June 25, 2016; revised July 19, 2016; August 9, 2021
In the post “Can Buddhist Meditation be Dangerous?” in the Section “Myths or Realities,” I discussed some possible effects of meditation in conventional and true Buddhist meditations. Here I will focus on Buddhist meditation and explain the physical and mental changes one may experience. However, this does not mean everyone will experience these; these symptoms cannot be generalized, and some may not even feel them.
1. One may encounter some soothing physical sensations and even some discomfort when one starts seriously cleansing one’s mind. I did not want to discuss this topic until I had enough background material to explain the origins of such effects.
- Some people who feel such first experiences may even get attached to them. I believe that what is known in Hinduism as “kundalini awakening” manifests this effect. Those are supposed to be encountered in anariya meditation techniques, where one stops the cleansing process at this stage. It is the goal of most of those non-Buddhist meditators.
- In genuine Buddhist meditation also, one may experience such effects. However, they will not be painful, even though some are discomforting.
- Before reading this post, it is advisable first to read the introductory post, “Can Buddhist Meditation be Dangerous?” because certain body sensations encountered in the early stages of meditation are discussed in that post.
2. Fully understanding the current post requires some background material on the concept of gandhabba; Click to hear the pronunciation of “antarābhava and gandhabba“:
. The inert physical body is made alive by the gandhabba (or “manomaya kāya“) that comes out of the physical body in the case of “out-of-body experiences”; see “Manomaya Kaya and Out-of-Body Experience (OBE).”
- Many posts on the site explain various aspects of the gandhabba; see the sections “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya),” “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma,” and “Udayavaya Ñāna.”
- While it is not necessary to learn about the gandhabba to attain Nibbāna, if one needs to understand the mechanisms underlying these “meditation experiences,” it is the bridge between the mind and the physical body. In any case, it is good to know about these possible effects (more of which are discussed below) so that one would not be confused if one gets to experience them.
3. The gandhabba has an “energy body,” an invisible blueprint of the physical body. And that fine body is the one that controls the heavy physical body according to the commands from the mind, which is also located in the gandhabba (at the hadaya vatthu).
- The best way to visualize this is to imagine the gandhabba as an energy field that overlaps the physical body. It can move any part of the physical body that it wishes to move. For example, when the gandhabba moves its fine arm, the physical arm moves with it.
- This is how we control our physical bodies. Of course, there are more details about the brain acting out as an intermediary; see “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
- For example, most energy to move heavy body parts comes from food. gandhabba sends the “control signals.”
4. The nervous system of the physical body overlaps the subtle/invisible body of the gandhabba and tries to maintain that overlap all the time. If one sits down cross-legged, for example, the nervous system of the physical body may shift from that of the gandhabba. Then the physical nervous system will try to adjust for that shift, pulling the attached muscles.
- That is why it could become uncomfortable, especially for those not used to sitting cross-legged (when one gets used to it, the physical system will learn to adjust quickly).
- Therefore, this effect does not indicate progress in the meditation program. Significant effects are discussed below.
5. Our thoughts (i.e., the cittaja kāya) can influence the subtle body (utuja kāya) of the gandhabba. The utuja kāya arises out of suddhashtaka produced by the cittaja kāya and the kammaja kāya.
- Thus the subtle body of the gandhabba can be affected by two methods: by the kammaja kāya (i.e., by kamma vipāka) AND by the cittaja kāya or according to how we think.
- The first effect can bring about aches and pains in the physical body due to kamma vipāka (by shifting the gandhabba‘s body to out-of-balance in a short time, so we can feel the shift). These are mostly experienced as we get old (e.g., chronic back pains) and are not due to meditation. Some of these may get better with meditation.
6. In addition to the shifts caused by kamma vipāka, we can change the equilibrium position of the gandhabba‘s subtle body with consistent thoughts over long periods. For example, if we think hateful thoughts a lot, the nervous system of the gandhabba may twist in a certain way; if we think primarily of greedy thoughts, it may shift differently.
- Thus, as we think defiled thoughts and act on them regularly, it leads to the gradual twisting of nerve bundles in the gandhabba, and physical muscles also get twisted accordingly. Since it is a gradual process compared to the first effect, we do not usually feel it (until we get old).
- However, when we start cleansing our minds, the subtle body of the gandhabba tries to return to its equilibrium position. This can happen quickly during a good meditation session when one starts feeling such nerve (and muscle) movements. We are trying to “undo” those twists in nerve bundles that have occurred for years.
- This is why this effect is much less in young children. Their nerves have not yet been shifted too much.
7. Thus, the second effect has its origins in our thoughts. Typically such effects occur above the waist, along the spine, neck, and head. This is related to the fact that nerve bundles propagate through the spine and cranial nerves in the brain. Thus “Kundalini awakening” is an example of this category.
- This effect is experienced by meditators somewhat differently. But the dominant feature is the “pressure waves” that arise above the waist and are typically located around the spine, neck, throat, and head. These have been attributed to energy centers or “chakras” in Kundalini awakening; see “Kundalini.”
- That is why they say that the kundalini energy is “uncoiled” (or “awakened”) during meditation. But this is nothing more than the out-of-balance nervous systems returning to equilibrium. In anariya meditations, there is not much further cleansing possible. To proceed further, one needs to comprehend the anicca nature of this world.
8. In Buddhist or Ariya meditations, one should start contemplating the anicca nature when one starts bodily sensations. Body sensations indicate that the mind is beginning to affect the body and has progressed in cleansing. Of course, those Hindu yogis who got to this stage had prevented immoral acts and suppressed such thoughts and thus had gained tranquility of mind, at least temporarily.
- But if one does not permanently cleanse one’s mind with the comprehension of the true nature of this world (anicca, dukkha, anatta), such corrections are temporary. They can go right back to the contorted positions. Thus one may experience such effects to varying degrees.
9. When one starts comprehending the anicca nature, this “unwinding process” can accelerate (and the body sensations too). This is when one may start feeling significant or mild discomfort.
- If the body is “out-of-alignment,” the realignment process can lead to different types of sensations; some may be mild, but some could be even a bit painful.
10. Many people experience sweating, which is part of the “cleansing process.” Our defiled thoughts lead to the generation of “impurities” in various body sites. The pure citta generated in meditation can burn them, and the body will eliminate the waste via sweat. Thus sweating is also possible during a good meditation session (in the early stages of progress; of course, all these go away eventually).
- Another symptom is becoming thirsty during a good session; the mouth can dry. It is good to keep a glass of water close if that is the case.
- By the way, one can move around even while in a jhāna. When one cultivates the jhāna, one can open eyes and not be bothered by it. I can confirm that. Those who have abhiññā powers are said to be able to do regular work while using abhiññā powers.
- For example, a famous story in the Tipiṭaka describes how Ven. Chullapanthaka had created a thousand copies of himself with abhiññā powers, and how they were all sweeping the temple premises.
11. Here is another experience that I have heard people describe according to my teacher Thero’s recorded desanas:
- “Something propagated from the neck area to the top of the head and stayed there during the session. This happened during subsequent sessions too”. Such a “propagation” is probably more like a “pressure wave.” This is another “kundalini type” effect.
- When these “pressure waves” is strong, they may also be painful. But be rest assured that those effects will gradually go away as one continues when the nervous system comes back to equilibrium. However, if such sensations persist outside the mediation session, it may be a good idea to go for a medical examination since it could be due to a medical condition.
12. There is a way to reduce these sensations to some extent. My teacher Thero suggested this in a desana that I listened to. Even if one meditates with the eyes closed (as most people should do in the early stages), the eyeballs inside the eyelids are in constant motion; they move around a lot.
- One should try to focus the eyes on the nose area. The eyeballs keep steady, pointing towards the nose. In my case, it stopped most of the sensations in the head. Eventually, these sensations go away once one attains “equilibrium.” Then one can proceed even with the eyes open but focused on the nose/mouth area.
- I do not have any “pressure waves” in the throat area; recently, those in the head area also disappeared. Some of these effects had been there for the past year and a half.
- Getting to the first Ariya jhāna means one has reached the Anāgāmi stage, where one loses desire for all sense pleasures (i.e., transcend kāma loka). See #9 of “Power of the Human Mind – Ariya Jhānā.”
13. Our thoughts or our “cittaja kāya” are the most important of the four types of “kāya” that we have. For a discussion of those four types of bodies, see “Āhāra (Food) in Udayavaya Ñāna,” in the Section: Udayavaya Nana.
- As discussed, our physical bodies (karaja kāya) that we value so much are there only for about 100 years, while our human bhava or human existence can last many hundreds of years. The other three types of bodies of kāya that we have are kammaja kāya, cittaja kāya, and utuja kāya. All three of these prevail throughout the whole human bhava (of course, they undergo constant change); they make a “big transition” when a new bhava is grasped at the cuti-patisandhi moment).
- And it is this cittaja kāya (or our thought stream) that is the most important. If we use the cittaja kāya wisely, we can progress in our mundane lives and pursue Nibbāna. We will discuss this in detail in the last post on the Udayavaya Ñāna in an upcoming post.
14. The critical point here is that if one starts feeling these body sensations, one has cleansed the mind to the point of being able to comprehend anicca, dukkha, anatta (or any other Dhamma concept) with more ease; see, “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart,” and the post discussed there.
- At this stage (i.e., when feeling thirst, sweating, body sensations, etc.), one is likely to be somewhere around “9. Key to Ānāpānasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gati)” in the meditation section.
- Of course, it is also possible that one could have already comprehended anicca, dukkha, and anatta and attained the Sotāpanna stage without any such symptoms. Each person needs to decide for themselves; see “How Does One Know whether the Sotāpanna Stage is Reached?“. The fundamental guide is whether one has removed those “apäyagami gati” via cleansing the mind. The physical body may or may not give the clues we discussed above.
- For attaining magga phala, jhānā are not necessary. Furthermore, Ariya jhānā cannot be attained without attaining at least the Sotāpanna stage first; see “11. Magga Phala and Ariya Jhanas via Cultivation of Saptha Bojjhaṅga“.
- Mental (and associated physical) phenomena are highly personal. Thus above discussed symptoms may or may not be experienced by a particular person.