Done are ¾ of what needs to be done (maybe)

Andrea, modified 7 Years ago at 8/30/14 12:01 PM
Created 7 Years ago at 8/30/14 9:18 AM

Done are ¾ of what needs to be done (maybe)

Posts: 5 Join Date: 5/17/14 Recent Posts
About a month ago I completed a 35-day monastery retreat and I have good reasons to believe I completed 3rd Path – or at the very least that I have completed (rather than simply moved forward along) a clearly marked stage of a developmental process.
This entire Path – including a previous shorter retreat and the time I spent meditating at home – took about 600 man-hours over several months, and this last retreat accounts for the greatest part of them. Second Path took about 180 hours (also mostly of retreat time), while First Path occurred naturally in my daily life five-six years ago.
I hesitate to say that I have completed Third Path since 1) I am sceptical of the ‘ontological obsession’ of the Theravada maps, even if so far they have been pretty useful as planning tools for my retreats 2) I am a borderline case of extreme map&territory mismatch, in the sense that most of my subjective experiences rhyme with the maps but, if I were asked to describe them anew I would do so using a language so different from MCTB that they would be completely unrecognisable (e.g. my A&Ps contain very little joy, love or tingling and a lot of dharma bravado, hyperfocused, cynical self-control and the feeling that I am the Ivan Drago of vipassana). Many of the most prominent and predictable phenomena that take place during my practice are also things which apparently only happen to me, but nonetheless feel more structurally important than some other advertised core elements of the Path.

Tthe reasons I believe that this was Third Path are the following:

• I experienced clearly a number of cycles. The first lasted five days, the second two, the third one, and after that I stopped both counting the cycles and paying attention directly to their unfolding. Instead I focused (mostly) on seeing the 3C in all sensations. I could/would notice different ñanas, but usually only when they exceeded a certain threshold of intensity.
• Immediately after the ‘pop’ I saw something like a review cycle taking place.
• Strong-ish feelings of Luminosity/Emptiness have paid occasional and very welcome visits during the retreat, increasing in intensity over time.
• The so-called “iron skullcap” (an unpleasant, pulsating, moving, headache-like sensation located in the Third Eye area) which a lot of people (including Kenneth Folk) seem to experience up to Third Path when doing vipassana has disappeared. It had been a constant presence in my vipassana career, and I don’t miss it one bit.
• There has been a fundamental ‘unclogging’ of the mind-body perceptive continuum which proceeded slowly throughout the retreat and culminated at a specific point. I use the word ‘unclogging’ to define a state in which mind-body sensations are not perfectly fluid but there isn’t in principle any sensation which I cannot see through (in 3C terms) if I bother to look at it, while most sensations – pleasant or unpleasant – show themselves for what they are without effort compared to before the retreat. 
• I see a qualitative difference compared to before the retreat in the way in which I naturally handle dukkha, both on and off the cushion; on the cushion I am not perfectly equanimous towards pleasant and unpleasant sensations, but at the same time none of them can clearly push me off balance. At the same time, the tendency to ‘flinch’ when I see unpleasantness and ‘grasp’ when I see pleasure seems to be significantly reduced. It is too early to say how my off-the-cushion perception has changed, but as an early appraisal I would say that I seem to have gained an additional degree of emotional resilience. I still see plenty of unpleasant sensations all over the place, but none of them seems to be able to acquire a sufficient critical mass to send me on a tailspin or make me look away. One could see this as either a broadening of the tube or as a refining of the grains that must go through it; bearing in mind that I have been out of the can for only a few weeks I would say that I have both a hightened capacity to deal with mental garbage and less (or smaller) deposited mental garbage to deal with.

Following are a few personal considerations concerning the experience and how it changed my perception of 3rd Path and of the Path in general. I have not seen anyone describe many of the experiences and patterns which I discuss below (in the context of vipassana or otherwise), and yet many of them are among the clearest signposts of my vipassana experience. They were present also in previous paths, although at the time I did not know the territory well enough to pick them out or to think they were anything other than noise. I have not derived the non-standard descriptions of my experience from other sources, nor were they inspired by anything other than my first-hand experience (e.g. I 'felt' the Third Eye and the Crown before knowing that some people gave those locations specific names and ascribed to them specific roles).

The progress bar

Third Path is notoriously unpredictable – and it is if one hopes to use cycles as an “installation bar”. Personally I would only say that it was predictable using different criteria. At some point I was able to identify a clear arc of development pointing in a specific direction which, I presumed, would eventually take me to the end of the rainbow (and eventually it did). What it did not point at was the exact location where the rainbow ended, so that when the it did I was a little surprised. Speaking of rainbows, Bill Hamilton’s quip that “a path is not a pot full of gold at the end of the rainbow, it’s a pot where you put the gold you gather along the way” holds true for my Third Path.

The ‘energy’ issue

I spent a lot of time during the retreat (too much time) focusing on Kenneth Folk’s observation that Third Path is a type of Kundalini development in which the lower energy centres become connected to the ‘Third Eye’ (I became interested in this only AFTER noticing similar patterns in my experience, not before). I still think that in some weak formulation this idea holds true and I am surprised that more people don’t seem to discuss their progress in these terms.

Phenomenologically, what this meant for me is that when a sensation would emerge in the body (or in the mind) it would “feel connected” to another corrresponding sensation in the Third Eye area. The emergence of each of these sensations comported the well-known ‘flinch&grasp’ twin reactions (flinching when facing unpleasant sensations and grasping to try to make pleasant ones stick). If instead of flinching/grasping I did the skillful thing and observed the sensations clearly I would see dukkha in them. Observing dukkha would cause pain to emerge in the Third Eye. This type of pain felt like a living thing, coming up from below and feeling trapped in the head. The accumulation of this pain in that area is the ‘iron skullcap’. The iron skullcap in other words appears to be a (temporaneous) side-effect of trying to see things clearly.

As the path progressed this tension was progressively resolved, sensations would be seen clearly and the pressure in the third eye relieved little by little. As the iron skullcap began feeling lighter and lighter, the sensations that were most problematic seemed to be located lower and lower in the body along the spine; I got Path after untangling a bunch of sensations that felt located at the base of the spine. No rapturous uncoiling of the kundalini snake followed, just a certain pleasant tingling, the impression that something had been completed and the feeling that now there was a viable passageway between the bottom of my spine and my head (by no means an unobstructed one though). 

To looks at things at a more micro level, the process followed closely the insight cycles, and it can be described in reference to the different insight stages.

1) During the 1st vipassana jhana observing dukkha would build up pressure in the iron skullcap
2) At some point I would come to accept that dukkha was there to stay and there was no point hiding from it or ignoring it: that very act of surrender would very rapidly ignite an A&P. This felt as if the “iron skullcap” had been punctured, and the pressure contained therein allowed to flow into the Crown area of the head. Once in the crown the stuff that had come out was manageable and unproblematic, and I could dissect it effortlessly and precisely small bit by small bit and see the three characteristics of it.
3) Let’s not forget that all the pain sensations in the Third Eye are just correlates of other sensations elsewhere which I am trying to see clearly. As the pressure in the Third Eye decreased and the A&P deflated, the sensations I had just worked through would go join others in the ‘background’ in the Dark Night phase (for the record, all my Dark Nights after the one in First Path have been laughably easy to go through).
4) At the end of the Dark Night these newly analysed sensations would join together with all the others I had already ‘worked on’ in the Equanimity phase and became a full-fledged Formation, and cycle after cycle Formations would become stronger and more encompassing. At the end of the Equanimity phase I would feel the familiar warning signs of a fruition coming (which in my case is a humming, buzzing pattern – as if a slingshot was slowly swinging inside my head waiting for the perfect moment to throw the stone) and then the cycle would start again.
5) Lather, rinse and repeat and you have Third Path.

When I finished the path I didn’t feel ‘awesome’, but I felt as if there was nothing that my brain could throw at me (in terms of sensations) which I could not handle, and that all the dukkha which kept moving up the stairs and into the Third Eye had a clear passageway to move into the Crown without accumulating and creating the skullcap. This meant that observing sensate reality was something I could do without without a dedicated effort to be mindful to a much greater extent than before; it still is the case now.

Only the three characteristics matter

By observing the process unfold in such a way, at some point I became convinced that I could facilitate it by moving, stirring or playing around with sensations, energy flows and who knows what else. Daniel was kind enough to proffer his advice in this circumstance, and convinced me to just go back to observing sensations without having an agenda for them. This ultimately proved successful.
Energy models were accurate in that they describe in outline the process which took place, but also harmful to the extent that they put the cart before the horses: no attempt to ‘facilitate’ or ‘encourage’ this type of development seemed to bear any extra fruits, and the process took care of itself once I stopped caring about cleaning up my chakras-dantian-front-channel-prana-yama-mama-spinal-mumbo-jumbo and simply kept looking at what was already there. Instead of stirring the mixture the only thing that I had to do was to keep a slow fire alive under the cauldron and wait for the scum to rise to the top by itself. This is the one lesson about vipassana which somehow I always need to relearn: observing sensations with constance, impartiality and acceptance is tantamount to ‘solving’ whatever is ‘wrong’ with them.

The other side of the looking-glass

The process of disembedding from sensations that I discussed above came with a few surprising side effects. The most significant and weird-sounding of them was the progressive shift of all sensations in my proprioceptive space - one at a time - from what I called ‘Mindspace A’ to ‘Mindspace B’. I have never seen this process discussed in the literature, and yet it was among the clearest subjective experiences of the retreat. 
To borrow a metaphor from videogames, it felt as if in a first-person shooter one I had changed the viewing mode from a ‘perfect point of view’ (in which the screen shows what your character’s eyes see – and which corresponds to what I call ‘Mindspace A’) to a ‘detached point of view’ in which you see the action from behind your chatacter’s head (‘Mindspace B’). I cannot see the back of my head of course, but it feels as if the watcher behind the eyes had moved a few inches backwards inside my head, or as if there was a new watcher now in a new seat, one which sees things more clearly and does not identify with them. Even the word ‘watcher’ seems inappropriate for this viewing mode, and maybe it would be better to say simply that it’s a location where sensations meet each other. When I look at the original watcher while in this viewing mode I get what Kenneth Folk calls “dwelling as the witness”.

One need not use special investigative powers to see a connection here between this description and the process I described above through which, cycle by cycle, sensations were first pumped up to the Third Eye and then (during the A&P) sucked back into the Crown where they were seen clearly and eventually became part of a Formation. The Crown is the seat a few inches behind that I am talking about, and when I see things ‘from it’ during Equanimity they appear as Formations.

The most interesting side-effect of this process was that I felt as if my entire sense of proprioception (the perception of where my body is in space) was being redesigned from scratch. There were now two ‘viable’ seats from which to watch mind-body sensations, and since the new one was offset from the first by a few inches the feeling of where things were located in space relative to it also changed. Some parts of my body were still mapped inside ‘Mindspace A’ (the perfect point of view mode) but they were being dragged - bit by bit - into ‘Mindspace B’ (the viewing mode a few inches behind). The fact that these two viewing mode were offset from each other meant that mapping conflicts would arise. As I wrote in my journal at some point “when I touch my face (in space A) with my hands (in space B ) there is a sensation of strangeness as if the two things were not supposed to meet in exactly that spot, and each was expecting to find the other elsewhere.”
Keeping balance during walking meditation was also a bit of a problem since I had conflicting information about where the baricentre of my body was, and for the most part it felt as if I was trying to walk straight on a rolling boat or to stay still on an elevator which was moving up and down suddenly of its own accord*. As the path matured more and more sensations entered Mindspace B, and these conflicts lessened. Right now there seem to be no outstanding conflicts between these two ‘Mindspaces’, and yet the original Mindspace A feels like it is still there, a map with nothing inside. Only by squinting and trying hard can I remember what it felt like to see the map of my body from ‘there’.


This last retreat has seen the most progress I have ever made in the dharma and brought me the most tangible benefits for my life. I see its end as the coronation of a lot of effort over the course of years. I finally have the feeling that I know what I am doing regardless of maps, models and teachers and that I could and would finish 'this' even if I was the last person left on Earth. I want to thank all the friends of the DhO for the instructions and the encouragement to go on, and of course Daniel for MCTB making all of this possible for all of us. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

* Curiously, I have recently read Sam Harris - the most mainstream advocate of ‘awakening-type’ vipassana around - discuss the same rolling boat/moving elevator symptoms believing them to be cause by an as-of-yet undiagnosed disease rather than as part of a vipassana-type development.
Jen Pearly, modified 7 Years ago at 9/12/14 4:42 PM
Created 7 Years ago at 9/12/14 4:39 PM

RE: Done are ¾ of what needs to be done (maybe)

Posts: 566 Join Date: 7/28/13 Recent Posts
Great detailed description. Thank you for sharing this.

I think stream entry happened August 8, and even that has had this lasting sense of "relocation" of mind-body fields for me, although I haven't been as able as you to describe just what  mean by that. All I've been able to say is that it seems as if all these contractions in the chest and heart area that I habitually identified with as "me" sort of left, for the most part. For instance, if I'm "worried" about my husband's not returning as expected from out of town, I don't feel  the worry sensations in that contracting chest-area way anymore. Instead I experience it more literally as just "in my head/face." If that makes any sense. In addition, there is an almost constant feeling that I'm in 4th jhana, in the sense that my "point of view" feels more panoramic and diffused out into my surroundings instead of focused in around some more compact core. Meanwhile, in my formal sits, hard jhana states up through the 5th are suddenly right there with little effort.

Anyway, hard to describe but definitely different. Thanks again for this view into your experience.

Andrea, modified 7 Years ago at 9/13/14 1:32 PM
Created 7 Years ago at 9/13/14 1:32 PM

RE: Done are ¾ of what needs to be done (maybe)

Posts: 5 Join Date: 5/17/14 Recent Posts
Hi Jen,

What you're describing reminds me of the honeymoon phase I went through when I finished 1st Path a few years back (without realising I had done anything special at the time) – especially the ease of access to Jhanas and the diffused/panoramic feel. I would say it felt maybe even better than 3rd Path (in terms of sense of release), but it didn't stay around for long.

I'm not sure I understand (or can relate to) the part of the feelings transitioning to the head/face, although I see connections with what I wrote.