Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Andreas Thef, modified 8 Years ago.

Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
Hello everyone,

my name is Andreas and I've been meditating for some years now. I started with zazen on/off for a couple of years and stumbled upon Shinzen Young about two years ago. This kicked off my meditation and I sit on a daily basis since then (+2 hours). With time passing I found that focusing on the blank behind my closed eyes and the absence of any mental images suits me well and I got phases of high concentration up and running with this practice. After a few weeks of solely practicing this focusing on the blank I had a strange experience and I would like to hear your opinion on what it might be.

Usually when I focus on the mental images and the blank state (absence of mental images) I let images rise and pass as they come. In one session though I did something different. Whenever a mental image came up I focused on it with all my mental power which made the image kind of freeze and slowly vanish. TIt felt like my mind was a magnifying glass held over a piece of paper in the sun. The paper (i.e. mental image) slowly started to burn from the inside out and all I was left with was a highly concentrated but pure blank state.

I kept practicing this for a while and became somewhat good at maneuvering myself into this blank state. Yet I stopped doing it because it somehow felt like it did not lead me anywhere, it was nice for some time to produce this state but it was neither extraordinarily pleasant nor unpleasant and nothing ever changed. It was just a concentrated but pretty neutral space I was left in - it felt like a dead end. Plus my impression was that I forced myself into this state instead of letting things happen in a perceiving and non-directive way.

So my questions to you are:: What was that experience? Was it some kind of access concentration or rather some dead end? Does anyone of you know what I'm talking about? Should I keep practicing this phenomena? Where can I possibly go from here to make progress?

Thanks for your help. Kind regards from Germany
Andreas
thumbnail
 Tarver , modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 262 Join Date: 2/3/10 Recent Posts
Welcome to DhO!

Sounds like you are describing classic "nimitta", which is a significant attainment consistent with the frequency, intensity, and duration of the practice you describe. As for not leading anywhere, as a rule, concentration practices tend to lead to temporary though potentially highly pleasant states, whereas insight practices tend to "lead somewhere", as in the stages of the progress of insight and eventually enlightenment. The practice you describe sounds concentration-heavy. Shinzen's techniques tend to layer these two kinds of practices very finely and integrate them nicely, so one tends to do both over time. You couldn't be doing what you are describing without considerable skill at concentration, clarity, and equanimity. In order to determine what to do next, you might consider dropping back to "survey" the various techniques across the spectrum of the 5 Ways (you imply that you experimented before settling on the practice you describe in detail), and see if anything is available to you that wasn't when you first checked them out -- you may be pleasantly surprised at what you can do now that you have developed greater skill.
Andreas Thef, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
Hello Tarver,

first of all thanks for your help. Isn't nimitta a visual sign? The burning paper/magnifying glass was just a metaphor for how it feels like, it's not something I see. An image appears, I forcefully focus on it, it disappears and leaves a concetrated but pretty sterile state as its remnant (and a slight headache ones in a while).

I wish you were right but I doubt that I am very skillful at concentrating and I don't feel a lot of clarity or equanimity in me. It got better with practice but I'm definitely not where I wish I would be.
A few weeks ago I thought why not give mindfulness of the breath a try and see how much the Focus In method has improved my concentration skills. Plus I read about the jhanas and became very keen to experience them. After a few first good days my concentration got worse and worse. After a few weeks I even got a hard time following one single breath (I'm not kidding, that's how bad it was on a constant basis). That's how devestating many of my meditation skills actually are. I still don't know why I suck at being aware of my breath and other simple concentration tasks (sorry for the swearing, but this really frustrates me). Maybe I'm just impatient, I don't know. Or maybe it's this exact doubtfulness that keeps me from really getting the hang of it. And honestly, I have no idea why focusing on blank and image states works so comparatively well. But at least experiences like the one described in my first post keep me going. : )

All that said, your adivce to get back to the other techniques and see what happens resonates with me. Yes, I experimented a few months before I practiced solely the Focus In method. It was nice and I had some insights especially with the Focus Out method but the range of choices Shinzen presents sometimes overwhelmed and confused me. I often asked myself: 'When should I do what for how long and why? Doesn't the range of choices keep me from mastering one technique?' That's basically why I stuck with focusing on blank and mental image states.

Do you have any hint on how to find a technique that sits well on me and might be a good next choice? I actually ordered Shinzen's CD on that topic but it may still take a few weeks for it to arrive.

Thank you very much for your help
Andreas
Christian B, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 88 Join Date: 10/23/10 Recent Posts
Elaborating on what Traver said, now that you have seen that you can actually do these things, get into highly concentrated and strange states etc, it might be a good idea to get your goals clear. What do you want to achieve with your practice?

As for running into a dead end with the practice you described, there are ways of opening and broadening that: Can you do something similar with internal talk, i.e. focus on and dissolve mental chatter? Can you do something like this with eyes open? Etc. What does your body feel like when you are in this “blank state”? Investigating like this will probably broaden your practice, but it will also tend to lead away from pure concentration and toward insight territory.

Best wishes
Christian (btw also from Germany)
Andreas Thef, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
Hello Christian,

thanks for your help, too.

Christian B:
Elaborating on what Traver said, now that you have seen that you can actually do these things, get into highly concentrated and strange states etc, it might be a good idea to get your goals clear. What do you want to achieve with your practice?

As for running into a dead end with the practice you described, there are ways of opening and broadening that: Can you do something similar with internal talk, i.e. focus on and dissolve mental chatter? Can you do something like this with eyes open? Etc. What does your body feel like when you are in this “blank state”? Investigating like this will probably broaden your practice, but it will also tend to lead away from pure concentration and toward insight territory.

Best wishes
Christian (btw also from Germany)


Mental chatter is something I can focus on with some skills but it's harder than mental images/blank. This dissolving so far only worked with images (also with open eyes). I'm not sure how my body feels like in this state. Sometimes there's a tingling in my hands right before I enter into a deeper state.

Regarding my goals, I really had some nice insights in the beginning. But it felt like I was always scratching the surface. I hardly felt any of the insights stick with me. A few good insightful days are always followed by a few bad days meditation and concentration wise where all these insights seem like a dream I had a very long time ago. That's another reason why I tried Anapanasati. I thought some concentration might be the key to a deeper understanding and experience.
Christian B, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 88 Join Date: 10/23/10 Recent Posts
Andreas Thef:

Regarding my goals, I really had some nice insights in the beginning. But it felt like I was always scratching the surface. I hardly felt any of the insights stick with me. A few good insightful days are always followed by a few bad days meditation and concentration wise where all these insights seem like a dream I had a very long time ago. That's another reason why I tried Anapanasati. I thought some concentration might be the key to a deeper understanding and experience.


For the sake of clarity it might be worthwhile to repeat that if you are looking for lasting insight, concentration practice is not a priority. Insight (noting) practices are. Shinzen Young's system is great for that, but it's very broad and inclusive and therefore theory-heavy, which can be confusing, as you already have noted. My advice would be: Use Shinzen's system as guidance, but keep it simple and try to modify the noting so that it can be fast (one note per second or more) and detailed (instead of noting 'hear', 'see' etc., try to note/notice the specifics of your experience). Fast and detailed noting will help keep you from spacing out into mantra-like pseudo-noting.

And like Tarver said, read the MCTB if you haven't already.
Andreas Thef, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
Christian B:
For the sake of clarity it might be worthwhile to repeat that if you are looking for lasting insight, concentration practice is not a priority. Insight (noting) practices are. Shinzen Young's system is great for that, but it's very broad and inclusive and therefore theory-heavy, which can be confusing, as you already have noted. My advice would be: Use Shinzen's system as guidance, but keep it simple and try to modify the noting so that it can be fast (one note per second or more) and detailed (instead of noting 'hear', 'see' etc., try to note/notice the specifics of your experience). Fast and detailed noting will help keep you from spacing out into mantra-like pseudo-noting.


That's a very good advice, Christian. I'm very prone to this pseudo-noting you mentioned. And I already found that a faster more detailed noting/labeling helps me keeping my awareness up and running.
thumbnail
 Tarver , modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 262 Join Date: 2/3/10 Recent Posts
Another thing that occurred to me is that if you haven't done so already, you might enjoy looking up some of the classic texts such as the Visuddhimagga (there are links not far to seek around here on DhO) which describe, for example, progressions of colours to master in visualization practices not too different from what you have been doing. Also, Shinzen's Science of Enlightenment provides a rich feast of historical and technical context for the 5 Ways system. These two sources come to mind -- one ancient and one contemporary, both broad surveys of the field -- which might suggest interesting and rewarding territory to explore ("windows of opportunity") as you continue your progress.
Andreas Thef, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
 Tarver :
Another thing that occurred to me is that if you haven't done so already, you might enjoy looking up some of the classic texts such as the Visuddhimagga (there are links not far to seek around here on DhO) which describe, for example, progressions of colours to master in visualization practices not too different from what you have been doing. Also, Shinzen's Science of Enlightenment provides a rich feast of historical and technical context for the 5 Ways system. These two sources come to mind -- one ancient and one contemporary, both broad surveys of the field -- which might suggest interesting and rewarding territory to explore ("windows of opportunity") as you continue your progress.


I'm already through Shinzen's SoE and I liked it very much. As for a historical text I'm just about to read the pali canon. Actually I read a lot about meditation. And every other week or so I stumble upon something that gives me some great consecutive days meditation and concentration wise. But my feeling is that nothing really sticks with me (see my answer to Christian). Is it just me or is this the way it happens to everyone?

Thank you very much for your input and inspiration.
thumbnail
 Tarver , modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 262 Join Date: 2/3/10 Recent Posts
A few further responses and suggestions:

You can make yourself crazy chasing jhanas. Be prepared to spend about as much effort as it would take to do a college level credit to even learn (intellectually) what the issues even are, what the various main points of view are, who the current generation of practicing masters and their approaches are. Then you have to do enough practice yourself to discover your own personal strengths and weaknesses and proclivities, and (ideally!) match yourself to an author or a teacher to is likely to take you where you want to go. Then you have to do enough practice to get there. You can find people around here who have done this, and a few who have lucked out and stumbled into something that worked really well for them, and seem to think it should work as well for everybody. Of course, you can develop valuable skills in all of this, and maybe you have done some or even most of this work already. Don't let me put you off if that is where your interest lies. Shinzen's system kind of gift-wraps all of this very neatly, so you don't have to slog though nearly as much raw figuring-out yourself.

Tingling in the hands is a great place to find and explore what Shinzen calls "Flow". Can you make it start and stop? Speed up and slow down? Shrink and swell? Extend beyond your body (or at least seem to)? Appear in various sensory modalities? Can you attend selectively to the beginnings, middles, and ends of the individual pulsations of the tingles? Can you switch your focus between tracking individual pulses vs grooving on the whole gestalt? How quickly can you switch? Etc., etc., etc...

If you are experiencing significant changes in your capacity for concentration, ranging to extremes up and down the scale, I can see two openings right there.

First, even though Shinzen downplays the stages of the progress of insight because they are often not as clear-cut as many here (DhO) would have them, if you are getting regular (periodic? repeatable? predictable?) fluctuations in your capacity it might not be you doing something wrong, it might be you doing something right but not quite knowing how to read it. I trust you are familiar with MCTB? Hard to say which is metaphorically the fuse and which is the charge, but MCTB * 5 Ways = dynamite practice.

Second, if the fluctuations are causing you consternation that is a brilliant opening to include some "Feel In" practice to get as specific and granular as possible about the exact nature of the sensations comprising your confusion, frustration, bewilderment; as well as your hopes, dreams, and ambitions. Here noting is your friend. I would suggest taking some "off-the-shelf" Shinzenesqe noting vocabulary to start (although, when asked, I also always suggest customizing it to monosyllabic notes if possible -- Shinzen's former noting vocabulary was in my judgment significantly better in practice and well worth the extra effort to learn, even if few used all the options) and then doing out-loud noting at some pace that feels comfortable for a sustained period. If you can set up a "recursive play" whereby you actually note the constituent sensory components of your emotional reactions to your fluctuations in concentration capacity, even as the insight-practice quality of such noting precipitates said fluctuations, you are sure to learn a great deal about the workings of your mind and strengthen your skills at the same time. Either that, or loop in on yourself and disappear in a little puff of thought. Some attach a very high value to that sort of thing.

As for how to use Shinzen's (or anybody's) techniques, look, I would say you really have to make them your own. Customize the fit and pay attention to your ever strengthening intuition. You are practicing diligently, reading widely, in touch with others... the "deeper understanding and experience" you seek is surely on the way, if not already upon you. emoticon
Andreas Thef, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
Thank you both. I don't know what happened yesterday and why I ended up so desperate. Maybe I had to verbalize the frustration to move on. You guys are a great help.

@Tarver: Thanks for your advice and encouragement. You are probably right and I have already come to the conclusion that these extreme ups and downs reflect the way I learn things - not only meditation. But the resulting frustration never gets old and it's always hard to remember the positive outlook while in a valley where nothing seems to happen and none of my former experiences and insights seem to translate into daily life. But your advice to make this very frustration (as well as the tingling) my meditation object is invaluable and I will try to remember it next time.

I agree with you on Shinzen's terminology, I also found the old one to be more accessible (the label "see in" is the new "image" right?) But may it not have the advantage that it takes into account the subjectivity of the experience? And the words are not so much focusing on the phenomena (e.g. as with "touch/sight/sound") but more on the experience side of things. I'm not sure. Do you know the reasons why he changed it?

No, I haven't read MCTB yet but am about to do as soon as I have finished the great current book by Paul Debes, one of the pioneers of buddhism in Germany (unfortunately not available in English AFAIK).
thumbnail
 Tarver , modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 262 Join Date: 2/3/10 Recent Posts
Folding every kind of hindrance back into the practice is one of the oldest tricks in vipassana, and there is a whole chapter on that in MCTB.

Although I do believe that enlightenment has something to do with distinguishing (more) clearly between thoughts and reality, I would suggest you don't worry too much about trying to tease apart "experience" from "phenomena". One of the most brilliant aspects of Shinzen's scheme (in my estimation) is that he implicitly hides subjectivity/objectivity in plain sight with the distinction between inner and outer phenomena. He repeats over and over that he teaches about sensory experience, and although he sometimes offers his opinion, he backs away from any strong claims about what may be "out there" in any objective sense.

I suggest that you stop worrying about subjectivity and objectivity, and attend instead to presence and absence. Noting "Gone" is especially interesting and valuable, as it captures transitions. My favourite philosopher (Dewart) defines consciousness as experience present to itself (a.k.a. self-present experience), and explains why a preoccupation with subjectivity vs objectivity is a symptom of a kind of tunnel vision he calls absent-mindedness. Shinzen, quite without ever having heard of or read Dewart, has developed a system which I believe (and have experienced) can actually repair absent-mindedness. This I take to be the essence of enlightenment. What is beyond subject and object is a kind of relativity, if you will, where the conscious experiencer is related to, or present simultaneously to, both the object of experience and the act of experiencing, takes responsibility, and stops mistaking this "duality" for the objectivity of the object and subjectivity of the subject.

If you grok this, you can have so-called "non-dual" experience at will, although of course it takes practice to do well in real time.

Turns out that speech is the mechanism by which humans learn this neat trick (experiencing consciously in the first place) though usually, perhaps paradoxically, and either amusingly or tragically depending on your point of view, without even the faintest conscious inkling of what they have achieved. It further turns out that vipassana with noting boils down to speech practice which trains consciousness. This is not because there is anything magical about words, or The Logos, or because there is anything "logocentric" or mystical-schmistical like that going on, but simply because whereas speech is assertive communication, and conscious experience is assertive experience, practicing communicating assertively (with oneself) naturally strengthens the core skills of experiencing assertively -- i.e., consciously, by rendering experience increasingly present to itself.

With that in mind, the form and structure of the notes themselves -- insofar as noting is an act of speech -- are relevant, but syntactically not semantically. (An enormous topic, directly relevant both to the practice of noting and to the larger problem of precipitating a pandemic of enlightenment that sweeps up you, me, and all of humanity, but too huge to do justice to except to mention here as an aside is this: Dewart identifies the "semantic complex" a self-perpetuating system of errors associated with our culturally-congenital absent-mindedness; c.f. samsara.)

The reason Shinzen changed his labelling system, I gather, is that few were using the full range of labels, especially the ones for the restful states. The overhead of learning even two dozen terms was too much for too many. The new system is vastly easier to memorize and puts the emphasis where most people actually use it. Shinzen thinks that by including the option for custom labels, the old labelling scheme is available to anyone who cares to pick it up (or keep using it) so that nothing is lost. He is also (wisely!) loathe to include any more complexity than necessary, and works very hard to keep it to a minimum. Nevertheless, I think there should be one more "layer": a descriptive scheme, a labelling scheme for talking about aspects of sensory experience, and a noting vocabulary to use in actual practice. An example of these three levels would be: "Inner Visual Active"; "See In"; "Image".

The reason I think the extra complexity is warranted (though Shinzen was not convinced, last time I brought it up with him) is that compound notes can easily "feel" like verbal predication. "Image" is one word to tag an inner ("subjective") visual experience. "See In" can serve the same function, but it can also be mistaken, or understood -- perhaps subliminally, as opposed to simply experienced, and you would have to read Dewart to fully grok the distinction -- to mean "[I, the subject,] See [that which is] In [, the object.]" In order to make rapid progress with noting, one must drop down to the level of the assertion of one's experience which Dewart calls "non-thematic". Using compound labels which may even subtly imply verbal predication puts a thematic flavour into the broth, so to speak, and could reinforce exactly those habits of mind which comprise the very absent-mindedness one hopes to transcend. "Subtle is significant."

Even if you don't quite understand what I am saying about the assertiveness and the self-presence of conscious experience, all you need to know for insight practice is that one-word labels (and monosyllabic are the cleanest) are best for noting not just because they are most terse and easiest and quickest to say -- which is true but trivially so -- but also and fundamentally because they are least likely to trigger complex psychological semantic cognitive processes that you do not want to invoke. If like most people in our culture you are naively insensitive to the distinction between pre-thematic and thematic speech due to absent-mindedness, you are liable to innocently continue making this mistake and inadvertently hamper your own progress.

Some teachers (Goenka comes to mind) address this problem by eliminating all verbalization entirely from vipassana. That throws the baby out with the bathwater, depriving the yogi of the best and most natural tool in the box for bringing assertiveness to bear upon experience, which is of course speech! To improve the functioning of the conscious quality of your experience, you want to remediate the defect which prevents you from maturing naturally to enlightenment. Using verbal predication for this purpose, even and perhaps especially inadvertently, is so not that ticket. Skillful noting practice, i.e., the systematic training of conscious sense perception using non-thematic assertions, can be. Shinzen's system, notwithstanding my quibble with the most recent version of the labelling scheme, is a first-rate implementation of this at a practical level.

To summarize my advice: don't worry about "subject" and "object" (even forget those concepts entirely, if possible), and just use one-word notes to practice getting really, really skillful at asserting your experience in real time, and good things will happen to the way your mind works.
Andreas Thef, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
Hello Tarver,

I just started reading MCTB and the author makes the same important point as you do: stop worrying about the story, look at the three characteristics. That's a valuable advice for me as I tend to philosophize about experiences instead of experiencing them directly.

Another thing that might be missing in my practice is a schedule apart from the daily meditation. All the options at hand tend to confuse me. Maybe I should make a clear-cut choice and limit my focus to specific characteristics during determined phases (e.g. one day focus on visual perception, the next day something else and so on).

I have tried another approach with the breath awareness since I started this thread: I focus on the breath at the nostrils. It never really worked in the past (maybe I was just not ready for it) and I got easily distracted and impatient. With the last few days it's totally different. Yesterday I even fell into a kind of state like the one I described in my first post. And there seem to be days when I'm better off with noting/labeling and when I'm better off without it (concentration wise).

As for the synntactic/semantic discussion I have heard both sides of the argument and I tend to agree with you. But there were days when I had a very hard time to build up even the slightest bit of concentration and found it very helpful to be more specific with my noting. It felt like the meaning the words have for me had an impact on my perception and directed my awareness to more specific and/or more detailed aspects of phenomena. But that has only been a few times and I might very well be mistaken here. Furthermore, if I understand you right, this shift might not come from a shift in the awareness itself but from a shift of my standpoint, in a change of the subtle underlying notion of how my self is related and situated to all of this. Which isn't necessarily a good thing, right?

 Tarver :
An example of these three levels would be: "Inner Visual Active"; "See In"; "Image".

That sounds very interesting. Could you please describe this further? I still sometimes struggle to find a more detailed noting vocabulary. Maybe you, and also Christian B, have some advice for me.

You and Christian have been a great help so far and there's definitely something moved and hopefully put on the right track inside of me. I'm looking forward to more fruitful discussions.

Have a nice day
Andreas
Christian B, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 88 Join Date: 10/23/10 Recent Posts
Andreas Thef:


 Tarver :
An example of these three levels would be: "Inner Visual Active"; "See In"; "Image".

That sounds very interesting. Could you please describe this further? I still sometimes struggle to find a more detailed noting vocabulary. Maybe you, and also Christian B, have some advice for me.


In my experience, looking for the perfect set of labels for noting is a futile attempt, because 1) an endless variety of experience can never be accommodated by a limited label set and 2) looking for the perfect labels tends to focus the meditator too much on the content of experience (is this "see in" or "image" or ...) whereas the focus should actually be on the 3Cs, i.e. the universal characteristics of experience, no matter what the content might be. For me, the important thing to remember is that noting is not about accurate categorization, but about paying attention. It's the noticing that counts.

I tried Shinzens approach for a while, and I also got to the point where it seemed that I needed to find the right vocabulary, but after that I found MCTB and Mahasi Sayadw and my practice took off. I have the highest respect for Shinzen's attempt to make vipassana palatable for a wider audience without watering it down, and I like the sciency divide and conquer approach he advocates, but in the end it seems to me that much of the details and the theory behind his system are unnecessary for getting stream entry.

So if you get hung up on the details of your noting vocabulary, you could just as well ease up and remember that noting is supposed to help you notice what you experience right now. You could come up with a general label for the things that don't fit into your current vocabulary (like "this", "that" or "dont know" or whatever suits you). Just don't let the attempt to label get in the way of noticing the details of your experience.

Tarver, with his deep knowledge of shinzen's system, might offer valuable advice that points in an entirely different direction as what I have said above. There are many ways to practice and most of them have their value. The dry technical approach might not be what you want.

So in the end, it's up to you to try these things out and choose what's best for you emoticon

[edit: grammar]
Andreas Thef, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
Christian B:
In my experience, looking for the perfect set of labels for noting is a futile attempt, because 1) an endless variety of experience can never be accommodated by a limited label set and 2) looking for the perfect labels tends to focus the meditator too much on the content of experience (is this "see in" or "image" or ...) whereas the focus should actually be on the 3Cs, i.e. the universal characteristics of experience, no matter what the content might be. For me, the important thing to remember is that noting is not about accurate categorization, but about paying attention. It's the noticing that counts.

So if you get hung up on the details of your noting vocabulary, you could just as well ease up and remember that noting is supposed to help you notice what you experience right now. You could come up with a general label for the things that don't fit into your current vocabulary (like "this", "that" or "dont know" or whatever suits you). Just don't let the attempt to label get in the way of noticing the details of your experience.


Christian, thanks again for your valuable advice. You're right, maybe the search for an ever more detailed vocabulary would lead me right into frustration. I think it's my search for a possible next step to deepen my experience that's expressed in my question to you. Often there seems to be something missing between my noting/labeling and the experience itself, some kind of glue or magnifier that stabilizes and deepens my conscious experience (hence my mild obsessiveness with the jhanas, I guess). Maybe it's not so much something missing in between but more the overcoming of the distance between me and the experience that's key here. I'm not sure but am eager to explore that.

Tarver:
In my judgement, the 3C's are as archaic and out-of-date as "Earth, Water, Air, and Fire" as a basis for chemistry. Better off with a periodic table of the elements, if you can find one! And yet, the old system did capture a certain truth about nature that we don't want to discard, namely that matter appears in four states: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Ingram has made an invaluable contribution to pragmatic dharma by mapping a shift "from content to insight", even if he used the traditional scheme of the 3C's as the qualification of what he meant by "insight". The 3C's have worked adequately well for thousands of years for significant numbers of people to get enlightened -- though as yet, only a minuscule fraction of the human population as a whole. We must do better. Insisting that the Three Characteristics are the end of the story would be an unfortunate regression vis a vis Dewart's philosophy. For insight practice, today, however, the 3C's are a vastly better place to start than what happens, as MCTB describes, in mainstream contemporary dharma.

Phew, Tarver, that's one hell of a post. emoticon I will have to reread it a few times before answering. But thanks in advance for the trouble.

dream walker:
Here is my take on it. You're watching formations. One arises and passes away. Great. Then you turn on your attention with great focus and you see it arise and pass away and then you have enough attention to see what lies between each formation. Dang good work. Now if I am not mistaken you need only to investigate this blankness and >WHAM< you will pierce it and drop into nirvana. You don't mention where you are on the MCTB path descriptions but this is what I got from your description. Your investigation of the nothingness between formations might take a while or you may need to work on other aspects on the insite steps (see 3 characteristics). I would recommend reading MCTB as it may explain everything much clearer.
Good luck,

dw, your words encourage me to get back to this experience and try to get beyond it, thanks a lot.
To be honest, I have no idea where I am on the path (haven't read MCTB yet). Sometimes I feel like right on the edge of a major breakthrough and the next minute I wonder if all the hours of practice have changed anything at all. Maybe it's the frustration, boredom and impatience itself that I need to address. I definitely don't want them to be part of my experience, and by shutting them out may deprive myself exactly of what I need now to move beyond my doubt.
thumbnail
 Tarver , modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 262 Join Date: 2/3/10 Recent Posts
Note: I feel free to edit my posts without tagging them as such until someone has responded. I felt moved to re-write my last little essay several times yesterday, and am grateful that you guys didn't answer right away. I kind of got writing here... and this grew to quite a length. I hope you and others who look it up later find it helpful, even if I may be rambling a bit at times, especially towards the end. I am grateful for the questions you ask, because in answering them I am putting my thoughts on the matter in ever better order, even if I am not polishing the text to quite the level of, say, a published article.

In my judgement, the 3C's are as archaic and out-of-date as "Earth, Water, Air, and Fire" as a basis for chemistry. Better off with a periodic table of the elements, if you can find one! And yet, the old system did capture a certain truth about nature that we don't want to discard, namely that matter appears in four states: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Ingram has made an invaluable contribution to pragmatic dharma by mapping a shift "from content to insight", even if he used the traditional scheme of the 3C's as the qualification of what he meant by "insight". The 3C's have worked adequately well for thousands of years for significant numbers of people to get enlightened -- though as yet, only a minuscule fraction of the human population as a whole. We must do better. Insisting that the Three Characteristics are the end of the story would be an unfortunate regression vis a vis Dewart's philosophy. For insight practice, today, however, the 3C's are a vastly better place to start than what happens, as MCTB describes, in mainstream contemporary dharma.

Here is a technological analogy: the 3C's are like the steam engine; vastly better than a bucket brigade or even a windmill for pumping water, say, but not as good as an electric turbine. Shinzen's system provides a "periodic table" of the "atoms" of sensory experience, and Dewart's analysis of human consciousness (and it's evolution) provides a non-mystical and philosophically rigorous way of understanding both our conscious experience and the nature of the defect which results in wide-spread absent-mindedness.

The key to using the 3C's skilfully is to grok that these are characteristics of conscious experience, not of objective phenomena. Conscious experience is mediate (i.e., not-immediate) experience. I am saying here -- in stark contrast to much of the usual dogma -- that there is no such thing as a "direct" or "immediate" conscious experience, except in the case of one or another aspect of your cognitive process sinking to the level of non-consciousness, which is actually just fine and totally functional and can even be fun if you want to accentuate that and do jhanas, for example, although that is not what you would probably be thinking that you are doing. Consciousness is mediated through empirically derived categorical concepts acquired through a wide range of factors including principally the experience of having learned to speak. In our culture, however, believe it or not, just about everybody actually learns to speak with a certain defect (subtly, but very, very significantly) and this results through a long socio-historical causal cascade in a widespread defect of consciousness that Dewart calls absent-mindedness, which could in more familiar terms here be described as the failure of most people, most of the time, to mature naturally and spontaneously to enlightenment sometime, say, in their late childhood or early adolescence.

The usual remedial fix for this problem is a period of strenuous and sustained re-training of certain habits of thought, which historically and traditionally has only been undertaken by the "religious" like monks and so forth, but is increasingly done by lay people like many here on DhO, KFD, and so on, as well as throughout the "mindfulness" movement burgeoning pervasively. Because the activity and experience (emphatically not the content) of speech is central to the acquisition of consciousness in the human being, it only makes sense that speech be a central aspect of the re-training of consciousness to fix the defect. The Buddha included "right speech" in the short list of things to mind, Noble Silence is commonly practised on retreat, there have been many steps in this direction. Recently (in historical terms) the innovation of noting in vipassana has taken it all to a whole new level, putting the experience of the activity of speech right into the very heart of insight meditation practice.

Now as for the "3C's" themselves, they are actually empirically derived categorical concepts, without which you could not enjoy the fully conscious life (even if defectively so) that every normal mature human being enjoys even if they have never heard of Buddhism, philosophy, or any of it. All concious experience has three primary aspects which, with training, can be picked out or analysed independently. Doing the exercises necessary to learn how to do this, as it happens, usually takes one well along the way to correcting the defect of consciousness which impedes enlightenment in the individual and blights our civilization collectively.

What is traditionally called "Suffering" is the inherent purposiveness of all living things raised to the level of wanting on purpose and realizing, by the way, that it often ends there. Sometimes -- often -- desire is frustrated! Be present to it, but get over it. Through the mechanism of projection, this aspect of conscious experience can be used to understand lots and lots of useful things in the world. "The apple wants to fall so the seeds get to the ground." It doesn't, really, it just falls; but by framing my experience of falling apples in terms of my empirically derived categorical concept of final causality, I can "make sense" of it. Similarly, "all of life is suffering." Well, not in some downer way -- and there are some great lectures by John Peacock about what Sid may have actually meant by dukkha, that clearly isn't what I am proposing, but equally isn't what most others are saying about it today either -- but all of life is informed by purposiveness, to stay alive, and the greater the level of sentience throughout the progression of evolution the more "on purpose" purposiveness becomes until humans can include the quality of purposiveness in their actual, conscious, real-time experience. All you have to do is notice (a) that there is such a thing as desire and that (b) things seldom go the way you "want" and Bingo! one generalization later we have the fundamental insight is that "all of life is suffering." Most people then proceed to get completely side-tracked by the quality of "unpleasantness", etc., etc., etc., content, content, content.

Meaning, by the way, can be understood very simply as the "Feel In" that you would get if you were to say what you experience another saying. It depends on empathy. The words of another are incomprehensible (meaningless) to you if you could not conceivably have uttered and meant them yourself. The words themselves are "just" sounds, except insofar as they happen to be the sounds that you could have meant, which you then understand the other to have meant. This is significant when it comes to selecting a noting vocabulary. You need a vocabulary that you understand, even though you are emphatically not practising understanding when you are doing vipassana with noting.

"Impermanence" has to do with the temporality of experience and the phenomenon of cause and effect. The world we live in is constantly becoming, unfolding, happening. In order to adjust ourselves consciously to this aspect of our situation, it is helpful (indeed, indispensable) to have a categorical concept with which to process our experience. This is not a "filter" which detracts somehow from an otherwise pure or direct experience; it is a way of speaking about a way of "doing" our cognition which enables us to function normally and adequately in the world. Moreover, a focus on impermanence necessarily shifts one's focus from the static to the dynamic aspects objects which can kind of widen the spotlight of awareness, so to speak, to include the (always dynamic!) activity or process of experiencing along with the always present objects of experience. Think about it: static objects are an abstraction, not an experience. Back to the apple falling, and the causality of it -- and I want to stress this point: the apple does not fall "because" of gravity, or "because" of some curvature of space-time, or even for that matter "because" of some inherent principle of heaviness in apples, or (heaven help me!) "because" of the genetics of the apple tree. It just falls. THEN, as a conscious human, experiencing that, and endowed with whichever apparatus of story-telling my culture has equipped me with, I may sometimes offer a narrative (spoken or written in words or numbers, doesn't matter) to organize and make sense of my experience. If I happen to be a traditional Buddhist, I may organize my experience with the category of "impermanence", and that is a most fruitful step if you pardon the pun. If I happen to be be a Greek or one of their scientific descendants, I will probably be so preoccupied with the apple and its "objective" behaviour that I will fail to notice that I am a conscious experiencer doing what we do all the time, which is telling stories about things.

"No-self" has to do with the reality of the real, which is always relative to something else other than which it is not. The self is most certainly not any "thing", per se, it is a property of the negative space between the object of experience and the activity of experiencing that arises in all conscious experiencers. All humans necessarily fill that negative space with culturally propagated and sanctioned stories about what it means to be a human being. Providing, ordering, imparting, and maintaining this collective narrative has traditionally been the province of religion and more recently of science and "secular" formal education -- the effect is the same; human beings depend upon institutionalized self-definition not because we "are selves" but because the properties of consciousness create a space within which (if you are not sufficiently clear about what is happening) there appears to be a "self". Ingram writes lots of really great stuff busting goofy no-self ideals in MCTB. Shinzen, with the patience of a saint, answers endless questions about the no-self and very helpfully points out that whereas with practice the "self" subsides, personality is often strengthened.

For a much fuller treatment of all of this, please read Leslie Dewart's book, Evolution and Consciousness, summaries of which I have posted on my (recently neglected) blog.

Alternately, or in addition, and perhaps sufficiently, please take Ingram's suggestion seriously enough to make a virtual religion out of it, so to speak: strive in practice to ignore "content" to the very best of your ability and drive relentlessly for "insight". The problem with Ingram's suggestion is that his proposed means of doing this depends on the traditional 3C's, which just don't make a lot of sense or seem particularly self-evident to most 21st Century people, unless they really go out of their way to immerse themselves in considerable amounts of ancillary historical/cultural context. Even so, that is quite attainable and some people manage do it, and it can work out just fine.

Concerning the 3C's, which I am saying correspond strikingly to Dewart's empirically derived categorical concepts: these have everything to do with the activity of being conscious, nothing to do with the objects of consciousness. The defect from which we suffer has to do with being blinded, dazzled, overwhelmed, overpowered, utterly preoccupied with the objects of our experience. Considering where we are coming from -- lower forms of animal life which are perfectly present to the objects of their experience, but even less present their own experiential activity than even the least self-aware but nevertheless normal mature human -- this is not surprising, and we are doing great to have this problem. To avoid cooking ourselves off the plant through global warming and survive as a species, however, we need to continue in the same direction and take full responsibility for being conscious.

Ingram's point is well taken that training in morality is the first and last training. If you are confused by the options, do what you are pondering, make a choice, and work with one thing until that feels done. I keep getting the impression, however, that if you are worried about meaning you could turn to face it squarely with some "Feel In" practice. Even there, though, in practice, be sure to do vipassana not philosophy, even and especially if philosophical thoughts arise. You know best.

What I am saying about noting vocabulary is that Shinzen's most recent manual has many great improvements in the organization of the scheme especially from a pedagogical point of view, at the expense (in my judgement) of a small but potentially significant syntactic regression. It isn't that vocabulary is "important" in and of itself, as if the "meaning of the words", in a semantic sense, had anything to do with the success of insight practice -- on the contrary! When noting, you should speak like a child who has only so far learned one-word utterances, and absolutely constrain yourself to that "level" of expression.

We are not unaware of the objects of our experience. What we are unaware of and need to practice is being "aware of" (present to) the activity of experiencing -- we need to move from content to insight. Shinzen's noting scheme, both old & new, brilliantly and masterful entirely drops the content of experience and puts the entire focus on the activity of experiencing itself! Getting worried about being more "specific" about what you happen to be experiencing (the objects) is a regression. Don't do that; stay at the generic level. Instead, examine the discomfort that arises from cutting yourself off from the addiction to a broken way of thinking. You can only do this if you invest in the up-front overhead of learning the "closed vocabulary", which will then constrain you to having no choice but to practice well and properly. Flash cards are helpful for learning Shinzen's vocabulary.

An alternative approach is to go the Mahasi route with an "open vocabulary" that emphasizes activities -- rising, seeing, touching, thinking, etc. -- but requires, it seems to me, more context and in-person modelling to grok the gestalt of it before one catches on to what one is supposed to be doing, and then requires greater discipline and concentration to actually pull it off. I couldn't do it, for example, even when I sequestered myself for three days and gave it my best effort. Interesting that my experience is the opposite of Christian's. My practice took off when I found Shinzen!

So far, I have failed to convince Shinzen to take into account Dewart's critique of the semantic complex of ontic civilization. Shinzen may be too deeply socialized in the culture of science (with its Greek, indeed Pythagorean, origins) to hear or believe what I am pointing out, or rather what Dewart was pointing out. Nobody knows everything, that's an impossible ideal, even for Shinzen who otherwise comes pretty close.

The workaround I propose for now in the narrow area of noting is simply to learn Shinzen's "old" vocabulary in parallel to the new and in practice to use one-word notes, ideally monosyllabic ones, which formally fit within the system as "custom" labels. If the Mahsi style suits you better, just do that.

I don't have any quick workarounds to the problem of why most human beings do not spontaneously and naturally mature to enlightenment at around the same time as they attain normal cognitive maturity, beyond of course vast amounts of mindfulness practice all around, and making E-Prime somehow replace English. A more modest and attainable short-term step in the right direction (i.e., to seek ways to break out of the semantic complex) might simply be getting a few more people than have heretofore done so to read and understand Evolution and Consciousness, return to their work in diverse fields informed by the syntactic understanding of consciousness, and take it from there.
Christian B, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 88 Join Date: 10/23/10 Recent Posts
Tarver, impressive essay, I won't even try to comment because I'm not at all familiar with Dewarts work. I'd just like to draw attention to a point you addressed en passant: There's an important difference between practice and thinking about practice. Similarly, it's vital to distinguish between (1) understanding a meditation technique so that you can do it successfully and (2) understanding it so that you can explain it with regard to scientific/philosophical/moral/aesthetic frameworks, defend it in academic discussion, explicate the epistemology & philosophy of mind behind it etc.

Tarver :

Interesting that my experience is the opposite of Christian's. My practice took off when I found Shinzen!


Our little discussion seems to indicate that for some, philosophizing about practice and understanding it deeply is conducive to practice, while for others, a more pragmatic approach does the trick. I agree that for someone who wants/needs (2) to practice well, Shinzens system will tend to make a lot more sense than say the 3Cs model.

While this is true, it's also important to remember that (2) can get in the way of actual practice and that people can get the impression that practices with a lot of (2) behind them are in some general way better or safer (being more plausible and scientifically rigorous etc.), and that one first needs to master (2) before actually being able to practice. I believe this is a common fallacy, just as common as thinking that one needs to read all the suttas before being allowed to even sit down on the cushion.

Tarver :

Even there, though, in practice, be sure to do vipassana not philosophy, even and especially if philosophical thoughts arise. You know best.


emoticon
thumbnail
Pablo . P, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 378 Join Date: 3/21/12 Recent Posts
 Tarver :
Even if you don't quite understand what I am saying about the assertiveness and the self-presence of conscious experience, all you need to know for insight practice is that one-word labels (and monosyllabic are the cleanest) are best for noting not just because they are most terse and easiest and quickest to say -- which is true but trivially so -- but also and fundamentally because they are least likely to trigger complex psychological semantic cognitive processes that you do not want to invoke. If like most people in our culture you are naively insensitive to the distinction between pre-thematic and thematic speech due to absent-mindedness, you are liable to innocently continue making this mistake and inadvertently hamper your own progress.


Interesting Tarver!

I wrote this in my practice log today, pointing at another facet of labeling:

Labeling “drop” is better than “relax”, it has a positive feedback loop as it triggers further un-clinging-ness. It’s interesting that even if I don’t try to actively relax but let it happen, the words chosen to label the event do have an effect in the process. In other words, labels do let my see the 3Cs, but some labels are better than others in showing the 3Cs. It’s like a point of contact between NLP and Noting, where some labels have more affinity with our own [individual] mix of visual, auditory and proprioception tendencies. In the particular case of relax vs drop, the later recruits more neurons and have more impact, as it has a kinesthetic component that I have being cultivating in my TaijiQuan practice.

Drop is shorter than letting go, as soltar is to relajar (as I note in Spanish), but to me they have different consequences. In my mind, "drop" evokes a vertical spatial dimension, while "letting go" is more like horizontal (eg. seeing an object floating away in a river). "Fall" could be much like "drop", both are monosyllabic, but in my mind the former has a psychological connotation that my trigger fear. That is to say, I (whoever I is) may let something drop once is seen it's not mine, but fall implies to me dropping all together, both the things I consider mine and not mine. Does this makes sense?


P.S. Could you provide a link with Shinzen's two sets of labeling?
thumbnail
 Tarver , modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 262 Join Date: 2/3/10 Recent Posts
Pablo . P:
Could you provide a link with Shinzen's two sets of labeling?


The "old vocabulary" remains posted on Shinzen's website under the link "For Students", in individual files describing the various "Focus On X" practices.

The "new system" is right on the home page of Shinzen's other website near the bottom, in the Practice Manual.

I gather that Shinzen intends eventually to move to one bigger, better, take-over-the-world master website, but that hasn't happened yet.
thumbnail
Pablo . P, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 378 Join Date: 3/21/12 Recent Posts
Thanks for the links, Tarver. The essay was a challenging but nevertheless interesting read. I can see in your model how the 3Cs interact with each other. Mi intuition is that the No-Self issue is not only about cultural fabrications, there's also biological / evolutionary forces that are of influence.
thumbnail
 Tarver , modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 262 Join Date: 2/3/10 Recent Posts
Pablo . P:
... Mi intuition is that the No-Self issue is not only about cultural fabrications, there's also biological / evolutionary forces that are of influence.

I commend your intuition. Indeed, funny you should mention this one particular aspect of the matter, because in his book Dewart does not get to the bottom of the first page of chapter one before he starts calling attention to the nearly universally misunderstood and/or ignored fact that evolution does not -- emphatically does not -- depend on any "forces" whatsoever for its operation. This fact, an example of a non-deterministic causal explanation of an emergent phenomenon, is an enormous clue -- developed in panoramic sweeping detail over the rest of his book -- to what is wrong with our our minds and how it got that way. I would like to think that what Ingram, Shinzen, you, me, and the rest of us are doing is working towards a solution.

I understand "formations" to be irreducible experiential gestalts. (For anyone coming from the Goenka tradition, something that it took me a long time to clue into that may be of interest is that the Pali word for "formation" is "sankhara".)

Reductionism and determinism are like mud that sticks to your boots from having been born into to an "ontic" (very approximately = "Western") culture. Don't track it onto your meditation cushion as it can impede your progress there; save it for playing outside in the fields of science, technology, philosophy, law, and so on.

One further comment: Ingram makes a big deal about paying attention to what is actually present to sensation at any given moment, in contrast to the usual habit of assuming, for example, that if I glance at something, look away, and then look back that that thing continued to "exist" in the interval. He suggests, for vipassana, to abstain from making that assumption. Shinzen provides numerous techniques for zeroing in on various aspects of experience, and then offers a combinatorial explosion of possibilities for selecting among techniques paying attention now to this aspect of experience, now to that one, over time building the skill set of concentration, clarity, and equanimity. Well, we all know perfectly well that the thing you are not paying attention to doesn't "go away" it just drops out of our immediate experience. Dewart distinguishes conscious from non-conscious experience (as distinct from sub-conscious); in fact most of our experience is non-conscious, but by definition we aren't aware of it. What makes an experience conscious is so blindingly staggeringly simple that most people miss it: consciousness is present to itself. When I integrated these three points of view, my progress accelerated.
thumbnail
dream walker, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 1330 Join Date: 1/18/12 Recent Posts
Andreas Thef:


Usually when I focus on the mental images and the blank state (absence of mental images) I let images rise and pass as they come.

Whenever a mental image came up I focused on it with all my mental power which made the image kind of freeze and slowly vanish. TIt felt like my mind was a magnifying glass held over a piece of paper in the sun. The paper (i.e. mental image) slowly started to burn from the inside out and all I was left with was a highly concentrated but pure blank state.


Here is my take on it. You're watching formations. One arises and passes away. Great. Then you turn on your attention with great focus and you see it arise and pass away and then you have enough attention to see what lies between each formation. Dang good work. Now if I am not mistaken you need only to investigate this blankness and >WHAM< you will pierce it and drop into nirvana. You don't mention where you are on the MCTB path descriptions but this is what I got from your description. Your investigation of the nothingness between formations might take a while or you may need to work on other aspects on the insite steps (see 3 characteristics). I would recommend reading MCTB as it may explain everything much clearer.
Good luck,
D
Andreas Thef, modified 8 Years ago.

RE: Strange experience during focus on blank/mental images

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
After reading some of Ian And's interesting essay on the Jhanas I discovered this link which might give my experience a proper name and some clues on how to get beyond it:

Laya: A Definition

Furthermore by understanding that my frustration plays a major role in keeping me from making progress I think you and I laid out a plan for my next step: go right through it and use it as my meditation object whenever it comes up (and it comes up a lot lately). I think it's time for some practice now...

Thanks for all your great help. See you soon!
Andreas

Breadcrumb