Hearing voices! :0)

“I did not hear the voices aurally. They were much more intimate than that, and inescapable. It’s hard to describe how I could ‘hear’ a voice that wasn’t auditory; but the words the voices used and the emotions they contained were completely clear, distinct, and unmistakable, maybe even more so than if I had heard them aurally.”

This is a quote from this interesting article about a study made which showed how common is the experience of hearing voices, and how it is not necessarily associated with psychosis.

Religion/spirituality seem much more advanced in this area than the puzzled western scientific tradition here! For we account for thought, which is always “verbal”, and which, for an ascetic or secluded practitioner becomes rather loud and distinct! - by attributing them to the active “ego” (symbolised by “Satan” or “Mara” etc.). In a certain sense, we too (like schizophrenics) attribute such voices to that which is “not-self”, “not-me”! The only difference is that we don’t actually come to think that someone else is in the room, and understand such sankhara as a natural, inescapable process of the arising of a conditioned being. Sankhare parato passa, dukkhato ma ca attato.

The disaster, however, is what Western psychology believes to represent mental health; which is for one to actually believe, feel, and act, as if this non-stop stream of verbal thought and imagination, is precisely oneself and is emanating from oneself! People are trained in schools, in universities, at home, at work - in all their life, to identify precisely with the devil that is called “ego”!! Alas!

The first picture below is that of St. Antony, steadfast before the device of Satan! The second you well know. Note the similarity!


It might be illusory to believe these are one’s “self” in the sense that they emerge from some kind of unified ego that stands above or behind the phenomena of consciousness and mental activity. But that doesn’t mean that they emanate from some other ego either. The mental fabrication of anthropomorphic projections, voices, bodily images, “presences” and faces that are not real is one among many aspects of the fertile and creative human imagination. This need not at all be unhealthy, unless it becomes so severe that it impairs the necessities of daily life. Some are more susceptible to these imaginative fabrications than others.

As Shakespeare had his character Theseus say,

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Poetry teaches us, however. The metamorphizing characters of Ovid’s telling of the ancient myths reveal, in anthropomorphized corporal or bodily form, the interplay of deep forces shaping human existence and suffering, forces we sometimes can’t quite describe and understand in their true nature, but can sketch out mythically and poetically. We can see the images of devas and asuras, yakkhas and nagas, past existences and future existences in a similar light.


Reminds me of the story of Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. He experienced auditory hallucinations which influenced the (incredibly beautiful!) music that he wrote, and when he told doctors (in the 1960s) of his hallucinations (which to be fair were not helped with his LSD use), he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized, and eventually ended up having a quite awful psychiatrist take over his life as a conservator who had control over his health care, money, career, etc for years and years. Today there is a diagnosis for what he has, which is just auditory hallucinations without psychosis which can be controlled with medication and therapy.


Some of our supporters here are part of the hearing voices movement. It seems like a gentler way to approach mental health.

A while ago I was listening to a sutta discussion by Ajahn Brahm on the Madhupindika Sutta. In the Q&A someone asked where the line was for mental illness (in terms of perceptions). Ajahn answered that the illness/suffering is when someone delights in these perceptions. This is so similar to what the Hearing Voices folks are now talking about. There’s so much identity caught up in being the person with the mental illness or the person with supernormal perception, which I see as two sides of the same coin. Many monks I’ve spoken to about the latter say these abilities only hang around because we want them too. I can’t see any different for the former. Just Bhava tanha and vibhava tanha.


Split-brain cases are especially fascinating. There are examples where each hemisphere is independently conscious and doesn’t have access to the other hemisphere’s information! Someone else here more familiar with the medical literature might be able to give some concrete examples.

I know a bit about this from studying neuroanatomy and pathology. Hemispherectomy is done usually for seizure disorders which don’t respond to treatment.

One of the most interesting findings is, when you cut the corpus callosum which communicates between the 2 sides, people find one handed tasks can sudden become 2 handed task by the other hand involunarily “helping” the other hand when trying to execute a task. For example, if one hand is having trouble opening a door, the other hand will help. Suggests that even if your brain can’t directly communicate direction from one side to the other, your brain still “knows” or understands in a general sense what you are trying to accomplish and they work together in some other way which we don’t understand. Indicates the 2 halves of the brain are both independent and not at the same time.

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It reminds of Julian Jaynes, who wrote at length on this topic. But the image you give at the top is really helpful: the Buddha hears the voices, but he stays equanimous.

My understanding is that when psychiatric diagnoses are properly made, they rely on a cluster of related symptoms, and have to include that the patient is suffering as a result. Merely hearing voices shouldn’t be anything more than an interesting symptom, unless it’s accompanied by other symptoms, including distress. Obviously that’s not how it has always been done, sadly.


Interesting point. Not my thoughts, but not somebody else’s either. Just thoughts…


That which is taken for ‘normal’ - reality - may be profound ignorance in disguise? Don’t the EBT teachings say as much?

I thought in the EBT’S there are accounts of interaction between the Buddha and Deva’s. Were these encounters hallucinations?

Some folk like to dismiss this aspect of the teachings due to a dogmatic anti-supernatural belief system they have been captured by. For reasons of their own making they deny the existence of Deva’s, supernormal abilities etc.

People can be mentally unwell and tormented by voices and they may also see things that are imaginary. I don’t believe that the Buddha and other awakened beings have anything in common with those who experience hallucinations.

There appears to be a connection being made here between people who experience imaginary phenomena and the supernormal experiences of highly realised practitioners, by people, who probably just ‘believe’ that the supernormal does not exist.

It is unfortunate when ‘blind beliefs’ are expressed as if they were insights. Surely, this is something we should avoid as practitioners who are open to the unexpected and, new and unforeseen developments as the path unfolds?

Even if we never meet Deva’s or have supernormal experiences, that does not establish that Deva’s and the supernormal are imaginary?

Some practitioners may never have access to happenings of this kind because their preset conclusions function as a hindrance - a perceptual filter? A perceptual impairment - might this be a form of mental illness?

Perhaps, mental illness can lead to hallucinations or the complete opposite - an inability to see beyond a conventional frame of reference? The first condition may be stigmatised while the second may be taken for ‘normal’ if enough people in a society suffer from the malady?

It is true to say that a huge number of people never meet Deva’s or have supernormal experiences. It is also the case that a huge number of people lack clear insight into the four Noble truths. I wonder if there is a correlation? :slight_smile:


Voices as bhanthe sujato says, is common in the general population without any other psychiatric symptoms. When it happens with distress to the patient and functional impairment and a raft of other symptoms such the paranoid delusions (people are monitoring them, out to kill them etc). Voices are common (and normal for) in extreme exhaustion, sensory deprivation, falling and waking up from sleep and meditation, as long as they don’t have other symptoms alongside them.

Psychiatry (at least in UK) haven’t ruled out spirituality:


In my opinion the proof of the pudding is if the voices are saying contructive things and they help rather than become an obstacle, then there is no need to fear them. Voices cannot be medicated away sometimes, and alternate views are helpful, especially if the person experiencing them feel in full control, doesn’t exhibit other symptoms and she is leading a functional (productive) life as per her cultural values.

with metta


I am glad I read science fiction when i was young. i could coonsider voices or even devas as quite possible, in a multiverse, or visiting aliens, or time travelers,… lol Not going to speculate more.

Is that neuroscience? What about the neuro non typical? can thought be shapes, or colors, or smells?

… but … it’s all thought, isn’t it?

Back to neuro non typical: i think diversity in brains is seem increasingly in the West, almost a new scientific frontier. From the Twice Gifted (gifted students who also have a “disability” to learning differences (audible, visual, patterns, math, musical) which can be slight or strong preferences… Interesting stuff!

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I also question this notion that thought is always ‘verbal’. This would mean that babies - prelanguage - have no thoughts? Animals who are non-verbal would be thoughtless beings? What is an intimation or, an intuition? What is cognition in its broadest sense? We have the term: mental formations - are these formations linguistic only or, do they manifest in other forms?


Perception & feeling are mental, bound up with the mind. Therefore perception & feeling are called mental fabrications."MN 44

with metta


In the west there is a strong bias toward a physicalist belief system which I think inhibits any kind of open investigation of this phenomena. I do see this slowly changing though for example with the studies of NDE’s and past life experiences.

I went through a period about 20 years ago where I had 3 distinct experiences of hearing voices. These were clear, articulate, and sounded as if someone was speaking right next to me at a normal volume level. The first happened when I was alone in the house in the middle of the day. I turned around to see who was there but there was no one. The second time was about 6 months later and a voice interrupted a conversation I was having with a co-worker. The third time was a bit different: I had begun a fairly intense chi gong practice and one day I was speaking with a fellow chi gong student and in the course of the conversation I heard him say that he was working on getting some t-shirts printed and I responded to that. He stopped me and told me that he had been thinking about that but had not mentioned it in the conversation - which had just happened and told me I was reading his mind. Experientially, I just heard the thought as part of the conversation. I later ran into a former student of Mantak Chia that related something similar: she had stopped her practice after she started hearing the thoughts of her co-workers as if they were speaking out loud.

Reality may be much more messy then we would like to think. One cause of hearing voices could be that we are hearing thoughts of others - some physical and others non-physical and this may extend to thoughts and emotions as well and there may be no real way to distinguish which are ours. What are called psychic powers could be - at least on a random and sporadic basis - quite common but that in our current culture people simply keep these experiences to themselves. I do hope a day comes when we can talk about and investigate these things free of the self imposed blinders of one belief system or another.

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Thank you for sharing, i anticipated reading at some time.

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The way I had perception explained to me was, there is the recollection of the past that is superimposed on new happenings whereby we re-cognise that which is experienced. With language there is the re-membered association between concepts and the sounds we make we call words, sentences etc. Unless we are deaf and then we imbibe the meaning/meanings differently. Words derive there meaning from the context in which they are used - the language-games in which they are found. The word ‘Deva/Deity’ takes on particular meanings in the language-game practiced by militant atheists and another by the residents of Findhorn. Have I missed something?

The stronger samadhi gets, the more frequent these kind of things happen. A few weeks ago, during America’s most important religious holiday, the NFL superbowl, I was meditating all day with no connection to the outside world. Sometime in the afternoon during sitting meditation, a thought popped into my head, “the patriots just lost the superbowl.” The next day when I checked the news on the internet, sure enough, it was true. I think I probably picked up the thought from neighbors watching the game near the end when the conclusion was clear (I didn’t physically hear any noise all day). I certainly had no vested interest or curiosity, the thought “the patriots lost the superbowl” just popped into my head, uninvited, in the afternoon. It would have been more interesting if I had gotten an exact score 2 days before the superbowl, and had time to place a large bet (I’m joking).

I’ve had several times in my life though where I did pick up a strong clear thoughts that I intuitively believed were true and accurate a day, or even a few days before the event actually happened. I didn’t know whether it originated with friendly devas giving timely advice, or intuitively reading minds of people directly impacting the situation, but the specificity and accuracy of the outcome is enough to convince me it wasn’t random. I’m not one of those people who are always praying and wishing and speculating about the future, when these intuitions happened, it was not through my curiosity asking “what will the future hold regarding event X”.

Like Charlie said, this type of phenomena probably happens way more often than people realize, especially those with strong meditative practice, but we just keep these interesting events to ourselves thinking others will accuse us of being crazy, superstitious, or whatever.


“Ordinary” may be more diverse and weird than initially appreciated. Just keep sitting, i think.

I once had a vision in the dark just after putting my head on the pillow to go to sleep. Two words were also heard: its hot! This sudden vision was clear and surprising. The next evening this seen and heard event happened in real time. Exactly as it had happened in the vision. I know this makes no sense as there is no way that this freak event/accident could have been foreseen in the normal way.

It is not pleasing that this brief happening does not fit with my understanding of Buddhism. Remembering the future makes no sense at all but there is no other explanation I can think of?