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Lewis' Log

Lewis' Log
2/7/18 5:57 AM
So it's been around 3 and a half years since I started practicing meditation in earnest, about 10 since I first tried it. I've had difficulty tracking where I'm at and what needs to be worked on since, in general, I'm not a very organised or goal-oriented person. Still, it'd be nice to get some feedback from the community and my day-to-day short term memory is pretty terrible lately so maybe I'll glean some useful information from keeping a more regular log of what's going on.

A bit of backstory. Sorry if this is long, I've never really told the whole thing and the order of events is a bit hazy: I'm 28, and live in Yorkshire UK. I first sat down to meditate in my first year of university, since I'd struggled with depression and anxiety after some traumatic events in my mid-teens involving a friend's suicide. Though I practiced sporadically it never became a habit until much later. And I never really knew what the results were supposed to be other than less anxiety and rumination (which I had a *lot* of).

When I left university and entered work, suffice to say I hadn't sorted out any of my mental health issues, in fact they were likely worse, and the stress of working life put me on the verge of collapse and/or suicide multiple times. I sought help from the NHS. There was a long (6 month) waiting list to speak to a psychologist and in the interim my doctor put me on SSRIs. The nurse who evaluated my case for being put on the waiting list mentioned mindfulness as an option to look into, and since I'd practiced a little before, I decided to look into it further.

At that point, I was one of those skeptic, materialist atheist types and wasn't overly impressed with what I found. Still, my other option appeared to be 6 months of severe depression and medication side effects, and the 'Headspace' app had just been released, so I downloaded that and began trying to keep a regular meditation practice going.

Slowly over that time I began to notice mindfulness developing. The meds made me pretty unstable, they worked for a few months, then started to make things worse. My doctor began to switch around prescriptions but it never really helped. Still, I could sense something changing in my relationship to the depression.

In 2013 I discovered psychedelic drugs, and the ongoing research that seemed to link particular drugs with depression therapy. Needless to say, I began experimenting frequently, and they really did seem to help to find some 'meaning' amongst all the suffering, to reconnect with something more fundamental, and I began to understand a more spiritual side to life, something I'd considered to be nonsense prior to that. I had some pretty serious, powerful, almost traumatic mystical experiences that I still can barely make sense of.

In 2014/2015 I had a pretty severe depressive breakdown that resulted in my doctor signing me off work for what ended up being 3 months. I was worn out, just staying upright was exhausting, moving much further than my bed to my chair was agony. I recognised that the drug use was harming more than helping (though it took some time to kick it). Something about the mindfulness practice seemed to start to really appeal to me, especially because in the state I was in I had such anhedonia that sitting or lying still and practicing was pretty much the only thing I could do. It was then I discovered MCTB, and some of the other more pragmatic teachers like Shinzen. I'd had a lot of medical treatment and none of it seemed to make a dent, and at this point the depression seemed less of a medical problem and more of an existential one, I was confused and anxious over deeply terrifying questions revolving around nihilism, something out of nothing, etc, and everyone around me seemed totally ill-equipped to deal with this, but these meditation folk seemed to know a thing or two about that.

So, though I by no means kept retreat conditions, I used those 3 months to go deep, I listened to Bhikku Bodhi's 'Systematic Study of the Majjhima Nikaya', read tonnes of dharma books and Pali suttas, meditated 3 or 4 times a day when I could manage it. My technique changed over time. I went off my meds at the advice of my doctor. I started using the 'buddho' mantra described by some of the Thai forest ajahns (which I successfully used to let go of a building public panic attack at one point, a turning point for me and someting I'd never done before), and some time after that switched to a 'noting without labelling' sort of practice similar to what Headspace had taught. Having read some of the pragmatic stuff, I began to experiment with stuff like trying to catch every sensory event and label it 'e' for event. There was a huge sense of energy and blockage, I was experiencing tension in my head like nothing I'd ever felt.

I was still experimenting with drugs occasionally while doing this, but a couple of extremely heavy LSD trips swore me off. Depression seemed to come and go in waves with a sort of hypomania, and at one depressive point I took a high dose and started chanting 'gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha'. My intention was to escape, I wanted nothing to do with life any more and the suffering it entailed. I don't take the resulting experience to be anything other than drug addled desperation really, but what happened in short, a being like a bodhisattva with crossed legs materialised out of rainbow colours, told me that the only reason my senses were there were because I was paying attention to them, at which point my body rolled up like a roller-blind and I found myself in an endless void with this being. It took me to a giant, swirling whirlpool, the size of which was totally inconceivable, and forced me to look at it. It was like an ocean made of tiny sparks, jumping in and out of this void, and I could feel the emotional tone of each and every one. The being told me I was watching and feeling every sentient being. It was simultaneously enthralling and terrifying, like every possible emotion was raging through me at once, and the overall tone was total suffering, the suffering of loss, despite all the pleasure, love, joy underneath. The being told me that I could stay in this strange place with them, and I would die of a heart attack in the world, or else I could go back, but I'd have to take the bodhisattva vows. I opted to go back, somewhat desperately, which was odd given that my whole intention was to escape my life, I suddenly felt a sense of love for all of the suffering beings upon feeling that overwhelming thing.

Not knowing what the hell I'd just experienced I was a bit of a mess following and swore off psychedelic drugs. I still don't know what to make of it, but it certainly turned my life around and kicked me up the arse to show me that this stuff is serious, life and death, and the seed of compassion started to grow in me as I recognised that intense mix of emotional quality, marked by suffering, in everyone I saw and met.

I started increasing practice, and seemed to be rapidly cycling through crazy mood swings multiple times a day. If someone asked me how I was doing it was extremely hard to answer as it seemed to change from minute to minute at some points. I didn't really know what was going on but I was increasingly desperate to be free. Going back to work seemed silly and I ended up quitting my job. I'm a programmer so managed to support myself with freelance work. This created an interesting time for me where I was living pretty much undisturbed, seeing my girlfriend once a week, spending a couple of hours a day working, but otherwise pursuing dharma. I lived like this for over a year.

Towards the end of 2016, I was markedly more peaceful a lot of the time. I wasn't really keeping track of the progress of insight stuff, but it seemed like whatever happened, good or bad, whatever feeling I was feeling, was OK. I was still having mood swings and depression, but things seemed somewhat more under control, and I understood mindfulness much better. I was sitting by my bed facing a wall, just trying to catch every sensory experience, attention whirling around dramatically, when something seemed to 'sync up', and everything seemed extremely... normal for a few moments, as if I wasn't practicing at all (though I was) and everything was just happening by itself. Then, there was a distinct jarring sensation. It was as though my body's posture had suddenly teleported about a centimetre down and back, but the movement between those 2 points didn't happen - the time in which the body had moved, or anything else, just didn't appear to have happened. It was sort of like when a video game stutters because the frame rate drops, one instance here and the next over there with nothing interpolating in between. I then felt a sense of joy and freedom like nothing I'd ever experienced, not overwhelming pleasure, but a sense that everything was completely fine and safe. Time gets a bit hazy here, but I experienced the same 'glitch' again some time later, perhaps a few days or maybe a week or two. A few weeks after that, I was walking down the street talking to someone when I noticed I had a fist clenched in my brain. No other way to describe it than that. I noticed this tension that seemed to have always been there my whole life, and unclenched it, and suddenly my experience seemed much less centred, not completely by any means, but different nonetheless, like sensations were more localised to themselves, and more open, rather than being observed by something completely in my head.

Since then, life has been markedly different. I haven't had a depressive episode once. Those traumatic feelings come up occasionally, but I've lost the ability to identify with them. I experience a general contentedness and well-being most of the time. Even when anxiety comes up, some part of me feels fundamentally free from it. In public, I used to be a neurotic mess, full of panic, and now I can handle crowds with ease. I seem to intuitively understand the dharma in a way I never did before, though my understanding is extremely far from complete. There seem to be many subtle aspects to my experience that I recognise I don't understand fully, things that would have led to existential crises before, but I know now that thinking about them doesn't do anything, and I'm slowly feeling my way through them or letting them unfold. My own DIY meditation 'tools' seemed less fit for the job and didn't seem to be doing much anymore, and I picked up Shinzen's system.

Today, my practice is pretty varied, still daily, I do qi gung, 'note everything', I practice noting 'see hear feel' a lot in daily life when walking or doing simple tasks, and I'm also exploring Mahamudra via Reggie Ray's course. I've never really tried to practice much pure concentration, so jhana access is sporadic, spotty and light at best. Compared to the 10+ years of depression outlined above, there is so much less suffering. Stuff comes up, I feel it, I note it, it goes away. I retain some bad habits and reactive behavioural patterns, but I see them clearly now and know how to work on them. Stuff sometimes catches me off guard and I get neurotic or tense, but it takes at most a day to work through them rather than spiralling into months-long crises. I suspect stream entry, but without the guidance of in-person teachers and without having kept a thorough log, and my rather unorthodox approach, it's difficult to confidently say so.

RE: Lewis' Log
2/9/18 12:46 AM as a reply to Lewis James.
Good luck with the log. I had similar situations with depression and workplace pressure. A log helped a lot with having a diary of practice where I could gain knowledge, validation, and a place to remember insights. There are so many insights it's easy to forget them.

RE: Lewis' Log
2/15/18 6:58 AM as a reply to Richard Zen.
Thanks Richard. I'll have a read of your log - I hope you're right, as it does feel like I've forgotten half of the insights sometimes!

At the advice of a few dharma friends, after practising a bit rigidly for a year I've started being a bit more experimental again, trying to cast out misperceptions about practice and sort of let intuition guide the meditation a bit, and remain equanimous with anything that comes up without trying to control the practice much.

So today's sit, I ended up doing a sort of 'somatic descent' style thing, having done some of the Mahamudra for the Modern World material lately. While doing the lower belly breathing, I was pushing any felt sense of emotional or mental tension around the abdomen up to the top of the head and out. Then I just breathed naturally for a while, doing Shinzen style "note everything". At some point I felt pointed to hold my attention around the lower dantien, and resumed the lower belly breathing practice, breathing out while pushing in with the abdominal muscles. I noticed while doing that and holding the attention at the same point, as the abominals retracted my attention ended up in what  should have been empty space, before on the in breath being taken up by the bodily sensation again. I repeated this for a while and it felt like something synced up and allowed the energy in the dantien to flow upwards to the heart. Attention widened in scope and awareness felt open and clear, and I resumed the "note everything" practice. At some point the concentration deepend and there more of a sense of objects appearing where they are. I felt drawn to concentrate on "see out" using a technique Shinzen taught on a HPP recently, of trying to focus on the subtle "greyscale" in the mental screen between blank screen and seeing on the screen. Attention defocussed a lot, and this brought up feelings of bliss and happiness until concentratoin gradually dissipated and the sit ended.

Overall it was a nice experience, though nice experiences aren't necessarily what I'm chasing! It did feel like in some way by letting whatever good tendencies and help available point the way a little, a lot of aspects got worked on that might have been sticking points when sticking to just one technique. I'm always a bit wary of that kind of 'technique jumping' thing though, in case it's driven by clinging. My sits aren't usually dominated by energy movements and it was certainly entertaining - whether it really did anything though, I'm not sure but it was good for my attention.

RE: Lewis' Log
2/17/18 8:28 AM as a reply to Lewis James.
The best way is to get clarity on your goals (type of practice and what you want from it) and then to follow the instructions exactly. In the beginning it's good to try different things to see what resonates, but there's always a certain amount of concentration effort that goes into controlling your attention, which is against the intuition shopping mentality. Practicing the same thing for a long time will develop that skill with more depth.

You are developing sensing introversion and sensing extraversion which is great. If you want to develop intuition so that it doesn't get treated like the bad boy that meditators often do, then I would recommend intuitive practices so you can use both. Sonia Choquette is really good at Intuition Introversion:

I particularly like the chakra class. It's like individuation and imagery practices at the same time. The yellow chakra was what I needed to develop to deal with anger.

A metta practice is also helpful if there are feelings of revenge and isolation.

Practice each skill as a separate skill and then mix and match afterwards when you get good at all of them separately.

RE: Lewis' Log
2/19/18 7:21 AM as a reply to Richard Zen.
Thanks Richard, you're quite right. I had realised the same thing this time last year, that my technique up to that point wasn't very disciplined, which is what led me to learning the Shinzen UM stuff, and I've practised his "note everything + gone" technique as my daily main technique since then. I guess I feel like I'm coming to a point where I need to experiment a bit and feel out some of the corners of the territory I'm in. I recognise that feeling could be just another distraction from the path of practise. I do feel like I'm maybe getting a bit sidetracked with A&P type stuff too. Interesting recommendations, I will have to give that a go. It was only with practice deepening over the last couple of years that I've begun to appreciate some of the more "energy body" type stuff but it's becoming more apparent that it does seem to do something useful.

I had a great conversation with Daniel Ingram the other day via Skype, I'm really grateful he offered his time to chat and go over some of this stuff. I picked up Trungpa's Journey Without Goal on his recommendation, and it seems to cover quite a lot of this paradox of active vs passive approaches to practice, and the ways different personality types will struggle along the way.

RE: Lewis' Log
2/19/18 8:12 PM as a reply to Lewis James.
That's great of Daniel. Lots of metta!

RE: Lewis' Log
3/10/18 8:51 AM as a reply to Lewis James.
So I started hitting some dark night type stuff, lots of fear and misery, a few weeks back, and thought I was sitting diligently through it all, a family emergency came up and my practice took a bit of a hit and the cycles kind of dissipated a bit. When the emergency resolved, and I came back to the cushion, there was some sense that I really needed to get back to basics, cultivate a bit of beginners mind, instead of using all this recent reading, map knowledge, etc. I feel like there was a kind of sense that I knew what I was doing in practice, a bit of a "know-it-all" feeling, which was causing dissonance with the fact that I don't know shit and I'm not in control of it anyway. So - my practice has largely been back to the basics I started with, sitting down with no expectation, doing anapanasati, noting distractions gently when they come up, and doing a brief period of see/hear/feel practice right at the end after the timer. I find that (in TMI parlance) there a very few to no gross distractions, but still quite a lot of subtle distraction going on, that does seem to die down mid-way through the sit, but tends to start to come back up towards the end.

I feel like the dark night stuff, I wasn't quite prepared for, and I'm cultivating a slightly gentler, more samatha inclined practice at the moment so that when I do get stuck back into vipassana there'll be a bit more insulation. 

RE: Lewis' Log
4/6/18 5:39 AM as a reply to Lewis James.
So I've been sitting with a sort of effortless focus, I guess dzogchen-ish on the breath for a little over a month and doing no formal sat noting practice, though still doing see hear feel in life when walking to and from places, on public transport etc. I also started Shinzen's Resonance program which is based around using music to develop mindfulness. Took up a weekly yoga practice too, though I have dabbled in the past, this is the first proper routine I've tried.

I'm finding the more 'effortless' sits are working really well for me at the moment. I'm getting far more insight than when I was doing extensive noting. Weirdly I seem to be still cycling through nanas, though I may just be reading too much into certain sensations. Sitting meditation in this way has become quite A&P-ish and the noting I do in daily life is pushing that through to fear and misery, which give way to equanimity, pretty much daily. I went up to Scotland at the bank holiday weekend. Did a sit in the morning and then spent most of the 4.5 hour train journey noting, and when I got there I after a couple of hours I felt incredibly... blank.  It was actually sort of unpleasant as I was supposed to be "on holiday" and enjoying myself but there was just a total unreactivity. I'm not actually sure what this was as it didn't have the kind of 'glowing' feeling of EQ nanas. It seemed to 'wear off' after sleep though I was left with a sort of mild anxiety the rest of the trip, and the ability to enjoy myself and make decisions came back. Bit odd - might hold off on practicing for such long periods, but there's really no better way to pass the time on public transport as noting I've found.

The UM Resonate program - I'd ummed and ahhed about it for a while as it seems a bit pricy for basically being told 'concentrate on sound'. But I bit the bullet and I've been quite surprised by it. There's about 6 hours of instruction on 6 different techniques that use music in creative ways to increase CC&E. I've always been a music lover and having tried it over the last month it's actually pretty powerful stuff. It became quickly extremely easy to move up in insight using the various methods, although it wasn't really instructed that way, it just arose naturally - seeing how the music was arising moment by moment with the mind knowing it, and the way it's taught to do the observation very spatially, with a sense of 3D space on the sense field, it became very easy to perceive the arising and passings of each and get into the realin the heard, only the heardm of "to the heard, only the heard".

I've had a 'casual' yoga practice for a while but started a proper structured program a couple of weeks ago. Sitting before and after, and doing proper pranayama, the body awareness can shoot up into unbelievable levels. There's a huge amount of pleasant heart 'energy' felt during and after the practice. I don't know much about the theory of yoga asanas or how it works but it feels really good!

RE: Lewis' Log
3/11/19 9:58 AM as a reply to Lewis James.
It's been a long while since I updated this log, but here goes.

I spent a while taking some 1-on-1 sessions with a Shinzen teacher here in the UK, which was very worthwhile to get a broader sense of the UM techniques. I particularly enjoyed working on Be Source, which is the 'new improved' version of Expansion and Contraction practice, and Do Nothing.

The curiosity on Do Nothing led me to Tosknyi Rinpoche's Fully Being course, which I've slowly been digesting and working through. This has gotten practice right back to basics, in a nice, fresh way, and while I'm still doing noting practice, it's mostly off-cushion.

Recently I did the Home Practice Program with Michael Taft on the Formless Realms. This PDF outlines the theory and practice of what was taught:

It was a really profound experience with expertly precise instruction that I hit on at just the right moment in practice to really appreciate. Here's my report of the practice:
Sit - 2 hrs.

Starting by tuning into restful body sensations. Samatha. Allowing tension in the body to release as posture becomes automatically upright.

Short while of open monitoring vipassana style meditation to continue to allow tension to release while maintaining contact with rest.

Noticing that those body sensations inhabit a space which reaches out to infinity to the horizon - emphasise the space, relax, expand, label "space". Space comes into the foreground and any incoming perceptions are immediately 'zoomed out' to infinity in every direction, ie seen in perspective of infinite space, everything is seen as space, relax into the space (1st formless realm). Notice that whenever attention goes somewhere, it goes in a direction, and that direction doesn't stop at the perception, it goes out to infinite space. Turning from focusing on the direction component, focusing on how every perception has a 'distance'. Extend the distance component to infinity. Pass right through the object of perception to infinity. Notice that the broad infinite space is all around and within. World and body sensations begin disappearing and nothing is left but infinite space.

Noticing that the "spatiality" component of all that's ever been experienced is kind of 'added on' to the construction of perception, it's a kind of tension, something you're making up. Drop the space. Tune into the sense of the limitlessness of consciousness. Not limitless in the sense of space being infinite directionally - noticing that consciousness cannot be constrained by perception of objects. All qualities to objects are seen as false limits on consciousness and immediately dissolves. Not imagining some gigantic consciousness filling space, dropping the space entirely, consciousness remains unfettered. Noticing awareness itself. Any murmurings of objects trying to form dissolve immediately and the 'waves' of this happening are in the background while consciousness becomes the foreground as into this sphere is entered.

Posture becomes extremely relevant as any postural dysfunction is an immediately obvious spatial object that sticks - any remaining tension begins to release and the body starts to shake briefly as the spine increases in length. This tension releasing comes up strongly as kileshas, imaginings of emotional circumstances that dissolve into space and then into consciousness. As the spine straightens it dissolves into the light of consciousness and it feels as though my head tilts back with the throat up to the sky as the perception of space completely collapses into consciousness. There's the physical sense vibrationally of a kind of wave of attention that's chasing to catch up with the 'origin' of consciousness and getting ever closer.

At this point it becomes hard to really describe. The world is dissolved. Occasionally enough murmurings stir to form into Michael's voice but even that gets sucked away and there are long gaps where I assume Michael was still talking but the experience of having any sound disappears completely mid sentence repeatedly. I listened to the recording again after the sit and there wasn't actually any drop out - the world just dissolves too quickly for the voice to become anything at all, unless attention slips slightly back to consciousness and the guidance comes back to remind me to drop that. It's interesting that at this point since the self/world distinction were so collapsed, Michael's voice when it does arise appears not to be coming from anywhere in the world like my laptop over on the floor there, but more as a kind of limitless 'teacher' presence that isn't limited to Michael in the world, as if the Buddha was speaking directly - but also the sense that the 'teacher' isn't separate at all.

Realising that the sense of consciousness is also constructed, and dropping that into nothingness. Allowing the sense of any perception of anything including the sense of consciousness to dissolve completely into gone. No things - nothing. The perception of the 'wave' of attention from earlier kind of hits its target and rolls over kind of explosively into nothing.

Dropping the perception of nothingness - letting go even of the sense of nothingness - there's a kind of stirring of perception of something going on, but there's no context to that perception, that something isn't clear at all, neither perception nor non perception.

Briefly this drops and yet awareness is still there but somehow. Bright but without form at all. No objects or sense of any limit. No perception that there could possibly be any objects, no searching for objects, just... simplicity. Total blackout but not unconscious, buoyant, free. The meditation ends and I find that my torso has completely flopped forward, my head is on the floor.

As the q+a for the session begins - my head still on the floor as the drive to move hasn't arisen - I have no idea that the voices coming out of the speakers aren't my voice - which is odd since the voice speaks with a foreign accent from mine, and a different gender, but it's completely indistinguishable. Multiple voices come on the line and with my head still on the ground there is just no sense of identification with any particular thing, as if it's all just happening through almost magic, with no sense of the voice being 'outside' and I'm 'inside' listening. He's soliciting questions and questions are arising and it's as if I wasn't there to listen or ask or speak and those voices of 'others' asking questions doesn't form into 'others' at all.

Extremely powerful sit and my sincere thanks to Michael, who I must highly recommend as a teacher!

Talking to a couple of trusted dharma friends, I suspect I'm in that murky territory between 2nd and 3rd path where things become ironically personal and psychological, given the preceding insights. Listening to the recent DY interview with Tucker Peck has cleared this up somewhat. I think the Fully Being techniques are helping a lot here by taking me out of the pragmatic attainment frame of mind into a much simpler, more open practice, which really suits my personality type (Buddha type, very open but somewhat careless).