So it's easy to understand how a novice might take the experience of walls moving as a sign. Perhaps he's been endowed with the powers described in books—or even become a divine being. That could certainly explain Emily's "I am a Bodhisattva" declaration. As cultural observers going back to Shakespeare have noted, there's a fine balance between spiritual growth and madness; those who lack a solid spiritual foundation could tip more easily toward the latter. The pressure on gurus in India and elsewhere to deliver profound experiences to eager Western pupils can lead them to offer techniques their students may not be mentally prepared for. Silent-meditation retreats like the one Emily attended have become popular around the world. So have even more demanding monthlong Vipassana seclusion programs consisting of daily 10-hour silent-meditation sessions, which are open to practitioners of all levels of experience.
Jonathan Spollen's father returned home after several weeks in Rishikesh, but he and his wife haven't given up the search, maintaining a website and a Twitter feed (@FindSpollen) dedicated to locating their son. The frequency of posts on the IndiaMike thread has slowed, but in June one commenter expressed his conviction that Spollen remained "holed up somewhere in the Himalayas with some sadhus and saints in search of spiritual salvation" and would return to his family once he'd found what he was looking for. For now, though, all that's left of Spollen are stories he's written online and the missing-person posters tacked up around Rishikesh, which can still be downloaded at FindSpollen.com. They show two images of the young Irishman. One, labeled 1 YEAR AGO, is of him smiling, fresh-faced and goateed, dressed in a shirt and jacket. The other, labeled 3 MONTHS AGO, shows the same man looking weary and gaunt, his features set, his expressionless eyes locked on the path ahead.
Scott Carney (scottcarney.com) is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.
India isn't the only destination that's been known to affect visitors' mental stability. Here are four more location-based psychological disorders.
1. Florence Syndrome
Also known as Stendhal syndrome, this illness afflicts visitors to cities with rich concentrations of art, like Florence. Sufferers become so overwhelmed by the beauty around them that they hallucinate, experience accelerated heart rates, become dizzy, and faint. Some require hospitalization and even antidepressants.
2. Paris Syndrome
The Japanese are most vulnerable to this condition, which arises when tourists discover that the City of Light isn't all it's cracked up to be and that Parisians can be utterly indifferent to outsiders. The physical symptoms resemble those of Florence syndrome but also include acute feelings of persecution.
3. Jerusalem Syndrome
In a 2010 episode of The Simpsons, a visit to the Holy City convinces Homer that he is the Messiah, who will unite Christians, Muslims, and Jews (whom he collectively calls ChrisMuJews). Real-life tourists can actually become similarly delusional, certain that God is talking to them or that they are the chosen one.
4. Stockholm Syndrome
This condition, named for but not specific to the Swedish capital, describes any situation in which someone who has been abducted (most famously, Patty Hearst) becomes sympathetic to his or her captors. There's also an inverse, Lima syndrome, in which kidnappers develop warm feelings toward their hostages.