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Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/2/18 4:51 AM
Hello virtual sangha, I hope you're all well. I'm a novice meditator in need of practical advice, and my current geographic isolation has made it difficult to come by. If you have a moment, please make what you will of the embarassingly personal anecdote below:

In July 2016 I completed a ten day retreat at Dhamma Joti Vipassana Mediation Centre (Myanmar) in the S.N. Goenka Vipassana tradition. I had very little understanding of meditation and Buddhist practice at this time. I practiced well until around day 6, when I had a strange out-of-body experience in which I perceived my physical form as swirling tornado of orange 'energy' particles.

From around this point forward, as I completed iterative body scans my thoughts would manifest in my visual field. I was able to get into an absorption state where I could continue scanning my body as these images arose, and at some point I came to view them as the primary meditation object. This meant that I examined the content rather than simply the impermanence of the mental sensations. Upon reflection, it seems I wasn't practising the technique properly at all and got caught in a lot of thought and reflection. This led to contemplation of death, followed by manifestation of escalating fear. I allowed the sensations to arise without trouble, and towards the end of the retreat I saw a blinding flash of light paired with realisations of oneness/no-self and a complete dissipation of fear and doubt. This led me to assume I had attained Nibbana. I had no discussions with a teacher to clarify this, as I was under the impression I could not speak with the teachers about specific aspects of my experience.

At the end of the retreat I felt amazing but had great difficulty sleeping, and after several sleepless nights my belief that I was enlightened produced mania and delusions of grandeur. I continued meditating on my first day out, thinking the warning that new meditators should not do so did not apply to me. At the end of a sit by Shwedagon Pagoda I felt a strong kicking sensation in my abdomen and saw a burst of purple light. I realised I was far from enlightened, but my thinking remained disorganised. For example, I wanted to give all of my savings to a charity worker I met in the street. My family back home expressed understandable concern for my wellbeing. Once I realised I was in an unstable state, I rested in a hotel room for a few days and my thoughts settled once again. A friend sent through a copy of Daniel Ingram's book, which was the only assistance I had in making sense of my experience. I believe I crossed the A&P and began the descent into the Dark Night.

I was renered incapable of further progress by the assumption that I had experienced meditation-induced psychosis. In the following months attempts to engage in Vipassana produced terrifying mental images, fear of madness and the sensation of my mind dissolving, which felt quite beyond what I could cope with unsupported. I stopped practising this technique, and have engaged in 20-minute Samatha sit exclusively since. I am learning to sustain my concentration and allow my thoughts to fade, and my recent sits have produced a pleasant tranquility. As far as I can tell, I'm not stuck in or untowardly influenced by any Dark Night experiences.

My thoughts have frequently returned to the idea of attending another retreat. I would love the opportunity to explore the depths of experience meditation renders possible in more responsible way, and I'd love to fully sit through the Dark Night and see what's on the other side. However I think I would need appropriate guidance and affirmation (self or external) to move forward. I am considering a retreat in the Pau-Auk tradition in January, as the teaching seem to align with my recent focus on Samatha and offer extensive teacher guidance. Otherwise MBMC in Penang is quite accessible for me.

Thanks for your your time, your responses and will be highly valued.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/2/18 6:28 AM as a reply to Dave.
Hi Dave,

Sorry to hear about the difficulties you experienced. That does sound to me like you crossed the A&P with quite the bang. 

So, mania and psychosis are no joke. If it were me, I'd have a lot of concerns about jumping into another retreat of intense practice. Maybe you'd do just fine with appropriate guidance, but there would definitely be risk and even the best meditation teachers can't fix full-blown psychosis--for that people generally need inpatient care and a lot of drugs. And it would be risky to assume that a meditation teacher necessarily knows how to recognize the early warning signs that things are going awry. Hopefully they do, but do you really want to bank on it? The more episodes of psychosis you have, the more you are likely to have, and some people never really get back to normal. Heck, there's risk even for people who've never had acute episodes of mania or psychosis. I've gotten closer than is comfortable, myself, and take a lot of precautions when going on retreat. I know well how and when to self-regulate and take it down a notch if things start to feel a bit out of control. My last couple solo retreats, I've had a friend who is a therapist and meditation teacher on speed dial just in case. And I accept the calculated risk that it could still go seriously wrong.

You say that you would like to explore the depths of meditation in a responsible way. I'm all for that. But the thing is, you don't necessarily HAVE to go on retreat to go deep in meditation. Yeah, it can be super helpful at times, but I didn't have the opportunity to go on retreats for many years into my practice and still made lots of progress--more than many people going on retreats. Granted, I have been extremely disciplined and highly motivated and really pushed myself to practice informally off the cushion ALL DAY LONG to the best of my ability, but there is no reason you can't do the same. That would be a lot less risky than jumping from 20 minutes of daily practice to an intense retreat, IMO. Just because it's a concentration retreat rather than vipassana does NOT mean it will be safer for you. 

If it were me, I'd probably just try to slowly increase my daily sits at home, find some go-to off-cushion practices to work in, and see what happens. And find at least one solid mentor to talk to about practice, who can get a good idea what my normal level of crazy/sanity is. And a game plan for if things go seriously wrong. I would not even consider a retreat until I felt that I'd really maxed out my ability to make further progress just in daily practice and had strong self-regulatory skills, and even then I'd probably start with a weekend retreat. 

Whatever you decide to do, I wish you the very best in your practice.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/2/18 7:05 AM as a reply to Dave.
My 2 cents:
Your problems come from attenting to content instead of process. If you do the opposite, you will be just fine.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/2/18 12:26 PM as a reply to Dave.
What I found helpful:

- Meditate an hour in the morning (mix of samatha + vipassana)
- Stay away from drugs and alcohol
- Hang out with supportive friends
- Find a good therapist
- Read the dark night material in MCTB regularly (pay particular attention to the parts regarding acceptance)
- Find one or two methods and stick to it. Don't keep messing around with different techniques.

I also went on meds because I was diagnosed as being bipolar. The meds helped prevent me from wrecking my life but I had to keep practicing to alleviate all symptoms.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/3/18 7:40 AM as a reply to ivory.
JMHO, but mediation, even if practiced in the most supportive of circumstances with the best teachers, is not therapy. It is not diagnostic or a treatment for illnesses of any sort. It can actually cause problems if done improperly or on top of underlying illnesses or conditions.

If you believe you have a medical or a psychological issue - go to a doctor!

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/3/18 11:10 AM as a reply to Chris Marti.
I like your answer better than my answer, Chris emoticon

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/3/18 3:03 PM as a reply to Dave.
Hi Dave, I'm aa meditation teacher and have experienced meditation induced psychosis, it was roughly similar to what you describe. And I recognise excess sila. I recommend you stop all meditation practice, bar mindfulness, until everything settles down. Building up mindfulness in every moment is enough!

Take up grounding body practices like yoga, Tai chi, anything to keep your feet firmly on earth. Consider therapy. Do be careful, the line between sane and delusional is very fine. Pm me if you have questions.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/3/18 10:04 PM as a reply to Andromeda.
Andromeda:
Hi Dave,

Sorry to hear about the difficulties you experienced. That does sound to me like you crossed the A&P with quite the bang. 

So, mania and psychosis are no joke. If it were me, I'd have a lot of concerns about jumping into another retreat of intense practice. Maybe you'd do just fine with appropriate guidance, but there would definitely be risk and even the best meditation teachers can't fix full-blown psychosis--for that people generally need inpatient care and a lot of drugs. And it would be risky to assume that a meditation teacher necessarily knows how to recognize the early warning signs that things are going awry. Hopefully they do, but do you really want to bank on it? The more episodes of psychosis you have, the more you are likely to have, and some people never really get back to normal. Heck, there's risk even for people who've never had acute episodes of mania or psychosis. I've gotten closer than is comfortable, myself, and take a lot of precautions when going on retreat. I know well how and when to self-regulate and take it down a notch if things start to feel a bit out of control. My last couple solo retreats, I've had a friend who is a therapist and meditation teacher on speed dial just in case. And I accept the calculated risk that it could still go seriously wrong.

You say that you would like to explore the depths of meditation in a responsible way. I'm all for that. But the thing is, you don't necessarily HAVE to go on retreat to go deep in meditation. Yeah, it can be super helpful at times, but I didn't have the opportunity to go on retreats for many years into my practice and still made lots of progress--more than many people going on retreats. Granted, I have been extremely disciplined and highly motivated and really pushed myself to practice informally off the cushion ALL DAY LONG to the best of my ability, but there is no reason you can't do the same. That would be a lot less risky than jumping from 20 minutes of daily practice to an intense retreat, IMO. Just because it's a concentration retreat rather than vipassana does NOT mean it will be safer for you. 

If it were me, I'd probably just try to slowly increase my daily sits at home, find some go-to off-cushion practices to work in, and see what happens. And find at least one solid mentor to talk to about practice, who can get a good idea what my normal level of crazy/sanity is. And a game plan for if things go seriously wrong. I would not even consider a retreat until I felt that I'd really maxed out my ability to make further progress just in daily practice and had strong self-regulatory skills, and even then I'd probably start with a weekend retreat. 

Whatever you decide to do, I wish you the very best in your practice.
Thanks for taking the time to respond, I needed to hear that. Goenka's assertion that daily practice could only maintain practice, not advance it, certainly got under my skin. It's nice to hear first-hand evidence to the contrary, and to get some advice which is implementable in my current circumstance. I'm currently working a demanding job and studying a masters degree concurrently, and I've been frustrated by how difficult it's been to schedule regular sits. Simply maintaining a disciplined schedule has felt like a feat unto itself, but my practice is far from the depth and stability I feel I'd require to negotiate challenging territory again. I hadn't encountered any warning regarding prolonged concentration meditation (only statements about jhana being a barricade against defilements) so thanks for sharing that also. Immediately after my first retreat I decided that the risks of jumping back into under-prepared were too great, and vowed to proceed with caution.

An emphasis on off-the-cushion practice is definitely a viable path for the next year or two.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/3/18 10:08 PM as a reply to Todo.
Todo:
My 2 cents:
Your problems come from attenting to content instead of process. If you do the opposite, you will be just fine.
This was my thinking, so that's affirming to hear. I'll be proceeding with caution when it comes to retreats nonetheless, at least until I'm confortable navigating the latent fear of a repeat experience.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/3/18 10:21 PM as a reply to ivory.
ivory:
What I found helpful:

- Meditate an hour in the morning (mix of samatha + vipassana)
- Stay away from drugs and alcohol
- Hang out with supportive friends
- Find a good therapist
- Read the dark night material in MCTB regularly (pay particular attention to the parts regarding acceptance)
- Find one or two methods and stick to it. Don't keep messing around with different techniques.

I also went on meds because I was diagnosed as being bipolar. The meds helped prevent me from wrecking my life but I had to keep practicing to alleviate all symptoms.
Thanks for sharing, I'm glad to hear your practice has been fruitful. I'm wary of longer sits at this stage, but I aim to eventually work up to hour sits twice daily. I avoided drugs and alcohol entirely for a year after the retreat, but I have experimented (in moderation) over the last year when I felt the need for social lubricant. I'm working on this, as I don't feel these substances benefit me overall. I spoke to a therapist about my experiences, and while she recommended a few broad tweaks in my perspective she told me she didn't feel further appointments were necessary. I'll keep this in mind though, my current lifestyle is rather stressful and may well cause all kinds of personal things to bubble up again.

I'm a bit unsure about which methods to stick to, which is why I've been trying out a few recently. I found anapanasati focussed on the nasal area to be very relaxing, however I heard this technique can be unsuitable for people prone to overthinking. I've recently been trying out focus on the naval centre, in the hopes of following a more grounded path. My attention seems to hold best when split between the nasal area and the abdoment, but the literature seems to suggest one or the other is best. I found body-scanning to be very intuituve, though I'm reserving that one for when my concentration is a bit more developed. Any advice regarding specific technique(s)?

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/3/18 10:30 PM as a reply to Chris Marti.
Chris Marti:
JMHO, but mediation, even if practiced in the most supportive of circumstances with the best teachers, is not therapy. It is not diagnostic or a treatment for illnesses of any sort. It can actually cause problems if done improperly or on top of underlying illnesses or conditions.

If you believe you have a medical or a psychological issue - go to a doctor!
I agree. I think I'd conflated the two over the course of my retreat, which caused a lot of grief. The diathesis-stress model makes sense to me; improper meditation was probably a stressor which triggered some latent issue/vulnerability. I don't expect further meditation to 'fix' anything, and I did see a psychologist to voice my uncertainties after my last experience.

A gentler approach to insight coupled with therapy to manage issues as they arise seems very sensible.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/3/18 10:38 PM as a reply to Sasha.
Sasha:
Hi Dave, I'm aa meditation teacher and have experienced meditation induced psychosis, it was roughly similar to what you describe. And I recognise excess sila. I recommend you stop all meditation practice, bar mindfulness, until everything settles down. Building up mindfulness in every moment is enough!

Take up grounding body practices like yoga, Tai chi, anything to keep your feet firmly on earth. Consider therapy. Do be careful, the line between sane and delusional is very fine. Pm me if you have questions.
I'm not very familiar with the term 'sila,' as far as I can tell it means morality(?). Could you expand on that please, and on what excess sila means or looks like? Thanks for your suggestion, I did indeed stop practicing for a year and half to let things settle. Right now I'm in the baby-steps stage of starting over.

A focus on the body and on wordly life has been very helpful. My day-to-day life as a high-school teacher in a low socioeconomic area doesn't leave much room for thoughts outside of the present moment!

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/3/18 11:13 PM as a reply to Dave.
Dave:
Any advice regarding specific technique(s)?

If you haven't read MCTB yet I would highly recommend it. The sections on the three trainings should be particularly helpful. But like I said, you'll need an insight practice and a concentration practice. I personally use TMI as a guide, as do others on this forum. Others will probably chime in with other recommendations. The important thing is that you pick a practice and stick with it. Don't let yourself fall into the trap of trying a bunch of different techniques at the same time.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/3/18 11:45 PM as a reply to Dave.
Sorry, sila wasn't helpful! I mean the common Western tendency to throw yourself into the practice and aim for the top. When meditating and living according to the precepts gets out of balance with the rest of your worldly life. Yes it's possible emoticon good you're going forward with baby steps. 

You say 'I would love the opportunity to explore the depths of experience meditation renders possible in more responsible way, and I'd love to fully sit through the Dark Night and see what's on the other side.' I get it, but it's a dangerous attitude. Chasing experience and sitting through things. Know when to stop and do so. Why do you want this? Haven't you already had depths of meditative experience? (I do get it but these are useful questions to reflect on).

It sounds like you know your warning signs now, heed them as soon as you notice them. There is a theory that psychotic experiences arise out of unprocessed trauma. This was the case for me. Then concentration practice will only get you in trouble. Many insight techniques are also concentration practice so tread carefully.

Best of luck with it! Sounds like you're being sensible.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/4/18 5:35 AM as a reply to Dave.
Deep concentration is a pretty sure way to test your sanity in a hurry, actually.

It probably would be a good idea to touch base with a psychiatrist so you can discuss what happened, get a working diagnosis, and have some idea about your risks moving forward so as to best mitigate that even though you're doing well now. They might be able to help educate you as to the early warning signs that you're having another episode, and help you formulate a plan about what to do if that happens.

And you're totally right that maintaining a disciplined daily practice is a major feat--but IMO a critical skill if you want depth in practice. Even if you have insights on retreat, you still have to integrate them and that's going to be extra challenging without a solid daily practice. Honestly, I could go on and on about why I think it's important for every practitioner, but in your case I think it's extra important.

RE: Seeking Practice Advice
Answer
10/4/18 7:54 PM as a reply to Dave.
Hi Dave,

If you haven't had any major depression or further manias in over a year, you might be okay as long as you moderate your meditation time.

But if you find that future A&Ps make you manic/psychotic, you might be interested in this thread (Dharma practice and mental health):
https://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/message/3373753

A few thoughts:
If you prove to be psychosis-prone, be especially careful when you go through A&Ps and Review cycles.

Severe sleep deprivation will make even normal people psychotic.  If you go one full day without sleep and don't feel like you're going to get any the next day, I recommend sedating yourself.  Different things work for different people, but I use Benadryl (max dose + a little alcohol for the worst insomnias).

Don't give all your money away.  Especially with manias following A&Ps, you can get into joyful states where you absolutely don't care about your financial or even your physical well-being.  This is temporary, but can lead to unfortunate behaviors.  It's a really good habit to notice when you have urges that are out of character and resolve to wait a month before acting on them, even if they feel totally justified in the moment.  This can be really hard to do, though.

Concentration is incredibly useful and interesting, but it seems to make psychosis more likely and more intense if you're prone to it.

Good luck!