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Barbara O'Brien

Visions and Hallucinations

By November 4, 2012

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We may think that only "crazy" people have hallucinations, but that's not true. Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, writes in the New York Times that hallucinations are common and not necessarily a symptom of something wrong with us.

Hallucinations are a sensory perception without stimulus. In other words, your brain is creating a sight or sound or odor without being stimulated by something "out there" to see, hear or smell. Western culture dismisses such experiences as a sign something is wrong, but that ain't necessarily so.

The fact is, all of our sensory experiences are being created in our brains and nervous systems. The way things appear to us, including color and depth; the way sounds "sound" to us, are effects our bodies create in response to objects and sound waves.  A being of another species, one with with very different neurological wiring and sensory capabilities, might be right next to us but perceiving an entirely different world.

If we understand sensory experience this way, it isn't so much of a leap to understand that sometimes, without external stimulation, our neurons fire or twitch or whatever neurons do to send signals to the brain to create a sight or sound.

Professor Sacks writes that people who are losing their sight or hearing are prone to visual and auditory hallucinations. He explained to an elderly lady who was "seeing things" that "if the visual parts of the brain are deprived of actual input, they are hungry for stimulation and may concoct images of their own."

Isn't it interesting that a sense organ can be "hungry"? In his teachings on the Five Skandhas, the Buddha taught that our senses, perceptions, and consciousness are all empty of a "self" that lives in our bodies and coordinates the show.  And no, consciousness is not "in charge" any more than our noses. The experience of a self is something our bodies re-create from moment to moment.

But back to hallucinations. The question is, should we take hallucinations seriously as "visions," or should we ignore them? Theravada and Zen teachers usually will tell you to not attach significance to them. That's not exactly the same as ignoring them, because it may be that your neurons are trying to tell you something. But that "something" may be pretty mundane -- you're getting sleepy, or you need to adjust your posture.

There's an often-told Zen story about a new monk who sought out his teacher and said, 'Master! I was meditating just now and saw the Buddha!"

"Well, don't let him bother you," the Master replied. "Just keep meditating, and he'll go away."

The "lesson" is that often in our desire to have some transcendent mystical experience, our brains conjure up what we are longing for -- the Buddha, or the Blessed Virgin, or the face of Jesus on a cheese sandwich. These are projections of our grasping nature and our delusions.

Teachers tell us that the deeper dhyanas and enlightenment itself cannot be compared to any kind of sensory experience. My first Zen teacher used to say that if any student tried to describe samadhi by saying "I saw..." or "I felt..." -- it wasn't samadhi.

On the other hand, I do think that once in a great while our neurons send us a signal that is coming from a deeper wisdom, something out of reach of ordinary consciousness. It may be very subtle, just a feeling, or a quickly glimpsed "vision" that has some personal significance. If this ever happens, just accept it and honor whatever the experience communicates, and then let it go. Don't make a Big Deal out of it or "enshrine" it in any way, or the gift will turn into a hindrance.

In some Buddhist traditions there are stories about enlightened masters who develop psychic or other supernatural powers. I'd personally be inclined to understand such stories as fables or allegories, but I realize some of you will disagree. The early texts, such as the Pali Tipitika, give us stories of monks like Devadatta who practiced for the sake of developing supernatural powers and came to a bad end. So even if some enlightened teachers do develop "powers" -- and I'm not saying they do -- such powers are a side effect, not the point.

Although I've been talking about hallucinations as normal experience, don't forget that they can be a sign of real neurological issues that need medical attention. Sensory hallucinations often accompany migraine headaches and seizures. Karen Armstrong, a scholar of religion whose books I like, for years experienced phases of visual distortions, often accompanied by the smell of sulfur. Eventually she was diagnosed with temporal epilepsy.

On the other hand, on long meditation retreats hallucinations can be pretty ordinary. I think most of the time this is a "sensory deprivation" effect, often accompanied by fatigue. Hours of sitting still, resting your eyes on a floor or wall, and your hungry eyes may want to entertain themselves.

In my earlier Zen student days I learned  that it was remarkably easy, if I concentrated on it, to give myself the sensation of floating above the meditation pillow. This was true even though I knew good and well I wasn't really floating, but I could entertain myself by "pretend floating" when I was getting tired or bored.  Needless to say, this is not a recommended Zen practice. I'm just mentioning it to illustrate that sometimes even strong hallucinations have absolutely no spiritual significance.

I also think that sometimes, when your concentration is getting stronger, the parts of your brain creating sight and other sensation become quieter, or something. You might "see" the floor move or the wall melt. If that happens, don't stop at that point to enjoy the "show," but keep concentrating.

The moral is, "visions" do happen, sort of, but they're something like the scenery along the spiritual path, not the path itself. Don't stop to admire them. And, anyway, in a way it's all a hallucination.


November 5, 2012 at 8:58 am
(1) David says:

On my first ever sesshin I remember hallucinating a bit during the evening meditation when the zendo lights were low. I saw the floor and the edge of the bench in front of me through my slitted eyes, and the wood grain patterns and the bench’s shadow somehow took on the form of part of a sandy beach. All the time I knew where I in fact was, but I did have the sensation of sitting on a beach somewhere. Some kind of distortion of depth perception was part of it. Eventually I got some instruction about this kind of thing–don’t have a conversation with any patterns your brain generates. As Barbara says, don’t stop to admire the scenery. Maybe I saw a beach in order to escape the strictures of remaining in strict meditation posture for the umpteenth hour of that day. But I subsequently learned just to squint harder when stuff like that happens and block out the patterns.

November 5, 2012 at 9:22 am
(2) Mila says:

Fascinating topics …. I haven’t read him in a while, but love the work of Oliver Sacks. In relation to –

“The experience of a self is something our bodies re-create from moment to moment.”

– I might venture to suggest that the experience of self includes the “experience of our bodies” (via the form skandha?) which also is “re-created from moment to moment.”

For instance, the experience of “having a physical body” is something that disappears every night, when our waking-world body is seemingly replaced by a dream-body, and then — in deep sleep — where there is no body-experience at all.

November 5, 2012 at 9:34 am
(3) Lee says:

I spent many years looking for some ‘experience’ … Christian preachers talked about God talking to them … and I wondered why God didn’t talk to me… once in buddhist training I waited for a good hallucination; some kind of message or voice or thing that would confirm for me that I too ‘was special’.. enlightenment would have been good. Something to ‘know’.
luckily my practice was mundane for years … as Suzuki described it ‘walking in the fog’ … I wondered why I wasn’t ‘blessed’ like so many others as I heard many stories of people having ‘experiences’ from all types of religions. God seemingly talked with many people but not me… and I was sooo serious and sincere too. Today I realize how lucky I have been… if I’d had such an experience surely I would have grabbed onto it … and known I’d realized ‘truth’ and become an enlightened preacher froze in place or I’d be working on recreating the experience … I’ve learned to bow and let god talk with the preachers so they can control their flocks … i’ll sit and tend my bonsai trees. (that is not to say that later in training I have not had some remarkable experiences; I’m just lucky they didn’t occur early in the process.)

November 6, 2012 at 10:58 am
(4) cl says:

Aside from the ‘ghost cave’ phenomena which I believe is associated with zen sitting (which I do not practice), my experience with hallucinations have been experienced in a variety of contexts (ie. plant-based phenomena, mundane ones due to sleepiness, nervousness etc….) However, I can say that in daimoku practice, the more obvious occurence would be auditory hallucinations. There are a lot of under/over tones that merge and blend with one another whether one is alone or one is in a large auditorium when chanting assiduously. Besides these ‘notes’ produced, there are also percussive sounds, not unlike the striking of the hand-held taiko drums used for keeping time in many Nichiren(shu) sects. The other thing is, I’m never really sure if we as a society really define what we perceive as ‘hallucinations’ correctly. It seems that much of what we experience are simply ‘disturbances’ amidst the constant hum of samsaric existence. In any case, you have me interested in Sacks’ book now.



November 6, 2012 at 2:06 pm
(5) Jean says:

I have deteriorating vision. Several years ago I meditated after walking around looking at Christmas lights in the neighborhood. I saw lights floating above my gray rug & they would not go away except when I closed my eyes. When I opened them, the lights were back. For months I also often saw musical scores in the same way that changed too fast for me to read the music, but I could tell it was classical. Over the course of months this gradually stopped. The hallucinations during meditation are never very clear because I don’t wear my glasses so my mind only shows me blurry hallucinations. Every year at Christmas I wait for the Christmas hallucinations to return but so far they haven’t.

November 7, 2012 at 12:18 am
(6) hein says:

does ghost exist or is it hallucination
it appears some people – i am not one – has the ability to ‘see’ or ‘sense’ ghosts
i take faith in the Buddha’s teaching that there are hungry ghost though i has not seen one
in the meantime i am still amazed – when observing the mind – at the ‘games’ the mind play and my awareness thereof.

November 7, 2012 at 8:44 am
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein — what do you mean by “exist”?

November 7, 2012 at 12:47 pm
(8) Dan Garner says:

‘Master! I was meditating just now and saw the Buddha!”

“Well, don’t let him bother you,” the Master replied. “Just keep meditating, and he’ll go away.”

I love it.

Dan @ ZenPresence

November 9, 2012 at 2:19 pm
(9) George Deane says:

The great Hindu saint Ramakrishna was once asked by his chief disciple Vivekananda if he had ever seen God. Ramakrishna replied that he had seen God as clearly as he had seen Vivekananda standing right before him. As a devotee of the goddess Kali he stated on frequent occasions spoke to and was replied by her. He even saw her shedding tears. How about Saint Paul and other of Christ’s disciples who claimed to be accosted by Christ after his death. Mother Theresa said that she had conversed with God. 9 I don’t know what to make of these claims. Obviously the more ancient stories can be greeted in our time with a certain dose of skepticism, but Ramakrishna (died 1884) and mother Theresa is much closer to us in time and yet reports of these visions still haunt us. What to make of them? …Who knows.

November 10, 2012 at 8:47 am
(10) Lee says:

many people say god talked with them. that must give a person deep certainty of something to hold onto and believe in … in many cases a nice reassuring thing to have. One day several years ago with looming potential health and financial disaster approaching i felt bad… not really depressed but not really good either…tired. My daughter in law suggested i make use of a large bathtub and ‘take a break’… I thought ‘great idea’. I got up and looked at my alter and at my sitting place and thought … no I should sit. I got a stick of incense and lit it and bowed at the alter and put the incense in its place then thought “that was no bow.” it was just going through the motions. So I rebowed with a little more mindfullness. I walked over to my cushion and sat down on it and thought…”you don’t even have the respect for your sitting place to bow?” and i got up. I stood looking at my sitting place and sudeenly I was ‘grabbed’ by a force that was forcing my hands into gashho and forcing me to bow..internally i fought it…and i kept slowly steadily bowing till i was in one of the deepest bows i’d ever done and i stayed there for some time. when i rose back up i was scared! What had just happened. Nothing like that had ever happened. I thought I should call my teacher but instead I sat. When sitting was done i called my teacher and asked her “what is going on here?” “You know better than I.” Was this God, was this the devil, was this my psycho physical being teaching me how to really let go and bow? Depending upon who would interpret this it could be any of those things…however i say “that was the first time I ever really bowed .. it was the manifestation of training in that point in time.

November 11, 2012 at 9:49 am
(11) Mila says:

George — I’ve also been fascinated by such accounts …. In Autobiography Of A Yogi, for instance, Yogananda (even more of a contemporary than Ramakrishna) describes all variety of visions, hallucinations, seeing into subtle realms, etc. — capacities that seemed just naturally to manifest, as he progressed along his path.

What seems almost always to be the case is that the specifics of the “visions” accord with the particular tradition that one is aligned with. So for instance, Hindus have visions of Krishna, Buddhists of Avalokiteshvara, Christians of Jesus, etc. — which gives credence to the theory that such visions are conditioned, in a more or less direct way, by beliefs & practices that one has engaged with, within those traditions.

And nothing wrong with exercising our creative powers — the capacity of mind to emanate and gather, generate and dissolve, this or that form. And becoming adept at traversing the subtle realms can perhaps be useful, in certain instances, or simply enjoyable for some.

But important to remember, it seems to me, that subtle forms no less than gross (i.e. seemingly “material” or “physical”) forms are simply appearances, which — as dependently-arisen — are no more (or less) “real” than the appearances of a dream. And that the way to practice with such appearances — in the spirit of the “one taste” of equality — is to realize them all, ultimately, to be utterly beyond concept, perfectly pure & illusory. And en route to this understanding to resist the temptation to enter into attraction/repulsion dynamics with them.

November 11, 2012 at 9:50 am
(12) Mila says:

Here Longchenpa describes establishment in the nature of mind (aka Buddhahood) — to include relating to appearances (subtle or gross) like clouds dissolving into the sky, or salt dissolving in water:

“At the time of that meditation, from the mind’s sky-like freedom from emanation and gathering, apparent objects still appear; but since there is no conceptual grasping, these appearances are non-dual wisdom that does not perceive dualistic natures. Since there are neither meditation nor meditator [as separate “objects”], causes of action and their producer are liberated as they are. Dissolving mind and mental contents into space, we reach the space of the primordial nature. This is the goal, the nature of mind. This is abiding in self-existing realization, dharmakaya, buddhahood.”

February 11, 2013 at 7:15 am
(13) Lil says:

In visioning we succumb to the nature of all spiritual essence. The mandala (Buddhist) a key symbol also relates to biblical symbology and in Carl jungs psychological theories (this only an example of interrelation). True visions should be utilised and accepted, hence, the need to adopt to a universal law. And, in finding our true ‘self’ we divulge in a wholistic worldly life.

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