On a Buddhist discussion forum where I occasionally “lurk” (I’m interested to see what goes on there but I don’t really have the time to get involved in discussion there) someone asked if what are called “nimitta” experiences in meditation are the result of sensory deprivation.
What the heck are nimittas?
If you’ve never heard of “nimittas,” they are slightly unusual experiences that can arise in meditation, that are generally regarded as being helpful for your practice. There are many different kinds of nimitta and they can appear in any of the senses. Sometimes they’ll take the form of a light that appears in the mind, or a subtle sensation connected with the breathing that might have the quality of a fine silk thread being drawn between the fingertips, or the sound of the breathing, but heard internally rather than through the ears.
The word nimitta means a “sign” or even a “hint.” When one of these experiences arises, then it’s an indication that your practice is going deeper. And if you pay attention to the hint that your mind has produced for you, then you’ll go deeper still. Think about what it would be like to be lost on a dark moorland. You’ve no idea where to go, but then you see in the distance the faint glow of sodium lights on the horizon. It’s a town! Now you know which direction to go in, and as you move toward the lights they become clearer and clearer. That’s the function of a nimitta; it acts as a feedback mechanism, steering you toward becoming more absorbed in your experience.
But these experiences don’t arise from sensory deprivation. True nimittas arise as we become more immersed in our direct sensory experience, and as we sense it in more detail. When the mind is full of sensation in this way, there’s less room for thinking, and so the amount of inner chatter begins to die down. In other words we think less. This isn’t that infamous (and mythical) “blank mind” that newcomers to meditation often ask about. The mind isn’t blank. It isn’t thinking so much, but the attention we would normally pay to our thoughts is now directed toward, and absorbed in, the body.
Synesthesia and true nimittas
Now, it seems to me that most of the experiences that I’ve encountered that I’d call nimittas (whether in my direct experience or that have been described to me by others) involve an element of synesthesia. Synesthesia is where information that’s in one sensory channel is represented in another sensory channel. So some people literally experience a particular color associated with certain words. This isn’t them using their imaginations: the cross-over is automatic and consistent, so that if the word “David” is orange today, it’ll still be orange next year.
Synesthesia is reasonably common. When 500 people were studied in Scotland (who were not recruited on the basis of having reported experiences of synesthesia) the incidence was 4.4%. So in a random group of 24 people in a meditation room, roughly one of them, on average, will be a synesthete. But I suspect that a larger percentage of people are potential synesthetes: that is, they have a weak form of synesthesia that they don’t normally notice in the everyday turmoil and hubbub in the mind. It’s only when the mind calms that their synesthesia becomes apparent—for example when they’re meditating.
So as the mind stills and we become more sensitive to our experience, we may notice a tactile quality associated with the breathing, but not directly connected to the actual physical sensation of the body moving. Or mental calm may be represented as inner light, or a sense of being surrounded by a bubble of stillness. As you experience kindness, you may feel warmth or light radiating from the heart. These nimitta experiences are arising because the mind is calming down, and as you pay attention to them and become absorbed in them, the mind calms further.
Sensory deprivation and “para-nimittas”
Now, there are other sorts of experiences that can arise in meditation that are superficially similar to nimittas but aren’t helpful in taking you deeper into meditation. In fact they’ll do the opposite. And those do arise from sensory deprivation. I’m going to call them “para-nimittas.”
Now, sensory deprivation isn’t the point of meditation, but it can happen. If the mind begins to calm down, but you haven’t yet learned to be deeply attentive to the physical experiences arising in the body, then the mind is under-occupied. There’s not much stimulation flowing in from the body, and there’s not that much thinking (i.e. inner chatter or inner movies) going on in the mind. So there’s the same kind of sensory deprivation that goes on if you’re in a neutral buoyancy tank heated to skin temperature and sealed off from external light and sound. In those kinds of circumstances the mind gets a bit dreamy, and odd things happen.
A classic is swirling lights. This is different from the steady radiance of a true nimitta. Or dream-like imagery, such as faces, may appear in the mind’s eye. Or the body may feel like it’s leaning to one side (although it isn’t) or as if it’s floating. So-called out-of-body experiences probably belong in the same category.
These are distractions. They don’t help us become more absorbed in meditation.
If this second kind of experience arises then they’re best ignored. Paying attention to them is like getting more absorbed in a dream that arises when you’re lying in bed, half-awake; you’ll simply retreat further from lucid attention, even though you may feel like you’re fully awake and mindful.
What’s needed here is to become more grounded in the vividness of our actual physical experience, as opposed to the illusory experiences that the mind is conjuring up for us. 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. You might want to observe, for example, how three different sensations of the breathing are related to each other: say, the air flowing in and out of the airways in the head, the movements of the ribcage in the upper back, and the sensations in the belly. Giving yourself a challenge like this will help you to be more attentive to and absorbed in your moment-by-moment physical experience.
How to tell the difference
True nimittas are stable and esthetically pleasing. The other kind of experience are sometimes trippy, scary, physically uncomfortable, or disorientating.
Although they’re not helpful to pay attention to, these para-nimittas are a good sign! They only arise when the mind is starting to quiet down, so although there isn’t enough depth of experience in the body, they show that something positive is happening. And people who are prone to para-nimittas often experience true nimittas as well.
And if you don’t experience either true nimittas or para-nimittas, that’s OK. Not everyone experiences these things, and although true nimittas are helpful, they’re not essential.
Wildmind is transforming into a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative.
Click here to learn how you can support what we do here, and about the benefits of becoming a sponsor.