I get a lot of people writing and asking about unusual and odd experiences they’ve had in meditation, sometimes just once, but often on a consistent basis. Sometimes they’re worried, but sometimes I think they’re hoping that these weird experiences in meditation are signs that they’re enlightened, or close to it, or that they have meditation superpowers.
These hopes and fears are quite understandable. I hate to disappoint, but these kinds of unusual experiences are usually pretty common. Most weird experiences in meditation are not of any great significance. Sometimes they are good signs, though, so I’ve tried to clarify that where possible.
Below I’ve categorized into some of the things people have described. I’ve put them into six groups, and I’ll discuss each type separately.
The six groups are:
- Swirling lights and dreamlike images
- Helpful signs
- Distorted body sensations
- Tingling and energy
- Involuntary twitching and spontaneous movements
- Sensations of pressure
I’ll say upfront, though, that I can never be 100% confident I’ve categorized these odd experiences correctly. After all I’m having to interpret other people’s experiences, often from descriptions that are unclear.
1. Swirling Lights and Dreamlike Images
People get really excited about the swirling lights! And sometimes they get freaked out by seeing faces or other images appearing in the mind’s eye. Here are some real-life descriptions.
- 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 I’m getting deep I can see bright purple colors swirling about. I’ve 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.
I’m going to include with the above other dream-like experiences, such as hearing voices, having images of faces appearing, and so on.
These experiences are 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. In fact they’re not even helpful, as I’ll explain in a moment.
The swirling lights are quite common, especially in people who are relatively new to meditation, and sometimes when people do more meditation than usual. They tend to arise when people are starting to get a bit calmer and they are thinking less.
The nearest thing to an official term for these phenomena — that I know of at least — would be an “unhelpful sign.” Nimittas are unusual experiences that happen in meditation. The Pali word “nimitta” can be translated as a “sign” or “hint.”
- These unusual experiences (nimittas) can be helpful, in that they are signs that there is something we should pay attention to in order to become more absorbed in our meditation practice.
- But they can be unhelpful, in that they disturb or distract us, and in that case they are signs or hints that there’s something unbalanced about what we’re doing on our meditation practice.
With swirling lights, dream-like images, and imagined sound that arise in meditation, we’re in the territory of unhelpful nimittas, or unhelpful signs.
This distinction between helpful and unhelpful nimittas comes from a first century meditation text called the “Path of Liberation,” or Vimuttimagga. Although the author, Upatissa, doesn’t use the terms “helpful” and “unhelpful,” that’s clearly what he means. Describing unhelpful nimittas, Upatissa says that a meditator,
…sees various forms such as smoke, mist, dust, sand of gold, or he experiences something similar to the pricking of a needle or to an ant’s bite. If his mind does not become clear regarding these different images, he will be confused.
Because some nimittas are helpful and some are unhelpful, it’s important to recognize the difference. Swirling lights aren’t helpful because they aren’t still or calming. They’re fascinating, yes, but they’re dreamlike.
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 very similar experiences to these. 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.
The word nimitta means “sign” or even “hint.” In the case of these unhelpful nimittas, they’re a hint that we’re making some progress — the mind is thinking less and calmer than usual — but they’re also a hint that we need to ground ourselves in the actual sensory experience arising from the body.
So if these odd sensations arise, just note them, but be aware that they’re not helpful and they’re not something you should get absorbed in.
Instead, see if you can notice the actually sensations of the body and the breathing more clearly and vividly. Perhaps you can start with the sensations of contact that the body is making with the floor and with your seat. Notice vivid sensations, such as the air in the nostrils. Notice concrete sensations such as the movement of the diaphragm and the rib cage.
These are the kinds of things you need to do that your mind is a) filled with sensory experience rather than deprived of it, and b) kept absorbed in vivid sensory experience that prevents you slipping into a dream-like state..
If you let your mind get absorbed in these swirling lights it’ll stop you going deeper into meditation.
2. Helpful Signs (Symbols and Synesthesia)
There’s another kind of nimitta (sign) — helpful nimittas that will actually help you become more absorbed in your meditation practice. Here are some descriptions that students have shared with me.
- The breath became a shiny reflective surface, a cold metallic grey colour.
- 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.
- It’s as if I’ve wandered into a bright part of my mind. There’s a shift of my awareness and suddenly there’s a sense of inner light, which is soft and white. I’m free to move my awareness in and out of this area of light, but when I’m in it I feel very calm.
- 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 unhelpful nimittas above. In fact it can be hard to know what’s going on in someone else’s experience, and it’s possible that I’ve mis-categorized some of these.
But I think these are all what we call helpful nimittas.
As I explained above, the word nimitta means “sign” or “hint” and these experiences are all signs that we’re getting deeper into meditation. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that if someone uses the term nimitta without the qualifications “helpful” or “unhelpful” (or something similar) they’re talking about the helpful kind.
Usually meditators talk about nimittas in relation to jhana, which is a Pali word meaning “meditative absorption.” The Sanskrit equivalent is dhyana. Jhana is an experience of “flow” in meditation. It’s an experience (or series of experiences) where our meditation shifts gear, and we’re able to be effortlessly mindful. Distractions fall away, and we’re left experiencing calm and joy.
In contrast to unhelpful nimittas, which you shouldn’t get caught up in, it’s a good idea to 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. If you move toward the glimmer of light it takes you closer to the exit, which in the case of meditation is jhana. (The Buddha actually described jhana as the “escape from a confined space.”) And as you move closer to the exit, the “hint” becomes stronger.What we have here is a positive-feedback loop, which is why this kind of nimitta is helpful.
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. The smooth contact with the breath is experienced as having a shiny, metallic quality.
Jhana is an experience of “flow” in meditation. It’s an experience (or series of experiences) where our meditation shifts gear, and we’re able to be effortlessly mindful. Distractions fall away, and we’re left experiencing calm and joy.
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. Meditation, in other words, can unleash our hidden synesthetic potential.
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; seeing the light get brighter makes it easier to move toward the source.
Sometimes helpful nimittas can take the form of visual symbols. Unlike the swirling lights they’re relatively stable and very, very clear. They can seem more vivid than your experience of the outside world. I’ve sometimes experienced nimittas as images of water – very clear and lucid. For example I might find I’m seeing stones under the shallow water of a pond.
So pay attention to helpful, synesthetic nimittas, and learn to distinguish them from unhelpful, dream-like nimittas.
One last thing: People who are prone to having unhelpful nimittas are often prone to experiencing helpful nimittas as well. Often when people are starting out meditation they haven’t yet learned how to pay attention to the body’s rich pallete of sensations. But they do manage to calm the mind. A slightly dream-like state arises as some kind of unhelpful nimitta.
Once their meditation is a bit more established and they’re able to be more mindful of the body, then helpful nimittas start happening.
The same people seem to have both. It’s quite possible that some people don’t experience either kind.
3. Distorted Body Sensations
Another kind of unusual experience is when the body seems to have changed in some way. Here are some examples my meditation students have shared with me over the years:
- 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 [lovingkindness meditation].
- 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. Are they helpful or unhelpful? It’s hard to say. I’d suggest that mostly they’re not helpful.
I think they arise a bit differently from either the dream-like kind of unhelpful nimitta or the synesthetic kind of helpful nimitta I’ve described above.
Mostly these changes in body perception involve a loss of the normal boundaries of the body. Now, 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. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
Given that they have so many nerve endings, 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 jhana, however, but to what are called in the scriptures the “formless spheres” (ayatanas). You’ve probably heard them called the “formless jhanas” or “higher jhanas” but that’s not a term the Buddha used, and they’re distinct experiences from the jhanas proper.
At the point these distorted bodily sensations emerge, you can choose to ignore them and head instead for the jhanas 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!)
So this kind of nimitta seems to be different from either that I’ve described above. They’re signs, all right, but they’re signs that you’re heading to a different set of experiences than the kind of absorption that’s called jhana. They’re signs that you’re headed toward formless experiences. So whether they’re helpful or not depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
Some kinds of physical experiences are not helpful. For example I had a friend in Glasgow, Scotland, who had an interesting distorted body-perception experience that was definitely unhelpful. He meditated on a kneeling bench, and, as you might know, those benches slope down toward the front. He’d been sitting for a while and felt increasingly uncomfortable. In fact he realized that he was sitting on his meditation bench backwards, with it sloping to the rear. This caused him to lean backward, and he had to put an enormous amount of effort into keeping his back straight. He tried to endure the discomfort, but eventually it became too much to bear, and so he stood up — only to find that his bench had been the right way around all along! The whole experience of the bench being backwards and of being thrown out of alignment was nothing more than an unhelpful nimitta.
A similar feeling is that you’re leaning to one side. Generally, if you’re having the experience of your body being out of alignment, even when it’s definitely not, this is probably an unhelpful nimitta. Just carry on!
One final distorted body sensation I’ll discuss is when you feel the body is floating. This is something I used to induce as a kid. I’d lie in bed, let myself relax, and just lie there, being aware of my body under the sheets. As I relaxed more and more, I’d start to feel that the whole bed was floating higher and higher toward the ceiling. At some point I’d have the feeling that the bed was starting to tip over and I’d panic and come abck to my normal perceptions. I hadn’t been asleep, but clearly there’s something dream-like about this, so we’re back in the territory of those dreamy, unhelpful signs.
I’ve never had this happen to me in meditation, but I know it has happened to some folks. So, sorry, but you’re not developing psychic powers. You’re just having a dream-like experience.
4. Tingling and Energy
Feelings of tingling, warmth, and energy are quite common in meditation. Sometimes people will describe this as an “electric feeling” or like “currents of electricity.” But this phenomenon can take various forms, as you can see from some of the descriptions that I’ve collected from my students over the years.
- 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 energized 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.
- Sometimes I’ve felt a tingling in the spine during meditation, and I’m curious what that’s about.
- 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 piti (Pali) or priti (Sanskrit). It’s one of the characteristic signs that we’re near or are having an experience of jhana. So piti is 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 piti manifests as warmth. It can be very pleasant.
But it can also be a bit much. If the piti does get too intense, then focus more on the experience of joy, which will almost certainly be present as well.
Piti is, in a way, another nimitta (or the helpful kind), but a very specific one. It’s not traditionally described as a nimitta, but it’s an experience that gives us a “hint” that jhana is near, so it performs the same function.
5. Involuntary Twitching and Spontaneous Body Movements
A lot of people report involuntary jerks, switches, and movements during meditation. Sometimes it’s the head jerking. Sometimes it’s the arms and hands. Sometimes it’s the back.
First, we have to distinguish this from the jerking that happens when we are falling asleep in meditation. When you start to fall asleep – and you might not even realize this is happening, because sleep can sneak up on us — the body starts to relax. And then some part of your brain realizes that you’re starting to fall, and jerks you awake. This can involve just the head. Sometimes I’ve heard this called “the noddies.” One of my students used to call this “having the woody woodpeckers.” Sometimes it’s the whole upper body. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time this is what is going on when people experience involuntary jerks in meditation.
Obviously it’s normal to fall asleep in meditation. You’re sitting with your eye closed. You’re in a low stimulation environment. And you’re probably tireder than you realize, since many of us are sleep-deprived, even if we’re in denial about it.
There are other kinds of jerks and twitches, though. Here are some examples:
- I was breathing, but only a teeny speckle of attention to each breath. Then my leg muscles started jerking which I felt disappointed about. Then I just got into a rhythm of moving and said ‘ok, ok, it’s ok’.
- Yesterday’s meditation was short. I had the “twitchies” and just tried to notice them and be kind to them.
- My muscles started twitching. I tried to ignore it, but then realized I was pushing the experience away. I tried to just stay aware, but on an impulse was out of the chair before I even knew it.
- Tried to follow the wave of relaxation on the out breath. Lots of twitching by different muscles. By the end of the day, I felt more peace in my body.
- Lots of twitching as my body settled in to the longer sit. Then came the memories of unskillful behavior (from yesterday). Back to breath. I kept returning to thoughts, judgments, stories. Finally, I became aware of the message….. Own my behavior and make amends.
- Fairly quiet mind during the sit. Some twitching of my body in the beginning…think that was tension releasing.
Related to this is when the body spontaneously relaxes, which happens a lot. You’ll just be sitting there and suddenly your shoulders will drop, for example. It’s spontaneous because you didn’t decide to do this. In fact you probably didn’t even notice that the shoulders were tense. As far a spontaneous relaxation goes, pretty much everyone is going to welcome it, and it’s hard to imagine it being of concern. But the movements people are describing above as just as spontaneous!
Involuntary movements are things I’ve experienced myself. Many years ago I developed a twitch in my back that would kick in whenever I got to a certain level of relaxation, which didn’t take long to happen in meditation. This twitch would throw my entire upper back and head backward. More recently I realized that what my back was trying to do was realign a vertebra that was out of place and causing me pain. I was on retreat and starting to experience a lot of back pain. And then one night in meditation my back started to spontaneously twist, hold, and release. I knew enough to let it do this, and after a few minutes the movements spontaneously stopped. And when they did, the pain was gone. Somehow my body had figured out how to do chiropractic adjustments on itself.
So this may be a part of some movements. The body wants to adjust itself. Maybe it wants to straighten up, for example. Or maybe, as someone suggested in their comment on spontaneous twitching, it’s the body releasing tension.
One person above described how she experienced remorse about previous actions just after a bout of twitching. I imagine that the part of her brain that was trying to bring those memories to mind was in some kind of tussle with a part of the brain that wanted very much not to think about these things. Net result: physical twitching.
Spontaneous bodily movements can be expressive of other emotions as well. I’ve known people who have experienced physical movements, like the arms flying in the air, associated with joy or devotion.
Going back to piti, which is described above. Not all piti is sensed as tingling or energy. One kind of piti that’s traditionally described as “momentary piti” may well be a kind of twitching more along the lines of an “energy release” than an actual experience of energy.
So there’s probably not just one cause behind spontaneous jerking and twitching in meditation. It can result from the body adjusting itself, from suppressed emotion, from up-welling positive emotion, and maybe for other reasons as well.
If you have spontaneous twitches or body movements I’d suggest just accepting them. Let them happen. There’s almost certainly nothing to worry about. The brain is very complex, and most of the movements your body makes are not under conscious control. Next time you’re walking, for example, notice that you aren’t consciously giving commands to the dozens of muscles involved in that action. They’re acting spontaneously, and in a very complex way. And no one thinks anything of it.
6. Sensations of Pressure
Having sensations of pressure in meditation is not a type of experience I’ve had myself, but it seems to be quite common. Certainly lots of people have written to me describing feeling pressure. Here are some examples:
- 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 two points of pressure (i cant think of another word to describe it) on my chest
- 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?
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.
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