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Advice Sought on How to Practice

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Advice Sought on How to Practice
Answer
5/12/14 6:24 PM
Hi there. Can anyone offer me some guidance on how to practice at whatever stage I’m in right now (not entirely sure). I won’t have access to a teacher for at least a few months. I’ve been drawn to insight traditions lately after reading MCTB, but I’m more familiar with Zen practice. To make this post easier to follow, I’ve divided it into three parts - preliminary information that might be relevant, recent events that are probably relevant, and finally, my question.

Part 1 of 3: Preliminary Information that Might be Relevant

A. Pre-Practice Phase: I am only now finishing up reading MCTB and have been browsing this website, so it’s only recently become fairly clear that for about twenty years, I was probably either a chronic dark night yogi, or I kept crossing back and forth into Dark Nights.

B. Practice Background: A few years ago I spent 5 weeks in residence at a Zen monastery, and three days later I went to a 10-day Goenka course. Six months after that, I spent three more weeks in-residence at a Zen monastery. Since then I have practiced only Zen on and off, sometimes with an organized sangha once a week. During a 7-day sesshin at the Zen monastery and the 10-day Goenka course, I had REALLY rough times, some of the worst depression I’ve ever known.

Part 2 of 3: Recent Events that are Probably Relevant for My Question

A. About a month ago I was drawn to MCTB and started to mediate regularly again (25-35 minutes twice a day, sometimes more when I can).

B. Other people on this site have helped me to understand that I probably crossed the A&P stage recently. That post and the comments other people gave are here in case you think they might be relevant:  http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/message/5527464. One thing that I left out of that post was that immediately after the peak of the event that I describe, I noticed a degree of depersonification for three to five minutes, and I got this image of my body as it would look if someone painted it in a vaguely Australian Aboriginal style. Anyhow, after that event, I’ve noticed more intense vibrations most of the day, no matter what I’m doing.

C. Since the A&P event, I have been waiting for the inevitable Dark Night to follow, a territory that I thought I knew well. The thing is, it’s been so mild that I’m worried that it’s not yet the DN. If it is DN, though, I’m convinced it’s mild this time because now I know what’s happening, and I trust that it will end eventually if I keep practicing (earlier, I had never heard of anything like a Dark Night - or any other stage).

D. I don’t really recall a Dissolution stage, but about two days after the A&P event, I noticed that I had this dull sense of Fear. That night, it felt like I had a very mild panic attack, but I took the fear as my object of focus, watched its vibrations, and it just wasn’t a problem. It felt more like it should have been fearsome but just wasn’t, sort of analogous to the initial sensation after you sip from a cup thinking there’s orange juice inside, but it turns out to be water.

E. That was followed by some depression (the Misery stage, I presume), but for some reason, it just wasn’t a problem. I took the depressive feeling as my object, but this was a little bit more difficult to do than it was with the Fear. While the depression was proceeding, I got a strong feeling of renouncing the need to be a “hot shot”, and for the first time in my life, I began to feel fine with just being an average guy. The intensity of that sensation subsided after a few hours, but the realization has stayed. Anyhow, the depression was present for maybe two days, but like the earlier Fear, it just didn’t bother me that much. About this time, I started to acknowledge some buried emotions that I usually try to block without realizing that I do that. The “Misery” and Fear vibrations weren’t small points, they were more like somewhat kidney-shaped disks that fell through my head and got more distinct when they “hit” between my nose and upper lip at the rate of 4 to 6 a second. There was a vaguely grey-green or aqua-colored sensation to them that wasn’t really a color.

F. I had mild sensations of Disgust at food and people who I like for a few hours.

G. I can’t say if there’s been any huge Desire for Deliverance because this Dark Night just isn’t all that “Dark”. I recognize these negative sensations clearly, and sometimes they’re sort of unpleasant, but they’re nowhere close to the all-consuming fears and depressions that have incapacitated me in the past for months at a time.

H. The closest thing that might or might not be Re-Observation is maybe some cycling of Dark Night symptoms. Their effect is comparable to when someone else’s six-year old says something to you that would be really offensive coming from an adult, and the most annoying part is not the insult, but that you have to be bothered to respond.

I. Since before my A&P event, I’ve been going through some trying personal circumstances. The thing is that whereas they would have flattened me before, now they are not hugely interfering with my life. It’s not that they don’t matter (they do), just that I don’t experience them as horrific.

J. Last night I was watching a documentary when I started thinking “this seems like how they describe the Equanimity stage, but did I really pass through a Dark Night, or is the end of the A&P? If that was the DN, then that was easier than I could have imagined.” I was a little unnerved at how good I felt and worried that I might be getting a little too proud, and that I might be clinging to advancement along the various stages.

K. Then, out of nowhere I felt something brewing for a minute, and SWOOSH! A pleasant but harsh feeling of renunciation suddenly flowed through my mind and body. It was both quite mild and jarring at the same time. Something hit me that the fear or sadness will ALWAYS be present, that there is no escape - period -  but that’s not REALLY a problem because I know and accept that and can experience them as just sensations. “Bittersweet” is the only term I can think of to describe it. I felt a little down but very relieved at the same time. Then for maybe 15 minutes I had the following fractal thought chain that cycled far too fast to attach words to any thought:

1. This renunciation sensation is nice, but it will end, and it’s not really you or yours. That’s too bad, isn’t it?
2. Well, yes, I know it’ll end, it’s not me, and that sure is and will be disappointing. What a load off my shoulders to accept that. Damn, this load off my shoulders is a nice sensation!
3. Oh yeah, well, THAT nice sensation will end, too. It’s not really you or yours, either. That’s also too bad, isn’t it?
4. Well, yes, [go to line 2, repeat 2-4 for 15 minutes]

It was like dukkha and acceptance were locked in a cyclic, pulsing homeostasis.

L. I remembered having read in MCTB that people sometimes confuse dukkha from their own circumstances with existential dukkha. Shortly after note K above, that idea, which had been brewing around for a few days, got forefronted in my mind. I was thrilled to realize this, ironically, because that means there’s nothing to be done about it, so I can stop fighting now. I was also happy to realize that it’s not just me - everyone else is undergoing at least some of the same negative stuff, which does not seem at all like a skillful way to view this.  

M. I’ve been feeling stable and level-headed for the past two days, but distracted. Sitting in meditation has become a more uncomfortable. I’m not as “up” as before, but I’m still content. Also, I’m increasingly recognizing what I think is called “don’t know mind”; i.e., I’m recognizing what I don’t know, what I might never know, and am not filling voids of knowledge with my mind, if that makes any sense. The vibrations are there, but not quite as intense or omnipresent.

Part 3 of 3: My Question (Finally!)

Please remember that I am coming from a mostly Zen background, and that my only insight guidance has come from a 10-day Goenka course a few years ago and from what I’ve read in MCTB. I do not have in-person access to an insight teacher or to other practitioners.

For the past month I’ve had two primary practices: monitoring my breath, and sort of just observing my body and mind (usually vibrations). Often I do both at the same time with a kind of dual attention. For some reason, lately, the center point inside of my head has become very noticeable; I’m not sure why. Occasionally I can’t help but notice my heart, too, but only when I pay attention to my breathing and that center head spot.

I have tried the noting practices that I read about only a little bit, but they’ve been good to steady my mind when it’s all over the place. Occasionally I imagine bursts of metta pulsing out of my body to conscious beings and especially to particular people who I can’t stand. I notice pleasant and unpleasant sensations and try to take both as objects of attention. I notice their impermanence and why they’re not part of any continuous self, and yeah, OK, maybe they’re not ideal, but sometimes I wonder what’s so terrible about all this. Occasionally I wonder if switching between different techniques is itself a form of distraction - I really don’t know.

My question, then, is how should I practice now? Should I continue with what I’ve been doing? Should I focus on samatha or vipassana? Or both? How do I do that? Breath monitoring? Just observing? Noting practices? Maybe something else that I don’t even know about yet? Naturally, I’d very much appreciate your comments on anything else, too.

RE: Advice Sought on How to Practice
Answer
5/13/14 12:21 AM as a reply to Eric.
Eric:

My question, then, is how should I practice now? Should I continue with what I’ve been doing? Should I focus on samatha or vipassana? Or both? How do I do that? Breath monitoring? Just observing? Noting practices? Maybe something else that I don’t even know about yet? Naturally, I’d very much appreciate your comments on anything else, too.
Well you are not really giving a detailed description of what you do on the cushion.....What zen stuff are you doing? are you goenka body scanning? how much time on each? how much noting?
here...read this and see what you think....http://contemplativefitnessbook.com/book-three-method/quick-start-guide-2/ it is fast and to the point....
Finish reading MCTB and then reread it, I got a lot out of it the second time around.
Good luck,
~D

RE: Advice Sought on How to Practice
Answer
5/13/14 10:17 AM as a reply to Dream Walker.
Dream Walker:


Well you are not really giving a detailed description of what you do on the cushion.....What zen stuff are you doing? are you goenka body scanning? how much time on each? how much noting?
here...read this and see what you think....http://contemplativefitnessbook.com/book-three-method/quick-start-guide-2/ it is fast and to the point....
Finish reading MCTB and then reread it, I got a lot out of it the second time around.
Good luck,
~D
Hey D,
Thank you for your ideas! I'll make a point to read the site by Kenneth Folk that you provided, and to re-read MTCB. I've also downloaded Mahasi Sayadaw's "Practical Insight Meditation". I suppose you're right that I didn't give a detailed description of what I do on the cushion. I've been doing shikantaza, but I was quite surprised when my Zen teacher (who I have tremendous respect for) from before I moved to another city put me on shikantaza a year and half ago, because I did not feel that my mind was calm enough yet. That said, I do trust his advice. I still monitor my breath when I get distracted, as my Zen teacher suggested, and when I'm really distracted, I count breaths (I'm ADHD, by the way, whatver that means). During shikantaza, I've lately been transitioning to watching vibrations mostly, watching the 3Cs in action, and viewing cause and effect among and between body and mind sensations. I don't do Goenka-style body scanning at all, and I only do Mahasi-style noting when my mind is especially jumpy, although I've found noting to be more effective that I would have ever guessed. The issue with noting lately is that the sensations and vibrations are often too fast to peg words to them.
      I suppose my question in a nutshell is whether to focus on samatha or vipassana. I just don't feel like I ever developed enough focus, but  how much is enough, and when do you know if you've developed enough? Sometimes I'm honed in like a laser beam, and other times I can hardly count ten breaths. I feel like my lack of consistent focus will become a barrier for insight progress, and this is where I need advice. Maybe it's in the things you suggested to read, so I'll look there first. Thanks again!

RE: Advice Sought on How to Practice
Answer
5/13/14 12:09 PM as a reply to Eric.
Hi Eric,

You sound a lot like how I felt a few weeks ago.  My mindset was, "what exactly am I supposed to do, AHHH?!"  Personally, I think the progress of insight is, at best, a distraction.  You sound like you've been going through your day trying to label every mood fluctuation with a stage, wondering when you were gonna "level up", right?  If you're wondering what to do, and you feel confused and disoriented by all the advice and techniques you've been reading, I think the best thing you can do for yourself is create a "knowledge blackout" and just sit with no goals or processes in mind.  This is what helped me collect my own thoughts and come to realize what I needed to do through direct experience.  The progress of insight as described in MCTB is essentially just a list of emotions a person is likely to feel during the day.  This makes it pretty easy to fall into a hyperactive analysis mode, and this is probably the worst thing you can do with meditation.  The visuddhimagga (where the progress of insight originated) was written in the middle ages, long after the buddha's time, and was primarily meant to be a guide for teachers.  Using it as a self study has been a recipe for distress in my own experience, and from this quote it sounds like it's led you there too.
Then for maybe 15 minutes I had the following fractal thought chain that cycled far too fast to attach words to any thought:

1. This renunciation sensation is nice, but it will end, and it’s not really you or yours. That’s too bad, isn’t it?
2. Well, yes, I know it’ll end, it’s not me, and that sure is and will be disappointing. What a load off my shoulders to accept that. Damn, this load off my shoulders is a nice sensation!
3. Oh yeah, well, THAT nice sensation will end, too. It’s not really you or yours, either. That’s also too bad, isn’t it?
4. Well, yes, [go to line 2, repeat 2-4 for 15 minutes]
This kind of thinking is completely useless. (I say that hoping it'll help release you from it, not as an insult!)  What essentially happened was, you had success in your meditation, and you immediately grew suspicious of it because of the dogma you've learned (the three characteristics).  Doubt is one of the five hindrances, and I've had more than enough experience with it over the last few months to understand how debilitating it can be.  From your story, it sounds like your mind is already more prone to problems than other people (I can relate, I have a lot of anxiety, which is why I'm meditating), and meditation brings out these qualities for our examination.  Probably the best thing you can do is ask yourself the questions you want answered.  In my understanding it's like this - insight is understanding stress.  First, you must know when you have stress, next you must pinpoint the cause of this stress, next you must discern how and why the stress ceases.  From these insights you can fully understand the path to the cessation of stress in general.  Buddhist meditation is actually very simple.  You sit down and move towards mental calm and stability by observing what you find in your mind without judgement and clinging.  You're watching the stress to figure out why it's there so eventually you can get rid of it.  As you build these skills in meditation, you begin to take them with you during the day.  Samatha and vipasana are aspects of meditation, not methods.  You'll need to develop them both no matter what your goal is, and they're both developed by meditating towards clarity and tranquility.

RE: Advice Sought on How to Practice
Answer
5/13/14 2:08 PM as a reply to Eric.
Eric:
The issue with noting lately is that the sensations and vibrations are often too fast to peg words to them.

If it goes too fast then just use the word "dat" or something meaningless and fast....or just stop the words and notice as much as you can.
Eric:
     I suppose my question in a nutshell is whether to focus on samatha or vipassana. I just don't feel like I ever developed enough focus, but  how much is enough, and when do you know if you've developed enough? Sometimes I'm honed in like a laser beam, and other times I can hardly count ten breaths. I feel like my lack of consistent focus will become a barrier for insight progress, and this is where I need advice. Maybe it's in the things you suggested to read, so I'll look there first. Thanks again!
Do both. Find a mix that works for you. Only hindsight will tell you if you need more concentration to get to your goals. By the way, this is a great thing to focus on to create doubt and self sabotage. Most people do this for a while then get back to work then do it again. Ive done it lots of times but learned to trust that it was the stages I was going thru that really was the problem not the overall concentration.
Here is what I've done as a mixed practice - http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/message/5533004
Good luck,
~D

RE: Advice Sought on How to Practice
Answer
5/13/14 2:24 PM as a reply to Not Tao.
Not Tao:
Personally, I think the progress of insight is, at best, a distraction. 

I think of it as a measurement device. It is nowhere perfect and it takes a lot of practice and skill and experience to use it properly. Otherwise you use it to measure the wrong things or script yourself into wanting to "be" where you are not. If it is distracting you then let it go for now. We tend to go through stages of measuring ourselves and then not. It is a tool that helps us do so.
Not Tao:
Samatha and vipasana are aspects of meditation, not methods.  You'll need to develop them both no matter what your goal is, and they're both developed by meditating towards clarity and tranquility.
Hmmm...if they are not methods then how do you follow instructions on how to practice them? Are meditating towards clarity and tranquility a method? Could you expound on this a bit so I can understand what you are pointing at?
Thanks,
~D

RE: Advice Sought on How to Practice
Answer
5/14/14 7:22 AM as a reply to Dream Walker.
Dream Walker:
Hmmm...if they are not methods then how do you follow instructions on how to practice them? Are meditating towards clarity and tranquility a method? Could you expound on this a bit so I can understand what you are pointing at?
Thanks,
~D


Pretty much every method I've worked with (like noting, do nothing, watching the breath, etc) have led to a clear and relaxed mind state that is more capable of "removing greed and distress in reference to the world" as the buddha says, and observing the rise and fall of emotions and thought. The point is that the method for practicing mindfulness isn't very important as mindfulness is just paying attention non-judgementally.

Personally, if I'm siting down to meditate formally, I always use the method that leads to jhana easiest/quickest. I think this will be different for everyone, so methods should be explored to see what works best. Then, during the day, I use the method that maintains mindfulness easiest/quickest. Both of these practices require clear seeing (vipassana) and tranquility (samatha), and that's how the words are used in all of the suttas. They are meant to point out when the meditation is working correctly, so using them to name methods is, IMHO, a waste of a good instruction. If you're spending all your time noting and you're not working towards mental stability, then you're just going to bash into your mental blocks again and again until you finally accept them by being completely overwhelmed. This seems to be what the dark night is describing in the progress of insight. The buddha never mentioned a dark night, and he said specifically that his teachings were "good in the begining, good in the middle, and good at the end."

I know this makes me sound like a bit of a sutta thumper, haha, but so far I've been able to avoid a dark night. Either this is because my anxiety problems were already at a dark night level, or practicing towards tranquility is just a more stabile method. In all honesty, my anxiety has improved quite a bit since I had an A&P experience 5 months ago. There have been some struggles, but nothing so bad as life before I was meditating. Even Daniel says these things aren't set in stone, though, so I don't think OP should be too worried about it.

P.s I'm on my tablet so please ignore my horrible spelling, lol...