
This book was previously published as The Seduction of Madness: revolutionary Insights into the World of Psychosis and a Compassionate Approach to Recovery at Home.