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Dharma Diagnostic Clinic, aka "What was that?"

Confused for the last 12 years. Where am I?

Hi Dharma Overground, I'm very glad to have found this community. Prior contact with messy/non-transparent teachings made progress seem like a sisyphean task, so it's very refreshing to find such a clear map. I'm just having a difficulty understanding where I am. As in introduction, I'm in my mid-twenties from the UK. Currently studying Neuroscience and then will pursue Medicine. I've undertaken formal everyday practise for the past 2 years with 3 Goenka retreats, with on/off practise stretching back 5+ years before that. I think it I entered into Dark Night territory really young, but I'll summarize: [list type="disc"] [*][b]Age 11/12[/b], without contact with any teachings I became deeply curious about my own experience. My first obsession was sleep. I found it deeply disturbing that my sense of "me" was simply obliterated when falling asleep and that I had to unquestioningly trust it to reappear. Likewise, I didn't quite understand what it was that disappeared during sleep, since most things I took to be "me" also came and went while I was wakeful (e.g. memories, personality, thoughts). I saw sleep as death and thought that if I could understand sleep I might overcome death. When I laid down in bed, I'd try to remain as aware as possible to see how much of the process of my disappearance I could see. I did gradually get closer and closer to the edge of sleep, but this cultivation of awareness was at the expense of fear. I'd freak myself out when my body would go heavy/paralyzed or enter hypnagogic states and would jerk myself awake with fear. Bed time became a source of existential terror as well as curiousity, the closer the sensation of falling asleep came, the more fear and helplessness I would experience about my inevitable disapperance. The solution was either to make myself so tired that I didn't think about it, or otherwise lie in bed fearfully attentive and wondering how the other kids willingness went into the black void called sleep. Around this age we discussed our biggest fears in class and I said "the feeling of falling asleep", even the teacher looked at me with confusion.  My curiosity also extended to other aspects of experience. For instance, I'd notice that while walking to school in winter, sometimes I would suffer the shivering and cold, but other times I would notice shivering with detachment. I noticed strange flipping around in my own perspective. I found it bizarre to be apparently living as a body, but also to suffer the body and not know quite from where it was being suffered or why or why not.  I also had this deep sense that I was in a strange labarynth and that there must be a way out somehow, or at least a way back to normalcy. [*][b]Age 14[/b], I read widely and came across some weird kundalini meditation breathing exercises. I believe one reduced breathing volume exercise and breath of fire (forced hyperventilation). I messed with these for a few sessions and definitely didn't know what I was doing or the intended results. Then on the 3rd session after breath of fire, my whole physical body seemed to dissolve in bright light and rapid vibration. I felt like I was disappearing completely and also seemed to expand outwards. I noticed that I could no longer perceive the boundaries of my skin and my experience was pervaded with rapid vibration. It almost seemed violent. The more I seemed to dissolve in it, the more I started to get scared of annihilation (the same as I described with sleep). It got too intense and too close to what seemed like disappearance and I opened my eyes. They were streaming with tears and I felt somehow emotionally "opened" but didn't really know what to make of it.  [*][b]Age 14 onward, [/b]I can't recall the exact timeline, but quite shortly after this experience I became deeply depressed. The fear of sleep/death lingered in my experience everyday and I had an intense pulse of existential anxiety. It made living extremely difficult, but did develop a high level of attention and vigilance to my own experience. Around sleep, feelings of dissociation, sensations, pains, or anything that seemed to be a stimulus for the fear of annihilation, I would be intensely aware. As a result, normal problems and dramas seemed like really superficial content to me and I wondered why nobody wanted to solve this big problem of sleep and death and our position in it all.  [*][b]Age 15-23, [/b]In general, a period of intense existential anxiety/depression/insomnia for me. I was looking for something and read a lot spiritual books (e.g. I Am That by Nisargadatta). I did a lot more reading that practising and without a teacher didn't really understand what optimum practise would look like. I had occasional experiences of peace and joy during meditaiton sessions but nothing significant. Aside from some increase in crude mindfulness/awareness, I was still deeply depressed. At worst, existence seemed so hopeless and void that I even went to bed for some months.  [*][b]Age 23 [/b]In strange circumstances met an equally strange guru in my first time in India. Hadn't cried for 2-3 years prior, this but couldn't stop crying in his presence. He told me that everything would be okay soon. The whole event mystified me and it could have been some type of hysteria. It interested me that the crying had no emotion connected to it, but just seemed like some kind of release. I'm still puzzled by it.  [*][b]Age 23 -> Now [/b]Got incredibly depressed again and gave up for a few months, but then started to use it as the igniter fluid for practise. Started meditating regularly and looked for 3+ month retreats. Since there weren't any close by, I signed up to a 10 day Goenka course instead. I was feeling so fragile that I barely made it there. But the difference at the end and after the retreat was remarkable. On day 8/9 I had an experience that Shinzen described as "dropping into equanimity". Almost instantaneously I went from suffering my own experience at 90% to the situation totally turning inside out - being in the middle of it yet not suffering it. It felt like I'd broken through some invisible barrirer. I kept telling myself to remember this and hoped nobody would chuck me out of the hall. It lasted about an hour and then suffering seemed to come back in a flood. It didn't come back on that retreat, but after I left I felt distinctly like "glass" for the following week. I felt totally clear and smooth and transparent, it's hard to describe. Nothing seemed to touch me and I felt no anxiety for that week (for the first time in 12+ years). Then it faded and I was back in full suffering mode.  After this, I sat 2 more retreats (as well as serving). I had some very brief experiences of this glassiness, but they faded just as quickly. And also some experiences of all-pervading warmth/love during metta meditation, but they faded too. In fact, in these last two retreats I seemed to come out worse than I started. I was left wondering whether this was progress in the form of new gross sensations (as goenka describes) or a further dark night stage, or if it was simply a regress through improper practise (I think I have some perfectionist tendencies and tend to zoom in way too much). Perhaps one interesting thing about these last two retreats is that they've been full of spontaneous or (I later read described as) "kriya" type movements e.g. crazy spontaneous jerks and wobbles in the body/neck/head, sometimes up to once every 5 seconds or so during sits on vipassana days and even while not meditating. These have slowed a lot lately but still occur during daily practise.  Right now I feel lots of restlessness when sitting down to practise, although sometimes this can rapidly transform to pleasant vibrations. I'm also suffering a lot of insomnia since my last retreat.  It would be nice there was some kind of diagnostic probe to stick in one's own brain and learn what's going on.  ​​​​​​​ [/list]I have a retreat starting, so I'd be very grateful if anyone could help diagnose my situation and offer any advise for practise during/after the retreat.  Kind regards, James

RE: Confused for the last 12 years. Where am I?
8/30/16 8:11 PM as a reply to James F F.
Looks like you hit the A&P at age 14 and became a chronic dark night yogi. Meeting the guru in india gave you a taste of "resonance", which really doesn't map but seems to oddly help the spiritual journey. Somehow these connections (which are completely unpredictable) just seem to catalyze things. At age 23 you were finally able to reach Equanimity on retreat.

That sounds like great prelude to a great future! Remember the guidance "consistency, not heroics". If you can continue to maintain a daily practice, you will make progress. As you have experienced, retreats also help a lot, especially if you simply do the practice and don't get caught up with "trying to make even faster progress". Progress will happen and you'll recognize as that same experience of equanimity and more: progress means expanding that glimpse of equanimity to all mindstates, so that all internal experiences can be fully experienced without suffering. Ultimately, that means going through wonderful and depressive mindstates, but with a growing mindfulness. This process seems to re-integrate those experiences into a better functioning mind and body.

I just want to say all of this is completely possible, but it takes time on the cushion, no way around that. The good news that all the things you need to experience will bubble up on their own. You just need to sit and experience what arises.

Keep a consistent practice and continue to ask questions along the way.

Best wishes James!

RE: Confused for the last 12 years. Where am I?
8/30/16 8:17 PM as a reply to James F F.
Oh, and as far as your retreat goes. I would say just do whatever practice you are comfortable with and have some trust that progress will occur.

If you are still looking around for a practice, I would say you can't go wrong with intimately experiencing your body on an inhale and making a mental note on whatever is most prominant in your experience on the exhale.

It might be that what is most prominant is a body sensation, in which case note it.
It might be a general sense of attraction, aversion, or neutralness, in which note it.
It might be a mood/emotion, in which case note it.
It might be a train of thoughts, in which case note the kind of thought (planning thought, comparing thought, meditation map thought, etc.)

This very simple practice can take you all the way to awakening. Inhale and become intimate with your embodied experience, exhale and note something about it. Inhale, exhale. Simple.

Hope this idea helps. Ultimately, make practice your own and do what makes the most sense to you.

RE: Confused for the last 12 years. Where am I?
8/31/16 4:09 AM as a reply to James F F.
James F FHi Dharma Overground,

I'm very glad to have found this community. Prior contact with messy/non-transparent teachings made progress seem like a sisyphean task, so it's very refreshing to find such a clear map. I'm just having a difficulty understanding where I am.
This is not a useful question to ask. Because in every retreat you do, you'll go through all kinds of states on the map, period. Don't get lost in this map-thing, it can be used very wrong.

I have a retreat starting, so I'd be very grateful if anyone could help diagnose my situation and offer any advise for practise during/after the retreat. 

Kind regards,


Interesting experiences. I didn't have those experiences at such an early age, but on the internet, quite some people report it. I can hardly fathom the irritating isolation that must come from being thrown on the path at such an early age without any guidance and understanding from your parents/teachers/etc. let alone your peers, which basically live in another world altogether.

About the other states: No unambiguous identification possible. For example, the feeling of being trapped in a labyrinth is a typical re-observation thing. Does that mean you were in re-observation at that time? maybe. Does it mean you were in re-observation after that? No, not really.
About your description of the state after your first Goenka retreat (glassiness)  : It sounds very much like my experience at my first Goenka retreat. May be equanimity or A&P.
Keep in mind that there is the effect of the first time. It is often very strong. The fact that you experience this very intensely in daily life for more than a week says little about the efficacy of the technique, it just says that it was your first retreat (:

Anyway, I have 3 pieces of advice for you:
1) Don't worry about where you are on the map. You are on the path, this is obvious. Seems like there is no going back for you, and this has been clear for more than half of your life. You're not alone, though without a community it often seems so. The only thing you should worry about is finding a method which works for you. Then apply that consistently, and things should work fine.
2) About your upcoming retreat: Do I understand it correctly, that it is a Goenka retreat?
You are still rather new to this stuff. Just follow the instructions and don't try to somehow improve on them by guessing your place on the map or something. This will just lead you astray.
If it's not a Goenka retreat, the same advice applies.
3) About long-term: Goenka's tradition has important positive aspects. I've done only one retreat in it, so I can't say too much about it, though. But I want to say this: There are different approaches which are just as powerful. If Goenka's approach works great for you, there's no reason to do something else.
But often, people just stay there because it's comfortable or because it's cheap or because they remember their powerful experience after their first retreat and try to recreate that or they buy in Goenka's ridiculous statements about how his technique is the true Buddha's method or something (LOL).
I would endorse that everyone does some (or even a lot of) shopping around and tries different traditions and/or methods. Ignore people who accuse you of spiritual materialism or whatever term is used nowadays to shame people who thoroughly explore their options. This thing is far too important to just stay with the first approach that seems somewhat okay. I learned that noting worked very differently for me than Goenka. Later I learned that Brahmavihara-based practice is completely different, and also worthwhile. I half-expect to learn about even more approaches down the road.

RE: Confused for the last 12 years. Where am I?
9/1/16 9:04 AM as a reply to James F F.
pretty much aligns with human age transformation points. You have awareness enough to notice them good job.

RE: Confused for the last 12 years. Where am I?
9/5/16 7:24 AM as a reply to James F F.
This is my opinion only.

Goenka retreat is generally good for beginners. I am not one to have experienced anything exotic like others. I did benefit from the retreat in terms of equanimity of sitting on the floor for an hour, but I quit body scan after 3 months because my mind was getting noiser with each successive body scan in one every session.

Better to just practice mindful awareness with mental noting and be equanimous with the feeling, emotion, bodily sensation every moment of your wakefulness.

Let yourself establish a bit of normalcy before trying Goenka retreat. Very weird things have happened to 1% of Goenka retreat.

RE: Confused for the last 12 years. Where am I?
9/7/16 7:41 AM as a reply to Simon Liu.
i wonder waht is the retreat meaning. There have been discussions that some use other instructions on a retreat than the specific retreat intructions. So and how well one follows instructions is completely other subject but adds fuel to the idea that retreat is not something different than doing things on your own. Knowing myself then yoga retreats where there is lots of peopel doing their thing, i know what consciousness i will be when there, and i can't mediate but it would just look all fake. The consiousness i would have is same with sightseeing with a group.

Its like going to school and learning stuff what you don't know why you learning them because you have never needed them, so can't relate at all. But maybe because i haven't been on any retreat..

..and the talks i have been taught by this and that teacher so now i am qualified or that teacher who runs a famous lineage told i can teach. I smell dogma.

RE: Confused for the last 12 years. Where am I?
9/7/16 9:56 AM as a reply to James F F.

Retreat has its benefits. Not all retreats are the same. You get what you pay for. I have only been to one retreat which is the Goenka retreat.

I give praise to Goenkaj for starting the meditation retreat so that everyone can have an opportunity to get started in meditation. It is great for beginners. Because it is free, this retreat only has one teacher, Mr Goenkaj, even though he already passed away last year. At the meditation hall, you listen to his audio instructions during one or two of the group sessions daily.  At night, you watch 1.5 hour of video discourse given by Mr. Goenkaj. There are two assistant teachers who sit at the front and center stage during group meditation session. They are a man and a woman. Men can only ask questions from the male assistant teacher.

The assistant teachers are simply volunteers who have accomplished so many Goenka vipassana retreats and may be few other requirements that I am not aware of it. Hence, assisant teachers may not be well versed in Dhamma or in other techniques. If you enounter an assistant teacher who is not very knowledgable you might be misunderstood when you tell them about weird experiences. They may think you are not practicing their body scan technique. Few have been thrown out because of this. It all depends on where you are doing the retreat. Overall, most of people have no problems.

At Goenka retreat, they are very strict. You cannot even practice walking meditation during breaks. While you are there, you can only do the meditation techniques that they teach you.  I highly  recommend this to beginners only.  I don't recommend this to people who have had out of normal experiences. Not all or most assistant teachers know much about the different weird experiences that can happen from meditation. You are not going to get authoritative answers for your questions.  They only know what experiences body scan meditators should have.

To be fair, it is free meditation retreat. We have to give a lot of credit to Mr. Goenkaj for starting this, but it is not the retreat that specializes in meditation in genereal. It is strictly a body scan meditation retreat.