Natural Causes of the Spiritual Eye

Holy Jim in Trabuco is a 6 mile singletrack trail that climbs relentlessly to its 4,500 foot peak. Cycling up I saw the spiritual eye.spiritual-eye

Spiritual Eye

The spiritual eye or third eye is a mystical and esoteric concept. It’s a speculative inner eye in the forehead that provides perception beyond ordinary sight. Hindus, Buddhists, and New Age spiritualists refer to the spiritual eye as a gateway to inner realms of higher consciousness. Associated with religious visions, ability to see chakras and auras, precognition, and astral or out-of-body experiences, the spiritual eye is also supposedly mentioned in the Bible: “If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”1 In Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions, “third eye training” involves closing the eyes, focusing attention on the point between the eyebrows while the body is in various qigong postures.2

My Experiences of the Spiritual Eye

“What a bitch of a climb”, I moaned in cadence with every pedal stroke. My heart was pounding 170 beats per minute. Two miles up Holy Jim climb I needed rest, ceased pedaling, stopped my bike, and dropped my feet firmly on the ground to catch my breath. I closed my eyes while my heaving lungs quieted and rapid heartbeat slowed. To my surprise, in the darkness of closed eyes I saw a five-pointed white star inside my forehead. Surrounding the star was a nebulous halo. Smack center of the star was a spot–focusing inside that spot resulted in the sensation of racing forward through a 3D tunnel. As my breath and heartbeat slowed, within two minutes, the vision of the spiritual eye faded. I opened my eyes, lifted my feet to the pedals, and resumed my rolling ascent on Holy Jim trail.

Many times I’d seen the spiritual eye during silent meditation: while I practiced yogic breathing (pranayama). But, seeing the third eye during cycling, in the moment of rest immediately following strenuous physical exercise, was new to me. Yoga teachers and gurus teach that the third eye is a gateway to the astral or spiritual world. Seeing the spiritual eye when cycling or meditating may be engrossing or entertaining. Pleasant inner sensations and visions of flashy lights, in our mind’s eye, don’t seem to show us much–unless we interpret them with religious overtones and imaginations.

sylvester starsNatural Causes of the Spiritual Eye

Here’s some possible natural causes for visions of the spiritual eye, third eye, or inner eye:

    • Trauma or a “knock” to the head. Cartoons often depict as swirling stars;
    • Spiked or elevated cardiovascular activity followed by sudden drop in activity;
    • Sensory deprivation3 or oxygen deprivation to the brain;
    • Unconsciousness or near death. Reports of experiencing lights and tunnels;
    • Hallucinogens – LSD, Peyote, Psilocybin, and Ayahuasca;
    • Meditation and yogic pranayama breathing coupled with one or more of the causes above.

Question for readers: What are possible causes for visions of the spiritual eye?

Notes

1 Matthew 6:22-23 King James Version (KJV)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_eye

3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_deprivation

25 comments

  1. Scott

    Thanks for sharing your story, Brent. Good one.

    You reminded me of my post Escaping the psychological trap of meditation techniques where I wrote:

    “The particular promised results [visions or experiences of meditation] do not matter.

    ‘“The mind can eventually construct any image it focuses upon”’, say Kramer and Alstad in The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power.

    The disciple is told that regular practice of the given meditation techniques will eventually bring higher states of consciousness and possibly even the highest states of cosmic or unity consciousness, samadhi, or enlightenment. Though, attaining these states may take years or lifetimes.” The experience of spiritual eye or lights or sounds in meditation are supposedly signs that one is progressing in meditation practice. Or, the formless feeling of love, joy, bliss is supposedly samadhi-like… or the taco you mentioned that tastes yummy at the Mexican Restaurant.

    The vagueness or lack of objective way to define or test the “higher states of meditation practices” creates a no win way to prove or disprove outside of an individual person’s claims supposed experiences are real outside their imagination. What I suspect is going on is people who claim to see the spiritual eye or go into samadhi are overlaying their own cultural interpretations on “normal” experiences we all may experience. Especially as you pointed out in your Alcatraz story, during sensory deprivation or when some chemical is altered in our bodies or brains.

  2. Brent

    Hi Scott,
    I have another anecdotal story of the spiritual eye. Years ago I went to Alcatraz. I rented the audio tour that took you through the various experiences of the prisoners. Great tour. Probably the best I’ve ever experienced. Fascinating to hear the actual prisoners and guards describe life on “the rock”.

    But one of the prisoner’s account really caught my attention. The prisoner described the experience of being in solitary. There was no light in the cell at all. None. Yet he described a small light. He said it was clear and undeniable. Yet he was in pitch dark.

    Here is my point, and I think yours as well. There is “something” that can naturally seen as a light at times. The importance of it is that it is unexplained. Because there is no natural explanation for it, the spiritual aspirant believes that the “bigger story” of samadhi must be true. The guru says “first you will see the spiritual eye, then after much meditation you will reach samadhi”. But samadhi never happens. Why? Because it doesn’t exist.

    So why does the meditation behavior persist? It persists because the aspirant witnessed the first event. The “light”. So logically the aspirant assumes he/she is on the right path. That is just a matter of a bit more meditation and the goal will be reached… but it never happens. It never happens because there is no such thing as samadhi. It is a myth.

    Cheers

  3. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @Emile F: I believe you are referring to yogic transmission or guru-diksha (initiation by the guru). Yes, I’ve heard of many anecdotal stories of followers of Yogananda seeing the spiritual eye when being touched on the forehead or tapped on the chest.

    However, my post points out that there are many possible natural explanations for obtaining inner vision of the “spiritual eye”. If a person can see the “spiritual eye” while cycling, floating weightless in a tank, or meditating how does one determine whether the vision is imagination or something of value? Clearly, if a person is indoctrinated that such “visions” are guru-given or divine revelation, then that’s most likely what a person will interpret these subjective inner experiences to be.

    thanks

  4. Emile Farge

    Yogananda does this by teaching others the same meditation technique used by the rishis of ancient India, which is apparently mentioned several times in Apocolypse (ch. 1 and other sites).

  5. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @David R: Yes, natural explanations often fail here. Do not supernatural explanations fail as much, if not more so? Special pleading for “supernatural” powers and such is not really an explanation at all. Provide a coherent argument for your case and I’m all ears, and willing to change my “naturalist” explanations (which, I only claim are possible explanations–more probable than supernatural claims). Thanks

  6. saijanai

    “Self-realization is a fairly useless term to me, like enlightenment is. These terms are so broad and unspecific to be useless. Enlightenment, self-realization sounds enticing, spiritually “sexy”. We put the gurus on a pedestal in the spiritually “sexy” category. We buy books, attend lectures, and donate monies to the gurus.”

    Your objection doesn’t make sense in the context of responding to a comment about Maharishi’s discussions about enlightenment, and certainly not when responding to a comment that explicitly discusses the scientific research on people who self-report that they meet Maharishi’s definition.

    If you can publish research on the physiology of people in a specific state, the term “unspecific” no longer applies.

    Now, the question about the use of being in such a state is very interesting. Since enlightenment is presented in terms of being lower-stress than pre-enlightenment, the implication is that all the benefits of being lower-stress apply to being enlightened, and more-so than before you became enlightened.

    So again, I’m not sure where you are coming from. The only explanation seems to be that you read the word “enlightenment” in my comments and have such a knee-jerk negative reaction to that word, that you forget the words, sentences and paragraphs that surround the word.

    So… let’s put it differently.

    Maharishi described physiological changes that he said would come about due to long-term practice of Transcendental Meditation and that there were specific internal markers that people would tend to perceive to let them know that they were into the changes that he said would take place.

    The first such marker would be the emergence of a pure, calm, uninvolved, sense of self that wold persist at all times in all circumstances, even when the person was in deep sleep.

    From a modern physiological perspective, the internal perception of such a situation is merely the way in which we appreciate the physiological changes that have taken place due to long-term TM practice.

    There are further markers that would arise as the physiological changes continue due to the practice of TM and related techniques and one such marker would be to notice that all thoughts, emotions, perceptions, intuitions, memories, etc., are fluctuations of that “pure, calm, uninvolved, sense of self” that emerged previously. SUch a marker is sometimes called “Unity Consciousness” and people would describe it as “being ‘one’ with the universe.”

    The alleged physiological changes that give rise to that internal marker have not been established and obviously, the usefulness of such changes have not been established either, but in principle, they could be.

  7. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: Interesting Maharishi didn’t discuss the “third eye”.

    Yogananda, my former guru, talked about the spiritual eye a fair amount in his lectures and writings. If you saw it was supposedly a sign of spiritual progress, gods grace, or a blessing of the guru. Seeing the third eye wasn’t necessarily a mandatory experience to enlightenment–but one signpost towards his version of “self-realization”.

    Self-realization is a fairly useless term to me, like enlightenment is. These terms are so broad and unspecific to be useless. Enlightenment, self-realization sounds enticing, spiritually “sexy”. We put the gurus on a pedestal in the spiritually “sexy” category. We buy books, attend lectures, and donate monies to the gurus.

    “Sexy”, beautiful, and enlightenment or self-realization are in the eyes of the beholder. I’m not attracted to enlightenment or self-realization in these classic definitions.

  8. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: Good points. See my response below to John Shirley about zen.

    The spiritual marketers have a compelling messages: They create desire, say we lack enlightenment or need salvation, and then sell us their products or methods we think we need. It’s ironic the gurus claim everything we need is within. Yet, these same masters say we need to practice and follow their methods to attain enlightenment, to find ourselves. I lived in an ashram for 14 years. By my 12th, I finally understood I didn’t need the ashram nor a guru. My “spiritual” purpose for entering the ashram was fulfilled. I left the monastic order soon after my realization and never looked back with regret.

  9. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @John Shirley: I agree. Buddhism or Zen seems to be the least “supernatural” doctrine of the religious disciplines. I follow Secular Buddhist movement via podcasts and news. I meditate occasionally and find pleasure in it. Yet, I also find same in many other activities: writing, thinking (not thinking-pure experience), cycling, sleep, sex to name a few. A “search” creates a desire to find. I’m a sucker and gullible as humans are. But, I see most of the hype about meditation and mindfulness to be just a subtler form of consumerism in “spiritual” wrappers.

    Your thoughts?

  10. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    Thanks, John Shirley, for your comment.

    1) Esoteric “understanding”– I’ve had plenty of esoteric “understanding”–as a former ordained monk of 14 years, and one who’s been initiated into the secret doctrines of Kriya Yoga of gurus, seeing the lights and hearing the sounds, yada yada. In this blog, I explore esoterica (yoga and meditation) with a skeptical but open mind. Frankly, I’ve found little if any coherent “understanding” from the esoteric teachings UNLESS I can turn off my reasoning powers and have “faith” in the folklore and theology of the gurus, saints, and masters. I don’t. I can’t anymore based on what I know and don’t know today. Yes, I’m ok not knowing. I no longer need answers given in esoteric, incoherent language.

    2) Searching for diamonds in quartz– We need a reliable method of discerning fact from fiction, an understanding of what true, justifiable knowledge versus wishful-thinking or tricks of the mind. The Celts have esoteric claims that leprechauns and fairies romp the earthly nether realms or hidden dimensions. Do you believe fairies are esoteric “diamonds” in the quartz? We need a reliable method for assessing the probability of “truth” claims? (Example: Probability that Leprechauns exist 1-5%. That they are folklore bullshit 95-99%). If we have predisposition for searching for diamonds, spiritual eyes, or gods we’re likely to fall for the bullshit. Then we make them up because we want comfort or to justify our search–even though our “leprechauns” probably only exist in our imaginations. I don’t disrespect persons for their imaginations. Our minds are beautiful, creative. Let’s just not pretend our minds are capable of reliable, true knowledge without a method that others can use to scrutinize our claims.

  11. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    Hi David: Actually, I don’t have a conclusive explanation for what I “saw” while I was cycling or meditating. Some natural explanations, given at the end of my blog post, are more probable causes, I think, than supernatural causes.

    Medieval man and woman used to think diseases, menstruation, and seizures were caused by the supernatural (the devil). Rain and harvests were attributed to the gods, the supernatural. Superstitions serve a purpose. I try not to fall for them anymore. But, I’m human and gullible–and try to be aware of them.

  12. saijanai

    The idea of a “third eye” isn’t really found directly in TM theory. Maharishi merely claimed that wholeness exists and we start to appreciate that wholeness as our nervous system takes on a certain form.

    What that form would be like isn’t known as yet. The research on enlightened TMers by Fred Travis included reports by people who appeared to be seeing “deep into the nature of things” as well as people who see their “Self in all things and all things in the Self,” not just people reporting that “Self never goes away -even during deep sleep,” but there were only 17 enlightened subjects in Fred’s original study, so he couldn’t do statistical analysis on sub-groups of enlightened people, but he tells me he has at least 51 new enlightened subjects for his new study, so preliminary analysis of the physiological correlates of different stages/states of enlightenment may be possible, depending on how many there end up being in each plausible grouping of responses.

  13. saijanai

    “Yet Zazen teachers really are teaching mindfulness, with Zen techniques. If no one becomes mindful before enlightenment, then few become mindful–and we know that isn’t true. Many more people achieve increasing degrees of mindfulness than actually achieve satori. I think someone is using the term mindful to teach a fine point: that trying is not subtle enough.”

    Or few are actually becoming enlightened and therefore aren’t truely mindful in the sense that I mean it, where your essential Self is simply That Which Watches.

  14. John Shirley

    Yet Zazen teachers really are teaching mindfulness, with Zen techniques. If no one becomes mindful before enlightenment, then few become mindful–and we know that isn’t true. Many more people achieve increasing degrees of mindfulness than actually achieve satori. I think someone is using the term mindful to teach a fine point: that trying is not subtle enough.

  15. saijanai

    Some Zen people are appalled by the concept of “working on” mindfulness. According to such people (mirroring what the TM founder asserts), mindfulness arises out of enlightenment, not the other way around and attempting to “be mindful” is actually detrimental to enlightenment.

    When eating, eat; when drinking, drink.

    The Japanese is inherently more forceful when repetition of words is used, so the translation isn’t very good. A better translation would be:

    when you’re engaged in the act of eating, you are eating, stupid, not trying to be mindful OF eating.

  16. John Shirley

    If someone were to ask me where to get a “spiritual” discipline that’s worthwhile, I’d point them to the better Zen centers, where nothing supernatural is discussed and people work on zazen, and mindfulness. Can be done by complete and utter atheists with no compromise of philosophy. True Zen doesn’t assume or discuss reincarnation, etc

  17. John Shirley

    You guys are right to be skeptical. Totally right. But in some instances there are superficial (and commonplace, even ancient) interpretations of, for example, the third eye, and there is an esoteric understanding. Attention itself is the actual third eye. The movement of attention; the expansion of it. There’s nothing supernatural about it. But it is something understood esoterically, by most who grasp it. I know, there are texts that are a bit literal minded about the third eye thing, and the conflation with notions of a mystical gland in the brain, and so on. But–all that is exoteric. Most of what claims to be esoteric is, of course, charlatanry, poppycock and bunkum. I’ll always side with a skeptic… but some spiritual disciplines do have some secrets worth discovering. I usually fall back on the analogy of a single diamond hidden in tons and tons of quartz… the diamond takes some searching. And what you find isn’t supernatural; it doesn’t allow anyone to levitate…

  18. David R

    I had anticipated earlier that you would put it down to hypnosis, even though your personal experience there seems to have been brought about by some physical result where tiredness and oxygen deprivation, by your own account, explained this “spiritual eye”. Also, a contrary would be if you say this same vision many other times while in meditation.

  19. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @David R: How are persons like faith healers able to transmit healing to their audience? To cast out demons? Or, how do Pentecostal evangelists transfer their power of speaking in tongues? Group think, hypnosis, suggestion? A placebo able to heal a patient of a disease without taking the pharmaceutical medicine?

    When we humans want to believe, especially when emotionally invested, and when we are strongly influenced by a group or authority we are capable of all kinds of visions, sounds, and imaginative experiences?

    Are these experiences reliable, true knowledge? Not to me.

  20. David R

    I can vouch for the fact that seeing stars has absolutely nothing to do with having some inner vision of the spiritual eye. If you are familiar or aware of the Near Death research, you should also know that oxygen deprivation has nothing to do with it either. I think it is tempting to try to give explanations in terms of known physiology but ultimately this fails to explain so many other things.

  21. David R

    A more interesting question to me is how persons like Yogananda are apparently able to transfer the vision of the spiritual eye to other people. I’m sure you’ve read about these things.

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