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jsn's practice log

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jsn's practice log
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1/27/19 4:53 PM
About me: 46 y/o self-employed software engineer, male, married w/ children, currently living in Central Europe. Not a native speaker of English.

Practice history: 1st A&P at 14 y/o via emotional distress, spent more time in the Dark Night than out of it, psychedelics-based regular insight practice during 2013 - 2018, shikantaza (poorly understood, daily, 35 min) during 2017 - 2018, introduced to MCTB/vipassana/noting/maps/etc in March, 2018, daily 1 hour MS noting sits since ~April 2018.

Current practice: one 1-hour sit per day, choiceless awareness, no labels (except when spacing out or overwhelmed, both are rare and short). Often also a less formal 1-2 hours session in a teahouse.

I can usually start my sit by immediately tuning up to the vibrations. In the first 5 minutes it may take some effort to stay there; sometimes I label some of the lingering emotions / thoughts at this point. Then things settle down and clear up a bit. Then I start fiddling with the effort, trying to drop it enough-but-just-enough; there is a bit of chasing-your-own-tail feeling here sometimes. Then it somehow stops being a problem (or perhaps I get bored by it), and I'm just relaxed with my attention wide. It's not quite vibrations at this point, it's more like a gentle rain, where each sensation is a separate raindrop. If I look closely, I can see the gaps between the raindrops, but I can't (yet?) investigate those without effort. Actually, it feels like the mind has a mind of its own about what to investigate, and at the moment it seems more interested in not trying to catch / hold any raindrops -- because trying to grab and hold on to any of those sensations will inevitably fail, and this failure is suffering. So, letting them go seems to be the game at the moment.

At this point I'm usually 25 - 30 minutes into the sit. The rest of the session is usually spent oscillating around this state. If I manage to drop the effort just the right amount, random thoughts and daydreaming might arise, and can be observed without being lost in content or suppressing it (work in progress). Sometimes by the end of the sit I lose some of the clarity. Sometimes at this point I get some music stuck on repeat in my head -- it seems like a sign of "too much concentration" / "concentration-vs-energy imbalance", I'm not sure, don't know what to do about it, just noting and letting it be for now.

Overall, I'm starting to see more and more things in my mind as something like the weather. I mean, sometimes I have practice thoughts, sometimes I don't; not much I can do here, except to remember that the weather will change again and again. Same with having pleasant sits or unpleasant sits. Same with having enough energy or being sleepy and drowsy (I'm narcoleptic, I think, so my energy levels are not ideal, and there's not much I can do about it). Same with having this great amazing pervasive visceral understanding of no-self one week, and then having no idea what "no-self" could possibly mean next week, and then it flips again: it's like the weather, sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not. Don't read too much into it.

RE: jsn's practice log
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1/27/19 7:56 PM as a reply to jsn.
Hi, JSN. Welcome!

If you don't mind my asking: How have you found making the shift from shikantaza to noting? What are the key differences you're finding? If you're not labeling when you note, are you just noting the stimuli with some sort of sound (i.e. "blip")?

RE: jsn's practice log
Answer
1/28/19 7:11 AM as a reply to Erin.
Hi, Erin,

The main difference for me when switching from shikantaza to noting was that I did not understand shikantaza very well (and maybe I still don't). I was reading / listening to some U.S. modern Soto Zen people, and the practice instructions I was finding were short, full of Zen paradoxes and generally hard for me to interpret by myself without a teacher. For example, when I read Dogen's instructions about "discarding thoughts of fame and gain", it's unclear to me: should I ignore those thoughts? should I chase them away? should I think about this idea and find it wrong? With noting, it's obvious: I  just note those, notice the 3 characteristics, and move on. And if you do it enough times, you see exactly what "discarding thoughts of fame and gain" means. I remember thinking that I understood more about shikantaza after 3 weeks of noting than after the previous year of doing shikantaza. I'm absolutely not saying that there's something wrong with shikantaza or Soto. But for me, personally, the Mahasi / MCTB's approach, with its clear goals, maps and detailed concise instructions, seems to work so much better.

When I just switched to noting, I was using words as labels. These days I don't explicitly note, not even with "blip" -- as long as I can clearly observe the sensations with at least some of the 3C, without spacing out or getting pulled into content, I mostly just observe. Perhaps it's not unlike shikantaza, but with more "steering" (things like e.g. more effort / less effort, etc).

RE: jsn's practice log
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1/28/19 11:08 AM as a reply to jsn.
Hi jsn, great ot read your post.

I also do Shikantaza, but sometimes noting arises, and i "just note" .  emoticon

RE: jsn's practice log
Answer
1/28/19 5:56 PM as a reply to alguidar.
I do shikantaza as well, and my practice sounds pretty similar to yours, jsn! Being present and aware without labeling sensations as they come up.

This discussion on what shikantaza is and isn't is helpful: http://newbuddhist.com/discussion/21844/shikantaza-easier-said-than-done

I especially like this quote from that discussion:
According to Master Shengyen, "While you are practicing just sitting, be clear about everything going on in your mind. Whatever you feel, be aware of it, but never abandon the awareness of your whole body sitting there. Shikantaza is not sitting with nothing to do; it is a very demanding practice, requiring diligence as well as alertness. If your practice goes well, you will experience the 'dropping off' of sensations and thoughts. You need to stay with it and begin to take the whole environment as your body. Whatever enters the door of your senses becomes one totality, extending from your body to the whole environment. This is silent illumination."

RE: jsn's practice log
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2/1/19 3:13 PM as a reply to Erin.
Thanks, that's interesting!

RE: jsn's practice log
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2/1/19 3:14 PM as a reply to jsn.
It seems like this week I'm in the negative part of the cycle (for the umpteenth time). There's this slight but pervasive aversion to everything. I notice it a lot both when I sit and off the cushion. There's little piti in my sits. There is some vague tension, tightness. There's s stage in most of my sits lately when I feel a distinct urge to move, to stop doing this, to change posture, something (I don't do anything, just observe it). It's considerably more noticeable this week. I wonder what it is, aspects of Disgust, Desire for Deliverance? Then things get more relaxed and open.

I remember going through those cycles for the first time last summer, it was somewhat intense. It's nothing like that now -- I'm somewhat detached most of the time, and as soon as things start getting tight and intense, curiosity takes over, and the whole experience becomes rather interesting.

I notice some attempts to rationalize away the experience. In general, I think I'm having more practice thoughts, that's obviously related to having a public practice log. Hopefully this will return to baseline when the novelty wears off.

Narcolepsy is a bit annoying; about half of my sits this week I have to struggle with the drowsiness for about half of the time. On the positive side, my body seems to have adapted completely to the new sitting arrangements (a rolled-up towel on top of a yoga brick set on its side as cushion). There's just enough painful sensations to help with the narcolepsy thing, and I can sit the whole hour with no or almost no major posture adjustments.

RE: jsn's practice log
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2/8/19 10:04 AM as a reply to jsn.
The dark night aspects still quite noticeable. There seems to be some bleedthrough of dissolution-y stuff, can't bring myself to do any work beyond the bare minimum necessary, etc. Other than that though, things are manageable (not depressed, not even particularly anhedonic). The temptation to indulge in substance abuse is stronger than usual, though.

I notice a lot of striving during my sits, and it messes up the effort balance. For the last three days, something new keeps showing up: when I manage to dial the effort and striving back enough, every sensation I investigate turns into very fast, very fine vibrations. Those seem to be about twice as fast as the fastest I've seen before, maybe 40Hz, it's hard for me to gauge. While I can stay on this level, piti is easily available, and both anicca and anatta characteristics of everything are very obvious (and that also applies to the sensations of intentions, striving, effort, watcher, etc). The state itself is not very stable; paradoxically, I get kinda tired of maintaining the balance, and start to drift in and out of it.

Another thing that happened several times: while sitting in what feels like EQ, something like a light hypnagogic state arises, without any drowsiness / sleepiness, and seemingly without any loss of mindfulness. Then something like an (almost) unknowing event happens -- like a falling asleep nod, but without falling asleep or a nod -- and then the hypnagogy disappears completely, and I feel refreshed and clear. (Yeah, no, I don't think it could possibly be a Fruition emoticon) Might be yet another narcolepsy trick, though, I don't know.

RE: jsn's practice log
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2/10/19 6:06 AM as a reply to jsn.
Sounds like solid practice! Yeah, it's correct to let those light hypnagogic states happen and maintain a gentle awareness. That's a good domain to explore. 

RE: jsn's practice log
Answer
2/17/19 2:02 PM as a reply to jsn.
The lower part of the cycle seems to be behind me at the moment. Three days ago, to my surprise, during my sit I noticed that the striving has somehow disappeared completely (or at least decreased a lot), and it's been this way ever since. As usual, a lot of suffering dropped away with it. On a less positive side, my motivation for practice has decreased considerably; takes some additional effort to stay seated for an hour, and I seem to be a bit more prone to distractions. On the other hand, mindfulness seems to have improved; it's somehow easier to just notice what happens right here and now when you are not trying to get somewhere else.

The hypnagogic states lately either don't show up at all or show up with some drowsiness. When it happens, it's somewhat of an uphill battle against the drowsiness and the hypnagogic stream of weird images and ideations. It often ends with an "unknowing event" / a momentary sleep-like nod, and I immediately feel refreshed, tranquil and effortless afterwards (and till the end of the sit). I don't know, still looks like some narcolepsy stuff to me (but what can I do other than investigate further?).

While the striving seems to have disappeared, the resistance hasn't, not at all. It's quite noticeable now. It's not intense at all, but it seems to be everywhere, like everything has a slight aftertaste of dukkha. I don't have to buy into this, and when I remember not to, it can be interesting to observe (actually, come to think of it, that's how the Dark Night always seem to end: I manage to become interested in how the suffering happens, exactly. So that's how the cycle seems to work: you lose all hope for the progress -> you stop striving and relax -> some progress can happen because of that -> you get to a new and interesting place -> you hope to be there more often -> you're striving -> some regress happens because of that -> rewind and repeat. Interestingly, the intellectual knowledge of the above seems to do absolutely nothing to prevent or speed up the cycling).

I feel unusually (but subtly) light lately. Thoughts and emotions seems to be non-sticky, even when intense. Most of the time, when I'm not occupied by something requiring focus, I tend to space out a bit, but without getting lost -- not losing track of time or something, just very diffuse and calm, silent. When I do have to focus (e.g. because I need to do something), it often feels like I'm way more contracted than the task requires, like I could do all the same things while being much less contracted than usual.

RE: jsn's practice log
Answer
2/22/19 10:53 AM as a reply to jsn.
Still feels like I'm through with the negative side of the cycle, for now. Not compulsively striving is actually quite nice, for a change. Dropping the effort seems like a very natural thing to do. I'm starting to understand (again) what they mean when they talk about practice doing itself. That's the funny thing about those cycles: now, when the compulsive striving is gone, this not-striving feels very "me", and it's almost impossible to imagine that it wasn't always like this; at the same time, I remember very clearly that when the striving was ever-present, it also felt like an inseparable part of "me", and like it was (and will be) always like that. (I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere about things appearing to be permanent and to be me).

Another funny thing keeps happening for the last couple days, both during my sits and off the cushion. Somewhere at the top of that dropping-the-effort hill, when it feels like the complete letting go, there is this subtle momentary feeling, like you want to sneeze but can't. It's very slightly unbearable, very slightly maddening and very slightly funny. And then there's that feeling that you just missed something, or you were perceiving something formless. Does that sound similar to what MCTB calls "near-misses in equanimity"? This happens a lot lately, and after several minutes of it the sucking void of anticipation / anxiety in my stomach becomes too intense, and then the mind goes to do something else.

Re hypnagogic states: yeah, apparently something's up with those. Firstly, there's no obvious correlation between the level of my sleep deprivation and the intensity of the hypnagogic states (or even their arising) in my sits. I mean, sometimes (like today) I'm rather sleepy all day, but there wasn't any drowsiness in my sit, and the hypnagogic state was quite short and quite light. Sometimes it's very heavy when I'm not sleepy at all (off the cushion). I'm currently testing the hypothesis that the drowsiness and the heaviness of those states is caused by my resistance. It looks promising (it seems much easier to handle when I'm not resisting), but, well, more research is needed.