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Seeking Guidance
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7/29/19 7:08 PM
This post is probably gonna get a bit jumbled.
I am looking for some guidance regarding what meditation practice I should pursue, given my experience so far.

Some history:
After being introduced to Buddhism by a friend, I started doing TMI about 1.5 years ago. I know it's very cliche to say this, especially as a Westerner, but discovering the religion felt like an incredible 'aha!' moment, as if it was something I had been desperately missing all my life, something that answered all my existential questions and fears in a very realistic, down to earth and profound way. I have been obsessively reading suttas from the Pali Canon, other Dhamma books, listening to Dhamma audio talks and more. I immediately resolved to observe the Five Precepts and observe Uposatha every week, and have been doing so ever since, with only very rare lapses in consistency.

In TMI, I have never gotten farther than Stage 6. I built my way up to Stage 6, and in February of this year a massive personal tragedy struck which, as you can imagine, blew my stability and consistency of practice to smithereens. Since then I have been trying to build my Samatha back up, sometimes a bit inconsistently, to no avail.
I feel that the reason for my inconsistency is that I'm unsure about which technique will be best for me, to make my way to First Path.

At the beginning of the summer, dissatisfied with the slow progress I was making with TMI, I even tried Fire Kasina (I had a week or so where I was free to try it 4-5 hours a day), and all I really got out of it was some short-lived blissful experiences (I understand that this would've gone further had I continued to practice it). Deciding that I'd like to experiment with my newly built up concentration from the short week of doing Fire Kasina, I decided to try Ajahn Tong-style noting (as described by Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu in his ebook on his website). I admittedly ended up modifying the technique to a sort of open awareness-esque practice, where I'd note the rise and fall of the abdomen, but for all other sensations, I would just silently observe them without literally making a verbal note in my head. I also recall that I would pay attention to the arising and passing away of sensations within the sphere of hearing after breathing in, and I'd pay attention to the equivalent within the sphere of physical bodily feelings after breathing out.

This produced my most interesting meditation experiences yet. I believe I made my way to the Cause-and-Effect stage quite quickly, because I was very clearly observing the manner in which sensations gave rise to other sensations. I would observe in real time a sensation arise, the subsequent feeling attached to it (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral) and the immediate intention arising in reaction to it (to adjust the body in reaction to painful sensations...etc.) I'm not sure if this came immediately after or way after: but I also recall an intense realization that all my sensory experience was in such rapid flux, I couldn't even hold onto a sensation for a single moment, and I intensely felt as if there was nowhere to "rest" on, if that makes sense - like there was nothing stable to hold onto in the midst of experience. This all occured in less than a week of starting the more Vipassana-oriented practice.

When I tried to sleep that night, I couldn't. I would lay down, and as my body relaxed, it filled with intense currents/waves of what felt like energy shooting through my body, as well as some discomfort. My mind felt like it was completely wired, and anywhere I directed it in my range of experience, it would perceive the sensory phenomena with insane and effortless lazer-like focus, and I would see every little sensation making up whatever I was focusing on in extremely fine detail. Like I said, my mind was WIRED and I didn't sleep at all for 5 days.

I think I messed up here, because not realizing the potential at the moment for deeper insight, my reaction was to stop practicing and try to "fix" my mind so I could sleep. My body felt somewhat tired but I was not mentally tired at all. Melatonin didn't help at all, so I resolved to smoke weed, drink beers and uhhh whack off (all of which I never do normally, and strictly avoid) so I could induce dullness and fall asleep. If I'm being totally honest there was also some sudden degree of craving involved in my justifying use of intoxicants (although it was mostly so I could fall asleep). It worked to some degree as I managed to get about 2-3 hours of sleep those nights. Also, for a side note: during the weed highs, the lazer-like precision of my mind was still there (it only began to slow down when I drank beers, and even then not by much), and I could vividly perceive the distinctions between all the sense doors, especially with images in my mind's eye, which I became aware of as some kind of subtle overlay ontop of my visual field.

Since then I've been backing off from Vipassana/Satipatthana-style meditation and opting for TMI again, but I am in a bit of a predicament:

I have a history of mental illness (was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 14, it also runs in my family on one side), and so I am scared of the potential peak difficulties of the Dukkha Nyanas which I have read so much about, and how intensified they might be considering my predisposition towards the aforementioned mental illness. I'm 18 now, and I'm going into my first year of University this September, and really don't want these things to interfere with my studies. I have been trying TMI again at stage 4/5 like I said, because as far as I understand it is supposed to be an extremely safe route for folks like me. However this causes me even more doubt, because I have been extremely slow to progress with TMI and I have gotten much more interesting results with Vipassana (Vipassana in general feels very intuitive to me).
I feel I might have a more natural propensity for Vipassana than Samatha, but I am at the same time afraid of what the Dukkha Nyanas might do to me for the reasons mentioned above.

I would love to go on a retreat but the only places near me are Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu's meditation center (which seems excellent, however, he requires that meditators go for 3 weeks, practicing all day as I understand it, and I don't think I have the capacity for something that intense/long), and a Shambhala center which I am yet to visit. There are a couple Buddhist temples (two Theravadin and one Zen) near me but I don't think they hold retreats.

Given my history and resources, what do you recommend I should be doing right now?

RE: Seeking Guidance
Answer
7/29/19 7:38 PM as a reply to Patrick.
I'm still pre stream-entry so don't trust anything I say.

It sounds like you crossed the a&p, so don't be surprised if your concentration takes a dive. I wish more than anything that I had dedicated at least some of my practice to developing the first two factors of Awakening (mindfulness/investigation) at your age, rather than just obsessively working on Samatha with my kneecapped dukkha nana concentration. Stage 6 is a very major wall for most TMI meditators. If you are really commited to it I suggest picking up Metta to further optimize mind-unification.

I recently picked up Mahasi Noting and have been trying to do it all day w/ a few formal 45m+ sessions and I am making wonderful progress. I plan on only working on my concentration stuff when I get first path, since it seems to be much easier to develop at that stage from what I have read.

Gl man. This sounds like my story almost exactly haha.

RE: Seeking Guidance
Answer
7/29/19 8:30 PM as a reply to YCR.
YCR:
It sounds like you crossed the a&p, so don't be surprised if your concentration takes a dive. 

I also think that might have been the case, but I always see people describe the a&p as the most incredible, intense, profound stage imaginable, whereas I have experienced nothing of the sort in terms of profundity. However, as you said, my concentration I think has depleted lately (especially compared to that period of lazer-like precision I described), and my motivation to sit has gone down a lot. Before I was consistently doing 30-45m sits twice a day, and now I'm doing 20m once a day (it's all I can muster). I'm being very lazy in the other areas of my life as well right now, but it might be because it is summer and it's really easy to be lazy as hell when you've got minimal responsibilities compared to school time.
I plan on only working on my concentration stuff when I get first path, since it seems to be much easier to develop at that stage from what I have read.
I have read that as well and have been considering it. I suspect that I may have to tough it out through the POI with dry insight methods if I want to reach SE fruition, but like I said I really am scared about the potential effects it'll have and how it might negatively impact my first year of uni.

Thanks a ton for the feedback!

RE: Seeking Guidance
Answer
7/30/19 2:09 AM as a reply to Patrick.
Yeah that laser precision followed by the low concentration and lethargy you describe matches with my experience, as well as other's accounts of a&p > dissolution well. My a&p was pretty lame too haha.

I get your worries about school. I'm about to enter the most difficult 6 months of my life academically while rolling around in the dark night. The difficulty of these stages seem to be proportional to how much insight work I do, so if things really get bad you could always just go back to TMI or some pure concentration work.

RE: Seeking Guidance
Answer
7/30/19 6:12 AM as a reply to Patrick.
For what it's worth, I wouldn't worry about making big changes in practice... but instead I would focus on fixing the bumps in the road you have hit in the past...

Patrick:
 and in February of this year a massive personal tragedy struck which, as you can imagine, blew my stability and consistency of practice to smithereens.

That was fairly recent, so I would spend some time reviewing it and figuring out what the tragedy taught you about your resiliance. No need to describe it here, but ponder: what aspect disrupted your equilibrium? If the event happened again, would the same result happen? Is there anything you learned that made you wiser or better able to handle disruptions? How would you have liked to have gone through that experience? How do you imagine an older and wiser version of yourself woul have handled it? What would it take to become that wiser version of yourself?


I'm not sure if this came immediately after or way after: but I also recall an intense realization that all my sensory experience was in such rapid flux, I couldn't even hold onto a sensation for a single moment, and I intensely felt as if there was nowhere to "rest" on, if that makes sense - like there was nothing stable to hold onto in the midst of experience. This all occured in less than a week of starting the more Vipassana-oriented practice.

When I tried to sleep that night, I couldn't. I would lay down, and as my body relaxed, it filled with intense currents/waves of what felt like energy shooting through my body, as well as some discomfort. My mind felt like it was completely wired, and anywhere I directed it in my range of experience, it would perceive the sensory phenomena with insane and effortless lazer-like focus, and I would see every little sensation making up whatever I was focusing on in extremely fine detail. Like I said, my mind was WIRED and I didn't sleep at all for 5 days.

I think I messed up here, because not realizing the potential at the moment for deeper insight, my reaction was to stop practicing and try to "fix" my mind so I could sleep.

It worries me that you seem to think that pushing onward was the right answer here... Really, you should have stopped earlier.

I'm not a therapist, but it seems to me like you entered into a manic or hyper-vigilent state. Even though (sometimes) less sleep is needed during retreats, what you describe is simply not healthy. It's really important to see that and to catch things like this early. And it's important to slow things down when this happens. 

It's very normal for all of us to have moments in practice that we want to keep ramping things up to make progress... but 99% of the time that ambition is actually a way to avoid slowing things down and taking a good look at things we are uncomfortable in acknowledging in our psyche. For example, some people will avoid doubt or anxiety by getting gung-ho and practicing intensely. But all they are doing is hoping to avoid or somehow "jump over" the doubt and fears, reach SE, and have everything magically fixed by SE.

But actually, it's by working on the stuff that is encounted along the path that eventually allows the meditator to reach SE. I'm not saying everything needs to be worked out so that we are perfect in everyway, but I do mean that we really need to address our reactive patterns in a substantial way, otherwise we won't be able to hangout in Equanimity and stay there long enough for SE to occur.

So my advice again, would be to review this experience and determined what you learned and how you would do things differently next time.

I'm 18 now, and I'm going into my first year of University this September, and really don't want these things to interfere with my studies. I have been trying TMI again at stage 4/5 like I said, because as far as I understand it is supposed to be an extremely safe route for folks like me. However this causes me even more doubt, because I have been extremely slow to progress with TMI and I have gotten much more interesting results with Vipassana (Vipassana in general feels very intuitive to me). I feel I might have a more natural propensity for Vipassana than Samatha, but I am at the same time afraid of what the Dukkha Nyanas might do to me for the reasons mentioned above.

I would love to go on a retreat but the only places near me are Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu's meditation center (which seems excellent, however, he requires that meditators go for 3 weeks, practicing all day as I understand it, and I don't think I have the capacity for something that intense/long), and a Shambhala center which I am yet to visit. There are a couple Buddhist temples (two Theravadin and one Zen) near me but I don't think they hold retreats.

Given my history and resources, what do you recommend I should be doing right now?

So overall, I would emphasize that seeking out "interesting results" might not be the best path forward right now. I would suggest that working slowly and consistently is the way to go. That way you'll fix a lot of the bumps along the way and will likely become a stronger and more resiliant meditator. 

The mind is very interesting and will often seek "big experiences" in order to entertain and distract itself from the mundane aspects of meditation practice ---- but the mundane stuff is where the real progress gets made. 

So in general, I would think about using the school year to establish a low-key but consistent sitting practice. I would recommend really spend some time diagnosing your past few events and figuring out if there are other exercises you could do to increase your stability --- maybe self-study maybe working with a therapist or other teacher. (By the way, lookout for the culty spiritual groups in college, they really target meditators and will try to convince you that they have the best and easiest way to enlightenment!) 

Then during the summer or breaks, maybe do a weekend retreat with a good teacher. And then after a successful short retreat, do a slightly longer one. Basically I'm saying take it easy, take it slow, make incremental progress, and don't try to take on too much at one time.

Basically, you have a great opportunity here to build a solid foundation for a lifetime of practice. But if you go to fast and keep hitting distruptive events (which always occur in life, even without practice) then you will be building a weak foundation that keeps collapsing each time a big event happens.

Best wishes, hope this helps in some way!

RE: Seeking Guidance
Answer
7/30/19 8:43 AM as a reply to shargrol.
shargrol:
For example, some people will avoid doubt or anxiety by getting gung-ho and practicing intensely. But all they are doing is hoping to avoid or somehow "jump over" the doubt and fears, reach SE, and have everything magically fixed by SE.

But actually, it's by working on the stuff that is encounted along the path that eventually allows the meditator to reach SE. I'm not saying everything needs to be worked out so that we are perfect in everyway, but I do mean that we really need to address our reactive patterns in a substantial way, otherwise we won't be able to hangout in Equanimity and stay there long enough for SE to occur.

Shargrol, I've seen you (and a few others) give this advice to practitioners before and it has been one of the most important pieces of practice advice that I've received. It guides both on cushion 'formal' meditation and off cushion practice and has improved my quality of life as a whole.

I spent so much time hoping that SE would magically improve my life, when really I needed to develop the tools that helped me deal with my own unproductive psychological patterns here-and-now. Meditation simply helps to develop the awareness, honesty, objectivity, and patience to sit with anything uncomfortable that we'd prefer to avoid. Over time, the mind finds a way to gently purify these reactions and behaviors: I don't really have to use much effort to change. I just put the 'lizard-mind' in direct contact with the negative consequences of its habits and the lizard trains itself (your metaphor from a different thread emoticon ). The mind has its own timeline and intelligence. 

It's the same concept from the Bill Hamilton one-liner (paraphrased): SE doesn't give us a pot of gold coins; instead we collect gold coins as we make progress and receive the pot to put the coins into at SE. 


@OP: The above advice from shargrol will help you improve your meditation practice and conventional life without getting burnt-out or making any huge, irreversible mistakes. There is a saying: "You awaken to your life as it is, so make sure that it is a life worth waking up to." Basically, make sure that you are grounded and that the other specifics of your conventional life are being cultivated alongside your spiritual development. Slow progress on the spiritual path is easier to integrate - don't be afraid to pump the brakes if you feel that things are getting unsavory. Sanity, maturity, ordinariness are all qualities worth developing and will help you to be a more productive, well-rounded, awakened person.   

RE: Seeking Guidance
Answer
7/30/19 10:44 AM as a reply to shargrol.
shargrol:
For what it's worth, I wouldn't worry about making big changes in practice... but instead I would focus on fixing the bumps in the road you have hit in the past...

Patrick:
 and in February of this year a massive personal tragedy struck which, as you can imagine, blew my stability and consistency of practice to smithereens.

That was fairly recent, so I would spend some time reviewing it and figuring out what the tragedy taught you about your resiliance. No need to describe it here, but ponder: what aspect disrupted your equilibrium? If the event happened again, would the same result happen? Is there anything you learned that made you wiser or better able to handle disruptions? How would you have liked to have gone through that experience? How do you imagine an older and wiser version of yourself woul have handled it? What would it take to become that wiser version of yourself?


I'm not sure if this came immediately after or way after: but I also recall an intense realization that all my sensory experience was in such rapid flux, I couldn't even hold onto a sensation for a single moment, and I intensely felt as if there was nowhere to "rest" on, if that makes sense - like there was nothing stable to hold onto in the midst of experience. This all occured in less than a week of starting the more Vipassana-oriented practice.

When I tried to sleep that night, I couldn't. I would lay down, and as my body relaxed, it filled with intense currents/waves of what felt like energy shooting through my body, as well as some discomfort. My mind felt like it was completely wired, and anywhere I directed it in my range of experience, it would perceive the sensory phenomena with insane and effortless lazer-like focus, and I would see every little sensation making up whatever I was focusing on in extremely fine detail. Like I said, my mind was WIRED and I didn't sleep at all for 5 days.

I think I messed up here, because not realizing the potential at the moment for deeper insight, my reaction was to stop practicing and try to "fix" my mind so I could sleep.

It worries me that you seem to think that pushing onward was the right answer here... Really, you should have stopped earlier.

I'm not a therapist, but it seems to me like you entered into a manic or hyper-vigilent state. Even though (sometimes) less sleep is needed during retreats, what you describe is simply not healthy. It's really important to see that and to catch things like this early. And it's important to slow things down when this happens. 

It's very normal for all of us to have moments in practice that we want to keep ramping things up to make progress... but 99% of the time that ambition is actually a way to avoid slowing things down and taking a good look at things we are uncomfortable in acknowledging in our psyche. For example, some people will avoid doubt or anxiety by getting gung-ho and practicing intensely. But all they are doing is hoping to avoid or somehow "jump over" the doubt and fears, reach SE, and have everything magically fixed by SE.

But actually, it's by working on the stuff that is encounted along the path that eventually allows the meditator to reach SE. I'm not saying everything needs to be worked out so that we are perfect in everyway, but I do mean that we really need to address our reactive patterns in a substantial way, otherwise we won't be able to hangout in Equanimity and stay there long enough for SE to occur.

So my advice again, would be to review this experience and determined what you learned and how you would do things differently next time.

I'm 18 now, and I'm going into my first year of University this September, and really don't want these things to interfere with my studies. I have been trying TMI again at stage 4/5 like I said, because as far as I understand it is supposed to be an extremely safe route for folks like me. However this causes me even more doubt, because I have been extremely slow to progress with TMI and I have gotten much more interesting results with Vipassana (Vipassana in general feels very intuitive to me). I feel I might have a more natural propensity for Vipassana than Samatha, but I am at the same time afraid of what the Dukkha Nyanas might do to me for the reasons mentioned above.

I would love to go on a retreat but the only places near me are Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu's meditation center (which seems excellent, however, he requires that meditators go for 3 weeks, practicing all day as I understand it, and I don't think I have the capacity for something that intense/long), and a Shambhala center which I am yet to visit. There are a couple Buddhist temples (two Theravadin and one Zen) near me but I don't think they hold retreats.

Given my history and resources, what do you recommend I should be doing right now?

So overall, I would emphasize that seeking out "interesting results" might not be the best path forward right now. I would suggest that working slowly and consistently is the way to go. That way you'll fix a lot of the bumps along the way and will likely become a stronger and more resiliant meditator. 

The mind is very interesting and will often seek "big experiences" in order to entertain and distract itself from the mundane aspects of meditation practice ---- but the mundane stuff is where the real progress gets made. 

So in general, I would think about using the school year to establish a low-key but consistent sitting practice. I would recommend really spend some time diagnosing your past few events and figuring out if there are other exercises you could do to increase your stability --- maybe self-study maybe working with a therapist or other teacher. (By the way, lookout for the culty spiritual groups in college, they really target meditators and will try to convince you that they have the best and easiest way to enlightenment!) 

Then during the summer or breaks, maybe do a weekend retreat with a good teacher. And then after a successful short retreat, do a slightly longer one. Basically I'm saying take it easy, take it slow, make incremental progress, and don't try to take on too much at one time.

Basically, you have a great opportunity here to build a solid foundation for a lifetime of practice. But if you go to fast and keep hitting distruptive events (which always occur in life, even without practice) then you will be building a weak foundation that keeps collapsing each time a big event happens.

Best wishes, hope this helps in some way!

I may have given off the wrong impression that I'm approaching meditation in a thrill-seeking manner, seeking out wild experiences and being averse to the mundane aspects of it. This is not the case - as I said, I had spent over a year doing TMI (this peaked for a period of about 4 months from late 2018 until February where I did two 45 minute sits a day, extremely consistently, and this was when I made it to stage 6). This practice was fairly mundane and I had no problem with it. My doubt regarding which practice I should be doing arose because after the tragedy and the subsequent disintegration of my practice/routine/momentum, I was amazed at how much had been reversed. I was back at around stage 1/2/3 of TMI. The grass looked much greener on the dry insight side, where total backsliding appeared a lot less common, and progress seemed a lot more tangible. 
I felt that I should experiment with dry insight and I feel as if my quick progress and intuitive propensity for vipassana granted my suspicions some degree of merit (it also doesn't help that I've read tons of stuff online of people saying that practitioners should initially go for what they are most naturally inclined towards, and that these inclinations vary from person-to-person).


However, I definitely understand and appreciate the general sentiments that I need to be more gentle, slow and steady with myself, less sporadic, and that I need to confront the knots in my psyche in the present, rather than expecting it to suddenly be fixed all at once in a far-off spiritual attainment someday. If I'm being honest with myself, that narrative does hold influence over my mind. I think I'm gonna continue to try TMI, this time implementing way more metta (the University I'm going to has lots of opportunity for students to participate in volunteer work for good causes, which I am very interested in). I do feel I have been neglecting metta far too much. Now that I think of it, I was practicing it regularly at that 4-month peak stage I described where I made it to stage 6 TMI. Don't know why I stopped.

It'll be hard to manage the temptation to implement vipassana though ;)

RE: Seeking Guidance
Answer
7/30/19 10:55 AM as a reply to Hibiscus Kid.
There is a saying: "You awaken to your life as it is, so make sure that it is a life worth waking up to." Basically, make sure that you are grounded and that the other specifics of your conventional life are being cultivated alongside your spiritual development.


I think I might have given the wrong impression here as well. I am not neglecting my conventional life whatsoever. I worked hard in my last year of high school to get the best grades I could manage, and have secured some solid scholarships for myself (partially out of necessity since I do not come from a well-off family in any sense of the term). I go to the gym 5 days a week (most of the time), I eat healthy, I maintain strong friendships with a few close friends. I think my conventional life is quite good.

Unless you are also implying that I should be focusing on the more conventional/virtue-oriented aspects of Buddhist practice in my everyday life and focus more on Sila, Dana and cultivating Metta towards people in my life throughout my everyday interactions, in which case I completely understand. Assuming that's what you were leaning towards, I would agree that that whole side of practice could use a lot of work.

RE: Seeking Guidance
Answer
7/31/19 2:11 AM as a reply to Patrick.
Patrick:
I would love to go on a retreat but the only places near me are Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu's meditation center (which seems excellent, however, he requires that meditators go for 3 weeks, practicing all day as I understand it, and I don't think I have the capacity for something that intense/long)
Short note on this: Ajahn Tong retreats are indeed quite intense, but there's also a daily interview with the teacher to make sure you're not going off the rails. If you are getting unbalanced, the teachers will adapt their method, e.g. more sleep and shorter meditation sessions. Also, the length of the breaks is not fixed in stone. If you are unsure about this, it might be a very good idea to just call Yuttadhammo and ask him about everything you asked us.

Another thing you could consider is to focus on Metta/Brahmaviharas for some time first. In my experience, this leads you through the same mental states, but the ride is less wild and the practice really does something good to the mind, in a way that plain Vipassana doesn't. In my experience, this helped a lot with anxiety.