Concentration meditation redirects attention and awareness away from your familiar intellectual processes and interrupts the incessant flow of thoughts that your self-system uses to maintain itself—so it shouldn’t be surprising that when you do concentration meditation, you may start experiencing some unusual phenomena.
When I first started meditating, the first thing (and one of the less interesting things) I noticed was that as soon as my thoughts slowed down a bit, I would fall asleep. I guess my mind was so accustomed to thinking that when my thinking slowed down, my mind decided it was time to take a nap. This is an extreme form of dullness (that is, lack of attentional clarity).
I found that meditating with my eyes open and meditating when I was more awake were somewhat helpful antidotes to falling asleep—but the only thing that really helped was continued practice.
After developing a little bit of attentional stability and clarity, the next phenomenon I noticed was a stream of memories showing up in the form of rapidly evolving images. I believe Ken Wilber has described this as “going to the movies.” It’s as if my mind had a backlog of unprocessed material; as soon as I gave my mind a break from all the thinking I’d been doing, my mind seized this opportunity to get to work on processing that backlog.
I found this process interesting, engaging, and pleasant. Memories arose that I hadn’t thought of for decades. Rather than trying to stop these memories from arising, I expanded my field of view to include them and I let them play themselves out. Eventually, they stopped arising.
Often, as I’m meditating, I notice that I’ve slipped into an actual dream state. Usually, as soon as I notice this, the dream state ends and I return to my previous meditative state.
Recently, I’ve started exploring whether I can become lucid within the dream state within my meditation practice—becoming aware that I’m dreaming without losing the dream state.
As the rational functions of my intellect go off-line in meditation, I often notice more primitive, dreamlike forms of thought and perception arising. This can give rise to some fairly unusual experiences.
One of the first such experiences that I noticed was faces showing up in patterns on the floor. One moment, I would be looking at a random pattern in the carpet or the floorboards; the next moment, the pattern would resolve into primitive, cartoon-like representations of human and animal faces exhibiting a wide range of expressions.
These faces would be quite striking and very difficult to ignore. Trying to make them go away didn’t help. What did help was to just let them be as they were and to continue my practice. Eventually, they subsided, though they still come to visit occasionally.
Power Animals, Demons, and More
Sometimes I’ve noticed emotionally-charged images arising as I meditate. Sometimes, these have been intensely meaningful and pleasant; other times, they have been bizarre and scary. Rather than turning away from these experiences, I’ve made it a practice to turn toward them instead, allowing myself to experience them—without identifying with them or allowing my attention to collapse onto them. When I do this, inevitably, these experiences soon dissolve into energy (often, a lot of energy). My sense is that these have been healing, integrative experiences for me.
The Benefits of a Gradual Approach to Spiritual Practice
One of the benefits of meditating in the context of a spiritual practice routine that’s integrated into daily life is that the alternation between spiritual practice and daily life creates a relatively gentle transition into states of increased mindfulness and insight.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to jump straight into an intensive multi-day meditation retreat without having a solid spiritual practice routine in place first, because it seems to me that this would be too big a shock; I believe that such a shock could lead to many types of unpleasant, distressing, and perhaps even harmful experiences. If you notice unpleasant experiences arising that seem related to your meditation practice, and if you are concerned about these experiences, it may be a good idea to slow down or pause your meditation practices and seek advice from someone you trust.
If you’ve had unusual experiences when meditating, you’re not alone. For an overview of the many types of meditative experiences people have had (and if you need more convincing that doing too much meditation too fast could be harmful), I recommend listening to the Buddhist Geeks interview with Willoughby Britton on her research into The Difficult Stages of the Contemplative Path.