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Dharma Diagnostic Clinic, aka "What was that?"

Empty mind, fluttering heart, painful breath

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Hello all,

I am a newcomer both to this website and to meditation/Buddhism in general. Please be patient and gentle emoticon

I had been practicing concentration using Wisdom Wide and Deep for several months when a tension formed between my eyebrows that grew and grew until it became quite painful. Furthermore, after about ten-fifteen minutes of focusing on the breath, some force would literally jerk me off the chair, forcing me to readjust and disrupting my concentration. I would see a bright light, often blue or white, before these jerks, which I took as the nimitta. These "jerks" would return at shorter and shorter intervals and it grew so bad that I stopped meditating for a few weeks.

In the hopes of saving my practice and getting some answers, I went on a retreat at Plum Village (Thich Nhat Hanh's Zen tradition), and the monks there told me that:
  1. I should stop focusing on Jhanna and "just sit"
  2. That the force that was jerking me around was an "evil spirit"
  3. That the lights were further evil spirits or gods; they said the colors should be gold, yellow, or white, but never red or blue.
  4. And that the pressure between my eyebrows was my middle eye chakra, and that I should stop trying to open it.
And so, for a few weeks I practiced their style of meditation: walking, sitting and doing nothing, etc. But I felt that it wasn't right for me, and so I returned to the two books that I felt had given me the most in terms of content, confidence, and techniques: MCTB and Wisdom Wide and Deep. I began doing 15-20 minutes of concentration, making sure not to go too deep (I felt my "middle eye" pulsing), and then I noted frantically, trying to reach that goal of 10 nps. And then I stumbled onto Ian And's Jhana thread.

After reading Ian's instructions plus Leigh Brasington's article, I went to try and almost immediately felt myself on the threshold of Jhana. The white lights were all around me, my arms and chest tingled, my breath surrounded me. I had not yet achieved rapture (and therefore Jhana), but I kept the state for as long as possible. After a few days of this, I reentered the state and, all of a sudden all thoughts disappeared from my mind. It was around 15:00 when I started meditating, and until I went to sleep that evening, I had no thoughts. My mind was clear and still. It was a frightening experience.

From that day forward, my heart has been fluttering I have been unable to concentrate; my mind flickers around from thought to thought and I cannot hold onto the breath for longer than a few minutes. In an effort to fight back, I have been sitting longer and longer. But my heart continues to palpitate vigorously. Furthermore, the breath has become painful as it enters and leaves my nostrils.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Thank you in advance,

Jonathan

RE: Empty mind, fluttering heart, painful breath
Answer
7/26/18 6:07 AM as a reply to Jonathan Farhi.
Hi Jonathan,

Sorry to hear of your difficulty. There's a lot to address in your post and I'm off to work shortly, so let me try to address what seems to be the most distressing aspect of your current experience, the heart palpitations and what sounds like a generally anxious state.

First off, since sitting for longer periods doesn't seem to be helping and might even be making things worse, it might be a good time to just chill out and do normal stuff like go for a walk or go to the gym or whatever helps you feel "normal." 

Second, breathing exercises to stimulate the parasympathetic ("rest and digest") nervous system and counteract the sympathetic ("fight or flight") nervous system might give you some relief. My favorite technique is to ideally lie down (or you can sit or stand with good, relaxed posture) with a broad area of attention inclusive of the entire body, especially the abdomen. Then inhale with a 4-count and exhale on a 5 count. The actual numbers don't matter, just that the exhalation is slightly longer. Keep at this until you are relaxed. If you are relaxed enough that you can leave a little pause after the exhalation, great! It will work even better. You might even be able to notice the blood pulsing through your abdominal aorta deep in your belly, which is kind of a cool thing to notice. 

If this isn't do-able, you might find a guided meditation for progressive relaxation.

I hope some of this helps!

RE: Empty mind, fluttering heart, painful breath
Answer
7/26/18 7:03 AM as a reply to Jonathan Farhi.
Hi, Jonathan.

I agree with Andromeda.

Fear is something I dealt with early in my practice. It happened in a way very similar to your story - it was the fear of getting into what felt like dangerous territory and it was all about concentration states, things happening in my forehead, and how new and unusual these phenomena seemed at the time. It's really difficult to get through that kind of fear without taking things slowly and in a deliberate, stepwise manner. What worked for me was to stop meditating for long periods, like an hour or more, and to use the breath as a way to focus on something other than the stimuli going on in my forehead. I had trying hard to generate what I thought were signs of progress but when those things would appear I'd freak out. "Trying hard" was a big part of the problem, and not really knowing the territory I was getting myself into boosted the fear element.

BTW, the forehead experiences I was having were sort of like blowing up a balloon that was timed with the breath. Each out breath would push the balloon further toward the filling point, but the balloon never burst. It would just keep filling and the knot in my forehead would just keep getting worse. A feeling of dull achiness would grow in my forehead until I'd have to stop the session.

This is workable for you, as my experience would offer. Try Andromeda's suggested practice. Just take it slow and easy, and in shorter allotments of time.

RE: Empty mind, fluttering heart, painful breath
Answer
7/27/18 9:01 AM as a reply to Andromeda.
Thank you for the detailed responses.

Andromeda, I went through them several times, and I put your relaxation techniques into practice. First time, I fell asleep. Second time, my heart stopped racing and my breath was no longer painful.

Chris, how long did it take for things to go "back to normal?" How long did you have to take it slow before you could focus?

I will continue to follow your guys' advice. Part of the problem, I think, is me kind of ignoring my "stuff." Dr. Ingram wrote several times that meditation isn't about working through your own issues, but seeing into the true nature of things, and I have been trying to put this into practice.

RE: Empty mind, fluttering heart, painful breath
Answer
7/27/18 9:07 AM as a reply to Jonathan Farhi.
Chris, how long did it take for things to go "back to normal?" How long did you have to take it slow before you could focus?

Months and months. It seemed endless at the time. Keep practising and hang in there!

RE: Empty mind, fluttering heart, painful breath
Answer
7/27/18 9:24 AM as a reply to Jonathan Farhi.
I'm so glad to hear that helped, Johnathan!

So now you've got a tool in your toolbox for working with any kind of hyperaroused state like fear, anxiety, anger, etc. That's basically a pranayama-vipassana hybrid technique and you can keep at it for as long as it's working for you. What's cool about using breath work as a kind of warm up to vipassana (or samatha for that matter) is that it can help smooth out whatever nervous system dysregulation you're struggling with, or at least this has been my experience. There is a pretty huge variety of breath control techniques to tweak your nervous system in different directions depending on what you need at any given time.

To take it further--once you are relaxed and focused, just drop the counting and the subtle attempts to control the breath and from there it's just straight vipassana. You can keep your focus on the sensations of the lower abdomen (a classic approach) or what I like to do is try to feel sensations of the breath through the entire body during inhalation/exhalation, and then laser in on the pulsatile wave of blood in the abdominal aorta during the gap after exhalation. I find that rhythmic oscillation between broad and narrow focus of attention to be quite engaging.

For me, my practice has gone through a few phases (weeks to months) where I needed to work in this kind of way to maintain equilibrium and forward momentum without frying myself (honestly, I've kinda wiped out a few times but the breathwork has also helped me un-fry myself). I think a lot of this has had to do with old trauma resurfacing and having to work through that. If that's also the case for you, there's a new book out called Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness that you might find helpful. 

RE: Empty mind, fluttering heart, painful breath
Answer
7/27/18 9:35 AM as a reply to Jonathan Farhi.
Part of the problem, I think, is me kind of ignoring my "stuff." Dr. Ingram wrote several times that meditation isn't about working through your own issues, but seeing into the true nature of things, and I have been trying to put this into practice.

This is tricky in later practice but shouldn't be an issue in early practice since the objective is to observe the objects in your field of experience and perception. The key is not to get caught up in stories; your pain, your anger, your fear, but rather to look at the pain, anger and fear as "things" arising in your attention. It's even better to use an object of meditation, as you are now, that's not an emotion or a thought - the breath, skin touching skin, or something not as difficult to zoom in on and that won't bring up so many stories and what Daniel calls "stuff" to your attention.

Hope this helps...