I recently received the following question from a mindsight student:
“I was wondering if you could address something that has been capturing my awareness almost since I started meditating three years ago. I have brought to your attention several times, either through email or through direct conversation, several physical sensations that I have experienced during formal practice. These sensations often become border-line intolerable, (albeit they have lessened in frequency during recent months).
The following are examples of the physical sensations that I have experienced during formal practice:
1). Extreme hot sensations shooting through my body as if it’s on fire.
2). Loud humming sound in my ears.
3). The need to constantly swallow.
4). Severe chest pain, as if I’m having a heart attack.
5). Elevated blood pressure. (240/200)
6). Heaviness in hands and feet, as if I can’t move them.
7). Itchy face and scalp as if bugs are crawling all over them.
8). Feeling of deep lows and despondency.
Your response to some of these symptoms seemed to suggest that they are probably unrelated to meditation and are most likely a medical issue.
I happened to be reading a book by Jack Kornfield (Bringing The Dharma Home) last spring when I came across something very interesting that seemed to explain these very symptoms that I had been experiencing. He calls it, “a series of powerful energetic phenomena, sometimes called the awakening of the ‘kundalini’.” He basically suggests that energy centres and chakras are going through a profound opening, hence the intolerable and quite frightening symptoms. Almost all the symptoms that I have experienced, (including the feeling of heart attack), was mentioned. I must say, it was some relief for me to have an explanation come forth at what seemed to be a critical phase in my practice.
Going forward, it would be helpful for me to understand more about these symptoms (other than just reading about them in a random book), as well as gain some understanding with respect to how seriously I should take them if and when they occur again.
Would you be able to give me some deeper insight into what would be considered the non-pleasant symptoms associated with formal practice and if there is any validity in the “kundalini”that Jack Kornfield writes about?
This is indeed a very central question in meditation, which requires a cogent and differentiated response, not only because we are dealing with significant complexity, but also because the meditator’s progress, health and safety are at stake.
Historically, different names have been used to describe these patterns, Kundalini being one of them. In the Chinese tradition you have Qi energy. Trying to find correspondence between our western notions of different energy patterns and those ancient notions is somewhat of a futile endeavor, as different traditions and cultures have different maps with which to map the same territory of reality. Let’s thus simply establish that no matter how you look at it, we are energy flowing in different patterns that require regulation.
The Kundalini energy is symbolized by a snake lying dormant like a coil at the base of the spine. As the practitioner cultivates consciousness and develops ever higher levels of awareness, the snake uncoils itself, moving up the spine through several energy centers called chakras, all the way to the pineal gland and then forward to the region of the medial prefrontal cortex, at which point the adept reaches enlightenment. Kundalini energy flow thus manifests in different forms depending on the level of integration. You may realize the resonant echo with the biblical snake. Unlike popular misunderstanding, the snake is not a symbol of evil, but of fertility, creative life force, continual renewal of life, rebirth, transformation, immortality and healing.
Let’s remind ourselves that we are open complex systems of different kinds of energy flow patterns. These include energy flowing in the form of physical structures such as our organs, in the form of mental patterns such as emotions, thoughts and the way we relate to others and the world around us, as well as awareness energy patterns within consciousness. Not only that, but the non-living elements we are made of, such as subatomic particles, atoms and molecules have their own energy patterns we are part of. Each energy pattern has a unique feel to it (to the extent that it can actually be felt) and requires unique methods of regulation.
It is a hallmark of open complex systems to self-organize and self-regulate. When our natural tendencies of energy flow patterns can freely unfold on both the body- and the mind-level of processing, our energy flow is integrated and we feel at ease and healthy. When on the contrary these energy flow patterns are interfered with, and the organism’s self-regulating mechanisms become overwhelmed, our energy flow patterns fall into chaos and/or rigidity, which we experience as symptoms and disease. Symptoms can be a sign of disease, meaning that the chaos or rigidity is a consequence of dysregulation and will require regulation back to balance and integration, or they can be a transitional stage from chronic dysregulation to integration, meaning that they are the consequence of regulation and require patient perseverance on the path.
Different symptoms are different kinds of energy flow with different causes and have therefore different meanings. They can’t be lumped together into one soup. When the student mentions that I apparently said her symptoms were unrelated to meditation, it would have been within a very specific context of a specific question about one or a few specific symptoms. What I said could never be true as a general statement, since meditation practice can worsen, improve or be unrelated to specific symptoms.
Another historical point has to be clearly made. In comparison to today, during the times those notions of Kundalini and Qi energy emerged, scientific medical knowledge was rudimentary. Although these ancient cultures were very advanced in the way they knew how to help people regulate their energy flow, there were also a huge number of diseases beyond their reach of influence, which we can nowadays treat or cure. Let’s take the example of coronary artery blockage. Someone with angina can today be diagnosed with coronary artery blockage, stents can be put in and the person’s life span with a high quality of life can be prolonged by many years. What 2500 years ago would have just been part of the course – having severe chest pain on exercise, shortly after being bedridden by pain and end up dying within a relatively short period of time – would in today’s climate be completely unacceptable and preventable. In other words, we have to approach symptoms much differently today than one would have 2500 years ago, because we have so many more treatment options available to us.
When we examine symptoms during meditation practice, looking at their patterns is important. Do they only appear during practice and disappear the moment we stop? Do preexisting symptoms get worse during practice but then improve significantly after it? Or do the same preexisting symptoms stay the same or get worse? Are the symptoms of the kind that suggests a possible treatable illness or even danger, or are they a functional part of meditation practice? These questions may start to give you the feeling that there is no way you will ever be able to find clear answers. Welcome to the meditator’s club! These are not easy questions to answer, even though there is a very simple principle that should be followed to get to the bottom of these questions: Always make sure to exclude a physical cause of such symptoms by involving a physician. This does not mean that medicine knows everything or that calamities can always be avoided, but it does mean that you will reduce to a minimum the chance of mishandling what’s going on with your organism. As a physician there are many symptoms that instinctively raise a red flag. This is not the case for laypeople, and I can therefore not stress the importance enough of following the outlined principle.
To make the point, here is just one of many examples I encountered in my practice. A patient was referred to me for mindfulness training, because she was diagnosed with a panic disorder. As she walked in through the door of my office, she tripped slightly. I casually commented on it and wondered why she tripped, to which she responded by telling me that this happens very occasionally as she felt she was getting clumsier with age. We then started the interview, and she told me that she was intermittently tired for no reason, intermittently felt light-headed and weak, combined with tingling and numbness in her fingers. When I asked her whether she felt anxious, she said that she felt a bit anxious when the symptoms appeared. She was told these symptoms were typical of panic attacks. She had already been treated by a psychotherapist for panic attacks and a naturopath was prescribing stress-reducing remedies. Nothing helped. Life history was rather unremarkable with regards to any psychopathology. She came from attuned family circumstances and lead an overall successful life. She described some stress at work, which had been worrying her for about six months. In my mind the clinical picture did not add up to a panic disorder, and her tripping as she came into my office became an increasingly bright shining red light as I was sitting there listening to her. I told her that the evidence for a panic disorder was very tenuous and that I was thinking about some neurological problem, for which I wanted her to get a consultation by a neurologist. It turned out she had an early stage of MS. Had the neurological findings come back negative, I would have had more freedom to help her explore her mind.
The moral of the story is that we are naturally scared to discover we have an illness, and it can appear like a soothing proposition to interpret symptoms within an energetic framework such as Kundalini energy that gives us a sense of being in control. Unfortunately, our ability to regulate energy flow has its limits as we all are inexorably vanishing and our bodies inevitably break down as part of the great law of impermanence. Coming to terms with that is one of the major goals of mindfulness practice.
Let’s now address one by one the symptoms this student presents:
1. Extreme hot sensations shooting through my body as if it’s on fire: Meditation practice has a profound impact on many physiological functions, including hormonal regulation and metabolism, which may explain the sensation of heat (I am foregoing details on the possible physiology of this mechanism). In isolation this is not an uncommon symptom during meditation and therefore not necessarily one to be worried about. It can indeed be explored and understood as part of a new energy flow regulation within the context of moving towards greater integration. Should the symptom persist over a longer time frame and get worse, a visit to the doctor may end up not being a luxury.
2. Loud humming sound in my ears: Same as number 1., as long as it is not accompanied by other symptoms like hearing loss or ear pressure, in which case a consultation with an ENT specialist would be indicated.
3. The need to constantly swallow: This is a very common symptom during meditation, which may be connected to increased vagal activity during the stress reducing process of meditating. It can be quite a nuisance and therefore an opportunity to bring kind acceptance to what’s going on. When it occasionally happened to me during a teaching situation with students, I noticed a sense of embarrassment arising, accompanied by the narrative that ‘as a teacher I should be much more advanced than that!’ – actually quite hilarious when you think about it. In my experience this symptom arises particularly when the meditator is stressed, in the process of relaxing and releasing stress, or deeply settled in peaceful awareness as an unexpected internal conflict arises. It can also arise without identifiable cause.
4. Severe chest pain, as if I’m having a heart attack: This symptom is potentially concerning, and I would not hesitate to suggest having the heart checked out by a cardiologist. If it turns out that physically the heart is fine, it could be a symptom of high anxiety, even if the person does not experience it as such. Furthermore, it can be the activation of painful or traumatic implicit memories that are starting to come to the surface because of the meditation practice. Continuing to deepen the practice with an emphasis on somatic attention, and observing what kind of memories and stories appear on the cognitive level, would then be the way to go.
5. Elevated blood pressure (240/200): I’m not sure how this student measures her blood pressure while she meditates, but assuming that these numbers are correct, I would immediately send her to a specialist for diagnosis and treatment. These numbers are outside the realm of primary energy and information flow discussions. Because of the enormous likelihood of all kinds of nasty health consequences such high a blood pressure is not worth the risk for, it would be unconscionable not to have this medically looked at and treated. Both numbers are very concerning, but the second diastolic pressure particularly so, suggesting there may be a chronic problem that requires medication treatment. This is not to say that once proper medical treatment has been sought, meditation cannot positively influence the long-term evolution of the problem – it can. However, we always have to respect the hierarchy of needs, and as Meister Eckhart (German philosopher, theologian and mystic – 1260-1328) used to say: “If a hungry beggar comes your way while you are in a rapture of enlightenment, stop your rapture and feed the beggar.” If there is a physical problem of such magnitude, it has to be dealt with first before we can then involve the mind. Even if this blood pressure is intermittent, these numbers are extremely high, dangerous and in need of immediate medical attention.
6. Heaviness in hands and feet, as if I can’t move them: This is a common symptom, and again, as long as there is no other evidence of neurological problems, not one to be concerned about. I would have to explore this experience in more detail with the student in question, but this symptom may be connected to either of two things, deep relaxation and letting go, or a form of psychological dissociation.
7. Itchy face and scalp as if bugs are crawling all over them: Again, assuming no other neurological or dermatological problem exists, when tensions come to the surface and subside during meditation, itching and tingling can become very prominent. Continue with somatic attention and releasing tensions down into the earth.
8. Feeling of deep lows and despondency: This is a huge topic with many facets, which would require a closer examination of this student’s particular circumstance. Maybe the student does not apply meditation techniques properly and therefore unwittingly causes energy and information flow dysregulation. Maybe implicit memory material arises and meditation alone will not be enough to integrate all the domains of integration; in this case adding psychotherapy would be required to address domains of integration meditation cannot directly deal with. The student may also have touched the existential level of having to confront the radical impermanence of existence and all the illusions we create not to have to deal with it. Recognizing this situation and embracing impermanence would be the way to work through and transcend this stage of consciousness evolution.
In short, the kinds of intolerable and frightening symptoms Jack Kornfield talks about within the context of awakening are not associated with dangerous chronic physical conditions requiring medical treatment. It is important to recognize the difference between these two sets of symptoms, which is not an easy task by any means.
I am very thankful to this student for bringing up this question. It has given me an opportunity to show the complexity of the bodymind, and how in this business there is no room for facile cookie-cutter responses that feed our narcissistic need for always wanting to be somewhere more glamorous than where we are. The body has its limitations and we are not omnipotent. We always have to remember the difference between healing (finding a new mental equilibrium around the body’s limitations) and curing (getting the body back to its pre-injury state). The body inevitably breaks down and the mind does not have the power to stop or prevent that. Cures become increasingly rare beyond child- and middle adulthood as healing and maintaining functionality becomes increasingly important. This question also gave us the opportunity to realize that meditating today is not the same as meditating 2500 years ago, and that our scientific and technological advances, not to speak of our cultural socio-political changes, require new mind maps and new ways of seeing reality and the world, while we can still preserve ancient wisdom and experience that is still relevant today.
Copyright © 2018 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.