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Interesting experience on retreat

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Interesting experience on retreat
Answer
3/23/16 10:50 AM
Hi all,

I've just come off a month-long retreat where I had, amongst other things, an interesting experience which has made a lot of the stuff I've read and never quite been able to understand make a lot more sense. Now I'm wondering if there's anything I can do to encourage the experience to return and maybe even stick, or whether it's just a case of 'keep practising'.

Some background: I've been meditating seriously since 2009 or so, although prior to that I'd been dabbling since the 90s. Most of my practice has been Theravada but there's also some Zen and Qigong (principally a couple of different approaches to the Microcosmic Orbit) in there too. I used a little bit of noting practice a few years ago but over time (and particularly on this retreat) I've been shifting towards more letting go and general mindfulness practices with occasional targeted 'experiments' (e.g. watching the mechanisms of thought to see how the illusion of self is created). My current assessment is that I experienced stream entry in late 2013 while on retreat, but that's another long story that I don't really want to get into now. Feel free to take my self-assessment with as much salt as you like.


What I was doing: On this retreat I spent quite a while experimenting with my sense of self. At one point I found myself becoming aware of a quality in my experience which seemed 'unchanging' (in a way that the rest of experience really doesn't -- I've been viscerally aware of moment-to-moment impermance for a few years now following a previous retreat experience).

By paying attention to this unchanging quality I found myself watching my experience as if from a great distance (the analogy was sitting in a movie theatre watching things on a screen, and suddenly realising I was in the theatre rather than part of the action on the screen). I mentioned this to my teacher, who commented that I'd turned awareness back on itself, and was thus noticing the qualities of awareness itself as opposed to the content of awareness (the latter, of course, being subject to the three characteristics and hence impermanent). He recommended that if I found myself there again I should simply rest there and see if I ended up in a state with no sense of an observer, just 'observing'. So I did, and I did.


What happened: The first experience was really striking. After the sit I got up to go for a walk outside and found myself strolling around slowly, head turning from side to side automatically, marvelling at what seemed like an indescribable beauty in my surroundings that I'd somehow never noticed before. My sense contacts all seemed very 'raw' and fresh. After a few minutes a thought arose: 'I wonder if there's a separate observer here?' At this point there was immediately a sense of a separate observer popping into my awareness, and a shift in the way I was perceiving everything else, which leads me to suspect that I hadn't been positing an observer up to that point.

On quite a few (maybe 10?) subsequent occasions I was able to get back to this state. It didn't have quite the same 'wow' factor as the first time, but it felt markedly different from 'baseline experience', and in many good ways. In particular:

* Thoughts of I, me and mine were very rare or entirely absent
* I was clearly and effortlessly mindful of my whole sensorium without interruption -- thoughts came up and then passed away again without dragging me into a chain of mental proliferation
* Sense contacts from the periphery of my sensorium (distant sounds, sights at the corner of my eye) seemed brighter and more prominent, and the centre of my sensorium less prominent; in comparison to 'baseline experience' it seems that ordinarily I prioritise stuff 'in the middle' and now that prioritisation wasn't happening
* Pain and pleasure still arose but the usual accompanying aversion and craving was absent: when I noticed it was cold I simply zipped up my coat, without any of the usual negative mental reaction to feeling cold (the Daoist statements about 'doing without ado' came to mind here -- things were getting done as they needed to be without any of the usual self-related fuss)
* With a bit of experimentation I was able to call up the baseline perspective by e.g. looking at a distant object and forming thoughts like '*I* am walking towards *that tree which is different from me*', at which point the tree would seem to take on more separation from its surroundings and I would have a sense of myself as another separate entity; but doing this seemed to require effort and tension, and I was able to drop it and return to the previous state, at which point the tree seemed to 'sink back into' its surroundings to an extent (to be clear, I wasn't experiencing a loss of perception of objects, they just didn't feel as 'separate' from each other and me as usual)
* I felt content and unworried, and happy to remain in this state as long as it was around

The last point is worth expanding -- I had a lot of fear come up on the retreat around making potentially permanent changes to my baseline experience, wondering if I was going to end up weird or an emotionless robot or somehow unable to function in daily life if I gave up the illusion of my self; but whilst in this seemingly 'self-free' experience all of those worries seemed totally absurd and it was clear that I would be able to function absolutely fine like that, just without the huge mass of dukkha generated by my self.

So a lot of this made me think of some of the descriptions of Pure Consciousness Experiences that I read back in the day when lots of people were into that, and it also makes a lot of the descriptions of how suffering is tied to the self and how it's possible to walk around in a state with considerably less selfing and be just fine (and, indeed, quietly contented, as opposed to emotionally flat).

A lot of stuff now makes sense that didn't, and a lot has changed in my practice since (in particular a greater emphasis on cultivating moment-to-moment mindfulness, which I'd been neglecting, and a greater emphasis on letting go, which helped a great deal with several situations on the retreat).

What I'm wondering is whether this is essentially a peak experience (e.g. second path or something along those lines) which I should treat as interesting, cool and maybe a sign of things to come, but not necessarily something to try to cultivate in the meantime, or whether this is actually a reproducible state of affairs that I could develop further with practice. In the latter case, if people have suggestions for practices that would be useful, please let me know!

Thanks,
Matt

RE: Interesting experience on retreat
Answer
3/23/16 12:11 PM as a reply to Matt.
Matt:

Well, you just did a good summary of what I have been trying to describe and point to for a while, and better I might add.  emoticon

All I can say is, 

It all happens moment to moment, and that is really the only place worth practicing, and well, the only place we can practice.

The more you remember to be in that state, and the more you abide there, the easier it becomes to be in that state.

The state you describe can be spread to all aspects of living, like the spreading of butter to all areas of the toast, and it melts in and saturates.

And , as to the state you are describing, I wonder at times, if there is a more, and a betterer (emoticon) state, what could it even be?

Psi

RE: Interesting experience on retreat
Answer
3/23/16 9:44 PM as a reply to Matt.
@OP:

I think it was 3rd gear:

http://web.archive.org/web/20120429023621/http://kennethfolkdharma.wetpaint.com/page/3rd+Gear

RE: Interesting experience on retreat
Answer
3/24/16 5:04 AM as a reply to Noah.
..we have a Bingo!  exactly what flew through my mind reading this...kenneth's 3-speed approach epitomized.

RE: Interesting experience on retreat
Answer
3/24/16 5:23 AM as a reply to Matt.
Matt, congrats on what sounds like a great retreat! From what you are describing, it does sound like a profound state of presence and equanimity, quite possibly post SE. It really does leave an impression on how simple and stress-free things can be. The fear is a common experience as our habitual resistances and defenses are lowered and life is experienced more and more intimately.

What are your future plans for practice? These sorts of experiences have a way of enlarging and pointing towards even more profound insights. 

RE: Interesting experience on retreat
Answer
3/24/16 10:54 AM as a reply to Matt.
Your experience also does remind me a lot of Actualism's descriptions of a PCE.  Yet others feel like it sounds like 3rd gear.  Could they be different attempts to describe the same thing (both 3rd gear and PCE)?  If you look at it jusdt from a phenomenological perspective and not from a belief system perspective.  People have this and that kind of experiences and then a belief system is attached to them to try to explain the meaning behind the experiences better.  But the belief system is not the territory, it's just an attempt to try to connect the phenomenological dots.  It's like the story of the 3 blind people trying to describe an elephant when each is touching different parts, they each come up with a very different storyline about what an elephant is because each of them has only a  small bit of data to guess from compared to the amount of data available that they don't know.  IMO, the smaller the amount of data compared to the whole, the more inaccurate the storylines that are generated to try to explain it. 

Flip it the other way, to understand more accurately, seems like a good route is to try to stop the proliferating story telling of the mind using meditation techniques or whatever.  I wonder if the story telling (selfing, etc) serves a purpose at first (it is my suspicion that it does), but then at some point, to progress further, one has to change tactics and dial that back.  An anology, when you are painting the eaves of your house,  you need a ladder, but once you are ready to paint the walls and foundation, not only is the ladder not useful anymore but it's blocking access to some areas so you need to get it out of the way.  IMO, what works depends on what stage you are at.  It's not just one tactic that is best for the whole route,  too bad it's not that simple!  ;-P    

RE: Interesting experience on retreat
Answer
3/25/16 7:37 AM as a reply to Matt.
Thanks everyone, this is helpful!


@Psi: That sounds encouraging -- I'd be interested to read your descriptions. Is your practice journal the best place to start (in which case I'm going to need some supplies before I start reading that behemoth :-)) or somewhere else?


@Noah/tom: Good call. I'm not sure why I didn't remember that myself -- I used to lurk on the old KFD forums back in the day. I guess I'd never had an experience which came remotely close at the time so the 3rd Gear description was just incomprehensible to me back then. I'll do a bit of digging.


@shargrol: I took a couple of major pointers away from the retreat. I've been kind of fortunate (in an unfortunate way, as it turns out) in that my mind concentrates very easily on retreat after a few days, so I've been able to get some decent jhanas and plenty of cool insights largely by sitting down and poking my mind with a big stick until stuff falls out, without needing to do much of anything off cushion. In particular, I've been able to ignore the advice of every teacher I've sat with -- be mindful off the cushion as much as possible -- because I haven't seemed to need it for concentration or insight. A few days of calming the mind naturally and then a bunch of effort has been all that's required.

This experience (plus learning a bit more about the brain science around mindfulness and the Default Mode Network, and starting to come to some suspicions about what's actually going on with the stages of awakening) has reoriented me significantly. My two major focuses now are mindfulness (on and off the cushion) and letting go. I was able to see to a large extent how selfing and clinging were related to each other, and if I started to slip out of the state it would be because some clinging had come up. To the extent that I was able to let go of the clinging, I would return to the state.

It's a bit strange because I'm used to solving basically every problem in my life with sheer effort, which is sort of the opposite feeling to letting go. I've found that I can sort of trick my mind into letting go by clinging to something as tightly as I can and then dropping it, in much the same way that isometric stretches work by first tensing a muscle until it gets tired and then using the reflexive relaxation to stretch it further than it would normally go, but I have a ton of work to do here.


@Eva: I'm certainly open to the idea that PCEs and 3rd Gear are pointing to the same thing -- it seems like these are places that the mind likes to go if the conditions are right so it makes a lot of sense to me that multiple traditions and ways of practising would lead to and end up describing and naming the same (or very similar) states. At this point I'm content to try out whatever seems like it might work, whatever labels it comes with.


Matt

RE: Interesting experience on retreat
Answer
3/25/16 9:36 AM as a reply to Matt.
Matt:
I was able to see to a large extent how selfing and clinging were related to each other, and if I started to slip out of the state it would be because some clinging had come up. To the extent that I was able to let go of the clinging, I would return to the state.

It's a bit strange because I'm used to solving basically every problem in my life with sheer effort, which is sort of the opposite feeling to letting go. I've found that I can sort of trick my mind into letting go by clinging to something as tightly as I can and then dropping it, in much the same way that isometric stretches work by first tensing a muscle until it gets tired and then using the reflexive relaxation to stretch it further than it would normally go, but I have a ton of work to do here.



Nice! Sounds like it would be good time to explore so-called emptiness of experience. Basically, selfing/clinging is all about a want, a need, a desire... and those emotions are just what they are, fleeting sensations without perminence. So it's possible to investigate clinging/selfing and see how the sensations themselves are not worth buying into. They are just temporary instinctual gestures that are over as soon as they occur.

I'm probably not doing a good job explaining, but really look at how "real" selfing and clinging is. There really isn't anything there to worry about. Sometimes people make way too big of a quest of getting rid of selfing and clinging, which is just another way selfing and clinging sneak in the backdoor again. The way beyond this is simply to see that selfing and clinging are already empty, they are already events that occur and end instantly.

Hope that helps!