Unsettling First Retreat

Joe, modified 8 Years ago at 5/21/14 11:05 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 5/21/14 11:01 AM

Unsettling First Retreat

Posts: 2 Join Date: 5/21/14 Recent Posts
Hello all,

This is my first post and I apologize in advance for the wall of text below.  I recently finished a 10 day Goenka retreat, and had some interesting and troubling experiences.  I think what makes them troubling is that they were unexpected and unexplained.

So in way of background, I am in my mid-thirties, married, kids.  I am not religious nor spiritual and never have been.  I am intelligent with a high IQ.  My personality is aggressive and independant, slightly narcassistic and relatively balanced between intro/extroversion.  I am introspective and facinated by psychology.  I am compassionate and enjoy helping people with problems.   I have suffered from mild social type anxiety since my early twenties.  Historically, this anxiety was strong and a huge barrier in my life but it is mild now and only a small hinderance.  I have suffered from depression in the past but have not had an episode in several years.  I feel that I've dealt with it and would be genuinely surprised if it ever returned.  My primary reason for meditating is to control my anxiety and perhaps rid myself of it entirely like I have managed to do with my depression.

The retreat was good, the anapana meditation was familiar to me for the most part as I've been doing that style of meditation daily for around 8 months.  When they introduced the sensations part I rolled my eyes and was very sceptical, however I decided to give fair trial to the technique and soon enough I could feel what they were speaking of.  My sensations started primarily as tightness, and twitchs on the face.  As my attention sharpened, my face would actually physically twitch and contort uncontrollably at times.  Once we started scanning the body, it seemed my sensations followed a theme, mostly tightness sometimes heaviness, primarily in the face, chest, and stomach and somewhat in the left arm and back.

As we moved forward, I would frequently encounter these areas to be blank, or what I viewed as like dense cavities.  I would focus my attention on them (I kinda started to view my attention like a dentists drill) as I went through my scan and occasionally they would dissolve or a piece would break off and then all hell would break loose.  A simple analogy of what would happen is it was like dropping a match in a box of fireworks.  There would be explosions of energy all over my body, there would be flashing lights like fireworks in my vision, and I would experience sensations of tightness, heaviness, heat.  These chaotic storms would last upwards of ten minutes.  I was scared, even terrified at times but I kept remembering to be equanimos and eventually I felt like I could just watch these storms as an impartial observer.  They seemed like anxiety attacks which I've experienced but without physiological symptoms like increased heartrate or chest pain.  I noticed that the sensations would rapidly flip like hot/cold, heavy/light, and the lights in my vision seemed to represent the disorientation or inability to concentrate that I would experience if it were a true anxiety attack.  I had to be legitamitly impartial when observing.  I remember one time as a storm died down I thought "thank goodness that is over" and it almost immediately started up even more intense than before.  Anyways once these storms passed I would feel great.  They were very theraputic like how you feel after a really good cry and everything has been released.

Anyways onto the troubling incidents.  In one of these storm type situations, I started to feel very heavy and compressed, until the essense of who I am was just a tiny little cube.  There was chaos all around and I felt like if it penetrated my little box I would cease to exist.  The storm subsided and then I felt as if I was just pure energy, like my body had no form.  Then just for an instant, I felt like I disappeared and came back.  I guess what scared me about the whole thing was the feeling of ceasing to exist.  When I thought about this afterwards it made me think that perhaps there is a god.  I considered the idea of intelligent design lunacy up until this point in my life, but I was now entertaining it as a distinct possibility.  It seemed like there was order in the chaos, and I was both facinated and scared/terrified at times.  I considered the whole thing akin to a near-death experience.

After this happened I had instances of automatation.  In one instance my head straightened up on its own.  I could have intervened and stopped this one but I was facinated by it so I just watched.  In another, I was doing a manual scan and my attention was automatcially pulled to my head where there was a blank area and I was plunged into a storm.  I couldn't have stopped this one if I tried as it happened too fast.  I had displayed some aversion to this area when I scanned it earlier as it seemed particularily ominus.  Finally, one night I was meditating in bed and my scans and breathing were running themselves while I just watched from the sidelines.  In this instance I could takeover if I wanted to but the idea of being automated with no control kinda freaked me out.  I had the thought that a force was helping me along the path.  I also had an OBE type feeling at the end of most meditations.  I was fearful that one time I wouldn't be able to come out of it, like I would be stuck in a trance or under hypnosis or in astral space or something.  I felt in touch with reality thoughout all of this, but when I verbalize it or write it down it sounds insane to me.

By the end of the course, I felt like I could sit forever without pain or thought.  Occasionally I would get bored, but that seemed to be my only hinderance.  I seemed to be able to enter a deep meditation almost immediately, and could occasionally feel sensations while going about my daily activities.

I was actually not too freaked out about any of this until after course when people started sharing experiences.  Most people seemed to still be dealing with physical pain or compulsive thinking which were things that I dealt with by the end of day four.  I only found one other person who had similar experiences to mine.  I haven't meditated since I got back from course, as I wanted to research to make sure I wasn't going to snap and go psycho/schzio or something.  Now I have researched and the idea of going DP/DR or not being able to function in real life are making me think maybe I should give up practicing altogether.  On the otherhand, I really like it and it seems like these may be normal parts of the path so I want to continue.  Also, I feel like what happened was giving new meaning to my life.  For someone who is non-religious, non-spiritual, analytical, and logical I really don't know what to make of all this.

I am going to consult my psychologist later today, but don't expect alot of understanding.  His background is psychoanalytical and he has never seemed particularily interested when I've brought up meditation in the past.  He is into quantum physics which I think is somehow related to all of this so maybe he will surprise me though.

Overall, I enjoyed the course but I was frustrated and angry at times by how inaccessible/unapproachable the teacher seemed.  The few instances I did talk to the teacher I felt the answers I got were unfufilling, vague and technical in nature.  There really wasn't a clear view of what represented progress or purpose.  I liked the discourses as they filled in a lot of blanks for me.

Anyways, I appreciate any advice, commentary, or guidance.

x x, modified 8 Years ago at 5/21/14 12:04 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 5/21/14 12:04 PM

RE: Unsettling First Retreat (Answer)

Posts: 122 Join Date: 8/18/13 Recent Posts
Joe, it sounds strange to say this, but >in some way< these kinds of experience are normal. By that I mean that people who are actually apply the meditation technique over a 10 day period will probably have those types of experiences. 10 days can be quite intense, especially if there is a high degree of investigation and exploration and continuity..

To cut to the chase, it's great that you have a psychologist to talk to, but all you really need is for him/her to watch out for any signs that you are taking a bad turn. You're right that he won't "understand" it... and may even be threatened by it or might "pathologize" it. But all a psycholgist needs to do for you is see how you are now. Are you being good to yourself? Are you maintaining your responsibilities? Are you overly obsessing or ignoring? Beyond that, meditation is really a different realm of expertise. It can also be tempting to lord these experience over a psychologist ("I know something about mind that you don't know." Don't do that! emoticon  )

Since you're posting on this site, you probably have a basic understanding of the maps and can see how a lot of the body movements could be the three characteristics nana, the explosions could be the "A&P", the disappear and come back with a glimps of the nature of reality could be "the A&P event", and feeling like sitting forever could be "equanimity". Your ongoing practice will help you figure out where you are on the maps, but it seems possible that you have essentially followed Daniel's recommendation: go on retreat early in practice and reach some practice milestones early on.

Just because this can be fairly common on retreat and can become a real problem, it worth mentioning those two kinds of scary stuff that can happen during someone's first intensive retreat.

The first is the "explosions" that happen when looking at knoted parts of the body/mind. These can lead to releases that are quite energetic. It's important to not blindly push into knots and release a lot of energy... these can be destabilizing, so explore but don't blindly push. Frankly, these openings are pretty cool, so there is a natural attraction toward this kind of exploration... but some of us tend to go too overboard about it. You can push too hard, so make sure there is some compassion in the mix. By the way, it's not rare for folks with anxiety issues to witness these anxiety sesations very closely during meditattion, essentially having an anxeity attack, but with such awareness that it doesn't become a threatening event, but rather a series of sensations. It can't be forced, but it's a common report of people who have a dedicated practice and are dealing with anxiety. This isn't a reliable treatment method, so working with a psycholgist still makes the most sense.

The second is the not-self/depersonalization type experiences. If anything, these seem to be the most scary. The sense of self drops away for a second, a minute, or maybe 10 minutes or more. It feels like you're being walked around, as if you are inside a puppet that someone else is controlling. There can be those wierd spontanious movements that seem to fix body pains, posture problems, etc. It can be kinda spooky. The caution above doesn't quite apply because there really isn't a sense of doing it or pushing it, it just happens. The best thing to know is that the self will probably come back online at some point, so best not to freak out. Eventually there will be more and more experiences of tthat kind of very light feeling of no-self, but the first time it's experienced it's pretty scary.

So good news it you lived through it, had some experiences, maybe some insights, and are back home. As is often noted, sometimes a dark night can follow a period of intense openings. Usually the best thing to do is to keep a gentle practice going and focus on resting in experience. No need to push like on retreat, just go back to basics and rest in breathing and noting/noticing. As you have experience, if you stay with the technique, experiences come on their own and insights follow. Remember that it's a meditators responsibility to learn how to balance effort and relaxation. Ideally, you will find a balance that keeps practice interesting and productive, but without freakouts and burnouts.

Best wishes!
Joe, modified 8 Years ago at 5/21/14 3:41 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 5/21/14 3:40 PM

RE: Unsettling First Retreat

Posts: 2 Join Date: 5/21/14 Recent Posts
Thanks x_x I appreciate the lengthy response.  I feel better now.  I think that I had a pretty narrow view of what meditation was going into things so my mind got blown.  The fact that others didn't seem to have that depth of experience combined with a little internet research about the dark side of meditation had me freaking out frankly lol.

I had some experience with pushing too hard into the knots that you describe.  In those instances I pretty much got chewed up and spit out so I learned to push more delicately and/or break off smaller pieces at a time.  I plan to go slow and steady moving forward.

I did meet with my psychologist, and he didn't raise any concerns.  It was obvious to him that I saw value in it so I pretty much got the green light to continue.  He was not familiar with the technique but didn't condemn it in any way which was nice.  My therapy is pretty much complete but it is a nice resource to have if I do run into problems.

Anyways, once again thanks for your response I really appreciate it.  Also thanks for the heads up about the no-self thing.  I had very brief experiences like that while I was there but it's comforting to know there is more to come.  That is my main complaint about my retreat - that they didn't let you know what might be coming.  I guess they are trying not to taint peoples experience or fill them with expectations?

Thanks to you as well Dream, I have perused a bit but I will definately read through the material you linked again.

Dream Walker, modified 8 Years ago at 5/21/14 2:38 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 5/21/14 2:38 PM

RE: Unsettling First Retreat

Posts: 1414 Join Date: 1/18/12 Recent Posts
Just in case you have not read MCTB yet, that discusses most of the stuff you expereinced....link - http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/MCTB+
I read it and then reread it again. Got a lot out of it that way.
Good Luck,
Thor Jackson, modified 8 Years ago at 5/22/14 12:17 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 5/22/14 12:17 AM

RE: Unsettling First Retreat

Posts: 37 Join Date: 7/25/10 Recent Posts
Hi Joe,
   You mentioned how you think quantum physics may be somehow related to meditation.  I've often thought about this too.  If maybe some of these sparks and explosions are happening at the subatomic level.  Maybe at some point we enter mini black holes out of space and time.  Fascinating.