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Third Goenka retreat

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Third Goenka retreat
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6/24/19 4:05 PM
I just got back from my third Goenka retreat. As with my second retreat, I went into it with the strong desire to "get somewhere." This experience seemed to calm me down a bit, and I consider the theme of this retreat for me to have been "equanimity."

The instructions for the first few days are to focus the attention on the sensations at the entrance to the nostrils. Goenka's exact words, I believe, are "keep your attention limited to the area..."

This was making me increasingly agitated for those first few days. When I direct attention to any physical sensation (especially in the face!), I seem to have instant awareness of most of the body simultaneously. So, "keep your attention limited to the area" seemed to provoke a struggle.

I scheduled an interview with one of the two teachers (who were both Burmese...so you might imagine that I also had the worry that the cultural difference would make it impossible for them to understand my concerns) and explained my problem:

Me: "When I try to focus on the area at the nostrils, I can't stop awareness of the rest of the body from intruding."

Him: "Keep trying. You need to be patient. This is a long path."

Me: "But, I feel like the meditation has, over time, awakened awareness of lots and lots of sensations everywhere in the body. At this point, trying just makes it worse and I'm getting too agitated."

Him: "Then you're trying too hard. Come on, you know the answer to your question."

He did have a point. I recalled that I had asked very similar questions at my last two retreats. It's almost a predictable pattern now. Whenever I hear Goenka's instructions, I start fantasizing about how wrong they are and how much happier I will be if I can just get the teachers to admit it. What's that all about? In any case, it clearly isn't helping my practice.

Once I felt more validated and able to continue working seriously, the same sort of craziness that happened last year started up again. I had very high concentration, then seeing bright light, feelings of excitement like I'm "almost there", and everything went in the direction of "trying to make it happen." Then, explosions of energy, and intense fear for the next couple days. Not as bad as last year, but it followed a similar course.

The fear was broadly triggered by two things:
1) The fluxing sensations of pressure and tingling in my face.
2) The speed and seeming instability of my mind whenever I meditated or closed my eyes to sleep.

At some point (after the instructions switch to body scanning), I started having the sense that the sensations in my face were exactly mirroring my awareness of the rest of the body, to the point where it almost felt as if I could feel my intentions in my face before I was even aware of them consciously.

I attempted to ask the other teacher about this.

Me: "I feel like I can see the connections between different parts of my body. When I try to observe a sensation in my leg, my attention automatically goes to my face and I feel a sensation there."

Him: "Don't worry about what causes the sensations. Just bring your attention back to the leg."

Me: "But I can't. Everything is moving so quickly, all around the body. I have no control over my attention."

Him (nodding, with a smile): "Whatever happens, just observe it equanimously."

This advice had the effect of snapping me out of something. I realized that I had really been spending much of my meditation time trying to create certain sensations, or change them, or figure them out, or working to get the sensations calmed down enough to the point where I could get on with the real business of getting enlightened. Time that I should have been spent simply observing.

So, I tried simply observing. Without reacting.

This created tons of agitation as well. Especially because I could see how my sensations were themselves reactions.

But, I vowed to simply watch all of it, from a slight distance (even the sensations of watching from a distance).

Then, I started fantasizing again, about how I was almost there. Except now, I was really almost there. I felt like I could witness the tiniest sensations, images, etc. I could see all of my urges, thoughts, all the causal relationships between everything, the wave-like nature of reality. Clearly, I was almost an arahant...if I could just hold this perspective long enough to make it click into place...You know, I bet the director of the center is going to want to meet me...Maybe they'd want to fly me over to India or Burma..."Such a high level of attainment on only his third 10-day retreat?"... How am I going to deal with all of this publicity???

Wait, do I really want to get fully enlightened? Maybe it will totally suck. Will I lose my sex drive? Will I lose the (imagined) feeling of satisfaction at having become enlightened?

Ok, this is getting crazy. Let me just simply reaffirm the decision to observe sensation equanimously.

Mainly while walking outside, a new, more balanced perspective began emerging.

I started realizing that neither my efforts to become enlightened, nor my fears about what will happen, were "doing" all that much to help my meditation.

It was only the sensations themselves that helped. It was like the sensations were what causes enlightenment. I just need to be there as it's happening.

But...if I don't make effort, then what's to prevent me from just spacing out???

Well, you've tried "doing nothing", and has "spacing out" ever happened? No, you just get more agitated, because you start freaking out about how every intention that spontaneously arises is a violation of "do nothing".

But...if I just trust myself to do whatever, then what's to prevent me from just taking a nap all day???

Right, that's why they designed the retreat the way they did. There's an intensive schedule of meditation. And they tell you not to move while you do it. This is to ensure that you are present for the sensations.

But...sure, it sounds great now, with a balanced perspective and all, but what happens when the pain starts and I can't remember this perspective???

Right, that's the point. It was only the sensations of pain and agitation that taught me this perspective in the first place. The sensations are the teacher. "My" job is just to drag the corporeal structure through the environment, where it can experience sensations.

But...how can I guarantee I will actually observe the sensations? After all, I can clearly see how little control I have over the attention.

Right, you can't guarantee that. That's why they designed the retreat the way they did. To give you lots of opportunities to realize this stuff, over and over and over again.

But...I just don't know...I have really no clue at all...I keep going back and forth between having a clue and having no clue...I just don't know if I really "get it" this time...

Yes, exactly. This is the whole point. You won't ever get it. You're not capable of becoming enlightened. It's just the sensations that do it. Think of all the times when you were freaking out, and then sensations taught you that you don't need to freak out, because...they're just sensations. Part of you dies when that happens. And yet, it's liberating. I think this is the point...Just make sure you get your butt on the cushion when the schedule says to do that. You have literally no other responsibility.

So yeah, that's my more balanced perspective. I don't have control over any of this. Retreats are great because they force you to confront that fact. And force you to learn something in spite of it.

This was on Day 7, I believe. After this point, I started noticing myself alternating between the following mind states:

1. My mind feels like it has been put through a blender. Absolutely no sense of control over the absolutely overwhelming amount of physical and mental input. It is like my mind is trying over and over again to force the disconnected pieces back together through a process of trial-and-error. The perspective keeps flip-flopping back and forth between "I am [body part]" and "I am the one who is dragging the body through the retreat." Intense aversion to meditation.

2. There's an energy blockage in the body which also manifests itself in the mind. If I could just get that blockage to clear, I could really just let myself "fall into the chain of causality."

3. Building pressure and excitement. A sense that I am directly connected to building waves of craving and aversion. Actually, this is great, because I think before, I didn't notice the wave. In the past, I just got more excited until it exploded...

4. Sometimes, those explosions still did happen, and then there is pleasurable tingling through my body.

5. "Spacing out", where the energy seems to flow freely, but I can't control the attention at all. But it's not really spaced out, because there's part of me that is totally aware of what's happening.

6. The state of equanimity, where I feel able to detach myself from any experience that I seem to embed myself in. There are specific patterns of sensation that I associate with this process. Just trying to observe those equanimously as well. This was especially interesting while walking through the woods, as it seemed to broaden the visual field, making everything "shimmer". I kept realizing over and over that "It's not my efforts to look at the leaves that makes them shimmer. It's my effort to accept my bodily sensations that does it."

(Just to speak more to specific physical experience: I'm also still very interested in the patterns of sensations in my face, and how they correspond to the rest of my experience. The total area of this pattern has increased a lot, now covering a large portion of my scalp and the sides of my head going down to my ears. It seems that every time I "equanimously dis-embed" from a sensation, it moves the point of pressure higher up in my face, starting at my upper lip, and going up through my nose, in between my eyes. There's some kind of connection between the different body areas, the pressure in the head, the breathing, and the craving/aversion wave that seems to reside in the chest. It seems that "physical pain" is the result of a tight connection between all of these points, and relief is generated by severing that connection, mainly at the breathing. However, this then has the effect of making me feel like I have a broader perspective, and also that the pressure in the head has now increased. Honestly, I'm scared to keep generating so much pressure, and I think this causes me to back off. Maybe that's a good thing, and I'll figure it out when I'm ready. This could also be entirely my imagination, but I figured I would try to explain it, in case anyone might say "Oh yeah, so here's what's going on...")

So, in conclusion, I really feel like I made some kind of progress. Basically, let unpleasant sensations occur, and also let pleasant sensations occur, without getting attached to either one. Previously, there was a lot of clinging to pleasant sensations. I think a lot of this progress is the result of becoming much more aware of the actual sensations of "craving" and "aversion". There's a real sense that I might be able to balance that out more, just by being more indiscriminate and accepting of whatever happens. Goenka talks about how all you need are Awareness and Equanimity. I've gotten way too good at Awareness, and Equanimity has been lacking.

I don't know how to interpret this in terms of how I was practicing before. Part of me wants to say "I really wasn't getting it before. Now I've seen the error of my ways."

But another part says "I was getting it, and actually it doesn't really matter if I was getting it, and it doesn't matter if I'm getting it now. Whatever I was getting then was only a product of my past conditioning, as it what's happening now. All that has happened is that I've disembeded from another layer, as I've done with so many layers before, and will continue to do, as the mind continues to experience more sensation and learns to deal."

I mean, come on, nothing I've realized is news. I've heard it all before.

RE: Third Goenka retreat
Answer
6/24/19 4:46 PM as a reply to spatial.
This may sound silly to you, but why Goenka retreats?

RE: Third Goenka retreat
Answer
6/25/19 5:09 PM as a reply to Chris Marti.
Chris Marti:
This may sound silly to you, but why Goenka retreats?

Well, I would say the following:

1) I can choose my own price.
2) There is a nice center only 1.5 hours from home.
3) At this point, I know what to expect emoticon

I wouldn't be opposed to trying something new, though.

Why do you ask?

RE: Third Goenka retreat
Answer
6/25/19 5:22 PM as a reply to Chris Marti.
Also, I was thinking about you a lot on the retreat, Chris. About how you said that the goal is "basic sanity" (I'm not sure if that's your idea, or if you were quoting someone else). At the time, it honestly did seem a bit underwhelming. Now, it's starting to seem like, yeah, that is the goal...Just to sit and be able to be myself without freaking out...

RE: Third Goenka retreat
Answer
6/25/19 7:39 PM as a reply to spatial.
About how you said that the goal is "basic sanity" (I'm not sure if that's your idea, or if you were quoting someone else). At the time, it honestly did seem a bit underwhelming. Now, it's starting to seem like, yeah, that is the goal...Just to sit and be able to be myself without freaking out...

That's a quote from my friend shargrol - the basic sanity one. It's not mine.

That said, I think shargrol's thought means something somewhat different from what your meaning is currently, but yeah, it'll fit any situation. That's probably why it's so useful.

Why do you ask? (About Goenka retreats)

I've never been on a Goenka retreat but what I hear just isn't my cup of tea. I'd go for a more Thai Forest Tradition kind of thing.