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Dharma Diagnostic Clinic, aka "What was that?"

Darkness After Path? Any Advice Welcome…

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Dear All,

I recently wrote an account of a longer retreat I attended this spring (link) where I believe I experienced fruition and notable after effects including clear cycling for a number of days, an occasional sense that consciousness was shooting out of my head and automatic rewriting of my own personal history. (This is clearly a brief summary with the link containing much more detail). However, these effects didn’t last too long and in the account I talk about a growing visceral ache in my heart region (about a week after fruition), which descended to my abdomen and has stayed there ever since.

I’ve since been home for over 6 weeks now and unlike some whom report greater ease, peace and well-being after fruition (not to mention stronger jhanic abilities), my experience has largely been the opposite: intense, ragged, raw and unsettling. It’s hard to describe but when asked by dharma buddies I explain it as a deep existential crisis or prolonged intense Dark Night with free floating anxiety. There’s sometimes a feeling of danger, as though there’s a sniper in town trying to hunt me down…

I’ve also noticed that many of the old props I used to distract myself with have now crumbled. For example, when waiting to meet someone in town I used to read the endless glossy magazines in newsagents. The very idea now bores me. As do some of the old thought streams I used to indulge in as well as going on the internet to research a new gadget etc.

However, whilst this may all sound pretty bleak, I must add that I don’t feel depressed. There’s still much that inspires me, not least talking about practice with dharma friends at out local centre, going for long walks in nature and formal sitting as much (if not more) than I used to. In fact, sitting formlessly often helps me to soften and (temporarily) accept this experience more for what it is…

It does feel as though something is now playing out, something that I have no control over. My faith remains firm and I do believe that ‘awareness is as awareness does’, which encourages me to just breathe and to return to the moment. However, what I do find bemusing is that some of this seems so different to other experiences after Path. I know it’s not a good idea to compare oneself with others but I would welcome any advice or any shared experience from those who have had similar experiences. Something has changed but I wasn’t expecting it quite like this!

Thanks very much,

Nick

RE: Darkness After Path? Any Advice Welcome…
Answer
8/22/13 7:57 AM as a reply to Nick Green.
Nick, here's my offering: These practices weaken the defense mechanisms. Old feelings, previously repressed, enter into conscious awareness. When you say you have a sense of danger (i.e, a feeling of fear or anxiety), my general advice would be to stay with the feeling. As you say, eventually it will play itself out. Talking it through with a therapist or counselor may help if you find it overwhelming to do this on your own.

RE: Darkness After Path? Any Advice Welcome…
Answer
8/22/13 11:05 AM as a reply to Nick Green.
Hi Nick, I remember your retreat report. It's good to hear back from you.

First, I do relate to what you're going through, as I'm sure other strong meditators here do, so there's no reason to feel isolated in your experience.

Second, the path is notoriously cyclical and reciprocal. The Noble Eightfold path is contained in the Four Noble Truths (as the fourth noble truth), and the Four Noble Truths are contained in the Noble Eightfold Path (as Right View). What this means in practice is that our initial theoretical comprehension kicks off our practice. This practice presents us with many challenges, such as the disillusionment arising from a clear perception of impermanence. If we bring mindfulness, persistence, and effort to the practice, we can see through this disillusionment and find release (as you did on your retreat). This release deepens our theoretical understanding (improves Right View), which we then bring to a new round of practice. But now the practice, informed by our previous experiences, occurs in an even more profound way than before, and so new challenges arise. We see impermanence in places we didn't notice it before, and so the mind starts to see those things in a new light or even lets them go altogether.

What you need to draw upon right now - in addition to the usual faculties of mindfulness and effort - is some rational faith. You know (basically) what this process is about, having taken a pass through it. You know that you're going through a phase right now, and that like anything else that comes into existence, it is impermanent. You know that others have gone through the same experiences, including the Buddha himself.

Should it all get to be too much, you can always step back. Even the most profound meditation sideeffects never seem to last more than a week. It seems like you have a good head on your shoulders, so you probably have the intuition to know whether and when to do that.

One last bit of theory that may help: for better or for worse, we have evolved to view ourselves as separate egos standing opposed to the world. There is sometimes a biological reaction to seeing through this illusion (defense mechanisms, as Derek said). It's okay to reassure yourself that there is no danger, and this is merely a reaction. Should you need to, you can step in and take control of the situation. It's in fact very HARD to see through illusion. :-) The process isn't going to run away from you.

Please feel free to check back in and let us know how you're doing. Again, no reason to feel isolated.

RE: Darkness After Path? Any Advice Welcome…
Answer
8/23/13 3:39 PM as a reply to Fitter Stoke.
Thanks both very much for your replies. It’s good not to feel so alone and I take heart that DhO is a genuine place for folk to reach out and help.

When I take a step back and reflect, I would say my overall feeling is one of bemusement as opposed to feeling overwhelmed. That something has shifted is clear and, if I’m totally honest, I take some pleasure in that fact. However, its how it’s playing out that has led me to stop and scratch my head. What you both write about weakened ‘defence mechanisms’ makes very good sense and is something I’ve been vaguely aware of over the last few weeks. I’ll try and give an example:

One thing I have struggled with for a number of years is giving presentations at work (I know I’m not alone there)! My overall experience over the last two months has been how I feel about 5-10 minutes before I’m due to give a presentation (i.e. edgy, vulnerable and unsettled). These are old feelings I’ve felt on and off throughout my life and over the last few weeks I’ve been starting to sit with them, face them and tentatively accept them (basically because I’ve been forced to)! The upshot is that my last few presentations have been more manageable. Still not great but I’m starting to see more kindness and interest in my audience as opposed to straight up hostility. This has given me more confidence that things are playing out as they should (or as they will).

However, there are moments when the feelings become particularly raw, which usually lead to me reacting more unskilfully that I would like (i.e. becoming disinterested in conversations early, blocking new ideas at work). At such times I would like to step back and dis-embed from this contraction and I like your advice Fitter about using rational faith to reassure myself these feelings are a reaction, to help me do so. It feels like a useful way to work (as well as being out in the world and not on the cushion).

Overall though, it’s the fact that you both recognise this experience that I find heartening. Whilst I’ve read some useful stuff/ advice over the last few weeks (Kornfield and Pema Chodron) it makes a big difference to have some tailor-made!