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1 Month Noting Retreat Good or Bad Idea for Formerly Fearful Person?

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Hi,

Pardon the long post. Not incredibly urgent but I'd appreciate any feedback.

Life has more or less come to this urgent standstill where I feel an immense need to gain insight as soon as possible. I've been in this state for a month now. I have no interest in doing anything else at this point. However, I have a few concerns about relatively recent mental states I've been experiencing and how they (and my reactions to them) might affect my ability to safely complete an intensive retreat:

When I was a kid I was frightened rather easily, but that went away and I became totally fearless for the majority of my life up until about a year ago when I tried Cannabis. While I don't believe the actual drug caused anything directly, it opened me up to a few moments of fear where I expressed aversion. As a result of those moments I ended up continually thinking fearful thoughts, and the more I indulged those fears, the more fearful I grew, the more I indulged, the more fearful I grew, etc. For those wondering, the general fear is mostly based off of the semi-common friendly sleepover question "Dude, do you ever close your eyes and wonder, what if I opened my eyes and something appeared in front of me?" to which the answer quickly became "Yes, all the time."

At the same time these fears were growing, I was doing a lot of research on meditation, lucid dreaming, astral projection and the like (retrospectively, it's obvious I was shooting in the dark for months, clearly looking for "True Dhamma", but not finding it for a long time despite extensive research). Eventually I came to the realization that if I became lucid in a dream, my fears might show up without me being able to exit, and I thus became fearful of sleep itself. This led to me consistently noticing myself falling asleep, and quickly stopping it from happening many times over. As a result I became very aware of the sensations of falling asleep, and due to this heightened awareness I started experiencing mild hypnagogia every night, in addition to frequent sleep paralysis. Not helpful! Another odd quirk was when I'd drive or walk around at night, my levels of fear would be rather elevated, and since I was so ignorant at the time, I'd actively be looking around, and the moment my mind caught onto some unclear shapes in my periphery, I'd get more fearful and look to "make sure" it was a normal object, as stupid as that sounds. I have never looked and not seen a normal object. Irrational indeed.

This all got to a point where I'd literally wait in fear with my eyes open until the sun came out to go to bed. The second I saw the sunlight come through my window, I was totally fine, completely back to normal, fearless, until night fell again several hours later. As you can see, each of these things just made each other thing worse and worse, and I got pretty desperate. All my research led me to retreating for 10 days at a Goenka center, where I became aware of the fact that every time I expressed aversion towards my fears, I made them worse. I started focusing on the sensations of the fear with equanimity, and what do you know, they began to subside! Eventually, within a month or so, these fears subsided heavily, in addition to anger and anxiety, to which I applied the same remedy. During this retreat, I experienced some simultaneous odd stomach sensations and fluttering eyelids with the occasional flashing lights, despite not feeling like I was all that concentrated or insightful. I still experience the flashing lights sometimes with my eyes closed now, even though I don't meditate all that much. These experiences freaked me out a little, and I would open my eyes to check to make sure everything was okay. Now I'm pretty okay with them.

Throughout all of these experiences, I was always self aware. It was mostly always like "Man, look at what my mind is doing. So dumb. I need to figure out how to fix this." Even now, I'm aware of how neurotic this all is/sounds, yet I still seek out the comfort of affirmation. But with this being such delicate business, and having read some people's rather frightening experiences online, I figure I'd better seek some advice. With all that said, I'm fairly certain all of these experiences were/are habitual. In the present, I only really experience these fears if I am super tired, which I also think is habitual, since I mostly formed these habits of fear while very sleep deprived and in the darkness. Even still, I always have the doubt that I'm sure many have had before of "what if there really is/was something wrong with me?", "am I unfit to partake in intense practice?"

Other than the Goenka retreat, and maybe less than 100 hours of anapanasati, I have no experience and no attainments.

Regarding logistics, I have no job right now, good enough money saved up. I intend to go to Pa Auk Forest Monastery or a Mahasi center for one year or more, however I have important plans several months from now, so I'm here waiting for those several months before I can leave for a long term retreat. So in the time I'm waiting here, I can do a month long noting retreat before I leave. I'd also like to say that from what I've read, I particularly like the idea of noting. It seems very logical and direct.

With the sense of urgency, fears, experiences, worries, and lack of attainments established, my question is simple. Should I opt for the month long noting retreat, or just practice at home for several months and go for Pa Auk/Mahasi in Asia once I'm more practiced? I have a lot of time in the few weeks leading up to the month long noting retreat. In those weeks, what practice should I do to prepare myself and how much of it? As many hours of anapanasati as I can muster per day? Light noting all day? Loving kindness?

And if I do go, would any experiences dictate any action other than noting on my part? By that I mean, when other people talk about things getting weird or tough during these noting retreats, it's difficult to know exactly what they mean. For example, if one starts hearing voices in waking life, just keep noting? If one starts seeing clear figures in waking life, just keep noting? I'd imagine most hallucinations are accompanied by noticeably altered states of consciousness, like when smoking Cannabis. If one starts feeling like they're high or on other drugs, just keep noting? At what point, if any, does one ease up? Should one switch to breath? Switch to loving kindness? What if during the interview you tell the teacher "It was too intense, so I started focusing on my breath" but they tell you to keep noting instead? Is it really "No matter what just keep noting, no unless, no if, just keep noting. If the world explodes keep noting. If you're in the greatest pain of your life just keep noting. As many times per second as you can, from waking up to sleeping"?

It's hard to make this decision without really knowing what this will be like, which is the primary reason I am seeking out advice on here. I am willing to go through some tough times, but if that means going off the deep end, perhaps it would be better to err on the safe side. The idea of hallucinating heavily in waking life is frightening to me, even though I do understand fully that any hallucinations and reactions to them would just be more experiences to gain insight on, and that this whole post is essentially just a clinging to reality in the way I currently experience it. If noting causes a lot of dark stuff to come up faster and faster the more one notes, I imagine there might be moments where an intense acceleration can take place. I do think I would be able to remain meta(-aware) and note no matter what comes up or how crazy it gets, but my main concern is irreversible damage.  However, even with that fear of doing damage to myself, this sense of urgency still drives me to sign up.

I'm really looking for someone experienced to read this and make an honest judgement. Maybe:
  • "Given your descriptions of experiences, It seems like you're fine. Noting retreat will be intense, there might be a few hallucinations, but if you can handle that I don't see why not."
  • "You seem alright but drawing from my past experiences of talking with other Dhamma people I get the gut feeling you might not be able to handle it. Maybe go with a concentration tradition first."
  • "Do the retreat, but if it starts getting too intense for you, just ease off and concentrate on your breath or do loving kindness until you feel ready to start noting again."
  • "You should really achieve and establish 1st Jhana first."
  • "If you can manage 4+ hours of anapanasati per day until the retreat happens, I'd say you'd be fit to go."
  • Etc...
Thoughts? I really appreciate your time in reading, thank you.

RE: 1 Month Noting Retreat Good or Bad Idea for Formally Fearful Person?
Answer
5/2/19 12:46 AM as a reply to fdsafdsfsdf.
Daniel's specificity in this thread provides some perspective and makes my worries seem overblown:

As an Emergency Medicine physician, I deal with severe mental illness all the time, the real deal, not just whiny Western meditators, and it is a whole different animal. Thus, I don't think that more fluffy psychologized issue-processing emotionally based practice is necessarily going to have much if any affect on those with deep underlying cracks in their reality processing. True, if a place like IMS can recognize the signs of someone sailing out into dangerous territory (as Tarin and Tracy are saying), then this could be of real benefit so that they could be quickly gotten to some place that had the capabilities to deal with that, which, as I said above, is generally a mental health facility, not a retreat center of any kind.

I have pushed my practice pretty hard as people go, and have gotten into a large number of volatile and unusual mind states, had all sorts of strange experiences, crazy visions, heard crazy things, had serious perception distortions, very powerful and odd raptures of all sorts, and yet none of this to me constituted mental illness, as the core processing part of things was still able to keep a lid on it, notice what was going on, keep interacting in relatively normal ways with external reality, and it all passed rapidly enough (usually seconds to minutes, rarely hours, never days). If you go on retreat and are feeling like you really are going crazy and it is lasting for days, then stop practicing and get help. In an ideal world, every center, culture and country would be perfectly equipped to handle these things, but clearly this is not the case, so if you have schizophrenia or previous episodes of psychosis that was not some temporary meditation experience, bad bipolar disorder (the real deal), or some other major mental illness, then MBMC and any other major intensive retreat center is probably not for you, though you could always ask someone like Jack Kornfield, who is way more of an expert in this territory than I am.

From my perspective of worrying about what I'll experience when I go on retreat and what will or won't constitute healthy behavior, his specificity regarding what he's experienced helps a lot, and it seems like as long as you're still able to discern what is going on with self awareness then you're fine. The time frames here also sort of answer parts of my question about when to stop noting, if such an occasion ever arises.

And Bruno's reply on this thread also helps further look at my concerns as worrisome grasping:

I think that you need to stop reacting and calm down. I guess that you are furiously grasping and/or pushing away your own internal stuff, and that this is the cause of your turmoil.

I think that you need to realize that none of this grasping and pushing away will ever bring any satisfaction: you have plenty of evidence of this from the previous events in your life. So give it up. Relax. Stop the stupid pointless state of anxious struggle you got yourself into.

Start with the most important things: have a good diet, do exercise, and take long walks in nature. This is NOT going to satisfy your angst, but it should calm you down. Learn not to do stupid things just because you feel bad (and don't do them when you feel good either). 20-30m of relaxed running every day, followed by some stretching, is very powerful; get nice relaxing hobbies, like doing stuff with your hands... etc

Thinking and reasoning are only possible if you are calm and balanced. If you have the levels of stress which your post suggests you have, then it is natural and normal and expected that you have a hard time thinking properly. Don't worry: it is normal.

It is also normal to feel that one is loosing one's mind, I've personally had that a few times, and it was ALWAYS caused by a very high level of anxiety and stress.

I've gone through many cycles of thought and have read a very large amount of content in the past few weeks/months, but I think I'll just go for it at this point. I'll do my best to prepare, but other then that I suppose I will just have to surrender.

I was skeptical of even posting these thoughts in the first place, as I don't want to be burdensome or make light of people with more serious issues, since I'm really unsure of whether or not my concerns are even legitimate, but then I thought about the fact that the more content there is out there, the more people who deal with similar issues will have to relate to, the more they can calm down and feel less alone themselves.

RE: 1 Month Noting Retreat Good or Bad Idea for Formally Fearful Person?
Answer
5/2/19 5:43 AM as a reply to fdsafdsfsdf.
A general rule for retreats is similar for a general rule for working out: go slow, develop a good foundation, and slowly increase the training intensity. 

So for a generic person, this would be a reasonable progression:

1. Practice 30 minute sits at home
2. Practice 1 hour sits at home
3. Practice 1 hour sits every day for six months to a year at home
4. Continue practicing 1 hour sits every day at home and sometimes do a sit, walk, sit for a 2-3 hours home retreat on weekends
5. Do a one day retreat (10 to 16 hours of alternating sitting and walking, with one guided meditation in the beginning of the day and listening to a dharma talk at the end of the day). 
6. Continue practicing 1 hour sits every day at home and sometimes do a one day home retreat
7. Do a weekend or 5 day retreat.
8. Practice 1 to 2 hours every day at home and sometimes do weekend retreats
9. Do a 7 to 10 day retreat
10. Practice 1 to 2 hours every day and do another 10 - 14 day retreat
11. Consider a month long retreat.
12. Practice 1 to 2 hours every day and consider a three month retreat.

This advice is for retreats where there isn't much one-on-one guidance. If a retreat encourages complete beginners (and says that specifically) and includes several guided meditations a day and daily teacher one-on-one guidance and the ability to leave the meditation hall and go for a walk instead of meditating so much... then maybe someone could do those retreats earlier in their practice. 

In general, someone could skip one step or so, but I would never jump ahead too much. It would be sort of like trying to bench press too much weight too early in training.

Hope this is helpful in some way! 

RE: 1 Month Noting Retreat Good or Bad Idea for Formally Fearful Person?
Answer
5/2/19 6:00 PM as a reply to shargrol.
Hey shargrol, thanks for the advice, I really appreciate it!

I've done a 10 day Goenka and found that manageable, but then again it seems like people think noting can be more intense.

The main problem here is that I do have this sense of urgency, mixed with life circumstances where it wouldn't make sense to take it slow. Either I stay at home and keep losing money to rent, or I diligently prepare myself the best I can and go on retreat. I can also get a job but I really wouldn't consider that at this point, especially because that can slowly form into building a life, starting relationships, etc. which would, frankly, be a shame. Right now I have nothing holding me back.

So, if you'll indulge me, with a few weeks until the month long retreat, how do you think I should prepare? As much anapanasati as I can handle? As much noting as I can handle? Loving kindness? I was thinking concentration might be better as preparation, but perhaps noting might be a better option to ease myself into the practice. Or, do you feel strongly that I should continue to practice on my own rather than go on retreat a few weeks from now as a preparation for the longer term retreat several months from now?

Thanks again!

RE: 1 Month Noting Retreat Good or Bad Idea for Formerly Fearful Person?
Answer
5/6/19 4:31 PM as a reply to fdsafdsfsdf.
Where are you potentially doing the month long retreat? Some places are very hardcore and don't give much support. Other places give more support.Have you asked folks there for advice? 

My sense in general is you can't rush preparation. Preparation includes:
  • Preparing the body for lots of sitting
  • Preparing your practice so you are not "learning practices" on retreat but rather "perfecting your practices" with constant practice during every awake hour on retreat.
  • Preparing your practice plan, so you know how to fill the day
  • Preparing your "problem" plan, so you are fully aware of all your potential weaknesses and have a plan for what to do if they occur.
  • Preparing your retreat support plan, so you know what teachers are available, what guidance they give, what questions can be asked of the teachers, and what support they will provide if things go badly
If you have done a 10 day, my advice would be do another and do it well.