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Did I get through stream entry without realizing it?

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Hey folks,

TLDR:
  • I started vipassana meditation ~1yr ago with a 10 day Goenka retreat (where I hit A&P at least) followed by a somewhat regular daily practice (varying durations from ~2hrs to 15min/day)
  • I recently made it through ~8months of Dark Night with consistent pleasant sittings for the last ~2wks that feel strongly rooted in the Equanimity realm (4th vipassana jhana).
  • With recent insights/experiences in my practice and more careful read of what later stages of insights are about, I’m actually seriously wondering if I did not already get stream entry during my 10 day Goenka retreat last year (which would mean I’m now on 2nd path). Although it sounds a bit crazy I could miss something like this, I strongly suspect this is actually what happened.  That said, this is where I’m looking for some expert feedback from more seasoned practitioners.
Note: I’m not particularly attached to having gone through stream entry already or not. I would actually be a bit bummed that I kind of missed it the first time around if so. I’m just trying to get a clearer picture of where I’m at.
Warning: It’s a fairly long post even though I tried to be as concise as was necessary to convey as accurate a picture as I could of my journey so far.

I’ll first do a quick rundown of what my experience has been this last year as I understood it until recently (and will describe some my most recent insights later on):

Quick background about myself first: 
I'm a fairly rational person (scientist by training) who despite being quite open minded used to be very suspicious of any deep spirituality claims (I’ve drastically changed my view on this since). No real exposure to meditation up until a year ago (except for some mildly successful attempts at practicing ~10min of mindfulness from time to time).

~1yr ago: 10-day Goenka retreat
I went there fairly blindly (i.e. no buddhist or meditation theory knowledge almost at all). I signed up as an experiment and challenge for myself, and also hoping it might help a bit with some of my low self esteem/social anxiety. I went with an open mind and the strong commitment to give the technique a very serious try. This experience was truly amazing and powerful. Words are hard to find to describe what I went through (especially since I was completely unfamiliar with map theory at the time). Basically, after ~3days at calming the mind and getting my concentration stronger, I reached some super intense altered states of mind (which I learned afterwards are called concentration jhanas) and was able to perceive very subtle sensations I had no idea were possible to perceive. I also sensed very fast vibrations (something like 10Hz or higher) throughout my body (this is what Goenka refers to as free flow I believe and I learned later that all this is typical A&P stuff). Day 4-6 were passed alternating high states (bliss, free flow during body scans, extreme calm/clarity...) and low states (anxiety, childhood trauma resurfacing, feeling mildly sick for a few hours, boredom...). Day 7-9: I was able to reach consistent “highs” during sittings. I literally felt I could “hit” a spot in the back of my brain that would send me “high” whenever I wanted (I became somewhat of a “jhana junky” in the end I believe as I was more focused on “getting in these altered blissful states” than investigating anicca/impermanence to be honest). The “highs” even persisted during awake time though in milder form of course.

I left the retreat blown away with what just happened and I surfed an afterglow that lasted ~2-3 months (feeling of starting afresh, lower social anxiety, excited about lots of things, general increase in awareness) where I resolved to try my best at establishing a strong meditation practice for the long term (~2hrs/day initially though it would go down in time). A friend also pointed me to MCTB and it was amazing for me to realize that some people are actually studying this shit to unbelievable depth. I was also extremely impressed at how it is possible to map the meditation experience despite the wide range of experiences people might have. My initial assessment was that I had clearly got to A&P during the retreat (and probably a taste of Dark Night) but that was it, the rest was just concentration jhana (I’m now revisiting this view as I’ll describe later).

Retreat + 3 months: end of post-retreat afterglow
My practice decreased in intensity (hard at times to go back to basic concentration + some frustration) but I felt this was normal since it was likely the result of not being able to maintain as strong of a practice as during the retreat (I was doing ~45min/day at that point). My work life also started to be extremely stressful and unpleasant (I would eventually go through a burnout) but I thought this also was normal since I just had switched to a new high pressure/responsibility project where I had to prove myself all over again (which has always been a challenge for me due to social anxiety / low self-esteem). 

Retreat + 5 months: my wife and I had our first child emoticon
Definitely brought lots of joy but I still felt generally dissatisfied and frustrated with life in general and most specifically my work which was bringing lots of stress/anxiety. I struggled through the next ~6 months barely able to maintain a meditation practice (averaging 15min/day probably).Note: I know maps are far from perfect but I just want to point out that knowing that the Dark Night was a thing back then brought a lot of relief/hope to me (i.e. realizing that some of what I experienced on the mat might be a normal rite of passage). 

Retreat + 11 months (i.e. ~3wks ago): beginning of my 3 months paternity leave (lucky me!)
Besides spending more time with my wife/daughter, I decided to use this time to resume a serious meditation practice in the hope I could power through Dark Night territory (I’m currently averaging ~1.5hrs/day). Following this meditation diet and a deep deep focus on ‘letting go’ as much as I could, I saw very quick improvements and ~2wks ago I  felt a huge weight off my shoulder with a lot of pleasant feelings coming up in my sittings. Based on Progress of insight map, I currently strongly relate with the Equanimity stage: center of attention is much wider and diffuse than before (it’s hard to focus on a pointed object even if I try), fast sensory “bubbles” happening on their own in the background (I believe this is what’s referred as formations), strong equanimity at times. I also perceive a vibratory restlessness across the whole field of awareness which seems to me to be at the core the characteristics of dissatisfaction (I might be wrong about this) and I have this sense that if I can let go of it, behind lies emptiness/pure awareness where dissatisfaction stops entirely (just a feeling, not sure it’s true for the moment). It’s actually this last feeling that strongly reminded me of something that happened during Goenka retreat that I did not mention until now (in part because at the time I did not make a big deal out of it).

Revisiting Goenka’s retreat: possible stream entry?
It was a <1sec moment but intense enough that I still feel it in my bones till this day. I don’t know how to describe it well but I’ll try. I was in a fairly high altered state of mind (sorry this is vague but I don’t want to be more specifics as I don’t remember the exact state of mind I was in just before) and then it’s as if everything turned off, no sense of time nor space anymore, nor of anything for that matter, I just got briefly sucked in into pure emptiness it seemed. It freaked me out a bit initially though everything went back ok in a split second. It’s weird to say but it felt both terrifying and satisfying at the same time. I tried to see if it would come back but never did after that one time even. I categorized it as a weird/interesting event but not as something profoundly insightful at the time. However when I think about it in light of my current practice, it feels that it might be what the maps are referring to with the stage of Fruition and I can definitely sense that it was a ‘letting go’ in its purest form which made everything kind of disappear. Anyway, as I said, I find it hard to talk about in words. Hope it’s making some sense to some of you more experienced practitioners.

Other reasons stream entry seems to make sense:
As I mentioned before, during the retreat I also had lows (anxiety, childhood trauma resurfacing, feeling sick) and highs (in particular extreme calm/clarity) which might have been me going through Dark Night and Equanimity stages respectively. The last ~2-3 days were spent being in a constant state of extreme lightness and happiness (I also had a much clearer sense of what my values/priorities in life should be, I made lots of resolutions) which might be a post stream entry thing although could be a post A&P thing as well I imagine. This ‘happy’ afterglow got milder off-retreat but definitely persisted to some level for ~2-3 months. All of this is hard to say for sure of course since it’s now a year away, I was completely naive at the time as far as meditation theory/maps are concerned and I was also quite overwhelmed with the flow of events that were occuring during the retreat which were hard to clearly/objectively digest for me as they were happening over such a short time.

Even though all this is making me strongly suspect stream entry occurred during the retreat (which would mean I’m now going through 2nd path cycle), let me list a few things that could definitely be biasing my view of things:
  • A lot of what I described above started to make sense only after I read carefully about map theory (MCTB in particular). This makes me prone to possibly re-interpret some of my experience under that framework.
  • My off-retreat experience through Dark Night and Equanimity correlates well with work-related anxiety-inducing events (i.e. DN starts = new high pressure work project, Equanimity = paternity leave + chilling at home) which makes it a bit of a chicken and egg problem to figure out if my meditation triggered high anxiety/depression or if my shitty work situation triggered shitty meditation sittings.
  • Any blind spots and unconscious biases I have (and I’m sure I have tons of them) that made my description not fully accurate and imprecise.
Putting all this in writing is a way to try to see things a bit more clearly. If some of you experienced meditators can spare the time to help orient a fairly new meditator, I’d greatly appreciate it! In particular if you spot parts that don't quite seem to make sense.

Thank you amazing DharmaOverground community! Keep the amazing work of bringing clarity and honesty in the usually opaque world of meditation/buddhism.


RE: Did I get through stream entry without realizing it?
Answer
6/3/20 2:18 PM as a reply to Aurel Bouvier.
Hi Aurel,

Glad to hear your practice is going so well.  Your post resonated with me because I share the scientifc materialist framework and so getting into meditation comes as a real shock!  I like how you're on the lookout for biases.  

"It was a <1sec moment but intense enough that I still feel it in my bones till this day. I don’t know how to describe it well but I’ll try. I was in a fairly high altered state of mind (sorry this is vague but I don’t want to be more specifics as I don’t remember the exact state of mind I was in just before) and then it’s as if everything turned off, no sense of time nor space anymore, nor of anything for that matter, I just got briefly sucked in into pure emptiness it seemed. It freaked me out a bit initially though everything went back ok in a split second. It’s weird to say but it felt both terrifying and satisfying at the same time. I tried to see if it would come back but never did after that one time even. I categorized it as a weird/interesting event but not as something profoundly insightful at the time. However when I think about it in light of my current practice, it feels that it might be what the maps are referring to with the stage of Fruition and I can definitely sense that it was a ‘letting go’ in its purest form which made everything kind of disappear. Anyway, as I said, I find it hard to talk about in words. Hope it’s making some sense to some of you more experienced practitioners."

Thank you for what I think is the clear and detailed phenomenology.  Specifically when you say "I just got briefly sucked in into pure emptiness it seemed. It freaked me out a bit initially though everything went back ok in a split second. It’s weird to say but it felt both terrifying and satisfying at the same time," I think it might be possible to tease out whether this description is inconsistent with fruition phenomenology.  I think when a fruition happens, reality just disappears and pops back nearly instanteously.  There's no one there to experience the fruition-- there just aren't any of the normal 5 sense doors and there's no thought or metacognition or anything.  So, if there was awareness in the state you're thinking might be a fruition, it probably wasn't a fruition.  There are other states where some or all of the normal five sense doors stop but some sense of awareness remains, and something like this seems more consistent with your description.  


RE: Did I get through stream entry without realizing it?
Answer
6/15/20 3:25 PM as a reply to Ben Sulsky.
Hi Ben,

Thanks a lot for your reply. I'd be hard pressed to give a definitive answer about whether or not awareness was there during this cessation-like event. It's too far in the past and the only memory I have left now is rather vague as you can see from my description (I only have a general impression that everything turned on/off in a fairly dramatic fashion).

For those familiar with 2nd path, is there anything in my current/future experience that could be indicative that it's where I'm at instead of 1st path? No worries if not, I'll just work on accepting that this part of my practice will likely remain a bit mysterious. A good exercise to practice acceptance/equanimity ;)

RE: Did I get through stream entry without realizing it?
Answer
6/15/20 4:05 PM as a reply to Aurel Bouvier.
You really need to just let this percolate for a while. Not hours or days or even weeks, but months. It sounds to me like you have some "wanna be there" going on in regard to reaching stream-entry. That's often a sign of..... well, what do you think it might be a sign of? I'm not trying to be, or sound, harsh, but most of the time what folks think is stream-entry is actually an A&P experience. In my experience, the afterglow of a rousing A&P is far more noticeable than any afterglow of stream-entry.

RE: Did I get through stream entry without realizing it?
Answer
6/15/20 4:16 PM as a reply to Aurel Bouvier.
Several meditation teachers, like Ingram, Burbea, etc., stress the fact that it happens often enough that even beginning meditators will experience a formless realm, possibly even something as remote as the sphere of nothingness, which is usually a very dramatic thing (more, perhaps, than cessation, which can be extremely NOT dramatic).

Not saying that this is what happen, but it's something to keep in mind.

Classic (at least in pragmatic dharma orthodoxy :p) signs of stream entry are : -easy/easier access to refined states of consciousness, possibly all jhanas, in a way that wasn't there before
-cycling through the ñanas, in your sits, in a faster way than before (like, you sit and you are clearly in an already very deep meditation ("A&P"), you go through all the ñanas and up to a very broad and spacious EQ within minutes), possibly getting repeat fruitions ; and in daily life, possibly in a very intrusive way
-this goes along with the so-called review period, which is a special period after the attainment, where your mastery of the previous path gets perfected, and your new depth of sensitivity really kicks in/settles, up to the point where reality starts to solidify again, becomes somehow problematic again. There comes a time when you feel you have lost all your mastery, that things have congealed again, have to be "seen through" again, and that is the beginning of second path.
-lots of new understandings about the dharma, in a visceral/intuitive way, some things are understood which you have no idea how you know them, but you do
-reduced emotional reactivity, or rather, redued clinging, ie reactivity to emotionality - ranging from just noticing that emotions are now moving on without leaving a trace, up to experiencing kinds of honey-moons of several days or more of perfection/bliss/equanimity/compassion/non-duality for some people
-you experience a new baseline level of sensitivity to things in a way that is involuntary/spontaneous and can be quite surprising

my 2cts

edit : crossposted with Chris. Chrisscross.

RE: Did I get through stream entry without realizing it?
Answer
6/17/20 3:50 PM as a reply to Aurel Bouvier.
Thanks for bringing up this question because I think it's important, to be quite honest it's something I have wondered myself at times.  Though, at this point, I am quite sure I have NOT had Stream Entry. 

Echoing Chris and Oliver, and Daniel who has posted about this, the thing I like about the pragmatic approach is that it's really more about the results of SE than the event itself.  Traditionally one who has 'entered the stream' is no longer subject to the first 3 fetters.  So, having doubts about the Dharma, finding yourself self-grasping, or finding yourself clinging to rites or rituals would all be signs that you have not entered the stream.  Also prescence of any of the 6 defilements would be a sign that you are 1st Path.

I used to think of SE as a singular and dramatic event and maybe it can be in many cases.  But I'm not sure it always is that, like Olivier mentioned 'cessation can be extremely NOT dramatic' (in theory that is).  

So looking at it through that lens, the dissatisfaction and anxiety you mention starting +3 months would lead me to question whether you have truly entered the stream, if it was me using this criteria on myself.

As far as what Stream Entry actually "is"... I am still unsure.  My understanding at this point is that there is a correlation between Path attainment and realization of emptiness - SE kind of being your first true glimpse of emptiness.  This is just my working theory though, so take it at face value.

In any case, it sounds like you have the right mentality, I think we're probably on pretty similar paths with a similar history.  Keep up the good work!