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Semi-sleep/semi-aware state in practice

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Hello everyone, 

I wanted to discuss my problem this half asleep/half aware state that I get into whenever I practice jhana stuff (and sometimes insight practice, whenever concentration really increases).

Background

I have been practicing for 5 years or so and have attained stream-entry (self-diagonsed, using the criteria of having finished one cycle of insight).

Problem

I notice how I am able to get the the j4 quite easily. But as j4 increases in strength I tend to drift off into this semi-aware state where thoughts and sounds are present but there is really no "I" that controls attention. I have no ability to control anything in that state. Its like those states where you are half-aware and half asleep at the same time.

After I snap out of it focusing on a single object becomes very difficult. As far a visual sensations it is just blank. And physical sensations there is nothing. But I am able to hear things.

I am able to notice this happening and have tred to stop it by trying to stay focussed on that object solely and not letting concentration drift off. But I notice that I start falling back in my ability to concentrate. This happens basically anytime I try to do any jhana stuff.

I assume that it is from tiredness but have no idea how to stop it from happening because I can have a normal day without any hectic stuff happening yet I still fall into this trance.

Does someone have any idea on how to prevent this and or know what/why ithis is happening I would really appreicate if you could tell me. This thing really preventing me from accessing the formless jhanas.

Sincerely,

Nick

RE: Semi-sleep/semi-aware state in practice
Answer
7/4/20 5:33 PM as a reply to Nick S.
Maybe you have insomnia?

I find that I get insominia from drinking even small amounts of alcohol, even one drink a day, and after couple of days the effects of the insomnia are worse than the effects of the alcohol. Another cause for me is eating too much carbohydrates. I find a diet that is somewhat lower in carbohydrates works much better with meditation. I try to avoid anything that influences the brain including caffeine and tobacco.

Maybe meditating in the morning after you/ve been awake for an hour or so, so you won't go right back to sleep.

Or maybe before a meal since after a meal sometimes people get sleepy.

Or try meditating after exercise? I was on retreat once and the monk leading the meditation sessions started nodding off. On the next walking meditation session he took us outside and walked us really fast to help wake himself up. (It was kind of funny to see because his robes were billowing in the wind behind him and there was a line of people behind him trying to keep up with his fast pace.) So you could try fast walking meditation before sitting meditation.

I don't know if these are appropriate for you or if they will be helpful, but they might help for some people in your situation who might read this.

I also read somewhere that a meditation teacher told a student with this problem to just meditate on that state and try to learn as much as he could from it. Before I knew what jhanas were I used to get into the 5th jhana from doing relaxation exercises or sometimes I would wake up from sleep and be in it. It was only later I learned this was a jhana. It could be there is some relationship between sleep and the 5th jhana.


BTW I like your photo, my motto is, "If they're not smiling, they're doing it wrong".

RE: Semi-sleep/semi-aware state in practice
Answer
7/4/20 6:30 PM as a reply to Jim Smith.
Oh definitely! Lately I have been waking up tired and plus I have been doing some changes in my eating pattern lately thus causing this. I shall try out increasing my fat intake.
Also, do you have any tips on working in that state though because as I mentioned earlier I basically have no control.

And thank you for the picture hahaha. Its amazing how much happier and confident I am with this practice 
emoticon 

RE: Semi-sleep/semi-aware state in practice
Answer
7/4/20 8:20 PM as a reply to Nick S.
Nick S:
Oh definitely! Lately I have been waking up tired and plus I have been doing some changes in my eating pattern lately thus causing this. I shall try out increasing my fat intake.
Also, do you have any tips on working in that state though because as I mentioned earlier I basically have no control.

And thank you for the picture hahaha. Its amazing how much happier and confident I am with this practice 
emoticon 

I use that state in a few ways. 

One thing I do is that I notice that unpleasant emotions seem to not be present in that state. 

And I do relaxation exercises before meditating because I find it produces a more consistent experience meditating, I find relaxing prepares the mind to focus. So I usually get into that state (the hypnogogic state) lying down and then get up and do sitting meditation. I don't know if this would work for anyone else but after the relaxation I sit down and start doing jhana meditation but I soon get into a state I haven't seen described that I call the surrender-forgiveness-humility state and from there it is easy to let go of cravings and aversions so at that point I just watch my mind and when I observe dukkha arising, I try to let go. I try to continue doing this after I get  up when the meditation session is over.

Also if I have a spiritual question, I go into the hypnogogic state and ask the question and then watch the mental imagery for an answer, sometimes it is in symbolic form. (I always apply my own judgement about whether to take these answers seriously or not.) 

Is there a specific type of practice you follow (what type of Buddhism do you follow, or what type of meditation do you do?)

RE: Semi-sleep/semi-aware state in practice
Answer
7/6/20 4:49 AM as a reply to Nick S.
Hi,

Some of my recent practices are maintaining awareness in dreamless sleep, staying aware in hyper dull states and generally going with deconstruction deep enough that conscious volition turns itself off. I spend sometimes even few hours in the mornings in states similar to what you describe, with sound and proprioception on only, I think this might be shallow sleep like N2 phase with periods of hypnopompic - upon waking up - manifestations. In your case that would be called hypnagogic, because you go in another direction - from wakefulness towards verges of sleep. I wonder what Ajahm Brahm would have to say because in his descriptions higher jhanas - hard version - have absolutely no volition and that is a good thing and hallmark of a real deal.

Anyhow, despite gross volutnary operation ceased with the dissolution of an agent, what remains on in such territories are habitual tendencies or preimplemented intentions.

This means that your tendencies to stay absorbed in inactive dull but blisfull states will operate, which my friend according to some might lead you to a very unfortunate rebirths in deva realms ;-))) where you might also come from. Seriously, this is what one of my teachers recently has been telling me. Similar to scaring people with hell, right?

If you have been practicing for example great question or maybe mantra recitation or some vipassana noting well and for solid years - this becomes your tendency and might operate in will-free realms too.

As far as intention is concerned and your powers and concentration are pumped up, you can install and power up an intention to continue practice inside, even when volition erodes - before you enter such state. For example tune the mind to the space object so you land in J5. 

Ajahn Brahm says it's like running to the slide and catching momentum before you start sliding. Thats what he does to establish the duration of jhana, cuz he cannot willfully exit his hard jhanas. This one is funny - couple of times I resolved to reemerge after 2 hours but part of myself was recovered before 2 hours passed but I couldn't move. And each time when movement was becoming possible again when I was turning my phone on it was always exactly 2h +/- couple of minutes.

But maybe for him your will-free realm already is a formless jhana. Personally I also wonder about dreamless sleep and formless realms similarities.

RE: Semi-sleep/semi-aware state in practice
Answer
7/6/20 8:05 AM as a reply to Nick S.
Thanks for starting the discussion - something similar happens to me. While tiredness does seem to exacerbate it I don't think that route is the real remedy.

The way this unconscious state manifested itself was via hypnagogics after NPNNP nyana / 8th jhana that would then lead to unconsciousness with a gap very similar to cessation, except only rarely is there a clear "3 doors" phenomena and the hefty kind of afterglow that suggests a new cessation happened. It used to last for much of the second half of my hour long sits, often popping in and out repeatedly. Usually I would get a very pleasant / refreshing whole body glow afterwards, followed by a fast repeating cycle of some sort and another round. I was told by other mediators on retreat that I'd be sitting perfectly upright while it happens. In fact, I've sometimes used this feature/bug when I have to sit upright and get some rest, such as early morning plane rides.

It started being very pronounced after a Mahasi style retreat (on which I went through the 2nd PoI cycle) where the approach was no jhana practice and no intentional interference with states of dullness or unconsciousness. I just left it alone for a few months and the cycles / insights / shifts kept happening. Generally new cycle cessations / permanent shifts of perception would happen after meditation sessions with prolonged spells in this state, so clearly the unconscious mind was doing something useful either inside the state or by popping in and out and it  didn't seem to be a hindrance to further insights in what pragmatic dharma would consider 3rd path territory.

Nowadays the hypnagogia is much less pronounced. I started working with a Thai Forest Tradition monk as a mentor and he suggested this state is a good sign (he never says anything is bad, to be fair) and "close to jhana". His remedy was to ask "where is my brightness" / "how is my brightness" as this state approaches and to gently try to maintain body awareness when this happens. And to expect that it might take a couple years to work itself out - a pointer to patience.

Typically when I try enquiring about brightness my experience is redirected from a more focused visual attention mode (that seems to be veering towards darkness/dullness/disappearance) to a more inclusive peripheral awareness, including sounds, some physical sensations, etc. Definitely less self and less agency. And then usually some further cycling or shifting happens and things either progress or repeat themselves - depends very much on the day and state of bodymind.

Between those instruction and somewhat related dream journaling to improve dream recall I've noticed that I can maintain a semblance of consciousness, but no real control, and that those periods don't complete disappear from memory unless I'm physically tired.

There may be traditional references to this state as bhavanga in Pali. A friend pointed me to this section from Shaila Catherine's Wisdom Wide and Deep. I haven't yet confirmed with my mentor that this is indeed what's going on for me. The book is about Pa Auk hard nimitta jhana stuff, which I've never explicitly practiced.

WHEN YOU THINK NOTHING IS HAPPENING Until the jhāna factors are strongly developed, attention can easily slip away from the nimitta and linger in a dormant state of consciousness—in Pali language this state is called bhavaṅga. The Abhidhamma identifies this state as the life-continuum consciousness that arises between every cognitive process. Everyone has uncountable moments of this life-continuum consciousness, although they usually occur below the threshold of awareness. Slower minds will have longer lapses between sensory processes; sharper minds will have relatively brief excursions into the bhavaṅga consciousness because attention will readily engage with the next moment of perception and rapidly process cognitive data. To the meditator, a lapse into the bhavaṅga state may seem as though everything has stopped and nothing particular is known. Meditators describe this as being “aware of nothing” and may mistakenly allude to it as an experience of emptiness, yet they will not possess clarity regarding the object of attention. Sometimes it can seem as though time is just lost. The posture may remain upright; hence, it does not have the obvious features usually associated with sleepiness or dullness. It is usually a very pleasant state, and overconfident meditators may presume it is an accomplishment, or perhaps even the attainment of nibbāna. In reality, however, the mental faculties are not yet strong enough to discern the subtle functioning of this state of consciousness that links cognitive processes. If a meditator enjoys the pleasant but unclear state of bhavaṅga and repeatedly dwells in it, the meditation will stagnate and soon the mind will dull into complacency. Extended lapses into bhavaṅga are likely to happen prior to jhāna. These commonly occur as the meditator approaches the threshold to jhāna but will not happen while actually absorbed in jhāna. These lapses are compared to a child who is learning to walk—at first the toddler takes just a few steps and then falls down, tries a few more strides, and again collapses. The mind in jhāna, by contrast, is stable and adroit, and the jhāna factors are strong. It is likened to a healthy adult who can walk whenever, wherever, and for however long she desires, without stumbling or hesitation.

RE: Semi-sleep/semi-aware state in practice
Answer
7/6/20 7:46 AM as a reply to hae1en.
hae1en:
Some of my recent practices are maintaining awareness in dreamless sleep, staying aware in hyper dull states and generally going with deconstruction deep enough that conscious volition turns itself off.

...

But maybe for him [Ajahn Brahm] your will-free realm already is a formless jhana. Personally I also wonder about dreamless sleep and formless realms similarities.

Thanks for your reply - I found it quite helpful and am starting to explore similar territory.

Any pointers on where (books/talks/etc) Ajahn Brahm talks about this stuff?

RE: Semi-sleep/semi-aware state in practice
Answer
7/10/20 3:08 AM as a reply to mrdust.
Hi mr dust!

Nice phenomenology. Can you write more about your hipnagogic images? Are they in 3d, hd and colorful? Do they convey any insight - bringing visions and understanding of your relative reality? Or maybe they are more like sacred geometry patterns?

Ajahn Brahm wrote Minfulness, Bliss and Beyond, you can download it online. 

If you want to read more on DhO some of us here were recently discussing this in Dreamless sleep thread and Hypnagogia thread.

RE: Semi-sleep/semi-aware state in practice
Answer
7/10/20 11:53 AM as a reply to Nick S.
I don't have experience of this issue, but first thought would be to rule out being asleep.  

Typically, if I want to insure I'm not asleep, I change my meditation posture to something more energetic.  So, if it's usually lying down I might sit up, if it's sitting up reclined I might sit up unassisted, if sitting up straight then I might switch to standing, etc.  Then see if the state arises in a more energetic posture.  

Another option would be to switch objects.  So if you're using the breath you could train with say a fire kasina or a mantra or whatever suits.

A third option would be to introduce random interventions in perception around the threshold at which the weirdness tends to start.  So when your 4th jhana really gets going, maybe blink your eyes a few times and see what happens.  Or drop back into 3rd.  Or do something random.  The idea being to just introduce semi random variation into whatever thought pattern is leading to something you've self diagnosed as problematic.  

RE: Semi-sleep/semi-aware state in practice
Answer
7/10/20 1:05 PM as a reply to hae1en.
hae1en:

Nice phenomenology. Can you write more about your hipnagogic images? Are they in 3d, hd and colorful? Do they convey any insight - bringing visions and understanding of your relative reality? Or maybe they are more like sacred geometry patterns?

Ajahn Brahm wrote Minfulness, Bliss and Beyond, you can download it online.
Brahm's book - thanks! I'm a lot looser with standards than the Forest Monks, but I had a peek and there's definitely some interesting stuff in there.

Hypnagogic images - when they manifested more clearly they were generally dark, blurry, and colorful. Usually quick, up close flahes of faces, bodies, creatures. They very much felt like relational / symbolic stuff from the unconscious. The loss of control itself wasn't pleasant at first, but the dreamlike quality was generally positive. I suppose they somewhat resembled normal dreams visually, except often they were much closer visually and they would rarely last more than a few moments -- never storylines or narratives.

Only rarely (e.g. dukkha nyanas on retreat) would I come out of the unconscious period feeling worse than before. I never had conscious insight events during these periods. Insights would usually occur at an earlier stage in the cycling (lower in equanimity nyana territory) when the sequencing of the cycles was more clear, or during what I suppose were A&P-style events coming out of the unconscious period.