So I recently went on a Vipassana retreat, which is a fun little experience that involves being silent for 10 days and meditating 11 hours each day. Needless to say, that sort of situation necessarily leads to all sorts of interesting experiences and ideas. Among them, one I found especially peculiar is that I distinctly started feeling some sort of sensations outside of my body. Aside from my rational mind, which kept saying that this should not be possible, the truth of my subjective experience of this was clear. Of course, I got really excited and started exploring these sensations more systematically. It seemed that when I was sitting quietly and peacefully, these sensations were like subtle uniform tingling in the space around my body, though with a non-uniform shape. In front of me, this “field” felt like it extended about 2-3 feet, while behind my back it was very thin, if not missing entirely.
If this seems oddly specific for such a strange subjective phenomenon, I need to give a bit more context of what Vipassana is all about. The premise of this meditation technique is that we spend so much of our lives caught up in our imaginary stories and projections into the future or memories of the past, that we start to confuse our reality and our imagination, forgetting what is the true actual real present “here” experience. And the only thing that is really here and true are our pure sensory inputs in this moment. When you are sitting in a largely dark, quite, clean hall, the only sensory input you actually have is that of touch. So the focus of the meditation is just to observe these tactile sensations for hours and hours on end. The key point here is not to imagine them, and to constantly check yourself that you’re really not imagining them, and then notice that you, in fact, are imagining them and to stop imagining anything! Turns out it’s nearly impossibly to observe sensations without imagining anything. If I want to feel the sensations on my left leg, I somehow need to imagine my left leg, where it's currently at, and what it's doing.
So this is roughly how I realized that I could feel sensations outside my body – as I was doing my body scans, my attention kept drifting off of my physical body parts and onto sensations I "imagined" in the space around me. The most obvious was that every time I got to my shoulders and scanned down my arms, I’d often scan down some phantom arms that I imagined held up in front of me, rather than my physical arms that were lying in my lap. This was happening all the time and I constantly had to check myself to stop this until I decided to just look and start exploring it. As I did, I quickly had to admit that I really was feeling distinct sensations that had to be placed outside of my body - there was no way I could deny this subjective reality.
This was particularly obvious when some thoughts or emotions came up. In those situations, it was especially hard to simply track the internal physical sensations – and upon closer observation I noticed that was because there would be a very strong sensation happening outside my body. It’s just like when your legs are in excruciating pain after an hour of sitting cross-legged in meditation, it becomes really hard to just focus on the subtle sensations of your breath on your upper lip. Similarly, some memory of heart-break could manifest as excruciating region of pain out in front of my chest and face. I could feel some part of this pain inside my body as well, but it was clearly not the whole thing. The excitement of exploring these sensations, on the other hand, gave rise to bubbly tingles out the sides and behind my head.
As I was reflecting on my experiences and trying to make sense of it all, a pretty coherent narrative started coming together. Sensations can arise here or there, but to place their location I need to leverage my proprioceptive mechanisms – which somehow involves imagining where my body currently is in space. As such, these “sensations outside my body” were just sensations that had trouble being placed in any of the familiar body parts. This is sort of how when our physical heart organ is hurting, the pain tends to be felt on our left arm instead, because our brain doesn’t know what it would mean to feel it inside the chest. This also made sense with these external sensations being intensified with emotions – as some hormonal pathways were triggered in the body, the corresponding un-placeable sensations intensified.
But why exactly outside the body? And why in that oddly specific shape I described in the beginning? And why did different thoughts and emotions corresponded to very specific regions? One other curious thing I noticed in my exploration of my subjective truth, was that when I started by feeling the sensations in my shoulders and moved my attention outside my body, I could feel many many of these “phantom” imaginary arms – what felt like thousands, and they went absolutely everywhere they could. Upon closer examination, I realize that the shape of the this “field” of external sensations that I described in the beginning pretty accurately corresponded to the areas outside my body that I could typically reach with my hands – about 2-3 feel in front, and almost nothing behind my back (with further details that also matched). With our hands being the most tactile-sensitive organ, this somehow clicked.
My hypothesis is that my brain basically remembers various tactile sensations I experienced with my hands in the spaces around my body, and the proprioceptive system sort of decided “ah, these are spaces where we can feel tactile sensations” – sort of forgetting that I only actually have access to them when my actual hands are there. Then, when particular memories or emotions come up, my brain thus uses these locations to project the corresponding sensations since it can’t find a better place for them. Something like, “well my heartbreak isn’t any of the familiar physical sensations in my body, but it certainly feels real, thus I must feel it somewhere somehow – and I’ve felt some pretty strong tactile sensations out front when I touched a hot stove, so I think that’s where it must be.” Perhaps even more concretely, we could think of a memory as associated with something we did with our hands (e.g., like hugging my partner in front of me), which is then where the triggered sensations naturally get placed.
I find this hypothesis sort of exciting because I think it bridges nicely our physical understanding of physiology, with the typical narrative around “auras.” Specifically I’m referring to the aura described as a field outside our body where our emotions get manifested in various colors. In my exploration, the shape of my external sensation field seems to agree pretty well with the usual pictures of auras, and the intense external sensations triggered by emotions could easily be given a color, with a bit of healthy synesthesia (heartbreak pain seeming somehow black, excitement bubbliness somehow yellow, etc). Also, my “thousands of imaginary hands” experience also corresponds nicely to the depictions of Hindu deities – so maybe that’s where those depictions came from. In a practical sense, I did also find this insight therapeutic as it now allows me to place an emotion in a much more concrete physical space and real-feeling sensations, which makes it easier to deal with than the seemingly all-encompassing emotion itself.