Help, Stuck for two years, convulsions during vipassana

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This topic contains 9 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Shelly Hubman 3 years, 2 months ago.

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    Sheldon F

    Alright, so I’ve just finished a two month retreat at mahasi centres in Asia. It was supposed to be three months, but after 10 days at Panditarama Lumbini in Nepal the teachers recommended that I leave because they thought these body convulsions were hurting me and they had no idea what I should do to get rid of them… So I am looking outside the mahasi and Theravada tradition for some help…

    Now let me explain exactly what is happening and why it stumped even the excellent, highly experienced teachers at Panditarama Lumbini…

    This phenomenon began two years ago when I foolishly decided to do some maximum effort choiceless noting practice in the middle of a Goenka retreat, instead of body scanning. Since its first appearance the phenomenon has pretty much behaved exactly the same for the last two years with only minor changes in its manifestation over time…

    It goes like this: whenever I have a direct experience/knowing/conciousness of a single sensation in the present moment (ie. Whenever I note) this will cause, instantly, a single “convulsion” of my body.

    These “convulsions” take a few different forms…
    When I am just starting a meditation session and have not had many consecutive moments (consecutive meaning FAST) of direct awareness of a sensation in the moment it arises, then the convulsions take the form of violent HEAD movements in various different directions.
    As I proceed the convulsions begin to include more of my body (doing standing or walking meditation makes this happen faster) until it’s my WHOLE BODY. It is only one movement/convulsion per sensation noted, but by this point I am noting several sensations per second so to someone on the outside it would appear like I am having a seizure or doing some really crazy interpretive dancing because there are several abrupt whole body movements per second (2-5).

    When I really let myself notice sensations very quickly and precisely the body convulsions cause nausea, pain, and dizziness which after about 10-15 minutes is strong enough to break my concentration, and self preservation makes me stop meditating to let my body recover.

    The traditional instruction for this sort of thing in Theravada Vipassana traditions is that this is caused by a deficiency of insight, and the way to get through it is to increase mindfulness and concentration and see the three characteristics more clearly in order to get more insight. However in this case that advice is simply impossible to follow, because the more mindfulness, precision, investigation and concentration I have the stronger and more disruptive the body convulsions become. Inhave tried many, many times to “get through” these convulsions by simply powering the moment to moment investigation, trying to notice more and more sensations per second and with greater and greater clarity but this has not been successful… The intensity of the physical symptoms always becomes too strong to bear. And I cannot simply ignore this and keep noting because this is, from what I can tell, actual damage to my body, not just mind-generated unpleasant sensations. The head movements, for example, are violent enough that I often worry about brain damage, since abrupt head movement is how brain damage occurs.

    Some more notes about this phenomenon:

    It ONLY occurs when meditating, so it is not some sort of medical condition.

    It sometimes occurs also in Samatha meditation, namely at the moment of noticing a distraction was present (not exactly sure why it occurs in these moments…) OR when I accidentally start noticing the individual sensations of my Samatha object to closely.

    So, I have read the Mind Illuminated cover to cover several times. The most obvious thing is the section at the end of stage 8 about getting stuck. I actually had not read this section until during this last retreat, so I have not had a chance to apply the instructions in my daily life, but I have been doing lots of lovingkindness meditations and mindful review as well as generally watching for wholesome and unwholesome intentions and emotions throughout the day. This has been very powerful and useful practice, BUT it has not cause any discernable change or lessening of these body convulsion symptoms. And from my perspective now, I don’t really think those practices are going to suddenly solve the body convulsions (although I will continue the practices for the numerous other benefits!).

    Now interestingly on this retreat I attained some sort of deep insight (don’t bother asking me where I am on the path of insight, I gave up trying to figure that out a while ago) which seems to have caused some sort of permanent subconscious change which manifests in conciousness, whether I am meditating or not, as some reduction in patterns of mind, clinging, which were causing suffering. So from my perspective I made some sort of significant insight progress and yet these physical convulsions remain unchanged.

    I have also made significant progress towards unification of mind, with lots of progress towards pacification of the physical senses (although it is not quite complete yet) but I cannot so far see any connection between piti progress and any change in these physical convulsions, and the fact they don’t arise during concentration practice leads me to believe they are NOT piti related…

    As for my progress in the TMI stages… Its all over the place each session depending on how much motivation and confidence I have before I sit down. I can definitely achieve access to stage 7, but right now I’m not confident in saying that I can achieve stage 8 effortlessness (unless effortlessness means effortless effort, ie the realization that effort happens on its own, but I don’t think that is what stage 8 is about…). When my mind is in a good place I can also fairly consistently access first, and maybe second Jhana, using the pleasure Jhana method. But then there are some times, if my mental state before the sitting is not great, I’ll spend most of the sitting down in stages 2-4…

    Anyways, sorry that was so long…

    Let me know what you think I should do!



    Darlene T

    Hello Sheldon,

    I am not able to shed light on this bodily/energetic phenomena…Given this doesn’t quite fit the usual piti experiences I am familiar with, I do wonder about purification events such as extreme trauma release…physically and/ or emotionally. How would you describe your general muscle tone…relaxed/taut…released/contracted…that might help us understand… Hopefully your question to us will eventually help with some understanding resolution.

    Teacher (in training)


    Sheldon F

    Hi Darlene,

    I have plans to start working with a psychotherapist, inspired by Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart, when I return home. I presume this would be the best way to deal with a trauma release?

    It would be hard for me to describe my general muscle tone, as it is both relaxed and tense, depending on the body part and time. If I bring mindfulness to the body I can always find tensions and contractions to release, but I think that’s pretty normal. Doing Goenka body scanning practices there are persistent “blind spots” on most of my head and face which behave very wierdly when attention is directed in that way. I have spent quite a lot of time using body scanning attention to penetrate and release those blind spots, which feels nice but doesn’t seem very productive because within a few minutes or hours the tensions and blindspots return. My intuition is that this physical head and face wierdness is in some way related to duality and is partly how my mind creates the impression of a doer or perceiver. This is partially because during my early meditation practice I was working intensely with no self teachings and eventually attained a state where there was absolutely no sense of a self and the instant I entered this state a huge amount of tension released, basically the entire right side of my face and head, which I had not even known was tense. My whole face looked completely different. But this state only lasted about an hour and wasn’t actually very nice anyways…

    One thing that I have increasingly become aware of is my fear of other people, and fear in general. I am very high functioning and most people who know me would not be able to detect this, but there is definitely a deep fear underlying almost everything I do. At one point during this last retreat, while I was trying to push through the convulsions by noting no-self in every sensation, a very strong terror arose, with the story of there being some demon very close that wanted to kill me… but I was in noting mode and noted all this objectively and it did not cause any problem, but it was still remarkably strong deep fear, so maybe there is something there. Some childhood trauma that needs to be dealt with in a different way than just noting?

    Thanks for your quick reply…


    Hi Sheldon

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve had convulsive bodily movement issues as well. But not as intense as you’re describing. I think I’m going to skip my “what to do in meditation” advice and make a different suggestion…. specifically I would look into doing some sort of body based therapeutic intervention such as Somatic Experiencing. A number of Culadasa’s senior students and teachers are also practitioners of Somatic Experiencing. My actual experiential knowledge of this body based intervention is limited but what I do know seems like it might be super helpful for you. So checked it out and let me know what you think

    Be well



    Sheldon F

    Thanks Mathew I will check that out.


    Blake Barton

    Hi Sheldon,

    I have quite a bit of experience with rather violent spontaneous movements. I can experience these movements doing any sort of practice, samatha, vipassana, choiceless awareness etc. I feel that this is part of the piti process, and they don’t only arise in samatha practice.

    I had a conversation with an advanced teacher who had mastered all the stages of samatha, and did a longer Mahasi style vipassana retreat. He had very strong contractions in his stomach muscles. At first he thought that his mind had gotten very sharp and sensitive and he was interpreting normal sensations this way. After reflection, he decided that it was actually piti.

    You might take a look at the following thread for ways to work with these energies and movements. And, there are some other threads as well.
    Those blind spots in your face and head could be causing energy blockages.

    My current preferred method of working with the movements is to start each sit with about 5 minutes of spinal breathing pranayama (detailed in the post above). While meditating, I maintain a very slight contraction in the perineum area (called Mula Bandha in the yoga tradition). This seems to keep the energy moving up.

    This combination seems to stop most of the movements. If I start to feel energy that might turn into spontaneous movements, I might switch my meditation object to be the inner energy body for a while, and then come back to my other practice.

    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 2 months ago by  Blake Barton.

    Sheldon F

    Hi Blake, wow there is a lot to explore in that thread. Thank you. It is nice to have a specific recommendation that I can trust in regards to yoga practices or teachers that are good… I had suspected yoga practices might help but there are just too many different yoga books and teachers out there that I had no idea what would be worth my time. Amazing how tightening the perineum like you said immediately caused the feeling of energy moving UP the spine, when normally for me I can only feel it moving DOWN.

    And to Mathew Immergut: I’ve started reading “In an Unspoken Voice” about somatic experiencing and it seems very interesting so far. Although I doubt I will be able to find a therapist who does this where I live. But maybe I can apply the concepts on my own and get some positive changes…

    Thanks all!



    The one other thing that I found helpful is the various “pleasure jhanas”. They allow a distribution/management of intense energy in a very helpful way. I’d suggest even doing a retreat with Leigh Braisington if possible as he really is quite skillful in guiding people through these specific jhanas.



    Andrew S

    Hi Sheldon,

    I was also going to suggest exploring Somatic Experiencing, and specifically starting by reading some Peter Levine. I’ve found his work really useful in broadening my understanding of trauma – there are a variety of possible sources that we might consider relatively innocuous.

    I’d add that trauma work is distinct from other approaches to psychotherapy. There can be overlap, but the body-based element was particularly useful to me, and not something I’d encountered in other forms of counseling or therapy. As for location, there may be practitioners who can work via Skype – a quick search seems to show that. I think at least a couple of sessions with a practitioner can be really supportive in a way that exploring it on your own might not be. Again, true for me at least; I feel that I learned some skills that I could then apply, but having someone to help me orient was great.

    Even if this is a manifestation of piti I wouldn’t be surprised if a body-based practice helped to move things along in a more tolerable manner. I wish you the best of luck with your work!


    Andrew Sherbrooke


    Hi Sheldon,

    I have a good amount of experience with wild,violent,crazy, bodily movements like the body flopping all over the place, tongue thrusting out, arms, legs, all the body parts shaking in waves. Over time, I have come to see them as ever-deepening purifications of body-mind – all good stuff and nothing to try to get through, or get rid of, or even to worry about. When they come, I allow them to do whatever they do. There is usually a pattern, of soft movement movement that builds up to a crescendo of flailing wildly about and usually it works its way through the whole body. For instance, going through the legs, arms, hips, back, stomach, arms, shoulders, neck, head, eyes, mouth etc. — wave after wave until it peters out.

    Hope that helps a bit.

    All the best,

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