When meditating I see images of people’s faces zoom in and out from all directions, then I see a vortex when I shift focus. What does this mean?

—Angela Flaherty, England


Our minds operate on three levels of consciousness: conscious, subconscious, and superconscious. The conscious mind, of course, operates in the realm of the senses. In meditation, on the other hand, we seek to withdraw awareness from the senses. As such, visual experiences while meditating arise from either the subconscious or superconscious levels.

Subconscious experiences are the most common. They often happen while meditating because one loses focus and the mind drops into a subconscious state. Without focus, it’s also easy to fall asleep for short periods of time, during which one might enter a subconscious dreaming state, replete with random, vague, and meaningless imagery.

Maintaining such focus is why meditation techniques are so helpful, specifically those like Hong-Sau that increase one’s concentration. Paramhansa Yogananda defined meditation as concentration upon God or upon one of the ways in which he says God can be experienced: Light, Sound, Peace, Calmness, Love, Joy, Wisdom, and Power. Such experiences are on the superconscious level. Notice also that of all these attributes, only Light is a visual manifestation, which can appear, for example, as the spiritual eye.

Other superconscious visual experiences are also possible, of course, and are always attended by clear, calm, expansive, and uplifting feelings. Superconscious experiences, whether in meditation or not, take us above and beyond our normal daily (conscious) awareness. They leave us with a lasting impression of joy, sometimes for years or even for the rest of one’s life. Superconscious experiences often evoke a deep change in ourselves for the better. In this way, too, superconscious experiences are thrilling in their own way, but in the sense that Yogananda described in his poem, Samadhi: “tranquilled, unbroken thrill, eternally-living, ever-new peace.”

The subconscious, on the other hand, is the reservoir of our history, old reactions, old habits, and past experiences, most of which are attended by some agitating emotion. A visual experience in meditation that is disturbing, confusing, or otherwise not expansive or uplifting surely originates, like dreams, in the subconsciousness. The very fact that you ask about the meaning of your visuals is a sure sign that they’re merely subconscious imagery.

If such experiences are common in your meditation practice, distracting, or disturbing, I suggest you learn a formal meditation technique, such as Hong-Sau and, if you want to pursue it, Kriya Yoga. Such techniques can help you move past these restless images into deep stillness.

Another helpful meditation technique is visualization. Visualization is a practice through which you deliberately use the conscious mind to attune to the superconscious mind by focusing your imagination on expansive and uplifting imagery. Guided meditations often employ visualization for exactly this purpose. (You can find several guided meditation audio resources on this site, and Ananda’s publisher, Crystal Clarity, offers several guided meditation albums, such as the “Land of Mystery” on Meditation for Starters and the album Metaphysical Meditations, both of which are narrated by Swami Kriyananda.)

Here’s another example of a visualization from Swami Kriyananda’s book Awaken to Superconsciousness:

Concentrate at the point between the eyebrows. Visualize there a tunnel of golden light. Mentally enter that tunnel, and feel yourself surrounded by a glorious sense of happiness and freedom. As you move through the tunnel, feel yourself bathed by the light until all worldly thoughts disappear.

After soaring through the tunnel as long as you feel to so do, visualize before you a curtain of deep violet-blue light. Pass through that curtain into another tunnel of deep, violet-blue light. Feel the light surrounding you. Slowly, the tunnel walls disappear in blue light. Expand your consciousness into that light—into infinite freedom and bliss. Now there is no tunnel. There is only the all-encompassing blueness and bliss of infinity.

At last, visualize before you a silvery-white, five-pointed star of light. Mentally spread out your arms and legs, assuming with your body the shape of that star. Give yourself to it in body, mind, and soul as you surrender every thought, every feeling to absolute, Self-existing Bliss.

Bliss cascades gently over you, like a waterfall of mist, filling your heart with ineffable peace.

Notice how this visualization employs many of those attributes of God, or related feelings: happiness, freedom, light, calmness, peace, and bliss (joy). The experience described here, in fact, is one of going into the spiritual eye itself.

Visualization uses the imagination to expand your awareness and attune to superconscious states. In this way you want to select those images—as well as other senses, such as sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile feelings—that evoke those same qualities as other superconscious experiences: clarity, calmness, expansiveness, upliftment, and joy.

One word of caution is to avoid getting carried away with a vivid imagination, if you possess one. There’s a story of a man that Yogananda knew who boasted of great visions within his meditations. Swami Kriyananda relates the story in the “Reminiscences” chapter of The New Path:

Visitors [to Yogananda] sometimes boasted of their own high experiences in meditation. Boastfulness would make any discerning person skeptical; true experiences of God, after all, should make one humble. But Master [Yogananda] could tell at a glance what level a person had reached in his spiritual development.

“People have a very distorted notion of what the path is all about,” he said. “Visions and phenomena aren’t important. What matters is complete self-offering to God. One must become absorbed in His love.

“I remember a man who came forward after a lecture in New York and claimed he could enter cosmic consciousness at will. Actually, what he meant was that he could travel astrally, but I saw right away that his experiences were imaginary. Still, I couldn’t simply tell him that. He wouldn’t have believed me. So I invited him up to my room, and there asked him to favor me by going into cosmic consciousness.

“Well, he sat there fidgeting, his eyelids flickering, his breath pumping away—signs, all, of body-consciousness, not of cosmic consciousness! At last he could contain himself no longer.

“‘Why don’t you ask me where I am?’

“‘Well,’ I said, to humor him, ‘where are you?’

“In rounded tones, as if hallooing from afar, he answered: ‘On top of the dome of the Taj Mahal!’

“‘There must be something the matter with your own dome!’ I remarked. ‘I see you sitting fully here, right in front of me.’ He was utterly taken aback.

“I then made a suggestion. ‘If you think you can travel all the way to the Taj Mahal, why not see if you can go to somewhere nearby, as a test of the validity of your experience?’ I suggested that he project himself to the hotel dining room downstairs, and describe what he saw there. He agreed to the test. Going into ‘cosmic consciousness’ again, he described the dining room as he saw it. He actually believed in his visions, you see. What I wanted to do was demonstrate to him that they were the result of a vivid power of visualization. He described a number of things in the restaurant, including a big piano in the right-hand corner.

“I then described the scene as I saw it. ‘In the right-hand corner,’ I said, ‘there are two women seated at a table.’ We went at once downstairs, and found the room as I had described it, not as he had. At last he was convinced.”

True visions are marvelous experiences to deeply cherish in one’s heart. You’ll know if you have one, and will become more humble—that is, more awed by God’s love and joy—as a result.

Keep in mind, too, that visual experiences, or any kind of experiences in meditation, are not measures of one’s spiritual progress or spiritual worthiness. As Yogananda said in the passage above, the spiritual path is not about visions or any other experiences in meditation. Many people meditate their whole lives without seeing anything at all, in fact. God can be experienced in many ways, and too much of a focus on having certain experiences in meditation can blind one to the many ways that God comes to you, in meditation or not.

The spiritual path, instead, is about complete self-offering to God, a thought that’s clearly present in the visualization given earlier. Such self-offering needs no visions, no visual experiences, and no phenomena of any kind in meditation. It needs nothing other than a pure heart, offered in full sincerity to your higher Self, to God, who is, as Yogananda said, “the nearest of the near, the dearest of the dear.”

Many blessings to you in your spiritual explorations.

Nayaswami Mukti

(Updated and expanded January 2024 by Satyaki Brockschmidt)

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