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Dharma Diagnostic Clinic, aka "What was that?"

Request for guidance & advice on retreat experiences

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Earlier this year I was recommended MCTB by a friend and ordered myself a copy. The impact the book had on me was instant and after reading the ‘lightning bolt’ chapters first (you just have to, don’t you!) I set about reading the whole book. Daniel’s biggest gifts for me have been a deeper belief that the ‘goal’ is achievable (given sufficient effort) as well as shedding some light on my experiences of 10 years ago and it’s around this second point that I would very much appreciate some help and guidance.

This post is a little long but please bear with me. I have added some background before listing the experiences as I think it will help set things in context (although please feel free to skip if necessary).

Background
I started meditating 16 years ago at the age of 24 after seeing a poster for a beginner’s class run by the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now Triratna Buddhist Community) here in the UK. I felt instantly drawn to what I was taught and quickly made lasting friendships with those who taught me, attending regular’s classes and other activities organised by our local centre. A short while later (in July 1995), when walking into town with my teacher and discussing some of the strong and persistent anxiety I then experienced (which had brought me to the beginner’s class in the first place), he paused for a moment, looked me in the eye and said, “Just practice the metta bhavana meditation every day for the next five years and you won’t look back.” Inspired and deeply grateful for his trust, I endeavoured to keep him to his word and meditated virtually every day for the next five years (on those days that I missed a formal session, I often meditated twice the next day to ‘catch up’). This period also included several day retreats and some longer retreats (for one to two weeks), including several during a one year trip to India in 1997.

In 1999 I moved into the local FWBO community house and started to intensify my practice. This included more formal sitting as well as more mindfulness/ awareness off the cushion. In particular, I developed a process that I labelled ‘dropping down’ whereby I would explore my ‘felt sense’ in my abdomen and label what I observed. Whilst the overall tone was often ‘dark and stark’ the process felt anything but as I experienced great relief by starting to acknowledge and accept some of the painful feelings I had felt lost in for a number of years.

In June 2000 I went on a two week solitary retreat in Scotland, which included longer periods of formal sitting, ‘dropping down’, puja and study. I left the Highlands feeling stimulated and grateful, with a growing confidence in my own abilities to practice. After a couple of weeks back at the community, I then travelled to an FWBO meditation centre for a month long retreat (in fact two retreats back to back: Brahmaviharas and Pure Awareness). Travelling to the centre I was both excited and scared, almost as though I knew something was about to happen/ move/ shift, five years after the discussion with my teacher, as noted above.

Experiences
The first two weeks of the retreat involved a detailed look at and practice (between 7-8 hours per day) of the Brahmaviharas meditations (i.e. metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha bhavana). I found the material very inspiring and engaged fully in the process, also using periods of ‘bare attention/ just sitting’ to help absorb the effects of the different sits and the flavours they evoked. I have separated my experiences on the retreat into the categories of psychological, physical and insight and whilst I have an understanding of the psychological level, I am less clear about those on the physical and insight levels, which is where I would appreciate some advice and guidance.

Psychological
As the days progressed I was soon working at access concentration on and off the cushion with some deeper sits in first dyana. I felt my emotions stirring at deeper and deeper levels, as though I was ‘tapping’ into some of my own repressed stuff, which started to bubble up, as might be expected. With the help of a therapist on the retreat (who spotted my growing distress in the first week, which usually intensified when practicing upekkha/ equanimity bhavana), I was able to verbalise my mounting pain and finally release an ocean of sadness in the most cathartic crying I have ever experienced: finally I was able to breathe deeply into parts of my body that had felt starved of oxygen for a lifetime, which felt amazing.

Over the next few days I experienced the most penetrating psychological insight I have ever experienced. What I mean is that when turning my mind to any past feeling or misunderstood event, I was immediately presented with the answer ‘within’. This experience peaked one evening as I sat looking at the view across the valley with past memories ‘bubbling up’ in my mind. Any previous confusion I held about the situation appeared to melt in my mind’s eye, leaving me with a clear understanding of why I had felt the way I did. It felt as thought the ‘writing had always been on the wall’ but only then was I able to read it. A strange aspect of this experience was that when I ‘looked away’, my old stories about my life would ‘regroup and reform’ (like a pack of cards slowly rebuilding itself) needing me only to look again for the whole ensemble to collapse around me (sometimes with a repeat of the pain of realisation, others with a wonder at my new understanding).

Physical
Whilst this process of psychological integration was taking place I started to have stronger physical experiences. By far the most pronounced happened around one week into the retreat as I lay in bed settling down to sleep. Looking back in my dairy I wrote that, “It came and got me last night” in reference to deep feelings of fear that steadily grew in intensity, taking hold of my body in a manner beyond any control. As the fear grew, more and more energy seemed to run up my spine at greater frequencies. I also had an inner visual image of being dragged at increasing speeds through undergrowth, faster and faster until at its peak, with me in a contracted position, something fused in my head; ‘FUZZ!!!’ and I would collapse back onto my bed, covered in sweat, only for the process to happen again. This cycle occurred about 4 or 5 times and each time I felt I was going to visually witness some past event that must explain my fear but just as ‘it’ was about to be revealed, “FUZZ!!!” and I collapsed, only to go through the process again. At some point I finally fell into a fitful sleep.

One thing I would note was that whilst part of me was terrified, on another level I ‘knew’ that it was just something I needed to go through as an internal readjustment to events on the retreat and quite welcomed the process as a sign of something ‘happening’.

Insight
I have labelled this section Insight (with a capital “I”) as a way to distinguish it from the ‘psychological insights’ discussed above. This experience was shorter lived but happened one evening as I sat on a bench outside and reflected on the events of the last few days. It might have occurred after the sleepless night discussed above and would explain my tiredness and overall ‘shock’ at what had been revealed over the proceeding days. It’s harder to describe but involved me looking out across the earth at all human existence: in my mind’s eye I had an image of everyone in the world and saw how deeply we all suffered, suffering that was caused by our own ignorance and enmeshed into the very fabric of conditioned existence. Turning to one of the retreat leaders who sat next to me, I gasped, “I never knew there was so much suffering in the world” and felt it to the very bones of my body. However, the vision was in no way depressing but rather one of great relief because I felt a connection with everyone that I had never felt before. It was strong and deep; “We’re in this together, what can we do to get out?”

It’s hard to remember the exact order of events after these first 10 days of the retreat but they included sustained periods of integration where I felt reborn, complete, light and whole in ways that I couldn’t previously imagine but that now felt like my/ our birthright. Whilst I remember thinking, “I’ve done what’s needed to be done”, I knew that the experience was temporary and would pass. Of course it did, but it also left a more subtle deeper and broader change, which remains with me to this day.

Afterwards
The next few years were both satisfying and frustrating. I returned to the same retreat centre regularly over the following years but found it very difficult to engage fully in each program. It felt as though I was trying to put on the ‘wrong shoe’ and even though I worked as best I could it was often quite uncomfortable and I decided to make a switch to attending more open and relaxed retreats as well (i.e. more study groups, time for walks and chatting to folks as a welcome balance). Physically I wasn’t troubled by such strong experiences as notes above, but did go through periods of strong lower back pain, which only acupuncture appeared to alleviate. Around this period I also started a new relationship that was much more open and intimate than before and in 2004 I started training to become a counsellor, which I found incredibly satisfying, completing my training in 2009. Finally, as discussed, I bought MCTB a short while back and through it have rediscovered stronger inspiration and enthusiasm to intensify and deepen my Insight practice once again.

Guidance and advice
In writing this note, I would very much welcome:

1. Some pointers on the physical and Insight experiences listed above. My sense is that I have passed through an A&P event and entered some Dark Night territory but it would be good to have this confirmed (or not) using Daniel’s Insight Map by way of explanation. Whilst writing I have become more aware that following the ‘experiences’, I had to take my foot off the ‘gas pedal’ of practice as it just didn’t feel right (and sometimes induced strong amounts of fear on intensive retreats between 2001 - 2005).

2. However, with regard to point 1, if I have passed through an A&P event, I'm unsure about my experiences of the earlier stages. I presume these Insights are 'known' at more than an intellectual level, however, I'm unsure if I recognise them as such. Is my view of a linear Insight path incorrect and we actually 'spiral' up, revisiting stages again and again at deeper levels?

3. It would also be really useful to have some advice about future practice. On the one had I'm a great believer in following what one’s intuition/ heart says but I would appreciate it if any point stands out that a little advice would help with. I have noted an upcoming retreat looking at the Satipatthana Sutta at the meditation centre discussed above, which I am very keen to attend. Overall this fills me with a sense of excitement but I still can't deny the presence of some fear/ apprehension.

Finally, I want to thank Daniel very much for his book and straightforward presentation of the Dharma. It feels like a light has been switched back on (or made much stronger again) and I feel a huge sense of gratitude for his efforts. Thank you very, very much.

Nick

RE: Request for guidance & advice on retreat experiences
Answer
12/9/10 3:41 AM as a reply to Nick Green.
hi nick,

welcome to the dho.

Nick Green:

In writing this note, I would very much welcome:

1. Some pointers on the physical and Insight experiences listed above. My sense is that I have passed through an A&P event and entered some Dark Night territory but it would be good to have this confirmed (or not) using Daniel’s Insight Map by way of explanation. Whilst writing I have become more aware that following the ‘experiences’, I had to take my foot off the ‘gas pedal’ of practice as it just didn’t feel right (and sometimes induced strong amounts of fear on intensive retreats between 2001 - 2005).

2. However, with regard to point 1, if I have passed through an A&P event, I'm unsure about my experiences of the earlier stages. I presume these Insights are 'known' at more than an intellectual level, however, I'm unsure if I recognise them as such. Is my view of a linear Insight path incorrect and we actually 'spiral' up, revisiting stages again and again at deeper levels?

3. It would also be really useful to have some advice about future practice. On the one had I'm a great believer in following what one’s intuition/ heart says but I would appreciate it if any point stands out that a little advice would help with. I have noted an upcoming retreat looking at the Satipatthana Sutta at the meditation centre discussed above, which I am very keen to attend. Overall this fills me with a sense of excitement but I still can't deny the presence of some fear/ apprehension.


my thoughts in response to your questions, in a nutshell:

1. it seems to me that you have been through arising and passing as well as what is often called around here dark night territory.

2. your earlier experiences (prior to the fwbo retreat you describe) map pretty well to the early (1st to 3rd) stages of insight. i recommend you don't become fascinated with the issues of recognising insights or of acquiring a refined understanding of how insight progress happens (whether in a linear fashion or a spiral fashion or otherwise). that you have the capacity to contemplate the matter is proof enough that further progress can be made at this point, and it would serve you better to focus on getting a practice up and running.

3. determine a method of practice and stick to it for a while to see how well it works, unless you want to do this by intuitive micromanagement alone, in which case you are more or less on your own from the get-go (so use the autonomy carefully). either way, an ample amount of effort will go a long way; during practice sessions, give the practice your complete and rapt attention (it may feel a little overwhelming at first). read part 1 ('the fundamentals') of MCTB again, and read the 'sticky' threads on the forum, particularly the two by ian and ('A General, All Purpose Jhana Thread' and 'The Practical Aspects of Establishing Mindfulness').

tarin

RE: Request for guidance & advice on retreat experiences
Answer
12/9/10 3:48 AM as a reply to Nick Green.
Nick Green:

whole in ways that I couldn’t previously imagine but that now felt like my/ our birthright

Hello Nick.
Here's what I think after enjoying your story.

1) Sounds like stream entry. You got a permanent understanding of at least one of the three characteristics and got unburdened permanently. And you discovered your birthright. Maybe the night you had a fruition, or before the vision, it doesn't matter whether you remember any.
I experienced my first fruition, but more impactful was an event a day later where I gained an understanding of the meaning of my discovery, how valuable and rare (for "normal" people) it was, similar to your vision of suffering and the gratitude and compassion that accompanied it.

2) Spiral is better, maybe still too simple. But as you know, you don't need a model to understand reality experientially. Some questions don't have fulfilling answers and just keep your mind disturbed.

3) My recommendation for you (and me): Take what you know is your birthright as your starting or reference point and don't be satisfied with less. Maybe try more open meditative practices. If you don't know any yet, have a look at what Chuck wrote in the Energy Practice Portal of this wiki, or check out shinzen.org and the 5 ways, they both recommend/practice (among other techniques) choiceless awareness.
I also felt that this was the last silent retreat (ascetism) I needed to do because what would happen with me in the future (higher paths) would happen anyway if I didn't live in a very unwholesome way. I also felt (half a year later) that I couldn't sit anymore for achieving something. So my teacher told me that you sit to express something: You express truth, you express the way reality is seen once ignorance is gone: it is seen as empty, selfless, impermanent, perfect, beautiful, whole, interconnected. If that's your birthright, give it a place in your daily life to honour it.

RE: Request for guidance & advice on retreat experiences
Answer
12/9/10 4:17 PM as a reply to Julius P0pp.
Tarin and Julius,

Thanks very much for your replies, the're really appreciated. My sense is that my experience was and A&P event followed by Dark Night territory. Perhaps the most frustrating part about it is having lost some of my inspiration for nearly a decade. That said, I feel that another part of me has 'caught up' over the last ten years and that I am now more laid back (and settled) than I was before, so maybe the fresh urge to deepen practice now has come at the right time (and MCTB came into my hands when it was meant to. I don't know, but it feels OK like this).

Point taken, I won't (or I'll try hard not to!) get too fascinated about recognising points on the insight model. I realise that things just happened when they did during the experience I write about (although it has been very useful to have some more understanding that if one practices with dedication, things will happen)!

Great stuff, will go back to start of MCTB and start looking at the stickies. Interestingly, Julius, I was on a short retreat a few weeks back and started to explore choiceless awareness again (I last did this in 1997 when in Sri Lanka). On the retreat I listened to a guided meditation by Adyastanti, which I found very helpful and am keen to practice some more.

Once again, thanks for your guidance and advice. If OK, I will leave this post as 'open' for a short while longer before marking it as 'Resolved' just in case any other points are raised.

With best wishes,

Nick