Yesterday 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.