Question: I started meditating about four months ago in an attempt to manage law school stress. I’ve set my practice (imperfectly) to 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night. I’ll cut to the chase: I see intense, vibrant shapes and patterns when I meditate. My closed-eye visuals range from undulating tapestries and planetary orbs to certain repeat-player animal shapes to light tunnels.
I wasn’t surprised by this because ever since I was little I’ve experienced these types of visuals – particularly bright colored, elaborate tapestries – pretty much whenever I close my eyes. Perhaps it bears mentioning that I remember this occurring way before any college-age drug experimentation took place.
Anyway, I just assumed everyone had this, that it was some sort of blood-in-the-retina situation with a very dry scientific explanation. However, when I casually mentioned one of my recently reoccurring visions (of Saturn – and no, I’m not into astrology) to a friend who also meditates, her reaction alarmed me. She seemed dumbfounded. Upon further investigation, I fast learned that the vast majority of people don’t experience anything like this. So my question to you is: what is going on? Is there an explanation? Thanks!!
Jay: I remember having something similar when I was a kid. When I closed my eyes, I would see almost like a movie playing in what was distinctly a small, framed screen. It reminded me of a wrestling ring because you would only see the small lighted, square area in the middle of darkness.
These visions are fascinating in a way, aren’t they? Also, discovering that other people don’t experience them, there is a sense of being special and unique, which is probably added to by the fact that the experiences are private. They’re inside me where other people can’t see them, even if they wanted to.
You asked if there is an explanation. Many people ask if these experiences have any meaning. You didn’t ask that specifically.
I’m sure there is a neurological explanation. But if you want to find out if there is any value in these experiences, even if it’s just entertainment, I think you will need to take some time to stick with it and see what happens. I imagine that these visual images occur most strongly when you can be still and are not putting additional information into the brain, meaning you aren’t reading, watching TV, listening to music, talking to people. Meditation usually involves “unplugging” from these loud, external inputs in order to be able to hear what is happening inside more subtly.
If you can give yourself a little more time of doing this, you can watch what happens when the nervous system gets a good, refreshing holiday from constant input. You can find out what happens if the visioning is given enough chance to do what it needs to do.
You might also observe what other kind of sensory awareness there is when the visions are going on. Does the watching of the visions prevent you from feeling the weight of the body on the chair or floor, the small sounds around you, the feel of air on the skin? Or can all of this – which is actually present, just not usually noticed – be experienced as well as the visions?
There is a great deal that becomes noticeable when we take enough time to quietly listen. In fact, there is a whole wide world that may eventually become noticeable. The usual boundaries that we live in can start to fade and open up, become transparent, so that we feel our interconnectedness with everything around us, not abstractly or intellectually, but directly, right here.
Sitting still is probably helpful for destressing from law school studies. Part of destressing is the nervous system sort of throwing off random overload in the form of sensations, visions, dreams, etc. But there is also this possibility of opening more deeply to what we are, beyond what we know and what we control. If you have extra time to devote to this deep listening without knowing, you may find that it is bottomless.
If you have some additional questions or if I haven’t been very clear about something, please feel free to write back.
Questioner: Thank you, Jay, for your thoughtful and thorough response. Thank you also for sharing your own unique childhood experience with closed-eye visuals. I will continue to sit. Perhaps my practice will help me to shatter the illusion of my separateness and cultivate an experience of interconnectedness. I imagine that this would be very comforting, and intensely practical too. The visuals remain something of a mystery to me, and that’s okay. Mysteries are comforting as well.
Jay: I’m glad to hear back from you. Yes, so much is really a mystery. I have found that things that need to reveal themselves will, eventually, if they are given enough open space and are left alone. But you will find your own way with this if you have the chance to sit regularly.
As for the interconnectedness, the amazing thing that can be discovered if you persist with this is that it’s here all the time. Just that our way of perceiving and filtering information usually blocks it out. It’s not a result of looking at things a certain way or of holding onto a certain perspective. It’s more accurate to say that undividedness is revealed when the patterns of thinking that create a sense of isolation give way. It’s like the sun shining through when the clouds part. It’s obvious the sun was there all the time. It wasn’t created by somebody parting the clouds.
Since most of the time we don’t see things that way, it can be very helpful to make a careful and compassionate study of how the sense of isolation and separateness works. How it functions, how it feels, the thoughts behind it, the fears and concerns behind it. Since the sense of separation is nearly always with us, this study can be done all the time. Since this affects not only us individually but nearly every human being nearly all the time, this careful observation is not just for our own personal benefit but for everyone’s.
The interesting thing is that this kind of interest in the inner workings of the mind and the kind of transparency – meaning a willingness to observe oneself honestly – is already the working of the undivided mind. The mind that is not trying to defend and hide itself from the light of observation but rather is interested in the observable truth, no matter what that brings. It’s like the action of the sun warming the clouds and starting to melt them. The sun is still invisible but it is functioning behind the scenes, in the dark.
As a law student, you may be interested in the concept of justice. Most negotiations between people – including the system of law that regulates our negotiations as individuals and as a society – are based on what I want versus what you want. Even what is considered to be justice is still what society wants versus what an individual wants. It can be a good question to ask if there is any possibility of interaction between people that is not based on the power play of me versus you.
You didn’t say where you go to law school. I kept thinking of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I went to undergrad, where I first learned about meditation and where one of my best friends went to law school. If you are in the east part of the country, I can highly recommend the Springwater Center in western NY as a good place to go to an extended retreat in a non-traditional, open setting that allows you to find your own way. There are many very experienced meditators that attend retreats there.
Questioner: Thank you Jay. I am at Fordham Law School in New York. I recently began researching possible meditation retreats in my area but had nothing much to go on. Your endorsement of the Springwater Center is very welcome indeed. So thank you.
Your thoughts on our adversarial system of law are very interesting. There are movements in the law now that aim to bring a more collaborative spirit to conflict resolution. I am attracted to these movements. I can see now that my decision to apply to law school in my early thirties was primarily fear and ego driven. Ironically, however, it is law school that has brought me closer to becoming who I really am. The combined stress of being steeped in the ‘what I want v. what you want’ along with some painful events that have occurred in my life recently is what brought me to a practice of meditation and yoga. The world that unfolds before me when i quieten enough – this undivided mind source you speak of – is what is keeping me open and willing right now.
Thank you for your thoughts, and for your kindness.