I just had an “experience” during meditation

Last Saturday, something unexpected… something special happened during my routine 10-minute meditation. It certainly wasn’t part of the routine!

Now, for some important context, meditation has always been more of a chore for me. While I attribute a lot of my resilience and ability to manage stress to my practice, meditation has never been never easy. During my three years of meditating 3–5 times a week, it’s been more cough syrup than sugar. I do want to do it, for the long-term benefits, but I can’t wait for it to be over.

This time was different. At the end of my usual ten-minute session, I felt… strange. In the best possible way. At this point, I would usually sigh in relief it’s over, yet I felt drawn to continue. Very strongly drawn. Like I was closing in on something wonderful, and I should take a chance to find out. So I closed my eyes again and sat there. Two hours later, I opened my eyes and started writing this post.

Here’s what happened

My exact steps

  1. I started the session maybe 30 minutes after waking up, having made my kids breakfast first.
  2. I took my usual half-lotus position on the wooden floor in front of my guest room window.
  3. I started a 10-minute timer with 1-minute gongs on the Healthzilla app.
  4. I started silently repeating this mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum.
  5. I maintained a natural breathing rhythm approx. 3 sec in, 3 sec out.
  6. I timed my repetition of the mantra with my breath: Extended “Om” on inhale, “Mani Padme Hum” on exhale.

Round 1 (8.00 a.m. to 8.10 a.m.)

I’ve been reading a lot about Hinduism and Buddhism recently, and in fact, I’m just in the middle of the Dhammapada, which is part of the Pali Canon of traditional Buddhist texts attributed directly to the Buddha. I particularly enjoyed the lengthy intro as it describes procedurally step-by-step advancement towards enlightenment, i.e. the Dhyanas. It’s not the first time I came across the description of the Dhyanas, but I found the concise description by Easwaran to be more insightful.

“Between the first and second dhyanas there is no demarcation line. Both are areas of what might be called the personal unconscious, that sector of the mind in which lie the thoughts, feelings, habits, and experiences peculiar to oneself as an individual.”

— The Dhammapada by Eknath Easwaran

Upon first reading about the Dhyanas, they seemed quite arbitrary in their differentiation, because they are worldly descriptions of something incredibly subtle that isn’t part of worldly experience. At least that’s how I read it previously. I wondered which Dhyana I was in, or had experienced. Was I even in the first Dhyana?

Well, since becoming more confident that such levels exist and are accessible, that was the driving reason for my curiosity to extend my meditation. I’d never felt such a desire to continue the meditation, so I just went for it, with no timer on.

Round 2 (8.10 a.m. to 9.10 a.m.)

Sensations

The overall sense was that I was in a different place, that was very safe and warm, yet I was still able to sense the old place clearly. I could hear kids playing outside, people talking in the other room, but I was beneath the surface. It’s like when you go underwater, just below the surface, looking up. There was no sense of distraction at all about what was going on above the surface.

In fact, physically there was a similar sense of being underwater. The stillness and quiet, a sense of being at peace. My limbs felt very heavy, especially my hands resting on top of my knees. In some sense, it felt my body was locked in place, including my posture. I’ve been practicing the half-lotus and have struggled to maintain good spine posture even for 10-minutes due to lack of flexibility in my hips. So I was surprised to find perfect ease in maintaining my posture, suddenly. The overall sensation wasn’t constricting, more like a strong feeling of safety like being in your mother’s embrace as a child.

The heaviness gradually developed into a sense of numbness. That happens during my usual 10-minute sessions too, but limited to my fingertips. I always hold the tip of my thumb and index finger together, and I tend to lose that sense of them touching after a few minutes in. This time though, I could gradually feel that sense of numbness spreading at least to my arms and legs, if not my entire body. It’s like when you sit on your hand and it feels numb and foreign. Most of my body started feeling foreign to me.

With the numbness also came a kind of warm tingling, like when that numb hand starts to feel again. Except it was quite muted and all over my limbs. I could also sense a light hum in my ears. I’ve experienced that before during Wim Hof breathing, which almost feels like oxygenated blood rushing through your veins, and you can hear it. I can’t tell the exact time or order these things were happening, but I was distantly aware of the passage of time in some sense throughout. As I felt these sensations, I became anxious to remember them so I could recount them afterward!

As time passed, there was a dichotomy of strong sensations. I could feel pain in my legs from my skin pressing into the hardwood floor. Usually, that doesn’t amount to much pain for 10 minutes, but I knew I was past point that by now. The thing was, that I felt that pain above the surface, like in another room. Not acutely, like it hurt me in the moment. More like I knew it would hurt, but only if and when I returned to the “surface”.

The pain was offset by a growing euphoria. As said, I’ve never been on any kind of recreational drugs, and haven’t had any major surgery. Hence, I don’t have direct experience to compare to the effects of hallucinogens or stimulants. The closest thing I can think of is again Wim Hof breathing. The oxygen and carbon dioxide interplay does funny things to your mind.

Whatever it was, it was very intense. Breathing methods have the potential to release endogenous opioids, serotonin, and dopamine. Like an inner cocktail of happiness. Similarly, meditation has been shown to increase oxytocin levels in the body, explaining the sense of security and warmth you experience in the arms of a loved one.

One final but pretty profound sense I had was that this would continue indefinitely. Not to say that it would, per se, but this was a strong sensation I felt clearly. That I could choose how long this experience would last, and there was no limit.

Thoughts & Emotions

More drastically, it was clear that negative thoughts and emotions were simply not possible in this state. Most of my meditations begin with a distinct sense of anxiety that I feel like a pressure on my chest. Meditation has already helped me from allowing my mind to be pulled into a whirlpool of negative and hateful thoughts. But here, none of that existed. I felt full control of my emotions and thoughts, but anything negative wasn’t available, like I left it on the surface with the rest of the world.

My thought process felt light and effortless, and I could still have thoughts like wondering about my experience and so on. But importantly, there were no uncontrolled, sudden thoughts that entered my mind. The default state wasn’t noise, but peace. I could choose my thoughts, rather than my thoughts choose me.

I could clearly identify a strong gravity of staying in this state. It reminds me of something Sam Harris said about novice meditators always waiting to finish meditating, and experienced meditators hoping to maximize their time before returning to the world reluctantly. I’ve never even had an inkling of that experience before, but here it was, clear as daylight.

Exit stage left

So… I simply opened my eyes. The sensations did not stop immediately. In fact, most of the physical sensations were there, maybe at 50% intensity from a moment ago, but very clearly present. I felt a deep sense of calmness, positivity, and emotional stability. All of which isn’t normal for me.

Round 3 (9.10 a.m. to 10.00 am)

At first, I would say I got right back in there. Within seconds if not minutes. Right-back in the zone, albeit maybe just a tad muted. Call it 80% of the intensity of the second session. I once again lost track of time, as I didn’t set any timer. Now that I was in a comfortable setting, there was no creeping pain to pull me back to reality, either.

Instead, what eventually happened was that I couldn’t maintain focus on the mantra fully. I noticed I would momentarily forget the order of the words, or how to say one of them, or if I had already said it. I was basically dozing off into sleep. So I cut it there and opened my eyes again. Another hour has passed.

I had now meditated for two hours, with just a few minutes break between three sessions. As a geek, I was curious to immediately check my wearable devices. I wear an Oura Ring during sleep, which I had left on for some reason in the morning. I also wear a Garmin Vivosmart 24/7. So I went ahead and checked what I could see from there. My Oura Ring basically thought I had been sleeping for the last two hours, showing a condensed full sleep cycle including REM and deep sleep. My Garmin showed that my heart rate was pretty much back to my lowest sleeping levels, a good 10 bpm lower than my typical daytime heart rate even during normal meditation.

Oura app showing my sleep stages through my meditation. You can see it thinks I went back to sleep sometime during my second session!
My Garmin Vivosmart captured my heart rate going pretty much as low as my overnight sleeping heart rate even at the end of the two-hour meditation session.
Garmin also has their own measure of Stress from 0–100 which shows I was pretty chill and even went into a sleep-like state towards the second half (in blue).

Given the way that session had ended, I felt the experiment was over. I had exhausted my mental powers, like Professor X or Eleven, I had to rest to regain my powers. So I just went about my normal day as normally as I could.

While two hours may not be a big deal for most professionals, i.e. monks, my record length had been 30 minutes of guided meditation. Normally, I simply couldn’t get past 10-minutes of unguided meditation, which was my regular practice.

Round 4 (9.00 p.m.)

I distinctly recall just walking to the local supermarket and feeling totally different. I was just walking, but with a deep sense of calm and acceptance. My entire body felt a little foreign, and my posture felt oddly natural. I kind of looked at other people and wondered to myself if they could notice anything unusual about me. Obviously, no one did, but it reminded me of the story about the Buddha when he first came out of the forest after his enlightenment. A little boy he came across simply asked him “What are you?”, instead of the expected “Who?”. Obviously, there’s levels to this game!

Through the day these sensations gradually faded away to where I would say I was almost back to normal. So I was naturally curious to see when the magic spell completely wears off, if it does at all. I went back in for another meditation later that evening. I would say the next session was great for meditation as I usually experience it, but only 30% of the intensity of Round 2. Some of the sensations were there, slightly muted, and like in Round 3 just harder to maintain focus on the mantra and feeling a general sense of drowsiness.

End of the line

A few days removed from all this, I can sadly say that I’m back to normal now. What has changed permanently is my approach to meditation. I feel grateful to have experienced first hand what I’ve only read about skeptically. It does prove to me that there is much more to experience with time and patience and that it is not just abstract, conceptual, and subtle. It can be very intense and vivid. You wouldn’t mistake it for anything else!

This is what I think it means

Well, there’s two ways to look at it. The science doesn’t have a whole lot to say about it, unfortunately. I didn’t plan to experience such an event, it just happened, so I wasn’t in a laboratory ready to be poked and scanned. All the data I have is that my wearable devices agree I was sleeping.

Based on the sensations I experienced, and what I have read about the brain and consciousness, it seems coherent with an altered state of consciousness. This can be both triggered and created by a change in balances of various chemicals, including seratonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and even endogenous opioids. Basically, the body taking the mind on a trip, triggered by the mind itself. Interestingly, the pain in my legs could have been part of the process, as pain response includes dopamine, part of the happiness cocktail.

The other reference point we have is the traditional texts about meditation. That’s where I believe given the lack of alternatives, we need to find evidence or at least analogy. Depending on the exact reference, I may have entered the second or third Dhyana (Buddhism), or simply a state of Samadhi (Hinduism). These represent a clearly distinct state of being, which isn’t easily confused with regular consciousness.

Here’s a description of the third Dhyana by Easwaran:

“When the thought-process has been slowed to a crawl in meditation, there comes a time when–without warning–the movie of the mind stops and you get a glimpse right through the mind into deeper consciousness. This is called bodhi, and it comes like a blinding glimpse of pure light accompanied by a flood of joy.”

— The Dhammapada by Eknath Easwaran

Having read various texts from the Upanishads (Hinduism) and the Pali Canon (Buddhism), I now recognize several things that I witnessed experientially first-hand. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is clear that the ancient texts are simply describing states like this, which explains a lot of the seemingly abstract and outrageous claims about consciousness, life, and the universe. Perhaps the early yogis stumbled upon these states, and just recorded what they experienced. Less burning bush, more travel diary.

  1. Having such an experience, it’s easy to make profound statements like you are not your body, or you are not even your mind. These are really hard to grasp or comprehend unless you have an experience where it is shown to be true in the first person.
  2. Consciousness goes deeper. Advaita Vedanta talks about the fourth type of consciousness beneath wakefulness, dreaming, and sleep. This state I was in had elements of all three, but clearly wasn’t any one of them. If there is such as thing as pure consciousness, I was there.
  3. That state is void of character and personality. Hence it feels like some type of ground truth shared with all other living beings, whether or not they have knowledge of it. Like if you could take everyone into such a state, they would know the same truth at the bottom of existence.
  4. From here, it’s not a tremendous leap to appreciate the oneness in Buddhism and Hinduism alike. If all conscious beings have a shared ground state, are we really separate at all? I don’t necessarily buy it just yet, but I can see the rationale emerging from first principles.
  5. This shared pure experience would also lead you to believe that reality is less real. That all this is just an illusion, built upon the foundations that few can access directly. Hinduism talks about Maya, the great illusion, and Brahman, the underlying reality we don’t see.
  6. Loving-kindness can be found in that state as a physical sensation. I understand how you might enter such a state, and come out of it full of loving-kindness. It’s not something you need to invent out of thin air. You get it as part of the package.
  7. Unlike Abrahamic religions, there is a foundation of goodness of the individual in Hinduism. That at the core of us there isn’t sin, but love. If you experience shared consciousness, you can do no harm to others, as they are also you. Man is inherently good, not evil. Morality is innate, not fictional. The truth is within the self, not in the heavens or hell. Based on this experience, I would tend to agree.
  8. The monks aren’t faking it. If you could spend time regularly, or even permanently, in such a state, you would just be… happy. It would simply be impossible to look at all life any other way, except through a lens of universal loving-kindness and oneness.

If the effect had become permanent, or at least reproducible, it’s not even arguable. I would be a different man, quite dramatically, and suddenly. It didn’t, and I’m still processing everything now. It can be easy to forget such experiences in the buzz of daily life, and I may never experience anything similar again. But now I know what is there, waiting, just outside of our normal experience. I know it’s real, and that meditation goes much deeper than the West gives it credit.

The dark side of the coin

There are many descriptions of the Buddha’s life story, but I found the Dhammapada version by Easwaran oddly haunting. It is made clear that prince Siddharta left his wife and newborn son in the middle of the night, in fear about their mortality. Of course, this cowardly action is ultimately reconciled by the Buddha’s saving of all people incl. his former family, but as a father of two myself, it doesn’t quite feel kosher.

Suppose Siddhartha hadn’t succeeded and had simply withered away during his extreme asceticism, dead in rags under some random tree to be found years later by some wandering goat herd. Suppose he didn’t leave his family in a palace to be pampered by attendants, but simply by the side of the road. Surely any bad fortune, illness, and suffering are then borne by his conscience, karma, or otherwise? Is the attempt worthy of the risk? Does the karma balance out if the intention is pure?

Similarly, in the description of Hindu monastic tradition, very much alive today, there is a ritual of having a death ceremony for your family, and ultimately yourself. In Indian law, the monk actually gives up any hereditary rights, and in fact, even gives up social security. So in a very practical and worldly sense, you cease to exist as you pursue the inner path. As a Western engineer, this seems to be the most selfish imaginable choice to make when you have worldly dependents.

This conclusion doesn’t make me want to stop meditation, in fright of becoming an emotional zombie. In the kind of state I was in, it just makes less of a difference whether you consider your child or any child. The sense of peace, acceptance, and love feels more universal than it does personal. As the Buddha would say, you don’t give up love. You give up selfish love, that keeps you attached to the world and its contents. I’m not 100% sold on the idea, even if there is some logic to it. While I am happy to be a better person, I don’t feel an urge to become a non-person at this time in my life. Maybe when I’m old and wrinkly and my kids hate my guts!

What I learned about meditation

I’ve gone through hundreds of guided meditations, most importantly Sam Harris’ Waking Up 50-day course, which cemented in me that this can be a methodical process. Hand waving and healing crystals are not mandatory. Progress can be made, and it doesn’t even have to always suck. Meditation isn’t random sitting and waiting, there are skills involved that can be honed. Sam also lowered my skepticism towards the more mystical origins of his teachings, with his highly secular style, void of any woo-woo, opening my mind to approach the ancient teachings directly having lowered my science-guard of cynicism.

Over time, though, I felt a tangible sense that the mindfulness revolution is all wrong. They are actively keeping everyone at level one. Yes, you can gain tremendous benefit from simply calming yourself for a bit every day, but there seemed to be so many levels ahead and nobody seemed to acknowledge them.

Why? Was it because they knew that helping people reach those levels would be so challenging, or that there simply was no one repeatable path they could provide? Shallow is the word that comes to mind. The lack of structure in the community annoyed me, more than anything, but it kept me curious as to whether there was a secret cheat code out there. The texts I was reading about Vedanta (Hinduism) and Buddhism seemed to make it abundantly clear that monks in particular routinely reach totally different levels of consciousness with meditation. The Buddha’s central message was that process, the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment, the end of all suffering.

One thing was clear to me early on. Maybe Sam Harris said it, too. You can only get so far with guided meditations. You have to practice, too. It’s like school. If you only listen to the teacher tell you about math, but never actually do any math, you won’t get it. So I felt quite adamant that most if not all of my meditation should be unguided. But unguided is tricky, in that it is quite possible to get entirely lost in thought for the entire session. So some gentle form of reminder is helpful. So I designed the meditation timer I wanted for myself, using recordings of Tibetan gong and singing bowls in the Healthzilla app, with the optimal time for me, which is 10 minutes. It’s short enough not to find excuses for even on a busy day, but long enough that I felt I could really engage in a session. Five minutes is just not enough.

I had also been skeptical of Transcendental Meditation, despite, or perhaps because of, it’s many public supporters in the West, including recently and famously Ray Dalio, Ellen Degeneres, but also David Lynch. Oh, and the Beatles. However, I did want to try it, just in case. Turn every stone, I guess. So some months ago, when I stumbled upon an update of the Oak app, they had added a free 10-day Mantra Meditation course. It was the perfect time to try it. They provided a list of one-word mantras you could just randomly pick from, and then apply in the ten sessions.

The practice of using the mantra was quite interesting, I found, and different from my expectations. I had assumed you have to repeat the mantra out loud like monks in some movie I once saw, but actually, you practice to internalize the mantra, whereby you don’t even move the muscles of your mouth as you say it in your head. I thought that was pretty cool.

So what did the mantra do for me? I felt it was a crutch of sorts. It would guarantee a certain level of focus immediately, getting me into a deeper state of calm. But I also somehow felt it was restricting me, as in I would just remain focused on the mantra and lose something in awareness. So I would use the mantra here and there, especially if I had a rough start to a session.

Then I saw an old video (link below) by David Lynch where he drew an interesting diagram drawing parallels between the modern physics and Hindu interpretations of the universe. Here, he presented the mantra as a tool. Using this tool, you could get past simple awareness and concentration, and go deeper inwards. That clicked for me, as I had specifically felt stuck in that superficial, if helpful, top layer of simple awareness. Plus, I’m a sucker for unifying the forces of nature.

That made me curious to explore mantras and read about them. Soon that very Saturday morning, on a whim, I thought I would try the most famous Buddhist mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum. There’s a famous saying in Buddhism that you’re meant to concentrate during meditation like your hair is on fire. That’s actually very hard to do, when you try it. There just isn’t much to hold your attention when you close your eyes and simply breathe. No 4K video with picture-in-picture. Not even a photo feed with infinite scroll!

That’s why having a somewhat complicated, longer, unfamiliar mantra I think helps a lot. It forces you to concentrate. To articulate in your head. It takes enough of your mental energy to allow you to ignore most other senses, and double down on the mantra and your breath. That can be enough to prevent boredom and therefore random thoughts hijacking your meditation. I don’t assign any other mystical powers to the mantras, but if they have done the job for thousands of years… why reinvent the wheel?

NOTE: Several key advocates for meditation in the West all got into meditation through drugs, more specifically hallucinogens like LSD and/or psilocybin. This list includes Ram Dass, Alan Watts, Sam Harris, and Tim Ferris. Each had different reasons for taking drugs, and then further reasons to hope to find deeper, more authentic experiences through meditation. As said, I don’t have that reference and have never seen the need to. Yet after my own experience with meditation, I can understand what they were looking for both with the drugs as well as meditation. It really is a different state of being. I can appreciate the analogy much better, as I had previously assumed the sensory impact to be more subtle. This doesn’t make me one bit curious about drugs either, because they’re just an artificial and harmful method of previewing the real deal.

The takeaways for me are:

  1. Meditation goes much much deeper than the mindfulness community would lead you to believe.
  2. Meditation is (annoyingly) purely experiential, and you have to discover your own path towards progress. I doubt there will ever be a pill, than can modify your brain permanently towards enlightenment. Elon will try with Neuralink, no doubt.
  3. You can’t get very far at all with guided meditations, as they keep you in the superficial level of simply maintaining focus as you listen. Unguided is where it’s at, so get on board early.
  4. Mantras can be a powerful tool to add to your meditation toolkit. It’s not a spiritual thing, it’s just a tool. Use it!
  5. Progress isn’t linear, but dareisay inevitable, if you stick to meditation as a lifetime practice, instead of a project with a goal and a deadline.

Can you have the same experience?

What’s the likelihood you will have the same experience if you replicate my steps? Well, you won’t, because you’d have to have my exact brain. No, you can’t have it! Meditation has been shown to gradually rewire the brain and affect its neurochemistry.

If anything, I’ve come to appreciate, as an engineer, that certain aspects of the universe and our reality are currently only possible to experience firsthand, and cannot be scrutinized by science. At least until we understand the brain and consciousness. Which could be never judging by our lack of progress. This means I can’t, more than any other person or teacher, impart to you exactly what you have to do. I don’t have visibility into what’s actually happening in my brain more than anybody else, so I can only speak to what has worked or not worked for me.

I can explain what you might look for, but then you have to try it, look for it, and experience it for yourself. This was a little hard to accept for me as an engineer, but in some sense, I felt that was the profound teaching of Buddha. Not to worship him as an idol, but to follow his very practical example and teachings on how to achieve freedom for yourself.

Reading The Dhammapada also made it clear that having this glimpse of the other side doesn’t mean I get a season pass now. In fact, without persistence and commitment, and lots of time, I may never glimpse it again. So there’s a real element of sticktoitiveness.

“It requires the patience of someone trying to wear down the Himalayas with a piece of silk — and you feel you are making about as much progress.”

— The Dhammapada by Eknath Easwaran

Insights to discover

  1. Read The Dhammapada by Easwaran, or a free version here without the excellent and long introduction by Easwaran.
  2. Listen to this podcast on Vedanta meditation, explaining some of the things I talk about.
  3. Extra reading: In The Buddha’s Words, The Upanishads, The Way of Zen by Alan Watts.
  4. Extra listening: Advaita Vedanta series, Alan Watts lectures, Ram Dass lectures.

Meditation tips

  1. Posture — Half lotus with a pillow to elevate hips above knees.
  2. Timing — Morning after wakeup.
  3. Place — Find a place that feels right, or at least best out of the practical options.
  4. Mantra — Try adding a mantra into your practice to deepen your focus.
  5. Habit — Aim for a daily practice of just 10 minutes. Any is better than none, but keep building towards daily practice.
  6. Extend — If you feel gravitation to continue beyond 10 minutes, take the opportunity!

It’s an odd conclusion to arrive at as a lifelong skeptic, cynic, stoic atheist, but I have discovered a kind of faith in meditation. That it isn’t just about relaxing. There is profound truth there, that can be discovered by each and every one of us.

Aki Ranin is the founder of two startups, based in Singapore. Healthzilla is a health-tech company and creator of the Healthzilla health analytics app (iOS) (Android). Bambu is a Fintech company that provides digital wealth solutions for financial services companies.

Thinks about the future a lot. Founder of two startups. Lives in Singapore.

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