I get a lot of people writing and asking about unusual experiences they’ve had, often on a consistent basis, in meditation. Sometimes they’re worried, and sometimes I think they’re hoping that these are signs that they’re enlightened, or close to it, or that they have meditation superpowers. Those hopes and fears are quite understandable.
Here’s a selection of some of the things people have described. I’ve put them into groups, and I’ll discuss each type separately. I’ll say upfront, though, that I can never be 100% confident I’ve categorized these experiences correctly. After all I’m having to interpret other people’s experiences, often from descriptions that are unclear.
The swirling lights are quite common, especially in people who are relatively new to meditation, and sometimes when people do more meditation than usual. The term I was taught for these is a “samāpatti.” This term is not used in the way it is in Theravadin Buddhism, and I believe it comes from a Chinese Chan tradition. Anyway, the name doesn’t matter too much.
These experiences tend to arise when people are starting to get a bit more concentrated and they are thinking less. They’re nothing to worry about. You’re not going crazy if you see swirling lights. They’re also nothing to get excited about either. No, you’re not on the verge of enlightenment.
What I think is going on is that there’s a kind of dreamy state of mind combined with mild sensory deprivation. People in sensory deprivation tanks tend to have similar experiences. So what’s probably happening here is that the mind is becoming quiet, but it’s not used to being quiet, and it creates these odd sensations. They’re mild hallucinations, in other words — although don’t be alarmed by that word. We all hallucinate every night, when we’re dreaming, and most of us hallucinate during the day as well, when we’re having conversations with other people in our heads. The good thing is that we don’t believe these hallucinations are real.
What to do about these odd sensations? Just note them, and keep going with the practice. See if you can notice the sensations of the body and the breathing more clearly, so that your mind is filled with sensory experience rather than deprived of it.
If you let your mind get absorbed in these sensations it’ll stop you going deeper into meditation.
Some of these might sound similar to the samāpattis above (and in fact it can be hard to know what’s going on in someone else’s experience) but I think these are all what we call nimittas. The word nimitta means “sign” or “hint” and these experiences are all signs that we’re getting deeper into meditation. In contrast to samāpattis, you should pay attention to these sensations, because they’ll take you deeper into meditation. They’re “signs” in the same way that a glimmer of light in a dark cave is a sign showing you where the exit is; more toward the glimmer of light and it takes you closer to the exit, which in the case of meditation is jhāna, or absorption. The Buddha actually described jhāna as the “escape from a confined space.”
In some of these cases it’s not hard to see that the nimitta is connected with the object of the meditation, or some other positive quality that’s emerging in the meditation. For example a feeling of love is perceived as a golden light, or stillness is perceived as a sinking into the seat or as an inability to move. The continuous flow of the breathing is perceived as a visual or tactile infinity symbol.
These experiences seem to be to be similar to synesthesia. Synesthesia is a state where sensory information in one form is perceived in another. A common type is where people sense words of numbers as having colors attached to them. Estimates of the incidence of synesthesia vary from 1 in 23 to 1 in 2,000 (thanks, Wikipedia). I think many of us have weak synesthetic tendencies, but that the synesthetic signals, being weak, are drowned out by other, stronger experiences (thoughts, feelings, etc.). It’s only when we’re still, and the mind is calm, that these experiences emerge.
Synesthetic nimittas are useful because they are a form of feedback. Paying more attention to a subtle synesthetic signal that arises in our experience as the mind is calming encourages the mind to become even calmer, and so the synesthetic signal becomes stronger. It’s like walking toward the glimmer of light in the cave, and seeing it get brighter.
Sometimes nimittas can take the form of visual symbols. Unlike the swirling lights they’re stable and very, very clear. They can seem more vivid than your experience of the outside world.
So pay attention to nimittas (and learn to distinguish them from samāpattis).
One last thing: People who are prone to having samāpattis when they first take up meditation are also prone to experiencing vivid nimittas once their meditation is a bit more established.
These are also nimittas, but I’ve singled them out because I think they arise a bit differently. Mostly these involve a loss of the normal boundaries of the body. This might actually involve the loss of perceptual “filters.” Some parts of the body, like the hands and lips, have vastly more nerve endings than other body parts. In fact if your sense of how big various body parts are was proportional to the amount of sensory information being received in the brain from each part you’d feel like your body was like this:
Which is pretty much how the body can feel sometimes in meditation. Why don’t we feel that the hands and lips are huge all the time? I think it’s because there’s a “correction filter” in the brain that “scales” body parts and makes the internal feeling of the body correspond more closely to the external visual appearance that we see. In meditation it seems that these filters are dropped, and we experience the body more as it is. And so the lips and hands feel large, for example.
Another (possibly related) mechanism is that there is a part of the brain (the parietal lobes) that keep track of the spatial orientation of the body and of parts of the body relative to each other. It’s been observed by neuroscientists that in some forms of meditation the parietal lobes become less active, and so our perception of the body changes. The nimittas that these changes are associated with don’t lead directly to jhāna, however, but to what are called in the scriptures the “formless spheres” (āyatanas). You’ve probably heard them called the “formless jhānas” or “higher jhānas” but that’s not a term the Buddha used, and they’re distinct experiences from the jhānas proper.
At the point these distorted bodily sensations emerge, you can choose to ignore them and head instead for the jhānas by focusing more intently on the breathing, or you can stick with them and see what happens. (It can take you into some really weird experiences that mess with your sense of self — in a good way!)
We call this energy pīti (Pāli) or prīti (Sanskrit). It’s one of the factors of jhāna, and it’s a good thing! This kind of energy arises when we’re becoming more sensitized to the sensations of the body because the mind is becoming calmer. Also, because the body is relaxing, there’s a release of tension. The effect can be of tingling, or of rushing energy. Sometimes the pīti manifests as warmth. It can be very pleasant. But it can also be a bit much. If the pīti does get too intense, then focus more on the experience of joy, which will almost certainly be present as well.
Pīti is, in a way, another nimitta, but a very specific one.
This is something I’ve never experienced myself. I suspect that these are nimittas, and that the only problem with them is freaking out about them. If you experience these, please relax and be aware that the sensation of pressure is just a sensation like any other. It’s not going to hurt you. I’m told that relaxing the muscles in the head helps, and that the sense of pressure can have a stabilizing effect on your attention, as with any other nimitta.