Retreat: Difficult States, How does insight happen, Are concentration and other techniques helpful

M: I recently attended a six day retreat. For four-and-a-half of the six days of the retreat, I was in hell. I was facing a personal dilemma and thought that retreat would be a good place to resolve it. Not! The stories and scenarios of the choices I faced could not be stopped from racing through my head. So basically I was sitting with a movie looping in my brain instead of concentrating my mind and actually meditating. With some loving first aid and a couple of discussions with the two dharma teachers, and some hand holding, I was able to get back to some kind of equanimity–mainly through what I guess you could call an insight: “Oh. Okay. So now I’m living in a hell realm. So this is what that is like. This is how things are for me right now.”

Accepting that let me unclench some and I actually enjoyed the rest of the retreat and it turned out I learned much about myself and about what hell realms are like. A productive retreat, in the end, but an experience I NEVER WANT TO GO THROUGH AGAIN!!! (Or anytime soon again, at any rate.)

Jay: I appreciated your report of the retreat, especially the difficult part. One thing I got out of it was that it doesn’t seem (to me, anyway) that meditative work is about concentrating the mind. There definitely is a quieting of the mind that can happen and maybe we can call that a kind of concentration in that the mind stays with what is here directly, instead of going off into thinking. But it doesn’t seem like that kind of quieting happens by an act of will. To me, what’s important is that the activity of the mind is visible, transparent, noticeable. In other words that when thoughts or emotional states do come up, they can be noticed directly, along with the sound of the wind and feel of the air.

The second thing that I got from your narrative is that it reminded me of a time in retreat some years ago when I found myself in a nightmarish state of mind. It was just hell – confusion, distress, anxiety, craziness. When I met with Toni Packer and told her about it, she listened quietly and then said something to the effect that a new part of the mind was opening up. Her comments conveyed a lot of compassion and maybe hope to me, even though I was still in that state.

Going back to sitting, the turmoil continued. There was no room for remembering helpful words of advice and even if I did remember, they didn’t change anything. Maybe, like you said, there was at least one layer of panic that was gone, since I trusted that she knew what she was talking about.

The nightmare continued for some unmeasured time. Then there was suddenly an instant in which the mind was just in a different place. A gap, quiet, still. The entire hellish state was gone. I don’t remember now exactly how it was but the feeling was as though there was a new space that I had never been in before and even though the mind didn’t stay in that place, there was a feeling something like “now I know there is something outside of this inner world of turmoil (which I had somehow felt was all there was) and I don’t know what it is but my life depends on finding out.”

I’m not sure that the specifics of how this felt to me are significant but the important thing was the coming across this gap in what had seemed like a solid mind-state, which had the assumption that there was no such thing as anything outside it. From that time on nothing could stop me from going to retreat as often as I could.

M: Thanks for your thoughtful post, Jay.

I think your and my experiences of sudden release from obsessive brain-wheel-spinning were likely similar. I called it unclenching. You called it an instant in which the mind was just in a different place. A gap, quiet, still.

Your comment about these things–letting go, concentration, even meditation itself– as NOT being acts of will may be right on target. Yet dharma talk after talk we hear “watch the tip of your nostrils,” or “when your mind wanders, bring it back…” That sure makes these sound like an act of will at many places!

I’ve just had the enjoyment of reading the first chapter of Ajahn Sumedho’s book Don’t Take Your Life Personally. He’s quite clear that we shouldn’t “try” to do anything in meditation except “just allowing things to be the way they are.”

He goes on, “Even if you are stressed out at this moment, let it be the way it is. Let whatever mental states you are in–even your compulsive tendencies, your obsessive tendencies–be what they are rather than seeing them as ‘there’s something wrong with me! There’s something I have to get rid of!’ Allow even the bad habits, the bad thoughts, tensions, pain, sadness, loneliness or whatever to be at this moment; allow the sense of letting go and let life be what it is.”

He refers to Ajahn Chah’s admonition to see meditation in terms of a holiday. (!)

So do we try all the “techniques” we’ve been taught in order to calm our mind when it is overwrought, or do we just let it be that way. Will “trying” to concentrate, or be still, follow the breath, do metta practice, or whatever, work better than just letting things be? I’m asking in terms of how to attain that unclenching or release of disquieted mind states–which feels so good when it happens–occur quicker, before we suffer so acutely for so long.

Any opinions?

Jay: I’m glad we’re looking at these things. I agree with you on your observation that dharma talks often sound like there is some specific thing that one should do when sitting. Not all teachers talk that way. Some have been really clear that meditation is not concentration or repetition or technique. I’m thinking of Toni Packer, Krishnamurti, Vimala Thakar, Eckhart Tolle. To me in sitting still it is the wholeness of life unfolding. Talking about this as someone concentrating on something for some future purpose feels like trying to put a tiger into a straight jacket!

For myself there is a strong habit of hearing what people say, especially people in a leadership position, as rules that I should apply. It seems to be a deeply ingrained pattern. The brain seems to like to have a set of tools so it will know what to do in future situations. But it’s pretty clear that this kind of thinking has pretty limited use. It’s great for remembering where a cheap gas station is or what to do if your brakes lock up. But as far as being simply in touch with life it gets in the way.

Maybe this just needs to be observed carefully again and again as “doing” and “wanting to know what to do” take hold. I think it’s accurate to say that self-conscious doing – concentrating on something, holding onto certain states of mind or emotion, etc. – implies that there is a reason in the mind for doing that, a goal, something that the mind believes will happen if that doing is done long enough and hard enough. A good question might be “Why the heck do I think I’m doing this?” Sometimes the first answer might be that this is what we’re “supposed” to do, that someone “wise” told me to do it.

Does any particular moment require a response? Would you agree that there is an aspect of the brain (maybe we can also call it a part of the story of “myself”) that wants to know what is going on and what to do? This means interpreting the raw, virgin flow of life in terms of what is known from the past, stored in the memory. It’s a terribly strong habit pattern but is it necessary all the time? Is it possible to be able to distinguish when it’s needed and when it’s not?

The wonderful thing about extended sitting in retreat is that we can forget completely about the need to “know” and enter into not knowing, come what may. Knowing is such a constricted (concentrated?) space and not knowing is so huge and alive. Maybe it’s obvious to say but it seems clear that most of what we we are, of what is going on at any moment, is far beyond what can be known and interpreted by the brain.

The amazing thing is that the thinking, knowing brain is itself part of this flow of raw life and can come to light in a simple way that sheds light and compassion on this particular aspect, which has been in darkness for most of humanity (including us) for so long.

You raised the good question of whether concentrating or letting go is the better way to let this flow of life happen. It can be experimented with. I’ve had trouble with “letting go” because for me it sometimes becomes another strategy. Sometimes what has been needed is embracing. So who knows?! Every moment seems to call for a fresh response, which may or may not come, but when it does, it comes from who knows where.

I’m sort of chuckling here as I remember sometimes feeling “what if there had never been any meditative traditions in all of human history and I had to find out about all of this for myself. What would I do??” Maybe in some ways that’s really our situation. Having no facts, strategies, traditional wisdom, tools, techniques, knowledge that can guide us moment to moment.

Some people might object that “not knowing” is sort a stupidity or depressed resignation to fate but that’s not the kind of not knowing that you and I are talking about. It’s more like if you were walking in the forest and suddenly realized you were completely disoriented and lost. In other words, not knowing where you were and how to get home. The whole nervous system might come suddenly alive and alert, ears perked, even the skin “listening”, wide awake in a still, motionless attentiveness. In this silent awakeness a butterfly might pass in front of your face and even the thought of finding out where you are might flutter away. This is the kind of not knowing we’re talking about – aliveness beyond the confines of knowledge.

Hmm. You asked about whether the “coming to” might happen more quickly so that we don’t suffer so much for so long. I was thinking about this and then suddenly wondered, where does the suffering come in? Raging thoughts, uncomfortable muscles and guts, churning of emotions. In such a situation is there someone at the center of it tallying up the amount of suffering, adding it to the pile of past suffering, projecting into the future how this suffering can be prevented, for oneself or for others? Or might all these sensations be experienced as they are without a judging? In a given moment of a difficult situation, it seems to be the fact that I don’t know how long the pain or difficulty will last and it is quite clear that thinking in those terms creates a huge amount of additional suffering.

And yet. It’s a fact that at a certain point even the most difficult states of mind may suddenly open up. How does it happen??? I think we can only say that it is really miraculous. There is no predictable cause and effect for the opening and wakening of the mind in any moment. I think this happens for us much more frequently than we recognize. When I’m gripped by some self-enclosed painful state, there is no awareness of that fact. I’m just pissed or whatever. But then suddenly there is the tiniest of shifts and there is awareness of being pissed and of the dynamics of it inside me. It doesn’t mean that it suddenly turns into a beautiful state of calm and equanimity. Something is processing, moving, changing in awareness but it has its own lifespan and the state of the body and mind may be less than calm or beautiful. Is it not true that the state of body and mind is not important? What matters is that the awareness that reveals these states.

My own personal response to how can there be “more” of this is to get to retreat regularly. For me, bringing light to the most difficult patterns that have been painful for me and the people who I’m close to has required the long, deep energy of retreat with other people. As you know, retreat is the opportunity to enter deeply and directly into the stillness of life, which becomes a fountain of healing for all of these difficult, blind patterns. I don’t know how there can be fundamental change in a person without lots of long retreat. Meditation without retreat seems almost like practicing the skills for being in a relationship without ever actually entering into one! Maybe that’s a little over the edge but it’s what came to mind 🙂 Another way to say this may be that when the energy of undivided presence is strong in a person, there is a natural desire to step away from the business of our usual life and to be in a physical space that is quiet and natural, to be in a situation that requires little knowing and to be with other people who are also moved to be here.

Well, I’m glad to have had a chance to consider these things. Any additions or corrections?

M: I think you posed a question that is way more profound than it first appears. I’m referring to: A good question might be “Why the heck do I think I’m doing this?”

You could spend a decade just contemplating who (or what) the “I” is that is thinking about why am “I” doing this. Same I or different I? We’re told that “there isn’t a separate self” in the big view of the non-conditioned world–but how many of us have glimpsed that. I’d say I have, but…oh…maybe for 10 minutes twice in the four years I’ve been practicing formally. (And one of those was while sitting during a hike in a stupendous canyon the day before my retreat in hell–fat lotta good it did me!)

This ties into your comment also that, “Every moment seems to call for a fresh response, which may or may not come, but when it does, it comes from who knows where.” I love what that opens up for me. Particularly “from who knows where.”

One thing I’m not clear on is what I’m taking for your dismissal–or lack of interest in–specifically concentration practice. The Tibetans call it Samatha. Our teachers, too, seem to make a distinction between concentration practice and Vipassana (insight) practice. Both are needed, our teachers admit, but most steer towards insight practice and leave concentration, which leads getting into teaching about the jhanas, hanging. But Samatha does require specific techniques that require acts of will, i.e. sticking with super glue to your meditation object, be it the breath, metta phrases, a kasina, a body part, a candle flame, mandala or whatever. At least to get started, and until you can just subtly lean towards the first four jahnas and fall into one. (From there I’m not clear on what–or who–brings you out of those states. But something must because they’re only a taste of the unconditioned. Kind of a sneak preview of what Nibbana might be like. But certainly not permanent.

Jay: When I raised the question “Why the heck do I think I’m doing this” I was specifically thinking about times when it is noticed that there is a self-conscious or willed effort going on, like when someone might notice that they have been concentrating on the breath or trying to apply certain strategies. Don’t we do those things because we believe that they will bring about a result? I’m not sure why else we would.

If I think a certain action will bring about a result, isn’t that based on how I responded to some experience in the past, which may or may not have been accurately observed in the first place. And the current situation may not be similar to the past one. It seems that there is a huge amount of unexamined assumptions in applying a strategy from the past to a present situation. I’m not talking about practical things, like what should I do if my car suddenly is making a loud noise. In those cases, relying on past information may be helpful and necessary (although often we are off the mark there too).

It may not be important to discover what I think I’m doing if I find myself applying a meditation technique, such as concentrating on something. It may be enough to realize that techniquing implies a lot of assumptions based on past information that is likely not very accurate or applicable. Or, I wonder, maybe concentrating, doing something, is just such a strong habit that it simply invents something to do just to keep busy. Perhaps the critical thing is to test out whether or not at that moment it is alright to drop the doing and just be in touch with what is going on without reacting to it. I think it can be noticed that when the doing drops, there is a sense of now being more in touch with the flow of life, so that if some response is needed (maybe the person needs to go to the bathroom or needs food or water) it is more likely that appropriate response will come up.

Maybe we can say that the “I” part of this is simply the whole body of memory that wants to react to what it imagines to be going on, whereas in fact this “me” reaction actually blocks the sensitivity of the organism to feel into what, if anything, might be needed at the moment. Rather than saying that there isn’t a separate self, maybe it’s more accurate to say that the sense of a separate, isolated self that controls its environment is a certain blind way that the mind operates,without understand its limitations. When this functioning – the whole body of memory reacting to what it imagines to be happening – is noticed in simple, non-personal awareness, awareness begins to shine light on this. It is awareness, not the memory mind/self, that carries intelligence and compassion.

If the struggling and writhing memory mind trying to accomplish its imagined goals is seen, this is the operation of undivided awareness.

Your comments about my lack of interest in concentration practice are interesting. It’s hard to know where you’re coming from in your comments but it sounds as if there may be an assumption that a state of total absorption is somehow helpful, a “foretaste” of enlightenment. I have heard this same assumption from many people, including meditation teachers, and I have also heard the assumption questioned. There must be a strong memory in our systems of beautiful moments of absorption in something – looking at a sunset, making love, watching the Three Stooges – and the memory wants to recreate this kind of state somehow.

I heard a Zen teacher question this. He said he had asked a number of other Zen teachers if total absorption in something (and this can mean an external thing like a movie, music, riding a bicycle, or internal things such as samadhi practices) was the same as the state that Zen aimed for. Most teachers said yes. But he questioned this. He pointed out that there is definitely a flow of energy through the body during concentration. But in concentrating on external or internal input, there may be a complete lack of sensitivity to what is going on right here. The mind is simply not paying attention – is not in touch – with anything except a narrow input. How can there be any sensitivity, wisdom, compassion, flexibility in that? In fact, I notice in myself that in moments of concentration I get really agitated and angry if I’m interrupted. In wide open presence there can’t be any interruption. Things arise. There is no conflict between what is here and what I want. So the sense of being interrupted or disturbed in my meditation is good red flag.

I wonder how much good it does simply to put this into words. The habit of concentrating – of creating an internal buzz – is so strong that it takes over time and time again regardless of our intentions when we sit down to meditate. But it can also be observed, noticed, experimented with when it is suddenly noticed. No need to say it’s good or bad. Certainly no need to assume that it leads to something. What could it lead to that is not here already in this moment!!!

Is it possible to become absorbed effortlessly in what is simply here this moment? To let what is here take over the body, the mind, to touch us completely? It is trying to all the time.

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