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Dharma Diagnostic Clinic, aka "What was that?"

Gather 'round, this is going to be long.

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Hi there! Yeah, so this is going to be long. My apologies in advance.

As so many people that visit the Dharma Overground, I’m struggling to figure out where I am on the path. Could it be… the dark night? I've read the Idiots Guide to Dharma Diagnosis, but I'm struggling because there have not been solid periods (of, say, longer than a week or two) that I can clearly identify as this stage or other. And I've never experienced any vibrations consciously. And on the one hand, I don’t really care so much because I think the advice is the same for any stage (just keep a solid practice), but on the other hand I feel like not asking for help is a missed opportunity in case you guys have good ideas that I might otherwise struggle to find by myself. I’ll start with a little background that I think is relevant and then continue with my current practice and experiences.

I’m Lena, 29 years old, female, from the Netherlands. I think it’s relevant to mention that I have an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, which in my case means that my stimulus processing seems to be different (I’m especially sensitive to sound and I find soft touches difficult to process). I used to have a lot more meltdowns than I do now, where I would cry myself to sleep because my brain gets exhausted from all stimuli. The practice has really helped with that. I can calm myself down with meditation where I used to require medication. I’m also not too great at dealing with uncertainty and changes, and I have some social issues (I find it hard to look people in the eyes if I don’t pay a lot of attention, I often misunderstand what people say if they’re not being direct, etc). From about 13 to 20 years old I was severely depressed and suicidal. I haven’t had a true relapse since I recovered at 20, although I sometimes struggle with life in general.

Now, my practice. Since I was introduced to Buddhism/meditation in June last year, I’ve been meditating daily. I started with short sits, gradually amped it up to two sits a day (45 and 30 min). The last month or two I’ve been struggling, so I went back to doing a lot of guided meditations, and I’m currently at doing two 20 minute sits a day. I read a lot of books (TMI, MCTB2, anything by Thich Nath Hanh, etc.) and watch Dharma Talks. I don’t drink or do drugs, and I generally don’t partake in popular culture anymore (lost interest in that pretty quickly). My daily practice also entails mindful eating, walking meditation, some Gathas and I attend (often guide) a local Sangha in the tradition of Thich Nath Hanh. I went to one Wake Up retreat and one short Buddhist Psychology course/retreat. Neither of those contain a lot of sitting meditation, there’s a lot of sharing feelings, deep relaxation and working meditations.

I enjoy practicing in the tradition of Thich Nath Hanh. I think it’s a good fit for me, I just struggle at times because there is not a whole lot of guidance with respect to the path. And I feel like most people I encounter don’t really feel like the stages, especially the dark night, are a thing. So when you’re struggling with somewhat negative looking effects of your meditation, you’re a little bit on your own, or people think that there’s something else going on.

Alright, on to my experiences so far. I don’t remember crossing A&P. However, it might be that I did cross it, as in my understanding the experience is not always super recognizable or memorable. I did already spend a lot of time thinking about life and the nature of existence when I was younger (I had a brief flirtation with nihilism, as I guess many of us did). It could be that that one night I felt like I was a little high and I could see everything around me even with my eyes closed in some strange way during some high school party (I was sober!) qualifies.

I haven’t been able to sense in what stage I was clearly at all, so far. What seems to be complicating things is that I find it difficult to separate intellectual insight from experiential insight. A lot of concepts elicit a ‘duh, of course’, but then I never know if that’s only intellectual insight.

Recently, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. I’ve had two or three days where I had some kind of ‘Buddhist mania’ where I was simultaneously laughing and crying because I could see impermanence/interconnectedness so clearly. There have also been days where I was feeling extreme grief and desolation or anxiety about the fact that there really is nothing solid, nothing to hold onto. (It’s not exactly fun, having my level of tolerance of uncertainty and being confronted with the ever-changing nature of reality). As I’ve said, my meditations have become somewhat shortened as I started feeling pretty intense resistance to my sits. Sometimes the sits are fine and I have no idea why the resistance was there, other sits I feel like I’m tearing apart and want to rip my heart out of my chest or scream. Physically I have sits where I have zero complaints, and other days I’m pretty uncomfortable and my back hurts and my head is a block of tension.

The tension I feel on my chest is also carrying over into daily life. I briefly wondered if it was there before and I just didn’t feel it, or if it has some other reason than my meditation, but I haven’t been able to figure anything out. That is unusual for me, as I am pretty analytical, and I have had a shitload of therapy. Meaning, I generally know what’s up. But here’s this tension, this tearing sensation. I can observe the thoughts that my mind forms to explain why it’s there, but they’re obviously post-tension, so they’re meaningless. By paying attention to different objects, the thoughts will shift course. It’s actually pretty fun to experience being super mad at a table for not having a permanent self.

I also have had brief experiences of equanimity (the trait/state, not the Stage, I think). I’ve always been pragmatic – if you can’t change something, might as well stop being bothered and accept it. It’s been getting stronger to a point where I clearly am able to accept situations that would have been troubling me in the past. It’s also been getting better with respect to my negative experiences – I know that anything I experience will pass, so I can just focus on my wider consciousness and breathe. I’m getting better at early detection – I know when I’m about to start doing something to ‘fix’ a feeling (like eating or playing with my phone, which generally doesn’t work out) and I can mostly stop myself.

Any thoughts or guidance you might be able to offer are greatly appreciated. I would like to find a teacher with knowledge of the stages here in the Netherlands, but I have no idea how to go about that. Does one go knocking around asking people if they’ve heard of the dark night?

RE: Gather 'round, this is going to be long.
Answer
1/15/20 5:12 AM as a reply to Lena B.
Hi and welcome! I hope you'll like it here. I'm autistic too. Personally I don't see it as a disorder, but as a difference that has both upsides and downsides and that also can be challenging because it means that one has to deal with being a minority in a society that mainly caters to the majority. The way you describe your experiences, I wouldn't be surprised of you have crossed the A&P at least once, maybe a few times. The "Buddhist mania" sure sounds like it, especially since it was also followed by challenging phases, if I understand you correctly. I'm sorry to say I don't know of any teachers in the Netherlands. Just wanted to say hi. 

RE: Gather 'round, this is going to be long.
Answer
1/15/20 10:33 AM as a reply to Lena B.
The Buddhist mania sounds kind of familiar. The first a&p I went through I had this body mind intesity for a couple of week where everything tasted better, felt better, could see all of reality spin in the visual field every so often, had lots of energy and just seemed to be in tune with the world though everything seemed to be going so fast but then it all disapered into the next stage. I didnt relize it until having more time in daily sits after stream entry thats that was what it was. For me low doses of practice don't seem to yeild good clarity on insight stages. What you talk about sounds kind of dark night like but also to me sounds like the 3c's. It doesnt really matter much like you said as long as there is solid practice going on. Also I would add 5 minutes to each sit if the mind and body are in aversion to sitting, show the mind and body you will sit anyway and sit the extra five. I usually hit the aversion stage of practice and it knocks me down for a few days where I'll back off of practice time but once I tell someone it's going on I'll ramp it back up even though I don't really want to. Now if thats to much recognize it and back off. No matter what you do you will learn whatever lesson is here to be taught. Also what practice are you doing? I didnt see it in your post but could have missed it.

Theres also a couple of paragraphs in Daniels book in the chapter on reobservation explaing how reob is mostly fluff. I would read over that a few times. No matter where you are it's good info.

RE: Gather 'round, this is going to be long.
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1/16/20 7:05 AM as a reply to Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö.
Hi Linda! Thanks for the welcome. I wholeheartedly agree with your view on autism! I just tend to use the ASD term because I work in psychiatry/research and this is the current term according to the DSM 5... And I tend to get hung up on terminology like that emoticon

RE: Gather 'round, this is going to be long.
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1/16/20 7:22 AM as a reply to Dustin.
Hi Dustin, thanks for your input. I guess my problem with regards to dharma diagnosis is that I haven't really had anything clearly for a couple of weeks. There's hardly ever something that really goes outside of my normal range of experiences. It's pretty difficult to distinguish when your sensory input changes when it's always intense, I guess. I have had days where I would notice more than I generally do, taste and touch related, but I wouldn't say it's better, just more. Sometimes I feel vibrations but that's generally some construction work going on or the washing machine on the floor below. 

My buddhist mania was less intense and not as long as you are describing. It was just this feeling of what I'd call terrible beauty, feeling both pain because everything is impermanent but also laughing because the concept of impermanence kind of bled into the concept of interbeing and non-self and that was beautiful. It didn't last very long, maybe half a day or so.

What was your experience gaining stream entry? Did you have the vibrations where you focus on the part in between and then cease to be for a moment? Or do you think there can be differnent experiences?

Thanks for your advice with regards to the practice! I've been easing myself back into slightly longer sits, and I'm currently having a pretty relaxed experience and a 'well that was still too short' at 25 minutes so I guess I'll keep going emoticon I'll have a look at the re-observation chapter again!

My practice is pretty much eh, stage 4/5 TMI. That means I set an intention to stay with the breath, try to come into the moment, count my breath until I can make it straight to 10 without distractions, do some metta (I've recently dropped most of the 'I' and 'my family' because those parts feel weird so I just go to 'may all beings be happy), and then a body scan. If I have time left or the body scan isn't agreeing with me, I will just sit and observe (the breath and the movement of my mind). I don't do formal noting practice because I find the 'speaking' in my mind and the judging distracting. 

RE: Gather 'round, this is going to be long.
Answer
1/16/20 7:38 AM as a reply to Lena B.
Lena B:
Recently, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. I’ve had two or three days where I had some kind of ‘Buddhist mania’ where I was simultaneously laughing and crying because I could see impermanence/interconnectedness so clearly. There have also been days where I was feeling extreme grief and desolation or anxiety about the fact that there really is nothing solid, nothing to hold onto. (It’s not exactly fun, having my level of tolerance of uncertainty and being confronted with the ever-changing nature of reality). As I’ve said, my meditations have become somewhat shortened as I started feeling pretty intense resistance to my sits. Sometimes the sits are fine and I have no idea why the resistance was there, other sits I feel like I’m tearing apart and want to rip my heart out of my chest or scream. Physically I have sits where I have zero complaints, and other days I’m pretty uncomfortable and my back hurts and my head is a block of tension.

See if the description of the 3C stage applies to you. I'll give you some quotes from MCTB2 without giving the URL, as the site appears to be hacked right now.

"The three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self become predominant, which is good, as these are the basis for insight, except this stage is one of the hard ones and can really throw people. . . . this stage tends to be physically unpleasant, with what is called 'hard pain' being a classic hallmark of this stage. This stage can also cause many dark emotions ... There may be odd bodily contortions, movements, obsession with posture, and painful tensions or other bizarre sensations, particularly in the back, neck, jaw, and shoulders, which typically go by the name kriyas. These tensions may persist when not meditating and be quite irritating and even debilitating."

RE: Gather 'round, this is going to be long.
Answer
1/16/20 4:21 PM as a reply to Lena B.
Hi Lena, and welcome.  Here are a few thoughts - just my opinions.  emoticon

Lots of different things can happen in meditation. The way we understand the experiences depends on what kind of approach we are taking.  Much of MCTB is based on the Path of Insight which is a particular noting practice designed to be done on retreats.  So if you are practicing in a different way, you may not have the same experiences, or you might experience things in a different way, or you might not have the skills to clearly see the nanas as they arise and pass away. Other parts of MCTB are hard core and brilliant for any approach - particularly using noting to deal with difficult emotions, seeing the three characteristics, and eventually observing the flux of sensation across the six sense doors in real time. And also the phenomenology of cessation and fruition (which are even more exceptional than the rest of the book!). 

So if you are practicing at home using TMI, rather than working with an insight teacher or going on retreat, I would suggest just following the TMI instructions really closely, rather than mixing them up with retreat-based insight noting practices. These TMI exercises are designed to build concentration - to give you a sharp sword through to later cut through the bonds of delusion. Insight moments still can happen during the concentration exercises, as documented in the TMI book. So when it comes to handling those moments, MCTB does provide some excellent supplementary guidance (including around the three doors, and not mistaking A&P for Path). But just let these moments arise, rather than chasing after them. 

For now, I suggest not mixing up Mahasi-style noting practice and TMI at the same time. If you are doing TMI, just do TMI (but read the book closely). Don't go looking for the nanas in the path of insight, as you probably won't be able to discern them clearly yet.  If you have a flash of insight, but all means pursue the understanding of the three characteristics as they manifest in the six sense doors, or the revelation of part of the chain of dependent arising. But don't go actively looking for insight yet. Wait until you eliminate subtle dullness and subtle distraction before turning to hard core insight practices (or wait until you master some jhanas, so you can exit the jhana and do insight). Meanwhile use TNH guidance to build mindfulness and compassion in daily life (calm), use TMI to build concentration, and then plan to actively pursue insight once calm and concentration are well established.  Exception: if you have the opportunity to do a month long noting/insight retreat, by all means just jump straight in to it.

Meanwhile, if you have a difficult emotion arise, you can still use noting to label it.  If it persists,label it again.You may have to do this three or four times, but then it will change into something else (e.g. anger ... anger ... anger ... sadness .... sadness ... compassion). Then go back to noticing the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose.

One final point -  when you notice being distraced and then return the attention to the breath, be pleased!  Rejoice in your skill at noticing the distraction, and then returing to the meditation object. This will help to burn in the positive karma of attachment to good concentration skills.

Metta and best wishes.  I hope these comments are of some use.

Malcolm

RE: Gather 'round, this is going to be long.
Answer
1/16/20 6:53 PM as a reply to Lena B.
If you are serious a meditation retreat is a non-negotionable emoticon 

I come from the S.N. school (www.dhamma.org).  Mahasi Style noting is also very popular here, but I don't know much about where to take retreats for that.

Don't get too caught up with the stages, just know that struggles come up througout your meditation career, and you don't need a teacher, just a technique.

RE: Gather 'round, this is going to be long.
Answer
1/22/20 2:19 AM as a reply to curious.
Hi Malcolm,

Thanks for your input. 

Wait until you eliminate subtle dullness and subtle distraction before turning to hard core insight practices (or wait until you master some jhanas, so you can exit the jhana and do insight). Meanwhile use TNH guidance to build mindfulness and compassion in daily life (calm), use TMI to build concentration, and then plan to actively pursue insight once calm and concentration are well established. 

Your suggestions sound like a good plan. 

I've been having some more mundane insights into the way I function and my, well, I guess you could call them hindrances. A major hindrance on my path is impatience, which stems from my low tolerance of uncertainty. I am going to practice to relax my practice a little more and keep in mind the reason for the things I chose to do, rather than just always trying to do more just to get it over with.

Thank you again, your comments really helped to figure out my current bottleneck.