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Nimittas: Day 10 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 010Yesterday I wrote about samapattis, which are slightly strange, and often a bit disturbing, experiences that can arise in meditation. They’re often a bit hallucinatory, and it’s not a good idea to pay much attention to them.

Nimittas are another kind of unusual experience we can have in meditation, but they’re more useful. The word “nimitta” literally means a “sign” or a “hint.” These are experiences we can have that let us know we’re making progress in meditation.

Nimittas, like samapattis, come in different forms. They can be visual, or kinesthetic, or even auditory.

In one classic meditation text, the Vimuttimagga, the arising of nimittas is described like this: “the nimitta arises with a pleasant feeling similar to that which is produced in the action of spinning cotton or silk cotton. Also it is likened to the pleasant feeling produced by a breeze.” These are kinesthetic nimittas. They can be auditory, like a subtle sound accompanying the breathing that’s not heard through the ears. Visual nimittas might take the form of a stable image, or just a stable perception of light.

It’s worth paying attention to these nimittas. They are “signs” or “hints” that we’re on the right track. The Vimuttimagga says: “If the yogin develops the nimitta and increases it at the nose-tip, between the eye-brows, on the forehead or establishes it in several places, he feels as if his head were filled with air. Through increasing in this way his whole body is charged with bliss.” He’s talking here about kinesthetic nimittas, but the same applies to the other forms. It’s not that you abandon the perception of the breathing, but that the sensations of the breathing are complemented by the nimitta.

I have a theory about nimittas, which is that they can be a form of synesthesia, which is where data from one sense is experienced in terms of another. I suspect a lot of people are potential synesthetes, but they don’t experience synesthesia until the mind is very still and quiet. Presumably the synesthetic sensations are present all the time, but are drowned out by the normal chatter that goes on during normal activity. So we quiet the mind, and find that we experience calmness as light, or the flow of the breathing as a particular “shape” felt in the body. Just a theory.

Anyway, both nimittas and samapattis are experiences that you may have. Hopefully today and yesterday’s posts will help you know what to do if that does happen.

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About Bodhipaksa

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Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and a published author. He founded Wildmind in 2001. Bodhipaksa has published many guided meditation CDs and guided meditation MP3s.

He teaches at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. You can follow Bodhipaksa on Twitter, join him on Facebook, or hang out with him on .

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Comments

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Comment from Andy
Time: January 10, 2013, 6:19 am

Fascinating stuff. However I am a little unclear on what distinguishes the nimittas from the samapattis. Is it just that one is pleasant and the other is troublesome?

Also I confess to a certain wariness toward giving attention to these things, let alone ‘increasing’ them. The story comes to mind of the excited novice telling his teacher that while meditating a vision of the Buddha has appeared to him surrounded by gold light, and the teacher replies ‘Just concentrate on your breathing, it will go away’. (To be fair I have no idea of the provenence of that story, but the principle ceratinly seems a sound one.)

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 10, 2013, 8:38 am

Samapattis often are slightly unpleasant or disturbing, but that’s not always the case. I’ve known people who get very fascinated by the “swirling lights.” I think nimittas are almost always pleasant, although I’ve heard people talking about a sense of pressure on the forehead, between the eyes, which they’ve taken to be a “sign” of impending jhana. That pressure is initially unpleasant.

Nimittas are usually very stable. If you have an image nimitta arising, you can go off and get distracted, and when you come back to mindfulness the image is still there. The same applies for kinesthetic nimittas. Samapattis are more likely to be unstable (pulsing, swirling lights, for example).

Paying attention to samapattis will tend to keep your mind rather “busy,” possibly with the pleasure of excitement, while paying attention to nimittas will lead to more of a calm sense of joy. The quality of the mind while pursuing a pleasant samapatti is more along the lines of “great! something exciting is going to happen!” With a nimitta it’s more like the happiness of “I’m arriving.”

One area I’m currently rethinking is the “anatomical enhancement” kind of experience (like feeling that your hands or whole body are huge. I suspect those are often a sign not of impending jhana, but are signs of the early stages of the formless spheres, or ayatanas, which are often called the higher jhanas, or formless jhanas, or jhanas 5–8. They’re not actually jhana states, and can be entered directly, although you can also get into them via the 4th jhana (so I’m told — I’ve never entered via that route, my experience of 4th jhana being quite limited). These formless (arupa) states involve a loss of our normal sense of the boundaries of the body, and of its separation from the world, and these odd experiences of enlarged body parts are, I think, probably the first stages of this — in some people at least.

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Comment from Laurie
Time: January 10, 2013, 12:47 pm

10/100 I meditated for 30 minutes this morning. I have never had any unusual experiences while meditating. These articles are interesting, though, and I am glad to be informed of what can happen before it actually does. I am not clear about what the jhanas are, though.

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Comment from Svetlana
Time: January 10, 2013, 8:36 pm

http://journeyviamediation.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/day-10-of-2013/

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Comment from Greg
Time: April 10, 2013, 2:08 pm

Good day everyone. I would like to ask a question in regards to nimittas. Perhaps someone can give me a good answer. I have read in some books that nimittas can be dangerous and can even drive a meditator mad. I have been worrying a lot ever since. I would really like to have a safe meditating experience and know what to do. I wouldn’t want to lose my mind pursuing something good.

Greg

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 10, 2013, 3:54 pm

Nimittas are just feelings and slightly synesthetic experiences you can have when you start to “get in the flow” of meditation. The chances of this driving anyone mad are zero. Beware of propaganda.

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Comment from Greg
Time: April 10, 2013, 11:44 pm

Dear Bodhipaksa, I very much appreciate your quick reply. I wish I didn’t use the word nimitta, as there are two types of nimittas in Thai tradition. It made things a bit confusing. One refers to hallucinations that can occur during meditation and shock the meditator. I always have a feeling of ‘what if something terrifying appears and I can’t handle it?’. The ‘good’ nimittas are always sign of progress and I’m not worried about those. I should’ve used the good old word ‘hallucination’.

Greg

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 11, 2013, 11:37 am

Ah, I see. Yes, there are other experiences that are similar to nimittas, but are more disruptive. I was taught to call these samapattis, but that’s not the way the Theravadins use the word, and I believe that that usage comes from a Chinese tradition. Anyway, these unhelpful nimittas/samapattis are usually just things like moving patterns of colored lights, or unusual physical sensations like your hands being too big. They generally only happen to beginners and go away with continued practice if you don’t get obsessed by them. As far as I can see, if you do get obsessed by them you simply don’t make progress in meditation, and stay in a kind of daydreamy state. Sometimes people have more dream-like experiences that can be frightening. But that’s just dreams erupting into meditation, I think. I suppose you could think you were going crazy.

There’s only one time I’ve encountered someone who I thought might be going a bit crazy, but talking to her more it seemed that she was probably having full-blown synesthesia, so that she was seeing colors around things and interpreting this as “energy.” I think many nimittas are a kind of low-grade synesthesia, where sensations cross over into another sensory channel, and that this synesthesia is probably available to many people but is too weak to be detected under normal conditions. When we meditate, however, the mind is quieter and these weak synesthetic signals become perceptible. For this woman a synesthetic experience had become part of her daily life, which it is for many people. But she didn’t seem crazy :)

Anyway, I think the fears are overblown. I’ve met plenty of crazy people in 30 years of practice, but they all seemed to be that way from the start :)

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 11, 2013, 11:38 am

Of course you could also ask, “What happens if I go to sleep and have a nightmare and can’t handle it?” But hopefully you simply trust that you can, in fact, handle whatever your mind throws up, and not try to keep yourself permanently awake :)

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Comment from Greg
Time: April 11, 2013, 1:38 pm

I can’t thank you enough for your care and prompt replies. I really do appreciate your time. I didn’t make things easy from the beginning and I regret. Basically the following is the most disturbing writing on meditation I have ever come across (by Ajahn Maha Boowa):
“For a person, who has a strong ability in maintaining a detached ra- tional attitude, to be successful in gaining value from such a nimitta he will always tend to develop mindfulness and wisdom (sati-paññā) when faced with it. But there are a lot of people whose natures are timid and easily frightened, and Upacāra Samādhi may do harm to the citta of a person of this type because this class of samādhi is of many different kinds and many frightening experiences can occur. For example, the image of a man may appear, whose bodily shape, colour and social po- sition are all frightening, and he may appear as though about to slash at one with a sword, or to eat one.
If however, one has little fear and is not timid, one can suffer no harm in such circumstances and one will learn more and more methods of curing one’s citta from these kinds of nimittas, or samādhi. But with a timid person – who usually tends to look for fearful things – the more he sees a frightening nimitta the larger it becomes, and at such a time he may unfortunately be driven mad.”

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Comment from Raven
Time: December 3, 2014, 11:32 pm

I have a question. I was born with synesthesia. I have very vivid dreams, I’m very sensitive to energy, and I get very paranormal ‘signs’ in life, but, I can not seem to quiet my mind in meditation yet. Isn’t that a bit backwards? I’m very grateful for the gifts I was born with but I don’t understand how to go deeper into meditation or really what I’m suppose to be doing in meditation, but I want to. Life (God) has been telling me to meditate for sometime now, now he’s practically screaming at me to meditate. But I always have frustrations arise up when I try because I can’t get my mind still. What should I do?:

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 10, 2014, 9:58 am

Hi, Raven.

Sorry for the delayed reply. I’ve got a bit behind with replying to comments.

Despite the unique conditions of your synesthesia, you’re in the same boat as the rest of us. Everyone finds that they can’t get their mind to be still! Minds don’t want to be still, and the more we try to make them shut up the more it seems they rebel and create a fuss. So the thing is to accept that the mind is a busy place. Imagine you’re standing in a busy public place — say a train station — and you have the idea that the place “ought” to be empty. So you look at all the people milling around and every time you think he shouldn’t be here, she shouldn’t be here. Just go away! You’d go crazy.

Now assume you’re in the same spot, but you’ve decided that the goal is to mindfully watch people as they go by — sometimes focusing on one individual, and sometimes defocusing your gaze to take in the whole. That’s a completely different experience. And yet in this scenario you’re being mindful, while in the first one you were merely getting worked up in an unmindful way.

So just keep coming back to the meditation when your mind has wandered, and if you’re able to stick with the meditation at the same time as there’s a lot of “traffic” going through your mind then that’s fine.

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