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Quite intensive practice, but little insights?

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Quite intensive practice, but little insights?
diagnosis stages of insight difficulty
Answer
9/3/19 7:29 PM
Hello everyone,

I just created an account and first of all: I am impressed by all the interesting content and high-quality responses. Big thanks to Daniel and all of you posting.

To my question: I think I have done quite a bit of meditation, but I still think that I did not cross the A&P and it seems that I do not make much progress. More details follow below.

I meditate since about 4 years (4 10-day Goenka retreats with body scanning and a few other techniques, but varying  degrees of daily practice) and have been on a 5 month intensive Mahasi retreat the past months. Here is a bit about my retreat practice and experiences: I consider myself to be rather serious about meditation compared to some other meditators. I tried to keep the talking to a minimum, and I am aware of all the standard advices like keeping eyes closed, not moving, etc. During walking and eating, I was slowing down most of the time, continuing to note during the day.

My longest sitting was about 4h without much painful sensations for 3h, and bearable pain afterwards. I got up because my concentration felt bad at some point rather than because of pain. I experienced turning sensations for a few minutes (left to right, and from bottom to top) and for a few minutes my arms felt like some mix of heavyness, expansion and numbness. In that session I also had the feeling that I could perceive one itching sensation as multiple itches (just a few seconds and not very clear) and sometimes it felt like the pain was changing its position when I got into the center. Sometimes it also felt like pain sensations would disappear after a few seconds, but not immediately after noting it or very clear, or that there was some kind of heartbeat-like pulsation in the pain. Required effort was rather little in that session, but oftentimes I still had thoughts after a few notings and the meditation did not feel that deep. I experienced these sensations also in other sittings. Most of the time I sat somewhere between 1 and 2.5 hours with very varying degrees of concentration and sensations. I sometimes have feelings of calmness but not like "wow, this it". Oftentimes I am just noting the abdomen or pain without being able to perceive many details or sensations (at least it feels that way, although I can perceive the breath from beginning to end and also the breaks in between). Sometimes the mind just wanders. Twice my legs felt little like somehow attached to the ground, and slightly like some vibrations. Sometimes there seemed to be flashes of white light for a few seconds, but not very clear or catchy (one fellow meditator said that it could also be my retina, as I nearly constantly see some purple formations when I close my eyes). During walking I get varying sensations like the floor is moving or falling, foot swinging, softness, guiding of the movement, push forward or resistance. Sometimes I can feel my heartbeat throughout the body. On rare occasions also tiny broken movements, but I think I still have problems observing intentions very clearly. It seems easier for me to note them in daily activities.

All these sensations are more or less the same since the end of the first month of my 5-month retreat. They come and go - sometimes stay for a few days and then go for a while and show up again. But I rarely experience really new stuff or see my concentration getting much deeper. I know it is not about getting awesome sensations, but it feels like my concentration is still not very stable (I can observe the breath in its full length, but it does not seem like I can observe many vibrations or something more detailed; oftentimes I note and after a short while thoughts pop in) and I do not observe anything A&P-like or higher. I don't feel like I can observe any arising and passing of sensation well and the sensations which sound more A&P-like like the flashes of light, multiple itches etc never seem very clear and might be made up by my mind. I was able to singificantly increase my longest sittings and pain decreased, but I am starting to think that I simply do not have any talent for meditation, am not able to reach A&P or that there is a karmic problem. I met a lot of people who seem to get into A&P territory within their first 10 days of Goenka retreat and I am still struggling after quite a lot of retreat time within the past years. Any thoughts on this or what else I could try? Or maybe similar experiences? Any guess where I am in terms of insight?

Many words and thanks a lot to everyone who takes the time to read. 

Thanks in advance

RE: Quite intensive practice, but little insights?
Answer
8/16/19 2:07 PM as a reply to Asahi.
Welcome! May I ask what motivates you to practice?

RE: Quite intensive practice, but little insights?
Answer
8/16/19 4:34 PM as a reply to Nick O.
Dear Nick, Thank you for your post.

I think what motivates me is a mix of different factors if I can perceive that without delusion: First of all, I find the teaching of a reduction of suffering and increase of clarity very appealing. Despite my slow progress, I have the strong faith that meditation can bring answers to many of my open questions about the purpose of life/life itself and make life more pleasant. I guess there is also a bit of fear of a bad rebirth since Buddhism is the best in terms of "religions" that I have found so far. The last factor is probably a bit of seeing meditation as kind of a sport or something and trying to master it despite the slow progress.

RE: Quite intensive practice, but little insights?
Answer
8/16/19 6:07 PM as a reply to Asahi.
You mention in your post a lot of investigation of physical pain, sensations in the skin, body scanning, etc. Have you done much to work with emotional investigation or self-inquiry? In my experience, finding the emotional sensations that were associated with sense of self was fruitful in progressing past the A&P. Ask yourself where do you feel the feeling of "I" or "me". Also make sure that you are enjoying your practice! If you're feeling stuck, throttle off the investigation a bit and work on cultivating joy and wellbeing!

To address your fears about rebirth, you may want to question whether rebirth is compatible with the rest of the Buddha's teachings. Bhikku Buddhadasa speaks about this here: https://www.lionsroar.com/the-choice-is-yours/

RE: Quite intensive practice, but little insights?
Answer
8/17/19 6:27 AM as a reply to Nick O.
Thanks a lot for your reply and the link about Buddhadasa Bikkhu. I heard of this before, but never really read it.

I did not do body scanning for a while now. As I did not feel comfortable with Goenka's technique, I stopped practicing it. Since end of last year, I am following the instructions of Ven Mahasi Sayadaw - so predominantly noting the rising and falling of the abdomen plus noting whatever other things pop up like pain or emotions. That works much better for me and I find it more in line with the teachings of the Buddha.

Except for noting the emotions that arise during formal meditation (and sometimes during daily activities), I did not do something only dedicated to emotional investigation or self-inquiry. Do you have something special in mind?

Finding more joy in the practice sounds like a very good advice. I think that got lost a bit. I am thinking of doing maybe a bit of Samatha meditation and some Metta meditation. Is that what you meant?

When you read through my explanations, can you make any guess about where I stand in terms of stages of insight? I know it is hard based on some written explanations, but a rough guess would be much appreciated.

RE: Quite intensive practice, but little insights?
Answer
8/17/19 10:35 AM as a reply to Asahi.
Except for noting the emotions that arise during formal meditation (and sometimes during daily activities), I did not do something only dedicated to emotional investigation or self-inquiry. Do you have something special in mind?

Continue with the noting practice and perhaps try to expand it. See how much sensate information you can be aware of every moment, so much so that you drop the action of noting altogether - or perhaps substitute "labeling" sensations for a simple mental "beep" for every tiny sensation that comes into awareness. Try to increase the rate at which you process sensations. Look intensely for and vigilantly deconstruct vibrations, arisings and passings, or any evidence of impermanence. Feel free to allow your focus to peel away from the meditation object (the breath) if you find yourself intensely curious about something. If you find yourself lost in the stories of mental formations, tighten your attention on the breath.

When emotions such as dissatisfaction, angst, aversion to practice, dissapointment with progress, fear or sadness arise, turn them into the meditation object. In my experience, they were "pits" in my abdomen. Try to deconstruct them, soften them, serve them compassion. Ask yourself, "where do I feel the sensation of "I" or "me"? Oftentimes, in my experience, the above emotions were heavily self-identified. Deconstructing, softening and eventually unraveling them resulted in insights into no-self.     
Finding more joy in the practice sounds like a very good advice. I think that got lost a bit. I am thinking of doing maybe a bit of Samatha meditation and some Metta meditation. Is that what you meant?

Yes, the dry investigation techniques, the insight stages, the technical paths, some of this reinvented from the commentaries are very popular (and wonderfully effective) because there's sometimes clear landmarks and oftentimes relatively quick progress. The downside is that there's a tendency for the modern Western mind to project these systems onto it's outlook of linear progression (suffer now, reward later). If we look a the founding principles of Buddhism there is a much different teaching.

Joy was sorely lacking in my own practice and I had nothing to gaurd against rough insight cycles. My outlook was that at some point I would be rewarded freedom from those hell states when I attained enough insight. I started working with linneaged Thai Forest teacher, Dhammarato, student of Buddhadasa who had a dramatic impact on my practice. He posts Dhamma talks with his students on his youtube channel. Worth checking out!   

Joy is a more of a skill to be developed and less a byproduct of attainment. As joy is cultivated in practice one may realize it is the fuel for Right Sati and replenished by Right Attitude. With joyful Sati, one can effortlessly hold Right View to discern between suffering and not suffering. When suffering enters the mind, we are on guard to let it go and return to a joyful state. Cultivating joy will lead one to understand the mechanics of the noble eightfold path and dependent arrising. 

You might notice that this is somewhat contradictory to deeply investigating powerful negative emotions. This is where one needs to find that balance for themselves. Can you sit in stable first jhana? This is a good place to work from with a mind free of hinderance and fit for investigation. 

 
When you read through my explanations, can you make any guess about where I stand in terms of stages of insight? I know it is hard based on some written explanations, but a rough guess would be much appreciated.

I wouldn't worry about this now. Work on cultivating joyful sati! Also, do not underestimate the power of off-cushion practice. Everytime you stand up, be mindful of where you intend to walk. Everytime you sit down, take a few deep breaths, relax and enjoy the moment. Let joy be your incentive and motivation to be mindful of every moment!

A bit of a rant! Hope this helps! emoticon

RE: Quite intensive practice, but little insights?
Answer
8/17/19 7:07 PM as a reply to Nick O.
Dear Nick,

Thanks a lot for taking the time to write down all of this. This is the kind of practical advise I was hoping to get here.

I will give it a try in the next weeks and see how it goes.

Have a good Sunday.