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Mindspace's Practice Log

Mindspace's Practice Log
3/25/14 6:35 PM
Why start a practice log?

  • for the interest of my future self
  • because I like processing my experience via writing

How I got into meditation

I dipped my toes in the meditation ocean a few times before plunging in, and my motivation shifted each time. I'm mainly writing up this section as an illustration of how one can circle the dharma a few times before getting truly sucked in, and how my relationship towards it has changed over time.

Back in the summer of 2011 I was interning at a small startup and came across a reference to vipasanna meditation online, where it was described as a technique that could greatly improve one's attentional capacities. The post referred to the book Mindfulness in Plain English which I eagerly downloaded as soon as getting home that night.

The impression of vipasanna I got from that book was that it was a technique to untrain yourself out of unproductive mental habits, such as the wandering 'monkey mind' and the habit of assigning a value judgement (good/bad/boring) to every sensation.

What particularly impressed/intrigued me about that book was what as I saw at the time as an impressively stoic attitude. Pain? Fear? Keep your awareness on the breath. Bliss? Benevolent love for all beings? Keep your awareness on the breath.

I tried meditation about 3 or 4 times and found it useful, though ultimately ended up filing it away as 'one of many useful habits I should probably adopt seriously at some point'. (I was struggling greatly with indiscipline in many areas of my life at that time in my life).

One small observation I remember from this early practice was how, when I'd manage to stop paying attention to the everyday thoughts going around my head, my mind would take the opportunity to bring up more seductive and interesting thoughts (philosophical musings, grandiose plans, etc). That's an effect I still observe today.

Anyway, I picked meditation up again in early 2012, while approaching my final exams of university. Having had some interesting experiences on the cushion and curious to learn more I went looking for more meditation information online and stumbled across MCTB (possibly via the blog Lesswrong, I can't remember). I was immediately hooked and spent half of the next day (putting off an urgent coursework assignment) to read it cover to cover.

The main impression I got from the book after my first read was that:

  • there's something called 'concentration practice' which gives you access to increasingly pleasant states
  • there's something called 'insight practice' which gives you access to something even more worthwhile than the samatha jhanas (at the time I assumed this just meant 'a really really pleasant state') but which required going through a load of suffering first
  • it was a good idea to balance insight practice with concentration practice

To which my natural conclusion was that I could ignore insight practice for the time being and focus on getting access to those sweet sweet jhanas.

(This isn't what I believe now, I'm just mentioning it as it seems like a natural conclusion to draw for one new to the world of maps and attainments and jhanas and nanas and so on. At the time, just reading something by a scientist (!) talking about mysticism (!) with no new age woo was perception-shattering to me. Since that time I I've realised that a) concentration practice is really freaking hard and that b) temporary blissful states aren't that worthwhile. But I'm getting ahead of myself).

So at that point I got into meditation semi-regularly for a period of a few weeks, sitting for up to an hour at some points. I possibly accessed first or second jhana at this point, though for whatever reason (possibly the frustration of not being able to re-access the jhana and the incredible busyness of final exams) I ended up putting meditation on the backburner again.

(It's funny, I've just remembered that it was around that time that I first experimented with smoking weed alone, but didn't even think to explore its effects on cognition, which seems like such an obvious thing to do now. It's strange to remember a time in my life before I became preoccupied with exploring the various dimensions of conciousness).

It was in early 2013 that I was in the midst of one my periodic self-improvement kicks and decided to look into vipasanna again (that was when I made my initial post on this forum, asking about cycling and the dark night, since it was the main thing putting me off the path described in MCTB, and I'd heard of possible alternatives). Shortly after that my main freelancing client disappeared for about a month, making me realise that freelancing wasn't really working out for me, and the ensuing turmoil over the next few months working at temporary gigs and looking for a new job pushed meditation out of my mind.

At the same time (this being about 6 months since graduating university, and shortly after abandoning my doomed attempts to start a startup) my mind was suddenly becoming interested in all the topics it had been interested in before the 4 years of university. Politics, society, religion, philosophy, etc.

In particular, I was obsessed with the view of the world as patterns and meta-patterns, self-organising systems evolving towards greater complexity. I remember one pleasant Friday evening spent stoned and reading Wikipedia articles about evolution. (You can see probably see how this all tied in with my then-obsession with self-improvement).

I'd also been reading up on cognitive behavioural therapy and something called perceptual control theory, which are both basically about training yourself out of harmful thought patterns using rationality. One particular thought pattern I was having particular trouble dispelling was 'I must not waste time. I must only spend my time on highly worthwhile activities'. In the end I reasoned that "I can't waste time, because 'I' do not exist" - at the time I was already intellectually aware of the idea of the ego being an illusion - but I decided on that day that I would take this idea seriously, and view myself as a detached observer.

And it worked! I managed to spend an entire Sunday walking around and meeting a friend without existing, referring to myself internally as 'this person' rather than 'I'. Looking back, I think the sense of a separate watcher still remained, though this wasn't something I knew to check in on at the time. Anyway, a Monday morning and its accompanying office stress brought the ego back, and I wasn't able to repeat the experience.

(For the scientific record, one ebook I read on PCT also included a reference to this NLP technique which I may have used to dissolve the self that Sunday, I can't remember exactly).

At this time I stumbled across the notion of panpsychism, and the mathematical universe hypothesis, and the writings of Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson, and a ton of other interesting ideas, and spent a glorious summer exploring the depthless sea of concepts, models, worldviews, connecting and re-connecting ideas. Glorious, but ultimately pointless - there's a reason they call it intellectual masturbation. I discovered the ability to get high from pure thought, but like with all undisciplined highs, they don't last.

At the end of last summer I got hold of an obscure psychedelic called 4-AcO-DMT, and had a series of 4 increasingly extreme and profound experiences. On the final occasion, I explored Spengler's notion of the consciousness of different civilisations, pushed further out to various speculations on the mathematical structure of conciousness and reality, and came to the conclusion that we were all part of one universal conciousness - but that reality was a trick we/I/the universal conciousness played on itself, the stone that God created which he couldn't lift. We had tied ourself in a knot and there was nothing outside of ourselves to untie it.

At this point the idea came that if I could remember the 3 characteristics, I could get enlightened. (Though I was far beyond ego death at this point and even the notion of thoughts, and particularly the idea of trying to remember something, felt very uncomfortable). I hadn't practiced meditation for a while at this point, but MCTB had stuck in my mind. Still, somehow it seemed like there were only two characteristics (I can't remember which two - maybe I felt that the third was an inevitable consequence of the other two). Then there were three bangs, like I was the universe creating itself, and then a rather unpleasant comedown where everything was profoundly weird (bright lights were weird, darkness was weird, being awake was weird, sleeping was weird, and the weirdness wasn't going to go away).

Basically, if I hadn't experienced the A&P before then, I certainly did that night.

(Though looking back, I may have gone through the A&P on a long and extremely blistered walk in 2008, since prior to that I'd been fairly happy-go-lucky and after that there was a frequent undercurrent of anxiety in my life that kept popping up).

The day afterwards, I was rather shaken up, and felt a vague sense of nausea towards many of the concepts I'd previously found so fascinating, especially those that led one to a concept of the universal eternal conciousness, an idea I know found (and still find) rather horrifying. I remain agnostic, but one that now leans strongly towards the materialist atheism end of the spectrum.

Suddenly, the Buddhist ideal of nirvana as an eternal cessation of consciousness made a lot more sense, and shortly after than I took up meditation seriously.

[This turned out longer than expected! Will continue next time with regular practice logs].