Eric: Practice Log

Eric Abrahamsen, modified 7 Months ago.

Eric: Practice Log

Posts: 13 Join Date: 6/9/21 Recent Posts
Okay, I guess I'll give this a shot after all, though I don't know if I'll keep it up or not. I don't expect to post anything like every day, maybe just every few weeks as things seem to be changing. Who knows!
Eric Abrahamsen, modified 7 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

Posts: 13 Join Date: 6/9/21 Recent Posts
So this is my "where I'm at" introductory post. I've been meditating seriously for about a year and a half, now trying to up my sits from a half-hour to an hour, with mixed success. I believe I'm somewhere in Cause and Effect -- at least, I'm quite sure I've gone through Mind and Body, and don't think I've reached Three Characteristics, so Cause and Effect it is! I can manage a halfway-decent first jhana, but that's all.

My main practical difficulty is posture: I have a *very* longstanding mobility issue with my SI joint/hip joint/psoas muscle on the left side, which makes it nearly impossible to sit cross-legged. I cant way over to the right, and need to work just to keep from falling sideways. I know we're supposed to lean into the physical challenges, but... it seems a little extreme. So I've been meditating in a kneeling position, sitting on a yoga block, and that works pretty well. I've been slowly addressing the mobility problem with a combination of taiji, stretching and weights, and it's been very interesting to see the direct correlation between increased physical relaxation and the ability to concentrate. The muscles in my hip let go one tiny step at a time, each relaxation happens in the space of a moment, and there's almost an immediate reflection in the calmness of my mind.

In terms of actual meditation, my main issue now is making a distinction between concentration practice and insight practice. So far I've been occupied with the basic work of dealing with mind-wandering and dullness, and it's only in the past couple of months that I've got enough concentration that I can actually decide what to do with it. I think my sits have been a kind of mashup of concentration and insight, and I'm considering maybe separating them into two different sessions per day.

I'm naturally inclined towards concentration, and am enjoying progression into the jhanas, but I feel a bit more lost when it comes to insight: I don't have an intuitive sense of what I'm doing or where it's leading me. I try examining the breath sensations at the nose very closely, trying to see them as coming in discrete moments or vibrations. But most of my physical sensations seem to ripple or buzz or sizzle whether I'm meditating or not, and I can't tell the difference between static in my nervous system and Glorious Insight into the Ultimate Nature of Sensate Reality. Presumably I just need to stick with it.

It's weird: the exhale sensation of air on my upper lip and pressure on the tip of my nose is very obviously buzzing or oscillating, but on the inhale, the sensation of cold and dryness inside my nostrils (which is the strongest of the inhale sensations) isn't vibratory at all, it's completely steady. I suspect that none of this rippling or buzzing actually corresponds to direct perception of discrete sensations.

So I might use something other than the breath, and I'm trying to figure out what. Physical sensations in taiji practice would be an obvious choice, as kind of an analogue of walking meditation, but it might be a little "much"; that's a lot of input, and it might be better to start with something more limited. I'm considering using sound sensations instead, as I've had some luck with completely filling my awareness with the full range of incoming sounds. I can often hear voices and conversations where I am, and a few times I've been able to focus so closely on the sounds of voices that I do not understand what they're saying. For someone usually very attuned to language, I was sort of amazed I was able to do that, and it made me think that might be a good direction to go in.

Anyway, that's where I'm at!
George S, modified 7 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

Posts: 2197 Join Date: 2/26/19 Recent Posts
Hi Eric,

Congratulations for taking the plunge and starting a log! I hope you find what you are looking for :-)

​​​​​​​I mostly sit in a chair when I meditate. I've heard reports of people making impressive progress sitting on the couch! The main thing is that you are comfortable without falling asleep (although that sometimes happens too and it can be interesting).
Eric Abrahamsen, modified 7 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

Posts: 13 Join Date: 6/9/21 Recent Posts
Ha! Thankfully falling asleep hasn't been an issue yet (probably that means I need to practice more). I actually really like the kneeling posture, as it's very easy to keep a straight, balanced spine, and I find that has helped with keeping my energy up. I still rely very much on my body to support, energize, and guide my mind.

Thanks for your response!
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Kaloyan Stefanov, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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I made tremendous progress slouching on the couch and gazing at candles and the red led-light of the TV - I am not joking. And of course, this is not a recommendation emoticon

I probably did 95% of the Vipassana heavy lifting couch-slouching, lying down and walking.
Eric Abrahamsen, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

Posts: 13 Join Date: 6/9/21 Recent Posts
Not too much to report on the practice itself, as I seem to be at a bit of plateau: focus on the breath is steady, but the babble of thought and narration won't quite go away. Just working on it.

In the meantime, I've been thinking a bit about how we get started with practice. I have a few friends who I talk to about this sort of thing, and since I've started meditating seriously of course I nag them about starting too -- these are guys who've said off and on over the years that they've always meant to try. I've been thinking about how difficult it is simply to make that initial decision, that you're going to commit to giving it a shot.

I made a sudden connection between that, and what so many dharma books tell you about the beginning of practice: that the first step is one of morality/sila. That never made much sense to me; or rather the instructions always seemed to be something like: "You must first set aside your raging anger, stop sleeping with the neighbor's wife, and come to terms with the hate in your heart, only then can you start working on concentration". That always puzzled me; I don't feel like I'm particularly consumed by anger or hate, and I don't sleep with my neighbor's wife.

But as time passed I realized that the reluctance to practice *is* a moral issue: we (my friends and I) are accustomed to a life of mild irresponsibility, reacting passively to things, not quite stepping up to the plate. The resolution to meditate is difficult because it requires assuming responsibility, facing life, doing what needs to be done. It looks like retreat, but it's actually an advance. It looks like inaction, but actually it is action. And it's difficult to rouse yourself to action.

So that's our moral issue. In Buddhist terms, we're beset not so much by the defilements of attraction or aversion, but by that of ignorance. That comfortable numbness; procrastination; the pleasure of inaction. So maybe it's "sila first" after all...
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Kaloyan Stefanov, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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Hey Eric, great that you decided to start a log and good luck with your practice! Indeed, posture only important in as much as it needs to be comfortable. We all have these ideas of what spiritual postures should look like, better throw these out and stick to what works for you.

"Sila" is better translated as something like skillful action. "Morality" is such a bad translation for that word. Indeed, maintaining a regular practice, setting the right intentions for that practice (e.g. "May I awaken for the benefit of all"), creating the space and time for that practice whilst also keeping things afloat in daily life is skillful action.

What you comment on - sensations buzzing or sizzling etc. is exactly Vipassana / Insight. If you use the 3 characteristics as framework, what you clearly see when you pay attention to these individual sensory impulses is:
1) They come and go, not a single sensation is permanent, nothing lasts.
2) They come and go on their own, in a perfectly causal way. There is the attention towards the sensation at the nose, then there is the sensation of the breath at the nose, then there is the mental impression of that sensation. There is No self (Agent, center, perciever, observer) somehow linked to these sensations
3) Sensations don't provide lasting satisfaction. Everything seems to be fundamentally dissatisfactory in that sense.

Do not hesitate to use also thoughts as objects, using this same framework. If you are skilled at jhana already, and can raise to e.g. 3rd jhana, you should be able to "objectify" the thought stream relatively easily as well. (3rd jhana not a requirement fot this, but it makes it easier for a lot of people) Here are these thoughts, they come and go on their own, "I" seem to be observing them, but not thinking them. Upon further investigation you can also see that this "I" observing is also just a bunch of sensations.

Let us know how we can help emoticon Good luck!
Eric Abrahamsen, modified 4 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

Posts: 13 Join Date: 6/9/21 Recent Posts
Thanks very much for this reply!

I definitely feel like the terminology gets in the way a bit, in the beginning, but I also don't see any good way around it: in such an old tradition, with centuries of discourse built up around it, the translations are bound to be inadequate (I'm a translator, and very aware of these problems).

Generally I'd prefer to get familiar with some of the Pali terms and just use them directly: like sila or dukkha or whatnot. Metta is another: the term "loving-kindness" was so annoying to me when I first read it (and the idea of "being happy for everybody" seemed so fatuous) that I didn't do any metta practice for the first year or more of meditating. But plain old concentration practice kind of edged me in that direction (I think because it led to me feeling metta for myself first), and when I finally just tried it it was *such* a powerful experience, almost a kind of relief, it brought tears to my eyes. Not something I ever would have expected.

Anyway, I don't see any easy solution to that problem!

Thanks very much for the tips on vipassana (another term where I'd just rather use the Pali). That's really helpful just to have the confirmation that I'm headed in the right direction. When I wrote my previous log I think I was in one of those "ahead of the game" periods where you're having experiences that are ahead of your "real" level, and now I'm in the opposite: annoyed and distracted, unable to get into any jhana at all, and just grinding along trying to stay focused on the breath. But still doing it!

Your pointers are very welcome, and will be useful once I get out of this trough emoticon
Adi Vader, modified 2 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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Metta (Pali), Maitri (Sanskrit) means friendship. The practice of metta means to cultivate a spirit of friendship in your heart towards yourself and other folks who make up your world.

If you consider any ordinary friendship and take the aspects of competition and jealousy out of it ... what remains is metta. A deep desire that your friends (yourself included) are happy and do well in life.

Loving kindness is a very bad translation. If one must have a two word phrase then benevolent friendliness, or friendly benevolence is more like it.
Eric Abrahamsen, modified 2 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

Posts: 13 Join Date: 6/9/21 Recent Posts
No enormous leaps to report, but some really solid incremental progress. I feel like I’m finally leaving behind the “effortful” stage of early meditation. No longer does it feel like I’m learning to ride a bike: wobble along on top of it for twenty seconds and then tip over; wobble and tip over; wobble and tip over. I still swerve from time to time, but I can more or less keep my mind in line without feeling like I’m exhausting myself. I haven’t really tried pushing past forty-five-minute sits yet, but I feel like I ought to be able to manage an hour to an hour and a half without too much trouble. Getting into a base state of concentration is also much faster, and much less dependent on my mood at the time, where I find myself, whether I’ve just had some annoying experiences, etc. All that might make it a little easier or a little harder, depending, it might take a bit longer, but I can always get there reliably. It’s a really nice sense of progress, and makes me think it’s time to try a retreat.

A big challenge earlier this year was (in TMI terms) subtle dullness: I would often catch myself losing mental energy and focus, starting to fuzz out. I think I’ve largely overcome this, but I’m having a related uncertainty now: as my mind gets closer to real quiet, I feel like I might be ready to move towards single-pointed focus, but I’m not sure I can tell the difference between single-pointed focus and a return of subtle dullness. As I have little stretches of real mental quiet (nothing happening at all mentally, at least for a few seconds at a time) and deepen my focus on breath sensations, I feel my awareness of other sensations start to drop off completely – it’s like a sudden mental “dip”, almost a bit vertiginous. I have no idea what that is: whether it’s the onset of single-pointed focus, or it’s my mind trying to go to sleep. I guess I’m suspicious of it because it’s reminiscent of that moment, as you’re falling asleep, when your senses start shutting down. Anyway, that’s been a bit of a question. Not particularly frustrating, though, as I’m happy just practicing staying steady on the bicycle.

I’ve also made a bit of progress in the insight direction: for one, a dramatic increase in the richness and detail of my perception of breath sensations. I’ve had a few sits that were quite extraordinary: like the entire front half of my face became this incredibly fine-grained sensor. I could feel the tiniest tug at the skin between my eyes, and the way that changing pressure registered in my gums and teeth. Very surprising. Not every sit is like that, but more and more, and having the memory of that sensitivity to work towards is very helpful.

Another was an insight that came yesterday. I’d done concentration meditation in the morning, and last night decided to do another short sit before sleep. I’d been thumbing through both TMI and MCTB, and coincidentally in both books had landed on sections on noting, and that seemed like a fine thing to spend half an hour on. Very soon after starting I had a very clear realization that the thoughts and emotions and imagery that I was noting were fundamentally no different than physical sensations I was noting. An image of something that happened yesterday hit my mind in exactly the same way as the perception of a car horn honking outside. That was a nice realization, as it suddenly made it much easier to stay “here and now”: even memories and images of other places and other times only existed at this very moment, in this exact spot. They seemed to be drawing me “elsewhere”, but there was actually no elsewhere to go.

After about ten minutes more, that realization rather suddenly applied itself to ideas regarding my self. I saw how memories of my past, and plans for my future, were no different than any of these other momentary sensations. I’d conceived of myself as somehow “smeared” through time and space, existing coherently in all the times and places I had been, and all the times and places I would be. For a bit, I could see that this was wrong. I was more like a two-dimensional plane, moving through a stream of sensations that were striking my surface. There really was no before or after.

Basically, the sort of idea you can read about in almost every single dharma book out there, but that doesn’t really hit you until you have the insight.

That led very quickly to a real anxiety about death (possibly the first non-hypothetical, non-conceptual, actual gut fear of death I’ve ever experienced?). If I don’t exist in all those other times and places, then there’s not a hell of a lot to “me”; I’m just a tiny volume of space, and a single half-moment. There’s barely anything separating me existing versus not existing! I’ve read about how your mind is likely to recoil at first from real Insight, but this was the first time I’ve experienced that discomfort. “Clinging to self”, I see you! I spent the rest of the sit continuing to prod at that discomfort, like a sore tooth. I’m looking forward to trying again today.
George S, modified 2 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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Nice. I think of it as the fear of death being manufactured to try to re-establish the supposed existence of the one who it is assumed would be dying. (I'm talking about the existential fear of death here, the fear of not existing, rather than physical pain.)
Eric Abrahamsen, modified 2 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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I think you're right – it's not actually fear of death so much as fear of non-existence. The fear is basically this concept of the self, attempting to protect itself.

And I realized my initial account was fairly blithe in the retelling – it really was a frightening experience, and I got away from the sensation quick as I could. It was only after recovering for a bit (and probably starting to forget what it really felt like) that I began trying to get it back. And I totally failed when I tried again the next day!
George S, modified 2 Months ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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The fear is basically this concept of the self, attempting to protect itself.

Yes, shargrol calls it "defending what doesn't need to be defended".

It can be unnerving at first, but the mind gets used to it and gradually it becomes liberating emoticon

With these kind of insights, I always find it helpful to remind myself that really it's nothing new - it's seeing the way things already are or what's already been going on. The problem is the pattern of past denial or resistance to seeing what's really been going on, and in some sense the initial shock of the insight is proportional to the scale of the resistance/denial. There's quite a good book called The Denial of Death which explores the ramifications of this in a wider psychological and socio-cultural context.

[Edited for clarity]
Eric Abrahamsen, modified 28 Days ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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I wanted to record something that actually happened a couple months ago, I’m not sure why I didn’t write it down at the time.

I hardly ever do walking meditation, but when I do it’s almost always very fruitful (so… do more walking meditation!). The last time I did it was walking around a lake near my house, 2.8 miles altogether, it usually takes me 35-40 minutes, though obviously this time much longer. It’s a heavily-used park, so I stuck to the very edge of the path to stay out of people’s way, and tried not to look too much like I was high or something.

I just focused on the sensations of the feet, and it took ten or fifteen minutes to get into access concentration. I started having some pretty interesting sensory distortions: occasionally feeling like I was perfectly still, and just pulling the world past me with my feet; weird vertiginous “swoops” and “dips”, like the ground was billowing under me; being able to pick out all objects in my visual field that happened to be moving at the same speed in the same direction; an expanded point of focus, so that as I looked at a jogger I saw his whole body at once, equally focused on all parts of him from feet to head, rather than a single visual point.

Anyway, all fun and games! But I had two good vipassana moments as well. The first came as I was enjoying this heightened sensitivity to sensory input, and I thought to myself that these sensations were all I was – there was no self beyond the sensations. It seemed to me that I was like a house where the lights were on, the curtains blowing, water running from the tap, but there was nobody home, nobody living there. I said to myself a few times, “there’s nobody home”, and for a few seconds at a time was able to know that that was true.

It was weird – sort of like trying to balance on a bicycle. You pedal, and balance, and for a brief moment you have the real insight, and then you “fall off” the feeling, and are left merely believing intellectually that it’s true, but no longer seeing it. Then you try again, get back on the bicycle, and for a few more seconds you know it, then you fall off again.

Further around the lake I had another bit of insight, this one more in the direction of impermanence. I was enjoying this feeling that all of reality was simply a constant stream of sensations, that was washing over me as I passed through the world. I could see then that this was all my life had ever been, and all it would ever be: just a constant, never-ending stream of sensations. Until the moment I died, this would be it.

It was the same sort of thing: I knew this to be true, could see that it was true, for a few seconds at a time, and then I would lose it. I attempted the idea several more times, and then I was home again.
George S, modified 27 Days ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

Posts: 2197 Join Date: 2/26/19 Recent Posts
Nice insights, nice description emoticon
Martin, modified 27 Days ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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Very nice! I like the bicycle analogy. (Also, I suddenly want to do some walking meditation in a park.)
Eric Abrahamsen, modified 27 Days ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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A friend and I were talking about the very strange nature of insight: how it's a kind of knowledge that you have to practice knowing.

Insight feels oddly balanced between the mental and physical realms: it's knowledge, in that it's kind of information about the nature of self and reality, but the process of attaining it is more akin to exercise or some other physical discipline, where long-term repetition leads to some transformation of your material make-up. Weird stuff!
George S, modified 27 Days ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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The body knows a lot more than we think!
Eric Abrahamsen, modified 27 Days ago.

RE: Eric: Practice Log

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I've always thought that was true, but meditation practice has really driven it home!

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