Purification: Dreams, Aches, Turbulence and Other Signs of Progress

The following article is from the Winter, 2012 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.



imagesJust as Jung recognized that the psyche's way of revealing itself is through dreams, so too in the Tibetan tradition, dreams are often considered a way of discovering the effect of practice. There are even texts, referred to during the giving of empowerments, which describe the kinds of dreams meditators may have. In the case of tantric practice, it is even suggested that sometimes meditators should continue a particular retreat until they experience certain signs, such as these kinds of dreams, of accomplishment.

Above illustration: Gary WatersAs Westerners, we may have a tendency to hold these signs with a little more ego-investment than Tibetans do. We seem to have a greater need to receive some kind of approbation that tells us we are worthy or that we have spiritual qualities.

Looking for signs of the success, or otherwise, of our practice may not be particularly useful. However, as we do Buddhist practice, we will inevitably have some experiences that do reflect the effect of purification in particular. It is clear from my own experience of this, however, that these effects are not usually quite as grand and elevated as visions or dreams of deities.

When we embark upon the preliminaries, our dreams may be full of all manner of images, which may not at first mean much or might even cause us concern. As a psychotherapist I find these images interesting because we can gradually learn to read their meaning and apply it to our life. Purification dreams can be extremely diverse and sometimes very graphic. I recall someone in retreat saying how she had looked down at her right leg; a split opened up in it and exuded a mass of little insectlike creatures. She was horrified until she realized this image might actually symbolize that something was being cleared out. Defecating, urinating, and vomiting dreams, as well as dreams where something is leaving the body, are actually quite positive signs of purification. Dreams that involve cleaning are also fairly clear signs of purification, so clearing or sweeping a room in a house, or redecorating a room are good signs. Washing or cleaning the body or another object, such as a statue, is also a sign of purification. Often our dreams refer back to previous dreams in which we were experiencing some difficulty that in a new dream seems now to be more positive.

While our dreams may give us an idea of what is being purified, our body and mental state can also show signs of purification. What we may see as symptoms of some kind of purely physical problem, if manifested in the context of a lot of purification practice, may be viewed differently. This is particularly the case with symptoms that arise and subside relatively quickly. When these symptoms are relatively brief and unexplainable in any other way, then they are almost certainly an effect of purification. Of course from one perspective, everything that arises in the body can be seen as purification. I recall Lama Zopa saying exactly this, that we should recognize any sickness or problem as a sign of purification of past karma. Bearing this in mind, when engaged in purification practice, we will often have symptoms arise that are specifically a side effect of the practice.

Possibly the most common physical symptoms of purification are spots, boils, and rashes that suddenly erupt on the skin. From a homeopathic perspective, when symptoms emerge on the skin this is considered a relatively healthy sign because it means that something is coming out rather than moving inward. We may experience aches and pains in different parts of the body, which last for a while and then subside.

Sudden headaches, stomach pains, diarrhea, and even vomiting can be effects of purification. Of course it is important that we differentiate between things that are more and less serious and take the appropriate steps if there is a more protracted symptom. To simply assume that a symptom is just the result of purification and do nothing may be very unwise.

While doing purification practices, we may experience the upsurge of strong emotions, or the reawakening of memories of painful or traumatic experiences. When we begin to purify energy- winds in the body, inevitably they will bring out the emotional life bound up in them. The release of emotions that have been blocked, suppressed, or held in the body is a very beneficial thing but is uncomfortable when it happens strongly. Sudden rushes of emotion can be very disturbing, or even frightening, and if we are unused to strong emotions, we may think something is wrong. From a psychological viewpoint, nothing is wrong with this experience; it is a valuable clearing out and will be very liberating if we can bear the process. However, it requires that we―to use a common psychotherapeutic phrase―"trust in the process." We need to be reassured that these strong emotions will pass and gradually subside. Lama Yeshe's comment to me before I did a three-month Vajrasattva retreat remains very valuable advice: "Whatever comes up, just let go." He meant that we must hold our nerve and not contract into what arises but simply allow it to pass through.


It may be a rough ride for a while, but it will pass eventually.


When we begin to purify energy-winds in the body, inevitably they will bring out the emotional life bound up in them.

There are times when the purification process reawakens trauma that is less easy to integrate and just ride through. If someone suddenly reawakens powerful feelings and memories of sexual abuse, for example, it might be a good time to seek skilled help. It may be possible for someone to hold a purification process by himself or herself, but this may also require that there is enough experienced holding from the retreat guide to make this possible. If experiences are reawakened that are less traumatic but nevertheless quite powerful, it may be time to just let the process of purification take its course.

We can also look at the signs and symptoms of purification purely from an energy-wind perspective. The nature of tantric practice is such that, as we purify, we are directly affecting the state of the energy-winds. This often means that we are clearing the energy-winds of blocks, imbalances, and toxicity, which will have an effect that we will definitely feel. We may experience energy moving around the body as it is released, which may give rise to feelings either ecstatic or extremely painful. The energy movement may have a powerful emotional tone that is released as the energy is released. We may also experience all kinds of impulses, which move the body spontaneously in ways that may feel very odd. The movement of energy can also cause distortions of spatial awareness because as the energy-winds move, they take our awareness with them.

When understood in this way, the movement of energy should be allowed to go where it needs to; as a general principle, this is always healthy. A problem may arise if we do not allow energy to move because we are holding it in a particular way, often through fear. It may also happen that some inner disposition pushes our energy-winds in an unhealthy way. The Tibetans call the resulting problems lung disorders. Our energy-winds may become stuck in a way that is unhealthy and leads to pain in the heart, the head, or some other part of the body. Such an experience usually implies that something we are doing is not beneficial and that we may have the wrong attitude to what we are doing, for instance, trying far too hard and putting ourselves under pressure.

Some years back a client came to see me who had been involved in Buddhist meditation practice for a few years but had developed severe head pain. He had been very enthusiastic about developing his meditation practice and had gone into several retreats, and the intensity he put into his practice echoed the way he addressed other aspects of his life. He was a PhD student and was driven to complete his doctorate in a way that had also begun to have an effect upon his mind. He applied the same kind of intensity and drive to his practice of meditation. When he came to me, he was suffering from constant head pain, and nothing seemed to be helping him. Almost any technique he tried to resolve his head pain actually made it worse. Even the idea of relaxing became something that caused strain because he created a goal out of relaxing.

Coming into psychotherapy was tricky for him because he felt that he had to achieve something even there. I had to be very careful about suggesting a way forward so as not to form something that would create the same tightening. We could not even use meditation to help, as it was clear to both of us that he needed to rest and give his mind and energy time to settle and do nothing. But he found that if he spent long periods of time resting, it brought up feelings that he was useless and not accomplishing anything.

This man exemplifies the hazard of pushing so hard that damage is done. It should serve as a warning to anyone who might strive too hard and overlook the signs that suggest we need to relax and not push. Lung disorders can be extremely painful and difficult to resolve.

Purification can leave us with a sense of well-being, which does not have to be dramatic. For example, following a weekend retreat, I felt that all the toxicity that had developed from the general stresses of my life and work had completely gone. The increased clarity and absence of foggy- mindedness that we may experience in meditation is one of the most valuable signs of purification. When we purify, we restore our vitality, and this gives us more energy in our practice and in our life generally. The increase in energy that results from purification is parallel to the increase in energy that results from practices associated with the process of accumulating merit. As we do those practices specifically aimed at accumulating merit, we also experience certain signs, such as dreams and energetic differences.

The dreams that may begin to manifest as a result of doing the practices for accumulating merit are very individual and can be extremely diverse. They may not be as dramatic as dreams of deities and holy objects. Dreams of receiving gifts, food, or clothing are typical signs of a sense of enrichment, as are dreams of finding precious objects. One way this can manifest is by receiving some kind of special gift from a holy being in a dream. In various tantric texts it is said that dreams of being given milk and other pure substances to drink are seen as especially auspicious. Commonly such dreams may involve a change in circumstances, which suggest a positive outcome, or a new state of being, like moving to a new house or restoring an old one.


Accomplishment creeps up and touches us when we are least concerned about it, and then it is not a big deal, and we do not become inflated I by it.

Although the diversity of dreams of this type is great, one important thing to note is that the feeling in the dream is often a great sense of well-being, joy, or vitality. Sometimes these dreams can be highly charged and leave the dreamer feeling renewed and inspired. Whether or not we experience dreams as a result of practice is not crucial. If we have hopes or expectations that we will get special signs of accomplishments in our practice, we will be bitterly disappointed if we don't.

Perhaps the most meaningful signs that our practice is fruitful are not very exciting. These signs may reveal themselves in our capacity for clarity, being less dominated by our emotional life, or feeling a sense of ease and a deepening of self-acceptance. Possibly the most valuable sign of transformation is feeling a genuine care and compassion for others.

Accomplishment creeps up and touches us when we are least concerned about it, and then it is not a big deal, and we do not become inflated by it. While there may be signs and symptoms of purification worth noting when they appear, waiting for signs of accomplishment can easily become just another ego-trip.

adapted from Preparing for Tantra

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