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New to the DhO & retreat report

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New to the DhO & retreat report
Answer
11/30/10 11:37 AM
This is my first post on the Dharma Overground. Right now I feel I need some encouragement, advice, and the sense of being part of a community of practitioners. My goal is to attain stream entry. I’ve reached a point where I’m willing to be more serious about a spiritual practice. Working on attaining stream entry seems in some ways the most logical and most desirable thing to do with my life right now. I’ll give some background on my limited meditation experience and then describe my practice during a recent 9-day retreat and pose some specific questions about what to do from here. Thanks in advance for anyone who cares to comment. I’m sorry if this is a long post.

I have read Daniel Ingram’s book and immensely appreciate its straightforwardness and clarity. Thank you. And I am familiar with the terminology from that book.

Background:

I think I crossed an A&P event in September of 2008 at the end of a yoga class. There were lights, insights about my stuff, a sense of being free from a particular kind of suffering (as I think Daniel puts it). It was unlike any experience I’d ever had, left me stunned for days. I was 23. Around that time I started attending dharma talks and sits at a Zen center. I was expecting to have more such cool experiences but did not.

In June 2009, I went on my first silent retreat taught by Shoshana and David Cooper. I heard about Daniel’s book and this website there and started meditating daily, starting with 10 minutes. I was pretty unhappy for awhile and figured I was in the Dark Night.

I finally read Daniel’s book fully last January, and began to meditate at least 20 minutes/day. I’ve gone on a handful of short Zen retreats (1/2 to 2 days). (Zen because it’s the meditation space and community I’ve found comfortable where I lived, but the practice instructions have on the whole been perplexing or nonexistent.) I am trying to do insight practices, often using noting and trying to see the three characteristics of sensations. My object is the breath (at the nose) but sometimes I will work with noticing other sensations in the body. I’ve also been trying to strengthen my concentration. I usually close my eyes to meditate. At some point in the last few months, I started to have experiences with a sense of the body getting vague or distorted, and sometimes having interesting shifts in perspective (between jhanas?).

I had only one other particularly striking experience in meditation on the second day of one of the two-day Zen retreats in July. I was trying to see the three characteristics of sensations in the body, particularly around the hips, noticing how sensations of pain are particularly unsatisfactory because they seem to be grouped in clusters. It suddenly it occurred to me to notice them as individual sensations. I thought “let go,” and I dissolved starting from my head into (dark/blue) tingling sensations, merging more or less into the space of the meditators next to me. There was still a sense of an observer, and the sensation of my heart beating somewhere in the center of all of this. I opened my eyes and felt clear, cleaned out, for the next couple of minutes, and then things went more or less back to normal. It hasn’t happened since. If anyone has thoughts about what that was, I’m certainly curious, but I’m relating it more to give you a sense of my practice history.

Retreat:

I just left a 9-day Spirit Rock retreat. At the beginning, I resolved to work toward attaining stream entry, not to get lost in content, and to investigate the three characteristics.

For the first few days, I tried to focus on the breath, noting rising rising rising, falling falling falling, thinking, etc, or lifting, stepping, placing. I noted emotions and bodily sensations as it seemed appropriate or they caught my attention. It wasn’t hard to drop thoughts when I realized I was thinking, but my mind wandered a fair bit in the first days. (Is it “suppressing” thoughts to drop them? One teacher indicated that it was.)

On day 5 there were two sits where I noticed every single breath for 20-30 minutes, and after that point in the retreat my concentration was better. In those sits, and at other points, I felt like I was “being breathed” – it was really obvious that the breath was happening on its own. The breathing was very rhythmic. The noting, at around this time in the retreat, was starting to become automatic and mantra-like, no longer necessarily connected to awareness. My mind would also start doing repetitive noting-like verbal things on its own, like counting steps or counting quickly between breaths. On the advice of one of the teachers, I dropped the noting (though I know that noting is a technique many of you favor). He suggested I try to see where thoughts come from. I wasn’t sure how to do that, though I tried to catch the beginnings of thoughts. For the rest of the retreat, I tried noticing the breath without the noting. I was still able to stay with the breath but less solidly. What would you all suggest when noting becomes mantra-like?

Other experiences: light tingling sensations especially at the beginnings of sits, slower vibrations (pulses/waves) in upper arms that started within 1 minute of many sits and subsided (that was new this retreat), moving rich blue colors behind my eyelids that I associate with getting to a certain degree of concentration, “feeling” sounds (voices, bells) on the skin, distorted/vague/stretched sense of body. At points I was trying really hard, really looking for the three characteristics. At other points it was difficult not to focus on the breath. That sounds and sensations in the body came and vanished entirely seemed somehow more obvious.

On the morning of day 7, I “traced” a planning thought to a sensation in the middle of my chest that suddenly expanded. The flavor of this sensation is fear, dread, and anxiety, and it’s been with me since that moment. I spent the last two days switching between ignoring this fear sensation and trying to focus on the breath, and trying to notice how this sensation came and went on its own and how it triggers certain kinds of thoughts.

A few questions.
- Any advice on what to do with this “fear” sensation?
- Thoughts on whether I am using my practice time intelligently – techniques, etc? What do you suggest I do instead, or do differently?
- Thoughts on where I am on the map?
- Thoughts on what combination of retreat time and daily practice would really make a difference at this point? (I have time and probably adequate resources to go on retreats in the near future.)
- Right now I’m on the West Coast, and I’m wondering if there are places to go on retreat other than Spirit Rock that people recommend.
- Other posts on this site or others that I might find helpful at this point?

Thank you!

RE: New to the DhO & retreat report
Answer
11/29/10 7:50 PM as a reply to Elicia.
Welcome Elecia,

Since you are just off retreat, there is some momentum, continue to note the sensations of the "fear". I agree, notice more than doing hard noting as the mantra-like noting is happening faster along with noticing the endings, or the details in endings or what is arising and what is passing,--the three characteristics.

BE with everything that is happening as closely as possible. You might be into early arising and passing.

I heard Tathagata in San Jose is okay, but that was second hand information.

Who was your teacher at SR? Perhaps if you felt a connection with one of the teachers, you can check out their upcoming retreats? -Just a suggestion.

thank you for your diligent practice, Constance

RE: New to the DhO & retreat report
Answer
12/2/10 10:21 PM as a reply to Elicia.
Elicia Whittlesey:

I finally read Daniel’s book fully last January, and began to meditate at least 20 minutes/day. I’ve gone on a handful of short Zen retreats (1/2 to 2 days). (Zen because it’s the meditation space and community I’ve found comfortable where I lived, but the practice instructions have on the whole been perplexing or nonexistent.) I am trying to do insight practices, often using noting and trying to see the three characteristics of sensations. My object is the breath (at the nose) but sometimes I will work with noticing other sensations in the body. I’ve also been trying to strengthen my concentration. I usually close my eyes to meditate. At some point in the last few months, I started to have experiences with a sense of the body getting vague or distorted, and sometimes having interesting shifts in perspective (between jhanas?).

i very much recommend reading one of the threads by ian and which is currently 'stickied' to the top of the combined forums (easily accessible via the 'recent posts' sub-header), entitled The Practical Aspects of Establishing Mindfulness. from the fourth post in the thread:

Ian And:

In the two Satipatthana suttas (MN 10 and DN 22), the Buddha gives the following instruction: "And how, monks, does a monk abide contemplating the body as body? Here a monk, having gone into the forest, or to the root of a tree or to an empty place, sits down cross-legged, holding his body erect, having established mindfulness in front of him. Mindfully he breaths in, mindfully he breaths out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows that he breathes in a long breath, and breathing out a long breath, he knows that he breathes out a long breath. Breathing in a short breath, he knows that he breathes in a short breath, and breathing out a short breath, he knows that he breaths out a short breath. . . ."

This simple instruction to "establish mindfulness" in front of oneself (i.e. prior to entering meditation) is key if one is to have a fruitful and significant meditation sitting. The kind of mindfulness being alluded to here is an alert mindfulness, much in the same way as if one were a hunter's prey and being hunted. If you've ever observed animals — dogs, cats, birds, ground squirrels, rabbits, etcetera — in the wild, you will have noticed that they are always ALERT. Especially wild animals, because they are either looking for food or attempting to escape becoming a meal for some other animal predator. If you will stop, right now, and vividly imagine yourself in the latter situation (i.e. being the prey for another animal) while paying close attention to the affective phenomena that arise within your awareness, you will have a graphic idea what it means to be mindfully alert in the way that the Buddha spoke about in his instruction to "establish mindfulness."

In such a state, the senses are on high alert: sight, hearing, smell, and tactile sensation primarily. This state of high alertness is fostered by high (emotional) energy (viriya), if you know what I mean. Viriya is one of the seven factors of enlightenment. This is what the Buddha meant when he mentioned viriya as a factor of enlightenment. It is this state of high energy that maintains the mind in the present moment, that maintains presence of mind. I use this example only to convey the idea of the kind of energy being spoken about here. And it need not be motivated by fear, as in the example given; but at any rate, the energy expended by the mind will be highly alert and fully aware of the immediate atmosphere (i.e. of the significance of the present moment circumstance).

When you establish this kind of mindful alertness, the odds of being able to enter absorption (or jhana) are increased ten fold, because one of the primary conditions for inducing the jhana experience has been set in motion: that of mindful awareness.

the above passage is crucial to understand in order to build a strong foundation for meditation. read it until it sinks in that to do meditation well you must cultivate the mental conditions which are most conducive to it. take forest monks as an example: they are sent off on their own into the jungle not because their teachers think they will find it peaceful but because their teachers know that it will make them unprecedentedly sensitive and alert. forests are full of tigers, snakes, and strange noises in the night; to meditate in those conditions is to meditate at the edge of ones mind. you want to approximate those mental conditions however you can, cultivating both an intent alertness and a sense of immediacy in your experience, at least during practice sessions but also in your daily life whenever you feel up to it.


Elicia Whittlesey:

I had only one other particularly striking experience in meditation on the second day of one of the two-day Zen retreats in July. I was trying to see the three characteristics of sensations in the body, particularly around the hips, noticing how sensations of pain are particularly unsatisfactory because they seem to be grouped in clusters. It suddenly it occurred to me to notice them as individual sensations. I thought “let go,” and I dissolved starting from my head into (dark/blue) tingling sensations, merging more or less into the space of the meditators next to me. There was still a sense of an observer, and the sensation of my heart beating somewhere in the center of all of this. I opened my eyes and felt clear, cleaned out, for the next couple of minutes, and then things went more or less back to normal. It hasn’t happened since. If anyone has thoughts about what that was, I’m certainly curious, but I’m relating it more to give you a sense of my practice history.

i would guess that was an insight into mind and body, and answer this only in passing because you asked, for what you write below is of more immediate interest.


Elicia Whittlesey:

I just left a 9-day Spirit Rock retreat. At the beginning, I resolved to work toward attaining stream entry, not to get lost in content, and to investigate the three characteristics.

For the first few days, I tried to focus on the breath, noting rising rising rising, falling falling falling, thinking, etc, or lifting, stepping, placing. I noted emotions and bodily sensations as it seemed appropriate or they caught my attention. It wasn’t hard to drop thoughts when I realized I was thinking, but my mind wandered a fair bit in the first days. (Is it “suppressing” thoughts to drop them? One teacher indicated that it was.)

you want to engage your attention so fully and completely to the task at hand that incipient thoughts have less of a murky basis from which to arise and that they are duly noted when and where they do. from the perspective of a noting practice, thoughts are ultimately just the sensations which they comprise, and any action taken with regard to them is simply (the sensations composing) that action. hence, whether or not you drop or suppress thoughts when they occur is of no importance, while noting those or


Elicia Whittlesey:

On day 5 there were two sits where I noticed every single breath for 20-30 minutes, and after that point in the retreat my concentration was better. In those sits, and at other points, I felt like I was “being breathed” – it was really obvious that the breath was happening on its own. The breathing was very rhythmic. The noting, at around this time in the retreat, was starting to become automatic and mantra-like, no longer necessarily connected to awareness. My mind would also start doing repetitive noting-like verbal things on its own, like counting steps or counting quickly between breaths. On the advice of one of the teachers, I dropped the noting (though I know that noting is a technique many of you favor). He suggested I try to see where thoughts come from. I wasn’t sure how to do that, though I tried to catch the beginnings of thoughts. For the rest of the retreat, I tried noticing the breath without the noting. I was still able to stay with the breath but less solidly. What would you all suggest when noting becomes mantra-like?

certainly not to 'try to see where thoughts come from'; in general, it is far more useful for a beginner to get a firm grasp on comprehending bodily experience than to go wading into inchoate mental-only territory. when noting becomes mantra-like, notice the rhythmic automatic sensations which may occur, as well as whatever repetitive mental things you might do. keep your attention constant and continuous, not slipping from mindfulness for even a moment no matter the object your attention may slip to. if you practise like this, you will notice more subtle things in your field of experience and they will help you direct your practice.

please describe the automatic, mantra-like, repetitive mental activity further in your next practice report if you continue to experience it.


Elicia Whittlesey:

Other experiences: light tingling sensations especially at the beginnings of sits, slower vibrations (pulses/waves) in upper arms that started within 1 minute of many sits and subsided (that was new this retreat), moving rich blue colors behind my eyelids that I associate with getting to a certain degree of concentration, “feeling” sounds (voices, bells) on the skin, distorted/vague/stretched sense of body. At points I was trying really hard, really looking for the three characteristics. At other points it was difficult not to focus on the breath. That sounds and sensations in the body came and vanished entirely seemed somehow more obvious.

these are signs of progress for a beginning meditator; pat yourself on the back for having come this far and keep going.


Elicia Whittlesey:

On the morning of day 7, I “traced” a planning thought to a sensation in the middle of my chest that suddenly expanded. The flavor of this sensation is fear, dread, and anxiety, and it’s been with me since that moment. I spent the last two days switching between ignoring this fear sensation and trying to focus on the breath, and trying to notice how this sensation came and went on its own and how it triggers certain kinds of thoughts.

are you noting these sensations when they occur?


Elicia Whittlesey:

- Any advice on what to do with this “fear” sensation?

note it.


Elicia Whittlesey:

- Thoughts on whether I am using my practice time intelligently – techniques, etc? What do you suggest I do instead, or do differently?

establish mindfulness intently and clearly before you start your formal practice session, bring it into your meditation posture seamlessly, and maintain it (the mindfulness) at all costs through the duration of your practice session without break, allowing yourself only a few minutes of reflection per hour of practice if even that. develop clear comprehension of whatever sensation arises by noting it. stick to physical sensations unless the continuity of your attention is steady. if vibrations show up, let them draw you in.


Elicia Whittlesey:

- Thoughts on where I am on the map?

most likely 2nd or 3rd nana (knowledges of conditionality, comprehension of the three characteristics).


Elicia Whittlesey:

- Thoughts on what combination of retreat time and daily practice would really make a difference at this point? (I have time and probably adequate resources to go on retreats in the near future.)

mindfulness in daily life, reflection on practice-related themes as it comes naturally, at least one sitting per day no longer than that which you are able to practise energetically and ceaselessly (10 minutes of ardent practice is more beneficial than an hour of sluggish half-hearted effort), and a retreat of a duration no longer than that for which you are certain you will be able to practise energetically and ceaselessly (though i recommend no less than a week).

Elicia Whittlesey:

- Right now I’m on the West Coast, and I’m wondering if there are places to go on retreat other than Spirit Rock that people recommend.

as constance recommended, there is the tathagatha meditation center run by mahasi's people. there are also the goenka centres on the west coast (including their new centre near clear lake in northern california).

welcome to the dho.

tarin

RE: New to the DhO & retreat report
Answer
12/3/10 2:03 AM as a reply to Elicia.
Regarding west coast resources:

If you're around the bay area, you may also want to check out the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood city. Gil fronsdal is a good teacher and leads weekly half day longs there and several retreats a year through IMC. http://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/

Around Portland OR there's cloud mountain retreat center which is a great place to practice. Teachings vary with the teacher so YMMV. http://www.cloudmountain.org/

The SF zen center is pretty active, I hear, but I don't really have any first hand experience with them - http://www.sfzc.org/ There's various retreats being run out of their tassajara retreat center.

Depending on what you're looking for and where you are there are plenty of teachers and weekly sitting groups all over the place. Some of those also do their own retreats. there are several monasteries around where you can visit for a week or two, I have some friends who did that and seem to get a lot from that experience. Also, several places that are open for self retreat if you're good with self-discipline like Vajrapani in the santa Cruz mountains.

Hope this helps,
Eran.

RE: New to the DhO & retreat report
Answer
2/8/11 8:00 PM as a reply to Elicia.
Thank you, Constance, Tarin, and Eran for your extremely helpful posts. I've been meaning to reply for some time.

I've been meditating 20 minutes/day for the past two months. The repetitive noting that I was experiencing during and after the retreat has ceased. The fear sensations have subsided. I still experience vague body distortions, wave/pulse-like sensations especially in the forearms, and sometimes a sense of heavy thickness - like it would take great effort if I were to try to move. In contrast to much of the rest of the time, I often feel positive and light-hearted when I get up from sitting.

I am trying to be more intensely and continuously mindful and alert during meditation, with no particular improvement. I'm just not trying hard enough. I've kept my meditation time to a minimum to try to force myself to put greater effort into the time that I'm sitting. Maybe two separate sits each day would make sense?

In sum, I'm still working on applying the advice you gave me earlier, and I'll let you know if something new comes up or if I have questions.