What do y'all think? Dark Night, Insight and Sunlight

Noah Bretnall, modified 2 Years ago at 9/19/21 5:46 PM
Created 2 Years ago at 9/19/21 3:59 AM

What do y'all think? Dark Night, Insight and Sunlight

Posts: 17 Join Date: 11/22/20 Recent Posts
Hello DhO emoticon

I haven't posted in a while, although I do pop in from time to time, so I hope you are all well, and happy, and this lovely community is going swimmingly x,

Recently some groovy changes of experience have arisen, they feel dhamma related, and so I'd like to share them with you, see what you think in whatever way you like to think about these things, and maybe (hopefully!) we can engage in a comment section dialogos about them. If this dhamma diagnosis were a medical diagnosis, I imagine it to be a routine check-up ;)

Thank you in advance for participating in (or just reading) this, your insight and attention is greatly appreciated.

I'll briefly state my current practice ecology, then, below that, I'll detail the salient moments, their character and their effects, in the order that they arose, as honestly as I can with the communicative ability afforded by online message boards; and then I'll end with some qualifiers to dispose of any lingering unexplained danglers.

0: Practice Breakdown.
Primarily Theravadin views and practices until recently.
4 and a bit years of formal sitting practice.
Playing and fooling around with meditation for my first two years.
Serious Shamatha for the remaining two, Series Vipassana for the last year.
Three retreats, Two of which were Burmese vipassana retreats (Total 30 days) with Sayadaw U Pandita Jnr, who is a lovely, wise man and a Mahasi lineage holder and practitioner.
I try to stay on the edge of the walking around 'dealing with business' side of practice (as Shinzen likes to say). Which looks like (the attempt at...) moment by moment mindfulness, the interpersonal, live metta practice, open monitoring of contemplation sessions, Dialogos (kind of like a conversation meditation), and playing music.
Lately, I've begun to practice the nine stages of staying model of concentration, or the elephant path, in preparation for a Mahamudra retreat next month. So, in light of all of this...

1: Peace.
(One little point: I'll be referring to the aforementioned experiences as states for shorthand, but I'm dubious about some of the connotations of that word.) 

One day I was walking to the shops when a completely spontaneous state of amazing clarity arose. The sense doors became more crisp and shimmery, and there was a large mental weight that was relieved by this, there was a very strong sense of presence in the moment. And so, I just went on doing what I was doing. The state reminded me of a state I'd previously only experienced on retreat, and at that time I understood it as the mind without hinderances, not making any demands on the present moment, which feels accurate in describing the state in question.

The clarity persisted through the shops and the returning from them. When I got home, it was sunny outside and I'm lucky enough to have a garden, so I started meditating outside, just simple stuff, a light concentration to provide an anchor, and general, equanimous mindful consolidation and apprehension of the experience. There were some profound openings and releases, and I don't know how long I sat for. Then I got up from the sit and went about my day.

After this sit, two things started arising: deeper feelings of love for my friend and girlfriend (we live together), and fresh conceptual insights that were dhamma related. This sense of ease and relief has been arising frequently ever since, and so has the sensate clarity, although it has been less stable.

2: No-Self.
The next day I was riding home from my friends, who was kind enough to call me an Uber, and just staring out the window. A little self-model related thought pattern arose and, in a very simple and obvious (i.e: undeniable) way, I realized that I was not that model, and never had been. That the model was just that, a model; and any attempt to have the model capture this will always be insufficient because the model is this, but this is more than a model. That was a nice ride home.

(I underscored 'simple' because that is the chief word that I'd use to describe this whole thing and what's come of it). 

I'd had a topically similar realisation earlier in my life, that the narrative of self was not me (I may have detailed this on my previous post), but this was a different experience and completely unprecedented as far as I can tell from memory.  There was/has been states of very peaceful and deep mental silence since then, and broad consolidations of my understanding, which looks like: A large portion of my 'plans' dropping away, and my not mourning them, and a very close felt presence to the notions or the principles or the happenings that matter in my life. Also, burdensome thought is sooooo much more obviously burdensome, and it dissipates with so much more ease nowadays. Actually, this last thing has been one of the most prominent themes.

At this point and up until now, the teachings seem to make so much more sense, and I feel as if I can now understand where some of the contemporary/historical discourses on practice are coming from. The new degree of love I felt for the people I relate to (cashiers to lovers) persisted, as did the conceptual insights.

3: Diffusion.
The next day I was just bopping along like normal, had a trial shift at a new job (and was hired!), finished work up at like 9:30 pm, rode my bike home and went to sleep.

But the next next day...boy oh boy...

I woke up and was very tired, so I went to sit in the garden and then, out of nowhere, everything became diffuse, and periphery, unclear, and a bit loopy, as if nothing could be attended to. The centre of attention wasn't really there and reality was more like this bulbous, bulging collage of confusion :'). Fear about this arose, and I was lost in that for a bit and all the lovely experiences it entails like the existential dread, imbalance, 'my mind's broken', arrggghhh-ness. 

Then the saving grace of guidance came to my rescue. I became mindful of the situation and thought 'It is what it is', which is a colloquialism that I have no shame in admitting is very core to my practice; This means to me 'it is what it is, and I want to know and love it', and it looks like being equanimous and allowing and surrendering to experience, even if it is diffuse and bulbous. Then this compassion arose in the chest area, I realised it was compassion for myself not to suffer this experience, and it felt like getting a warm hug from myself.

I went and listened to Daniel talk about the dark night and found my experience to mirror his descriptions and found his advice to be effective (Thank you, Daniel!).

After about 3-4 hours of some turbulence (maybe re-observation? I'm not too sure about this stage), it all stopped. Clarity and peace re-arose. And that brings us here. 

4: New Normalcy.
My experience since then seems to be best captured in the simple words: profoundly ordinary. I'll try to explain what I've come to know since; I know there's been a stage change (i.e; persists through states), but it doesn't feel dramatic or like a big deal. Did it feel like a completion of a cycle? Yes, but not in a loud way.

I haven't really felt like sharing this if I'm being honest (and ironic...), I can see when the mind attempts to make the experience into a thing, dress it up and show it off, and that whole urge is so burdensome, but thankfully it usually just dissipates. Things are simple, and way less complex.

I know that this change isn't stable (or rather the states that it causes or unstable?), but has been frequently arising since.

I know that when it does there is peace, that thought is way less burdensome and sometimes just slips away, that sensate clarity goes way up, that there is just this, and that's wonderful.

I know I've fallen like 5 levels deeper in love with everything. 

I know that I am joyfully eager to continue the practice, the meditations and developing in this way emoticon The 'confidence in the teachings' idea seemed really applicable after that no-self experience.

I know that when I sit now, it's like normal, but the concentration is way more 'wieldy' and can go deeper into the intended object with more ease.

I know that the path is a learning. 

5. Qualifiers and Caveats.    ​​​​​​​      
- For all my magickal, esoteric and synchronistic homies out there, the aforementioned experiences all came at the tail-end of what has been one of the most personally formative, karmically relieving, and meaningful sagas of my life. It is interesting to reflect on the deep cycles and phases, and overall pervasion (not perversion), of the conditions of one's dhamma practice. In a sense it is inseparable.      
- I've experienced DP/DR before and I can say with confidence that this is not it.      
- There was a slight model jumble with a recent digression I've taken toward Mahamudra and northern Buddhism in general. Although I now don't really feel the two to be contradictory but rather additive and supportive of each other, and I am coming to understand how and where to bridge the two.      
- My formal sittings are usually daily, ranging from 10 min to an hour and a half depending on conditions.

That's it emoticon

Thank you for reading all of this. If you have anything you'd like to say please feel free to drop a line! 

I am curious about how much of this resonates with the experience of you all, and where (if at all) these experiences map onto the four path model, in your opinion.

Any insights, empathies, guidance, pointers, corrections, questions and queries will be welcomed warmly, and greatly appreciated.

Mush love,
Noah ​​​​​​​

​​​​​​​EDIT: Changed the title to make it more pointed!
Noah Bretnall, modified 2 Years ago at 9/19/21 6:23 AM
Created 2 Years ago at 9/19/21 6:23 AM

RE: "Paging Dr. Dhamma!"

Posts: 17 Join Date: 11/22/20 Recent Posts

PS: Right after I posted, this satirical dhamma meme popped up on my facebook feed! :') I guess I am duh buddha now?
Kaloyan Stefanov, modified 2 Years ago at 9/20/21 7:49 AM
Created 2 Years ago at 9/20/21 7:47 AM

RE: What do y'all think? Dark Night, Insight and Sunlight

Posts: 83 Join Date: 2/18/21 Recent Posts
Hey Noah, great to hear from you and thanks for sharing these experiences in such detail! It was very interesting to read them!

First off, it seems you have a solid regular practice. More importantly, you seem to have a healthy attitude towards practice and life in general - "it is what it is", you are willing to explore further, you are willing to embrace your experiences, you are willing to embrace this present moment in its full fidelity. You seem to be firmly on that path, realise that this is a great opportunity and are giving it the necessary space and time. This in a nutshell is the attitude that can ultimately lead to "deep awakening" (insert whatever model for awakening you want to use here).

Keep up the good work, keep up opening to this experience, to this moment, keep gently investigating sensations, keep the good spirit of curiosity and equanimity going, keep falling in love with everything. I don't think you can go wrong with that!!!

Below some map-thoughts, but please keep in mind that the map/model and where you are is not very significant, compared to what I wrote above and what you have expressed throughout your post.

Based on your experience, you likely went through Arising and Passing -> DN -> Equanimity. Whether you "landed a path (stream-entry or subsequent?)" or not, in a sense doesn't matter too much as you are firmly on the path. If this is your first path (Stream-entry), there would be a very subtle change in how your baseline feels - thoughts and emotions generally passing slightly quicker through the system. You should shorlty experience review stages and potentially start a new path soon. All of that info is described in a lot more detail in MCTB2, in Daniel's videos and elsewhere on this board. But like I said, in a sense it doesn't matter too much if you can keep up the good work emoticon

Your description of the experiences is something I can recognise from my experiences and also the way others here and elsewhere have talked about it. My first A&P was experienced in a very similar way to what you describe. My first DN was a lot longer and rougher than what you described - but this varies a lot for individuals. I really love your caveat on how "your life" and "your practice" are inseperable - and how the progress you described above came on the tail-end of a significant stage of your life in a magicky/karmic sense. I can totally relate to that from my experience as well.

Sounds like all is good, keep going and good luck! emoticon
Noah Bretnall, modified 2 Years ago at 9/22/21 3:42 PM
Created 2 Years ago at 9/22/21 3:42 PM

RE: What do y'all think? Dark Night, Insight and Sunlight

Posts: 17 Join Date: 11/22/20 Recent Posts
Hello Kaloyan emoticon

I appreciate that what you are affirming is important and very core to the practice and in alignment with the motivations for practice, at least as far as I'm concerned! Thank you for pointing those aspects out and making them relevant <3

There has been a subtle baseline shift in the ways you describe, almost as if thoughts have just lost 10 kg!

I'll start attempting review practice along with the current concentration practice,

Would you have any tips on review practice, from your own experience?

Hope you're well, my new friend x
Kaloyan Stefanov, modified 2 Years ago at 9/23/21 2:37 AM
Created 2 Years ago at 9/23/21 2:37 AM

RE: What do y'all think? Dark Night, Insight and Sunlight

Posts: 83 Join Date: 2/18/21 Recent Posts
Great to hear that it is helpful, Noah, and it is great to be able to talk about these things with you, dear friend! emoticon <3
One advice that I would like to further highlight is that it is better to be careful about overdiagnosing SE, as it tends to be a bit "overvalued" in the grand scheme of awakening. There is another post by a new member of the community right now where this is discussed:

I would encourage you to read shargrol's posts on the topic where you might be/think might be. Shargrol is an old-time member of the community and has written some good stuff on this over the years which is compiled in an easy-to-navigate compilation. This post, and specifically the previous and next few cover the topic of Stream entry, what pre- and post- SE might look like. 
MCTB of course has useful stuff on this as well.

Please note that A&Ps also can feel like something is now completely different, that you have lost 10 KG, etc. My 1st A&P definately had such a flavour to it. Not saying that you did or didn't land SE. What I am saying is that it is better to just focus on practice, focus on investigating exerience, and it will be soon self-evident that things are progressing further - you will likely hit a brand new path soon, if you had SE, or be having subsequent A&P->DN->EQ attempts on that first path. 

For review practice, a lot of people recommend jhana/samadhi as well attempting to call the stages of insight in sequence. Can you do jhanas?

From my personal experience (please don't treat any of it as recommendation of how things should look like for you or how you should practice):
I didn't have access to MCTB/Theravada Maps during the period where I might have hit SE, and only came upon these later in the path somewhere during the "middle paths". Once I came upon the maps, it was super easy to exactly come back to my 1st A&P as it so clearly matched the description and subsequent progress. In contrast, it is very difficult to retroactively determine exactly when SE happened for me, although I can identify a 1 day period of what felt like high equanimity and when it might have happened.

I didn't do any specific "review practice" at that stage. My practice was heavy on shikantaza and vipassana (noticing and not noting as I never did formal noting) with a strong focus on thoughts as object, with some analytical meditations and direct-pointing stuff thrown in. I was using a lot of formal resolutions for my progress to continue and I believe I very shortly after said high equanimity period (a few days max) hit another completely new path starting with a new A&P and another pretty shitty DN. I was a rather "dry" and obsessed (4h+ per day) practitioner with not much jhana/rest time at that stage, and I was probably frying myself from all that effort and not enough jhana/samadhi thrown in to stabilize things. Yes, my progress was rapid but I was also very mentally and physically unstable. What was very clear during that period for me is that this awakening thing was progressing, that I was neck-deep in it and that only way out is through emoticon
Noah Bretnall, modified 2 Years ago at 10/3/21 1:32 AM
Created 2 Years ago at 10/3/21 1:32 AM

RE: What do y'all think? Dark Night, Insight and Sunlight

Posts: 17 Join Date: 11/22/20 Recent Posts
Hello Kaloyan, 

Firstly, apologies for the late reply! I was in the danger zone with a coding assignment and psych lab report, and have been doing that since my last message...I hope you've been well and happy, mi amigo <3

Thank you for the resources, I read some of that post and Shargrol's compilation. I found it to be very useful and insightful emoticon 

When you said "What I am saying is that it is better to just focus on practice, focus on investigating experience, and it will be soon self-evident that things are progressing further", it was really helpful and helped illustrate what's important right now for practice.

I have yet to try reviews with intention, but I've been doing a lot of open-awareness, letting go type of stuff. The uni pressure really takes it out of me sometimes, and these particular practices provide a nice counterbalance to all that top-heavy activity. I have not yet Jhana'd, no. But I'm thinking that it's time to be a bit more intentional with the sits, and pursue the Jhanas. 

Four hours a day Kaloyen :o...That's some really committed hours, man! Hats off to you. After you'd recognized that you may have been neglecting rest time/jhana and maybe overdoing it, if I may ask, how did this recognition affect your practice and experience? Did you come into a new relationship with your drive for practice, or did the 4 hour sits appears as easy and attractive to you at the time?

Also, what is shikantaza if I may ask?

And what are you practicing these days?

I am also a big fan of Vipassana on thought, it is so juicy and delicate at the same time. I've been working on a new technique in this arena actually, I call it "map as object", I'd like to share it with you to see what you think!

So, I do this one when walking around in figure eights in nature, and have yet to try it sitting, but the basic idea is that you relaaaaax, become lightly aware of the ayatanas, and intentionally begin reflecting on your practice thus far by asking about it then (start walking, good posture, eyes downcast if you're walking), and when the thoughts begin, watch them with tranquil awareness, notice your feelings of truth, disgust and everything in between. That is the setup. Now, based on some arbitrary sign of your choosing (the end of x number of thoughts or sentences or images, or x number of steps), you try to "intentionally" add to the inner-conversation, as in becoming engaged in the thought, then step 'back-out' to tranquil awareness and just watch the thought stream, which is easier for me when I'm paying attention to the other sense gates.

I've been playing with this and trying to see how different patterns of intentionality in heavy philosophical contemplation affect the content of thought or insight. 

The inspiration behind it was an attempt to develop a technique that helps people come into a better relationship with their thinking, and models in general (not getting obsessive or blinded about spiritual models, forgetting that they are just that), that's why it's 'map as object'!

Love to know what you'd think of this emoticon
Kaloyan Stefanov, modified 2 Years ago at 10/4/21 4:21 AM
Created 2 Years ago at 10/4/21 4:21 AM

RE: What do y'all think? Dark Night, Insight and Sunlight

Posts: 83 Join Date: 2/18/21 Recent Posts
Hey, if open awareness seems to be what is helping you right now, then go for it emoticon In general, what you feel instinctively draw to is most often also the best thing for your practice based on where you are - so trust your gut feeling with these things!!!

I only brought up Jhanas, as that is what some people feel drawn to at some point - I was definately not intentionally pursuing jhanas until much later in the path. It is also not needed to explicitly pursue them at this specific stage.

I really like your home-brew technique. I did someting very similar when doing vipassana on thought. Candle gazing as an anchor object, so that I can more easily "split-off" thoughts, and whilst doing that focus on thoughts coming and going (anicca) and later on there being no-self/thinker/perciever of thought (anatta). And the specific topics where I would let thought "run-wild" were either contemplative related to anatta/anicca etc. or also sometimes about psychological stuff (a.k.a. core issues which were coming up at that time). I would do 3-4 hours of this before going to bed each evening. I am generally very visual and also was pretty-stuck in my head with thoughts taking up a very large share of the perceptual volume, so this combination worked wonders for rapid progress for me - visual object for anchoring whilst vipassana-ing the hell out of the Big Boogeyman (thoughts) so to speak emoticon. But of course - I was frying my self a bit, and only realized that in hindsight when I read a bit more about how other people approach this. I also have 2 young kids and a pretty hectic regular life as a result. Strangely, if I had to do it again, I probably wouldn't change a damn thing - but this is just me being a bit cowboy crazy. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, unless they feel they can tollerate instability. For a more balanced approach, maybe throwing in some more jhana and also rest time might be better.

Shikantaza is basically "do nothing" / "just sitting" meditation. Focus on whatever comes up without any specific plan, feel it deeply, gently pay attention to it, embrace it.

For me the practice right now is heavily about the energetic/emotional/psychological/bodily/karmic purification and there is still stuff to do there. I untied the perceptual knot of duality a bit more than 1 year ago (switched into that permanent full no-self thing), and it hasn't come back. So I am not doing vipassana anymore, as that doesn't seem to be beneficial right now. I am doing a lot of body/energetic relaxation techniques, body scans, shamanic journeying, dream practice, basic home-brew hatha yoga, home-brew breathwork, basic home-brew tai chi, home-brew IFS etc. which are things which seem to help for where I am.

Will be looking forward to hear how things progress for you from here - let me/us know if you have any questions or if we can help with something emoticon
Noah Bretnall, modified 2 Years ago at 10/4/21 5:44 PM
Created 2 Years ago at 10/4/21 5:44 PM

RE: What do y'all think? Dark Night, Insight and Sunlight

Posts: 17 Join Date: 11/22/20 Recent Posts
Hello Kaloyan emoticon

Wow, I love that candle 'spitting-off' idea, it is so useful! I hope the boogeyman has become a friend to by now ;) who knows maybe he just needed a hug?

If I may, I would like to express my gratitude for this brief but important conversation that we've shared. Thank you for sharing all that you have with us/me, and being such a great example for us/me fellow students of this path. You've been my only point of contact during this recent phase thingy and an invaluable point at that! I will be sure to drop a line from time to time and really appreciated you inviting me to do so emoticon

I hope all is well and happy with your family, yourself and your practice, mi amigo <3

Speak soon, mush love, and much strength,
Kaloyan Stefanov, modified 2 Years ago at 10/5/21 1:48 AM
Created 2 Years ago at 10/5/21 1:48 AM

RE: What do y'all think? Dark Night, Insight and Sunlight

Posts: 83 Join Date: 2/18/21 Recent Posts
Hey Noah, great to hear that, my friend! emoticon I really love talking to others about this, and reading and hearing their stories. And hopefully in these exchanges we help each other emoticon I have myself greatly benefited and still am greatly benefiting from the wisdom, experience and cammeradrie of countless other practitioners.

You are always welcome to write here. Others and I will be happy to respond to the best of our ability.

If you are looking to chat to someone about these things sometime at any point - happy to do that as well, drop me an e-mail to ks ste fanov @gm ail.com without the spaces and we can do skype/etc.

Many thanks for the kind wishes and wishing you and your loved ones all the best! And on the path, may you meet each moment without resistance and find an awakening that fits like a glove emoticon