February 20, 2022
I was recently having a discussion with a friend who is a devotee of light, sound, meditation, and brain wave states. He was explaining to me the fascinating idea that gazing at the flicker of a candle can actually shift you into a meditative state.
I looked into this, and it's actually true…
…based upon the theory of “brain wave entrainment,” you can train your brain wave frequencies to synchronize with a specific stimulus (such as sound, vibration, or light), and thus shift yourself into a desired state of wakefulness, trance, sleep, dream, relaxation, meditation, etc. It turns out that the flicker rate of a candle is extremely close to the same hertz (Hz) rate of 8-13Hz that correlates to the Alpha brain wave state, a state most commonly associated with deep and focused meditation.
There's even a name for this phenomenon: “flicker response.” You may have experienced it before when experiencing the mild annoyance, brain fog, or even amplified alertness that you might get while staring at the backlit LED screen of a computer monitor or walking under the high lux, extremely bright lights in, say, an airport, a grocery store, or a mall (especially at night, which is a good reason to own and use a pair of blue light blocking glasses). You may also have experienced the opposite feeling of calmness and serenity often induced by staring into a campfire or gazing at the flickering of a burning candle.
This phenomenon isn't some newfangled idea.
There was actually an extensive article on this so-called flicker response and the subsequent brain wave reaction that appeared back in 1973 in Scientific American in an article by Gerard Oster. Brainwave entrainment is also the underlying concept behind Hebrew davening, Native American drum circles and rain chants, Tibetan prayer bowls, and whirling dervishes and African trance dancing, all of which can slow the brain waves from a hyper-alert high brain frequency of Beta (13-30 Hz) to Alpha (8-13Hz) for meditation, Theta (4-8Hz) for deep relaxation and dreaming, and Delta (.5-4Hz) for slow wave or dreamless sleep.
Modern biohacking and haptic technologies such as the Hapbee, the Apollo, the Sensate, the Braintap, or the Vielight (all of which I personally own and love to toy around with on a weekly basis for activities such as meditation, naps, or even pre-workout alertness) can do this too, and the results can be quantified using technology such as a wearable like the Oura ring, electroencephalograph (QEEG) measurements, galvanic skin response (GSR) devices, and other types of heart, pulse and breath rate monitors that can demonstrate in real-time how external stimuli via light, sound or vibration can subtly or quite dramatically shift your brainwaves, and thus your mood and emotions, into any specific desired state.
Want to try this out for yourself?
1) Light a candle. It can be any kind of candle since the shape and size do not matter. However, many candles are made of paraffin wax (a petroleum waste product that is chemically bleached) which can create toxic carcinogens like benzene and toluene when burned, use lead-core candle wicks that can expose you to five times the amount of lead considered hazardous, and the synthetic fragrances that create candle scents usually contain phthalates. For those reasons, I do recommend you choose naturally scented or unscented candles, preferably made from all-natural products like beeswax or soy, and use paper or 100% cotton wicks
2) If possible, dim or turn off the lights in the room, so that the flame of the candle will stand out.
3) Put the candle on a table and sit on a chair in front of it, or on the floor and sit cross-legged in front of it (ideally the candle is close to the same level as your eyes, so if you sit on the floor, try to place the candle on a slightly elevated surface in front of you).
4) Position the candle at about one to two feet from you.
5) Take a few slow, deep breaths, preferably inhaling through your nose and exhaling through slightly pursed lips.
6) Allow your entire body to soften and relax as you breathe.
7) Now, focus your attention on the flame of the candle, simply staring into the flame as it flickers while observing how the flame changes shape and color.
8) Try to keep your sight and attention only on the flame of the candle, without thinking of anything else or looking at anything else. You'll actually find that it is easier to keep your mind “clear” when you are immersing your complete attention onto the flame of the candle compared to trying to keep your mind clear when you are meditating with your eyes closed.
9) Continue relaxed breathing and staring into the candle for as long as you'd like, preferably for ten to twenty minutes.
10) When you finish, gently puff out the candle, wiggle your fingers and toes, slowly stand, and return to your day, bathed with the peace and calmness that the candle meditation provided.
Because I read my Bible, read a devotional (this is the one I'm reading right now), pray, and complete my Spiritual Disciplines journaling in the wee hours of the morning, I find that this is a perfect time to light my candle and stare into it for one to two minutes before I begin my morning practice. Even this brief period of time staring into a candle flame shifts my brain state more quickly into a state of meditative focus, and, as a bonus, provides a valuable anchor for my morning devotions to ensure that it becomes a solidified habit (extra tip: I also burn incense prior to devotions for the same reason, as it provides a sensory cue for my body, much like a Pavlov's dog response, and you can read Charles Duhigg's Power Of Habit for more of these type of habit-inducing tactics).
Finally, if you decide to try candle meditation for yourself, then I would invite you to consider—as you stare into the flicker and flame of the candle—how your own spiritual disciplines habits can be much like the waning and brightening of that candle. What I mean by that is that some days you will feel very bright: deeply connected to God, able to seamlessly launch into prayer, highly tuned to the process of speaking and listening to God, and empowered to discover deep truths in your devotional and in the Bible. But other days you may feel stale, faded, dark, dull, and unmotivated, as though there is a foggy cloud between you and God.
You too are very much like a candle.
Some days are up and some days are down.
Some days you flicker as though pure oxygen is feeding your flame, and some days it feels as though you have no fuel for the fire whatsoever. This is normal.
But what's most important is that you keep the wick lit no matter what.
And how do you do that?
Keep coming back, every morning, to seek God. Keep coming back and lighting that candle in the morning. Keep coming back and burning that incense in the morning. Keep coming back and doing breath work or jumping up and down on a trampoline or stretching or doing whatever it takes beforehand to wake your body, mind, and spirit even they may feel somewhat dull and senseless. Eventually, you'll find that most days are bright, and the average day slowly becomes brighter than ever.
How about you? Have you tried candle meditation? Do you find that some days are bright and some days are dull? How do you deal with that? Do you have your own experiences or tips to share? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. I read them all.