When Energy Runs Wild


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. Even though she didn’t understand what was happening or what to do, her intuition was right. The transformation of energy tapered away. The open awareness and yoga practices redistributed the energy and restored balance in her whole system. 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.

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