Altered states in meditation

A friend of mine gave me A Path with Heartmany years ago now. I was thinking about how he not only gave me this book, but also a book by Cheri Huber that led me to There is nothing wrong with youMore recently he gave me the wonderful CD set, Awakening Compassion by Pema Chodron. He’s been a great friend and gives really good gifts as you can see! I’m so grateful for such special people in my life. A Path with Heart and There is nothing wrong with you were both formative pieces of literature for my spiritual journey and planted seeds that took off much later, really. Those books are part of my foundation of strength now. Thank you to my dear friend Jeff!

I would like to add a couple of thoughts to the below excerpt from A Path with Heart. Altered states of the sort that Jack Kornfield is talking about below can also be immensely aided by body oriented practices. I think that movement and body practices have been under-utilized in spiritual circles, though that is now changing as trauma informed practices become understood. I have found yoga very helpful and also ecstatic dance. I’ve started calling ecstatic dance my self-directed body work because it’s so good at getting deep holding patterns in the body and creating releases that can then be mindfully observed as Jack Kornfield suggests. These practices have become vitally important to me and are one of the cornerstones of my healing process.

An excerpt from A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield

path-with-heartThe third principle in working with altered states can be called Awareness of the Dance. When such experiences arise, the practitioner’s primary responsibility is to open to the experience with a full awareness, observing and sensing it as part of the dance of our human life.

We may become frightened by altered states, so that as they arise we resist and judge them: “My body is dissolving.” “I have prickles all over.” “I’m burning up.” “I’m too cold.” “The sounds are too loud.” “My senses are too intense.” “I cannot tolerate the many inner pains or waves of energy.” Through fear, aversion, and misunderstanding, we can struggle with them for a long time, trying to avoid them, change them, get through them, or make them go away, and this very resistance will keep us caught in them.

Yet just as in beginning meditation we can learn to touch the pains and tension of the physical body with a healing and compassionate attention without resistance or grasping, so too the frightening and difficult altered states that arise can be met with the same compassionate and balance attention. Just as in the beginning practice we learn to notice the seductive voices of the waiting mind without getting entangled, so too must we bring that balance awareness to the sweet and powerful seduction of rapture, lights, and visionary experiences.

Our grasping or resistance to any experience stops our practice in that spot, stops our opening to the truth. One student had great fear of the sense of empty space that came to her in meditation, thinking she would lose herself, go crazy, or be unable to function. She spent two years resisting it, until in one guided meditation she finally let herself open to the fear and the space. It was marvelous. Her mind quieted, her heart softened, and her meditation opened to a new level of peace and ease.

As we encounter new experiences with a mindful and wise attention, we discover that one of three things will happne to our new experience: it will go away, it will stay the same, or it will get more intense. Whichever happens does not really matter. When we expand our practice to notice whatever states arise and our reactions to them, we can make them all a part of the dance. A great support for this perspective in practice is the tool we have worked with in naming the demons. Now we can consciously name the altered states as well, “rapture, rapture,” or “vision, vision,” as a way of acknowledging what is present, noticing it, and calling it by its true name. The moment we can say its name and create space for this experience to arise and pass, thee comes a sense of trust in the process. We are reconnected with the understanding that seeks not to capture an experience, we open to what Alan Watts once called “the wisdom of insecurity,” the wisdom of the ages.

A path with heart brings us to experience the phenomenal world in all of its infinite richness, to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think, and to find freedom and greatness of heart in the center of it all. Because each of us as a human flower will open in our own unique way in our own particular cycles, we need not direct the specific energies of our body and heart. Our path is neither to desire them nor fear them. The true path is one of letting go.

When we cultivate spaciousness, faith, and a broad perspective, we can move through all states and discover in them a timeless wisdom and a deep and loving heart.

This excerpt is taken from the book, “A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life

Also from A Path with Heart, another post on Beyond Meds:  Loving-kindness (metta) meditation

Remember too that meditation can be challenging at times and it’s good to be aware of what those challenges might be: Meditation, not all bliss and roses

Often it’s important to learn to skillfully be with the dark emotions as well:


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