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A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat

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A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat
Answer
12/21/15 2:44 PM
Introduction and background

I have recently completed a six-month long Mahasi-style vipassana retreat that lasted from 30 January 2015 till 27 July 2015. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I had to spend this period in five different locations in four countries:

Feb-Mar: Panditarama Lumbini, Nepal
Apr: Ratna Vipassana Vihar, Nepal 
May: Home, Turkey
Jun: Wat Bhaddanta Asabharam, Thailand
Jul: Buddhist Hermitage Lunas, Malaysia

This is a write-up of my contemplative experiences during that period. It is only a summary account of my retreat as I have had a myriad of experiences and it would take much more time and effort to put those down in writing than I can spare at the moment. So, I will mostly mention the experiences that characterized a given ñana. During my stay in Lumbini, Sayadaw U Vivekananda of Panditarama said that my experiences were very clear-cut, meaning that they reflected the nature of their associated ñanas rather well. Regarding the timeline of ñanas that you will see here, two weeks in the 4th ñana or three weeks in the 5th and so on might seem just too long for some people, but Sayadaw U Vivekananda noted on more than one occasion that I was progressing quite fast.

As for the kind of Mahasi-style vipassana technique I used, Sayadaw U Vivekananda from whom I learned the basic technique does not emphasize fast noting. You are expected to note and label (A distinction is made between the two.) an object once when you first encounter it and then try to penetrate its nature as deeply as possible. For instance, at the beginning of the rising movement of the abdomen, you label the movement as rising and then observe it in as much detail as you can without repeating “rising, rising, rising...”. Furthermore, you are not asked to focus on a particular part of your body and note only the objects that arise there. You use the abdominal movements as anchor and shift your attention to any object that becomes predominant in any part of the body/mind complex. You are also not expected to focus exclusively on a particular type of object, say only physical. Objects of all types that attract your attention are to be investigated.

Before I had begun my vipassana retreat at Panditarama Lumbini, I had only had meagre experience with anapanasati meditation and Goenka-style vipassana, and none with Mahasi-style vipassana. I did have considerable exposure to Advaita Vedanta teachings and techniques however, and had had some significant experiences, which possibly correspond to 1st and 2nd paths in the Theravada system (See Two awakenings: Two peak experiences of a Vedantist turned Buddhist). So, it is possible that I have been working towards 3rd path since at least the beginning of my retreat.

PART I: FROM A&P TO RE-OBSERVATION

Ñanas 1 to 4: The Arising and Passing Away-cum-ñanas 1 to 3 (16 days)

I started experiencing A&P related phenomena on the second day of the retreat. (I had also had a similar experience with anapanasati meditation and Goenka-style vipassana, hitting the difficult ñanas of the Dark Night within a couple of weeks.) When I reported these experiences to Sayadaw U Vivekananda, he first gave me instructions to test whether insights from the first three ñanas were in place. This test period lasted for about a week. After having confirmed that these earlier insights had indeed been attained, he gave me instructions to guide me deeper into A&P territory.

If I may take a brief digression here, I should note that I find this early onset of the 4th ñana exciting because of its implications for my previous experiences with Advaita. First, on a personal note, it suggests that I have previously had at least one enlightenment experience in the Theravada sense, as I have mentioned above. Second, it suggests that different contemplative traditions are compatible with each other, that we are treading a Universal Path of Gnosis regardless of the traditions we may be following. I will obtain more evidence for this thesis when I attain the Path and Fruition stages and seeing how these experiences compare to my peak Advaita experiences. I have been lucky enough to be able to engage in what we could call “applied comparative mysticism.” Perhaps there are more people like me out there or here in this forum, and perhaps these people are willing to share/have shared their accounts so that we won't have to rely on textual evidence alone but can also use our direct experience when trying to construct a universalist standpoint. Now back to my retreat experiences…

The 4th ñana was probably the most active period of my retreat. Dozens of objects of various kinds would present themselves during each sit. There would be particles exploding into and out of existence, vibrations at various frequencies, auditory hallucinations, flashes of light, energy releases, perceptual distortions of the body, etc. I could observe all of these objects with astounding clarity. At the end of the second week, I started experiencing significant rapture and spent a few days enjoying it. Then, Sayalay Daw Bhadda Manika at Lumbini gave me a good grilling and told me that I was simply clinging to the pleasant experience and not making any progress. When intense bliss arose again during the next sit I expressed my gratitude for the experience and turned away from it. Amazingly, effects associated with the 5th ñana Dissolution kicked in towards the end of that very sit as if they had been waiting for me to come out of a bliss coma. Now I know why many vipassana teachers have their students avoid jhanic bliss like the plague. It is very easy to become a bliss junkie and just hang out in La-la Land (as Daniel put it) without moving ahead one bit.

5th ñana: Dissolution (22 days)

During the following three weeks, any object that I observed with the center of my attention started dissolving more and more quickly, or appeared as if it was behind a perceptual veil. This experience began with the rising and falling movements of the abdomen becoming increasingly harder to discern and gradually included all objects that would arise. Often, I would see an object somewhat clearly with the periphery of my attention but when I wanted to have a closer look at it by placing it in the middle of my field of attention it would just disintegrate.

Dark night related mental states (i.e. anxiety, panic, fear, depression, etc.) began around halfway into this ñana, possibly as the disintegration of objects became increasingly more comprehensive, affecting objects commonly associated with the notion of self. As the stage progressed, they increased in frequency and intensity.

Interestingly, effects related to the 11th ñana Equanimity also began to emerge halfway through Dissolution and gained momentum towards the end of this stage. This is somewhat earlier than when Equanimity should kick in according to the timeline given by canonical sources: Equanimity is said to begin somewhere in the 9th ñana Desire for Deliverance. When I reported this to Sayadaw, he seemed to want to slow me down a little so that I could learn the central lesson of Dissolution which is the dissolution of consciousness that marks the beginning of the 6th ñana Fear. He did not give me instructions for Equanimity till some two weeks later.

The five subsequent ñanas (i.e. Fear to Re-observation) followed one another fairly quickly. Equanimity also asserted itself more and more during that phase. Consequently, during the two weeks following the end of Dissolution, I went through a heterogeneous mix of experiences. One sit would be very long, characterized by features associated with Equanimity, and in the next one I would be swamped with a cocktail of unwholesome states.

6th ñana: Fear (2 days)

The breaking up of objects in Dissolution culminated in the breaking up of consciousness, the last stronghold of the self illusion: I would be watching objects of various kinds dissolve when suddenly I would experience a blackout. I would come to with a pang of fear and only then realize that I had experienced a discontinuity in consciousness. It would sometimes take me a few moments to realize where I was. I had this experience during a few sits spread over two days.

7th and 8th ñanas: Misery-cum-Disgust (5 days)

Next, I moved into 7th and 8th ñana territory and experienced these two stages in tandem. I had a couple of days of sadness blended with aversion towards food and a peak in unwholesome emotions towards people.

9th ñana: Desire for Deliverance (2 days)

In this ñana, the mind became uncontrollably scattered and attention seemed to have lost all power. During sits, I would become completely spaced-out, experiencing total confusion about whether I was inhaling or exhaling or which labels to use for the various objects or even what I was doing at a given moment. It felt like the whole meditation endeavor had collapsed. Then, during one particular sit, this confusion culminated in a feeling of complete frustration and a complete lack of will to go on. It was simply impossible to concentrate. Then, right after this worst sit of the stage, things picked up again as if nothing had happened. It felt like the mind had restarted itself. There was the feeling of a fresh start.

10th ñana: Re-observation (5 days)

This ñana was definitely the hardest stage in terms of the intensity of unwholesome states and yet it was over fairly quickly. Heightened anxiety would wake me up at night and it would persist throughout the day. In the morning, I experienced a particularly strong and deep existential worry. Other than that, Re-observation felt like an unending procession of objects that I had encountered countless times until that point in time.

(To be continued)

RE: A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat
Answer
12/21/15 6:16 PM as a reply to Cem Keskin.
Cem, this is fantastic – thanks for sharing

Very well-written, and inspiring to read as a beginner

RE: A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat
Answer
12/22/15 12:12 AM as a reply to Phineas.
Thanks Phineas emoticon I hope it helps.

RE: A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat
Answer
12/22/15 10:15 AM as a reply to Cem Keskin.
This is excellent and very timely for me as I will be in Panditrama Lumbini shortly to start a 3 week retreat.  I look forward to reading the rest of your experience and it is nice to see that the Sayadaw and Sayalay are giving such great advice and support.

RE: A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat
Answer
12/25/15 1:45 AM as a reply to G Mojo.
I hope it'll be of some use G Mojo emoticon I'm happy to hear that you'll be spending a good amount of time at Panditarama Lumbini. You seem to have read our comments about the center and the teachers on this page. Sayadaw is by far the best teacher I've had during my retreat and Panditarama Lumbini is the best center I've seen.

RE: A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat
Answer
12/29/15 4:52 AM as a reply to Cem Keskin.
Dear Cem,

Great to hear about your experiences! Nice job. Thanks for writing this. I hope you write plenty more: very helpful.

Happy New Year!

Daniel

RE: A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat
Answer
12/29/15 8:44 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
Hello Daniel,

Thanks! I'm happy to hear that emoticon

I'm writing a few pages on my experiences in Equanimity. I hope to be able to post those as soon as possible.

Best New Year wishes from Istanbul!

Cem

RE: A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat
Answer
12/29/15 5:53 PM as a reply to Cem Keskin.
Cem Keskin:
Hello Daniel,

Thanks! I'm happy to hear that emoticon

I'm writing a few pages on my experiences in Equanimity. I hope to be able to post those as soon as possible.

Best New Year wishes from Istanbul!

Cem


Thank you for sharing,
Going to sit there for about 2 months in the next few weeks - did you find it better to travel through India or Kathmandu?

RE: A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat
Answer
2/2/16 1:10 AM as a reply to Cem Keskin.

PART II: EQUANIMITY

Introduction

Even though Equanimity is usually referred to as just another stage, the 11th ñana, for me it proved to be a whole phase of the path that is made up of several stages – I will get into more detail below. It is probably more accurate to categorize it as such both due to its duration and the fact that it is not homogeneous. In fact, a model where distinct ñanas are grouped into phases – i.e. do not individually constitute the path – and the phases are grouped to form the path might reflect better the reality on the ground (conf. Ron Crouch’s account). In fact, it might reflect better the reality on the ground to divide the whole contemplative path into phases and the phases into ñanas (as Ron Crouch does). In this approach, a phase is a period that is a sequence of ñanas which have a similar character. This approach is probably very much like dividing up the path into “vipassana jhanas” which are, like the phases here, sequences of ñanas (See Daniel’s MCTB for a detailed account). Here’s what that model could look like (based on Ingram, Folk and Crouch):  

The Physio-Cognitive Phase
1. Mind and Body
2. Cause and Effect
3. Three Characteristics

The A&P Phase
4. The Arising and Passing Away

The Dark Night Phase
5. Dissolution
6. Fear
7. Misery
8. Disgust
9. Desire for Deliverance
10. Re-Observation

Equanimity Phase
11. Low Equanimity
12. Mid Equanimity
13. High Equanimity

Cessation Phase
14. Conformity
15. Change of Lineage
16. Path
17. Fruition

Review Phase
18. Review

Of course, this model is, to some extent, based on my personal experience and might not hold much validity for many people. Nevertheless, when I present below the experiences I had during this period of my retreat, I will treat Equanimity as something larger than a ñana and separate it into three ñanas.

Equanimity Phase

For me, Equanimity has been by far the longest period of the path. I entered Equanimity proper on the 53rd day of my retreat on 23.3.2015 and was still in it when the retreat ended more than 4 months later on 28.7.2015. As a matter of fact, I am still in Equanimity more than 6 months after the retreat ended! Insight meditation teacher Ron Crouch does write on his website that “it is not unusual for people to spend as long or longer in EQ than in the whole rest of the path.” And I do acknowledge that there is a great amount of truth in approaching Equanimity in this way. Yet, I am not entirely sure whether this period is supposed to last as long as it has for me.

This experience could not have been more different from my expectations. I had gotten a bit worried after the one-month mark in Equanimity – before I had come across this piece of information by Ron – because I had somehow gotten the idea that, once I was in Equanimity, I would be on the verge of getting enlightened. I had presumed I would take at most 3 to 4 weeks to attain Path, as the longest one of the preceding ñanas (i.e. Dissolution) had lasted around three weeks and Equanimity is right before the stages of enlightenment, i.e. Conformity to Fruition, according to the canonical accounts. Furthermore, as I recall from my previous experience with Advaita, I had spent at most one month in an Equanimity-like state while working towards what were possibly 1st and 2nd paths. What added to my confusion was the fact that the various sources I had read did not give a timeline with a hint about how long this period should last. To be honest, I can’t quite figure out if I have just been stuck due a mistake in my practice or if this is just how much time Equanimity is supposed to take to mature when working towards 3rd path. Any comments and help would be greatly appreciated.

As I have mentioned above, this longest phase of the practice was not a homogenous stretch of the path; it can be divided into several stages. Yet, one can talk about a unifying thread that lets us treat these stages together. That common feature was a meditative state that I have cultivated which, especially in the retreat environment, has the following features – anything that happens during a sit happens against this background:

  • It arises very easily and quickly, continues automatically, and is very robust.
  • At the beginning of a sit, it feels like the mind is going through a phase transition and it assumes a more “viscous” state.
  • In that viscous state, everything appears to happen in slow motion in a very spacious realm. Sayadaw U Vivekananda had told me that the slow motion effect is actually because the mind speeds up considerably.
  • Mindfulness is very keen and instantaneously catches any object that might arise.
  • Objects can be perceived with great clarity and observed from close up.
  • Very fine vibrations are among the most prominent objects.
  • Fairly intense pressure emanates from inside the skull. First starting in a physical structure behind the eyes – possibly the pituitary gland, the Ajna Chakra – later shifting to another physical structure further back and up – possibly the pineal gland, the Sahasrara Chakra.
  • Hindrances are attenuated to a large extent and tranquility of mind and body are quite remarkable, accompanied by a very subtle sense of pleasure and joy.
  • The attitude that accompanies this state is one of equanimity, the namesake of the phase.
Let us now talk about the three stages of Equanimity: low, mid and high.

11th ñana: Low Equanimity

Low Equanimity was characterized by two phenomena: the “yo-yo effect” and drowsiness.

The yo-yo effect manifested itself in two ways. First, during the first three weeks of this stage, I would mostly sit in a state with greatly reduced bodily and mental activity with brief excursions to a very refined version of the state where the activity levels dropped even more. The peace, calmness, clarity and ease of this higher abiding felt like flying above the clouds. Sometimes, the “coarser” state felt more active, with several synchronous rhythmic movements in the body that felt rather pronounced due to sharpened mindfulness. This reminded me of the active sits during Re-observation. One particular feature of this period that started in Re-observation and persisted till Mid Equanimity was a very gentle and pleasant swaying motion. Around three weeks into the stage, the trips between the coarse and refined versions of the same state stopped and I started abiding in the refined version consistently.

The second manifestation of the yo-yo effect was the several brief excursions I may have made down to Re-observation and back up to Equanimity – a fairly phenomenon, as I gather from the online conversations I have read many people refer to when they talk about working one’s way up to Equanimity and falling back several times. During that time, I experienced frequent anxiety attacks that almost matched those I had during Re-observation. I do not mean to say, however, that I experienced continual anxiety during this time: I experienced anxiety during at least one sit on 16 days of my first month in Low Equanimity, on just one day during my second month and on 10 days during my last month. This makes a grand total of 27 days with at least one and at most two anxiety attacks, usually the first one occurring during the first sit of the day and the second after the afternoon nap, so mostly after waking up from sleep. Also, even when I did experience anxiety, the features of Equanimity that I have listed above formed the background against which this mental object arose. A second possible explanation for this frequent arising of anxiety is that I may have developed an anxiety disorder during the Dark Night ñanas. There is a history of anxiety on both sides of my family and the intense contemplative experiences may have triggered the disorder.

What put a stop to the arising of anxiety was developing the ability to see thoroughly the three characteristics of this mental state. I passed the threshold during one particular sit: Each time anxiety arose, I would direct my gaze to it and watch the way it disintegrated and its impression of substantiality, of possessing an inherent life force just disappear like a mirage. This was accompanied by huge waves of blissful relief that showed just how much suffering had been locked into each formation.

In addition to anxiety, drowsiness was another prominent feature of this ñana. As this early stage of Equanimity stabilized around three weeks into the phase, I started finding it increasingly difficult to stay awake during sits. This, according to Theravada theory, is due to an imbalance of concentration and energy, and is typical of this stage. It is as if the “system” decreases energy levels because very little of it is required to stay concentrated; this in turn causes you start feeling extremely drowsy just a few minutes into a sit. At the time I was in Ratna Vipassana Vihar and Sayadaw U Sujana Piya instructed me to balance these two controlling faculties, by noting with great energy. When that did not generate enough energy, I improvised the technique of generating mental images and blasting them to pieces by noting them with force. These two techniques kept drowsiness at bay. But, whenever I stopped using them drowsiness would assail me as before. This effect persisted till the end of Low Equanimity.

So, how long was I in Low Equanimity in total? Anxiety and drowsiness colored early Equanimity to such an extent that I will take them as reference points to determine how long Low Equanimity lasted: My last anxiety attack took place on the 97th day in Equanimity and problems related to drowsiness more or less disappeared around the 111th day of the phase. So, I will assume that Low Equanimity must have lasted at least 111 days. What corroborates this estimation is the fact that “slippery mind”, “an inability to stay focused on one object, and a tendency to drift into pleasant reverie” – which, according to Folk, characterizes Mid Equanimity – became the predominant experience just a few days after I had tamed drowsiness.

As for the centers where I have spent this period, during the first 10 days or so of the ñana, I was at Panditarama Lumbini in Nepal, under Sayadaw U Vivekananda’s guidance. Next, when Panditarama closed for the spring/summer season, I had to relocate to Ratna Vipassana Vihar in Kathmandu (Nepal). I meditated there for about a month under the guidance of Sayadaw U Sujana Piya before the earthquake struck and I decided to go back home to Turkey temporarily. In Turkey, I continued my intensive meditation practice at home until the end of May. In June, I sat at Wat Bhaddanta Asabharam in Thailand under Ajahn Somsak Sorado. And finally, in July, I meditated at Buddhist Hermitage Lunas in Malaysia under Sayadaw U Pannasara where my retreat came to an end after moving into Mid Equanimity territory.

12th ñana Mid Equanimity and beyond

So to repeat, around 3 months into Equanimity, I stopped experiencing anxiety and about 3.5 months into the phase, drowsiness disappeared. With these changes, things felt much more peaceful than before and energized; there was a new gained confidence. Then, around 116 days into Equanimity, the mind started becoming increasingly more distracted. Getting immersed in thoughts and phantasies felt rather appealing. There was a desire, a craving for thinking. A small burst of happiness accompanied thoughts. As I have mentioned above, this is what Kenneth Folk calls “slippery mind” and is the sign of Mid Equanimity.

I countered slippery mind by adapting to this situation the technique I had improvised for fighting drowsiness: blasting mental objects. I would sit with greatly aroused mindfulness and wait for a mental object to arise. The moment I felt the inkling of one I would blast it by forcefully directing my attention to it. It is interesting to note that this is one of the techniques that Folk recommends for fighting slippery mind.

A couple of weeks into Mid Equanimity, on my 127th day in Equanimity Phase and my 179th day on retreat, I reached the end of the period I had allotted for intensive meditation practice and went back home to Turkey. Since my return, I have maintained a daily practice of one to two hours of vipassana and have spent most of this period in Mid Equanimity. Around the end of November 2015, I may have shifted to High Equanimity. These days, slippery mind is mostly under control, which has greatly enhanced the tranquility that was already present. Also, I have started experiencing a fundamental instability in my awareness. It feels as if my awareness is wobbling or vibrating with a rather chaotic rhythm. Sometimes nervous excitement accompanies this event. These may be the effects that Ron Crouch refers to as signs of High Equanimity. In addition to these, the pressure that I previously experienced in the third eye region has shifted to the crown chakra, or rather these two centers play a tennis match of sorts where the pressure in one area slowly shifts to the other and back several times during a sit.

This brings me to the end of my account. I hope it is useful for anyone who cares to read it. Any comments, tips, etc. would be more than welcome.

(The End)

RE: A Six-month-long Vipassana Retreat
Answer
2/2/16 1:25 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
Hello Daniel,

Here's Part II of my write-up in case you're interested.

Metta,

Cem