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Fruition but no idea which path – any help gratefully received

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Dear All,

I recently returned from an 11 week retreat at Vajraloka, in North Wales. This is a meditation centre of the Triratna Community (formerly Friends of the Western Buddhist Order). As can be imagined plenty of experiences arose, some clear as a bell, others less so, and I would greatly appreciate any advice people can give. In brief, I’m certain I experienced Fruition and Review but so much arose around this time, with a ‘veil’ falling with regard to past events, that I’m pretty confused about where I might be in terms of Daniel’s four stage model. The following account is very long (and I’ve tried to make it as short as possible ) but if a few folk could read it though and give their opinion, I would be very, very grateful.

By way of background, I have been meditating for 18 years with the Triratna Community, having a firm foundation in Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana practice. Over the years, I have attended about 25 meditation retreats (usually between 1 – 2 weeks) as well as other ‘Sangha’ retreats where the emphasis is more on Dharma study. I have also practiced in Sri Lanka (under Godwin Samararatna’s guidance at Nilambe) as well as a few retreats in Nepal. After discovering MCTB in 2010 and almost crying with relief, I wrote an account on DhO about experiences on a one month retreat in July 2000 (found at: http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/message/1334317). At the time, the feedback was split with one person advising I had crossed the A&P Event and another that it was First Path. Either way, after reading MCTB I felt freshly inspired to push on and, after recovering from illness in 2011, started putting plans in place for a longer retreat in spring 2013.

The 11 week retreat I have just returned from was actually made up of five separate retreats with a few gaps in between. The first two where at the retreat centre (with others in silence), then I spent two weeks in a solitary cabin, returning to the retreat centre for a further two retreats. Unlike many retreats in the Mahasi tradition, Triratna meditation retreats are more open with a less constant sit/ walk/ sit/ walk/ sit structure. However, if one so chooses one can use the shrine room as much as required and walk whenever one feels like it.

First Retreat

Anyway, at the start of this year I decided to ramp up my noting practice and sat for 1 – 2 hours a day until it was time to leave for the retreat in mid-April. I arrived in good spirits and immediately settled into the retreat, using noting as much as I could on and off the cushion. Rather than feeling like a straight-jacket, the noting helped me harness energy. Coupling this with some Metta Bhavana sits in the morning sessions I soon felt natural strong mindfulness arise. By day four/five I felt I could dispense with constant noting and only returned to it as an ‘aide memoir’ when I got lost in occasional distraction. Rather than stick to prose, I’ll bullet some standout experiences in the first retreat:

1. One teacher encouraged us to ‘breathe into’ areas of tension or felt-sense in the body. Working this way, I would often watch the body feelings dissolve, melt and shift away, with a sense of my awareness dropping lower and lower as I continued. Finally, I was in slow free-fall with my awareness falling all the way to the bottom of the ocean floor….bummmppph. The experience was remarkably still and quiet. So still. So quiet. Finally, there was a small eruption from the ocean floor and a few bubbles/ vibrations appeared to arise. Tracing them ‘back to the surface’ I watched in wonder as they garnered a cloak of feeling or thought and turned into something recognisable. It was though I could watch individual frames arising. After the bell went and I finally stood up to have supper, I felt almost drugged and very slow. My sense is that this was an A&P experience (p207 MCTB ). It happened a few times over the next day or so.

2. One night in bed I found it very hard to sleep with energy ‘blocks’ chunking through my body. Energy flashes (behind closed eyes) and higher vibratory tinnitus finally gave way to a lower pulsing sound as it seemed I entered the Dukkha nanas.

3. On this retreat I seemed to move quickly through the early DN (using plenty of Metta Bhavana and watching the breath) but then had the weirdest experience: one evening we had a Puja and I just couldn’t believe how apathetic everyone seemed. It was though no one could be arsed with the ritual, as though it was bland and pointless. Almost laughable. In bed later, I wondered if was a hallucinogenic experience. Either way, there was no-way of mistaking what came next as during the night I slipped into Re-observation.

4. Strange to say, with strong Metta Bhavana practice I gently left Re-observation and moved into a more open and inclusive space (with back-ache and sitting-bone pains dissolving away). My sense was that I had reached Equanimity.

At this point, the retreat came to an end. However, as I was staying on I continued practicing and managed to sit and walk for 6 hours a day over the next week. This was a mixed experience. At first I felt strong tiredness and apathy to sitting but had been warned about this, so pushed on. In time, I could just sit down, watch the breath for a while and then open to effortless space. Around here I started to experience what I thought where ‘clunky’ formations: my senses starting to swirl and align around the third eye in my forehead. However, before everything could align my heart rate would rocket in anticipation and the energy would dissipate away. This occurred a number of times and however hard I tried to deepen my sitting I couldn’t seem to get much further and my sense was that I was stuck in low Equanimity, unsure about how to proceed.

Shen Therapy and Second Retreat

One friend who lived at the retreat centre was training to become a Shen practitioner and offered to give me 10 sessions. Seeing as the ‘Universe had given me’ this opportunity I gladly accepted. Thinking it might also help me get passed the block discussed above. From the Shen website, the process works like this: “Using the biofield qi (ch'i) from our hands, we first loosen the contractions trapping the painful emotions deep inside the body, then we reposition our hands to lift the emotions to the surface where they can dissipate. This process is repeated as necessary and sets the stage for a sound, positive emotional shift.” Over the next few days I had a few sessions and felt deeper energies shifting. Eventually these erupted and I was swamped by panic attacks again and again during the second retreat. Whilst incredibly painful and scary (WTF is going on) I sat through them using more formless meditation (holding experience in kindly awareness) and plenty of Metta Bhavana practice. By the end of the second retreat the panic no longer had such a hold on me and I felt a barrier had been passed.

Solitary Retreat

After a few days taking it easier it was time for my two weeks in the solitary cabin up the road from the retreat centre. This is where so much happened and I will try and write as precisely as possible. Having being inspired by Tarin’s “Reformed Slackers Guide to SE” I had planned to ramp my noting practice back up to full. If I’m honest, I managed to walk/ sit for about 8-10 hours each day for the first week, which felt quite a stretch after 5 weeks of almost constant practice. However, it seemed enough to get things moving:

1. What was amazing was the volume of tinnitus in my ears. By day three this was at record levels (like after a really loud gig) and had I not been forewarned by Daniel in MCTB (saying perceptual thresholds can change), I would have been really spooked. Once again, my tinnitus appeared to change pitch and frequency depending where I was on the Progress of Insight. Entrance to DN would be heralded by a drop in frequency and a drum like beat in my left ear, then as I moved along DN these discordant/ dissonant chords would ring at higher and even louder frequencies in both ears that was truly ugly. Finally, as I entered Equanimity the pitch appeared to increase but soften into harmonics as the tinnitus would finally quieten down.

2. So, by day three I went to bed thinking, “Great, back into Equanimity. Now let’s knock the bugger off and get this thing done!” Oh how I now laugh! The next four days were simply wretched. Each time I climbed into bed in Equanimity only for tinnitus to return and slide back from harmonics, into discordant mess and finally the low/ slow drumbeat of early DN. I awoke in the middle of each night feeling truly awful. WTF was going on?! Reading Daniel’s section on Re-observation helped me bare much of the ‘fundamental suffering’ but by day seven I felt at my wits end. Day after day of noting practice, pushing through the DN only to slide back at night. I finally lay exhausted on the floor of the cabin thinking “I can’t go on anymore, if I push harder I’m going to have an aneurysm in my brain.” IT WAS BLEAK.

3. Whilst I’d promised myself I would note all through the solitary retreat I knew in my heart I had to change tack. In MCTB Daniel does say that once in Equanimity effort needs to be balanced by acceptance. Also, Tarin makes it clear that at this point, we’re effectively alone and need to work things out for ourselves… OK, I decided, I’m switching to pure formless sitting with no noting. Time to have a Puja by way of marking the change… finally something shifted… something gave and I felt purifying water pouring through my body. I had a strong sense of Vajrasattva above me pouring the water from a vessel as I slowly relaxed. Finally, I realised, I had to go through the last four days to clear out the unskilful desires I held for Enlightenment.

4. How wondrous to sit the next day in open space! Effortless panorama opened up as I started to see that the wind in the trees, the sheep bleating, my feelings and thoughts were all the same – just sense arising in awareness as passing away again. The centre point felt like it was started to loosen up.

5. On about day 9 I decided to read one excerpt from the LU Gateless Gatecrashers book and one poem by Sangharakshita (the founder of the Triratna order). The poem was one of the most beautiful things I have read and concludes with White Tara telling the mantra of Great Compassion on her ‘crystal rosary of the tears of men’. At this point my heart cracked open and I bit my index finger not to cry. Finally, I read one LU transcript in the GG book and the truth of not-self opened up. I believe I entered high Equanimity at this point. All I could do was go for a walk. No longer was I walking down the road but in fact I was stationary on a treadmill with ‘my’ karma presenting itself to me. I had penetrating insight into conditioned co-production and the three marks – so clear, so obvious and so utterly profound. For the next couple of days where I could effortlessly sit in 4th vipassana jhana with the most panoramic awareness ever.

6. The next few days were odd because I was as ‘keen as mustard’ to experience Fruition but unsure about how it would present. Once again, it seemed all six sense would start to align with strange pulses and shifts in my body. This would steadily become more clear as ‘something’ was about to happen and then… at the last moment part of me would jump back into a dualistic position to try and ‘watch’ Fruition. Damn! Try again (by harnessing the energy of the defilement). Of course, I never ‘saw’ a winking out. But there was definitely ‘blibs’ at the end of each attempt to land path.

7. On day 11 I went to bed after a day of sitting. What was strange was that I felt quite scared, as though I was going to go mad. However, I just held the feeling for twenty minutes or so in kindly awareness and let it shift on. Next I fell into a kind of dream… on opening my eyes I saw an image of a window… next the image and everything with it seemed to fall away and rotate downwards with the creepiest sound (like Chewbacca falling down a plug hole)… something might have returned to ‘this’ side and then I remember no more. A short while later I thought I was awake and started rooting around in a cupboard for something I knew wasn’t there – like I was checking it was no longer there. Next I awoke with a great sense of peace in my body.

8. Day 12 was odd. Hand on my heart I wasn’t sure if I had truly experienced Fruition (through the suffering door with emptiness also present) so I carried on sitting and experienced endless ‘near-misses’. However, as I still thought that I should experience a complete ‘winking’ out of awareness I couldn’t tell if I was cycling or not. However, once back at the retreat centre and on the next retreat it was clear that I was.

Fourth Retreat

Repeatedly I would feel a deep shift in my body, a strange ‘beooww’ noise and then drop into DN (with a matching drop in my tinnitus frequency). This was a ragged experience, which I had no control of. It felt a bit like ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ out in his new sport scar, careering down a steep slope only to smash into a tree. Then, my energy would lift and tinnitus clear as I soared into Equanimity. Formations would make the room or view ‘judder’ before my eyes before ‘blib’ and the rest button was hit (as Daniel says in MCTB ). This happened again and again and again.

Other times, I would feel my whole consciousness shoot out of my head, which was terrifying the first time because I didn’t know where the hell I was or even who I was. In time, I learnt to enjoy this weird experience!

Also, around this time I kept revisiting my own history (memories) and would watch with fascination as the past was being re-written before my eyes. In many ways I had no say in this process and would often just stand in the garden, staring at a flower as the dance unfolded.

My Shen sessions continued, with the most amazing energy shifts and unlocking of ‘body armour’. Half way through the 4th retreat this led to the most painful ache in my chest region. One day I decided to just sit and hold this ache… slowly and slowly it fell gathering into my abdomen… slowly a phrase came to mind:

“The timeless ache of separation caused by the illusion of duality in all sentient beings”

It was quite unbearable but I was determined to hold on and hold it… suddenly the doors of the Mahayana opened to reveal the Bodhisattva Ideal – it was both beautiful and terrifying. However, I quickly realised that in essence, there is no Hinayana, no Mahayana and no Vajrayana, just the Buddha-way, which insight into the three marks will always lead to.

Fifth Retreat

In many ways, this is where my story of the 11 week retreat ends and to this day the ‘timeless ache’ hasn’t really left me. When the final retreat started my back gave out and I experienced painful sciatica that kept me off the stool. In many ways, I felt this was OK because it gave me a chance to reflect on all that had happened as well as write up my dairy. As my mindfulness decreased, my sense of cycling fell away and I can no longer clearly say if I am cycling or not.

Conclusion and Questions

First of all, many apologies for this long account. I hope some have made it this far and can help with my question:

1. My sense is that I have experienced Fruition and completed a Path of Insight. Is this true?

However, things feel very complicated because many of the things that happened during and after the solitary retreat where already known to me. What I mean is that the fear of madness before the night off day 11, the profound sense of peace afterwards on waking the next day, penetrating insight into the Dharma and a change in my own personal history all occurred 13 years ago in July 2000. However, without MCTB (or even a scratchy tape of a Burmese monk explaining the Progress of Insight) I had no idea what was happening. Back then, I became swamped in my own ‘stuff’ that bubbled up during the DN so that when re-telling the experience I concentrated on the fact that I had a massive cathartic release. However, I can also remember the most profound sense of gratitude, feeling that I had discovered that which I knew was lost, feeling the ‘writing had always been on the wall’ and that I was finally back home. I even remember thinking I had ‘done what was needed to be done’ as the retreat came to an end.

After a few blissful months in the summer of 2000 this all passed. However, what I can is that life was so much better and I was no longer caught up in or at the whim of painful angst ridden mind states that characterised much of my 20s (when I believe I was a DN yogi). So, next question:

2. Might I have landed First Path in July 2000? If so, what Path was this?

I hope someone will be able to help and please, if you do, feel free to ask more questions. Whilst this account is long, I have missed much out to try and keep it clear (and not too boring)!

Thanks very much,

Nick

RE: Fruition but no idea which path – any help gratefully received
Answer
7/13/13 8:55 AM as a reply to Nick Green.
Hi Nick! It sounds like you had a series of intense, deep experiences on a few different levels, and that you engaged in some very strong practice.

What I really like about reading your account is that it's obvious you thought for yourself and really worked through the territory using your intuition in combination with what you'd already read. I jotted down a few notes while reading your descriptions, things like, "He needs to disembed from practice," but then a couple paragraphs later you figured out to do just that. You have really strong intuition for this kind of stuff with the discipline to match.

So rather than go line-by-line, let's just jump to your questions at the end.

1. My sense is that I have experienced Fruition and completed a Path of Insight. Is this true?


Yes. I was able to easily follow your descriptions and see how you crossed the A&P into Dissolution, came out of Reobservation, fell back into Reobservation a few times, hung around the weird, anxious part of mid-Equanimity for awhile, finally understood that you had to disembed from practice, entered into High Equanimity, and that your mind eventually "got it" and self-synchronized. I feel better than 90% confident that you completed the classic Mahasi path. What you describe as the emotional and phenomenological aftermath sounds about right.

2. Might I have landed First Path in July 2000? If so, what Path was this?


I don't know! But in my opinion it's not that important.

The most important thing for you right now is to keep up the momentum of your practice. You don't have to go at it as hard as on the retreat, but you want to keep practicing about an hour a day. Just showing up on the cushion is good, because if your mind doesn't regularly look at fundamental reality, it's easy for it to slip back to its old ways. It's not like you have little switches in your brain labeled "first path", "second path", and so on, and once you flip a switch, it stays there forever. These path designations are convenient ways of organizing the experiences of yogis on the path. They conceal the reality, which is an individual's jelly-like mass of intricately entangled neurons, linked up to a nervous system which is in constant intercourse with the world. So keep encouraging that nervous system to grow the way you want, like a good bonzai, that way you don't have to start from scratch in the future.

From a more technical point of view, there are numerous ways to go forward from here. The easiest thing (aside from doing nothing) is to continue to have cycles. You'll find that, as the effect of the retreat wears off, it might be harder to go up and down the ñanas, that you get "stuck" in certain spots. But then after a few months, it appears something opens, and you go up and get fruitions again. Some people call this "second path" or "third path" or whatever. I think that's less important than the fact that you're showing up, you're perceiving things about fundamental reality (that maybe you don't consciously see), your nervous system is learning and growing, and your mind is gradually becoming more and more sensitive.

This last point - becoming more sensitive - is very important (or at least it was for me). The first or second or third times you go through the progress of insight, your comprehension is relatively coarse. If you get some real strong command over your own mind - especially the ability to calm and still it with samatha meditation - it's like swapping out a really cheap microscope for a more powerful one. So you'll continue to experience that same Progress of Insight territory, but you're going to notice new things about it. It wasn't until about six months after stream entry that many of the things Daniel described in MCTB started standing out to me. But a few months after that, things I hadn't even read about started showing up, and I felt I was getting a very deep comprehension of experience.

Progress after stream entry is measured in different ways by different people - Kenneth Folk uses the jhanas and the sense of being "done", and Daniel uses a more insight-based model - and either of those is useful up to a point. If you follow either of those paths out, you're going to develop the enhanced resolution that I'm describing here. And it's that high degree of sensitivity to experience and resolution of consciousness that comes from a clear, open, attentive mind that will bring release.

But my reading of you is that you have very good intuition for what you need to do. Read up on what people do after stream entry, and then go with what feels right. It sounds like you should have no trouble being disciplined about it.

And again, good job! You put a lot of strong practice in and reaped the benefits. Amongst other things, now is definitely a time to allow yourself to feel good about that.

RE: Fruition but no idea which path – any help gratefully received
Answer
7/13/13 5:23 PM as a reply to Fitter Stoke.
Hi Fitter! First of all, thanks very much for your post. I can’t tell you how useful it is to get some feedback directly relating to my experience on retreat, as apposed to second guessing some stuff from re-reading MCTB. That I almost know that book by heart(!) shows how appreciative I am to Daniel but it’s wonderful to have some direct feedback as well.

You’ve touched on some really interesting stuff in your reply. I have to say, I’ve always assumed that there are ‘little switches in brain’ that once flipped stay there forever and that once a Path is complete, that’s it. Your point about keeping (some) effort to encourage the nervous system to grow in a useful way makes good sense. I wonder, just wonder, if this is what happened after July 2000, when I sense a big shift also happened but maybe I didn’t make enough skilful effort afterwards? It’s hard to say, because I’ve pretty much had a regular daily meditation practice for 18 years (as well as attending regular retreats) but back then I concentrated so much on the psychological insight gained that I didn’t keep an eye on the three characteristics. That said, it was so good to feel some reduction in the emotional burden I had been carrying for a long time, so maybe I did just what I needed to do. Anyway, like you say, it’s not that important.

Your post has come at just the right time and encourages me to keep on with practice following my own intuition. That said, what has been weird is that since my back went during the last two weeks of the retreat, I haven’t done much formal sitting (because it’s been too painful). In one way I have thought that it’s my body telling me to chill out for a bit (after intense practice) but it has been over three weeks now and I now wonder if I should start trying to sit again (or at least lie down and meditate) each day? As you suggest, it’s now hard to perceive any cycling and, overall, I do feel somewhat ‘stuck’ in certain spots, which more often is DN. However, when I finally turn to face it (often in bed at night) and hold the feelings in kindly awareness they tend to move on and I feel lighter for the effort. At such times I also reconnect with a deeper confidence in the Dharma (and I guess I’m answering my question above)!

If I read your post correctly, I think you’re also saying some samatha meditation would now be useful (as opposed to straight up noting)? The strange thing is, it almost feels like I’ve forgotten how! What I mean is that I have spent so much time this year working on vipassana practice that the thought of ‘solidifying’ the breath (for example) feels odd. However, I’ve also had this advice from elsewhere and will give it a go.

Finally, thanks very much for your encouragement and rejoicing in merit. I really appreciate it. It was sometimes a lonely spot, sitting on the ‘ragged edge of reality’ but knowing others have gone this way before greatly helped as well as a knowledge, deep down, that this is our birthright.

Nick

RE: Fruition but no idea which path – any help gratefully received
Answer
7/13/13 6:07 PM as a reply to Nick Green.
Cultivate samatha +1

Keep going.

Nick

RE: Fruition but no idea which path – any help gratefully received
Answer
7/14/13 12:57 AM as a reply to Nick Green.
Cool stuff Nick. Some constructive criticism that I would ask anyone who does practice log type things.

You seem to remember in pretty good detail the events that you are experiencing, the feelings, the sensations, your guesses about the implications of events. You need a whole 'nother mental system running to keep track of all these things. And these systems would need to take up some of your dhamma/awareness's bandwidth.

But is this not the exact opposite type of thing that we are trying to do here? We are trying to destroy ego and mental systems not create new ones. What do you think?

RE: Fruition but no idea which path – any help gratefully received
Answer
7/14/13 12:11 PM as a reply to Bailey ..
Hi Blue, very interesting point and I’m not quite sure what I think. Trungpa’s ‘Spiritual Materialism’ comes strongly to mind, which I think is a fair point.

It also reminds me of something I was discussing recently with a friend, where we basically explored, “So, you’ve just told me about your trip to Disneyland [i.e. a retreat experience] but how are you currently experiencing the present moment”? I think it’s a valid point. Certainly such questions do illicit a contraction in me, suggesting something in my shadow (about control and wanting to get it right) has been touched. I always think it’s worth me looking at these contractions and will do so with this one.

However, openings have happened in the past and not making a note of them (for example in my diary) has sometimes led to them being quickly forgotten and not assimilated. On this last retreat I was keen to keep a diary, so that things wouldn’t slip by but, if I’m totally honest, much of my account was written from memory, so clearly, I have replayed it over in my mind. Overall, I wonder if a middle ground is needed, whereby we honour and acknowledge our experience, enough for it to take firmer hold and then move on. Certainly, writing/talking about it and getting some feedback has proved very useful and has helped me to make sense of some aspects of the retreat which I couldn’t understand.

However, as my friend and I discussed, getting back to the present moment does feel important and almost a relief. After all, that’s all there ever is. Is this what you are getting at?

Nick

RE: Fruition but no idea which path – any help gratefully received
Answer
7/14/13 6:31 PM as a reply to Nick Green.
Not spiritual materialism. It’s dhamma twitter, and we’re cooler than that, the fruits of the path are far enough motivation of practice.

More importantly.. it is exactly as I said. Literally, to have a practice journal, or to talk about your experiences in detail requires an observing ego/mental system operating while you are meditating and during down times at your retreat.

This extra mental system is sapping bandwith/awareness which would have otherwise gone to dhamma progress. I hope that makes sense.

RE: Fruition but no idea which path – any help gratefully received
Answer
7/15/13 5:04 AM as a reply to Bailey ..
It does make sense Blue. Whilst I think some reflection is useful (and necessary), I think your point is particularly valuable and something I will bear in mind in future. Thanks,

Nick