By meditating the consumer believes they can find happiness, health, or Nirvana. Most of all, to practice mindfulness or meditation consumers believe they can collect pleasurable experiences (whether couched in physical, emotional, or spiritual terms).
Here we explore how mindfulness and meditation are used to get people to spend money and consume products that they otherwise might not buy1. We are exploited by elite authorities who tell us we should meditate. What causes us to be consumers of meditation mindfulness and nirvana?
Thus, meditation and mindfulness are the ultimate products, writes Jeff Wilson in his praiseworthy book Mindful America (2014). The act of mindfulness can not be packaged or measured. So the benefits of practicing are cleverly “packaged”, promoted, and pushed as workshops, retreats, and lessons (books).
Consumers of meditation, mindfulness, and nirvana
Peddlers of meditation and mindfulness use:
Scientific studies to promote the benefits of their products and services,
Testimonials of people who were once stressed out and unhappy, and thanks to meditation, are now blissed out and happy.
Marketing tactics used to sell “ancient” meditation techniques.
A quiet, empty mind is fairly easy to influence, manipulate, and fill with desires. We relax and empty our minds by practicing mindfulness and meditation. It’s then fairly easy to sell us more workshops, retreats, and lessons.
We desire after happiness, self-improvement, and Nirvana; desires that previously were not present before we bought the premises that are promoted by peddlers of meditation and mindfulness products. Ironically, there are thousands of other free products (exercise, relaxation, or sleep to name three) that work just as good or better than meditation.
Game of gain
Playing mindfulness and meditation is a familiar game. We quickly learn to seek and collect experiences. The practitioner accumulates meditative experiences and gains points. The goal is to earn rewards for health, happiness, and enlightenment. The “spiritual” equivalent to earning Frequent Flyer Miles is to meditate more often and longer. Meditators choose from a menu of aspirations and benefits. Practitioners accumulate Frequent Flyer Meditation Miles. The more they practice (fly) the more points they can earn towards rewards of health, happiness, or Nirvana.
There are negative consequences to playing the game of meditation. When players of the mindfulness meditation entertain “bad” thoughts or do “wrong” acts points are lost. In the Orient and Occident this is the notion of “karma”, the cosmic scoreboard, which tallies the meditator’s points for and against the attainment of happiness and ultimately arriving at their destination, Nirvana.
We are led to believe, by meditation peddlers, if we use their products we will gain happiness, health, and Nirvana. In believing, we rely on the authority of those who taught us about meditation products and benefits in the first place. We use mindfulness research studies to bolster our beliefs that our favorite products (techniques) “work”.
Consuming and trusting dubious authorities
Hence, we think meditation works (gives us beneficial experiences). And, when we want something to work we will seek evidence that supports our beliefs. At this stage in the post-purchase process, any experiences in meditation will confirm whatever beliefs we think we choose. In reality, we are not in control of this process. Rather we are conditioned to consume by an elite group who claims to know what’s best for us.
So we are conditioned to consume what we are told is best for us: fixes or gives us health, happiness, and Nirvana. Consumption is the heart of capitalism. “Consumerism”, remarked documentary film maker Adam Curtis in The Century of the Self, “is a way of giving people the illusion of control while allowing a responsible elite to continue managing society.”3 We consume meditation because we trust dubious authorities who created our wants and desires. These authorities then sell us the fix, meditation techniques.
In conclusion, consuming meditation and mindfulness is to seek experiences: happiness, health, or Nirvana. We seek what has been promoted to us by meditation peddlers. When we buy into the underlying premises–that we are “broken” and meditation is the “fix”–it’s fairly easy for “authorities” to get us to consume workshops, retreats, or lessons.
Using mindfulness to fix or gain something is doomed to fail, say Buddhist meditation teachers.
The practice of mindfulness, Western Buddhists argue, should be a sustained, quiet exploration and awareness of inside out, rather than a practice for gain of self, power, or control.
As Buddhism has been mainstreamed, its teachings have often been offered not as part of a religious, spiritual, or ethical whole, argues Magid and Poirier, Buddhist lay meditation teachers, but as a relief for pain, a way to build skills, or to better oneself.1
“Practice as gain operates within a familiar frame of separate self, power, and control. …An ‘I’ seek to ‘fix’ something, whether ‘out there’ or ‘deep inside’, that is ‘broken’ or ‘unsatisfactory’, or to ‘gain’ something that is currently ‘missing’ [is what’s wrong with mindfulness].” (p43)
Buddhist lay-teachers: Critics of mindfulness
Barry Magid and Marc Poirier are critical of the Western mindfulness movement. Their essay, Three Shaky Pillars of Western Buddhism, appears in What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives [Read my post reviewing the book, coming soon].
Barry Magid is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practicing in New York City. He is a founding member of the Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York and author of several books, Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common ground of Zen and Psychoanalysis, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide, and Nothing is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans.
Marc Poirier (1952-2015) was professor of law at Seton Hall University Law School in New Jersey. He received lay entrustment from his teacher, Barry Magid, to teach meditation to students and faculty of his law school and was a longtime practitioner of meditation and active with Zen Teachers Association.
Expecting meditation to produce a particular state of consciousness, that the practitioner hopes someday to be permanent, is doomed to failure writes Magid and Poirier. Why is it doomed to failure? The authors don’t directly say in this essay. However, the underlying Buddhist reasons for failure can be gleaned from other essays in What’s Wrong with Mindfulness.
Underlying reasons for mindfulness failure the book contends are: In Buddhism “nothing” is real and everything is impermanent. To expect anything to be permanent–especially enlightenment–is illusion and the path of suffering.
Magid and Poirier describe the “workshop” approach to meditation and mindfulness. Extracted from the religious and spiritual context of Asian Buddhism, mindfulness is being repackaged for mass markets and quick consumption, it is ridiculed by critics, including committed Buddhists, as “McMindfulness”.
[Read my article on Consumers of Mindfulness, Meditation, Nirvana, coming soon]
Buddhism repackaged for mass consumption?
Repackaging Buddhist meditation for mass consumption is counterproductive. The meditation technique, argues Magid and Poirier, needs its religious or spiritual context within Asian traditions.
Buddhist practices have, they argue, increasingly been adapted, simplified, and altered in the West. Often for the purpose of extracting meditation techniques from their Asian religious and cultural contexts.2. Extracting mindfulness from its Oriental roots puts the foundation of practice on shaky pillars.
Three shaky pillars of Western Buddhism
The Three Shaky Pillars of Western Buddhism described by Magid and Poirier are:
1. Deracination: Cutting off Buddhism at its roots?
Deracination is literally, “cutting off from its roots” the practices of mindfulness meditation from Buddhism. It has increasing led to a secularization (removal from religious context) of Buddhist meditation practices.3
“Mindfulness and meditation techniques are being marketed and increasingly institutionalized as therapy and as personal transformation”. (p41)
The mindfulness movement…
“Threatens to obscure the fundamental nature of Buddhism itself”. (p41)
2. Secularization: Buddhism that is areligious?
Secularization, removing the religious or spiritual context, has instrumentalized Buddhist practices as technique or therapy. Mindfulness or meditation becomes a commodified product for personal gain or self-improvement.
3. Instrumentalization: Mindfulness, instrument for gain?
The problem of instrumentalization, say the authors, is the value of the activity of meditation is not in the activity itself but in what it is to be gained. It’s commodified products or results.4
What’s the harm of removing mindfulness from Buddhism?
Removing Buddhism from its Asian cultural and religious contexts, say Magid and Poirier:
Obscures traditional practices [of Buddhism and distorts them].
Consequences [of practice ] are no longer considered sacred.
Loses lineages of Eastern tradition; mindfulness is no longer part of a religious container.
“Most important is experience of awareness, of life as it is. Nothing is needed to be gained.” (p44)
Meditation has always failed
Magid and Poirier argue that mindfulness is doomed to fail without a lifelong commitment to a practice, without a qualified instructor, and without a supportive religious Buddhist community. I ask: what is mindfulness meditation supposed to help us succeed at?
Mindfulness meditation, according to Fortune, is a billion dollar industry5. Many Americans are eager to consume mindfulness products, retreats, and workshops. Most consumers are not told that a lifelong or religious commitment is required for practice. The latter is the desperate plea from the authors of What’s Wrong with Mindfulness.
Last week a colleague confided with me that he has been struggling with depression and that he was considering using a mindfulness-based therapy. I cautioned him against expecting mindfulness or meditation to be beneficial. There are many adverse effects, read my posts on Adverse (Side) Effects, that are terribly underreported. I recommended he seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional to determine if meditation-based therapy might help.
We Americans can’t meditate away the problems we have behaved our way into. Meditation (and religion) has had more than 2000 years to prove itself as the ultimate solution to human suffering. Meditation has always failed.
Yes, mindfulness can change the brain. Everything we do changes the brain. Meditation included.
Relying on neuroscience to validate mindfulness implies meditation is not valuable in and of itself as a spiritual practice, says Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum, Zen Buddhist priest and coeditor of:
What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives1, a collection of 12 essays written by 12 Buddhist or Zen priests and Vipassana meditation instructors and therapists. All 12 essayists are committed, lifelong practitioners of Buddhism and meditation.
Rosenbaum, author of the essay Mindfulness Myths: Facts and Fantasies, is a psychologist and psychotherapist formally trained in Zen and Qigong. He received his lay [priest] entrustment from Sojun Mel Weitsman of Berkeley Zen Center and is authorized by Master Hui Liu as a senior teacher of the Taoist practice of qigong of Yang Meijun. Rosenbaum’s books include, Walking the Way: 81 Zen Encounters with the Tao Te Ching and Zen and the Heart of Psychotherapy.
What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives book as a whole isinteresting and compelling read because it is written by Western Zen Buddhist priests who are thoughtful and skeptical of the mindfulness movement in America.
Below are some excerpts and summaries from Rosenbaum’s essay Mindfulness Myths: Fantasies and Facts and my commentary in brackets.
Myth and fantasy: But we know mindfulness practices changes the brain!
Fact: Yes, says Rosenbaum, but everything we do changes the brain2. Meditation included. But so does checking Facebook, listening to music, reading, closing your eyes–each activity or non-activity will register an EEG (electroencephalograph) or fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) change in the brain. So what?
[Closing one’s eyes, as in most meditation practices, is a non-activity. Sleep is a type of non-activity. Relaxation, as in meditation, is non-activity. Non-action is precisely the benefit–the change in our brain. Disconnecting, disengaging from electronic devices or external stimuli is a non-activity. As beneficial as relaxation.]
Myth and fantasy: Mindfulness is proven effective in clinical trials
“A careful examination of the research”, writes Rosenbaum, “reveals how enthusiastic proselytizing can sometimes be less than mindful of the complexities and caveats involved.” p59
[Proselytizers of mindfulness who push the research often lack awareness, are unmindful. Or, if they are aware or mindful of the caveats in the research, are dishonest with themselves or others.]
“In fact, the benefits of quiet, relaxation, and stress management are so powerful it is often difficult to demonstrate that meditation contributes much beyond potentiating and enhancing the non-specific mechanisms at play in deep relaxation”. p60
[All mindfulness studies face the same difficulty:
What are the measures of mindfulness?
There’s no objective measure for a psychological state described as mindfulness.
To measure mindfulness, many studies use participant self-reported data.
Self-report studies have advantages for researchers, but disadvantages include exaggerated answers and are biased towards the participants feelings at the time of filling out the questionnaires3.
Most advocates of mindfulness-based therapies recommend practice more as a lifestyle or stress reduction (relaxation) technique, which begs the question:
What is the mechanism or active ingredient in mindfulness? There may be none.]
The thrust of Rosenbaum’s essay and throughout the book is that mindfulness ought to be practiced with lifelong commitment within its Asian Buddhist religious context:
[What’s wrong with mindfulness is that it has been] extracted from its Asian religious and spiritual contexts proponents of mindfulness are grasping to demonstrate its verifiable and useful [that there’s something to gain from mindfulness outside of its religious or spiritual context]. P55
[The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?, another book that critically examines mindfulness studies: “Listen, this new wave of studies on mindfulness is full of disingenuous scientists who are up to their necks in Buddhism”, remarked Jonathan Smith4, a 1970s pioneer in scientific research into effects of meditation practice. “Look carefully. Check the control groups they’re using.”]
Myth and fantasy: Mindfulness is superior to other techniques
Fact: Psychological studies compare one technique (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT) to another method (such as traditional psychotherapy or medication).
What sixty years of psychological research has uncovered is that client (participant or patient) factors are far more important than the techniques.
Factors such as motivation, desire, belief, psychological, relationship and socioeconomic status account for 85-98% of the outcomes of psychological treatments. That means, the techniques themselves such as mindfulness or meditation, according to Lambert and Wampold, account for at most 2-15% of outcome variance in psychological treatments. p64
In other words, that it is the client, not the therapist nor the technique, that is most important in the process of psychological change is not popular. P65
“The ‘hard science’ of research swallowed uncritically makes us more credulous: it enhances the fantasy that meditation is somehow magical, that by meditating we will not have to confront the hard work of placing our difficulties within the context of how we are living our lives and the messy specifics of how to change our behaviors.” p67
Zen and Qigong lay-priest, Rosenbaum, continues:
“In the religious sphere, meditation can tempt us with the fantasy that we are more than human, some kind of super-being, if only we attain anuttara samyak sambodhi,[samadhi], or supreme perfect enlightenment. In the secular sphere, meditation can tempt us with the fantasy that we can control our thoughts, feelings, and achieve superproductivity and happiness just through our personal [individual] efforts.” p67
I agree with Rosenbaum. Many Westerners tend to be fantasy-prone with their expectations of mindfulness or meditation techniques. Rather than practice to gain or achieve anything, the Zen Buddhist priest says that mindfulness practices are not important. What is important is awareness of life as it is and ultimately the practice is to make us aware of what’s right in front of us.
Image credit: Public Domain. affen ajlfe, brain 18, www.modup.net/. Retrieved from Creative Commons Jun 11, 2017.
4 Jonathan Smith quoted from p132 of The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm (2015) [Read my book review of The Buddha Pill]. Smith had published a landmark study in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1976, pp630-637, Psychotherapeutic effects of transcendental meditation with controls for expectation of relief and daily sitting. Smith’s study used equivalent expectancy controls, and he clearly demonstrated that a person’s predisposition toward anxiety (trait anxiety) is not reduced by the practice of meditation (TM method), but that it can be reduced by sitting with closed eyes in conjunction with an expectation of relief. Abstract of Smith accessed from TranceNet: TM_Independent Research on Jun 10, 2017 at http://minet.org/www.trancenet.net/research/abs.shtml.
Meditation systems often instill followers with harmful ideas of superiority.
The attitude of superiority by meditators, yogis, and avatars is morally, spiritually, and scientifically bankrupt. Violence or agression need not be overt or expressed physically to be harmful. Destructive ideas, even notions of passivity, can breed indifference and incite actions of hostility towards others, especially outsiders. Meditation and yoga, as a spiritual ideology, as a soteriology1, has embedded within it harmful superiority complexes.
This article examines harmful superiority complexes within meditation and yoga practitioners, within their systems of ideologies and soteriologies.
Soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation, liberation, or release:
In Hinduism is the primary concept of moksha (liberation, release).
In Buddhism is the primary aim of liberation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.
In Mysticism, generally, is the primary notion of liberation of soul or self through union with a transcendent being.
Many meditation practitioners have one or more of these soteriological aims or goals. If not, top of mind, then somewhere in the background is the desire or seeking of liberation, release, or salvation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.
Nothing wrong with the desire to reduce suffering or ignorance. However, systems of yoga and meditation that promise liberation often also instill followers with superiority complexes and psychic conflicts.
Psychic conflict and superiority complexes
First, in this article we use “complex” to describe a group of emotionally laden ideas that are repressed that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior2. Superiority3 in this article is defined as an exaggerated sense of one’s importance that shows itself in the making of excessive or unjustified claims.
Superiority complex, then, is an explicit or implicit attitude of superiority that conceals feelings of inferiority and fears of failure.
Yogis, masters, and avatars (exalted persons supposed to be enlightened, compassionate, and “One” with everything) and their followers usually proclaim that yoga (their particular spiritual ideology or practice) is the highest, ultimate, and superior path for humanity.
The ideological or soteriological systems of yoga and yogi-masters typically proclaim to achieve for practitioners “Oneness”, inclusion, and compassion towards all beings. While in actuality there are internal conflicts. Everything outside their particular yoga system, tradition, or ideology is seen as inferior, illusory (Maya, Satanic), and ultimately worthless.
Yoga scriptures illustrate superiority complexes
To illustrate the ideological superiority complexes embedded within yoga systems, consider the following examples:
Shiva, the Hindu god of yoga, in the Rasārṇava4condemns all other forms of yoga or religious practice, not sparing even the six major philosophical schools of Hinduism–which allow liberation with release from the body upon death5:
“The liberation that occurs when one drops dead is indeed a worthless liberation. [For in that case] a donkey is also liberated when he drops dead. Liberation is indeed viewed in the six schools as [occurring] when one drops dead, but that [kind of] liberation is not immediately perceptible, in the way that a myrobalan fruit in the hand [is perceptible] (karamulakavat).
In The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, explains that the Hindu yoga god, Shiva, continues in the Rasārṇava to emphasize that the yogic quest is superior to all other religious practices:
Liberation [arises] from gnosis (jnana), gnosis [arises] from the maintenance of the vital breaths. Therefore, where there is stability, mercury [sexual fluid of Shiva] is empowered and the body is stabilized. Through the use of mercury one rapidly obtains a body that is unaging and immortal, and concentration of the mind. He who eats calcinated mercury (mrtasutaka) truly obtains both transcendent and mundane knowledge, and his mantras are effective.
It is now known that exposure to mercury and its compounds causes hydrargyria or mercury poisoning, which may lead to peripheral neuropathy, damage to or disease affecting nerves, which may impair sensation, movement, gland or organ function, or other aspects of health, depending on the type of nerve affected. Perhaps to the Raseśvara the symptoms from mercury poisoning and nerve damage was believed to be a sign of spiritual achievement, liberation, and superiority?
Greater than followers of other paths?
The Bhagavad Gita, Song of the Lord, is a part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. In it the Lord Krishna, who is proclaimed a great yogi and avatar (Lord come to earth to save humanity), extols the superiority of yogis.
“Such an one ranks Above ascetics, higher than the wise, Beyond achievers of vast deeds! Be thou [a] Yogi, Arjuna! And of such believe, Truest and best is he who worships Me With inmost soul, stayed on My Mystery!”6
Famous yogi guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, claimed he was a channel of Krishna/Christ- Consciousness in his interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita, God Talks with Arjuna:
“The Lord Himself here extols the royal path of yoga as the highest of all spiritual paths, and the scientific yogi as greater than a follower of any other path”7.
Shiva, Krishna, and the mahesvaras (great yogis or avatars) belittle other religious systems and practitioners as inferior. Meditation practitioners are led to believe they and their particular techniques are superior, and that all followers of other systems are inferior.
Implanting superiority to get and keep followers
Meditation and yoga traditions and systems use their Super Men (avatars and masters), like Krishna, Shiva, and spiritual gurus, to impose their values and implant their superiority complex into their yoga followers.
The spiritual Superman (avatar or master) proclaims all other systems of liberation (soteriologies) are inferior, “worthless” in an effort to get and keep followers. All other people who do not practice the Guru Lord’s version of “royal” yoga (meditation techniques) are explicitly and implicitly deemed inferior, ignorant, or damned–doomed to wander in darkness of Maya.
Instilling fear in followers
Fear is instilled in followers of these systems. The system, with the spiritual authority at the head, needs to ensure its continuance by keeping followers, and fills them with ideas that instill fear should they consider leaving the system. Remember these are ideological systems: built and maintained on ideas. They are not dependent on physical proximity or even actual adherence to practice.
Feelings of guilt for questioning the system is one way to prevent you from leaving. Followers when trapped inside these systems of ideas justify their loyalty to the system, group, or teacher to protect themselves from questioning their doubts and repressed feelings.
Competing for followers
Yogis, avatars, and spiritual masters compete for followers. It’s not enough to follow any system of yoga or meditation. Theirs is superior. Their followers are told they are superior. It has to be this way for this system to survive, to keep its followers. If gurus or yoga systems are not perceived by their followers as superior to any others, why follow that particular ideology, system, or meditation practice?
The “others”–followers of other systems to liberation–are therefore condemned as inferior by the “superior” meditators, yogis, and so-called spiritual masters of a particular system. Or, at best the “others” and their inferior systems are pitied (with condescending “compassion”) as those other peoples are in “reality” lost, ignorant, and part of the mindless masses.
To err is human. We often believe our team or tribe is the best (superior) and everyone else’s is inferior to ours. That in itself is not the problem. Repression of superiority complexes and the lack of awareness of followers is the problem.
Overcoming superiority complexes of yoga and meditation systems
Superiority complexes, like we discussed above, are often implicit or explicit within the ideological or soteriological systems followed by meditation practitioners. Repressed within these systems followers often have hidden feelings of insecurity and feelings of failure. By transforming feelings of inadequacy or inferiority into superiority complexes, these systems pretend to be more spiritual, to be greater than others. The harm and dangers lurk in this repression of inferiority that pretends to be superior.
I am not saying all practitioners or all yoga or meditation systems have superiority complexes.
What I am saying is followers of these systems are at higher risk of repressing their feelings through claims of superiority, having all the answers, following an infallible authority or unchallengeable system. Hence the popularity of articles hyping the “scientific” benefits of certain meditation methods.
Feelings of being “chosen”, “special”, or greater that others can be an indicator there is superiority complex. If one person or system is superior, then the other must be inferior. A system, like yoga or meditation, that claims to be superior, infallible, and unchangeable is a potentially harmful ideology.
Ideological superiority = This is a natural, human trait, but dangerous thinking. The yogis, avatars, or spiritual masters are not exempt (indeed in this article we’ve shown them to often be the perpetrators) of needing and competing for followers who seen them as superior to others, especially to other spiritual systems or techniques. Anyone claiming to be superior to others or to be a part of an infallible, unchallengeable system is at increased risk or harming themselves and others. Awareness of this fact is an important step towards doing less harm to oneself and others.
Image #1: “Alchemy” by Riding on a comet is licensed under CC BY 2.0
4 “Raseśvaras, like many other schools of Indian philosophy, believed that liberation was identity of self with Supreme lord Shiva and freedom from transmigration. However, unlike other schools, Raseśvaras thought that liberation could only be achieved by using mercury to acquire an imperishable body.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 24, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raseśvara].
What is sleep paralysis? How is the experience interpreted in yoga tradition?
Every night we suffer from sleep paralysis. But we are not always aware of it. Sleep paralysis occurs while we are half awake and half asleep and we can’t move.
“Always when I’m going off to sleep. It’s pretty much the same”, Ted, a 35 year old British psychologist described his experiences of sleep paralysis. “My eyes are open and I get the sense something in the room is happening. Then a shape gathers. A presence. I can feel its weight. I have multisensory sensations. I feel like my body is floating. I can’t move it. I try to make a sound in my throat. I can’t. As I keep struggling to cry out, eventually scream out and that wakes me up and then I can move my body.”
As I was thinking about writing this post, I kept hearing readers tell me, “You don’t know that sleep paralysis is similar to yoga meditation experiences. Who are you to speculate on the traditions and experiences of yogis, saints, and mystics?” I had my doubts about writing this post. While what I write may not adequately address all aspects of sleep paralysis and interpretations, I feel it is important anyway to write this article.
In between sleeping and waking, in this “threshold consciousness”, are a variety of mental phenomena that includes lucid dreaming, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis. I assert the sleep paralysis may be, in yoga tradition, what is interpreted as union with god, soul, or spirit. But more on that later. First, let’s return to what happens in our body during sleep paralysis.
What Happens During Sleep Paralysis?
While sleeping, your body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. One REM and one NREM sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes. First is the NREM sleep cycle which takes as much as 75% of your overall sleep time. During NREM sleep, your body relaxes and rejuvenates itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep shifts to REM. Your eyes move rapidly, dreams occur while the rest of your body remains very relaxed. During REM your muscles are “switched off”. If you become aware and interrupt before the REM cycle is finished, you may notice you cannot move or speak. This is sleep paralysis.
In Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis Chris French, Professor and Psychologist at University of London, identified three psychological factors in the experience of sleep paralysis:
Intruder — The person may sense a presence, hear voices or strange sounds, and see lights or visions. In a word–hallucinate.
Incubus — The experiencer may feel pressure, be unable to voluntarily control breathing, may panic creating a feeling of suffocation or difficulty breathing.
Unusual body experiences — Sensations of floating, flying, or hovering, and out of body experiences. Proprioception, self-orientation within the body, is missing or out of order.
Sleep paralysis may evoke feelings of bliss or terror. The experience may be interpreted differently by different cultures or traditions. In Hinduism, Viśvarūpa is Sanskrit for “sacred terror”. Whether the experience is terrible or joyful is irrelevant. It’s the tradition and the interpretation that frames it as either sleep paralysis or sacred yoga.
How is sleep paralysis experience interpreted by yoga meditation tradition?
Yoga Tradition and Sleep Paralysis Experience
Famed yogi-guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, taught his students a “Definite Technique of Attaining Ecstasy:
“As you are falling asleep each night, keep your eyes half-open and focused at the point between the eyebrows; consciously enjoy in a relaxed nonchalant way the state at the border of joyous sleep as long as you can hold it without falling asleep, and you will learn to go into ecstasy at will. . . Try to remain in this state from five minutes to one hour, then you will know about yoga: conscious communion of your soul with God.”
The practice of the yogi-guru’s technique (above) could result in what Western medicine and psychology says is sleep paralysis. Yogananda interprets sleep paralysis experience as “yoga: conscious communion of your soul with God”.
Another aspect of sleep paralysis which overlaps with yoga tradition is samadhi. Samadhi is by tradition the supreme goal of yoga (union or communion with God).
Let’s examine some similarities between so-called yoga samadhi and sleep paralysis.
Similarities Between Yoga Samadhi and Sleep Paralysis
When compared with sleep paralysis we find many similarities between yoga samadhi experiences, which include:
Immobilized body, unable to move
Altered or heightened awareness
Heard voices, sounds
Saw shapes, visions
Disabled physical senses
Panicked to breathe, speak, or move
Felt terror or bliss (depending on experiencer interpretation)
Sensed floating, levitating
Hovered, outside, or “above” the physical body
To be aware is to experience. No awareness, no experience. After awareness of experience comes interpretation.
For instance, you become aware you can feel or control your “breathing”. Terror sets in. You panic. You gasp for breath. Or, you feel detached from your physical body. You feel bliss or terror.
I had panicked during yoga meditation. My awareness just landed on “not breathing” after feeling “outside” my body. I panicked and gasped for air. Coming back to voluntary control of my body.
An American-born swami-monk lectured around the world about the blessings of yoga meditation. The first time he practiced his guru’s yoga meditation technique, he told audiences he panicked when he became aware he was “not breathing”. Gasping finally resulted in sucking air into his lungs. Immediately the swami said he was brought back into his body consciousness.
Personal experiences like these are anecdotes, not proof the phenomena are objectively real. Returning now to the anecdotes reported by yogis and experiences of sleep paralysis patients, let’s examine the differences.
Differences Between Yoga Samadhi and Sleep Paralysis
Differences between sleep paralysis and yoga samadhi, includes:
Very common. More than 3 million US cases per year.
Legendary, mythical claims and anecdotal stories not well-documented nor verified by independent researchers.
Reproduced, well-documented by independent researchers in various lab experiments.
Not reproduced, not well-documented by independent research or lab experiments.
Mechanism fairly well-understood for how and why physical and psychological phenomena occurs during half awake, half asleep state.
No “samadhi” or superconscious awareness has been clearly explained in a verifiable, credible way. No scientifically known mechanism for how and why a superconsciousness exists or is actually different from non-supernatural brain states, such as sleep paralysis.
Recorded durations of seconds or minutes.
Said to last minutes, hours, days, years, or for eternity (when one reaches godhood or cosmic consciousness). No well-documented cases from independent researchers or experiments.
What can sleep paralysis teach us about yoga traditions?
When we compare sleep paralysis and yoga samadhi experiences we find many similarities. Not all phenomena related to so-called yoga samadhi and sleep paralysis experiences are the same. Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Definite Technique of Attaining Ecstasy” seems to be yoga method to induce sleep paralysis. The ecstasy or experience that Yogananda and yoga tradition may interpret as supreme yoga–union or communion with God–physicians and psychologists may call sleep paralysis.
Have you experienced sleep paralysis? Yoga “samadhi”? What do you think of similarities or differences between the interpretations by yoga tradition?
1 Professor Chris French, Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis. Presentation at Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, Oct. 11, 2009. Accessed Aug. 30, 2016, https://vimeo.com/11459308.
2 “Sleep Paralysis”. WebMD, accesssed Aug. 30, 2016, http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-paralysis#1-3.
3 “Sleep Paralysis”. Rationalwiki, accessed Sep. 1, 2016, http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis. In Medieval Europe demons called incubus were said to attack women and succubus to attack men, usually sexually. Different cultures interpret differently but usually mythologically the experiences of sleep paralysis, altered awareness, and yoga samadhi.
4 Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship Lesson 154. Yogananda refers to “conscious” sleep throughout his yoga lessons, “The soul may use its intuition together with life force released from bodily activities during the relaxation of sleep to project true visions on the screen of the subconscious. Visions may show events to come, as the soul can use its intuitive power to “photograph” future happenings. But a vision does not appear until sufficient energy has been relaxed from the heart and from the ordinary waking consciousness (as in sleep) to project it”, Lesson 73. And, “This detachment of the mind from body consciousness [during yoga meditation] is similar to that experienced in sleep, except that one remains consciously aware”, Summary Lesson.
5 “Visvarupa”. Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 1, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vishvarupa. Bliss and terror are bedfellows in Hindu mythology. Viśvarūpa is Sanskrit for “sacred terror”. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu bible, Lord Krishna reveals to his chief-disciple, Arjuna, the Viśvarūpa experience. Arjuna is terrified by Viśvarūpa, said to the universal form of Hindu God(s). 6 “Sleep Paralysis”. Mayo Clinic and Google Search, accessed Aug. 30, 2016, https://g.co/kgs/3Vw3IB.