2. The Methodology of the Varieties of Contemplative Experience Study
The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE) is a mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges, as reported by Buddhist meditation practitioners (n = 60) and meditation experts (n = 32) in the West (Lindahl et al. 2017
). Through purposive sampling, male (57%) and female practitioners, equally distributed among Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhist lineages, were recruited to describe their meditation-related challenges, what they think caused them, how they and others interpreted them, and what remedies or responses were helpful or unhelpful for navigating them. Experts (meditation teachers and clinicians) were asked to describe meditation-related challenges they had witnessed in their students or clients, how they interpreted them, and what remedies or responses they suggested. A minority of meditation practitioners in the study reported a prior psychiatric history (32%) or a history of trauma (43%). They had a wide range of meditation expertise at the time of the interview. Some were still novice practitioners, while others were advanced practitioners with more than 10,000 cumulative hours, many of whom were themselves teachers in their own meditation communities. The semi-structured interview protocol aimed to differentiate the descriptions of the meditation practitioners’ challenges from interpretive frameworks, and, to facilitate this, participants were asked at the outset of the interview to recount their experiences without the use of tradition-specific terminology that serves as shorthand for, potentially, a range of experiences. In cases when practitioners initially employed tradition-specific terminology—for instance, by first describing ELSEs in terms of kundalini
, or rlung
—they were encouraged to attempt to present their experiences in descriptive terms and, later, to explain how they arrived at tradition-specific appraisals. A follow-up survey was also administered to practitioners to gather additional data on demographics, causality, influencing factors, and the effectiveness of remedies. The research methodology for this project was approved by the Brown University Institutional Review Board. For an additional description of the study methodology and demographics, see Lindahl et al.
The interviews were transcribed and coded for phenomenology (59 categories across 7 domains), influencing factors (26 categories across 4 domains), and criteria for differential diagnosis or determining the need for intervention (11 categories). Overall results for the phenomenology and influencing factors are reported in Lindahl et al.
), and the results of the differential diagnosis analysis are reported in Lindahl et al.
). In the original study, the phenomenology category “somatic energy” was used to capture a range of ELSEs and was operationalized as “a type of sensation moving throughout the body or throughout a body area described with language of vibration, energy, current, or other related metaphors”. Not included was any use of “energy” that referred exclusively either to an amount of strength, vitality, or arousal, or to metaphysical concepts in the absence of qualifying somatic phenomenology.2
This paper will use the term “energy-like somatic experiences” (ELSEs) throughout to highlight that “energy” was one of a range of metaphors and appraisals used by meditation practitioners and teachers.
ELSEs were the most commonly reported experience in the somatic domain, with 62% (42/68) of practitioners voluntarily describing them. Nearly half of the experts (16/33, 48%) interviewed also mentioned working with meditators reporting ELSEs.3
However, as with most other types of experiences documented in the VCE study, not everyone who reported an ELSE found it distressing or impairing, as some practitioners qualified for participation in the study on account of challenges in other domains. Some discussion of ELSEs among twelve Tibetan Buddhists practicing Tantric or Vajrayāna Buddhism was previously reported in Lindahl
). The following sections provide a comprehensive investigation of ELSEs in the context of the VCE study by: (1) Cataloguing the metaphors practitioners used when speaking about them; (2) Describing the co-occurring phenomenology associated with ELSEs; (3) Detailing their overall trajectories and impacts; (4) Identifying the factors that influenced their nature or trajectory; (5) Documenting how ELSEs were interpreted and appraised by practitioners, teachers, and specialists, such as doctors and therapists; and (6) Explaining how practitioners responded to them or managed them with particular remedies.
4. Co-occurring Phenomenology
ELSEs were not typically reported as occurring on their own as an isolated or circumscribed experience. Rather, multiple practitioners and teachers identified ELSEs as having caused, or otherwise been linked, directly or indirectly, to a range of additional challenging phenomenology.
One Tibetan Buddhist practitioner reported a number of other somatic phenomena co-occurring with ELSEs, many of which were mentioned by other practitioners in the study as well. Her relentless experiences of “energy” led to “intense heat”, including a sensation of “fire coming out of the top of my head”, as well as involuntary movements, such as “whole-body jerking”, and “spontaneous […] back-bending”. These “energy flows” could also be “extremely painful”. In one instance, she had “energy […] rising up out of my pelvis and going up through my chest”, and she “felt like there was a dagger or something embedding itself in my heart from below”. She also reported the “energy” concentrating in her head, producing feelings of pressure, and found herself unable to get it to “distribute more uniformly” through her body. At its most “intense”, the “energy” felt “electrical” and seems to have caused “really strange” phenomena, such as “when I would pick up my phone and it would freeze”, or “my computer would freeze”. With a constant sense of “energy” flowing through her body, she also experienced difficulty sleeping. Beyond these somatic effects, there were also affective and cognitive consequences, such as having “a lot of anxiety” because of her discomfort, uncertainty around what was happening, as well as “trouble focusing” because of the constant and unusual nature of her body sensations. A Theravāda Buddhist teacher associated “feeling a lot of energy in the body” with “a rapturous sense, […] feeling like your circuits are gonna get blown out, a lot of sexual kind of energy, not sleeping—sometimes not sleeping at all—feeling like you can’t sleep, weird dreams, vivid dreams, a lot of sexual thoughts, shaking, […] involuntary movements”.
Certain combinations of somatic and cognitive changes also proved to be significant. One Tibetan Buddhist practitioner experienced an ongoing feeling of “rlung” getting “stuck” in his “heart center”, creating an intense feeling of “constriction” in his chest, such that it felt it was “between two metal plates” that had been “squeezed together”. With the energy unable to “flow properly in the rest of the body”, he felt “wired, like having drunk 50 cups of coffee”, and had a “racing” mind “like a whirlwind”. “Dizzy” and “unable to concentrate”, his condition also interfered with his sleep. According to a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, when “the energy in the body begins to rise”, it is a “classic sign of [things] going wrong”, and causes practitioners to “get very speedy, flighty, airy. They can’t remember things very well. They get a little bit jumpy”.
Affective changes were often noted in association with ELSEs and ranged in valence from strong positive affect to intense fear. ELSEs were sometimes accompanied by re-experiencing or uncovering traumatic memories, which some teachers attributed to a process of “opening up” to that which is “stored in the body”. Immediately following the onset of ELSEs, one Tibetan Buddhist practitioner reported having four months of “very gentle […] euphoria”. Then, on a retreat she experienced vivid imagery related to a childhood trauma, which she described as “beautiful” and as having left her “more embodied” and “less dissociated”. Over time, this had the effect of “opening up […] all the trauma of my life”, and this was followed by affective and cognitive changes that proved to be very challenging, such as an escalation of positive affect into “mania”, feelings of paranoia, and a frightening sense that “my body was being controlled”, eventually culminating in multiple hospitalizations for what she described as psychosis.
In some cases, ELSEs were also associated with perceptual changes. A Tibetan Buddhist practitioner experienced a visual component to his ELSEs. He described a “vortex of white energy light forming out of the [...] crown of my head” and “breaking through the crown cakra
”. Subsequently, he reported a “visual hallucination” of numbers on a cable TV box that he interpreted, in his altered state, as “heralding my enlightenment”. A Theravāda Buddhist practitioner recounted an instance in which an ELSE was associated with specific visual changes:
the field of my vision would soften and this very deep, deep blue—kind of an indigo blue—would start to take over the field of my vision, so everything I was seeing would start to fall away, and this blue would start to fill the space and intensify and, as it intensified, the energy would be rising up in me. […] It was like the blue is intensifying, everything else is disappearing. I’m feeling as if I’m about to disappear.
5. Impacts and Trajectories of ELSEs
5.1. Time Course
For most of the practitioners who reported them, ELSEs had a significant or central impact on their overall trajectory. The time courses for ELSEs typically fell into one of three patterns: transient, recurring, or enduring. Transient ELSEs were often confined to a single day or a single retreat. A Theravāda Buddhist teacher said that, of his retreat participants who get “stuck on” ELSEs, “most always it will calm down. […] [In] twenty-four hours, it usually runs its course—some people, two or three days”. Transient ELSEs were sometimes intense but, in themselves, did not often have a large impact on the lives of our participants. However, in some cases, transient ELSEs occurred at the very beginning of the onset of challenging phenomenology, the course of which could be quite severe and impairing.
Recurring ELSEs were often associated with periods of retreat or intensive practice. One Zen Buddhist practitioner first experienced “energy” on a retreat and found it challenging to manage until she found a teacher who offered her a series of remedies that she could apply. In the 33 years since, ELSEs have continued to occur each time she does retreats, but they never persist into daily life. The difference has been that she now has tools to work with the “energy” and so, rather than being uncomfortable and distressing, it moves in a way that is gentle and that aids her practice and dissipates when the period of intensive practice ceases.
Enduring ELSEs are those that continue, more or less uninterrupted, from meditation practice into daily life, often lasting for many months or years. Some practitioners described “constant” ELSEs, including during sleep, that went on for decades. One Theravāda Buddhist teacher suggested that the “kundalini process” can take as long as 12 years. Such cases may require significant effort to work with ELSEs and their co-occurring phenomenology, especially when there is ongoing associated distress and/or functional impairment.
5.2. Positive and Negative Impacts Associated with ELSEs
In addition to the variation in the time course and frequency, ELSEs also unfolded along a variety of trajectories. Given that the VCE study aimed specifically to investigate meditation-related challenges, many reports of ELSEs were presented as such. However, for some practitioners, ELSEs were exclusively positive, and, in other instances, they unfolded according to mixed trajectories that had a combination of positive and negative dimensions.
For some practitioners, ELSEs started positive and remained positive. One Zen practitioner experienced a “joyful” feeling of “energy” rising up his spine. As it reached his “upper-middle back”, he experienced a “heavy vibration” accompanied by significant changes in his sense of self: “I know that that moment when I felt that vibration that something basic in my brain chemistry changed and that’s really when [practitioner’s name]—the [practitioner’s name] that I knew—sort of disappeared. He was gone”. He described this experience as “sort of a death of self”, in which he had been “replaced by the rest of the universe”, which he likened to “a great circuit of energy”. His teacher identified this as a transformative awakening experience. Following this breakthrough, he began to notice an ongoing “presence of energy at the base of my spine” that he could “draw up”, after which it would go “out the top of my head into the universe”, which he described as feeling “really good”. For this practitioner, the sense of “energy” was not circumscribed to his body, but instead connected him to the “circuit” that extended into the “vast universe”. He subsequently became a teacher in his Zen tradition, and his experiences of “energy” continued to fill him with a sense of “wellbeing”. They also aid his teaching because when he’s “expounding the Dharma, it’s coming from that place at the base of my spine”.
For some practitioners, what began as a positive ELSE became negative in its impact over time. After a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner’s initial ELSE, he “was just left in a state of profound awe. Literally jaw-dropped type of experience”. However, soon, “it was starting to go into some wrong channels and it was just excruciating”. In addition to pain, the ELSE also caused a kind of hypersexuality, which led him to “behaving in a way” that his partner “was unaccustomed to” because of the “intensity”—something that was “scary” for his partner and “unpleasant” for him. Another Tibetan Buddhist practitioner on a long-term solitary retreat was engaged in subtle body practices, such as the cultivation of inner heat, which started off with anticipated positive experiences of “energy rising up, heat coming up, and cool, blissful, white radiant showers coming down”. Later, in the retreat, the movement of “energy” changed such that she “started to feel energy running out of my body [...] If you held your hand between my legs, it was like you could feel energy spilling onto your hand. [...] I called this feeling ‘draining’. [...] It really just felt like bleeding to death”. She tried various movements and sleeping in twisted postures in an attempt to stop the “draining”, but ultimately did not obtain relief until her teacher took her out of retreat and she sought sessions with acupuncturists and energy workers to address the “draining”.
Other practitioners had ELSEs that began as, and remained, negative. A Tibetan Buddhist practitioner had his first ELSE during a retreat and found it “very disconcerting” and “very traumatic”. He began to “wonder what the hell is it, and is this is supposed to be healthy, or is this a problem?” As it persisted, it also led to additional challenges, such as heat, neck tension, and insomnia. Drawing upon one of the frameworks used within his lineage, he characterized his symptoms as an instance of a “rlung disorder”. In the 11 years since, he has had to work constantly to manage these symptoms, using a variety of remedies, otherwise it “gets really, really unpleasant” physically.
In some cases, practitioners initially found ELSEs to be negative, but over time had a shift (in understanding, appraisal, or through a change in phenomenology) towards a positive experience. One Zen Buddhist practitioner initially struggled to work with and make sense of ELSEs that would occur when she was on retreat. In the beginning, she found the ELSEs “physically uncomfortable” on account of feeling “like something was being shaken inside”. One instance led to a temporary paralysis of her legs, which she described as “the most dramatic experience I had with kundalini”. However, after learning to manage the “energy”, it began to have a positive and transformative effect on her life. She reported “energetic” build-up and release, accompanied by the resurfacing of intense emotions related to past experiences. This “would start as a pain somewhere in my body and, when it would release, there would be a story that would release with it”. As the story and the associated emotion released, there would also be “energy in my body that would open and release”, and the story would become “resolved”. She described how “certain mindsets that I had got broken up” by “kundalini”, with the result that she “understood things in different ways about both my life and my relationships and about other people and my own history”, which was “very helpful”.
5.3. Functional Impairments Associated with Challenging ELSEs
Some degree of impairment was not uncommon among practitioners reporting challenging ELSEs. The types of impairment caused by ELSEs, or by co-occurring phenomenology, cover a wide range, from physiological to behavioral. Impairments also ranged from mild to severe and could be transient as well as enduring. Impairments occurred in many areas of life, causing challenges with day-to-day tasks (such as difficulty driving), or problems maintaining relationships or employment.
One Zen practitioner, previously a performing artist, became unable to work because of the “extremely troubling” experiences of “energetic updraft”—“too much energy, that my body couldn’t hold”—that would occur during her performances. An ongoing involuntary “yanking” of her body in one direction was also associated with her ELSEs, which left her unable to sit comfortably for a year. In addition, “trauma material came up” and she became “very, very emotionally volatile”. She explained:
lots of people have energetic experiences where they feel voltage. Lots of people have trauma memories come up. That’s not unusual, that’s a part of the practice. So why are some of us so destabilized and really have difficulty coping with that and recovering from it, and why do other people kind of move through it?
She suspects the reason was “because I was so energetically destabilized, that when the trauma material came up, as it does for most people who have trauma in their backgrounds and who have tried these meditation practices, hopefully the stuff is gonna clear—you’re gonna go through life and kind of clear it—but because of the energetic destabilization, I just got more destabilized”.
A Theravāda Buddhist practitioner found that ELSEs would build in his body so intensely and so persistently that he needed to find ways to regularly “release” them. He was only able to remain functional at work by taking hourly breaks of twenty minutes to go onto the rooftop and “just scream and shout and move and just let all this energy dump out into the loud city where it would mingle and disappear”. A Zen Buddhist practitioner described five years of “energy […] running through you day and night and you can’t escape it”, as well as extensive associated phenomenology, including insomnia, involuntary movements, and significant changes in her sense of self. Her ongoing experience of trying to manage these unrelenting ELSEs and the associated phenomenology became so all-consuming that, for a time, she was unable to care for her school-aged children. Eventually her marriage ended, with her husband saying, “come and see me when you’re back to normal”.
In a number of cases, insomnia caused by ongoing ELSEs was associated with functional impairments, or with additional challenges appraised as mania or psychosis. A Theravāda practitioner undertaking her first retreat began experiencing “so much energy running that I […] didn’t feel the need to eat or sleep. It didn’t occur to me. […] I wasn’t tired at all”. She soon “lost track of linear time” and began having visual changes where “things that would appear as solid objects didn’t seem so solid anymore. […] It was almost like I was seeing energy instead of just seeing solid objects and believing that they were totally solid”. Her behavior began to deviate from the protocols of the retreat and got the attention of a teacher, who tried to speak with her and found her nonresponsive. When she was finally able to speak, she asked for guidance for managing “the sensation of tons of energy shooting through my hands”, something that “sort of freaked me out” because it was “really strong”. Mainly because of her nonresponsiveness, the teacher decided to remove her from the retreat and had an ambulance take her to the hospital. She was admitted against her wishes to the psychiatric ward upon telling the psychiatrist that she was “seeing energy again: looking at people and seeing their energy body, seeing energy flow through things. […] And so he thought I was nuts and decided to keep me there”. She was treated with “heavy-duty [anti-psychotic] medications” in an attempt to get her to sleep. She expressed frustration at receiving this treatment when, in her view, she was “seeing a lot of things psychically”, whereas the doctors “think I’m crazy; they’re treating me like a crazy person”.
6. Factors Influencing the Onset and Trajectory of ELSEs
The practitioners and experts identified a number of influencing factors they associated with the occurrence and trajectories of ELSEs. The meditation practitioners most frequently attributed the emergence of ELSEs to the type of meditation practice they engaged in, particular approaches to their meditation practice, or to the amount (e.g., hours, days, etc.) or intensity (e.g., effortfulness) of meditation practice. Practitioners and experts who identified the amount or intensity of practice as influencing factors referred specifically to an increased amount or intensity. An increased practice amount, in the context of a meditation retreat, was highlighted as a factor. In some cases, it was noted that this was the practitioner’s first retreat, or that it was a longer retreat than they had attempted before. One practitioner accepted her ELSE and the co-occurring involuntary movements as normal (though “bizarre”) after one of the teachers noted in a talk that, on retreat, “sometimes your body would do really strange things” and you just need to “observe it all”. Many practitioners who identified a meditation practice approach as a factor specified that it was an effortful, intense, or striving style of practice that led to the ELSE. One described his approach, for example, as “pushing and pushing”—that of an “overachiever” who was “just super trying to do it right”. Another had been drawing on intense “willpower” to “grin and bear it” through intensive practice prior to the onset of challenging ELSEs.
Unsurprisingly, meditators whose practices intentionally engage with ELSEs, and whose practice tradition provides a framework for understanding them, more commonly reported the type of practice as an influencing factor. Specifically, these were Tibetan Buddhist practitioners engaged in Vajrayāna practices that involve working with the “channels” and “energies” of the “subtle body” (see also Lindahl
)), and Theravāda practitioners in S.N. Goenka’s vipassanā
tradition, which emphasizes observing somatic sensations. Although practitioners in traditions with subtle energy frameworks as a component of the meditation practice instructions showed a greater tendency to identify practice type as an influencing factor, these practitioners were not more likely to report ELSEs than those from other traditions that did not have energy models. Even though a similar number of Zen Buddhist practitioners (10/20) and Tibetan Buddhist practitioners (13/20) reported ELSEs, not a single Zen practitioner identified their type of practice as an influencing factor, whereas 77% (10/13) of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners did. This was also the case for Theravāda Buddhists practicing outside of the tradition of vipassanā
as taught by S.N. Goenka. While 75% (6/8) of the practitioners of Goenka’s vipassanā
identified the type of practice as an influencing factor for ELSEs, among Theravāda Buddhists practicing in other lineages, only one in eleven that reported ELSEs identified type of practice as an influencing factor. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that Zen Buddhists and Theravāda Buddhists outside of Goenka’s tradition do not employ frameworks for understanding and working with ELSEs to the same extent, nor do they engage in meditation practice approaches oriented towards intentionally discerning or engaging with ELSEs.
Some influencing factors were identified as having aggravated, if not directly caused, ELSEs, making them more intense or more difficult to manage. These include reduced sleep or appetite, having a trauma history, having life stressors (such as work-related stress, grief, or relationship problems), having an inappropriate diet (especially vegetarian), and a lack of prior training or preparation related to the “subtle body”—one practitioner described herself as not having developed the “wiring” required to safely manage the emergence of “energy”.
Less common, but notable, were occurrences where the associated catalyst for the ELSEs was located outside of the meditator. For instance, one practitioner understood his ELSEs as the result of being in the presence of a “powerful” teacher. Another Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, who had undertaken multiple three-year retreats, associated ELSEs with simply being in a retreat center. He described feeling “electrocuted” at a “low-level” upon entering, which remained “constant” as long as he was in the retreat location.
7. Interpretive Frameworks Recruited for Making Sense of ELSEs
7.1. Engagements with Interpretive Frameworks
As with other conceptually mediated phenomena, one is not likely to appraise a phenomenon specifically as “energetic” without energy-related concepts. Thus, interpretation may, from the outset, play an important role in practitioners’ ELSEs. The presence or absence of frameworks, the quest for them, and attitudes toward them were often salient features of the meditators’ narratives.
Meditators sometimes found that they did not possess an adequate interpretive framework to enable them to manage their ELSEs at the time they occurred. For example, one practitioner in a Zen lineage remarked that she initially “had no idea what to make of” her ELSE. The process of acquiring workable interpretations for ELSEs often involved other people. Meditation teachers, therapists, or healers providing both alternative and allopathic medical care could play an influential role in offering a framework for understanding ELSEs, especially when those frameworks were not a part of the meditator’s prior contemplative training.
In a few cases, meditators highlighted the close fit of an ELSE with existing frameworks, referring to the ways that their experiences were prototypical of certain interpretations, such as kundalini. When there was a sense of fit between the phenomenology and a framework, the experience was often interpreted as either confirming the validity of the framework, or at least as benefiting from the framework’s utility for meaning-making and determining appropriate responses. For example, one meditator stated: “I had, at one point, a very classic kundalini experience with feeling the energy down that main core of the body, and I was so surprised by it. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s actually true’!” By contrast, the perceptions of poor fit were consistent with the rejection, or incomplete adoption, of a framework. Another meditator recounted, “I found lots of people with lots of advice and conceptual boxes. […] But I never found, in all of my experience, anybody who just could speak that energy language and somehow engage with it in a helpful way”.
7.2. Interpretations Aligned with Buddhist and Other Religious Traditions
Some practitioners reported previously held beliefs in established frameworks related to ELSEs, such as notions of spiritual emergency or kundalini awakening, of psychosomatic or karmic purification, or of a subtle body in general. Others learned about these frameworks from teachers or fellow practitioners in their communities in the context of responding to, or making meaning from, ELSEs. Religious frameworks also sometimes posited that ELSEs could arise at particular stages of contemplative practice. In such instances, ELSEs could still be considered normative (that is, experiences that should arise at a particular stage or through practice), as normal-but-not-normative experiences of little overall significance, or even as unwanted side effects of practice.
7.2.1. Theravāda Buddhism
Most lineages of Theravāda Buddhism did not provide frameworks relating to the subtle body or subtle body energies, although a few Theravāda Buddhists did apply other tradition-specific terminology to their ELSEs. One practitioner associated his ELSEs with “access concentration” (a sustained high level of focus), and one Theravāda teacher thought that ELSEs could be indicative of an excess of pīti
—a Pali term commonly translated as “rapture”, and which is a quality expected to arise through the cultivation of concentration. Physical experiences of rapture, including “sudden jerks” and “excitement that spreads through the whole body [and] seems to undulate in the body like the waves of the sea”, are also listed among the “ten corruptions of insight” (Pali vipassanā-upakkilesa
)—anomalous perceptual and emotional experiences that are thought to potentially sidetrack meditators’ progress if they mistakenly take them to be indicative of a genuine meditative attainment (Sayadaw 2016, p. 371
Nevertheless, most practitioners of Theravāda Buddhism in the VCE study did not encounter adequate frameworks for how to appraise ELSEs from within their tradition. Thus, they often engaged frameworks from other traditions. For example, one practitioner described how her experience of “energy” mapped onto conceptions of the subtle body comprised of nāḍis and cakras, as found in South Asian Yogic and Tantric systems. Another practitioner, on a multiweek retreat, reported that while she was meditating on her bed, she felt “energy come up into my body and bang my back against the wall”, which happened “four or five times and then my head got thrown backwards”. She didn’t know how to interpret the experience, which she found “pretty dramatic”. When she reported her “convulsions” to her teachers, they removed her from the retreat without giving her a framework for making sense of what had happened. Instead, she was referred to a psychiatrist. A therapist she later consulted immediately appraised her experience as a “kundalini release”. Excited that she had a framework for understanding what had happened to her on retreat, she went back to the center and found the teachers she had worked with, saying, ‘“This is what happened to me: I had a kundalini release’. It was like, ‘I know now’! I was like an excited little kid—‘I know now’! And they said they don’t believe in kundalini releases”.
Among Theravāda Buddhist practitioners, one group with existing frameworks for ELSEs were those in the tradition of vipassanā
meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka, who tended to describe their ELSEs in terms of “subtle sensations”. This is consistent with meditation practice instructions in this tradition, which include language focused on sensations, tingling, and vibrations as cues for what to notice during the body scan practice in particular (Goenka  2000
). One practitioner described her experience with the body scan as initially including “tinglings around all of my body. It felt like—it wasn’t electricity; it was more of like very pleasant tinglings”. She described this phase as being in accordance with reaching a “free-flow experience” with the body scan.
7.2.2. Zen Buddhism
One practitioner, for whom ELSE problems occurred in conjunction with other somatic phenomenology, had his experience appraised as a form of “meditation sickness” (Chn. chan bing
), which, in Chan and Zen traditions, refers to a range of meditation-related obstacles, challenges, or incorrect practice approaches (Ahn 2021
; Greene 2021
). More typically, however, practitioners in Zen lineages did not make use of Zen-specific terminology for ELSEs and described there being few emic frameworks available to them. One Zen practitioner described “floundering […] a little bit” as her teacher struggled to make sense of her ELSEs. “He was a little distressed and he didn’t quite know what to do with me”. One Zen teacher acknowledged, “We don’t talk about […] these physical manifestations […] much in Zen”. As with some Theravāda practitioners mentioned above, some Zen practitioners sought frameworks and methods for working with ELSEs from outside of their tradition. However, Zen practitioners often referred to a Zen approach toward relating to anomalous and unexpected experiences in general, which was also applied toward ELSEs. This approach entails regarding unusual experiences as insignificant at best, and potentially distracting or derailing at worst, and, thus, involves de-emphasizing them in interpersonal communication, attributing them minimal significance.
7.2.3. Tibetan Buddhism
Intentionally working with the “energies” or “winds” (Tib. rlung
) of the subtle body can be a dimension of advanced contemplative practice, especially practices associated with Vajrayāna or Tantric Buddhism, such as subtle body yogas or completion-stage visualizations (Cozort 1986
). Many Vajrayāna practitioners worked within that framework, some despite degrees of distress or discomfort associated with the subtle and/or physical body. For an in-depth discussion of experiences and appraisals reported by Tibetan Buddhists engaged in Vajrayāna practices, see Lindahl
). In other practice contexts in Tibetan Buddhism, such as the cultivation of śamatha
(calm abiding), ELSEs were appraised as transient meditation-related side effects (Tib. nyams
) that are not the goal of practice, but which can be an indication of progress in meditation (Lingpa 2015
). One practitioner of śamatha
recounted how “huge amounts of blissful energy would overtake me”. When she described this to her teacher, he replied by stating, “Don’t worry about it, don’t pay attention to it—it’s just a nyams
Practitioners across Buddhist traditions sometimes associated the presence of ELSEs with a process of purification. Notions of purification can be found across Buddhist traditions and typically refer to the elimination of the influence of karma, and the eradication of cognitive and affective deficits that “obscure” the mind (Sferra 1999
). In Vajrayāna Buddhist traditions, the basis of purification is sometimes presented as being the subtle body. For instance, according to Kongtrul
), the subtle body’s “energy currents […] are the contributing condition for igniting inner heat”, and that inner heat (Tib. gtum mo
) is described as purifying through the metaphor of “burning” on account of how “when it is ignited the habitual patterns of the aggregates, constituents, and sense fields are burned up” (p. 168). Numerous VCE study participants from this tradition also described how the obscurations, attributed to karma more generally, or to psychological or emotional tendencies in particular, manifest as “knots” in the subtle body (see also Lindahl
) and Rinpoche
)). A Tibetan Buddhist teacher explained that, initially for the meditator, “everything is twisted and knotted up and the winds don’t turn properly […] The purification process literally takes place within the subtle body”, a process in which “these knots […] break loose”, with the ultimate goal of becoming “an enlightened being, or a realized being” for whom “the channels are translucent and straight, and all the energies therefore flow through them”.
Some practitioners of Goenka’s vipassanā
understood their experience along similar lines. The same practitioner, who above described having a full-body tingling that she associated with being in a “free-flow” state during the body scan practice, also described a more dramatic change that soon followed. As she continued her practice, she recounted how her arms and elbows became involuntarily contorted into an unusual position and frozen. Then, “there was an intense rush, block of electricity, and it was like moving throughout my hand and leaving my fingers. And once this electricity left my fingers, I was able to move it again”. When she spoke with a teacher about this, the teacher said “‘these are old saṅkhāra
s leaving you’. She specifically said that they leave as violently as you repress them”. In this approach, the ELSEs and their physical manifestations are interpreted as indicating a disruption in the influence of saṅkhāra
s—or mental formations—one of the five psychophysical aggregates influenced by karma. Other practitioners in this tradition also drew a connection between ELSEs, karma, and notions of purification:
On the whole and looking back now, I feel it was stuff from the past just purifying, just trying to come out. And that’s what it is when I experience it on retreats now. It feels very much like it’s just energy from the past unlocking itself, that’s kind of tight and clenched and held in the body, and it just kind of unlocks itself, and flows. The unblocking of energy.
Emic understandings of purification may not always be easily separable from more generalized culturally salient notions that the practitioner was previously in a less ideal state, and that challenges encountered in and through meditation are part of an ultimately ennobling personal trajectory, such as those characterized elsewhere as “redemptive” narratives (McAdams et al. 2001
; Palitsky et al. 2019
). These narratives can be typified by language suggesting personal progress, growth, development, and even individuation. For example, despite his skepticism about subtle body systems, one Tibetan Buddhist practitioner still felt aligned with notions of “energetic” purification and a progressive trajectory of personal development:
I just have to say, I hate cakras. I’m not interested in cakras. I kind of get this aversive quality around New Age-y people who talk about their cakras. I’ve never been interested in this shit. I still don’t care about it. I never got caught up in it. But I also cannot deny the reality of my experience. […] So, do I think that the deep concentration practices were causing either a purification or kind of helping get this energy moving up my spine? Yeah, absolutely. Did it finally, kind of, break through the crown cakra? Yeah, I think that’s exactly what happened. And I think it’s exactly what needed to happen. […] It just felt my body was energetically purifying itself to be able to do this kind of deeper meditative, spiritual work.
Some practitioners from all three traditions of Buddhism also looked beyond the frameworks intrinsic to their lineage. As mentioned above, in some cases, this happened on account of a perceived absence within the practitioner’s tradition of suitable frameworks to match or account for their experiences. Overall, kundalini was the most commonly used interpretive framework for describing ELSEs by practitioners in this study. Given that the notion of kundalini can be found in Buddhist Yogic and Tantric traditions, in the broader context of South Asian religions, and in the contemporary spiritual emergency framework put forth in transpersonal psychology, it is often difficult to know which framework (or combination thereof) practitioners had in mind when invoking this term as an account of their ELSEs. Some practitioners used kundalini to typify intense ELSEs, which involved somatic components, were deemed risky, included a notion of “energy” progressing through the physical or subtle body (usually up the spine), and perhaps were accompanied by clusters of key co-occurring phenomenology identified in the spiritual emergency literature, such as heat and involuntary movements. This was especially the case for practitioners with previous knowledge of what kundalini phenomena may entail, and who recognized their ELSEs as such. One Tibetan Buddhist practitioner declared: “what happened to me was a profound kundalini awakening. I’m absolutely certain of that. […] All of what I read about kundalini is that that’s exactly how it shows up”.
However, in a number of practitioners’ narratives, kundalini
appeared to be a more general label associated with disruptive and transformative ELSEs. Some of these practitioners had experiences that did not necessarily follow the normative paradigm, but which were nevertheless appraised as related to kundalini
. For instance, one Theravāda Buddhist practitioner described his experience in terms of a kundalini
awakening event despite a lack of fit in some respects:
I did understand that a kundalini awakening was the best approximate map for what was going on. But at the same time I also realized that in my case the map was only partially helpful. Because, for instance, it talks about the energy rising up through the cakras, but in my experience it was always chaotic—it would be here and there and there was never any sense of progression.
It was not uncommon for practitioners to find themselves in the midst of ELSEs, only to come upon the kundalini
framework afterwards. Sometimes practitioners saw the kundalini
framework as only a partial fit, and, as will be addressed below, this appraisal could co-occur with other appraisals.
7.3. Interpretations Drawn from Medical and Scientific Traditions
7.3.1. Traditional Tibetan Medicine
As explained above, although “energies” or “winds” (Tib. rlung
) are intentionally engaged in the context of some Tibetan Buddhist practices, and in other contexts are treated as an insignificant “meditation experience” (Tib. nyams
), it is also recognized that “energies” can become disrupted through various types of meditation practice to such an extent that practitioners are given a Tibetan medical diagnosis of an imbalance or disorder of “rlung
”. Practitioners who associated ELSEs with a rlung
imbalance typically reported other co-occurring somatic, affective, and cognitive phenomenology recognized by Tibetan medical nosology (Deane 2019
; Jacobson 2007
; Lindahl 2017
). In the VCE study, appraisals of a rlung
imbalance or rlung
disorder were almost invariably tied to specific remedies intended to intervene upon dysregulated ELSEs, which will be explained below.
7.3.2. Traditional Chinese Medicine
Concepts associated with traditional Chinese medicine, most notably qi, were sometimes used by practitioners to appraise their experiences. Qi was often specifically linked to the interpretive frameworks of traditional Chinese medicine, especially acupuncture, or to self-cultivation techniques, such as taiji and qigong. Meditation practitioners typically encountered these ideas when they were actively pursuing acupuncture as a therapeutic modality for mitigating or managing ELSEs, and, in some instances, this encounter significantly informed the overall interpretive framework they adopted. However, unlike Tibetan medical appraisals, the adoption of Chinese medical frameworks for the explanation or treatment of ELSEs occurred in roughly equal number across all Buddhist traditions, perhaps on account of its more widespread availability in the marketplace of alternative medicine.
7.3.3. Psychology and Neuroscience
The psychological frameworks identified ELSEs with a psychological process, including emotional, relational, and sometimes trauma-specific themes. Some ELSEs were depicted in terms of “tension” or “blockage”, followed by a “release”, and such releases were sometimes characterized in socioemotional terms associated with the healing of relationships, distress, and old psychological wounds. Related to psychological interpretations, some practitioners employed neuroscientific explanations that referred to conceptions of brain–body interactions, neurological systems, the nervous system, and related constructs. One practitioner of vipassanā as taught by S. N. Goenka, who also had an educational background in cognitive science, described his ELSEs in the following way: “I mean, I’m in an extreme ecstasy state definitely for 45 minutes, and even then I just took a break from meditation because it was too much. The whole nervous system was like vibrating or the whole nervous system was active somehow”. Despite the normative frameworks around “energies” and “winds” (Tib. rlung) available in Tibetan Buddhism, two practitioners in this tradition instead described their ELSEs in terms of a “nervous system imbalance” and as an “activation of my sympathetic nervous system”.
7.4. The Influence of Trajectories on Appraisals
In some instances, meditation practitioners and meditation teachers alike thought it was important to determine whether ELSEs were normative, within the scope of expected meditation experiences, or resolvable through meditation practice, on the one hand, or potentially problematic and needing additional intervention, on the other (Lindahl et al. 2020
). Appraisals and trajectories were linked in a variety of ways. For some practitioners, normative appraisals were sometimes maintained, even when ELSEs endured for a long duration, or were distressing, impaired functioning, or required intervention. However, for others, normative appraisals sometimes became difficult to maintain in the face of severe destabilization on account of ELSEs leading to co-occurring phenomenology, such as involuntary movements, a loss of sense of agency, insomnia, mania, and/or psychosis. For example, one Theravāda Buddhist practitioner reported first having ELSEs while on a long-term retreat, which then “went on for about five to six years until [they] finally settled down”. Despite being familiar with the kundalini
framework, in which “the narrative about this is that the energy is the kundalini
that’s coming up, and it’s breaking through these blockages”, he concluded, “I don’t take much stock in that narrative”. This is perhaps due to the fact that, for this practitioner, ELSEs were also a significant feature of another serious meditation-related challenge, which led first to elaborate “hallucinations” and delusions involving “an exaggerated sense of my own importance”, then to disruptive “anti-social” behaviors, and, finally, to his removal from the retreat and hospitalization, at which point he was treated with antipsychotic medication. Though he initially understood his experiences with “energy” in Buddhist terms, as “getting rid of the defilements”, his ultimate interpretation of his very challenging experiences was “I essentially went mildly insane”.
In other instances, interpretations of ELSEs congruent with those put forth by religious traditions were held in tandem with frameworks from psychology, psychopathology, or neuroscience. Although one Theravāda Buddhist practitioner also described her experience in terms of kundalini
, ultimately her view on ELSEs was: “I don’t think they are a sign of enlightenment; I think they are energized neuronal states that happen to some people and don’t happen to other people.” Multiple practitioners stated that they believed that ELSEs could be understood as a process of purification or self-transformation and also could be associated with the onset of a manic or psychotic episode. For instance, one Tibetan Buddhist practitioner described how he thought “kundalini
[…] energy” was “dangerous stuff to play with”, particularly because
once you awaken that, or if you intentionally go after it, you have no control over it! And it just sort of does what it wants to do. And it can really be incredibly painful. Incredibly disruptive. You know, it can absolutely cause psychosis. It just does a number on you.
Thus, normative appraisals could be articulated alongside approaches that acknowledge a need for intervention or an associated psychopathology.
Although there are historical and textual references to ELSEs in Buddhist traditions, and even a few psychological studies of related phenomena, this paper, based upon a large qualitative study of meditation-related challenges, offers a unique glimpse into ELSEs in the lives of contemporary meditation practitioners and how they are regarded by meditation teachers.
Among practitioners of Buddhist meditation reporting challenging experiences in the VCE study, ELSEs are a relatively common phenomenology, with 62% (42/68) of practitioners spontaneously reporting ELSEs at least once. Further research is needed to determine the frequency of ELSEs in other samples, such as novice meditators versus advanced practitioners, or across different meditation traditions. The descriptions of ELSEs were often presented in emic terms, such as kundalini
, or, qi
, but practitioners also invoked a wide range of metaphors in an attempt to describe these unusual experiences. ELSEs had various impacts and trajectories for practitioners that depended on a number of factors, the most common of which were the type and amount of meditation practice. For some, ELSEs were transient or were mentioned only in passing, whereas, for others, they were enduring and central to their main narrative of meditation-related challenges. ELSEs co-occurred with other salient changes, especially in the somatic, affective, cognitive, and perceptual domains. ELSEs could be positive and enhancing or distressing and impairing. Some practitioners thought that ELSEs were congruent with normative models found within, and beyond, Buddhist traditions, such as perceiving subtle sensations, working with the subtle body energies, and related purification frameworks. Other ELSEs were described using emic conceptions of normal-but-not-normative experiences, such as nyams
and meditation sickness. However, Buddhist traditions do not have the same emic models for interpreting and managing ELSEs, nor do these models appear to be equally available among meditation practitioners in the West. This led many practitioners to seek interpretive frameworks and suitable responses from outside their tradition. Although a small body of medical and psychiatric literature has assessed for, and documented, ELSEs, these remain little known anomalous experiences, and biomedical appraisals for ELSEs were generally not made available to the practitioners who sought out, or were involuntarily placed in, medical or psychiatric care. Practitioners, thus, also came to entertain spiritual emergency frameworks as a way of making sense of their experience. Especially in instances in which a suitable intervention was sought, some practitioners adopted appraisals from the domains of traditional medicine, whether a Tibetan rlung
disorder diagnosis, or notions of qi
associated with acupuncture in traditional Chinese medicine. Occasionally, frameworks from Western psychology, psychiatry, and even neuroscience were preferred, or were articulated, alongside other appraisals from Buddhist or spiritual emergency frameworks. Congruent with attribution-based approaches to the study of experiences deemed religious (Taves 2009
), this study of ELSEs suggests that such phenomena are not universally appraised as religious; instead, ascriptions of religious significance and value were made in certain contexts and circumstances, but not in others.
In light of the heterogeneous phenomenology of ELSEs, their range of impacts, and the various appraisals and responses associated with them, researchers (as well as meditation teachers) should perhaps resist the temptation to assume a spiritual emergency “kundalini
awakening” framework and the positive spiritual trajectory it typically implies. The archetypal notion popularized by Grof and Grof
), and developed through subsequent research in transpersonal psychology in particular, seems to capture neither the full range of ELSEs nor their various trajectories. Rather, as we have argued elsewhere (Lindahl et al. 2021
), it may be more appropriate to adopt a person-centered approach that takes the worldviews, values, and proximate and ultimate goals of the practitioner into account when considering which appraisals and remedies to offer. Furthermore, as documented elsewhere in the VCE study (Lindahl et al. 2020
), determining the best response or intervention for managing ELSEs was, in many cases, more salient than determining the correct appraisal. The interpretations that practitioners gave to ELSEs were often dictated by remedies or responses that worked for managing them. Helpful remedies included normalizing ELSEs, changes in practice type or approach, acupuncture, herbal and pharmacological medicines, and various grounding activities, such as exercise and a change in diet.
Given that cautions about the risks of engaging in subtle body or energetic practices are well known, at least within Vajrayāna Buddhist traditions, and that other Buddhist traditions also have ways of normalizing some ELSEs, it is perhaps not surprising that, in some cases, practitioners maintained a normative appraisal of ELSEs, even in the face of significant disruption to their lives and to their meditation practice. Nevertheless, some practitioners reported having to manage ELSEs over the course of many years or in an ongoing way, regardless of whether they thought the experiences were normative and desirable, a nuisance, or ultimately unpleasant and undesirable. Those practitioners who reported severely impairing and negatively impactful ELSEs often had difficulty understanding them as normative in the terms presented within Buddhism (e.g., part of purification), or beyond Buddhism (e.g., as a kundalini
awakening) (see also Lindahl
)). Instead, there were instances in which practitioners looked to modern psychology, neuroscience, and psychopathology instead of, or in addition to, either emic Buddhist frameworks, or the spiritual emergency frameworks that have more recently been employed to understand such anomalous experiences. However, the availability of Buddhist models for understanding and managing ELSEs does not imply that they are not potentially of clinical significance. Indeed, in some cases, ELSEs co-occurred with additional challenging phenomenology, such as involuntary movements, mania, and delusions, and, as with other meditation-related challenges documented in this study, the time course, severity, and degree of distress or functional impairment were also identified as factors influencing whether ELSEs needed additional support or intervention beyond what a Buddhist teacher or tradition could offer (Lindahl et al. 2020
It is worth noting that the frequency of ELSEs was roughly equivalent across practitioners from different Buddhist traditions, and yet normative frameworks for understanding and working with them differed significantly depending upon the Buddhist lineage. This may indicate that ELSEs may occur regardless of the expectation effects from specific practices or associated worldviews. Further research is needed to establish a possible mechanism by which various meditation practices could lead to ELSEs, as well as whether different practices lead to different types of ELSEs.
If ELSEs are relatively common challenges that are not differentially associated with specific approaches to meditation, or with specific worldviews or expectations, then one might expect different Buddhist lineages to have acknowledged them as an effect of meditation and to have developed means of working with them. The limited data from the VCE study on Western Buddhist meditators and meditation teachers cannot account for why certain practitioners—specifically those in Zen and Theravāda lineages outside of that of S.N. Goenka—reported less engagement with emic models for appraising or managing ELSEs and tended to look elsewhere. However, research on Buddhist meditation traditions and Buddhist modernism may offer possible explanations for why ELSEs do not seem to be commonly recognized, or ascribed significance, in certain Buddhist lineages, as currently constituted in the West. Given the particular epistemic space of modern Buddhism in the West, which bridges a range of epistemologies, both religious and spiritual, as well as psychological and scientific (McMahan 2008
; Wilson 2014
), it is unsurprising that meditation practitioners who were not given emic frameworks looked beyond Buddhist traditions in order to make sense of unusual, unexpected, and challenging ELSEs. However, the reason why these frameworks were unavailable to certain practitioners in the first place may have more to do with the current status of the transmission of Buddhism from Asia to the West, both in terms of the availability of textual sources and meditation instruction. As Greene
) has pointed out, Western perceptions of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation by scholars and practitioners have been influenced by the specific texts that have been identified as “canonical representations of traditional Buddhist meditation literature”. To date, this has not included sufficient representation of texts on meditation-related challenges and how to work with them. Although some depictions of meditation sickness involving ELSEs in Zen lineages have become more “canonical”, such as Hakuin
), nevertheless, most meditation-related challenges remain beyond the general conception of the anticipated effects among meditation practitioners in the West. Greene’s translation of a text on remedies for meditation sickness, for example, begins to address this lacuna. Considering the few references to meditation sickness among Zen practitioners and teachers in the VCE study, the various strategies for working with meditation sickness that can be found in textual sources, such as Greene
), may also have been downplayed, if not lost, among contemporary lineages. This might also account for the unequal representation of frameworks for ELSEs across the Buddhist lineages represented in the VCE study, despite the relatively consistent frequency of their occurrence. Additional translations of Asian language textual sources, as well as additional social scientific research among both Western and Asian Buddhist communities, are needed to better understand the frequency of, interpretations of, and responses to meditation-related challenges, including those that could be characterized as energy-like somatic experiences.