Meditators can cultivate synesthesia

My new meditation music CD’s came the other day.  I purchased two of them by Nawang Khechog,  Music as Medicine and Tibetan Meditation Music: For Quiet Mind and Peaceful Heart.

I was eager to try the Tibetan Meditation Music just before I went to sleep.

From the description on the Sounds True website

Tapping into the richness of Tibet’s meditation tradition, Nawang Khechog has created his most relaxing album yet—wholly focused on helping you experience inner stillness.On Tibetan Meditation Music, Nawang combines Tibetan spiritual chants with his own masterful flute compositions.

The result is a soothing blend that has been embraced by many Tibetan and Korean monks, nuns, and people around the world from all walks of life—to enhance a meditative practice, or just to find a refreshing moment of pure serenity.

In a unique approach on this recording, Nawang deemphasizes rhythm, and uses subtle accents of vocals, bells, percussion, and Western classical instruments to enhance the calming and spacious sound of his meditative flute and Tibetan spiritual chants. Tibetan Meditation Music has a timeless quality that evokes the feeling of sitting on a Himalayan mountain, gazing into the infinite space with natural freedom and eternal peace. This is the perfect musical accompaniment for meditation, yoga, tai chi, healing—and complete relaxation.

I thought it sounded great, and perfect for nodding off to.  I wasn’t expecting anything unusual.

But something very unusual did happen.

I listened to the Tibetan Meditation music and while it was nice, and soothing, about three or four songs into it,  I had the most unusual experience.  Behind my eyes I saw a bunch of tiny red and white lights moving in a pattern kind of like the movement you’d see in a spinning atom.

Like this:

 photo atom.jpg
Ignore the red spheres…and just look at the orbits the electrons are traveling in.  That what I saw – these faint red and white colors spinning along in their orbits but just one orbital at a time – not 8 like it the picture above.   They were very faint, about the width of a thread, maybe. but definitely there.  It was a really neat show going on behind my eyes.

That was weird enough, but my eyelids were pulsing rapidly involuntarily – kind of like if you were to squint your eyes tight a number of times in succession.  It was odd, kind of scary, but I liked it and it helped me see the colors a bit more clearly.

I opened my eyes to look around the room and gather my bearings because it was…well, kind of strange.  Some faint moonlight was filtering through the window curtain, and the room had a soft glow.  I could see that I was really awake and not dreaming.  So I closed my eyes again, sure that it wouldn’t happen again.  But it did.  Same colors, same pulsing sensation in my eyelids.

Until the song changed, and then it didn’t happen again.  I listened to the rest of the album with no celestial sideshow.

I’d been thinking about this all day yesterday.  Last night I had an idea what it might have been.  It’s something I have been wanting to talk about for a long time on this blog, but never having a great segue into it:

Synesthesia.

or rather

 photo 500px-Synesthesiasvg_.png

What the heck is that, you might ask?

Well, in short, it’s when senses intersect.  Rather than give you the ‘long answer’, I’ll refer you to an old friend’s blog post on Synesthesia:

[O]ne researcher says that as many as 1 in 23 people may have some form of synesthesia. Like me, these people may experience any variety of combined sensory perceptions. The most common form is colored letters and numbers in which a person involuntarily perceives letters and numbers (and other graphemes) to have color. For instance, where you see this letter “A” as being black, a color synesthete will see it overlaid with a different color. One synesthete might see it as orange, another might see it as blue. For synesthetes, this perception is very real to them, just as the black letters you are reading now are very real to you.

As one of synesthesia’s ambassadors to the world, James Wannerton has subjected himself to countless hours of research and brain scans (and film crews) to educate both academia and the general public. People don’t “suffer” from synesthesia and it isn’t a disorder. It is simply the way some people perceive the world.

There are about 5 common types but in all there have been reported about 61 subtypes of synesthesia. Here are a few examples from a list compiled by Sean Day:

  • General Sounds –> Colors
  • Phenomes –> Colors
  • Tastes –> Colors
  • Personalities –> Colors
  • Grapheme Personification
  • Object Personification
  • Emotion –> Flavor
  • Smells –> Sound
  • Pain –> Sound
  • Sound –> Flavor

But quite honestly, while I’ve always been fascinated by synesthesia and have known some people in the blogging community to have this, I’m pretty sure I have never experienced it, until now.  Though, I have to say that certain songs do evoke emotions in me and certain smells and flavors evoke memories in me, as I am sure they do for many people.

Still, I wondered more about it.  I wondered if meditation could actually induce synesthesia.   So I googled it.

I found this Psychology Today article called Synesthesia and Buddhism:

…I was aware of the study by Dr. Roger Walsh of the University of California at Irvine, Can Synesthesia Be Cultivated?, in which he found situational synesthesia occurred in meditation in non-synesthetes. This means that all people can and do experience synesthesia. And remarkably, it occurred with more frequency in Dr. Walsh’s study the more adept one was at the practice.

I was intrigued.

And even more so when I read this:

“At this time [highest meditation state], there is a tremendous experience of forms, sounds, and lights-in brilliant sheets, rays, and spheres-occurring all at once and extending throughout the universe. All previous sights, sounds, and lights…amass as a single spontaneous vision of…the luminosity of appearance,” Dzogchen Ponlop, Mind Beyond Death, 2008: p. 185 (Tibetan).

The thing about this, for me, that is so weird is that I don’t think I was in a highest meditation state.  At all.  I was laying down in the dark in my bed listening to some Tibetan music to help me relax.  That’s it.  I wasn’t trying to have an experience.  I was listening, I was breathing, I was tuning into my body and the sensations I was feeling..and trying really hard not to scratch the itches I kept feeling – and failing.  My husband’s hand was draped over my hips (he was in bed, snoozing beside me).

Synaesthesia is a condition in which an individual ‘experiences sensations in onemodality when a second modality is stimulated’ (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001a, p. 4). For example, music might be experienced as not only sound, but also as colour, or more rarely as touch or taste.

I had no expectations of “going deep”.  It was Meditation Lite.

And as far as listening to music and having a second modality stimulated, the only time that I’ve had strange experiences during listening to music was when I was trying to take a nap while May It Be – a song from Celtic Women – was playing.  As I was moving in and out of consciousness, I was experiencing some…well…something spiritual, I think.  Waves of joy and sorrow were moving through me in my half-awake state and I wasn’t quite sure if I was dreaming or awake at any given moment.  It’s hard to explain.

But getting back to the other night, when those colors and the eye-twitching thing happened.  It was weird.  And, kind of exciting.  And scary.  I always wonder if I’m going stark raving mad.

Now that I know this can happen, I’m actually very excited and interested in seeing what else I might experience with my perceptions during meditation.  I’m certainly looking forward to what I might encounter.

If you are interested in reading Roger Walshes paper, Can Synesthesia Be Cultivated, I’d encourage you to look at the original research paper here:

http://www.drrogerwalsh.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Can-Synaethesia-Be-Cultivated_Walsh.pdf

And I wonder:

Have you ever experienced anything like synesthesia, either in your everyday life or during meditation?

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About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
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One Response to Meditators can cultivate synesthesia

  1. brekali says:

    I found this blog because I was trying to find out what I had just experienced. I did a guided 15 min meditation, and then a 10 min unguided but put on the sounds of ocean waves and 20 HD binaural beats for concentration. Literally seconds in I could see the vibrations of the sounds but in a realm form. I almost can’t explain it. And the exact eye movement you described in your post I felt literally. I did it for 10 minutes and I was freaked out a bit after. How can we discuss this together?

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