Goenka retreat report, findings and request for comments

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Julian Suggate, modified 11 Years ago.

Goenka retreat report, findings and request for comments

Posts: 29 Join Date: 12/2/09 Recent Posts
Hi the group. I just came back from a 10-dayer and would be very grateful if someone could do a quick fact-check for me to see if I'm drawing the right conclusions. Although it may appear as though I'm sure I hit Equanimity, I'm not in fact certain and if you are not either, then say so! It won't do me any favours being deluded emoticon

As already stated, this was a Goenka retreat. I had planned to use noting and Shinzen Young techniques throughout the course, and just make use of the facilities really. Soon realised that this would entail lying to the teacher and this wouldn't sit right with me, thus breaking my concentration. Therefore the most productive approach was to follow all the rules (within reason, I have a mischievous aka rebellious nature that I am trying to use skillfully).

So, no journals, no other techniques (except walking because being ADHD I would never maintain concentration for long otherwise). Only a few Tai Chi exercises (not actual form) in the mornings. I had read Prisoner Greco's Reformed Slacker's Guide in the days prior, so was fairly disciplined even during the Dark Night stages. I ate meals and took showers mindfully without staring off into space (my usual pastime) and basically tried to maintain mindfulness from wakeup to lights out. During the middle of the retreat (when A&P/Dark Night were prominent) I would wake up often in the night and be aware of mindfulness of bodily sensation. Consciousness drifted in and out but the practice remained.

Here are the blow-by-blow details. The material up to Day 6 was written in my first and only slackening of discipline due to a pinched sciatic nerve and/or Dark Night despair that overwhelmed my concentration for a period of about an hour on that day. The material after Day 6 was written retrospectively when I came off retreat. Enough intro!

First two days settling in.

Day 3 balancing (I threw my ADHD medication away that morning as I found the highs and lows too unsettling). First taste of A&P.

Day 4, touching A&P again in the afternoon. Some wavering back and forth drift between it and late 3 Chars. Very intense discomfort/spasming in rhomboid and lower intercostal muscle groups during this wavering.

Day 5 hit A&P strongly before breakfast. Whole-body breakup into buzzing, tingling vibes with a lot of flush and heat. Spent the rest of that day struggling through Dark Night wretchedness, mostly mental dissonance after the incredible abilities of A&P. Continued working strongly nonetheless, with some very agitated unpleasant moments. I have written a detailed post about my Dark Night experiences in that category, with some pointers that I found helpful. Will update this post with the URL when it is up. Update: my brief contribution to the tomes of Dark Night wisdom can be found here

Day 6 lost partial feeling in left leg, transition out of Burmese style posture to a kneeler. While this was physically beneficial, it unsettled me just enough to begin a backwards slide driven by aversion to meditation but manifesting as a perception of being faced by insurmountable difficulties. If I'd had a car I probably would have checked out of retreat.

Day 7 continued meditating but couldn't seem to halt much less reverse the slide. Had a feeling (correct or not) that backsliding must be completed before I could gather strength for another push. Half intending not to bother with the other push. No walking meditation all day, perhaps a crucial factor that contributed to my lack of traction.

Day 8 things get interesting. Backslide completed upon waking. Resolved to make the most of the next few days rather than coasting through to the end. Returned to walking meditation with enthusiasm. Touching A&P almost straight away. 3 hour sit after breakfast with a formal resolution to "observe as many sensations as possible with as much equanimity as I can until the bell" got me well into the Dark Night (again, see separate post). Walked from 12-1pm, then a four hour sit with the same formal resolution from 1-5pm. Moment-by-moment attention to the anatta of everything, and my not being in control of such things as effort, clarity, focus, pain. I noticed the Three Characteristics of cognizance of anicca and anatta, and cognizance in general. Absolute suffering finally relinquished in the 3rd hour to a spread of gentle comfort and the flowering of effortless scope. Attention still very wide like Dark Night, but whereas only minutes previously that had created a sense of unending discord, it now became encompassing and embracing. Slight aspects of martyrdom, like a beneficent Christ at crucifixion smiling at his followers. Adrenaline rushes I had been observing were simply gone. Even now, 5 days later, they are much lessened. Rest of Day 8 spent investigating the feeling. Aware that I was developing attachment to it, but unsure how to prevent that. A feeling that I was on the threshold of new and vast territory that I have yet to explore and must map thoroughly. Trackless peaceful warmth of mind echoed in body sensations: multiple, fairly stable large warm patches covering e.g. half the trunk and an upper leg, a shoulder and neck. Vibrations definitely present but not particularly interesting. In fact, the feeling of comfort and warmth, while wonderful, began to feel impenetrable. Perhaps stabilising into samatha jhana.

Day 9 I reproduced the experience but not so large. The Dark Night was much easier this time, a transition with little fuss although it remained entirely unpleasant and lasted a couple hours. Geese cried outside as sudden rain struck and the fever broke. Tears of appreciation and the geese fell silent. Then the bell rang for lunch. All just as themselves, no point of reference for awareness to be rooted within. I picked up where I left off afterwards, no trouble, and spent all afternoon trying to pierce the calm and peace, somehow map it's expression of the three characteristics. At one point I even tried opening my eyes, ceasing mindfulness having realised that perhaps what I was looking for was to be found outside of the peace. But only superficial insights.

Day 10 basically the end of the retreat as Goenka begins teaching the metta practice (a very sparse and unsatisfactory treatment IMO).

Conclusions:
------------------
+ ADHD medication definitely pushes me deep quickly, but the resultant instability of mood and focus is not worth it.

+ If my interpretations are correct, I had a textbook progression up the Stages of Insight to Equanimity (possibly solidifying this into 4th samatha jhana). This textbook progression would be a first for me, as on my previous two retreats I surmise to have popped in and out of all four vipassana jhanas without discernible rhyme or reason. Perhaps it was the decision to scrap the dexamphetamine, which I'd not had the guts to do at other times, or perhaps a natural result of my practice having matured over the past 18 months since I started daily sitting.

+ Goenka retreats have good tech. I had to modify slightly but happy with the results. The chanting I had no problem with.

+ The routine on a Goenka retreat can be frustrating! Most sits are bookended by his instructions, which he repeats ad nauseum. This gets old, interrupts the flow and limits the amount of time one can spend actually meditating, especially as there are compulsory group sits at prime times like after breakfast, mid-afternoon and mid-evening.

+ Goenka retreats do not teach walking meditation --- WTF. Seriously.

+ The sciatic nerve thing was real -- I had only partial feeling in my left leg and foot for the afternoon, evening of Day 6 and next morning of Day 7. It forced me onto a kneeler for the remainder of the retreat and I still get tingles down my leg and across the sole of my foot two weeks later whenever I sit cross-legged.
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Bruno Loff, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Goenka retreat report, findings and request for comments

Posts: 1094 Join Date: 8/30/09 Recent Posts
Awesome, yes it sounds exactly like equanimity.

Go Julian :-)
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tarin greco, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: Goenka retreat report, findings and request for comments

Posts: 658 Join Date: 5/14/09 Recent Posts

So, no journals, no other techniques (except walking because being ADHD I would never maintain concentration for long otherwise). Only a few Tai Chi exercises (not actual form) in the mornings. I had read Prisoner Greco's Reformed Slacker's Guide in the days prior, so was fairly disciplined even during the Dark Night stages. I ate meals and took showers mindfully without staring off into space (my usual pastime) and basically tried to maintain mindfulness from wakeup to lights out. During the middle of the retreat (when A&P/Dark Night were prominent) I would wake up often in the night and be aware of mindfulness of bodily sensation. Consciousness drifted in and out but the practice remained.


for maximum effect, what you want to be mindful of from wakeup to lights out is not merely bodily sensation, but how any bodily sensation is only momentary. that is, you want to be aware of the impermanence characteristic of each bodily sensation - anicca.


Day 3 balancing (I threw my ADHD medication away that morning as I found the highs and lows too unsettling). First taste of A&P.


would you describe, in some detail, what those highs and lows were like, and how you were practising during their experience?


Day 8 things get interesting. Backslide completed upon waking. Resolved to make the most of the next few days rather than coasting through to the end. Returned to walking meditation with enthusiasm. Touching A&P almost straight away. 3 hour sit after breakfast with a formal resolution to "observe as many sensations as possible with as much equanimity as I can until the bell" got me well into the Dark Night (again, see separate post). Walked from 12-1pm, then a four hour sit with the same formal resolution from 1-5pm. Moment-by-moment attention to the anatta of everything, and my not being in control of such things as effort, clarity, focus, pain. I noticed the Three Characteristics of cognizance of anicca and anatta, and cognizance in general. Absolute suffering finally relinquished in the 3rd hour to a spread of gentle comfort and the flowering of effortless scope. Attention still very wide like Dark Night, but whereas only minutes previously that had created a sense of unending discord, it now became encompassing and embracing. Slight aspects of martyrdom, like a beneficent Christ at crucifixion smiling at his followers. Adrenaline rushes I had been observing were simply gone. Even now, 5 days later, they are much lessened. Rest of Day 8 spent investigating the feeling. Aware that I was developing attachment to it, but unsure how to prevent that.


'prevent' that by noticing the momentary quality of the sensations which indicate 'attachment'.. and by noticing the momentary quality of the sensations which indicate 'the desire to prevent attachment'.


A feeling that I was on the threshold of new and vast territory that I have yet to explore and must map thoroughly. Trackless peaceful warmth of mind echoed in body sensations: multiple, fairly stable large warm patches covering e.g. half the trunk and an upper leg, a shoulder and neck. Vibrations definitely present but not particularly interesting. In fact, the feeling of comfort and warmth, while wonderful, began to feel impenetrable. Perhaps stabilising into samatha jhana.


notice the momentary quality of the sensations which indicate 'comfort' ... which indicate 'warmth' ... which indicate 'impenetrable'.

notice the momentary quality of any and all sensations.


Day 9 I reproduced the experience but not so large. The Dark Night was much easier this time, a transition with little fuss although it remained entirely unpleasant and lasted a couple hours. Geese cried outside as sudden rain struck and the fever broke. Tears of appreciation and the geese fell silent. Then the bell rang for lunch. All just as themselves, no point of reference for awareness to be rooted within. I picked up where I left off afterwards, no trouble, and spent all afternoon trying to pierce the calm and peace, somehow map it's expression of the three characteristics. At one point I even tried opening my eyes, ceasing mindfulness having realised that perhaps what I was looking for was to be found outside of the peace. But only superficial insights.


if you want to do vipassana, what you are looking for is conformity knowledge (the next stage on from equanimity in the progress of insight), which you can find by observing the conditions which are currently presenting. if those conditions involve peace, notice the peace. if those conditions involve wanting peace that is not there, notice the wanting. if those conditions involve other things entirely, notice those other things entirely. it is in clearly and sufficiently seeing (any of the three characteristics of) the entirety[1] of what presents that conformity knowledge occurs.

is this helpful?

tarin

[1] the entirety of what you experience, which exists even when you don't notice that you're experiencing it.

[name of author edited out of quotations upon request]
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Julian Suggate, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Goenka retreat report, findings and request for comments

Posts: 29 Join Date: 12/2/09 Recent Posts
Thanks Tarin, I appreciate your help. I have been coming to grips with the effects of medication for a number of years and have a lot of thoughts about it. For one reason or another I have been in something of a post-retreat daze this last week. I will try and type out some thoughts in acceptably lucid fashion within the next few days.
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Julian Suggate, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Goenka retreat report, findings and request for comments

Posts: 29 Join Date: 12/2/09 Recent Posts
Hi any/all,

tarin greco:

if you want to do vipassana, what you are looking for is conformity knowledge (the next stage on from equanimity in the progress of insight), which you can find by observing the conditions which are currently presenting. if those conditions involve peace, notice the peace. if those conditions involve wanting peace that is not there, notice the wanting. if those conditions involve other things entirely, notice those other things entirely. it is in clearly and sufficiently seeing (any of the three characteristics of) the entirety[1] of what presents that conformity knowledge occurs.

is this helpful?

tarin

[1] the entirety of what you experience, which exists even when you don't notice that you're experiencing it.


Yes, this is good stuff. It seems to fit with Daniel's stuff on formations in the Equanimity chapter. I think earlier this year I was getting to Equanimity in my home practice (I had a lot of time on my hands). One thing I've never been clear on -- when it becomes clear that Equanimity has arisen, could a meditator approach conformity knowledge more quickly by intentionally taking all sense doors as object? Or would it be better to stay with the technique they used to get this far and just continue practicing until perception of formations naturally occurs?

Tarin, your other reminders about impermanence are very pertinent. Interestingly, impermanence is probably the least "natural" feeling of the Characteristics for me -- I've always been the nostalgic/anxious type for macro-level events and I think that's a pattern that repeats neuro-anatomically at the momentary level too (e.g. I detect a lot of minute hold/relax cycles in my deep muscles when meditating or doing really mindful yoga).

To roll the feelings of attachment and desire to prevent attachment into the meditation itself is something that teased my mind a lot on retreat. I wondered if the sensations of craving/aversion (attachment) themselves were worth observing, and concluded that they were. But for some reason it was not a forefront technique.

Very briefly, the body-scanning as taught by Goenka (and practiced by me) sections the body into parts approx 3 inches diameter. The practitioner must scan each individual part, noting areas of solidified sensation, subtle sensation or no sensation objectively, from head to feet in order, then feet to head in order, repeatedly. I think this practice is useful but doesn't provide for staying with a particular sensation and/or tracking its movement across the body. It was easy to miss slow changes and migrating or undulating sensation clusters.

Pavel, you asked why the subtle sensations/vibrations were not interesting and I think that's a very good question. Casting my mind back, I had learned the hard way after A&P that the ability to perceive vibrations comes and goes. They were pretty much absent during the early Dark Night, to my initial dismay, and when I found focus in the later stages they were jittery and unpleasant. Once I pulled through, I found them quite pleasurable again and so a fear of attachment kicked in and I treated them with perhaps too much caution. I had a background awareness that they were there, but beyond that I didn't investigate changes in intensity, location, rapidity etc.

Thanks for your help lads. Medication write up to follow shortly.

Jules
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tarin greco, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: Goenka retreat report, findings and request for comments

Posts: 658 Join Date: 5/14/09 Recent Posts
Hi any/all,

tarin greco:

if you want to do vipassana, what you are looking for is conformity knowledge (the next stage on from equanimity in the progress of insight), which you can find by observing the conditions which are currently presenting. if those conditions involve peace, notice the peace. if those conditions involve wanting peace that is not there, notice the wanting. if those conditions involve other things entirely, notice those other things entirely. it is in clearly and sufficiently seeing (any of the three characteristics of) the entirety[1] of what presents that conformity knowledge occurs.

is this helpful?

tarin

[1] the entirety of what you experience, which exists even when you don't notice that you're experiencing it.


Yes, this is good stuff. It seems to fit with Daniel's stuff on formations in the Equanimity chapter. I think earlier this year I was getting to Equanimity in my home practice (I had a lot of time on my hands). One thing I've never been clear on -- when it becomes clear that Equanimity has arisen, could a meditator approach conformity knowledge more quickly by intentionally taking all sense doors as object? Or would it be better to stay with the technique they used to get this far and just continue practicing until perception of formations naturally occurs?


my advice here would be to not try to either insist on a particular sense door (or insist on 'all of them') or attempt to shut any of them out; whichever door(s) you perceive at, that is/those are the door(s) at which you perceive. that said, it won't do your concentration any harm, once you're in equanimity, to check out what's going on at doors you're not used to.. or to try taking them all on simultaneously if it interests you to try to force yourself to perceive formations. however, even if you don't force it, you will anyway, as that is just how equanimity nana works. in fact, i can even argue that formations are perceived in re-observation (though the chances of someone who doesn't already know what to look for seeing it as it's happening are quite slim), so if you're in equanimity, you're bound to see it sooner or later. here's a hint: it's intimately related to how things are simply happening right now, rather than (merely) coming and going in vibrations.

regardless, the bottom line i would advise is to stick to either seeing the three characteristics or just being with the bare experience of what's happening.




Tarin, your other reminders about impermanence are very pertinent. Interestingly, impermanence is probably the least "natural" feeling of the Characteristics for me -- I've always been the nostalgic/anxious type for macro-level events and I think that's a pattern that repeats neuro-anatomically at the momentary level too (e.g. I detect a lot of minute hold/relax cycles in my deep muscles when meditating or doing really mindful yoga).


oh? you find impermanence characteristic to feel less 'natural' than suffering characteristic....?



Very briefly, the body-scanning as taught by Goenka (and practiced by me) sections the body into parts approx 3 inches diameter. The practitioner must scan each individual part, noting areas of solidified sensation, subtle sensation or no sensation objectively, from head to feet in order, then feet to head in order, repeatedly. I think this practice is useful but doesn't provide for staying with a particular sensation and/or tracking its movement across the body. It was easy to miss slow changes and migrating or undulating sensation clusters.


the advice u ba khin (goenka's teacher) would often give his students when he'd discerned that they'd reach equanimity regarding formations would be to stop scanning and to instead rest their attention at the chest area with an appreciation of anicca (impermanence characteristic).

goenka does teach this, but not until the 30 day course, when students are instructed to do this if they've already performed the spot-checks on the surface of the body (and have found no blockages), have gone inside the body (and have found no blockages), and have gone up and down the spine (and have found no blockages). my impression is that this very high standard for concentration in equanimity nana is an unnecessary complication and may end up serving as an obstacle to some. as long as your comprehension of the three characteristics is developed and thorough enough, it will suffice to give rise to conformity nana.

if your aim is to give rise to conformity, and thus to get stream entry, realise that you do not have to do it on retreat. realise, too, that the vast majority of people are not able to sustain interest in practising during equanimity nana, and so do not make further progress. figure out what you want and where you are, and practise accordingly.

tarin
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Julian Suggate, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Goenka retreat report, findings and request for comments

Posts: 29 Join Date: 12/2/09 Recent Posts
*Edited to sort out the quote tags.

tarin greco:

my advice here would be to not try to either insist on a particular sense door (or insist on 'all of them') or attempt to shut any of them out; whichever door(s) you perceive at, that is/those are the door(s) at which you perceive. that said, it won't do your concentration any harm, once you're in equanimity, to check out what's going on at doors you're not used to.. or to try taking them all on simultaneously if it interests you to try to force yourself to perceive formations. however, even if you don't force it, you will anyway, as that is just how equanimity nana works. in fact, i can even argue that formations are perceived in re-observation (though the chances of someone who doesn't already know what to look for seeing it as it's happening are quite slim), so if you're in equanimity, you're bound to see it sooner or later. here's a hint: it's intimately related to how things are simply happening right now, rather than (merely) coming and going in vibrations.


Your advice is noted and helpful. Thanks for clearing that up.

tarin greco:

regardless, the bottom line i would advise is to stick to either seeing the three characteristics or just being with the bare experience of what's happening.


Or an easy flow between the two, since/if that *is* the experience of what's happening?

tarin greco:

oh? you find impermanence characteristic to feel less 'natural' than suffering characteristic....?


Perhaps "natural" is the wrong word. I certainly found that suffering was more obvious in my early days of practice (and for years prior I suppose). Something in me resisted the notion of impermanence like crazy ... which of course *was* the suffering. I realise that's a circular argument : ) ain't it wild?

tarin greco:

the advice u ba khin (goenka's teacher) would often give his students when he'd discerned that they'd reach equanimity regarding formations would be to stop scanning and to instead rest their attention at the chest area with an appreciation of anicca (impermanence characteristic).


This is interesting. I presume by this stage one would appreciate not just anicca of bodily sensations but anicca of any sensation that arises? I notice that in Equanimity (what I would previously have considered) "my awareness" flickers from door to door (anicca) apparently without any intrinsic control or volition (anatta) and that this is unstable (it is hard to say "unpleasant" since this is Equanimity we're talking about). Is this a useful line of inquiry?

tarin greco:

goenka does teach this, but not until the 30 day course, when students are instructed to do this if they've already performed the spot-checks on the surface of the body (and have found no blockages), have gone inside the body (and have found no blockages), and have gone up and down the spine (and have found no blockages). my impression is that this very high standard for concentration in equanimity nana is an unnecessary complication and may end up serving as an obstacle to some. as long as your comprehension of the three characteristics is developed and thorough enough, it will suffice to give rise to conformity nana.


On the retreat in question I happened to be in equanimity when Goenka introduced this extended scanning routine. Having felt a little lost in the spaciousness of equanimity, I gave it a go and found that I could perform it all with ease, *provided* that I did not make too much of an effort out of it. Effortless effort and all that.

However, he ties it all very closely to bhanga/dissolution, and that made me wonder if I was perhaps in the end-stages of A&P rather than equanimity. A bit of rigid thinking on my part that gave rise to enough doubt to kick me out of practice. I ended the sit at that point and went for a cup of tea.

tarin greco:

if your aim is to give rise to conformity, and thus to get stream entry, realise that you do not have to do it on retreat. realise, too, that the vast majority of people are not able to sustain interest in practising during equanimity nana, and so do not make further progress. figure out what you want and where you are, and practise accordingly.


I didn't realise that most people cannot sustain interest in equanimity -- will take that as a warning. I have been through some anxious times before finding vipassana and am neurotic enough to be quite determined. Whether that is determined enough remains to be seen emoticon

My challenge after retreat was to give rise to equanimity at home. This morning this happened, after a 2 hour sit, which removes some further bits of self-doubt. I applied your advice and did actually have a couple of insights: firstly, that attachment and desire to prevent attachment are the same thing. Secondly, that equanimity is not at all impenetrable or stable. Sensations continue to arise and pass with great rapidity and under very little (technically, no) control of mine. What makes it "equanimity" is something to do with how those sensations are observed (that part is still TBD on my part) and let go of, which somehow produces that "bare awareness of the present moment".

Jules
Pavel Oulik, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Goenka retreat report, findings and request for comments

Posts: 88 Join Date: 1/20/10 Recent Posts
Equanimity for sure :-) (and a wonderful report)

I also love Tarin's response. A couple more things perhaps.

A feeling that I was on the threshold of new and vast territory that I have yet to explore and must map thoroughly.


What has happened to me in the past was the belief that what I was now experiencing was radically different and superior to what I have experienced in the past, which carried the sense that my practice should somehow evolve as well, change or even be dropped. After a while I would realize that this belief was stopping me from doing the only thing that works, which is to pay attention to the present moment, the same way as I have done previously, as in, any stage - same practice, even if that stage presents different things to be explored.

Vibrations definitely present but not particularly interesting.


Why was that? Was it because paying attention to moment-to-moment experience did not carry with it the flowing/peaceful/calm/joyous quality that the solidification of those parts of the experience does?

I picked up where I left off afterwards, no trouble, and spent all afternoon trying to pierce the calm and peace, somehow map it's expression of the three characteristics.


There is nothing to be mapped in terms of putting effort into seeing a particular thing. Instead, it is more to do with seeing/observing/noting things clearly which automatically produces the knowledge of the characteristics that have been there all along. As in, there is nothing to pierce in order to realize whats there (obviously, noticing the components that make up a solid experience is a wonderful thing to do) but there is a lot to notice.

Whatever you did in the Dark Night (which obviously worked) will do the work here too. Its awesome that you can recognize the shamatha aspects of what you are doing now, as well as noticing how desirable this may be.

Once again, thanks for the report!
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Julian Suggate, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Goenka retreat report, findings and request for comments

Posts: 29 Join Date: 12/2/09 Recent Posts
Thanks Pavel, good questions as Tarin also. I will endeavour to reply properly in the next few days, but in the meantime just wanted to let you know that I've read and appreciated both your and his response.

Cheers,
Jules

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