Let’s start with a little quiz. Imagine that you’re an Order member living near one of our centres, and you’ve taken a group of new mitras away for their first weekend retreat together. In the afternoon break, one of them comes up looking a little shaken, and asks if they can talk to you. They tell you about the meditation they had before lunch. How do you respond to each of the following?
1. I had a vision of a wrathful black deity. It looked like a picture I saw once in a book about Tibetan figures. What does it mean? What should I do about it?
2. In the meditation I had a lot of energy going up my body into my head. It felt like it was circulating there. It was especially strong around my left ear.
3. When you were leading the meditation I saw all this light around you. It was mainly white, but with blue patches.
4. I was sitting listening to the sounds in the distance, and then I sort of disappeared, and there were just the sounds, and it didn’t seem like they were ‘out there’ anymore.
To make the quiz simpler, let’s make the answers multiple-choice. So, in each case, do you:
a. Suspect that this person may have mental health problems, and encourage them not to meditate?
b. Recommend that they forget about the experience and carry on doing the practices as taught?
c. Tell them that the range of possible meditation experiences is very large; you personally haven’t had that kind of experience, but that such things are described both in Buddhist texts and in the accounts of experiences of other people in Triratna?
d. Offer to keep in contact with them about their practice and any experiences that they have, and say that if necessary you will put them in touch with other Order members who have more experience in this area?
e. Give them advice based on your own similar experiences?
I’ve given you this quiz because all the four meditative experiences I’ve described have been recounted to me by people in Triratna in recent months. They’re all a little out of the usual, but not that unusual. Over the years I’ve heard literally hundreds, if not thousands, of similar experiences. I’m using them to point to the fact that some people who are drawn to meditation and the Dharma will be of less common psycho-spiritual types, and despite our best intentions these people sometimes have a difficult time in our community.
The examples above illustrate four broad categories of experience that people may have. The first one is the imaginative and visionary. Certain people may have all kinds of symbolic or imaginal experiences – in dream, meditation or waking life. The second is the person who experiences very much in terms of energy. Their meditation naturally focuses on energy movements in the body. They may be sensitive to energy in the world around them as well. The third experience I’m using to represent the more intuitive or even psychic kind of person. They may ‘see’ auras or spirits, or feel that they are a bit telepathic, or that they tune into atmospheres, or just ‘know’ things without any obvious evidence. The last category consists of those who have mystical experiences, or even experiences of insight.
These four rough categories are broad cross-sections across a very rich territory of human experience. Some people will function in ways that include two or three of them. And, of course, these kinds of experience can often pop up in the practice of the most down-to-earth and rational of us. They aren’t the preserve of special people, nor do they make them special.
In this article I want to make a plea that in our community we look out for, and help in appropriate ways, those who are strongly imaginative and visionary, who work naturally with energy, who are intuitive or even psychic, or who have mystical experiences or experiences of insight. I’m moved to make this plea because over the years, again and again, I’ve come across people who fall into these categories, who felt that they were not related to in a helpful way when they first began talking about their experience to Order members. As a result, they may have spent a long time feeling isolated, or even as if there was something wrong with them.
So how about the responses I offered you?
a. Suspect that this person may have mental health problems, and encourage them not to meditate. Well, the occasional person who reports visions or unusual experiences may have some mental illness; we can’t rule that out. However, it shouldn’t be the first thing we think of when we’re confronted with someone recounting their unusual experience. The risk is that we may conflate the non-rational with the pathological, especially if we don’t have much experience of our own in this area.
This response can be very unhelpful. Someone may be inexperienced, and their practice may trigger an experience which is new to them. They come to you as an Order member looking for reassurance that all is well. They probably assume that, as someone who has been practising meditation and Buddhism for years, you must have had the kind of experience they are talking about. If your response is one of unease – on a spectrum from horrified anxiety because you’re worried that they may be mentally disturbed down to mild worry because, as an Order member, you feel you should be able to advise them but don’t know what to say – they may pick up on that, assume there is something the matter with them, and ‘go underground’ with their experience.
I have heard of this happening again and again, from people who sometimes struggled for years before they finally found their way to someone who could empathise and recount similar experiences of their own. I would really like this to change in our community, so that the needless level of suffering such people go through becomes a thing of the past.
b. Recommend that they forget about the experience and carry on doing the practices as taught. This ‘one size fits all’ approach to practice won’t serve someone very well if their natural approach to their experience is an imaginative, energetic, psychic or mystical one, although doing Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana certainly won’t do them any harm. Sometimes this advice is based on the idea that people shouldn’t be treated as special, as it may encourage them to hold onto their experiences in a precious way. However, without making a song and dance about it, it is important to acknowledge people’s experiences and their natural ways of approaching their experience. (And the fourth person I described, the one who had an experience while listening to sounds, may well have had a genuine insight, which shouldn’t be glossed over or dismissed because as a new practitioner they ‘can’t have had an insight experience’. Karma and its results being very complex and hard to know, we need to be open to the fact that experiences of Perfect Vision can occur to the most unlikely people and in the most unlikely circumstances.)
c. Tell them that the range of possible meditation experiences is very large; you personally haven’t had that kind of experience, but that such things are described both in Buddhist texts and in the accounts of experiences of other people in Triratna. This is much better, as it validates their experience. In the Buddhist scriptures and accounts of great practitioners from the time of the Buddha to the present day, you will find many accounts of the kind of experiences I’m talking about. If you read his memoirs and personal writings you’ll discover Sangharakshita having a vision of the Buddha Amitabha, smelling the scent of roses for no apparent reason, or having the distinct intuitive impression that at a particular spot in the old building he was visiting an important meeting had taken place many years earlier. So our teacher certainly has visionary and intuitive sides to him, as well as having had mystical and insight experiences. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t explored the energetic approach to practice so much. For instance, he told me a couple of years ago that, while living in India, he had avoided explorations in the area of kundalini. However, his writings on Buddhist Tantra explore it very much in terms of energy, including his reframing of the Five Precepts in energetic terms.
So this third answer normalises the questioner’s experience, which is helpful whether they are worried about their experience or treating themselves as special because of it. Fundamentally, I think that in helping people with the Dharma we should encourage them to have faith in the practice (and therefore in the experiences which are products of practice), and in their own minds. Being scared and anxious about what your mind may do as a result of your Dharma practice is a serious block to the unfolding of positive qualities. This confidence in what the mind produces under the right conditions is instilled in some traditions by talking in terms of buddha nature. As Sangharakshita has steered us away from speaking in those terms, we need to ensure we have other ways of giving people confidence in their own minds and their potential.
d. Offer to keep in contact with them about their practice and any experiences that they have, and say that if necessary you will put them in touch with other Order members who have more experience in this area. This could be a good follow-up to the previous answer. Kalyana mitrata builds confidence, and helps people to explore their experience freely, knowing that they have a safety net in the form of someone to talk to if things take an unexpected turn. It also means that, in the occasional case in which the unusual experience is a sign of mental instability, or the person is building some kind of unhelpful story around their experiences, you will know what is happening and have the opportunity to intervene if necessary.
Knowing that you don’t have to have all the answers but can pass the person on to someone with more experience of these things is also very helpful. In my article Insight – to Say or Not to Say? (Articles Shabda, May 2013), I mentioned that in some traditional sanghas people don’t make claims to insight, but there are informal networks of yogins and yoginis sharing their experiences, and it is well-known within those circles who is good at a particular practice or adept in dealing with certain types of experience. This is present to some extent within Triratna, but there are holes in our network, and it needs developing further.
In most professions there are ways of passing people who need help up a chain until they are in contact with someone who can give them what they need. If you are teaching meditation or guiding people in their Dharma practice in any way, it is worth asking yourself who you will pass people onto if they have experiences that are not in your area of expertise, or if they surpass you and need more advanced guidance. In the earlier days of Triratna, people could always be referred to Sangharakshita. Now that he has limited energy and availability, we need to make sure that others are fulfilling this role.
e. Give them advice based on your own similar experiences. If you can do this, then obviously this is the best answer. Of course, we need to be aware that each person is unique, and we can’t always take something that worked for us in similar circumstances and apply it to others. However, being able to speak from our own experience will always be the most helpful and reassuring response we can give. In order to be able to do that, we need to have explored our own experience, to have ventured into areas in which the rational mind is very much a bystander. Doing so will enrich our practice and make us more of a resource for helping those who have non-rational experiences of their own.
To sum up, some of those people drawn to meditation and Dharma will be those who naturally tend to non-rational experience, including the imaginative and visionary, the energetic, the psychic and the mystical. Such people are sometimes not met with much understanding, even by some Order members, and as a result can end up feeling isolated or that there is something the matter with them. Although in a small number of cases people describing these kinds of experiences may be mentally unstable, most are just atypical in their psycho-physical make-up. They may need guidance to help them find a way of practising that is appropriate to their temperament. It is helpful to reassure them that the kinds of experiences they are having are well-known both in Buddhist tradition and in the Order. If we are unable to guide them ourselves, it’s important that we are part of a network, so that we can pass them on to other Order members who can meet them on their own ground and ensure that their spiritual needs are met.
I really hope that we can do this, so that these individuals do not feel isolated or that there is something the matter with them, but easily find their place within our community, receive the help and guidance they need, and are able to contribute their rich experience to our sangha.