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Dharma Diagnostic Clinic, aka "What was that?"

Equanimity on my 2nd Goenka retreat?

Equanimity on my 2nd Goenka retreat?
Answer
9/2/20 7:48 AM
The following is transcribed from a written journal that I kept during the course of a 10 day Goenka retreat in November 2018. It is unedited aside from what is bracketed for clarification, and was not intended to be publicly shared, so please excuse any personal and sometimes explicit details of what my mind was up to. I didn’t omit anything as I’m not sure what might be useful in diagnosis or what could be useful to someone else in their own practice. At the time I had no knowledge of maps theory and had done no reading about Buddhism beyond very superficial pop sources in my teenage years, so the experiences shared are raw and unscripted. I have written my best-guess diagnosis in blue, referencing what is highlighted in bold


Primarily why I'm posting here is to get some more experienced opinions on if I reached equanimity on day 8 or if it sounds more like I dropped back down to A&P. Feel free to skip straight there if that's what you're interested in, as I understand this post is lengthy...

~~~

Day 3 is over. At tonight’s 6pm group sit I sat stone still for the first time. Aside from slowly straightening my back a couple of times, I only moved as much as I had to for shallow breath. I sat in a position I usually don’t last 15 minutes in, but I finally accepted that the only way to sit adhitan cross legged is to be stock still from first to last [I was experiencing a lot of pain, usually in knees, hips, and low back]. Every other time, as soon as I make some micro adjustment to try to relieve some pain or pressure its like the pain redoubles, the seal has been broken, and so has my determination. If I was going to make it through an hour without moving there could be no half measures.

This suggests that I may have been in three characteristics due to the predominance of intense pain that did not persist after concluding the meditation.   

After about 10 minutes the pain began; knees, hips, ankles, low back — all the usual spots. The intensity steadily crescendoed at what I can only guess to have been about 35 minutes. Time has no meaning when that kind of agony is present. Only, this time it wasn’t. The intensity of the sensation was no less than anytime before — if anything, I allowed it to build far past the point where I usually cave — but my mind remained calm and clear. This time I chose not to transform my physical pain into a mental pain. I knew, somehow, that the pain was not my pain, it just was there to be observed as objectively as any other phenomena of the contact between mind and matter. Then the pain began to subside in all but my lower back and a calm cool abiding sense of being suffused my lower body, leaving only a subtle reminder of the hot knives that had been there a moment before. Then, a wonderfully warm electric vibration began to spill out from the epicenters of where the pain had been. Like warm honey in space, the golden electric bliss filled my legs all the way up to the base of my spine, where some pain still stubbornly throbbed. I leaned forward ever so slightly and the bliss flowed through and into the pain and dissolved it without a trace. From there the golden electric bliss traveled up my spine and suffused every inch of my body until my whole form was merrily humming with golden light. Somewhere along the way, I realize I began to experience this process both sensationally — within the framework and boundaries of my physical body — but also as though witnessing myself from just behind where I was seated. What the witness saw was this golden light filling the form of my cross legged body and steadily becoming more luminous and complete until I was entirely golden light against the backdrop of starless space.

Here I believe I moved through three characteristics and into A&P due to the pain transitioning into a very blissful rapturous kundalini like experience of pleasant energy moving through my body and particularly up and down my spine. The dual perception of being in my body while simultaneously viewing it from behind seems like something that could be called a rapture (spontaneous powers?). Also, a marked increase in perceptual ability: I was able to easily rest my attention on the subtle vibrations occurring anywhere in my body. Alternatively, if this was not the A&P, I may have unintentionally dropped into 1st/2nd Jhanna. I have only limited experience with concentration states, but they didn’t really feel much like this, so it’s hard to say for sure. I think this is unlikely, but I acknowledge the possibility.

 
    Then, just as I was beginning to explore what it meant to be this being of golden light, just as I thought to begin scanning my body for the first time with a true free flow of subtle vibration, I began to resolidify. To my minds eye it was like the lights slowly coming on in a movie theatre at the same time as the golden light dimmed, and my perspective shifted back into looking at the back of my closed eyelids. In my body the pain resolidified, though more as as sharp insistent ache than the hot knives it had been. At this point we must have been about 40 minutes into the sit and my awareness refocused to be able to experience the uncomfortable rustling, heavy breathing, and sighs of 70 other fledgling meditators who had been — they felt — sitting on the floor for entirely too long. By the time Goenka started chanting I dare say I had begun to agree with them, but until the last hum of the final response of “sadhu!” had left my lips I did not move a muscle.

Here it seems that I did not pass an A&P “event”. I am unsure if I dropped back down into 3 characteristics as indicated by the re-solidifaction of pain, though at a much more manageable level — perhaps some afterglow of my brief foray into A&P territory -- or if this sounds more indicative of dissolution with some pain present. Is it possible to immediately backslide from an A&P experience, or once I’ve had any flavor of A&P, whether or not I had a distinct A&P “event” am I bound for dissolution??

~~~

    I recall now that before the full body electric bliss there was a ball of golden light with similar effect but limited radius that traveled from my right knee to my tailbone and then upward through my spine all the way to the top of my head. That almost felt like a probe or scout checking to make sure the way was clear for what was to follow. Now that i'm thinking about it, when this initial scouting energy occurred, it evoked the image of a hooded serpent slithering up my spine and wrapping its hood over the top of my head.

This sounds like a scripted description latching on to what I had heard about kundalini experiences. But, nevertheless, it could probably be categorized as rapturous. 

~~~

I just spoke with Roy (the AT) about the experience and got about the response I expected. He was adamant that the whole experience was meaningless and that I give it no importance. Moreover he asserted that it means I wasn’t practicing properly because I should have only been aware of the flow of respiration below my nostrils. I asked how to prevent developing any craving or attachment toward the experience. He told me “just set it aside.” I hear the wisdom in his rebuke, but what’s done is done. It remains one of the most profound experiences of my life and it serves as much needed encouragement to sit with strong determination and to continue working hard. And, as trivial as he believes it to be, I gained experiential insight into the nature of reality; both anicca and anatta.

Everything was rapidly and subtly vibrating in and out of existence and I had this split view of my experience that made the central point I would usually call “I” tricky to locate. 

~~~

    This morning I gained some insight into why it is important not to overeat and why to never eat after noon while seriously meditating. Not only does an overfull belly make meditation extremely uncomfortable, but digesting all that food kicks all of the body’s metabolic functions into overdrive. The most notable is the thunderous engine of my heart sending oxygen from my lungs to my digestive system and moving nutrients from my digestion throughout the rest of my body. Speaking of oxygen, the lungs have to work full time as well to keep up with all of those metabolic functions hungry for oxygen. Between a gurgling stomach, a thunderous heart, and the bellows pumping in my chest, it makes it challenging to observe the more elusive sensationslike the slight tingle or the whispered brush of air on the area below my nostrils and above my upper lip. Needless to say, I’ll be a bit more monkish about my portion control at lunch and I will probably be skipping the honey in my tea.

Heightened awareness in the afterglow of A&P? Also sounds a bit like dissolution territory as I was having a hard time identifying subtle sensations. Not sure what to make of the sensations of my bodily functions being perceived as so loud and clear, this doesn't seem to line up with dissolution characteristics very well.

~Day 4~

    That was a pitiful show of “strong determination”. I was squirming all over the place during the Vipassana instructions! I think I may know why though. I’ve noticed that after a lot of my especially agitated sits I get back to my room and find that I had an incredibly full bladder the whole time, but I’ve never noticed feeling like I’ve needed to pee in the hall. I guess thats what decades of practice holding it through movies and lectures does. So, my guess is that I have a threshold of how much sensation I can be experiencing, whether consciously or no, and not reacting to. If I’ve maxed out my capacity with a full bladder I won't be able to sit through much discomfort arising from the technique. I suppose I have a week to test my theory. At the least, it makes me feel a bit better abou squirming all over my mat for two hours just now.

Here I think I’m into Dissolution, though if its possible to fall back into 3C’s straight after entering A&P territory, that is also a possibility. The pain is back, though not nearly as strong as it was in 3 C’s. More than pain though, I remember noticing an inability to focus and connect with the practice. Squirming all over the place, as described because I was having trouble staying focused and keeping my attention on the object. Even the slightest disturbance, pain, itch, etc., seemed like sufficient cause to change positions, get up and leave the hall, etc. 
Another reason I wonder about falling back to 3C’s is that I have another A&P-like experience on day 8, though its possible that it was actually equanimity, its hard to say. I’ve also just read Florian’s post about “center of gravity” and “cutting edge” with regard to backsliding, though I can’t say I fully understand it. Is it possible that my “cutting edge” hit A&P territory but my center of gravity remained in 3C’s, pulling me back down?

~Day 5~

    Well, I think this is what they call a “storm”. I must have uncovered some buried shit this morning because ever since the first group sit I have just had one unwholesome thought after another boiling to the surface; lust, anger, ill-will, animosity, depression, self condemnation, regret, sorrow — did I leave any out? Mostly it has been centered around how my relationship to sex has ruined most of the could-have-been meaningful friedships I might have had; Tenra, Jessie, Brittany, Rachel, Brenda, Rebecca, Katarina, Mary... the list does go on, but I wont. This is some deep rooted stuff unfortunately, so it may be a while before it all comes to the surface. Justin [older childhood next door neighbor] kindly taught me to think of women as sex objects at an age when I should have still thought they had cooties. I distinctly remember pouncing forward in my second grade classroom to sneak a look up my teacher's skirt. I know I was regularly masturbating before I was old enough to to be producing any semen. I dont think that’s normal. I hope not. And I’m still caught in the pattern. I’ve been planning for weeks how to get into bed with Amanda since I know she’s as sex starved as I am. I’ve been daydreaming about Emily since Ojai too and hoping that either her boyfriend doesn’t care or that she won't tell him so that she and I can sleep together. Really, I’m just lonely. I just want to love someone and to be loved, but I keep mistaking sex for love and wondering why I never feel any less empty inside afterwards. Hopefully the storm passes and I can actually move beyond this vicious cycle.

Increased occurrence of my “stuff coming up” suggests dark night, not sure exactly where to place this as I didn’t write much about the sensory experience here, found it very difficult to get away from mental content. 


~Day 6~

Q: What’s the difference between part-by-part and slow flow?
A: They serve the same purpose — to thoroughly examine each part of the body. The difference between that and a free flow isi that free flow moves quickly through the body, often simultaneously, at a rate of between one minute and one breath per scan.

Q: What is subtle sensation?
A: It is sensation that rapidly or at least noticeably arises and passes away while being observed, contrasted with gross sensation that seems constant, that doesn’t seem to change during one period of observation. These occur on a spectrum of frequency and intensity from intens and seemingly constant pain to feeble and rapid vibration. There may also occur intense subtle sensation (like the electric bliss) and feeble gross sensation (blindness) [last sentence is my inference]

Q: Any importance to posture other than to have a straight back and neck?
A: The importance of a straight spine is simply to stay alert and attentive. As for posture, different postures may bring up different sensations, but one is not preferable to another. Continue working with a variety of postures and see what comes up. Just because the sensations while kneeling are comparatively feeble to sitting doesn’t mean you should avoid working in this way.

Q: I had a lot of unwholesome and negative thoughts come up yesterday. Is this normal? Do I just keep working as usual?
A: Completely normal. This is the effect of the practice. As deep rooted complexes come up on the surface of the body so to do they rise to the surface of the mind. Every mental object has a sensational correlation. The key is not to roll in or react to these thoughts and feelings when they come to the surface. Do your best to observe them objectively and allow them to pass away without multiplying them or driving them back into the depths of the mind.

~~~

    I’m finding that a slightly regulated breath increases concentration, equanimity, and disassociation tremendously. I understand that this is not the bare natural breath, but it is certainly a useful tool to get out of a tight spot during adhittana [I was experiencing a lot of pain here that lead to me trying to “breathe through it”].Moreover, I scanned twice as quickly and much more thoroughly while using the breath than with unregulated breath. Also, I could alternate between a quick continuous shallow breath and a floaty state where I didnt hardly need to breathe at all. I think the first breath hyperoxygenated my blood to a point where I really didn’t need to breath at all. This made moving through areas that are usually somewhat blind much easier as I didnt have the motion and sensation of breathing to distract me and mask the more feeble sensations. That was pretty cool. Maybe there is a middle path that will allow me to work back toward a natural breath while still maintaining the hightened awareness and equanimity. I may look back on this and laugh at my foolishness, but I never have been one to take the words of wise men on faith alone — I like jumping into and climbing out of pits, it seems.

Sounds like I may be back in 3C’s territory here just judging by the pain coupled with relatively strong concentration. That, or I’ve progressed to fear which can also have these characteristics.

~Day 7~

    My sila slipped today. It started when, after shaving, I started squeezing all my blackheads out. Once I had my teeth sunk into that old compulsive habit, it wasn’t long before I was masturbating and imagining Emily’s perfect breasts from the evening we spent together in the hot tub. Some time later I thoughtlessly rinsed some ants down the drain when I found them eating the honey residue in the bottom of my mug. It seems that one thing leads to another when you compromise your morality.    This time, however, rather than feeling dejected and like I had ruined the whole weeks work, I thought, “okay, lets actually observe how this impacts my practice” where before I would have just spiraled into a self sabotaging mess. That next sit was more agitated, I had absolutely disturbed the balance of my mind, but because I didn’t dwell in it I was able to regain my balance by the end of the hour and the practice did become strong and focused again.    Storms are bound to arise. Do your best not to let them overpower you. But, when they do, haul your ass out of the water and back into the boat and get to the helm — it’s the only way to get where you’re trying to go.

~Day 8~

This morning I experienced the misery inherent in the nature of the world of impermanent things and of our endless cycle of becoming. It does truly feel that the bones of all my loved ones would stack higher than mountains and that my tears would fill great oceans. I know there is a way out of suffering — that the Dhamma offers true peace, happiness, and liberation from this titanic endless misery — but what began all of this misery in the first place? What is it all for? A mistake? Did god allow an impure thought to cross his mind — that all that is could be divisible and impermanent?
    During the morning group sitting I encountered the mental object: If I devote myself to Dhamma and take robes as a monk I may never be allowed to hug my mother again. To this thought the next arose: no matter what you do there will come a time when you will never be able to hug your mother again. She too will eventually die and now that you have decided not to kill yourself you will most likely survive her [prior to discovering Vipassana some months before I had been having recurring suicidal thoughts]. So many tears. So much sorrow. So much grief, loss, heartache. The thought arose: I love my father so much. He has given me so much, shown me so much, it is because of his path that my path became joined with the Dhamma. He too will someday surely die. Perhaps in 5 years. 10? 20? Surely before I am 50 my father will be gone. He was my first teacher, my guide, my shepherd, and will walkways remain my truest friend. We are cut from the same cloth, my father and I. So, we have been blessed to teach each other so much about the weaving of our lives. But, as the fremen proverb wisely recalls, “to all weaving there is an end.” I hope they pass together, that neither has to face life without the other. For all the wonderful qualities they each possess, it is their love for one another that is the most beautiful. They are together greater than the sum of their parts. Together they are more than whole, more than complete, together they overflow, together they open a gateway to the divine.
    All of this is true. What’s more, this tragic truth does not remain confined to my parents or even of all the ones that I love. All beings that are born must die and when they do their loved ones must go on with only a fading memory to hold them by. All beings that have ever passed through this plane of existence have spent their whole lives wrapped in this ocean of sorrow.
    If I am to find any joy in this world I must make peace with the fundamental nature of all things — anicca. All attachment to impermanent things will end only in misery. So really, if I seek to escape the misery of, ‘one day I will never hug my mother again,’ I must devote myself to Dhamma. I must eradicate all of the impurities and break all of the shackles of attachment.
    But, so far I have been selfish. I have only thought of my sorrow, my suffering, the loss of my loved ones. To make this life worth living is to help others find the way out of suffering — that will be the work of my life.

Sounds like nearly textbook misery to me, tapping into the universal ocean of sorrow is about right. There's definitely a flavor of desire for deliverance in there as well though, as the whole thing was spurred by me thinking of taking monastic vows. I'm sure thoughts of renunciation aren't exclusive to DfD, but it would help to frame what happens next...

~~~

    I think that may have been what they call total dissolution [this is before I had any familiarity with maps terminology]. I stayed stone still for another sit and hit the bliss point after 35 mins with rapid scanning during the last 5 minutes. After 30 seconds or so of bliss it was like everything stopped. All the sensations cleared. I stayed in my body the whole time and could still hear and sense my body moving, but the 35 minutes of building intensity went back to zero. It was like coming to the eye of a hurricane — everything was perfectly still. There was no bliss but there was no pain either. Then I began to notice a very soft hum permeating my body, finer, subtler than any other sensation I have ever observed. It was like the vacuum chamber that displays the fluctuations of dark matter/energy. Like all of the material had to be sucked out and then the finest instruments are required to detect the subtle hum of existence phasing in and out of being. Once in this state, the only thought I seemed to be able to form was, “changing” and “no solidity”. These words played over and over again, seemingly of their own accord. These are the words I used to get myself through the last intense moments of gross sensation before the bliss overcame them. Maybe this is why Goenka is so adamant that we don’t use a mantra — it may take you to serenity, but it wont allow the mind to dissolve with the body. I did remember to keep scanning my body during both the bliss and the calm, though it was difficult to stay focused on it just due to the novelty of the experience. I wanted to explore the new landscape I had come upon. I wanted to know if I was still capable of experiencing unwholesome thoughts. For some time all I could manage was “changing” and “no solidity”. Eventually I came up with “Death” before realizing that this is just another aspect of arising and passing away. Finally, I conjured the word “fuck” and decided I had had enough of that little experiment.
    After some time in this state of stillness — and not long after thinking ‘fuck’ — some small twinges of gross sensations in my leg began to return. Unlike my first experience of bliss on Day 3, however, none of the rest of the sensation returned for the rest of the sit.It truly felt like the slate had been wiped clean and I was starting fresh. It didn’t even just feel like the first few minutes of a sit, it felt like I had soaked all my aches and tensions away at a hot spring for a few days and by the end of the hour I had just started to notice a subtle tension in my leg. I can understand now how master meditators can sit for so long at a stretch. I imagine you could go for hours like that, letting tensions build and then wiping them away — build, wipe, build, wipe. If this is what Goenka has been talking about with allowing old sankaras to come to the surface and then eradicating them, I get it. Consider it experientially understood. I think I’m going to be sitting much more still from here on out. I’m sure there will continue to be ups and downs, but now I know how to work.

As far as I can guess this was either A&P again or I had been in re-observation and crossed over to equanimity. Certainly NOT fruition, as I remained aware of my body throughout. It was markedly less energetic and amazing than the A&P experience on day 3, much more calm, still, peaceful. Like being in a high alpine meadow and just appreciating the stillness of it all. My feeling is equanimity, but hard to say for sure. Any input here would certainly be welcome.

~Day 9~

    A new suite of sankaras seems to have come to the surface after the old ones were cleared out last night. Notably, less easy free flow, mostly blind left arm and left side of the face, and some odd numb heaviness on the right side of my face. This whole process does feel uncannily similar to that old brick breaker video game — slowly chipping away at the bricks until you clear a stage, fireworks, celebration, and a new set of bricks drops down, “start again…”
    I’m curious if it is possible to draw connections between sankaras and their origin. It makes sense to me that aversion manifests as intense solidified unpleasant sensations — similar to what caused the initial sankara. For me it seems that craving must manifest as blind, misty, hazy areas; experiences that are likely to make me crave for sensations, for easy flow, bliss, and serenity. The more I crave those transcendent experiences (and try though I might, I have been craving them) the more blindness will manifest and the more challenging practice will become. Also, i'm wondering if the location on the body has anything to do with the origin. It would make sense to me that my blind left arm (and genitals come to think of it) could be rooted in about 20 years of daily masturbation with that hand… hmm…
    Well, at least now I know how to work properly and I feel comfortable that after my winter at the center I won’t lose my practice . I am tempted to take it a step further though. I’m considering spending a year as a lay monk; taking the eight precepts, keeping my head shaved, and attempting to see how it changes things to be totally pure for a year. No sex, no masturbation, no mind altering substances, no reading or watching TV for entertainment (I’ll get plenty of studying done). If I’m serious about this path — and I think that I am — I think that would be a valuable trial to see what life as a monk might be like. I’ll add no intentionally looking at myself in the mirror, engaging in any self harm, or eating after 6pm. I should probably just read the over the monks precepts and select those that seem applicable. Before I get overzealous though I had better get through at least one 10 day without breaking any of the rules or disregarding the timetable. I’m really curious to learn about zen practice as well. I could see the melding of zen life with Vipassana meditation as an extremely well rounded approach to mindful life.

Assuming my experience the day before was A&P I’ve probably moved forward into dark night or if it was equanimity then I probably slipped back into dark night. Sounds like re-observation or desire for deliverance (considering the thoughts of renunciation)

~~~

    Just spoke with Roy. He didn't seem surprised at the experience of stillness after the pain and bliss, and he counseled that when I find myself there that I must still my mind, not engage in any awe or wonder, and stay with sensations — they are there even if they’re subtle. He also mentioned that if I find myself outside of my body that I must return to work within the framework of the body. He also said that some slight mental verbalization is okay — changing, no solidity, every moment aware, every moment equanimous, etc. — so long as I don’t make it a constant practice.

~~~~~~~~~

My deep gratitude to anyone who has read this far and can offer any useful feedback, or simply to any who might find something useful here that may help them in their own practice. If it does indeed seem that I managed to reach equanimity on day 8 of a Goenka retreat, and I must admit I was only really powering it at about 80% effort, that's might be a feather in Goenka's cap. That said, if I had more skillful guidance in reporting and understanding what was going on in my practice I might have stabilized the equanimity and made better use of the 2 following 10 day courses that I sat that winter. Or maybe I was just flopping around in the general vicinity of A&P for most of the retreat. Advice, conjecture, criticism? all are welcome.