Advanced meditation practices can cause energy imbalances that lead to serious physical and emotional problems. Ken McLeod, a veteran of two three-year retreats, explains what to do if this happens to you.
A few years ago, a psychologist came to see me with concerns after attending a one-day retreat. The practice instruction she had received was to put attention on just the physical sensations in her body, moment by moment. Whatever emotions or feelings arose, she was to focus only on the associated physical sensations. Thoughts and emotions were to be regarded as distractions.
When she rested attention in her body, her meditation was more stable. During the program she experienced a deep calm and much less distraction than usual, so she continued this practice after the retreat. Though experienced in both meditation and yoga, she was not prepared for the roller-coaster ride that followed.
First, pressure built up in her head and upper chest. Then headaches came on, migraines from which she had been free for years. Medication didn’t help. Then she started overreacting to minor disturbances, and became increasingly confused and disoriented. She wasn’t able to focus on her work, and felt uncomfortable and uncoordinated in her body. She found herself feeling trapped and claustrophobic and unable to sleep.
Fortunately, she had the intuitive sense to ease up on the practice she had just learned. In the evenings, she spent an hour or so doing light yoga and then rested in open awareness. After a few days, the pressure, the headaches, and other disturbances subsided. She felt more balanced and connected with her body, and her normal functioning returned.
“What happened?” she asked. “Did I do something wrong?”
To understand what happened, it is useful to use the language of energy. People experience energy all the time, react to it, use it, but often don’t know it. What is energy? It’s a quality that pervades everything we experience and it affects how we experience life. In Sanskrit, energy is called prana; in Chinese, it is called qi. People experience it differently, but it is often felt as a slight tingling sensation. It is like air, in that you are aware of energy only when it is moving. Energy operates at different levels, from the basic levels of food and sex to the subtle yet powerful energy of awareness.
The relationship between energy and attention is described in many spiritual traditions. In the Tibetan tradition, attention is used to lead energy, and there are meditation methods that use this connection to precipitate profound experiences. The analogy of the horse and rider is often used to describe this relationship: energy is the horse and attention is the rider. Attention provides the direction, energy the movement.
The particular meditation instruction the psychologist received is a method that transforms the energy of ordinary thinking to a higher level. With a higher level of energy, a higher level of attention becomes possible. When doing this practice, people typically experience less distraction and greater clarity in their meditation. However, the attention usually dissipates after a retreat as the increased level of energy is dispersed quickly in the ordinary activities of life.
Because of her previous experience and the kind of work she did, she was able to continue with this practice. With a higher level of energy and a corresponding higher level of attention, she started to touch old emotional material, such as feelings of claustrophobia and being trapped. She had been told to regard such feelings as distractions. Since she didn’t have a framework to understand what was happening, she did not know that she needed to include these emotional sensations. The effort involved in not including them in attention created an imbalance in her system and likely brought on the migraines and other symptoms.
In easing off the practice, she had, so to speak, taken her foot off the gas pedal. The transformation of energy tapered away. The open awareness and yoga practices redistributed the energy and restored balance in her whole system. Even though she didn’t understand what was happening or what to do, her intuition was right. After this experience, she made a point of learning how to recognize energy shifts, how to balance energy, and what adjustments to make in meditation when she touched deeper layers of conditioning.
When you practice meditation, or any discipline that requires attention, you inevitably transform energy. The four foundations of mindfulness illustrate the principle quite clearly. When you begin to practice, you become aware of thoughts.
In the first foundation, you bring attention to form (Skt. kaya), first to the physical sensations in the body, and then to all sensory sensations. As you rest attention in the experience of sensory sensations, energy is transformed. You are less distracted by thoughts and more aware of sensations, and you become aware of subtle feeling tones associated with each sensation.
In the second foundation, you include these feeling tones (Skt. vedana) in your attention, pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, physical, or mental. Again, energy is transformed; your mind becomes quieter and clearer, and you become aware of emotional reactions as emotional reactions.
In the third foundation, you include these emotional reactions and other mental states (Skt. citta) along with the physical sensations and feeling tones. Again, energy is transformed. You experience them, but you are not distracted or disturbed by them. Your attention becomes still clearer and more stable.
In the fourth foundation of mindfulness, mindfulness of experience (Skt. dharma), you are aware of all experience, which is everything that arises in your life—people, things, thoughts, and feelings. It’s all experience. It’s all movement in mind. Any sense of inside and outside drops away and you rest in this field of experience.
It doesn’t end there, of course. Energy transformations continue, taking you into different levels of insight. (In chapter 10 of my book Wake Up to Your Life there is a detailed map of insight energy transformations as described in the Mani Ka-bum, a ninth century text in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.)
In the metaphor of the rider and the horse, when the rider opens to awareness, energy powers the opening. When the rider falls into emotional reaction, energy powers the reaction. If the horse has only a little energy, attention doesn’t go deep and you are unlikely to have any problems. If, however, you have a very powerful horse with a lot of energy and you lose attention, then you can encounter serious problems, and others may suffer, too.
After a period of intense practice, many people are surprised at how reactive they can be. During the retreat, they make a steady effort in attention and energy transforms upward, that is, the energy that powers their attention operates at a level higher than ordinary thinking. After the retreat, they usually relax their attention and the elevated energy now flows into reactive patterns. As it drops a level, it picks up momentum. The cascade of energy down from higher levels can result in much greater reactivity than normal.
The more you practice, and the deeper your practice, the more important mindfulness becomes.
The Experience of Energy Transformation
Energy transformation experiences vary greatly from person to person. Sometimes, you look at the world around you, and it all dissolves into light. Sometimes, you look at another person, and colors are reversed. Unfamiliar sensations arise in your body, sometimes pleasant, sometimes decidedly unpleasant. You have difficulty sleeping. You feel wired all the time. For no apparent reason, you can’t focus. You are deeply unsettled. Perhaps you feel a sensation of warmth in your belly, quietly insistent. Maybe you see strange lights in front of your eyes.
You can also experience overwhelming bliss, of the intensity of orgasm, physically or mentally, or both. You may feel sensations of movement in parts of your body, particularly up the back or up the spine or out through the crown of your head. You may have inexplicable but intense sexual desire, or desire for various foods, particularly protein-rich foods.
Again, emotional reactions arise suddenly for no apparent reason. Maybe you are unusually reactive, hardly able to bite your tongue before you take someone’s head off, for no reason you can discern.
Maybe you rest in an imperturbable calm and you wonder what happened to all your ordinary reactions. Your mind and body are utterly at peace. Thoughts, if they are present at all, are like wisps of mist in an autumn morning. Your mind may be almost painfully clear and you have the sense of knowing what others are thinking before they open their mouths.
Any and all of these experiences may arise. They may last from a few minutes to several hours, even days or weeks. You may have difficulty functioning normally because of their intensity, whether they are positive experiences or negative.
They arise because energy has been or is being released from old patterns, because of your practice or for other reasons. As the energy surges through your system, many kinds of sensory sensations, pleasant and unpleasant, are triggered. Over time, the energy usually balances out and you find a way to relate to the world with a higher degree of attention.
Some people seek out the positive energy shifts and surges. They may use intensive yoga or other forms of physical exertion to induce them. They may use energy manipulation methods derived from qi gong or other systems. They may use drugs or other artificial methods. In effect, they get high on energy, and, over time, will experience many of the problems normally associated with addiction.
Energy in Meditation Practice
The Tale of Red Rock Jewel Valley, the first story in The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa gives a poetic account of what can happen with energy in meditation practice. To summarize, one day Milarepa went out to gather wood to cook some nettle soup. He was so weak that he was blown over by a gust of wind. He prayed to Marpa, his teacher, who appeared to him in a vision. He then returned to his cave where he found five demons. He had a very difficult time getting rid of them, especially the last one.
You have almost certainly had a similar experience. You practice and practice, but you seem to be getting nowhere. Something in you just gives up and the bottom drops out of your world. Your body and mind are suffused with ecstatic waves of bliss and you feel so light that you could fly with the wind.
This is all very encouraging, no? But then, a day or two later, you are going about your life and you completely lose it with a friend over something that had no significance whatsoever.
Where did that demon come from?
In meditation practice you cultivate attention, and the cultivation of attention is based on energy transformation. We saw how transformation takes place in the four foundations of mindfulness. Body scanning, holding a question, taking and sending—not to mention direct awareness methods such as shikantaza (just sitting) in Zen, yidam practice and Mahamudra and Dzogchen in Vajrayana Buddhism, and bare attention in the Theravadan tradition—all involve energy transformation.
In the initial stages of practice, we are consumed by thoughts. As we continue, we gradually are able to experience thoughts as thoughts, and not be distracted by them. To be a little technical, when the level of energy in the attention is higher than the level of energy in what you are experiencing, say, anger, or love, then you can experience the anger or love without getting lost in it. When you experience it that way, energy is transformed to a still higher level, making it possible for you to experience deeper levels of clarity and stillness, and also deeper levels of conditioning.
With higher levels of energy (and, consequently, higher levels of attention) you are aware of patterns of emotional reaction that you couldn’t touch before. In the story of Milarepa, through his prayer and devotion to Marpa, the energy in his attention moved to a higher level, he had a spiritual opening (the vision), and then, he had to deal with a whole level of reactivity that he had not touched before (the demons).
Just as the warmth of the sun penetrates the crystal structure of ice and causes the ice to melt into water, higher levels of energy in your attention penetrate the structures of old patterns and they break up. Energy that was locked up in the patterns is now released and may lead to strange and apparently unrelated physical and emotional sensations. If it releases suddenly, you may experience deep clarity, emptiness, or bliss for a while, but the shift is unstable and dissipates, maybe in a few minutes, maybe after a few days or weeks. The experiences aren’t always pleasant. You may encounter anger, desire, and other emotional reactions, pains in various parts of the body, inability to focus, recurrence of old physical ailments, and so on. There is no rhyme or reason to them. These shifts are called energy surges (Tib. nyams) and one is generally advised just to let them come and go. My teacher used to say of such shifts, “Not good, not bad: keep going.”
When you are sitting in meditation, you may feel in your body where energy is unable to flow. You may feel pain, or other uncomfortable sensations at a certain point in the body. Often, the meditation instruction is to put attention on the sensations, to experience them without reaction. When you are out of balance, energetically, this approach can compound problems. Energy follows attention, and by putting attention on the sensations caused by the imbalances, you are likely to increase the imbalance because you are drawing more energy into it.
Energy imbalances arise when energy is unable to flow. Something feels blocked, knotted, or tied up. The blocked energy tends to stagnate and starts to attack the organs and the nervous system in that area of your body. Stagnant energy can cause a wide range of imbalances that have both physical and emotional manifestations.
If symptoms of imbalance occur with increasing frequency and/or intensity, you may find energy-balancing techniques helpful. For instance, feel (and if you can’t feel, then imagine) energy collecting in the center of the body, at a point a couple of inches below the navel and an inch in front of the spine (the hara in Zen practice). Then feel (or imagine) it gently spreading from that point through your lower abdomen, then your whole torso, then your arms and legs and head, and then out through all the pores of your skin to form a field of energy in which you sit, with the field extending two or three inches beyond your body. If energy imbalances arise, do this two or three times in the evening. You can also do it at the end of every meditation session, as it will help to distribute energy evenly through your whole system and reduce the likelihood of imbalances.
Energy imbalances are nothing to trifle with. The more potent energy transformation practices (such as tumo, vase breathing, anu yoga, certain forms of pranayama and qi gong), practices in which you are transforming basic energies in the body to power attention, are all dangerous if not practiced properly. They can result in death, paralysis, or insanity, and for this reason need to be learned under the guidance of a capable and experienced teacher.
The physical ailments associated with imbalances are generally untreatable by any medical system. While techniques like massage or acupuncture can help, such methods don’t usually treat the underlying block, which is, in my experience, always due to some deeply conditioned emotional issue. Sooner or later, one way or another, the underlying emotional issue needs to be addressed.
Here are two approaches that can be safely employed in your practice. The first is to keep the field of attention open when you are working with sensations in the body. That is, instead of focusing attention on the part of the body where the sensations arise, hold your whole body in attention and experience the discomfort as a sensation that arises in a field of attention that includes your whole body. A simple instruction for this is, “Crown of the head, soles of the feet, hold these both in attention, and experience everything in between.” This approach keeps the sensations associated with the block in attention without leading energy into the pool of stagnant energy. The open field of attention allows the stagnant pool to dissipate over time and the block may also release.
The second approach adds an additional wrinkle. In the field of attention that includes your whole body, hold the sensations of the block and the sensations of what wants to move in attention at the same time. The block is there for a reason, and, like Milarepa’s demons, you can’t just ignore it or send it away. Accept the block. Accept the movement of energy. Put attention not on the block but a little beyond the block and lead energy through it. In time, it will open, like a flower opening to the warmth of the sun. This is not a process you control. Just experience all the sensations associated with the tension and imbalance, and let things resolve themselves. These approaches take time and patience, of course, but are generally safe and will not lead to further problems.
Energy and Emotions
There is a big difference between care and affection, say, and anger and greed. The latter close down on a sense of self. The former two open to the other. Many practitioners feel that they should have nothing to do with emotions at all, an attitude often encouraged by teachers who are emphasizing the importance of undistracted attention. Often no distinction is made between an emotion such as anger that clouds and confuses and other emotions such as love, affection, remorse, or sadness.
In the transformation process described above, it is inevitable that one is going to encounter strong emotions at some point. Energy imbalances can build up if you don’t know how to work with them. With mindfulness and awareness you can experience emotions completely. You aren’t just aware that you’re angry or upset, or in love, or ashamed. You experience that anger, upset, love, or shame completely without falling into confusion or dullness. You experience it as movement, as energy, rather than actually being angry, upset, and so on.
If no latitude is allowed to work with the emotions or through the psychological material that underlies them, the effect of a meditation practice can be to split you in two.
How does that split happen? Meditation raises the level of energy in your whole being. The higher level of energy inevitably brings you into contact with reactive emotional patterns. If you now repress the emotions, pushing them out of attention, two things happen. The higher level of energy in your system flows into the reactive pattern, making it stronger. The higher energy also flows into the repressing pattern, making that stronger. Both the reactive patterns of the emotion and the repression are reinforced. You end up splitting in two. One part of you is capable of attention and response. The other part becomes increasingly rigid and inflexible and takes over unpredictably whenever the repressed emotion is triggered by events or situations. Typically, you become more arrogant and self-indulgent, obsessed with power, money, sex, security, or other fixations, and act in ways to control or amass the object of your obsession. Long-term practitioners and teachers who protect areas of their lives from their practice run into this problem with unfortunate and sometimes tragic results.
Do you remember when you started teaching? For many, the intensity, the aliveness, the energy, come as a surprise, if not a shock. In just taking a seat, you are suddenly far more aware of everything going on in you.
The very activity of teaching requires a higher level of energy. When you include in your experience the students in front of you, and respond rather than react to their energy, you are transforming energy yourself. You move into a higher level of attention. People in the room pick it up. That energy is often attributed to charisma, or charm, or projection, and it may involve all three. But a significant component is the higher level of energy going into your attention. It creates a field. In master teachers, those whose practice is deep and strong, that field becomes almost palpable, and enables students to experience insights and patterns that they would ordinarily not be able to touch.
Energy plays a vital role in transmission. In pointing out instructions, for instance, you, as the teacher, move into empty clarity. The higher level of energy you experience there creates a field that opens possibilities in the student or students. In that field, you give them instruction on to how to direct attention. When the conditions are right, it is like a candle lighting another candle. Knowing arises in the student’s experience. Is something transmitted? Something happens, definitely, but exactly what is a mystery.
When people practice together, each person makes his or her own effort in attention. The accumulated effect of their efforts is the creation of a pool of energy in the group, a pool from which everyone can and does draw. In a group of experienced practitioners, you can feel the energy in the stillness. You can feel it in your body and it elicits a similar stillness in you, if you let it. People often experience deeper stillness, less distraction, or greater clarity in groups than they are able to experience on their own. As well, a hall or room where people have practiced over a long period of time will take on a charge, so that when you come into the hall, you feel the energy of practice in you.
In retreat settings, the retreat leader has a special responsibility to manage the energy of the group, as what happens with that energy affects everyone at the retreat.
For example, when a person with a fragile psychology taps into this pool of energy, he or she may touch into old patterns or old trauma and not be able to stay present in the strong emotions that arise. The person’s attention then collapses, or fragments. The original genesis of the fragility is reactivated and runs with increased intensity because of the higher level of energy in the retreat environment. This may result in a complete breakdown in the person. It is extremely damaging to the individual, and it is also damaging to the group, as the participants experience this as a black hole opening up and draining all the energy out of their practice. To return to the horse and rider metaphor, when there is no rider (i.e., no active attention) then the horse goes out of control.
Also, as a retreat progresses, people may become increasingly tense and rigid. This is usually the result of spiritual ambition, of people trying too hard, of pushing in their meditation and not allowing mind and/or body to rest in attention. You may observe the rigidity in their posture. The atmosphere in the meditation hall may become tense for no apparent reason. There may be an edge in people’s interaction, or an edge in the air, so to speak. Things may feel brittle, as if something could break or shatter at any time. If not addressed, something usually does, and what breaks is the attention in the weakest individual in the retreat. If this happens, you may have a replay of the first situation that I described. To counteract this buildup of energy in the wrong direction, it’s good to break the practice schedule and have people do something very different, something that allows them to relax and let go. A few hours disruption is generally sufficient. Suspend silence, have people interact with each other in ordinary ways, laugh, cry, go for a walk. Then return them to the structure and discipline of the retreat. They return to their practice with a renewed and clearer energy and the atmosphere in the meditation hall will be lighter, more open.
I remember talking with an old Tibetan lama, the senior chant leader at Kalu Rinpoche’s monastery in Eastern Tibet. He described how, after his three-year retreat training, he ran into difficulty with energy imbalances when he practiced tumo, or inner heat. He returned to retreat to do a purification practice, reciting the associated mantra day and night for a year. During this period, he was unable to eat or drink anything more than a small ball of roasted barley and weak tea. He lost so much weight that he was reduced to skin and bones and his hair and fingernails fell off, but he just kept going. Then something happened. He was never able to say what changed, but his health recovered, he was able to eat more, his hair and fingernails grew back, and, afterwards, he was able to do tumo and other high-level energy practices that had previously been inaccessible to him.
This is a very dramatic example, but it presents a key point. All we can do is create the conditions for the various tensions and imbalances inside us to resolve themselves. The rest, as T.S. Eliot says, is not our business.
When we embark on the spiritual path, we have no idea what we will encounter. As our practice matures, the horse starts to run, but we don’t know where it is going. All we have is a commitment, a commitment to experience whatever arises. It is what Buddha Shakyamuni relied on when he sat under the bodhi tree. It is the essence of faith and it is the basis of compassion and awareness.
In the course of our efforts, we will encounter difficulties and challenges inside us that we had no idea were there. The one additional principle, and this is perhaps the only principle that I know, is that it is best to move in the direction of balance. That direction is constantly changing and it requires faith, awareness, and compassion to sense what effort to make in each moment. The optimum condition for awakening is deep balance in every area of life and when we move to address imbalances in our own lives, increasingly, we bring about balance in the lives of others.
Ken McLeod completed two three-year retreats under the guidance of the late Kalu Rinpoche and has received training in the Karma Kagyu, Shangpa, and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. He is a translator (The Great Path of Awakening) and author (Wake Up to Your Life), and the executive director of Unfettered Mind in Los Angeles.