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Dealing with the Dark Night

My Turn in the Dark Night

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My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/3/19 5:30 PM
I'm busy re-reading MTCB and various threads on the DN, but thought I'd get things going with a basic question.

I'm currently unemployed, and when not dealing with family duties, could be doing a lot of meditation. How hard should I go at this?

I don't have a regular teacher, but will be contacting one I've worked with in the past.

My current state: just got over a bad bout of existential paralysis, so things are OK again. Did a guided vipassana meditation, took a break, and will resume insight practice soon. In addition to my unemployment problem, I've got some health issues to deal with, but they are manageable so far. My recent attack of bronchitis has forced me to stop my mild cannabis habit. I've experienced some withdrawals, but should be over the worst.

I've been meditating seriously for about 5 years, with both MTCB and TMI. (So yes, TMI can land you in the dark night). Did a 10 day home retreat last year, with no problems. I powered up my meditation after my job ended 2 months ago, and that has both accellerated my progress, and put me into the DN. Well I was probably cycling before, just not as severely.

5 days ago, had a complete collapse of my sense of self-worth. The next day, had an amazing break through while walking in the woods; this was presumably equanimity. Sense of suffering totally vanished, awareness open and spacious. Actions were happening by themselves. That sense of self which was in crisis had been observed to be unrelated to my actual actions and thoughts. This lasted several hours, until I realized I needed to go to the emergency room...

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/4/19 6:02 AM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
Steven E Barnes:
This lasted several hours, until I realized I needed to go to the emergency room...

That's quite a cliffhanger ending to your post... what's going on?

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/4/19 10:49 AM as a reply to shargrol.
Bronchitis. I'm mostly better, although the anitbiotics have been causing a lot of discomfort.

Meditation yesterday was very buzzy and unpleasant. Lots of fast strobing of sensations. Difficulty concentrating on tasks. Going on a walk seemed to help calm things down.

I'm in a pretty neutral state today, but of course I want to get this shit over and push through to stream entry.

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/4/19 11:56 AM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
Mate you are in striving mode - chill out - you'll get it when you have seen and experienced what you need to in this life time.  

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/13/19 5:58 PM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
I wanted to post updates, but hesitated for multiple reasons. First, did not want the activity of blogging to distract from my meditations. I tend to get obsessive with such activities... But also, there were multiple times where I was wondering if I had hit stream entry.

The pattern has been: anxiety starts to rise, mental state becomes hellish; eventually I come out of it and am OK for a day or two. Repeat...

The second time this happened, I had some good insights, but quickly realized that it was not SE. However, with each successive crisis, I was able to escape faster.

Now I have been crisis free for 2 days (knock on wood), and my mental state is amazing. I have no doubt that today, I have been in a state equivalent to everything I've read about Stream Entry. The question is whether it will last. My mental clarity and amazingness have dropped quite a bit in the last few hours. Also, I have not had any obvious cessation. Still, this could be the one...

While going on a 1+ hour walk, major insights were happening, but also, I realized that my mind was learning how to deal with my new state and insights. Most likely, this has been happening with each cycle. This learning process made some things seem awkward or wrong.

For example, I tend to get lost in endless self-talk and story telling. While walking, bits of dialog would pop into my head, intersersed with other thoughts. Sometimes words would be abruptly cut off before completion. Eventually, I realized that this was OK. I was slowly learning how to let the self-talk "arise and pass away" without any mental drama or effort. Same with music earworms (in this case "A Little Help From My Friends", Joe Cocker version, which I had heard a few weeks ago).

On this trail, there are spots where the path uphill becomes steep. Usually, I will start to feel tired; my lungs and/or legs begin to hurt. This time, there was no suffering at all. In fact, no real sense of tiredness. My body however seemed to know when to slow down or stop.

Non-duality is a bit trickier. I still can percieve a presence, which I assume to be the self. However, there was little or no sense of being separate from other people. It is as if my sense of self has expanded.

At various times, I would think "I need to do this" or "not do that", so that I wouldn't screw up my shot at stream entry. Then it occurred to me that whatever was happening would unfold on it's own, regardless of what I do. In order to stave off disappointment, I had been telling myself "Even if this isn't stream entry, it is a major accomplishment". At one point, I started to notice sadness. But again, there was no suffering, and the emotion went away without any drama...

When I got home, I attempted to meditate. Usually I can quickly establish access concentration. This time, it was hard to really get anything productive going. Basic sensations, like breath at the nose seemed dim. Yet at the same time, my mind had an amazing sense of clear, open spaciousness.

That is all for now... I'm a bit jittery, but hopeful...

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/14/19 9:55 AM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
Steven E Barnes:

The pattern has been: anxiety starts to rise, mental state becomes hellish; eventually I come out of it and am OK for a day or two. Repeat...

The second time this happened, I had some good insights, but quickly realized that it was not SE. However, with each successive crisis, I was able to escape faster.

Now I have been crisis free for 2 days (knock on wood), and my mental state is amazing. I have no doubt that today, I have been in a state equivalent to everything I've read about Stream Entry. The question is whether it will last. My mental clarity and amazingness have dropped quite a bit in the last few hours. Also, I have not had any obvious cessation. 

...

When I got home, I attempted to meditate. Usually I can quickly establish access concentration. This time, it was hard to really get anything productive going. Basic sensations, like breath at the nose seemed dim. Yet at the same time, my mind had an amazing sense of clear, open spaciousness.

To me this sounds like you've started cycling up into Equanimity and are getting more deeply into it than you have before:

I had some similar experiences of being convinced I'd hit stream entry when I first cycled up strongly into Equanimity, and there's quite a lot that is similar between EQ and life post-stream-entry.  It's a really nice phase, worth enjoying when you're in it, and can start to really help you see thoughts and feelings more objectively.  I may be wrong, but either way I'm glad to hear that your practice is going well.

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/14/19 12:11 PM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
Steven E Barnes:


I also have a few days when i have very dificult mind states.

My aproach is to meditate less, and try to engage in various social activities.

Seems to work.

Re Observation sucks... emoticon

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/17/19 1:28 PM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
Dear Steven, 

I can relate very much to what you’re describing and the way you’re describing it. I’ve been practicing about 10 years, including about 7 years post-SE. Over the years, my understanding has evolved quite a lot in a way which I believe puts me in a position where my advice may be beneficial to you. 

However, I’d recommend seeking out a teacher who you can work with over the long term instead of relying on internet forums and books. It’s not something I had the sense to do myself, and looking back now I think it was foolish to go alone. In the age of the internet, I’m sure you’ll be able to find someone willing and capable to guide you. Just make sure to assess carefully and don’t settle for anyone who’s watering down the teachings.

How hard should I go at this?

Personally, I've found that if I try my best to live my life on the basis of sincere bodhicitta, making it the root intention behind every action, opening to the full reality of the situation without subtly turning away from the inconvenient truths of life, everything unfolds in an optimal way for both myself and all in my sphere of influence--insofar as I'm able to do this. This is a key point emphasised by many great Tibetan masters. Insofar as I buy in to the samsaric mind of problems and judgements and concrete existence, subtly rejecting certain aspects of reality, I become caught up in endless narrow-minded cycles and stories and paths, in patterns of craving and aversion.

You are limited by that which you turn away from. If you turn away from your awareness of the suffering of others, far greater than your own, and your capacity to alleviate this suffering, you will find it much more difficult to escape the vortex of ego-centric patterns, which will have an insidious effect on your capacity as a practitioner.

For example, without a basis in compassion one is more likely to buy in to rationalizations about needing to live the kind of balanced and healthy life that your therapist can get behind, i.e. the kind which has the curious side effect of greatly reducing the time one has available for really transformative practice. If you were walking through a park in a busy city in your best suit and saw a young child drowning in a nearby pond, you wouldn’t hesitate to dive in and save the life of the child, ruining your suit. But when the suffering is far removed from us, we think very differently and are unwilling to make significant sacrifices. At the same time, we need to be realistic about the situation and our capacity and act accordingly.

Ego distorts everything. In an era of mass extinction and climate catastrophe, the lifestyles of ordinary, decent people in first-world countries are often extremely imbalanced and unhealthy from the point of view of other species, not to mention future generations of humans. Dysfunction and imbalance can create opportunities for practice, which leads to true sanity. They’re not necessarily problems. Let compassion be your guide, not some conditioning about what constitutes healthy behaviour.

Here is something I wish I properly understood when starting out on the Theravada path: it is based on relative truth. From the Mahayana perspective, the Buddha taught relative truths as skilful means for those not ready for higher teachings. Try to remember that you are engaging with stories and illusions, as if in a dream. This may be a very beneficial and liberating dream which will enable you to do more advanced practices later, but ultimately the goal is not to pursue dream forms, it’s to wake up from the dream and remain in the state of lucidity beyond dreaming. Here is a wonderful dharma talk by Dzogchen teacher James Low which makes this point very clearly. 

With relative truth, there are a number of harmful ways one can miss the point. With the emphasis on suffering and ending suffering, one’s tendency to think of it as concrete, inherently real and undesirable can be exacerbated. With the emphasis on seeing anatta, one can reject the sense of self and crave not-self; with the emphasis on seeing dukkha, one can easily slip into an aversive attitude towards everything; with the emphasis on temporary states and a graduated series of attainments, one is likely to get caught in patterns of clinging to some states and rejecting others.

There can be an assumption that “the dark night” is something inherently undesirable, very difficult and painful, causing one to reflexively reject it. In my experience it’s often not possible to exit the dark night at will. At its most severe it’s like the ultimate Chinese finger trap—there is absolutely nothing you can do to get out. One can easily become trapped in a feedback runaway of aversion (feeling aversion to the suffering, causing more aversion, which causes more suffering and so on). As Daniel Ingram says, do not stop practicing. Look into the nature of suffering and that which you’re turning away from.

One can feel trapped in samsara, as if the miracle of reality was somehow broken, like a computer program caught in an infinite loop. There is no awareness of the simultaneity of samsara and nirvana. Whereas in Dzogchen (considered by some traditions to be the highest teaching in Buddhism, most closely aligned with ultimate truth), our true nature, the basis of samsara, has the qualities of primordial purity and natural perfection. If you could develop some real understanding of the Dzogchen view so that it forms the backdrop to your Theravada practice, that would be hugely beneficial in many ways and help you avoid the aforementioned shadow sides. 

Keep in mind the Law of Reversed Effort as taught in the Tao Te Ching. “The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent unknown quantity may take hold. We cannot make ourselves understand; the most we can do is to foster a state of mind, in which understanding may come to us” - Aldous Huxley

This holds true in a huge variety of contexts. As you probably have some intuition of at this stage, it’s especially true for mind training. Make a great effort to think pure virtuous thoughts for as long as you can. This will push the mind out of kilter like a rocking horse. Eventually it will swing to the other extreme. So one needs to understand how to apply effort in a sustainable way which is not rooted in craving and aversion. If you’re anything like I was, you could potentially take as a working assumption that you are trying too hard in a striving, effortful way and need to relax and let go. As in Taoism there is also a path based largely on non-doing. 

Sayadaw U Tejaniya has a book called “When Awareness Becomes Natural” which contains a lot of good advice based on personal experience of practicing in daily life. He emphasises gently cultivating a consistent presence of mind that can be sustained in the midst of a busy lifestyle. Then with this established one could develop a capacity for meta-cognitive awareness. The ability to engage with concepts but not “fall asleep in the thought” is very liberating and powerful. In fact, regardless of whether they were a stream winner, could access jhanas, etc., I’d regard anyone who could sustain this level of mindfulness throughout the day while living as a lay person to be a very advanced practitioner.

Another key point is that progress on the path is never about getting from state A to state B in a linear sort of way as in weightlifting or fitness training. It’s more about coming to realize that A was B all along and developing total acceptance of A so that one naturally transcends it and shifts to an ongoing perception of B as the deeper reality. Our true nature is already not-self, emptiness, enlightenment. Samsara is a function of this. There is no “I” that can attain SE.

If thoughts of needing to get from A to B arise, look at the context which these thoughts are dependent on for meaning. What is the underlying assumption behind this attitude? All thoughts and concepts are mutually dependent, with the self at the root, like a closed system.

Best wishes,

Brendan

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/21/19 6:45 PM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
I had a major revelation. I've been taking the drug Bentyl to deal with IBS issues. Most of my panic attacks happen several hours after taking a pill, when it would be wearing off. So I decided to drop that shit permanently. This predictably led to an extended anxiety attack, in which I was meditating most of the night, instead of sleeping... After that, I decided to taper down on the drug, currently at about half my previous dose.

In the morning, I read some more about Bentyl, and discovered that many of the issues I've been battling with are known side-effects, and the drug "is no longer frequently prescribed." My doctor (not the one who perscribed that shit) remarked that about 7% of the population experience mental problems with Bentyl, but he has "never seen that extreme of a reaction". It seems as if my sensitivity to other drugs has also increased.

Mahamudra (aka TMI "meditation on the mind") has become my main thing. These days, when I sense panic rising, I head to my room, put on Brian Eno, "Music for Airports", and just adopt an attitude of slow, calm abiding. Maybe play a solitaire game. The whole time, I'm mentally balancing on a knife edge. It is hard to imagine how non-meditators deal with extreme anxiety.

My concentration has collapsed. I can't seem to get into jhanas. I'm doing a lot of walking with my mind resting in the present moment.

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/21/19 7:04 PM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
Holy crap! I’m so glad that you found out that it was the drug that caused the symptoms, before it got even worse, but I wish you wouldn’t have to go through this. Hang in there! This too shall pass. You seem to deal with this very skilfully.

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/21/19 8:10 PM as a reply to Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö.
The positive aspect is it means I can get my life back together. Also, I did have many powerful insights when going through this period.

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/22/19 10:38 AM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
That’s a really good attitude.

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/23/19 7:16 PM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
Last few nights have been terrible struggles just to get thru, due to the effects of trying to taper off of Bentyl, excerbated by my other health problems. Got very little sleep.

In the morning, cloud of doom hanging over me. Fully expected to die soon. Went on walk with my wife. Sat down, tried to meditate, still feeling like death was imminent. But after short, inneffective attempts at meditating, I started to feel OK. Then actually good. Broke off meditation and did some other things.

I think at this time, I have kicked the Bentyl problem. I am also currently off of all drugs, including caffeine. I have had a cavilier attitude about drugs and the meditative path, but at this point, it looks like I have been forced to give them up, at least temporatily.

Had a couple short, non-effective meditations, went for a longer walk...

Came back for more meditation. At first, very distracted, almost gave up. Sense of pain in chest from my acid-reflux problems became very noticable, kept going. At some point, a wave of clear, strong piti started flowing over me. Later, colored visuals appeared and started swirling, with the whole visual field strobing. Noticed I was moving thru jhanas again; for the first time ever, I had a clear sense of fourth jhana as described in the suttas:

"Just as if a man were sitting wrapped from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; even so, the monk sits, permeating his body with a pure, bright awareness. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness."

I could feel like there was something covering my body, and sleep paralysis set in. My sense of the interior of my body was totally gone, replaced by a sense of open space. Unfortunately, there was still a sense of the breath-body expanding and contracting; tried letting go of my need to control / feel the breath, but could never quite do it. There was a fair amount of discursive thought happening.

I should note that my long-term bad habit of controlling the breath may be my biggest meditation problem at the moment. Also, having had some limited success with lucid dreaming in the past, I have finally confirmed some theories of mine, that there is a link between lucid dream states and the 4th jhana; I think Daniel mentions that in MTCB. When I say paralysis, I mean that there is a sense that I cannot move. Being experienced, I know that this is an illusion, and that I can usually break out when I need to...

I have also finally confirmed which parts of my experiences are actually 4th jhana, as well as some of my theories about vibrations and jhanas, maybe I'll start a thread about it.

In part due to my inability to drop control of the breath, there was a bit of tension and instability in this state. Also it seemed like I was fighting the paralysis. Eventually popped out of it. These jhanas were pretty weird, with all the mental instability, yet happening of their own accord, and very powerful. Also, I was fully able to hear what was happening around me, as there were people moving around the house and talking.

Feeling great, with a nice afterglow.

RE: My Turn in the Dark Night
Answer
3/23/19 7:47 PM as a reply to Steven E Barnes.
I forgot to mention... I've been trying to hook up with a teacher for a while. I'll be having some lessons with Michael Taft starting on Monday.