“Unusual” meditation experiences, sensory deprivation, and synesthesia

Photo by Aaron Andrew Ang on Unsplash

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.

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Nimittas: Day 10 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 Day Meditation Challenge

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.

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Synesthesia may explain how some healers can see auras

Researchers in Spain have found that at least some of the individuals claiming to see the so-called aura of people actually have the neuropsychological phenomenon known as “synesthesia” (specifically, “emotional synesthesia”). This might be a scientific explanation of their alleged ability.

In synesthetes, the brain regions responsible for the processing of each type of sensory stimuli are intensely interconnected. Synesthetes can see or taste a sound, feel a taste, or associate people or letters with a particular color.

The study was conducted by the University of Granada Department of Experimental Psychology Oscar Iborra, Luis Pastor and Emilio Goez Milan, and has been published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. This is the first time that a scientific explanation has been provided for the esoteric phenomenon of the aura, a supposed energy field of luminous radiation surrounding a person as a halo, which is imperceptible to most human beings.

In basic neurological terms, synesthesia is thought to be due to cross-wiring in the brain of some people (synesthetes); in other words, synesthetes present more synaptic connections than “normal” people. “These extra connections cause them to automatically establish associations between brain areas that are not normally interconnected,” professor Gómez Milán explains. New research suggests that many healers claiming to see the aura of people might have this condition.

The case of the “Santon de Baza”

One of the University of Granada researchers remarked that “not all ‘healers’ are synesthetes, but there is a higher prevalence of this phenomenon among them. The same occurs among painters and artists, for example.” To carry out this study, the researchers interviewed some synesthetes including a ‘healer’ from Granada, “Esteban Sanchez Casas,” known as “El Santon de Baza”.

Many local people attribute “paranormal powers” to El Santon, because of his supposed ability to see the aura of people “but, in fact, it is a clear case of synesthesia,” the researchers explained. According to the researchers, El Santon has face-color synesthesia (the brain region responsible for face recognition is associated with the color-processing region); touch-mirror synesthesia (when the synesthete observes a person who is being touched or is experiencing pain, s/he experiences the same); high empathy (the ability to feel what other person is feeling), and schizotypy (certain personality traits in healthy people involving slight paranoia and delusions). “These capacities make synesthetes have the ability to make people feel understood, and provide them with special emotion and pain reading skills,” the researchers explain.

In the light of the results obtained, the researchers remarked on the significant “placebo effect” that healers have on people, “though some healers really have the ability to see people’s ‘auras’ and feel the pain in others due to synesthesia.” Some healers “have abilities and attitudes that make them believe in their ability to heal other people, but it is actually a case of self-deception, as synesthesia is not an extrasensory power, but a subjective and ‘adorned’ perception of reality,” the researchers state.

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Flash of genius

The New Straits Times: Meditation is a process by which one attempts to get beyond the conditioned, “thinking” mind into a deeper state of relaxation or awareness.

It often involves turning attention to a single point of reference. Meditation is recognised as a component of traditional medicine especially Ayurveda. We know Albert Einstein was keen on spirituality. But did he practise meditation? Could this give us an insight to his genius?

What did Einstein have that we don’t? Meditation is a process by which one attempts to get beyond the conditioned, “thinking” mind into a deeper state of relaxation or awareness. It often involves turning attention to a single point of reference. Dr Thomas Harvey was the pathologist tasked to perform Einstein’s autopsy in 1955. Without the family’s permission, Harvey removed and kept Einstein’s famous brain. He stored the brain in jars of formaldehyde and studied it slice by slice. He also dispensed small samples to other researchers on request. There was nothing to show Einstein’s brain as extraordinary. But in the early 1980s, Marian Diamond, a neuroanatomist at the University of California at Berkeley, made some discoveries that could revolutionise ideas about genius and help us increase intelligence.

Brain stimulation
She worked with rats. One group was in a super-stimulating environment with swings, ladders, treadmills, and toys. The other group was confined to bare cages. The rats in the high-stimulus environment lived to the advanced age of three years (the equivalent of 90 in a man). More important, their brains increased in size, sprouting new glial cells, which make connections between neurons (nerve cells) Earlier in 1911, Santiago Ramon, the father of neuro-anatomy, had found that the number of interconnections between neurons was a far better predictor of brainpower than the sheer number of neurons. Diamond had created the footprint of higher intelligence through mental exercise. She then examined sections of Einstein’s brain and noted its unusual “interconnectedness.” There were greater numbers of glial cells in the left parietal lobe. This was a kind of neurological switching station connecting various areas of the brain. Neurons do not reproduce after we are born. That is fixed at birth. However, the connective hardware of the brain — glial cells, axons, and dendrites — can increase in number throughout life. When you increase these connections, you become smarter. It really depends on how you use your brain. Learning creates more pathways. When we learn a skill such as riding a bicycle, more connections are created. Mental power is, in a way, connective power. “Retarded” achievement Was Einstein’s mental development affected by some analogy to the swings, ladders, treadmills, and toys of Diamond’s super-rats? Did he, in some sense, learn his inventive mental powers? Einstein himself seemed to think so. He believed that you could stimulate ingenious thought by allowing the imagination to float freely, forming associations at will. He even credits to the development of his defining work – the Theory of Relativity – to his retarded development in his childhood years. “A normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time,” he said. “These are things which he has thought of as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, and I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.” Einstein attributed his scientific prowess to what he called a “vague play” with “signs,” “images,” and other elements, both “visual” and “muscular”. “This combinatory play,” he wrote, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” Dynamic meditation Indeed, this was a form of meditation. There has been a long practiced type of active meditation called image streaming. Evidence suggests that the stream of images in our minds literally never ceases. Even when our minds are preoccupied with work, conversation, or other demanding tasks, the sensory mechanisms continue to generate imaginary sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings. Many of these images consist of memories, triggered by random associations. Others are echoes or reinforcements of our conscious thoughts at the moment. One form of meditation is to control these images while the other type is to follow these images with a single-minded focus. Image Stream makes use of all five senses, not just sight. Your brain is so wired that vision will always tend to dominate the creative process. LSD researchers discovered that psychedelic compounds tend to break down the boundaries between different senses so that you might “hear” the colour red or “smell” a Bach concerto. This is a process called synesthesia.

Cross sensing
Synesthetic perceptions seem to flood our cortex from the limbic brain, without most of us being aware of them. Synesthetic references emerge in everyday language when we speak of the “coolness” of blue, the “sweetness” of a woman’s voice, or a “piercing” sound. These metaphors make no rational sense though we understand them instinctively. Einstein is the most spectacular modern example of a man who could dream while wide awake. With few exceptions, the great discoveries in science were made through such intuitive “thought experiments”. Over the years, reading biographies of luminaries like Einstein have lead me to the conclusion that geniuses are little more than ordinary people who have stumbled on some knack or technique for widening their channel of attention. Indeed, Einstein once wrote that “all the valuable things, material, spiritual, and moral, which we receive from society can be traced back through countless generations to certain creative individuals”. This great ability to create can come from proper training with meditation to enhance the awareness of the brain and the interconnection between senses. So, in this fast paced life and “the need to be creative” world, do you meditate? If you do, well done. If not, imagine, how it would be if you did.

via New Straits Times

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