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Recent Experiences on the Path of Calm

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Recent Experiences on the Path of Calm
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10/15/10 2:15 PM
I recently came back from a retreat where the teacher, a former monk who studied with Ajahn Buddhadassa taught in detail the practice discussed in the Anapanasati Sutta (Minfulness of breathing or mindfulness with breathing, MN 118).

In short the teaching can be summed up in the following steps:
1. Achieve pretty good level of samadhi (this can be jhana but not required).
2. Explore pleasant and unpleasant feelings (pali: vedana) and their effects on the mind.
3. Explore cause and effect in the mind.
4. Explore sensations (pali: dhammas) with a view towards impermanence, dispassion and cessation.

It is possible to skip over steps 2 and 3 once one has completed step 1, moving directly to step 4.

Having developed a stable and open samadhi that I felt could be used as a basis for exploration I set my focus on exploration different sensations starting with the breath. I started by looking at each in-breath and out-breath closely, trying to notice the moment of their arising and the moment of their passing away. After a while of doing this, a small shift occurred, a feeling of opening up and additional clarity around the breath and the sense of the breath arising and passing became clear and obvious. At this point I no longer had to look for the arising and passing, it was just clearly there, impossible to miss. I managed to get to the this state, which I see as either three characteristics or early A&P, several times in several different sits and took it in different directions.

One direction was developing a feeling of dispassion towards the breath. Seeing the breath as impermanent, I could sense the dukkha that was inherent in something so fleeting. By connecting more to the sense of dukkha, I was able to develop a feeling of “letting go” of the breath - this is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself, and why would I even want it to be? Eventually I got to see the breath as something foreign, impermanent, that seems to proceed on its own with no relation to me. I could see each breath passing away with no reaction and no doing on my part. I tried doing that with several other sensations soaking in the feeling of not-self.

Another direction was starting to look at different sensations and seeing them in the same way. Eventually, I think after exploring the ringing in my ears and seeing it all jumbled up, this broke out into sensations arising and passing all over the body, all of them impermanent and out of my control. I sat in this state for a while. Sometimes marveling at the craziness of it all, sinking into the impermanence and once even tried noting. The session with the noting seemed to progress to dissolution (sensations seemed to have a very quick, easy to miss ‘arising,’ almost no middle and a very clear, sometimes prolonged ‘passing away’) and possibly beyond but it’s hard to say. There were few seriously unpleasant sensations that I could connect to a dark night.

One more thing worth mentioning is my first sit back home. I got into the same state of seeing the breath as impermanent and got into the work of developing dispassion towards sensations. After a while of doing that, I had the sudden realization that I’m only doing one half of the work I should be doing. While I was trying to let go of various sensations, there were still all those sensations that I was actively pushing away. Seeing that, I started to also include all the difficult sensations that I’ve not included so far. This very quickly caused a surge of energy climbing up towards the crown which culminated in what I can only describe as an explosion of perfection and complete unity. This was followed by a huge feeling of relief, joy and just an outpouring of emotions. I’m not sure, but I consider this to be an A&P event.

My practice since then has been quite different. Much more vibrations everywhere and seeing impermanence is much easier. I’m not sure why I was able to finally break through the solidity barrier with this practice when all those months of noting were not enough but that’s the way it worked out for me. I have a theory that I was able to get much more intimate with the sensations of the breath through this practice and really notice their arising and passing while noting seems to always keep me at a distance from sensations. *shrug* just a theory.

If you read this far, I hope you found this post interesting and maybe even helpful in your own practice.

Eran.

RE: Recent Experiences on the Path of Calm
Answer
10/16/10 12:40 AM as a reply to Eran G.
"...I had the sudden realization that I’m only doing one half of the work I should be doing. While I was trying to let go of various sensations, there were still all those sensations that I was actively pushing away. Seeing that, I started to also include all the difficult sensations that I’ve not included so far. This very quickly caused a surge of energy climbing up towards the crown which culminated in what I can only describe as an explosion of perfection and complete unity."

Hi Eran,

That realization is pretty stunning isn't it! I had a similar experience during a sesshin I sat last Spring while eating a bad meal which I kept trying to make taste good by being "mindful." Same spectacular energy, etc. Sati can touch everything--it's realy phenomenal when one finally realizes that. You can be even be mindful of being unbearably exhausted and falling asleep on the cushion.

But I guess I'm not clear on how this practice differs from "plain noting"...

Regards,
Bruno

RE: Recent Experiences on the Path of Calm
Answer
10/16/10 6:09 AM as a reply to Eran G.
While I was trying to let go of various sensations, there were still all those sensations that I was actively pushing away. Seeing that, I started to also include all the difficult sensations that I’ve not included so far.


I believe that this is more likely to be the cause of the progression. This article may be useful.

Congratulations :-)

RE: Recent Experiences on the Path of Calm
Answer
10/17/10 8:22 PM as a reply to boeuf f.
boeuf f:
But I guess I'm not clear on how this practice differs from "plain noting"...


I actually don't think the two practices are all that different. The distinction between Samatha and Vipassana is a later addition and afaik doesn't appear in the Pali suttas. Inactually think that the Maps of Insight actually talk about the territory that the last tetrad of the anapanasati sutta talks about but in greater detail. apart from that, the main difference I see, and you can judge for yourself how big or small it is, is the level of samadhi applied. Anapanasati tends to be based on a strong degree of samadhi perhaps to the level of jhana (actually, i think that the real requirement would be something like Noble Right Concentration but that's another whole post) whereas noting practice according to vissudhimagga and other sources only requires momentary concentration (khanika samadhi).

Editing to add:

Mind you, I don't think a difference in levels of samdhi is all that trivial. This can imply a significant shift in focus (narrow to very narrow in samatha vs wide to very wide in dry vipassana). I can see how it could also cause a large difference in the way the dark night is perceived both because of the different focus and because of the general claiming and otherwise pleasant effects of samadhi.

Another difference is in the instructions. While noting practice mostly tells you to keep noting, perhaps with a shift in focus (narrower, wider, etc.) anapanasati instructs you to develop (or contemplate or explore) different attitudes towards the object.

-- end edit

This does bring up an interesting question, though, if we assume that both practices describe the same territory then we can say that anapanasati step 13 is roughly equal to A&P (contemplating impermanence). What then are the parallels for the next 3 lines and what do they tell us about the yogi's job past this stage? The next steps focus on dispassionate or fading away, Cessation and relinquishment.

RE: Recent Experiences on the Path of Calm
Answer
10/17/10 7:19 PM as a reply to Pavel _.
Thanks Pavel, I'll reread the gesture and see if it has more to tell me that I could not hear before.

RE: Recent Experiences on the Path of Calm
Answer
10/18/10 5:17 PM as a reply to Eran G.
I get it. You mean "dry vipassana" as opposed to samatha lubricated vipassana. YES, it's better that way--at least for me. I did two years of concentration practice prior to getting back into vipassana (after doing vipassana half-heartedly off and on for many years). I can't really imagine doing it otherwise (although I don't think two years are necessary, it's just where my life was at).

The thing is: there isn't such a big difference between the two once it's all truly underway. Florian said in a post here how he sees vipassana and samatha as two ends of a spectrum. At several spots along the path, the two points overlap almost completely. (Again, my experience

RE: Recent Experiences on the Path of Calm
Answer
10/18/10 9:50 PM as a reply to boeuf f.
It is true that at points they are a lot closer in some ways, but this may be that both are pleasant at times, though there is this convergence of really strong concentration and broadly penetrating insight that occurs at Conformity, when they really do come together, but the correlations that are often made are the A&P, which is actually really, really different from just pure 2nd samatha jhana except that both feel good (compare vortexes of vibrations blowing your world apart with spasms of orgasmic stuff (one possible way A&P can present) vs a stable red dot that is showing itself really naturally and clearly with steady, rich bliss, by way of example), and Equanimity, which, done vipassana style, is also really fluxy and mobile in a way that pure 4th samatha jhana is really not, though it is possible to do vipassana way up in samatha-like territory.

RE: Recent Experiences on the Path of Calm
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10/19/10 9:40 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
I agree with what Daniel wrote. I was mostly framing this in terms of confusion I had over the years when reading/learning about these practices vs. the understanding I developed after doing them. The initial confusion led me to have expectations which made undertaking the first steps of these practices more difficult than they needed to be.

What I'm trying to say is that vipassana and samatha sometimes get tallked/written about as though they are completely different planets, with utterly different atmospheres, landscapes, flora and fauna. As a beginner, this division in description led me to difficulties when I would evaluate and develop my practice.

There is the similarity of experience which Daniel mentions: over time, I realized that noting practice could bring on concentration states and concentration states could increase clarity. But what I was pointing to in my last post is that in terms of practices, based on my own experience it often feels more like a continuum along which each practice can be highly individuated or mixed. It's like there's a little slider that moves along this continuum and sometimes the noting is very "dry" sometimes the samatha has aspects of noting in it--and once in a while you really have both at once.

I also think this unfolds differently for those who start from a concentration practice. And even here, there is a lot that can be misleading. I don't think it's necessary to develop some sort of awe-inspiring, one pointed Tibetan shamatha to benefit from concentration.