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Dharma Diagnostic Clinic, aka "What was that?"

Non-conceptual shock, as if zapped by lightening, blackouts

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During my most recent 6-week silent Vipassana retreat, I did 3 weeks of preparatory meditation (about 12+ hours per day). That prep work lead to 3 consecutive structured 10-day cycles (called "retreats"). Each retreat ended with a 48-hour "determination", which is essentially 100% structured meditation, no sleep and only short breaks for bathroom and eating.

My teacher is the closed-lipped type, and there were three experiences that I'm curious about.

The first was during prep weeks, and was very difficult to move through. I'd be in a very calm state, without any thinking for long stretches of time, then very suddenly, I'd be intensely shocked by the present moment. My eyes would shoot open and I'd stand straight up to walk it off a bit. The odd thing is it seemed to spring from nowhere. The mind was empty of thinking and concepts, and what arose was just empty, non-conceptual shock of some kind. It came up every day, and it took a long time for me to work through. After working through it once successfully, it continually lost power and it's not been an issue sense. Any ideas what that was?

The second was after the prep weeks and during the first determination, it was like being struck by lightening and it almost knocked me to the ground. It happened after repeated moments of nearly dozing off, then ZAP, and there was nothing but an energetic, awake and very clear mind. After that, those zaps happened repeatedly, whenever mindfulness was drifting away. It felt like an automatic mental defibrillator for mindfulness. So... What was that?

The third experience were blackouts that would last anywhere from a few minutes up to about an hour, and some undetermined, because I had no sensation of anything, including passage of time. The weirdest one was when it felt like just a few seconds had passed, before I was aware of my timer ringing, but I don't know for how long, at least an hour. After coming out of the blackouts, I would either feel very calm and settled, content to continue meditating, or I would just be sort of giddy happy for no apparent reason. What was that?

It was apparent from my instructions and feedback from the teacher that the second two were what I was hoping to cultivate. Are there names for those phenomena? Those stood out from my other jhana experiences, and I'd really like to know more about them.

RE: Non-conceptual shock, as if zapped by lightening, blackouts
Answer
1/9/13 9:49 AM as a reply to Mike L.
The second was after the prep weeks and during the first determination, it was like being struck by lightening and it almost knocked me to the ground. It happened after repeated moments of nearly dozing off, then ZAP, and there was nothing but an energetic, awake and very clear mind. After that, those zaps happened repeatedly, whenever mindfulness was drifting away. It felt like an automatic mental defibrillator for mindfulness. So... What was that?


I've no idea what that is, but I used to get this too. Particularly later in the retreat when dozing off at night. I'd just be drifting off and ZAP! Like white light and angry buzz / static all rolled into one. They have largely gone now, though I still get them in a really mild form during meditation.

blackouts

With a schedule like that, exhaustion would be my guess!

I'd be very interested to hear more about your practice Mike. In what tradition is your retreat? What is the "structure"?

RE: Non-conceptual shock, as if zapped by lightening, blackouts
Answer
1/9/13 11:56 AM as a reply to Bagpuss The Gnome.
I've no idea what that is, but I used to get this too. Particularly later in the retreat when dozing off at night. I'd just be drifting off and ZAP! Like white light and angry buzz / static all rolled into one.

Yes, that sounds like the same thing, but wow. Like whiplash. An interesting phenomenon, and hoping to learn a bit more about them.

With a schedule like that, exhaustion would be my guess!

They were quite different from exhaustion. There was dozing off, or near dozing off, plenty of times, but the blackouts happened only during non-drowsy sits. Of course, it's impossible to say for certain, because at that moment of blackout, there was no consciousness present to be aware of the blackout...

The blackouts were an expected outcome from my teacher, and the message I got from him was that longer was better. I didn't have direct control over them, but their length was proportional to how well my meditations were going beforehand. The most unique part was when coming out of them, I either felt silly / goofy / giddy, or just very tranquil and felt like getting back to business of meditating.

I'd be very interested to hear more about your practice Mike. In what tradition is your retreat? What is the "structure"?

The tradition is Vipassana, Mahasi lineage, equal parts walking and sitting meditation. Sitting is following the breath, and eventually moving concentration across a sequence of 30 or so points around the body. The 6-week retreats were in Thailand. A rather common / traditional retreat structure for over there. 4:30am wake, 6am meal, 10 am meal, then no eating solid foods for the rest of the day. Bedtime no earlier than 10pm, later encouraged. 12 hours of meditation per day, but more always encouraged. People generally start with 6 hours per day and work up from there. I found that 14 hours created a good rhythm. The momentum made it easier than doing just 12. There's nothing else to do anyway!

The last 3 days of the beginner's course is 72 hours with no sleep (3-day 'determination'). It is not easy, but at that point, I was only needing about 4 hours of sleep per night anyway, so there was not much sleep to let go of. It's mostly about staying in the present moment. From how I understand, it's not a test of endurance. It's more a way to ensure that sleep does not 'reset' all the progress that's been made while awake. The continuous practice is helpful to keep going further.

After that first beginner's course, you only do 10-day retreats, that each end with 48 hours of no sleep (2-day 'determination'). You can choose to do 3-day determinations, and some people do longer. So, the second time I went back for 6 weeks, I did one week+ warmup and three 10-day retreats with 2-day determinations, with some days of rest between.

I did zero studying and didn't know anything about jhana through both of those retreats. All I knew is what I experienced, with zero foreshadowing from my teacher at each turn. He kept reassuring me that everything was ok and expected. In a way, I feel lucky for that.

I started meditation to deal with manic-depression. It's gone! I had no idea there was so much more to explore. It's truly fascinating.

RE: Non-conceptual shock, as if zapped by lightening, blackouts
Answer
1/9/13 4:50 PM as a reply to Mike L.
Mike L:

The first was during prep weeks, and was very difficult to move through. I'd be in a very calm state, without any thinking for long stretches of time, then very suddenly, I'd be intensely shocked by the present moment. My eyes would shoot open and I'd stand straight up to walk it off a bit. The odd thing is it seemed to spring from nowhere. The mind was empty of thinking and concepts, and what arose was just empty, non-conceptual shock of some kind. It came up every day, and it took a long time for me to work through. After working through it once successfully, it continually lost power and it's not been an issue sense. Any ideas what that was?

The second was after the prep weeks and during the first determination, it was like being struck by lightening and it almost knocked me to the ground. It happened after repeated moments of nearly dozing off, then ZAP, and there was nothing but an energetic, awake and very clear mind. After that, those zaps happened repeatedly, whenever mindfulness was drifting away. It felt like an automatic mental defibrillator for mindfulness. So... What was that?


I get this kind of thing a lot too - also when I'm drowsy or about to go to sleep. It feels very much like an adrenaline release in the body. I think it's probably a side effect of meditation, falsely triggering a fight-or-flight response when you become aware that you're dozing.