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Benjie's Practice Log, to stream entry (and beyond!)

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Hello, DhO! 

I've been a mostly-lurker here for a while. The forum's been an incredible resource: It's really fed my hunger for knowledge knowledge knowledge. I'm well past the point, though, where reading is enough. I've been working since September with Ron Crouch, and my practice is just starting to get interesting. I've also been hungry for sangha with other practioners with a pragmatic dharma bent. There's a loose sangha in my life, but we're a jumble of all kind of traditions: Supportive, growing, but not all interested in the same things, or at looking at it from similar angles.

So, I'm starting this log here with the hope that it'll help me connect with some of the members of this forum that I so admire, and gain from their support and knowledge. 

I'll start with a self introduction/background, and will do a summary of my current practice in a second post. 

I will also endeavour to write additional posts about some of the things I've learned along the way, difficulties that have come up, etc, in the hope that they'll be helpful to others. 

*****

I grew up in a very protestant Christian family: We were central members of the church, and my life plan up until about the age of 16 was to become a pastor. I was absolutely, undeniably gay, however, and the conflict between my religion and that basic fact eventually pulled me out of the church, and I was an absolute atheist materialist for the rest of my teen years and most of my twenties so far. 

Then I discovered psychedelics. Those experiences were profoundly mysterious. I don't know how they work. I'm fascinated by what they do to my experience, and they've affected and changed me in a deep place. They gave me back a sense of wonder and awe. One particularly intense experience made me realise for the first time how utterly, totally, wonderfully alive I am, and that I have no idea why or how.  I started reading lots of arm-chair physics books, philosophy, psychology... Just enjoying learning about how strange, improbable, and wonderful everything is.

Hatha Yoga opened the way for me: I got into it at first for the body-things, and along the way I met yogis that talked about the spiritual side and I started to soften a bit. Last December, I read Stephen Batchelor's Confessions of an Atheist Buddha. THIS was something new: spiritual practice that didn't ask me to set aside my critical thinking? The thought of Siddhartha Gautama as a man who achieved something remarkable, rather than a perfected diety, touched my core.

He also talked about meditation as an experiment: Try it, do it all-in, and see what happens. If it works, it works, and if it doesn't, then it doesn't. I started meditating - inconsistently, for 5-15 minutes in the morning, usually, missing more days than not.  I didn't really know what I was doing, but there was a difference between days I meditated and days I did not. I started reading more and more, and in March I found MCTB. 

Reading through the book for the first time felt like cracking my head open: Yes, yes, yes. Of course sensations flicker in and out, that's like neurons, right? Of course thoughts happen on their own. Of course there are simple practices that have profound results. Of course. All this. Yes! It took the theory I'd been reading about, all the feel good mindfulness, all these numbered lists, and turned it into something real, that I could tackle, and was a proper set of instructions for the experiment.

Resolving to build my concentration so I could tackle insight practices, I started increasing the length of my sits, slowly working up to doing 30-40 minutes of samatha, using the breath. In late July, I went on a weekend long yin yoga and meditation retreat. Lots came up for me there, and I decided it was time to start on vipassana. I went through August on my own, and in September decided to start working with Ron Crouch. 

Also, after that retreat and alongside the vipassana in my formal sits, I ran a 40 day experiment, letting the Om Mani Pedme Hung mantra roll through my head during almost all of my day. It was an interesting experiment... not dramatic, but interesting. I will report on it in a later post. 

The job I'm at right now gives me lots of free time. Since March, I've spent probably between 2-5 hours a day reading Dharma things. I've plowed through the archives of this forum. I've read lots from Ron Crouch, Kenneth Folk, Shinzen Young, Thich Nhat Hanh, Lama Surya Das, plowed through the Buddhist Geeks and Zencast archives... I'm full up on words now. Sick of them, almost. I've been pulling back from that lately, and have gone back to reading novels and listening to music, and have been trying to feed that hunger by practicing. 

One final note: I still hold a sort of agnosticsm about lots of things that I don't understand yet: energy/prana/qi, rebirth, the magic-vibrating-powers of sacred sounds like mantra. I am, though, much happier to say that I have no idea what is true and what isn't, but that I'm excited to let the experiment run it's course. I will happily let my mind be changed as evidence arises that challenges my still present materialist leanings. I just don't know anything... and that feels great! 

RE: Benjie's Practice Log, to stream entry (and beyond!)
Answer
11/13/15 3:37 PM as a reply to Ostaron.
Currently, I'm sitting for 40 minutes to an hour every morning. Anapanasati, free-style noting with the attention coming back to the rising and falling of the abdomen if I need something to anchor to, and closing with metta.  I sit for longer on the weekends, with sitting/walking/sitting, and yoga. I do yoga inconsistently in the evenings, kind of just whenever my body asks for it. 

I've tried adding an evening sit, but I usually am fighting through fatigue during that. 

Here's a summary of how my sits usually go: 

Start with ~10-20 minutes of concentration on the anapanasati spot. Previously, pleasurable physical sensations and some joy would come up, but they've been noticeably absent lately, and it's harder to stay focused on the object. The joy has also been rarer, compared to the physical rushes and raptures. I've been experimenting with focusing on all the sensations that make up the breath in general: This feels kind of like riding a wave. Changing the tactic has been helpful, although wandering mind is still an obstacle.

I then switch for 20-40 minutes of noting. 
-Gross sensations quickly up into TV-snow within about 5 minutes. 

-The sensations on my skin are always the most prominent part of my experience, followed by the breath

-Attention flits around my body: tingles in the hand, then the scalp, then the rump, spine, shoulders, around and around, randomly. (touching, touching, itching, hearing, touching, sitting, tension, pressure, hearing, etc etc)

-There are two definite shifts after this: 

1) The vibrating tingles become more intense, faster, and there's a feeling of tensing, or pulling in to the centre in my body that's particularly strong on the exhale (I find this very difficult to accurately describe... this is still not quite right). There's exhilaration, but also a bit of unease. On Ron's advice, I change my labels from touching, to vibrating, tingling, rushing, pulling, etc. 

2) I become aware of sensations on a broader area, often like I'm feeling all of my skin at once. They become less like pin-pricks, and more like... magma is the metaphor that keeps coming up, but that's not quite right. It's like there's a shell of shifting, fluxing, warm, moving sensations, and attention flows around that shell, rather than jumping from place to place. 

-That tensing/pulling in lessens. 

-At this point, it becomes very hard to consistently label, but easy to silently follow what's happening. Yet it is also easier to get lost in thoughts, fantasies, and the like. 

- If I get lost in thought for several moments, I cycle back up from pin-prick sensations to that broader, fluxing feeling, and then get lost again.  

I close with 5-10 mintues of metta. This has been more difficult lately, and I often quit before finishing this. The warm, pleasant emotional feeling in my chest that has been part of this practice before does not arise at all. It's very easy here to get totally lost in thought, or get sleepy, even if I've been energised the rest of the sit.

The interplay beyond body sensations and mind isn't always super clear, but if I focus in on it, I can tell that there is a sort of mental ghost that follows physical sensations. Otherwise, beyond getting lost in thought or fantasies, the mind doesn't seem to be a prominent part of what's happening on the cushion unless I really incline myself towards it. I've been experimenting at work with asking "What am I thinking?" and then waiting to see what comes up. I then seem to get fragments of thoughts, that only become full thoughts or images if I go after them. For example, there was an impression of bright pink, that when I followed it became a clearer memory of a photo of myself in a halloween costume. That's been a useful auxiliary practice, but it doesn't seem to have bled through into my formal sits yet, and it takes a lot of energy and focus to do. 

RE: Benjie's Practice Log, to stream entry (and beyond!)
Answer
11/23/15 11:43 AM as a reply to Ostaron.
Practice continues, with much the same progression as before. I've had some interruptions to my daily routine lately: Started working on a show, and had a high-maintenance friend stay with me for the weekend. It's always interesting to be reminded of just how important momentum is in the practice. 

I've continued experimenting with taking time through the day to ask, "What am I thinking?", and turning my attention to the mind-stuff that comes up. It's interesting as heck to watch the pre-thoughts bubble around, not really forming into anything, and I've had a few solid laughs at the odd images, thoughts, and memories that can flit past. 

It's been extremely helpful in my formal sitting practice as well. I'm having less issues with getting lost in thoughts and fantasies, and am much better at noticing and labelling them when they come up. They're much more like sensations "out there", rather than thought I'm engaged in thinking "in here." 

An interesting thing, now that the mind-stuff is starting to feel more like sensations, and less like things that I am doing. The sensations don't really feel all that different from the body sensations. They are different, but there's a quality of similarity to it all. It's difficult to put into words, but the closest I've been able to come is that they feel like they're in the same matrix, or like they're made of the same thing. 

RE: Benjie's Practice Log, to stream entry (and beyond!)
Answer
12/9/15 3:49 PM as a reply to Ostaron.
There's been another definite shift in practice lately, and many thoughts. 

Ron is pretty sure I've at least crossed the A&P, am probably in dissolution, and possibly starting to creep onward into the dark night. 

On the cushion: 

Still starting with a brief bit of Metta, some concentration on the anapanasati spot, then delving into noting for the rest of the sit. 

Will talk more about metta later, but that part is mostly fine in formal sitting. 

I am noticing how difficult it is to focus attention in this stage. The concentration part of my practice is much less pleasant and exciting then it has been. In both samatha and vipassana (although particularly pronounced in the latter), it's very easy again to get lost in thought and very detailed fantasies or day dreams. 

The feel of the flickering, tv-snow sensations has also changed. I previously described them as like magma - "hot" feeling, shifting, a sort of flow to them. That "heat" is turned down, and they feel less intense and obvious. The description They also are pulsing along with this background throbbing that's coming from behind me, or at least at the back of my skull. The throbbing is almost something I hear, rather than feel, although I'm aware that it's not a sound. 

Off the cushion: 

I had an emotional few days last week. It might be just normal life things, it might be dark night symptoms. I suspect it has been a blending of the two, and I have tried to remember the advice to avoid bleed-through and not act on the extreme emotions. I've been experiencing a lot of anxiety and worry about what I'm doing with my life, regrets about my relationship that ended a month and a half ago, and paranoid concerns that my friends all hate me. The first two concerns are things I'm worried about, but the last one is atypical - perhaps a strong signal that this is just Stuff from the Dark Night, and that I'm quite okay to note it and not worrying about it. 


On Emotions: 

A discovery that's been helpful: When I'm feeling a strong emotion and turn my attention to it, there are the physical sensations in my body, and there is the story about why I am feeling that emotion. The thing I've noticed, though, is that the sensations that come with, say, anxiety, are very, very similar to the sensations that come with excitement. I need the thoughts and story that come along with it to actually understand what that emotion is. Otherwise, it's generally just some mix of contracting/collpasing/tensing, or uplifting/buoyant/fizzy. A very cool thing to learn. 

On Metta & the heart: 

In my daily sits, I've noticed that there's a distinct feeling of deadness, or heaviness, or like there's a hole, or something like that in the heart region that's particularly noticeable when I try to do metta. This is something that's only come up in the last three months or so - I've always thought of myself as a very "open hearted" person, so discovering this, or having it arise, has been disturbing to my identity, and I haven't really known what to do about it. I've listened to a few of Rob Burbea's talks on metta, and want to make it a bigger part of my practice and my life.

This past week, I've been trying to do metta during the day. I've been enjoying glancing at the faces of folk I walk past in the street and saying in my head, "May you be truly happy." Sometimes there's a strong and very pleasant feeling of good will, and sometimes it's much smaller, but if I make an honest effort to sincerely wish the people I'm walking past well, there's always some kind of feeling that arises. It's very exciting to explore the sensations in that region of my body and getting to know what goes on there better, and doing this practice makes me feel happier myself. 

One of the things I've learned about myself since starting to meditate is how much I dislike listening to other people's problems and pain... which, again, is contrary to the image I've had of myself as an open hearted person. It's been a painful realisation, and one I've largely been avoiding dealing with. I'd like to start to tackle it, though, and I'm hoping metta will help me with that. Becoming better at helping other people is one of the biggest reasons why I practice in the first place. 

In Yoga and the Search for the True Self, Stephen Cope talks about the archetype of the divine mother as a being that is abundant, and so big and spacious that she can hold our pain with love so that we have a safe place to deal with it and face it. I like that image very much. I'd like to one day be able to be that for my friends. I'm getting a little emotional as I write this, and think of how far I have to go, and how often I fail at that ideal. 

RE: Benjie's Practice Log, to stream entry (and beyond!)
Answer
4/12/16 10:19 AM as a reply to Ostaron.
Have not updated in a while, but practice has continued. 

My walk throug the dukkha nannas was fairly easy to handle, with very little bleed through. 

I took a fairly relaxed, solo, four day retreat the first week of March, and got through to lower equanimity. It was an excellent experience - about six hours a day of sitting, two one-hour hatha yoga sessions, and a good amount of journalling, reading poetry, and thinking. 

After the retreat, I've found it hard to practice consistently. 

I've stopped smoking pot entirely. There's a fuzzy quality to my field of awareness that persists up to a day after smoking pot - it's much less pleasant than the clear, open clarity the field has when I'm not smoking pot, and when I'm practicing consistently. Overall, I just feel better when I'm not smoking. The downside to quitting is that THC supresses REM sleep and dreaming.

I'm going through a period of rebound, where my dreams are incredibly vivid, and they often wake me up. Even after I'm awake, and aware of my body in my bed, the cinematic, detailed, and frequently deeply disturbing dreams are continuing. The general theme of the dreams tends to involve me running from something or being trapped and unable to get away, or I'll have to do a task to save my loved ones that I keep failing at it. The disturbance to my sleep has made it hard to wake up early enough to hit the cushion. 

I've only been practicing 2-3 times a week. My concentration has gotten very poor, and I am finding it a slog to sit for even thirty minutes. I've been getting better sleep recently, though, and have been able to reprioritise the sitting practice. 

The last few days, I've been noticing a general feeling of wanting to get out of my skin, or get away from my experience, or something like that. It's like I want a vacation from my body. I want to stop the ride. This morning was particularly bad . When sitting, I had a strong experience of fear, and I wanted to run away and hide...  but where could I run to? 

There's oddly two layers to how I feel today: If I keep myself busy, I can function very well. I'm cheerful, even. But if I stop and start to look a bit deeper, I become aware of how unpleasant everything feels. It's like there's this quiet core of anxiety under the surface, that if I give it a lot of attention feels like it could well up into a panic. 

I've cancelled my evening plans, and am going instead to sit at home, cook some good food, and watch a comforting movie with my roomates.