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Mindfulness of Breathing

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Odd experiences in meditation

Abstract Buddha Face BackgroundI 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.

Swirling lights, etc.

  • During my sit I saw a bright white/yellow circle shape flash of light in between my eyebrows (closed eye meditation). The light came rushing at me and filled my vision then vanished. While very interesting, it actually freaked me out a bit.
  • I’ve had noises so loud in one ear they made me jump, lights, weird visual things, feelings of floating or expanding or shrinking – just every now and then.
  • While i meditate in complete darkness i notice swirling of lights. The longer or deeper the meditation the color changes. I noticed it would go from a red, to orange, up to indigo.
  • When I feel Im getting deep I can see bright purple colors swirling about. Ive tried for a long time to find out if there is a meaning to this.
  • I have had a recurrent experience during meditation. These involve being completely absorbed by an intense yellow vibrating light, qualitatively ecstatic or electric.
  • i meditate in the dark. when i open my eyes and i look at my hands i can see like smoke coming out at the tip of my fingers.it look like when you get out of a really hot bath and you got steam on your skin
  • I have experienced a similar meditation twice where I am going deep…seeing stars/universes… colors…then silence…and stillness (void?) and then I am aware of a medallion that looks like it is made of stone with low and high relief with a face on it.

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.

Symbols and Synesthesia

  • The breath became a shiny reflective surface, a cold metallic grey colour. Then faded after 5 minutes or so.
  • Sometimes it happens that there is a moment during a sit, when the type of experience changes in a way that can be hard to describe (but I’ll try anyway). It’s as if one sinks a fraction deeper into the seat, and is surrounded by a bubble. There is no desire to finish the sit.
  • Today, and I have noticed on previous occasions, when the allotted time for meditation has expired, I sometimes get “stuck”, in a nice way. I feel the urge to move, but it passes just like an urge to itch. Eventually, I “decide” that it is time to move on. But it has a different quality to it than the urge that comes from a timer.
  • Becoming aware of the continuity of the breath created an infinity symbol for me to flow along, never ending. … I feel like my whole body is breathing.
  • I reach a certain point where it feels like I’m acutely aware of my body while being outside of it, like I’m watching it from physically far away.
  • After about 10 minutes or so I flowed into self metta and when the gong rang I felt/saw golden light in and around me.
  • [I saw] some teal and purple circular coloring that I think has to do with retinal pressure. It responds to my movements, mostly breathing and pulse, generally as shrinking concentric blobs alternating between the two colors … it lets me know that I’ve found a good relaxed alertness balance and that my focus is refined enough to notice it.

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.

Distorted Body Sensations

  • 26 minute sit. Feeling of extreme spaciousness in the beginning and like my hands were infinitely small.
  • Notable sensations: being very small and yet infinite, as if pulled 35 degrees up to the right 4 feet away.
  • I had that strange sensation of body distortion again. This time, it felt as if my legs were huge and the rest of my body very small. I got a very funny image of what I looked like according to my distorted perception. Then the sensation faded after a few minutes and I moved on to Metta Bhavana.
  • I don’t know how long I sat, but it was very peaceful and I felt myself expand a little beyond my normal sense of where my body boundaries are. At a certain point my hands and lips felt like they were growing very fat, which was interesting to observe (for example the thought really crossed my mind, unconvincingly, that maybe my lips really were swelling up).
  • I have had the “swelling sensation” in my hands before during meditation and I always find it fascinating. It feels very real, like my body is expanding beyond itself and sometimes I feel tempted to open my eyes and double check.
  • A few years ago when I was first learning to meditate I had an a experience doing mindfulness of breathing where I felt my legs begin to melt. It totally freaked me out causing me to open my eyes and stop the meditation. When I did that, the feeling immediately stopped and I’ve never had anything like that since.

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:


Cortical homunculus by stormthor on deviantART

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!)

I feel prīti, oh, so prīti

  • After the counting was done and Bodhi’s voice was telling me to observe how I felt I noticed that my mind was calm, there were lights around me and my body felt energised so all-in-all it was a positive experience.
  • Perhaps it was my particular state of mind tonight, but I dissolved easily into simply being aware of my breathing. Hands and feet felt quite warm.
  • During the counting of the in-breaths I was getting real rushes of energy to the point where it was a little uncomfortable. At one point ( not sure which stage ) I had the strange sensation of my mind being stuck/jammed.
  • I felt an uncontrollable wave of extremely strong energy. It felt almost good , but in a sense too powerful – pure pleasure.. I tried to just experience it as is but then felt myself getting physically aroused which freaked me out because I was in public with a large group. I then tried to control it and found it very difficult to do so.
  • During the meditation, I feel tingling in my hands and feet. Is this normal?
  • Certainly I’ve felt a tingling sensation that generally starts in my lower spine and spreads over my whole body

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.

Sensations of Pressure

  • Another strange sensation I had during today’s meditation was pressure on the eye balls, just like fingers pressing. It was near the start of the meditation and only lasted 30 seconds or so. Another new sensation. In the end I found myself feeling pretty relaxed.
  • I have developed a feeling of pressure in my head–sometimes in my forehead or scalp, sometimes more in my face. At times it is quite strong and unpleasant.
  • I have noticed that I get quite hot, develop damp skin, and recently have felt a pressure in the top of my head, as though something is trying to burst out. It is not painful, just unusual, and not a serious distraction.
  • I have physical sensation in my body, rising pressure in stomach, sometimes shaking, right now I always notice that and let that sensations to pass.
  • i also was feeling 2 points of pressure on my chest (i cant think of another word to describe it)
  • I feel pressure, not pleasurable or painful, just pressure, on the middle of my forehead. I this normal, or is it something I should be worried about?

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.

Comments

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Comment from Traci
Time: May 9, 2014, 2:43 pm

I loved your article because I’ve been meditating solo without any teacher for about 5 years now. I have no one to explain the meaning of all the sensations. The only thing I know is I get my best insights when I’ve reached that point of feeling warm and tingly. I always describe it like how you feel when the alarm goes off in the morning but you are so cozy that you just want to hit snooze. Now I can call it feeling prity!

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Comment from Eduardo
Time: May 10, 2014, 8:22 pm

I have been meditating for 2Y now, and though I had all those experiences written above I experienced a few times Astral travelling, or out body experience which is an amazing experience but unfortunately I cannot do it whenever I want.
And when it happens, it is not easy to keep the state of mind during the process. Any ideas? Thank you.
It is a good website by the way.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 11, 2014, 9:04 am

I’d regard this as being just the same as the samāpatti experiences I described above. It’s not helpful to get caught up in these images and of the feeling of detachment from the body. Don’t attempt to repress, but just let these experiences pass away on their own, and pay more attention to the physical sensations arising in the body.

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Comment from henry
Time: June 17, 2014, 7:27 am

Spiritual magic is so interesting! :D

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