Meditation Burnout

William Albert, modified 2 Years ago at 7/8/21 12:31 AM
Created 2 Years ago at 7/8/21 12:31 AM

Meditation Burnout

Posts: 7 Join Date: 2/5/21 Recent Posts
I could really use some advice on my situation.

I've been meditating for about 1 year now.  The first 6 months I did a combination of Kriya breathwork / pranayama-type breathing and self-inquiry, for about 30-45 min per day.  In January I started MCTB and switched to Vipassana-style noting for 1+ hrs a day.  Within a few weeks, I had some fairly intense experiences (often at night in my dream) which felt like visions (possibly some kind of A&P).  I felt like I then entered a Dark Night phase, and struggled with lots of negativity.  Knowing the maps, I kept meditating hard and eventually felt like I entered a much more peaceful place.  However, I fell back over and over into DN-type territory, and basically kept just trying to climb out.  At some point, just for the heck of it, I tried concentration instead of Vipassana, and to my surprise, was able to quickly move from 1st to 2nd to 3rd Jhana using my clasped hands as a meditation object, eventually switching to other things like the feeling of space, my whole body, etc. (my assessment based on the feel of effort and the shape of attention).  This occurred on several occasions.  This space felt profoundly silent, peaceful, isolated... like I was in a giant cavern of consciousness.  I remember my bladder and my numb legs being the only limitation to how long I wanted to stay there.

For context, I also started a stressful job in business in January which requires 60ish hour work weeks.  In order to pursue my consciousness goals, I often meditated after long 12 hour days or on breaks from work.  About 2 months ago I tried to go back to the Jhanas I had been able to access before and couldn't get anywhere, even after an hour of sitting.  I tried again, and again, with increasing frustration.  At some point, I basically tried to "force it" by really laser-beaming my focus onto the meditation object (still no luck).  The next day, my brain felt fried.  This area in my inner brain (like a circular area on the inside edge of each hemisphere) felt massively tired, and was perceived to be the part of my brain responsible for directing attention.

I rested it for 3 or 4 days, and felt almost no improvement.  I went back to meditating and working, and found both VERY difficult.  My ability to focus attention was shot.  I could barely focus on tasks at work, even had a hard time paying attention to simple things like tv shows.  My meditation ability plumeted.  Even Vipassana felt very foggy and slow.  Emotional processing got really backed up, and I started having anxiety (which I've never had) and other difficulties at work.  Every time I attempted even the most gentle concentration within meditation, it just feels like running on dead batteries.  This has continued for the last 6 weeks or so with almost no improvement (and even gotten worse, I'd say).  I've taken multiple consecutive days off and tried very hard to meditation gently and apply very little effort, but it hasn't helped.

I'm pretty worried.  It feels like my progress has come to a crashing halt and I'm concerned that I've really hurt my brain.  I'd appreciate any advice or experience--it's very hard to find ANYTHING on the internet related to this besides just generic articles on work-related burnout.  What should I do?  How long could this take to get better?
Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 2 Years ago at 7/8/21 1:36 AM
Created 2 Years ago at 7/8/21 1:36 AM

RE: Meditation Burnout

Posts: 7134 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
First of all, I'm sorry that you are going through such a hard time. 

I don't know all the answers, but might be able to normalize some of it. Concentration at the jhana level is something that takes continuous practice to maintain. If we are really focused in our vipassana and all other conditions are favorable, that can be sufficient training to make it as accessible as it was for you, but it doesn't last unless we keep it going. This can be very disconcerting, but it doesn't in itself mean that we have fried our brain.

Forcing it probably didn't help, though, so resting after that was a good idea. Clinging to previous experiences and striving to get somewhere are common traps in the practice. It sounds like a break from that might be good, so your intuitions there are good. Maybe switch to metta for a while? And also make sure that you get enough sleep, healthy food, some daylight and fresh air, some mild exercise, and restful nature experiences or whatever helps you regenerate. Maybe some vitamine B complex? Well, you probably already know that. 

What you are describing sounds like it could be a more intense experience of the dukkha nanas. Suddenly being unable to focus is quite common. I can't give you a time prognosis, though, and I also can't rule out a burnout. A stressful job with long days could in itself be a sufficient cause for a burnout, and too much striving in the practice can cause burnout too. 

It might be helpful to reach out to Daniel in an email. 

​​​​​​​My very best wishes for your wellbeing! 
streamsurfer, modified 2 Years ago at 7/8/21 3:00 AM
Created 2 Years ago at 7/8/21 3:00 AM

RE: Meditation Burnout

Posts: 100 Join Date: 1/19/16 Recent Posts
Hello William,
first of all: you are fine, don't worry, it's all gonna be back to normal in a while and your brain is not (forever) fried. emoticon
What you describe is typical for the dukka nhanas, as Linda said. You are investing more an more effort into the practice, but it seems like things are getting worse and you are stuck. This feeling as if one is finally completely broken and crazy, it's all exhausting. Also the ability to hit deep and stable jhanas can be diminished when you are in a certain vipassana realm. This is not what your abilities are, but what your temporary state is. It will be better once you progress into equanimity, but the question is how you gonna get there:

I see that you are having a warrior lifestyle right now: you work like crazy (which is exhausting) and you practice vipassana diligently (which is also demanding and exhausting). You have two options: 1- continue like this and get the fruits of work and practice AND suffer a lot (you reliably will if you do insight, insight, insight) or 2- find some balance in your approach, have a healthy life and nevertheless get the fruits. emoticon
It's a long term thing. There's no win in cruhsing it at the cushion, but burning out and neglecting all your real world needs. In the end, you practice to live. What do you do if you are fully enlightened? Same things as usual. Nothing special here.
So, if you want to stick with vipassana, you could reduce your daily practice time. The dukka nhanas will (probably) not be as intense as now. Or, you can do a mix of concentration and vipassana. Also, body sensitive practices like yoga or tai chi are very useful to prevent re-traumatization through practice. On the dukka nhanas you can read the chapter of MCTB2 (again). Daniel writes a lot about what to expect, how to pass it, how to deal with it. It's just GOLD if you are in difficult territory.

It's a marathon, not a sprint. You go further with practicing 50% of our capacities every day for your whole life instead of doing 120% for a year and then stop completely because your health and life is f***** and you quit. Not that the warrior approach can not be cool, but it needs to fit in our lives. 
Kaloyan Stefanov, modified 2 Years ago at 7/8/21 5:21 AM
Created 2 Years ago at 7/8/21 5:21 AM

RE: Meditation Burnout

Posts: 83 Join Date: 2/18/21 Recent Posts
Sounds very dark-nightish to me too. It will pass - relax, accept it for its sheer unpleasantness, fogginess, lack of focus, bodily aches, lack of energy, etc. No need to cling, just fully submurge yourself into this, go really deep into it. Really see all of these states, all of these sensations as simply sensations that come and go if we let ourselves experience them fully.

Shargrol who is an old-time member has some excellent posts on this - see e.g. this and several posts after this one (link to shargrol's compilation of posts).

MCTB2 likewise has excellent guidance on handling the dark night

My honest, extremely well intended advice is to please see if you can make arrangements to work less. I had month-long DN periods where I couldn't actually get more than e.g. 10 hours of concentrated work done per week. It doesn't necessarily have to be like that for you, but see if you can make arrangements so that you have more space and rest, in case it is needed and when it is needed. Take a holiday, call in sick, tell your colleagues you are going through "something", etc. 60 h/week work on what is likely early paths dark night is too much. To quote Daniel from MCTB2, who says it took him "decades to learn to function in the dark night". I wouldn't sacrifice practice time (or just time alone soaking into the vagueness, foginess, upleasantness of the dark night) unless you are really feeling like you are frying yourself or unless there is absolutely no other way to accomodate for real-life stuff.