I spend a lot of time meditating. This document captures why and how I meditate.
Why do I meditate?
I meditate because it feels good. Very good - better than any other alteration of consciousness I’ve experienced. Most times I do it, I get a feeling better than any drug or other experience I’ve had. Some words I’d use to describe it include euphoria, bliss, rapture, and energetic awareness. There is also a period immediately following the end of the meditation where I have a wonderful stillness and clarity of thought that I enjoy for 5-10 minutes.
In addition to the joy inherent in meditation, it is also useful for realizing certain truths about the nature of reality and your mind. For example, it’s much easier to intuitively understand the relationship between desire and suffering when both are absent.
I will describe the type of meditation that I have found most useful - concentration meditation. There are many types of meditation and I will describe the most interesting one to me.
The claims above are bold. A healthy dose of skepticism is warranted for statements like this. To the skeptics, I suggest that you try and verify my claims for yourself. I have done enough research here to realize that this is nowhere near a unique experience and there are some neuroscientific bases for these phenomena. I am first and foremost a scientist in this endeavour. I’m merely describing the experiences I have and how they got them. Based on my research, I believe that anyone can have these experiences.
I’m also not ascribing any deeper meaning to these experiences - ethically or spiritually. I say this because often when talking about meditation, people make various spiritual claims about these experiences. While it just so happens that Buddhism is the tradition that has explored this the furthest (and I’ll be referencing connections to Buddhism for context), there is nothing about these experiences that is religious or requires believing something in absence of the evidence. While I believe that such experiences may enable people to more easily realize certain truths about the world, these experiences in themselves don’t generate those insights.
How do I meditate?
I sit up straight in my office chair. I close my eyes, relax my muscles, and lightly rest my hands together in my lap. I then focus on my breath. Usually I’ll start by concentrating on the sensations around the tip of the nose, but I’ll also take in other sensations involved in breathing. Thoughts of various kinds will try and intrude. Sometimes they feel “in the foreground” and loud, and other times they’re a lot more subtle. Whenever I notice a thought capturing my attention, I’ll return to the breath.
Prolonged concentration on the breath generates some very strange sensations - visual phenomena, feelings in the body, and otherwise. When those arise, I’ll try and integrate these sensations into the things I’m paying attention to, while maintaining a primary focus on the breath. At some point, these sensations become far too powerful to ignore, and at that point I shift to making them the primary focus of my attention. The most important thing here is that the focus is on sensations rather than thinking.
That’s it! I just focus attentions on sensory inputs rather than thoughts, starting with the breath and then shifting towards whatever sensations that appear.
What is a typical meditation like?
For the first 2 minutes, there are no noticeable changes in my state of consciousness. The breath initially feels normal, and thoughts come and go and are quite “loud”. At this point I’m slightly more relaxed than usual as I’ve purposely relaxed my muscles. I see what I normally see when I close my eyes: a dark purple color with a bit of red “static” over it. The names of colors don’t fit perfectly with the colors I see, but I’ll use them anyways as they are fairly similar.
At approximately 2 minutes (give or take 1 minute) I start to see very faint moving light green blobs, which I’ll refer to as phosphenes. The visual cortex starts to generate its own imagery. These blobs originate from the edges of the visual field and move inwards towards a small dark circle in the center where they disappear1. This cycle happens every 3-4 seconds. An analogous sight is moving backwards through a striped tunnel. These blobs slowly get stronger and lighter over time. If I get too excited or focus too much on the phosphenes, they become weaker or disappear. I maintain this focus on the breath for several minutes.
I’m now 5-8 minutes in. The phosphenes have become stronger - the light green blobs have become very light. During various meditations, at this point I’ve experienced several different types of visual experiences.
The most common experience is that the blobs will just continue to grow stronger or maintain their strength. This is what happens most of the time.
One type of experience is that the dark circle into which the moving blobs collapse grows larger and gets filled with a dark blue which is deeper and stronger in color than the purple that normally fills the background. The inward moving blobs keep appearing but disappear on the edges of the expanded center. Sometimes, that center will expand to occupy all of the visual field and assume a sky-blue color. Other times, that center will have reddish outlines appear in the center. Most of these outlines aren’t of anything recognizable, but sometimes these are of people or objects. Some of these objects are also nonsensical. These outlines appear and disappear at the same speed as the blobs, except these are “scanned” over from right to left or top to bottom. This experience causes quite a bit of agitation and discomfort in the eyes. It’s tempting to try and “glance” at these objects by moving the eyes, which probably strains the eye muscles.2
Despite these visual changes, I have noticed that it’s still important to focus on the breath and to not pay much attention to thoughts. If I let the mind wander or think too many thoughts, these visual sensations will weaken or disappear. I cannot get to these altered states by willing myself into them, but they come if I provide the opportunity and space for them to arise.
Along with these visual sensations, there are also changing feelings within the body. There is a subtle pleasure caused by the muscles becoming very still and relaxed. In addition, the mind tends to be fairly quiet at this time. It’s not entirely devoid of thought, but the thoughts are much less quiet and are more “in the background” than usual. The breath feels very soft and faint at this stage. For the first few times I felt this, I thought I might be forgetting to breath or something like that, so I took a few deep breaths. These too felt shallow and faint, so I suspect that this has something to do with the perception of the breath rather than the breath being shallow. However, I haven’t ever felt like I needed to breath more, so I usually just let this be.
Time also tends to feel slower around this stage. In order to accurately gauge the passage of time for these steps, a few times I’ve used an online stopwatch with intermediate times and pressed the space bar on my keyboard whenever I experienced significant changes.
At about 10-12 minutes in, the peak of the experience comes. If I continue focusing on the breath, I’ll suddenly see very bright colors. It either appears as extremely bright blobs or an extremely bright solid light. Usually these colors are bright green or blue, but one time I saw the colors inverted - dark purple blobs on a bright greenish-white background. Sometimes the blobs deviate from their tunnel-like pattern to swirl around like a whirlpool or scan from top to bottom or left to right. Sometimes they don’t emanate from the edges, but from other parts of the visual field.
This coincides with an extreme feeling of wellbeing, joy, and contentment. The bodily manifestation of these feeling seems to emanate in my stomach and chest - it almost feels like a pleasant tightness and warmth of these areas. In the mind, the feelings are very exiting and pleasant, and totally devoid of any thought or feeling that is negative. There is also no boredom or thought in this state - my mind has totally been enveloped by this feeling. I also feel totally energetic during those moments, and muscles tense up. I most often notice my toes, hands, or neck becoming very tense.
This peak lasts about 2 minutes, at which point it begins to calm down. The feeling of contentment and wellbeing is there, but the visuals calm down, as does the energy. It’s similar to the experience before the peak but with mild pleasant background feeling. At this point, I usually come out of the meditation a minute or two later.
When I open my eyes, I notice a few interesting things. Usually the colors are brighter and more vivid than they usually are, with a color shift towards blue. It’s easy to perceive the totality of the visual field instead of individual objects - kind of like looking at a picture of what I’m seeing rather than the collection of objects that I usually see. My state of consciousness is also altered at this point. There is an energy and awareness that I usually don’t have, and also an imperturbability of emotion. I can think of things that usually stress me out or cause me to worry without feeling any emotional affect. The level of thought is also very low at this point, and there is a strong feeling of contentment, as if the world is perfect the way it is. This altered state of consciousness fades over the course of about 2 minutes, until things pretty much return to normal.
What is going on here?
My educated opinion is that somehow concentration meditation triggers the same neurological mechanisms behind many types of drug experiences. Meditation is the most developed path to doing this, but it is not exclusive to meditation. In fact, before I had even heard of meditation, I had triggered very similar states through other means when I was 11 years old (I’ll describe this more below.) In addition, I experience the same visual phenomena (but not the joy) when going to sleep or half asleep. I suspect that many people have had similar experiences before. I also suspect that a major reason behind the foundation of Buddhism was the discovery and development of these practices.
After I had my first very strong experience in late May 2020, I searched out accounts of this phenomena.
This type of meditation is called jhāna in Pāli. After this experience I went on the hunt for materials documenting similar experiences. I had remembered a book that I had bought in 2011 called Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond. At the time that I bought it and first read it, I had experienced I guessed I must have skimmed over the parts where he describes the jhānas assuming that this was an experience inaccessible to me without an unattainable amount of practice or that the author was exaggerating such states.
The other person which I came across which describes the experiences I’ve had perfectly is Leigh Brasington. I came across his website when I searched “nimitta”, a term that I had discovered in the Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond book. He talks about how the phosphenes/nimitta might be the result of disinhibition in the visual cortex..
I then found this video of a lecture he gave at the University of Virginia. This was the first time I had heard these experiences described from a primarily secular point of view and I was shocked to see how much of what he described matched my own experiences. I haven’t had a chance to fully explore his work, but I plan to do so and start a correspondence with him.
Other ways of accessing these states
There are other ways besides meditation that you can access the same experience. I had a similar experience when I was 11 years old before I had heard about meditation.
I was on the internet a lot during those days in my spare time and somehow became interested in two esoteric concepts: binaural beats and lucid dreaming.
Binaural beats are an auditory illusion where you have two different tones playing in each ears, and you perceive a periodic shift in volume. In the mid 2000s, there were many claims that these could reduce stress and improve concentration through “brainwave entrainment”. I have no idea if this is true, but I believe them to just be a nice sound like a ringing bell. Anyhow, at the time, I did believe in some of these claims, so I would listen to these beats and see what happened. It was at this time that I first saw phosphenes, and the phosphenes were pretty much the same as the ones I described above - a tunnel like effect of greenish white bands going from the outside to a point in the middle of the visual field, on a background of dark purple. I recall it being slightly different back then, with a more well defined banding pattern. I often saw these with my eyes closed, but after a while I also noticed I could see these with my eyes open if I was in a sufficiently relaxed state, even without listening to the binaural beats. In addition, I remember being able to trigger the field of solid greenish-white light along with a bodily sensation of bliss during times I was extremely relaxed. The two times I remember were in a car passing the time and one time when sunbathing.
I also became interested in lucid dreaming - who wouldn’t want to control their dreams? I read on a forum that it was possible to go into a lucid dream using binaural beats, so I tried to listen to binaural beats while going to sleep and see if I could do it. I laid down. I saw the phosphenes like normal, then the outline of objects. However, the objects became more detailed, more stable, and more recognizable to the point where a stable scene arose. I recall investigating a few of the objects, then relaxing, and then sometime later observed myself appearing in a room with many doors. I realized at that point that I was dreaming and entered into a lucid dream. I then got very excited and tried to fly. However, I tried jumping but alas didn’t fly. Several seconds later, I woke up. I have never managed to fall into a lucid dream like that again, but would have 4-5 more lucid dreams in my life with varying degrees of control and length.
Given that I discovered this phosphene experience without intending to, it seems likely to me that a lot of people have also discovered these phenomena and that it is something accessible by almost everyone.