From "dry insight" dukkha ñanas to Samatha-Vipassana

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  • #1857
    Profile photo of Julian S
    Julian S
    Member

    Hi the group,

    I’ve not posted here before but I’ve owned a copy of TMI for a year now and been working from it seriously for the last month after taking a break for a few months due to health problems. Apologies for the long post but I have spent about a week thinking about this and there’s a few angles to it.

    I have read that practising the samatha-vipassana path is generally less likely to result in protracted “cycling” through the insights into suffering (“The Dark Night of the Soul”, http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/MCTB+5.+Dissolution,+Entrance+to+the+Dark+Night). But what if someone is already in a pattern of cycling through this stuff?

    I’m nine years into a dry vipassana path and even before I took up that practice I had experiences that equate to bhanga / dissolution (“Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away”), which as I understand it lead pretty much inevitably to the DN if one is not aided by samatha. Because I am not naturally high in samadhi or tranquility (I have ADHD) this meant that I had pretty much entered the Dark Night before starting formal meditation practices.

    On retreat for me, dissolution and the Dark Night manifests with real clarity around day four, preceded by clear kundalini phenomena (internal lights and sounds etc) and kriya shaking. There follows a period of three to four days of sitting with classical dukkha. On a few 10-day retreats I have “let go” into equanimity regarding the formations of perception (TMI Stage Eight? I have resolved not to jump ahead with TMI and haven’t read that far into the book). But these have been fleeting instances of tranquility amidst what is generally a very agitated mind. I have been unable to reproduce this “High Equanimity” reliably even on retreat, and after it does arise, the rest of the retreat I usually spend grasping at the memories in a most unhelpful way, trying to reproduce them.

    During home practice, with bare vipassana I can access subtle body sensations at will, even on first sitting down to practise, but cannot reproduce Equanimity towards formations, I think due to dullness. My sits usually end up in boredom or lethargy. I have found Shinzen Young’s Focus In technique really helpful to keep me going, but usually I still fall prey to dullness. With samatha-vipassana, I experience the same — a lot of restlessness and boredom. I work with dullness most of the time (stand up, walk, sit with eyes open etc). On the odd occasion when I have mental unity towards meditation during home practice, I can do Stage Five samatha-vipassana practise (Culadasa). I haven’t tried going beyond that. These occasions occur about once every fortnight and have so far only lasted for the final ten minutes of a sit. Most sessions I spend a lot of time revisiting my motivations, making space for unknowing, cultivating patience while holding (or attempting to hold) strong intentions and working through Stage Two, Three and sometimes Four although not often in that order. The skills in there don’t come easily to the hyperfocussed, highly agitated yet high-dullness mind that I usually sit with.

    U Ba Khin / Mahasi practitioners have suggested that because of the way the dukkha ñanas manifest I could “get further” towards Awakening by using dry insight and long retreats as opposed to samatha-vipassana and home practice, because the dark night is considered (by them) to be a time when attention broadens out and exclusive attention is borderline impossible, although attractive as it seems to offer a way out of the discomfort. They suggest building up to the traditional three-month attempts at stream entry, and just keep bashing away until successful.

    But firstly, there’s the nature of an ADHD mind which isn’t highly consistent, reliable or steady and which in my experience does not present with incidental samatha very frequently, which the dry insight technique pretty much relies on for stream entry. Secondly I am a dedicated father. And thirdly since 18 months ago I also suffer from a chronic pain condition (which I don’t blame on the kriya / DN but I don’t think is entirely separate either). These seem to be significant obstacles to the traditional dry insight solution of “do a long retreat and repeat”.

    I also am quite honestly scared of the Dark Night and feel like I’m out of inspiration to do it that way. Having undergone seven silent retreats up to three weeks in duration I’m no stranger to how tough things can be. Intuitively I am deeply unsure that the path to Awakening must be full of so much suffering as all that (although pain, surely).

    Hence, TMI with its focus on tranquility, consistency and reproducibility, joy and home practice over long-retreats and intense heroic efforts has been a relief to encounter, even if it means starting at the beginning again.

    I still rate the dry insight teachings highly for certain people. One warning I’ve had from Mahasi practitioners, outlined above, is that the dukkha ñanas are a particularly bad time to try and develop single-pointedness, due to the way perception works in those stages.

    Which comes back to my questions: it seems as though the samatha-vipassana method is less likely to lead to a dark night, but does anyone have experience of a practitioner switching from dry insight to samatha-vipassana while in a classic dry insight dark night? If so, can you suggest where any of the tools and techniques in TMI require modifying?

    If I just continue following the instructions in the book, can I expect to make progress despite being in a classical dark night?

    I like the way the TMI practise challenges the whole dullness / agitation / hyperfocus loop of ADHD. I’m letting it undermine my tendency to rush, which has got to be beneficial. I’m hoping to get reassurance that it’s worth continuing, but the worry about developing these skills while being a decade into the dark night is niggling away and starting to enter my sessions as doubt so I’m reaching out.

    With gratitude and appreciation for the gift of these practices,

    Julian

    • This topic was modified 8 months, 3 weeks ago by Profile photo of Julian S Julian S.
    #1859
    Profile photo of Mary Hill
    maryhill
    Member

    Julian,
    I’m a rather new teacher in training with Culadasa. I don’t have the answer to your question. I wanted to respond so that I would be in this thread, and see what the experienced teachers in training have to say.
    I admire your determination very much. You’ve come to the right place. Culadasa’s methods are so gentle, and experiencing meditation with pleasure and relaxation is very important in this practice.

    Also, I wanted you to know that when I started meditating in 2014, I was already in chronic pain. So, I actually lie down, with a heating pad, because the pain itself is such a distraction that I can’t follow the instructions.
    I’m at Stage 5. And yes, subtle and gross dullness is an issue with lying down. Sometimes I have to meditate, fall asleep, awaken, and try again.

    I do a lot of the practices in the Appendix also, like Lovingkindness and Walking Meditation. And I allow myself to experience mindfulness in daily life (watching my thoughts and returning to the breath), as often as possible throughout the day.

    This allows me to “practice” meditation (yes, I can even do it at the gym :), when off the cushion.

    I do not have ADHD, and I do have a very active mind. It is such a relief, whether I am on the cushion, or off, to focus on my meditation object during daily life.

    Also, on the very bottom of the introductory page of the website, is a guided meditation by Culadasa himself. I sometimes listen to this, in order to be with my teacher and a group, “in spirit”.

    There are also 3 online sanghas with Culadasa’s teachers in training. I belong to one of them. That’s how I discovered the practice 🙂

    Blessings,
    Mary, teacher in training

    #1860
    Profile photo of Julian S
    Julian S
    Member

    Thanks Mary. I don’t feel like I have very much determination some days! I think in a way that having ADHD is a perfect goad though, because without daily sitting life becomes impenetrable fairly quickly 🙂

    I was sorry to hear about your chronic pain though. Perhaps this is not the place to discuss it but I have had a lot of relief from following a protocol of mental exercises that I found in a book on neuroplasticity. I run through them at the start of each sit and throughout the day. Feel free to private message me if you’d like to know more.

    I’ll look for the video you mentioned, I think motivation is going to be the thing I have to keep on top of if I do proceed with the Culadasa method (which so far I intend to do).

    #1861
    Profile photo of Julian S
    Julian S
    Member

    On my latest retreat I incorporated loving kindness meditation after remembering Culadasa’s suggestion that it can help with pain in Stage Four. I found it soothing. But now I’m home it is hard to stabilise attention for long enough to generate the qualities. Do you think it needs to be done with a certain level of sati and samadhi? On days where I reach some stability, then I’m still doing it.

    #1862
    Profile photo of Mary Hill
    maryhill
    Member

    A Free, 30-Minute Guided Metta (Loving Kindness) Meditation

    Julian, Above is a 30 minute guided meditation done by another one of Culadasa’s teachers in training. It is lovingkindness. It’s the one I listened to this morning.

    Blessings, Mary, teacher in training

    #1863
    Profile photo of Julian S
    Julian S
    Member

    That was very beneficial this morning! Thank you Mary. I will incorporate this into my routine.

    #1864
    Profile photo of Mary Hill
    maryhill
    Member

    Great Julian. Some people do Metta (lovingkindness) daily for years.
    Let me know if that begins to soften your practice. Blessings, Mary

    #1865
    Profile photo of Wiley Fox
    Wiley Fox
    Member

    Julian,

    Your early vipassana practice orientation is the same as mine. I am emerging from a year of dukkha nanas in hermitage, presently reestablishing my Samaths-Vipassana practice. To characterize this experience as “The Dark Night of The Soul” is over romanticized and assine, if for no other reason than there being no such thing as a soul. It would be more accurate to call it “The Shit Side of Insight”. I shall tell you what TMI omits, what it really is, and how you get it. TMI implies (but stops short of saying) that if you follow S-V, you will not experience dukkha nanas. Nanoo! Nanoo!

    You have read that “insights” do occur in straight Samatha practice (in arguments about samatha versus vipassana). Verily! They can occur at any time. If you are so insightful that you get insights before you cultivate Meditative Joy (Stages Seven and Eight), then you get the ‘the low road’ of insights, dukkha nanas. If you manage to establish Meditative Joy before heavy insights come, then you get ‘the high road’ of insight experiences, as S-V presented in TMI. SezMe!

    If I had known this, it would have been obvious that my practice of TMI would produce dukkha nanas, before Meditative Joy, because I had sotapanna 20 years ago, and this is what sets the mind on a relentless course of insights, long before I knew about S-V. All meditation schemes that include sotapanna are fictitious, because sotapanna happens ‘off the charts’, there is no cultivating for it or pursuing it. It takes a few weeks to realize that sotapanna has occured, as one notices the mind in a constant process of synthesizing its concepts and ideas, bringing order to itself to avoid insanity, frankly.
    Curing ‘cognitive dissonances’.

    Forgive the above personal digression. You are in exactly the right place practicing at Stage Five. Do page 47 before you practice body scanning, but take the four-step a bit further than descibed in TMI. In the fourth step, the breath is still conceptual, you are aware of BREATHE IN/ BREATHE OUT…you are THINKING! Let the breath experience slide from the conceptual to the exclusively SENSUAL. Get so involved in the experience of feeling EVERYTHING at the nose that there is no room left for ‘thinking’! Turn over all your mental bandwidth (attention and awareness) to THE SENSUAL. Thoughts there arise only occasionally, and you are distinctly aware of each arising. This YOUR SPACE… what you are looking for every time you sit, where thoughts are few and thin.

    You will have to learn to restrain your sensual experience to your nostrils, because your sensual attention will want to spread randomly to other parts of your body. FOCUS! Then practice the body scan exercise in Stage Five of TMI, which will be greatly enhanced, without so much thoughts.

    If you do the above effectively and dig it, then your reading TMI through Stage Six will make a helluva lot more sense to you. Then you are properly prepared for ‘Whole Body Breath’ on page 220. SezME!

    (I am not a teacher.)

    #1866
    Profile photo of Wiley Fox
    Wiley Fox
    Member

    Julian,

    To clarify. I am suggesting a highly active perception of sensations, where you may have rather passively observed sensations in bhanga, or in “noting” Mahasi style. In the second step of the four-step, you can work at squeezing “thinking” and conceptualization out of your attention zone by trying to hear EVERYTHING in your sitting environment (and in your body as well) at the same time, trying to feel EVERYTHING in your body AT THE SAME TIME, even the clothes hanging on your body. Smelling and tasting are valuable also, because these are sensations for which you have little concepts or descriptions. No “labeling”, as that would be “thinking”! Aggressively emerse your attention in the sensations. How long you can do this will be limited, as whole body practices are quite tiring to the mind. You will feel your limit.

    These sensory experiences can overwhelm the capacity of your attention, and while “thinking” is certainly going on in deep background, it goes merely unnoticed. How this works out for you probably will strike at the core of any effects you are experiencing due to ADHD, and that is why I have suggested this practice in detail. This eventually leads to the illusory nature of sensations.

    #1867
    Profile photo of Julian S
    Julian S
    Member

    @Wiley thanks for taking the time to share. I’ll take a few days absorbing what you wrote and experimenting with how it relates to my own experience and then report back.

    @maryhill I have split my 90 minute practice into 3x 30 minute practice and finding the reduced intensity of effort and the loving kindness once per day very much a balm.

    I have had some emotional difficulties the last few days… I’m curious what the advice is around doing lovingkindness when emotions like fear, resentment are strong. It would certainly be too much to perform the loving kindness practice for the person who is the unfortunate target of these feelings, but is it advisable at all to do these loving practices when such strongly negative feelings predominate? Or is it better to wait until they abate slightly?

    Thanks so much for your heartfelt help thus far.

    Julian

    #1868
    Profile photo of Mary Hill
    maryhill
    Member

    Julian,

    Wiley’s advice to tune into sensations is sound, and I read it, along with some other recent takeaways from teacher training, before I meditated yesterday. I found it to be very useful.

    As far as lovingkindness goes, here’s what I did in my practice:

    I only said the metta for myself, until I felt “strong enough”, internally, to say it for others.
    An analogy is “putting on your own oxygen mask first, when on an airplane, before putting one on your child’s”.

    Then I added people and beings who I knew for sure love me in return.

    If I’m in a state where lots of emotions are arising, (fear and resentment), I would not expand my lovingkindness any further. That’s just me. The beauty of this practice is that you do it at your own rate, and make your practice your own.

    I’m a very intuitive, kinesthetic person. I know on a given day how far I can go with lovingkindness practice. I listen to my body. It tells me.

    Remember that I suggested to you, from the get go, to find a practice, off the cushion, that also incorporates attention and awareness. I am suggesting that again.

    As an example:

    I do a mindful walk every day, even if it’s short. (That’s in the Appendix in TMI). I do it outside unless it’s pouring rain. Culadasa says being is nature is an excellent way to promote samatha/vipassna practice.

    Can you allow yourself a daily walk, outside alone, noticing your feet touching the ground?

    Also, can you find a single practice, off the cushion, to practice attention and awareness? The first practice I used, off the cushion, BTW, was brushing my teeth.

    What’s so amazing about TMI is that if you incorporate just a single task from daily life into your practice, you can realize that the samatha-vipassna practice can also be used in real life to gently train the mind.

    Be gentle with yourself. Follow the directions in the book for when/if strong emotions arise. “Let it come, let it be, let it go.”

    Emotions arise. Impermanence informs me that they will pass, if I let them. I’ve dealt with a lot of resentments using this practice. The practice has made it safe for me to slowly, gently, “let go” of deep seated, subconscious, and unconscious fears and angers. This has happened slowly, over time. Years…

    First of all, be kind and gentle with yourself. Striving will not “speed up” your progress. (Been there, done that 🙂

    “Letting go”, being diligent, making your practices pleasant and relaxing, and being extra gentle with yourself when emotions arise is the cornerstone of this practice.

    Blessings, Mary

    #1869
    Profile photo of Julian S
    Julian S
    Member

    Hi @maryhill, thanks for your words of wisdom. I too have “been there” with striving. It took the whiplash pain syndrome to get me to slow down, in meditation as in daily life. It’s been a profound discovery that meditation deepens when given space to grow according to its nature instead of being pruned and prodded into shape (I often bring to mind the image of the gardener from the early part of Culadasa’s book).

    I’m finding the metta practice quite wonderful and it’s already helping me be more compassionate and patient with friends and family. I skipped metta yesterday due to emotional overwhelm, and not having read your suggestions. But thankfully the personal issue I mentioned resolved with some good conversation. When inevitably another such situation arises I will do just so much as I feel able.

    The metta practice itself has led to an important realisation: when turning the feelings back on myself at the end of the sit, after having shared them with others, making the wish “may I *continue* to be happy”, I am realising that happiness, love, peace and comfort ARE the wish for others to feel that way. This is a wonderful thing and I find myself coming back to it throughout the day (except yesterday!).

    Thankyou so much for pointing me in this direction 🙂

    Julian

    #1870
    Profile photo of Julian S
    Julian S
    Member

    With regards your other thoughts, I’m actually pretty motivated about mindfulness in daily life. I find it so beneficial that I frequently return to bare awareness of body or breath sensations throughout the day. However, it’s just spontaneous without any pattern. For a year or so back when I started meditation, I used mindfulness while scrubbing dishes (I don’t have a dishwasher). I’ll return to that, thanks for the tip.

    I take a walk most days in the afternoon to help with pain, and again I often bring attention lightly to the soles of my feet, although without doing what one could call “formal meditation” (thoughts come and go freely too). It’s good to know that it comes recommended by Culadasa!

    #1877
    Profile photo of Julian S
    Julian S
    Member

    Hi @wileyfox, sorry for my delayed response to your insightful comments. Let me go through them and respond inline…

    “It takes a few weeks to realize that sotapanna has occured, as one notices the mind in a constant process of synthesizing its concepts and ideas, bringing order to itself to avoid insanity, frankly. Curing ‘cognitive dissonances’.”

    This sounds intensely familiar to me — I assumed it was because I was cycling from bhanga through “the shit side of insight” (heh) and into equanimity, whereupon the cognitive dissonances are cured (temporarily). I don’t think I’ve had sotapanna — perhaps quite close a couple of times. There was a rich stream of profound insight and I stepped outside of myself both times, but I took “me” with me if you know what I mean. I never asked the question what was observing me step outside of myself.

    “You are in exactly the right place practicing at Stage Five. Do page 47 before you practice body scanning, but take the four-step a bit further than descibed in TMI. In the fourth step, the breath is still conceptual, you are aware of BREATHE IN/ BREATHE OUT…you are THINKING! Let the breath experience slide from the conceptual to the exclusively SENSUAL. Get so involved in the experience of feeling EVERYTHING at the nose that there is no room left for ‘thinking’! Turn over all your mental bandwidth (attention and awareness) to THE SENSUAL. Thoughts there arise only occasionally, and you are distinctly aware of each arising. This YOUR SPACE… what you are looking for every time you sit, where thoughts are few and thin.”

    This is pretty much *exactly* how I already practice. Which is reassuring synchronicity 🙂 I totally get what you mean by “getting so involved that there is no room left” for thinking. I can maintain this for ten minutes on a good day. But the problem I have is, perhaps due to just lack of mental stamina or disunity of sub minds, I run out of peripheral awareness — it “collapses”. Attention remains strong but without PA, my attention becomes ensnared in subtle distractions (this is aka hyperfocus, a classic ADHD trait). And once that happens, suddenly they’re not so tiny any more, and I’m floating in Stage 3 or 4 with not enough peripheral awareness to pull myself out (I describe this in way more detail here: http://dharmatreasurecommunity.org/forums/topic/slipping-backwards-from-stage-5).

    “You will have to learn to restrain your sensual experience to your nostrils, because your sensual attention will want to spread randomly to other parts of your body. FOCUS! Then practice the body scan exercise in Stage Five of TMI, which will be greatly enhanced, without so much thoughts.”

    I find this quite easy and as described in the link above I can sense subtle breath sensations with ease (even in daily life, while walking, driving etc). But it’s only easy until PA collapses, and then I sink into gross distraction and progressive dullness.

    “In the second step of the four-step, you can work at squeezing “thinking” and conceptualization out of your attention zone by trying to hear EVERYTHING in your sitting environment (and in your body as well) at the same time, trying to feel EVERYTHING in your body AT THE SAME TIME, even the clothes hanging on your body. Smelling and tasting are valuable also, because these are sensations for which you have little concepts or descriptions. No “labeling”, as that would be “thinking”! Aggressively emerse your attention in the sensations. How long you can do this will be limited, as whole body practices are quite tiring to the mind. You will feel your limit.”

    Are you suggesting just to work with whole body / step 2 and not progress to step 3 or 4? That’s an interesting idea that I haven’t tried. I could do that until I “feel my limit” and then end the sit, slowly increasing the duration, which initially would be quite short but perhaps the effort to lengthen them will stretch and strengthen my PA.

    Or to do it until I feel my limit (which I’m already noticing with the way PA collapses) and then move to steps 3 and 4?

    • This reply was modified 8 months, 2 weeks ago by Profile photo of Julian S Julian S.
    #1953
    Profile photo of Wiley Fox
    Wiley Fox
    Member

    Julian,

    “Are you suggesting just to work with whole body / step 2 and not progress to step 3 or 4?”

    Culadasa discusses on tape that this is one way to go, ‘whole body jhana’ with breath-body sensations. The other more conventional way as I usually experience it, is that piti (which is a bit different from breath-body sensations, less ‘imaginary’ and more ‘palpable’ shall I say) presents at completion of step 2, and I put peripheral awareness on that piti in a non-interfering and non-continuous way, just checking. Focusing strongly on the breath for the rest of the sit, use PA to occasionally check for unbidden piti.

    This prepares you for the differences between ‘whole-body jhana’ and ‘pleasure jhana’. Do read ahead of your point in practice to about page 220.

    Hopefully piti will arise instead of collapse of attention.

    Sotapanna begins with a mental vision soon followed by a profound mind-stopping. The mind is impressed with its own complete defeat of associative thinking.

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