“Unusual experiences” of mindfulness

Kornfield revealed that, “Unusual experiences, visual and auditory aberrations, “hallucinations”, unusual somatic experiences, and so on, are the norm among practiced meditation students”.1

Jack Kornfield, Insight Meditation Society co-founder published his 1977 PhD dissertaion “The Psychology of Mindfulness Meditation”. In it he conducted interviews with 163 participants during long-term mindfulness meditation retreats in the U.S.2 Kornfield’s research data revealed the unusual experiences of intensive mindfulness meditation practice.

The “unusual” effects Kornfield reported get erased from contemporary research and advocacy of mindfulness.3 His findings showed eighty-percent of mindfulness meditators have “unusual experiences”.4

unusual experiences of mindfulness meditation

Some Reported No Benefits

Some people were unable to meditate. Others reported no positive benefits from mindfulness practice. These phenomena are left out of the current discussions of mindfulness for the masses. Whereas positive effects are emphasized by mindfulness advocates: such as the elimination of anxiety, resolution of psychological tension, reduced eating, improved concentration, and greater feelings of love.

“Low-level” Effects

In Kornfield’s dissertation, he was not as concerned with low-level “unusual” or positive effects of mindfulness practice. He emphasized that the greatest results were due to classical Buddhism itself, that mindfulness transforms the meditator to see through the illusion of the ego-self and to recognize the impermanence of an illusory world.5 The “unusual experiences” are erased from contemporary mindfulness.

Norm Among Meditators

The monastics in the ashrams, where I lived and practiced meditation for 14 years, were discouraged from discussing “unusual experiences” lest these distract us from our ultimate aim: self-realization, god-realization, soul liberation. Paranormal, yogic and siddhic powers were considered “lower level”. Yet, our books, classes, and conversations were rampant with fascinating and magical stories of yogis and monks who had unusual experiences and supernatural abilities.

These visual and auditory aberrations, “hallucinations”, and unusual somatic experiences are the norm among practiced meditators, Kornfield writes. Why don’t mindfulness advocates discuss “unusual experiences” with the masses?


1 This is the 1979 version of Kornfields dissertation, Intensive Insight Meditation: A Phenomenological Study revised for Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. p51

2 ibid p43

3 Jeff Wilson, Mindful in America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, p 82-83

4 Kornfield, Intensive Insight Meditation: A Phenomenological Study, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology p43

5 Jeff Wilson, Mindfulness in America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, p 83

Creator of Skeptic Meditations
  1. If the vast majority of mindfulness practitioners have “unusual experiences” then how are they “unusual?”


    Now, the TM perspective is that TM sets up conditions for the nervous system to gain the deepest rest possible for a given moment. At times, one might fall into the deep sleep state, or start dreaming, and of course, during dreams, any “unusual” mental event isn’t really “unusual” or hallucinatory: it’s just a dream.

    Assuming that one isn’t sleeping or dreaming during TM, the deepening of rest is perceived as quieting of mind, but eventually the resting process will trigger repair/normalization mechanisms in the nervous system that are perceived of as increased levels of mental activity. The deeper the rest gained, the more deep-rooted/profound the repair activity that is triggered, and the more deep-rooted/ancient/extreme the associated stress is, that is being addressed by said repair activity. Sometimes memories associated with the stress are evoked as part of that repair activity, and sometimes only an emotional response is evoked, but our brains have a tendency to associate emotions with memory, so often, some random memory with a similar emotional content might arise and the meditator is left wondering “Why am I so bitterly crying over the fact that I had to change the lightbulb that burned out last night?” (it’s the closest memory with a similar emotional response to whatever might have actually been the original source of the extreme emotion).

    At times during TM, the mind will completely settle down, leaving no experiences at all. This is called samadhi, the deepest possible rest of the nervous system. However, unless you are fully enlightened, eventually repair/normalization activity will be triggered by this deepest level of rest and some kind of thought/emotion will be perceived (since that is how we interpret such activity). As samadhi is the deepest form of rest, it is quite possible that the most extreme stress is being repaired/normalized and so the most extreme emotions are perceived. Such emotions might be positive, or negative, as are the thoughts. Even the lyrics to a song from The White Album that might have come during meditation to John Lennon during his stay at Rishikesh were really only “stress release” or normalization from this perspective.

    The point is, at least from the TM perspective, ANY ole experience might arise. Some might be so “inspirational” that John Lennon was motivated to stop meditating and write down the words, or they might be so extreme in their emotional content that special handling is required (e.g. a nightmare or extreme emotional memory), but from the TM perspective, ALL thoughts and other mental/emotional activity during TM arise from the same basic situation: you’re not enlightened. If you were sufficiently low-stress, your nervous system would simply respond to TM by resting in the samadhi state without interruption. By tradition, if you were truly fully enlightened, you would never leave that state even after the meditation session was over.

    And so, from the TM perspective, there’s really no such thing as “unusual” activity during TM: there’s thoughts and emotions (including song lyrics) of varying degrees of intensity, and then there’s samadhi. Anything other than the samadhi scenario could really be seen as an abnormal/unhealthy condition for the nervous system, and of course, everything is relative as to how pleasant/unpleasant such abnormal conditions might seem, but it’s all part of the same thing.

  2. @saijanai: In the context of this post, that summed up Kornfield’s PhD dissertation interviews, 80% of his interviewees reported “unusual experiences”.

    I think the use of the term “unusual” could also apply to these experiences in the sense that the mindfulness movement and advocates are NOT usually discussing these experiences. Versus the usual discussion they have about the benefits they choose to highlight. I wonder if the TM movement and its advocates openly discuss “unusual experiences”? I think you’ve answered that thought.

    Your comments seem to imply TM describes all experience or phenomena as illusion of dreams (experiencer not enlightened) versus samadhi (experiencer enlightened). You and I have had discussions previously about samadhi and enlightenment. I find the terms “samadhi” and “enlightenment” to be vague at best. We need a working and agreed upon definition of terms to have productive conversations. I’ve recently completed reading some PhD research that attempts to define samadhi. I’ll see if I can post my findings to get a dialogue going about what samadhi might be.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. So my comment is to Saijanai.

    “And so, from the TM perspective, there’s really no such thing as “unusual” activity during TM:”

    Really? What about “yogic flying”? Stage one is meditating, “feeling bliss and the body wants to fly”, Stage two “the body actually hovers in the air for a short while” and the third stage is “mastery of the skies.”


    ha ha ha… sorry… ha ha …sorry… this is absolute horse hockey. Ha ha ha…

    Wait a minute. I think I just remembered doing yogic flying when I was a child of 5. Yes yes. My parents bought new bunk beds and I got the top one. I was overjoyed. I could not contain my state of bliss. The last thing I remember I was bouncing on my bed and I began yogic flying…seriously I flew…then there was that abrupt hitting my head on the floor and I saw the “spiritual eye”. When I came to, Divine Mother came to me (my Mom’s name was “Divine”) and consoled me of my mayic delusion. and my bloody nose.

    Maharishi Iamgetinrich Yogi

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