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Vipassana: Noting/Mahasi Style

Applying Emotional Antidotes in the Midst of Vipassana Practice

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I've been meaning to write about this for a long time and a recent post has inspired me to finally share this.

After a great deal of experimentation, I have found that it is both possible and very effective to work at the emotional level in the midst of insight practices.

First some context. In MCTB Daniel says a lot about not engaging with emotional "stuff" while doing insight meditation. He points out that no amount of emotional processing will directly further the progress of insight and that far too many retreatants get lost wallowing in their stories rather than actually noting sensation. I agree that it is the noting and discernment of the 3 Characteristics that produces the fastest progress in insight, however, I have found that the primary barriers to actually doing insight practices consistently are emotional. Doing insight practices is hard. It involves facing dukka stages over and over again. It involves major shattering of illusions and constant changes in the basic perception of the world. Moreover, it can also strip away core psychological defense mechanisms resulting in feelings of total vulnerability at best or deep shame and suicidality at worst. Therefore, it seems harsh, to say the least, to simply ignore our emotional responses during meditation practice. Personally, I'd rather not become enlightened if it means getting repeatedly emotionally traumatized along the way.

All this suggests that it would be really useful to have an approach that was sensitive to our emotional needs, but that didn't lead us to get lost in endless emotional story telling. I've found a set of methods that work for me, and I'd like to share them with the board.

The basic idea is as follows. While doing insight practice, one periodically checks in with the emotional states of the various objects that are showing up in one's practice. It might sound odd for an object to have an emotional state, but almost all inner objects are really psychological fragments. Now if you have a history of ignoring and emotionally abusing your objects then they may not want to talk to you at first. You need to offer re-assurances that you really care about them and want to hear how they are feeling. Now, in doing this, we initially allow ourselves to remain identified with a self who is inquiring about these feelings. Later on we'll see that this self will become an autonomous function that doesn't require identification.

Once we start getting the emotional story from the parts. We don't allow ourselves to get drawn into the repetition of the story at the level of verbal thought. Rather, we discern what the emotional problem is and we swiftly apply a remedy. Then while continuing to apply the remedy, we do vipassana practice on the whole complex of original object, remedy, and "self" that is applying the remedy.

An example might make things clearer.

I was meditating for a long time on the jhanic factors and repeatedly going through the suffering gate to fruition. At some point my emotions started strenuously objecting, not wanting to experience that outrageous level of suffering any more. I momentarily stopped insight practice and focused on the locus of the strongest emotional resistance. I then sensed a kind of ball of tenderness in my consciousness-field that was like a solid bruise who screamed as I got close to it. I began manifesting compassion for the pain of this inner part, and this led to it opening up and receiving me. I asked it what was wrong and it said it didn't think it could take any more. At this point, I said, "You're so strong, I will do my best to practice with more gentleness." Then I began generating compassion more strongly and surrounded the entier ball. This didn't make the painful tenderness go away, but it did help sooth and ease it's worry.

Now here is the crucial part from an insight perspective. I then dis-identifed from the part of me that was generating compassion. In this case, the part generating compassion appeared as an object in the form of a white goddess of compassion. She kept doing her thing: generating the compassion field on her own without any need for the involvement of the "I". At this point, I was able resume insight practice. When I did so, I made sure to investigate the 3 characteristics of everything including the new sensations I had just generated. I investigated the 3 characteristics of the goddess, of the compassion field and of the tender ball. It's important to remember that even while things are apparently dissolving under the vipassana gaze, they still exist and have substance at the level of content. Just as when you take your physical body as an object, you might experience it dissolve and even disappear, but this doesn't mean that your actual physical body has dissolved or disappeared. So too, when you vipassanize emotional objects, they may appear to dissolve and disappear, but the emotional structures themselves remain at a content level. So it's important to set yourself up with stable and positive emotional structures that will support continued practice.

The component skills of this practice to make this do-able are as follows. Clearly, one needs to practice the 4 brahma viharas to the point that one can manifest these qualities easily and automatically for any object. One also needs to do insight investigation on these four qualities so that they transparently reveal their 3 characteristics as well as the "self" that generates them. Some work with the powers realms helps with visualizing objects as personified entities. The last skill is knowing what antidote to apply to what type of emotional issue. This is of course an art form, as any therapist will tell you. But here are some of the basic issue-antidote combos that I've found work reliably.

Fear versus Anxiety – The difference between fear and anxiety is that fear is a response to something that is present. It is the perception of danger in that present object and the desire to distance oneself from it. Anxiety on the other hand is anticipatory fear. No object is perceived as dangerous in the present, but the mind imagines that such an object might emerge in the future and dreads such an emergence. The distinction is important because the antidotes for fear are somewhat different from the antidotes for anxiety.

Fear – The fear antidote has two stages. First engage the rational mind and ask if the object one is afraid of is likely to be dangerous to your physical well being. For example, if you are meditating in the jungle and an actual physical tiger appears, then you should not apply an antidote to fear, but rather immediately run away. It's important to ask this question using the term "likely" since we can never know with certainty if a given feared object might unexpectedly turn out to be physically dangerous. If we start looking for certainty, then we are sure to intensify the fear. If the answer to the first question is "no", then we apply the antidote. The traditional Buddhist antidote to fear is metta. I have found this to work for mild to moderate fear but not for extreme fear. If using metta, surround the fearful part of you as well as the feared object completely in a field of the strongest metta you can generate. For extreme fear the only approach that has worked for me is to apply courage. Courage is the quality of being willing to face danger even if it means risking death or worse. It is the quality that warriors display on the battlefield. Being courageous is not a matter of having no fear, it is rather a matter of being willing to face the feared object even in the midst of the arising of fear. Courage has a "bring it on" quality. If you just can't figure out how to muster courage, I'd recommend watching some UFC to see how it's done (seriously). You could also meditate specifically on this quality or meditate on a role model, Bodhisattva, or deity who manifests this quality

Anxiety – Anxiety is sometimes harder to deal with than fear because there is no obvious object to face courageously. The are two essential antidotes for anxiety:

1. Accept that there is uncertainty about whether a fearful object may arise in the future
and
2. Generate positive thoughts toward the possible arising of a fearful object in the future. For example, "It would be wonderful if a fearful object were to arise because then I'd have the chance to cultivate the valuable qualities of metta and courage."

Anger – Anger arises when we are hurt or in pain and feel a need to protect ourselves from further pain. It is essential to remember the protector function of anger. Don't be surprised if an angry part lashes out and doesn't want to talk to you, even if you're trying to inquire with great sensitivity. The key to resolving anger is to find a way through the protective shell to access the hurt inside it. At that point, it's usually just a matter of applying metta and compassion to the hurt part and allowing any grief that needs to manifest to express itself. However, getting through the protective shell may not be easy. The angry part can generate such a mental storm of fearful and painful objects that it's natural for the inquirer to recoil and feel something along the lines of "Well fine, if you're going to be that way, then you can just STAY angry!" Of course, if this is the reaction the inquirer has then anger has won the battle. The angry part has successfully caused enough hurt to the inquirer that the inquirer has become infected with anger toward the angry part. So the first principle in dealing with angry parts is for the inquirer to protect him/herself. One can imagine oneself being surrounded in a strong field of metta, compassion, and equanimity. One can also use a mantra like, "I will allow this anger to rage without allowing any harm to come to myself." Once sufficient self-protection is in place, then approach the angry part and invite it to do its worst. Let it rage as long as it needs to. If this is taking a long time, you can switch back to doing insight practice on all the sensations being generated. After you a feel an emotional shift and the strom has blown itself out (it always will eventually) then you may find that the formerly angry part collapses into sobbing tears. At that point, you must immediately extend the strongest possible metta and compassion to the hurt part. Do not even try using equanimity here, it will likely be perceived by the hurt part as indifference and emotional coldness. Now, the crucial thing is that you don't have to wait for the hurt part to be healed by the metta/compassion before resuming insight practice. That would waste a lot of time. Deeply hurt parts may need to be held in metta/compassion for hours or more. Just disidentify with the metta generating part and watch the whole things unfold. Without disrupting or changing the emotional structure, begin investigating the whole thing for the 3 Characteristics.

Loss/Regret/Grief – This is pretty much the least complex one to deal with, although that doesn't necessarily make it easy. It just needs 1. An invitation to cry (which can be inner crying rather than physically expressed tears), 2. A strong field of love and acceptance (here metta + equanimity work better than compassion).

Shame - Shame is one of the most difficult emotions to deal with as it strikes at our very core sense of being worthy to exist. One must be especially careful not to inadvertantly cultivate shame through vipassana practice, and it is especially easy to do so. Here's why. Every time we sense an object and we discern the 3rd characteristic as "no-self," we risk sending the wrong message to our unconscious. The term "self" in Buddhism has very different meaning from the meaning that the word has in the English language and the Western culture in which most of us are immersed. It's easy for the unconscious to mid-hear "no-self" as a denial of our existence as individual beings and this can lead to deep feelings of unworthiness and rejection. The real tragedy is that this emotional side-effect is so unnecessary since it's really is just a linguistic problem. The notion of self being denied when we say, "no-self" is really more akin to the Western notion of God, i.e., a permanent, timeless, perfect, completely satisfying entity. So I believe an emotionally healthier way of noting when we discern the 3rd characteristic is to say "this is not God" or "this is not awareness". Now of course, this might plunge us back into debates about the no-self model versus the true self model, so I'm just putting it out there as an option. I've had very good success with using these phrases in my insight practice, and they do seem to leave less unsavoury emotional residue than saying "no self".

Okay, so even if aren't generating shame through our insight practice, it's still very likely that we will discover shame-filled parts as we explore the inner realms. You can often identify a shame filled part as follows. You are meditating along and everything feels more or less normal, then suddenly, for no apparent reason, your mind is filled with thoughts like, "I don't want to be here anymore," "I'm the worst person in the world," "I'm so awful, they should just throw me a dungeon and leave me to rot," and so on. Now especially with the first one, "I don't want to be here any more," it's easy to see how in a Buddhist context, this could be mis-interpreted as an expression of the desire for enlightenment and the realization of emptiness. It's not, it's just shame. If you read the Dali Lama's work, he's always talking about the importance of self-confidence. Thinking you are unworthy to exist is not a sign of insight into fundamental non-being, it's a cry for help.

Once you find your awareness has tapped into a well of shame, it can be difficult to know what to do. The antidote to shame is recognition of one's worth. Mudita can really help here, but be very specific about what one's successes are. There is also a useful quality which one might call unconditional recognition. It can be cultivated with phrases such as, "I see you as you are and you are inherently worthy. You are lovable exactly as you are."

The final antidote for shame falls a little outside of most Buddhist thinking, but it's very effective. This is to mobilize the power of romantic love. Basically, you imagine that there is a beautiful person (choose gender and appearance according to your preferences, not a person who exists in the physical world) who is so attracted to you and so in love with you that they are attracted to you and love you even when you show them the parts of yourself that you consider the most ugly and shameful. For some reason this is the fastest way I've found to clear up shame. I think we must be deeply wired to seek acceptance from those with whom we have an erotic connection. If you don't like the romantic/erotic imagery, you can get nearly the same effect by imagining an archetypal mother or father unconditionally loving all those shame filled parts. However, if you have pre-existing mommy and daddy issues from your childhood (and who doesn't), this might not work right off the bat.

Shame is often hard to clear up, but it can be done in meditation. The best part is that as soon as you find a strategy that you think is working, or at least moving in the right direction, then set it on auto-pilot and go back to vipassana. Again, this lets you pursue the two goals of progress of insight and emotional healing simultaneously.

I could go on about other emotional antidotes, but I think this post is quite long enough. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on this subject matter. If anybody has experienced an emotional antidote that has worked in their practice please share it on this thread.

Avi Craimer

Short summary of the post
Answer
3/17/14 1:08 AM as a reply to Avi Craimer.
I realized that this post was probably too long for many people to read all the way through, so here's a summary:

A technique for doing personal psychological healing work and vipassana in combination. Start by setting up stable fields of positive mind-states (metta, et al) around to the psychological parts that need healing, then do vipassana on this whole object, including both the psychological part and the auto-generating positive mind-state. Most of the post goes into the details of strategies I've found to be effective for resolving specific emotional issues using this technique.

Hope that helps make the post more accessible. Please share if you've had luck with any of these strategies or with others not listed here.

Avi Craimer

RE: Short summary of the post
Answer
3/17/14 3:42 AM as a reply to Avi Craimer.
Very interesting post. I agree with what you said about emotional stuff in the beginning. I've found that I need to deal with them so I can practice better. I've been meditating on and off for a little more than 2 years, but I've just recently started to approach it a little more seriously.

There is something I do for personal healing in meditation. Although it is concentration based, not insight. It's pretty simple. I basically repeat affirmations to myself in a Jhana. I go into the Jhana (3rd) and repeat the affirmations, by immersing myself in their meanings fully. Saying it slowly, and feeling each word one by one. Whatever I think I need to improve on, I write a positive affirmation and I repeat it as much as I can. Start by saying it out loud, then whisper, then internally. The level of immersion in that stage is very high. I'd say this worked pretty well for me.

Maybe you could add insight into this? You could observe what the affirmation is doing, what is being generated by it, and understand and cultivate it more that way.

RE: Short summary of the post
Answer
3/19/14 3:14 AM as a reply to Avi Craimer.
Avi Craimer:
I realized that this post was probably too long for many people to read all the way through, so here's a summary:

A technique for doing personal psychological healing work and vipassana in combination. Start by setting up stable fields of positive mind-states (metta, et al) around to the psychological parts that need healing, then do vipassana on this whole object, including both the psychological part and the auto-generating positive mind-state. Most of the post goes into the details of strategies I've found to be effective for resolving specific emotional issues using this technique.

Hope that helps make the post more accessible. Please share if you've had luck with any of these strategies or with others not listed here.

Avi Craimer


I read through it completely and didn't think it was too long.

Before I add some more thoughts about your suggestions, here's two questions:
1) Are you familiar with the work of Eugene Gendlin and Ann Weiser Cornell? (Focusing)
2) Where did you get the ideas you describe from?

RE: Applying Emotional Antidotes in the Midst of Vipassana Practice
Answer
3/19/14 4:15 AM as a reply to Avi Craimer.
Avi Craimer:


Once we start getting the emotional story from the parts. We don't allow ourselves to get drawn into the repetition of the story at the level of verbal thought. Rather, we discern what the emotional problem is and we swiftly apply a remedy. Then while continuing to apply the remedy, we do vipassana practice on the whole complex of original object, remedy, and "self" that is applying the remedy.

An example might make things clearer.

I was meditating for a long time on the jhanic factors and repeatedly going through the suffering gate to fruition. At some point my emotions started strenuously objecting, not wanting to experience that outrageous level of suffering any more. I momentarily stopped insight practice and focused on the locus of the strongest emotional resistance. I then sensed a kind of ball of tenderness in my consciousness-field that was like a solid bruise who screamed as I got close to it. I began manifesting compassion for the pain of this inner part, and this led to it opening up and receiving me. I asked it what was wrong and it said it didn't think it could take any more. At this point, I said, "You're so strong, I will do my best to practice with more gentleness." Then I began generating compassion more strongly and surrounded the entier ball. This didn't make the painful tenderness go away, but it did help sooth and ease it's worry.

Now here is the crucial part from an insight perspective. I then dis-identifed from the part of me that was generating compassion. In this case, the part generating compassion appeared as an object in the form of a white goddess of compassion. She kept doing her thing: generating the compassion field on her own without any need for the involvement of the "I". At this point, I was able resume insight practice. When I did so, I made sure to investigate the 3 characteristics of everything including the new sensations I had just generated. I investigated the 3 characteristics of the goddess, of the compassion field and of the tender ball. It's important to remember that even while things are apparently dissolving under the vipassana gaze, they still exist and have substance at the level of content. Just as when you take your physical body as an object, you might experience it dissolve and even disappear, but this doesn't mean that your actual physical body has dissolved or disappeared. So too, when you vipassanize emotional objects, they may appear to dissolve and disappear, but the emotional structures themselves remain at a content level. So it's important to set yourself up with stable and positive emotional structures that will support continued practice.



Why do you need to apply an antidote or remedy? Is it the emotions that are strenuously objecting, or is it you that is strenuously objecting to your emotions?

You might also be interested in this:

http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/message/2280431

RE: Short summary of the post
Answer
3/19/14 12:09 PM as a reply to bernd the broter.
bernd the broter:
1) Are you familiar with the work of Eugene Gendlin and Ann Weiser Cornell? (Focusing)


I'm somewhat familiar with Gendlin's work, and I find it fascinating. I haven't gotten into the details of his approach, but from what I've seen it seems very resonant.

bernd the broter:
2) Where did you get the ideas you describe from?


I'm a bit of a personal growth nut, so I've picked up a bunch of different tools over the years. The ideas are a blend of what I've learned from a bunch of different sources and what I've discovered through trial and error in my own practice. I can't point you to any one book that would talk about all this stuff, however, in general various psychotherapeutic theories discuss these things in one form or another. For example, the idea for the antidote to anxiety comes directly from cognitive behavioural therapy. The antidote to anger comes from work I've done in a men's empowerment group. The ideas around shame comes from psychoanalytic ideas about the origins of shame in the infant's perception of its fundamental unworthiness to exist, and so on.

The ideas about how to combine this type of psychological work with B.V. states and insight meditation is not something I've seen written about explicitly anywhere. It's just what I came to figure out in my practice as a result of trying to work at the emotional level while also doing intensive insight practice.

RE: Applying Emotional Antidotes in the Midst of Vipassana Practice
Answer
3/19/14 12:34 PM as a reply to sawfoot _.
sawfoot _:
Why do you need to apply an antidote or remedy? Is it the emotions that are strenuously objecting, or is it you that is strenuously objecting to your emotions?\


Not necessarily either. Suppose one had total equanimity towards all emotional states (in fact this is definitely possible for a short time after coming out of 4th jhana). Does that mean that you wouldn't want to make all the inner parts of your psyche more harmonious, peaceful, helpful, pleasant, happy, etc., all else being equal? When I'm in such a state of equanimity, I still feel that it would be better to help those inner parts by making their circumstances better. Even when these inner "selves" are perceived as thoroughly non-subject due to insight, one can see that it would be better all things considered to improve their situation. The crucial point is that the realization of non-self through insight doesn't make the inner-parts that you previously identified with cease to exist. They only cease to exist as self/subject. But they still exist as beings that can either flourish or not flourish depending on how they are cared for. You can think of the process of emotional work as tending your inner garden so that it becomes a lush and beautiful place. Incidentally, when you do this, it also greases the wheel for insight, because you are no longer fighting nearly as much resistance to dis-identification.