Three week work retreat at Gaia House

Written by dan bartlett in Jun 2009 — meditation
My detailed report of a 3 week work and meditation retreat, in all its insight, bliss and suffering, at Gaia House in Devon.

On Sunday night I got back from a three week work retreat at the stunning Gaia House in Devon.

A month or so back I’d been looking for a job, and also wanting to go on retreat, so I decided that I could wallop two birds with one stone, whilst also lending a helping hand at a world-renowned retreat centre.

According to the Progress of Insight map which I’d found very useful since I started meditating, I’d been lurking in the equanimity phase of my first insight cycle since my first retreat in January. I’d experienced formations, tasted the formless realms, but now just seemed to be going round in circles. To make matters slightly more uncomfortable I’d also slipped back in the dukkha nanas a few times. Not fun, and a powerful incentive to go on retreat.

So my goal for this retreat was quite simple: stream entry. I’d heard that most people who had attained this goal had done so while on retreat, because it requires some degree of momentum and consistency. So that was that; I was here to get enlightened! My approach was to simply engage the vipassana technique as consistently as I could manage, noticing the 3 characteristics everywhere, everywhen.

Unlike my last retreat, this time I kept notes for each day. My original diary notes are in italic, my comments are in normal font. Some parts might be hard to follow for non-Buddhists/nana-geeks, but most of it is quite general. Also, for new readers, you may be interested to read an account of my first retreat, a 10-day Goenka experience which took place in January of this year.

Arrival and Day One

I managed to get in two solid sits in on the evening I got there. At one point felt like I had no arms, and instead lots of weird energy waving around. A nice grounded start then.

I powered on with the meditation on the second day, despite being really tired. Unfortunately I pushed too hard (kids, leave the Pro Plus at home) and sent myself hurtling back in the Dark Night. I couldn’t do anything but sit, fizzling away until I slipped back into the “oh… everything’s kinda ok. What was that all about?” entrance to equanimity. That night the usual dreams I have on retreat started coming thick and fast, most of them about social situations at school, conflict, missing out on things etc. As an added treat, David Hasslehoff appeared in a dream. He was really nice until he brought a dead puppy into the room, looking identical to our new family puppy that I’d left behind at home. Thanks a bunch David Hasslehoff.

Day Two

Despite a rough start, I felt pretty good at the beginning of the second full day, although the work was difficult for me. I just wanted to stay on the cushion because as soon as I started my daily 5 hours of work, I’d totally loose any focus and start drifting off and getting frustrated. Keeping some degree of meditative awareness up whilst performing even the simplest of work (sanding, varnishing, painting – I was maintenance yogi) was much more difficult than I’d expected. However, after the struggle with work I had hours of quality sitting in the afternoon, breaching high equanimity territory and feeling pretty damn confident. My forehead tension was pretty solid as usual, along with the relatively new throat activity, which feels like a mild version of the tension you get when you hold down tears.

Excellent no-self insight on evening – investigated and really stayed wth the fact that all sensations really do arise and pass on their own. When I really go into it it felt like I was melting or being carried away. This no-self angle opened up some further territory and perhaps added the surrender element I needed to balance the energy and head tension.

Day Three

Work was ok-ish, still a little anxious after it, though coping better. Weird arising shift whilst sitting in Lounge.

Near re-observation around lunch? Lots of doubting and worrying.

The main theme through-out the first few days was definitely doubt and worry. I had doubts about everything possible, and then when I got past them, I had doubts about whether I really wanted to get stream entry! I couldn’t do much but laugh awkwardly at myself.

Sitting very clunky but consistent.

[later] Started with a wide loose concentration again, just staying on it no matter what. Keep going.

This was another very prominent retreat theme: high equanimity, “trying” to land it, return to gentle wide concentration, slowly back into high equanimity, no sync, return to gentle wide… I think a lot of the problem was that I was obsessing too much about the inclusivity of my vipassana, and whether or not I was constantly seeing the 3 characteristics in all feelings of “awareness”, sounds, expectations, space etc.

That night I had a dream about being on the top of a flat-roofed skyscraper with loads of other people. While looking over the landscape, the building started to rumble and move from side to side. I began to run for the stairs, but the building was already falling. I stood on the edge as it toppled over and jumped off at the last moment and survived with only a few strained muscles. Other dreams included my nan taking me through my childhood pictures and Hugh Jackman pestering an Asian woman. Yes folks, that’s two dreams about hunky male celebrities.

Day Four

Best work session yet, stayed calm and focused, just trying to keep general noticing up when I remember.

That afternoon I used a black dot kasina that someone had left on the wall of my room to charge up my concentration a bit before I sat. It seemed to work because I had some amazing cushion time afterwards, sky-like highly inclusive formations. I eventually fell off the rhythm for a bit, probably because I was pushing too hard again to include the totality of experience, trying to include subject and object, instead of just staying on it and allowing it to find itself. I’d fallen into this trap a number of times at home, and would fall into it many times again.

At dinner that night I had a lot of strange bliss around my solar plexus. I was grinning and eventually trying to stop myself from giggling in the dining room. I have no idea where this bliss burst came from, although I had developed a tentative theory that it was due to the girl that I had chosen as my silent un-aware vipassana girlfriend. We had a great relationship. I felt amazing whenever she sat near me. The second time this bliss-thing happened, she was sat opposite me again. Maybe I just really fancied her.

Sense of humour seems to have returned today. Very useful.

Day Five

High equanimity again, and then again trying to see too much at once; another return to simple gentle concentration, paying attention to things simply arising and passing.

Day Six

Saturday was my “sitting” day, so I only had to do an hour of work. I piled in the hours in the morning, had some more powerful sits, particularly homing in on the impermanence aspect of high-speed formations i.e. each moment being completely and radically anew. It felt like each moment was disappearing into a void behind me, very fast, which can feel a little weird. After the morning I burned myself out and had another return to a gentle wide loose concentration (what’s that, #3 or #4 now?)

I checked out some of the Mahasi Sayadaw books in the library that afternoon and concluded I was making things difficult for myself, through trying to take in and apply way too much information that most people don’t even have access to anyway, and in some (at the time) subtle way trying sync things up for myself, instead of just staying on it and allowing it to happen. I realised this was part of a deeper problem, and found my answer in a Five Spiritual Faculties print-out I’d taken with me.

By this I don’t mean I was just sat around thinking instead of practising; I’d be practising but when I’d get strong concentration I’d try and “do it” myself which inevitably got in the way and just strengthened the dualistic focus.

Excess wisdom = LACK OF FAITH in the technique, manifesting in a tendency to drop the technique at some points and try and push things together.

The 3 Characteristics are the way to realise It, don’t try and go straight to It!

This was quite a big revelation for me, and I was happy I’d sorted it out. I resolved to just work with consistency and simple noticing. When I was doing activities, I would sometimes use the noting technique to keep up the consistency. That evening I sat in on the Dharma talk of the current retreat (Wings of Awakening). It was all about the five spiritual faculties. I should note that I didn’t pay too much attention to the five faculties list when I first read about it in Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of Buddha. As you might guess, I have since developed quite a lot of respect and use for it.

On another note, it was around this time that I also had recurring doubts that I could land my first fruition whilst on a work retreat. It felt like building it up each evening only to have it taken away in the morning, when I got distracted with work.

Day Seven

Rough day – didn’t sleep that well, felt a bit groggy then hit bottom during work whilst thinking about home etc. Felt all ok shortly afterwards, but couldn’t sustain any mindfulness. Felt real low again before lunch, and then just lost all motivation and wanted to go home. Just finished eating now. God give me strength because I feel like shit.

I managed to sit for a while in the afternoon, but felt pretty overwhelmed. It eventually hit me hard and I started crying. My throat immediately locked up though – “goddamnit, will you fucking let it out!” After a few minutes of feeling even worse for not being able to cry properly, it eventually broke. The trick was just letting my whole body shake, which was quite scary in the sense of totally opening to my own vulnerabilities and fears. I cried in my room like I haven’t cried in a long time. I was angry, sad, aggressive, disappointed and I wanted to go home. What was the hell was I here for? Looking for some bizzare non-experience that I could not even begin to imagine?

Very little motivation. Very little anything.

[few hours later] Man, that was horrific. Feeling a tad better now.

The horrific part was sitting on the grass outside after sobbing in my room. I was still very edgey and buzzing pretty hard. It felt like I didn’t want to live, didn’t want to die, didn’t want to stay, didn’t want to leave. The dark night peak for me is just pure paralysis, with a tower of “negative” soul sucking vibrations in the core of my chest. I sat on the grass outside, in the overly-warm annoying sun, getting dragged around in a mindstorm for an hour or so. I consider myself lucky I don’t drive as at one point I was ready to go, but just didn’t have any way home. Close call.

Later on I finally hit the cushion and stayed. I moved into a more equanimous buzzing and just sailed that for about an hour and a half. It was an important sit, and I felt a lot better afterwards.

Day Eight

Great work session! Non-distractedness, anicca (everywhere), non-duality (interconnectedness)… Watch it all happening like a movie, without getting caught up in it.

That morning I’d had a lot of success with a walking/open-eye technique I’d been working on for a while. In the last month or so I’d been drawn to a lot of non-dual Advaita-style teachings. Knowing that non-duality was where it’s at, I found that the best way to explore it was walking/moving around and just letting the subtle conceptual boundaries between “me” and objects loosen, letting any notion of “me seeing” dissolve until things were observed more equally. It also helps to really tune into your senses and let them penetrate your being, as opposed to holding them at slight distance as we often do when we’re embroiled in thoughts. It was only recently that I could do any of this with some success as it takes a bit of concentration and a recognition of these subtle mental boundaries.

The key element to pulling off this technique was _non-distractedness, a word Kenneth mentioned when talking about non-dual practices on DhO. If you can just stay non-distracted (turn the thoughts right down and stay on a sensate level) and allow things to be as they are, this is a really powerful practice. Let appearance and awareness mingle; they are not-two! Kenneth also said something about the sense of self being totally ephemeral, and dissolving once you stop re-enforcing it. That really came through in this practice as well, and I started getting some new insights into the categorisations and mental sensations which support the illusion of duality and solid appearances. I don’t claim to be doing genuine non-dual practice here, it’s just the word that comes to mind when I try to describe this approach, which is quite different to the standard vipassana dissection.

I had another of those bliss bursts at lunch when my beautiful girlfriend sat next to me. Our silent non-consensual relationship was truly blossoming.

In the afternoon I was overcome with tiredness and fogginess while sitting. I nearly got up, but then remembered my anima from my last retreat experience. I visualised her in front of me and got her to cast that neat aura over me again. After that I visualised all the sloth, torpor, and tiredness rising out of my head and circling back round and up my ass as rocket fuel for insight. It seemed to work:

…powered the ENERGY aspect, yawned about 8 times (and then got into a strong wired vibratory mode from which I could really work with the open effortless no-self perspective. Great success)

Day Nine

Tranquillity… calm observing. Balance tranquility and effort. Relax a little! Chill out dude, concentration doesn’t mean stressing.

I’d kind of realised at this point that unlike a lot of meditators who won’t really go for it, I was pushing too hard, not in terms of pure effort but in some other way. I was simply struggling too much, so I really loosened up and had some fun, whilst keeping up basic mindfulness.

Had a unique shift in work. Felt like the head and top half of my experience opening up and connecting with the sky.

After work I didn’t feel bad, but I lost motivation… again. I had a similar experience on my last retreat; out of no-where I just wanted to go home. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for this yet. Maybe I needed an intensive retreat; this work retreat was no good. Maybe, maybe…

I missed some sitting and went to the library to check out U Pandita’s descriptions of the Progress of Insight (in his book In This Very Life) to see if there were any more clues as to what I was missing. I read through it all but didn’t take much in. Nothing new clicked. I huffed and got up, then slowed down because I had a headrush, then riiiiiiip. I came to an instant later and stood still for a while wondering what on Earth had just happened. “Re-appearing” was the most bizarre feeling.

Was that it? I considered it. After the rush, there was one strange flash where I saw the whole of my experience as one “insentient” painting… and then coming to. However I still felt pretty crappy, and I’d also just had a strong coffee whilst sat down reading. It must have just been a headrush – I’d nearly blacked out like that before. What a tease… I felt a little more annoyed and went off to my group interview. I was pretty spaced out for most it – everything was quite dispersed and all over the place, without much to do about it.

After feeling pretty down again for most of the day, I ended up back in the library again. Whilst reading I had another weird arising shift, some energy rising to my head and awareness jumping around whilst I was sitting still. I finally hit the cushion again on the evening, and really pushed my concentration to get some momentum going again. Another weird shift happened (my concentration was stronger than I’d thought) and then I was just staying with things, although it didn’t feel like equanimity, or anything I’d experienced up to now. I really continued to push and after a while, my neck and shoulders started really hurting in a highly suspicious way, which was strange because I didn’t usually ache at all whilst sitting. Sensations had also become very fine, soft and fast. I also had a new feeling of tension around my temples which made a change from the usual forehead buzzing. Something was different!

I got back to my room a little excited – was I cycling? (The solid physical pain and fast fine perception are classic 3rd/4th nana signs) By the time I’d re-read through some MCTB chapters, I’d realised that my experiences lined up. The fruition passed all the tests, I just had to wait for it to repeat. If that was the fruition, it seemed to be through the suffering door. It was like having reality ripped away, and it was pretty creepy. A hour or so later I was in the Arising & Passing nana and I felt like I’d taken a good hit of MDMA. I was totally wired, very happy, and was up way past bedtime. I had lots of thoughts and memories about flying, beaches, holidays, mountains and vast landscapes.

So as some of you map geeks might have noticed, there’s a little complication here. A stream enterer, according to the Progress of Insight, is supposed to cycle from the 4th nana (A&P) up to Fruition without much or any effort. But I seemed to have experienced some of the stages prior to the 4th nana – the solid pain and perceptual differences of the 3rd nana were pretty obvious. Had I started a new cycle already? I decided to chill on the meditation so I could get some mastery of the cycles before I moved on.

Day Ten

The A&P rapture lasted most of the next day as well. Work was AWESOME! I’ve never had so much fun weeding a flower patch. After I got off retreat, I was going to fly to America, meet up with some DhOers, help Daniel Ingram build his mini retreat centre, make sure all the major meditation teachers had read his book, and generally spread the holy word of Dharma.

I still wasn’t sure whether this was just review cycling, or whether I was already part way into new cycle. And at this point I really didn’t care. I was on top of the world. Even though there were issues, I couldn’t doubt that something had changed, that something was done, no matter how logically I approached it. Some part of me was just not worried at all, and that was a great feeling considering all the doubts that had plagued me up until now. (Note: this wasn’t just A&P confidence, that feeling of something being fundamentally different has held up since.)

[eating dinner, thinking about love] Why not love?? Why do anything but love?

Still feeling great. The world is beautiful and I’m going outside to bask in it.

I eventually calmed down in the evening and felt very tired. After that I felt a little fear and anxiety, which was fine. I wanted a dark night to confirm I was cycling! I was a little buzzy for a few hours, but nothing troubling.

Day Eleven

Lots of speculation about where I was at. Whilst sitting on the evening I had another weird shift, the kind that usually pops up in between stages, but the energy continued rising for a second or two longer than a normal shift (which makes all the difference) and fizzled in my head. It felt really powerful. Not really blissful, just a real sense of whoooaa. My head felt very different for a while afterwards, and instead of my usual forehead tension, I had a perfect ring/strip of tension around my head, about an inch wide, like a halo that had fallen on top of my head, all numb and buzzy! My head felt a lot lighter than usual, and just walking around felt a bit strange. Awareness sometimes felt like it was jumping around in my head even when I was sat still.

Day Twelve

The sense of mastery began to show itself around this time. The cycles weren’t really showing in any particular way, but there was no struggle to see the 3 characteristics, and no struggle to try to include the totality of experience. Whereas before I’d been leaving myself notes throughout the day to see the three characteristicis in this and that, I just wasn’t worried about that now. It was all here, and if it was here, the 3 characteristics were here. Simple.

Happy.

Mind still very powerful, wondering whether I’m sitting in jhanas or whether things are just opening up a bit.

Day Thirteen

Worked a lot with the non-dual walking exercise on this day, especially as my sitting practice had also naturally begun moving towards a much more open relaxed focus, where I could just let go and really feel it doing itself.

Walking around can sometimes be like walking through myself. When I touch doors or water, there are moments where there’s just no separation between all the transient selfless sensations. What’s touching what, who’s seeing who? “The only constant is the knowing.” Any time there feels like tension, don’t try to “include” what appears to be “missing”, but instead turn attention towards the subtle tension that implies there is any separation in the first place!

Day Fourteen

This was the day when the change in my sitting practice became quite noticeable. My usual practice was choiceless awareness vipassana, just staying on it, with occasional reminders and explorations of the 3 characteristics. But now, with some additional concentration and insight, the sitting really moved towards just “letting go”, whilst employing the subtle yet powerful effort needed to keep thoughts and distractions from creeping in. There wasn’t any more worry about trying to include and see through all sensations. I was much more confident in my insights, and just relaxed into things as they were.

Day Fifteen

Dreams are still all teenage fear/school stuff.

It occured to me whilst writing this post that my dreams always express insecurity, fear, not fitting in, missing out on things, awkwardness, taunting etc. and yet my waking fantasies are virtually always the opposite: winning arguments, teaching students, getting recognition and appreciation etc. Interesting. I guess as Jung said, the conscious and unconscious tend to maintain some form of neurotic balance. I’d also been working a lot on becoming more mindful and inquisitive about the waking fantasies, so maybe that had triggered the explosion of negative responses in my dreams.

I had an interview with Christina Feldman on this day. I decided to be open about my goal and run my experience by her. She laughed a bit and said that the realisation should be “unshakeable.” I kind of agreed, and like I said this sense of mastery/something being done, new territory and lack of doubt was holding up, but I wanted to make sure I hadn’t misdiagnosed myself. Plus I hadn’t had a repeat fruition, and the cycles seemed to be non-existent for the time being. She grilled me on the discourses, and sent me away with a Bhikku Bodhi book which had a section on the 4 paths and the fetters that are supposedly eliminated at each point. I felt like a schoolboy. She was a nice lady though.

After the interview I still couldn’t doubt the changes (I was testing myself every now and then), so I just carried on. What did dawn on me though was the enormous gap between the world of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, the Dharma Overground etc., and the mainstream Western Buddhist scene.

I also began to want to learn more about the discourses and the history/specifics of Buddhism so that I could begin to bridge this gap and create some common ground for discussion with others, as opposed to just thinking “they need to read this book that I have read!” I wanted to get up to date on the details and jargon because my own knowledge of Buddhism was pretty skimpy, gleaned from one or two books from one particular tradition.

You see, my meditation journey started with Gurdjieff’s Self-remembering, Aleister Crowley’s yoga instructions, then on to some Golden Dawn probationary work, and then straight to Daniel Ingram’s book. I’d had virtually no exposure to the Western Buddhist scene up until now. I remember the first group meeting I’d had a week before this. It was beyond frustrating. One clearly un-happy lady was trying to get clarification about how the Buddha taught to distinguish between the “true Inner Voice” and the ego, and how she could separate out the two voices on the cushion. Urgghh, what a mess I thought. The teacher didn’t seem to make any effort to clear things up, and instead repeated everything back to her in slooow Buddhist language, whilst tacking on a few notes about “attraction”, “aversion”…

She seemed to be a fan of psychologised “therapeutic” Buddhism, and perhaps thought that was what it was all about. I don’t doubt that Buddhist-inspired psychology can be helpful in allowing people to work with their personal issues, but it really is important to understand and work with fundamental insight (which is somewhat independent of content) if we want to experience the liberation and transformation the old guy was talking about. The distinction seems lost on a lot of teachers, and so you get this weird mish-mash of psychology, insight, possibility of “enlightenment”, taboos surrounding attainment, and other nebulous webs of confusion. Some people still seem to get a lot out of that though, so maybe I’m judging unfairly.

In the same group meeting another guy had told the teacher how he was having a hard time getting motivated. He said his first few retreats were great, providing lots of beneficial changes and enthusiasm, but now he felt bored, unmotivated and pretty down in the dumps. The teacher went with the attraction-aversion talk again. He seemed un-impressed so I finally spoke up and said “Isn’t it possible he’s stuck within a particular part of a cycle?” He seemed, to me at least, to be a clear dark night case.

I explained that I came from a Theravadan background and that this “Progress of Insight” map had really helped me get through similar phases. I explained how they felt for me and he immediately agreed and said he felt it most in his tummy/chest too. I told him to work with surrender, and to just stay with the negative vibrations wherever he felt them, trying to see transiency, suffering and selflessness of the sensations that made them up. A week later in the following meeting he was back on track, everything was just ok, and he thanked me for the advice.

So anyway, those meetings, my maturation of insight, and my interview piqued my interest in all things Buddhism. I started reading up a little more in my free time so I could actually talk with some authority rather than “well, this arahat whos book I read said this should happen…”

A funny thing happens in my diary notes at this point. The color changes to red, and there’s all this stuff about compassion, acceptance and love.

I read Lama Yeshe’s Introduction to Tantra and fell in love with it, and with the man himself. I couldn’t stop looking at his picture. Have you ever seen anyone so happy? Mahasi Sayadaw may write great dharma books but that piercing gaze of his doesn’t quite inspire the same warmth in me, you know? Reading Yeshe’s book opened and clarified some interesting new avenues for me, both practical and conceptual:

First and foremost, the importance and relationship between wisdom and compassion. The compassion aspect had started coming through for me even before I picked up this book, but the book really helped me see its importance and place in spiritual work. I had fun over the next few days visualising myself and everyone around me as a perfectly enlightened deities, composed of pure clear light. I made one guy, the one who had annoyed me because of the way he looked and one arbitrary thing he said, my guru and paid attention whenever he moved.

The links between the three vehicles of Buddhism, and particularly the idea that the Buddhist path is a gradual progression through each vehicle, as opposed to this strange idea that one vehicle is better. So in the progressive view the Hinayana lays the foundations: you take refuge in Buddha (teacher), Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community), work with the Four Noble Truths i.e. understand suffering and its cause, and begin training in ethical conduct (morality), meditation (samadhi/concentration), and wisdom (insight). The Mahayana builds upon the essential Hinayana foundation, but moves the focus from individual liberation, and emphasises bodhicitta, the work of a bodhisattva, the six paramitas, and greater clarification on emptiness (shunyata) etc.

The Vajrayana/tantrayana builds upon Mahayana and Hinayana bases and adds more powerful techniques and a slightly different approach to enlightenment. This is just a quick simplification of what I gathered from some cool books, I’m no Buddhist scholar. What interested me the most was that my practice seemed to have naturally moved towards the two “higher” vehicles (i.e. I had played a lot with channeling all energies towards enlightenment, the compassion aspect, change in practice) before I even knew their details or order of progression.

I also began to recognise the elegance and intelligence of the tantric approach. Quoting Yeshe:

“According to the sutrayana, the path to fulfilment is a gradual process of cleansing our mind of all its faults and limitations and developing in their place such beneficial qualities as love and wisdom. This path consists of creating specific causes – behaving ethically, developing our powers of concentration, training in meditative insight, and so forth – for the future attainment of full awakening. Because of this emphasis on creating causes for a future result, the gradual approach of sutra is sometimes known as the causal vehicle to enlightenment. Compared to this gradual sutra approach, tantrayana is a far speedier path to enlightenment. Although tantric practitioners do not neglect creating the same causes as the followers of sutra, they take the future result of full spiritual evolution as the very starting point in their path. In other words, the yogi/yogini learns to think, speak and act now as if he or she were already a fully enlightened buddha. Because this powerful approach brings the future result of full awakening into the present moment of spiritual practice, tantra is sometimes called the resultant vehicle to enlightenment… According to tantra, heaven is now! We should be gods and goddesses right now."

The Tantric approach also talks a lot about using desire to to help us get enlightened, instead of trying block it out or fight desire head on. Tantric practice seems all about skillfully channeling all energies towards the final goal. Great idea if you ask me.The three keys to enlightenment in tantra are an understanding of shunyata/emptiness (right view), bodhicitta (the impulse to achieve full enlightenment in order to be of the most benefit to others), and renunciation (which means something quite different to traditional ideas about renouncing the world).

Those three aspects really struck a chord with me, and I continue to remind myself of them a few times a day. They really cover all the bases. I should note that a few months back none of those elements would have meant much to me. But since the fruition the bodhicitta element had really come through, renunciation was common sense, and I had become obsessed with anything to do with emptiness and co-dependent arising. I kept reading over basic Buddhist books just to get to the bit where they talk about emptiness. “Yeah, that’s it, it’s real! That’s the TRUTH!” When reading some of the early Buddhist discourses I particularly liked how, when wanderers approached the Buddha’s early disciples and asked them to explain the Buddha’s teachings, they would simply say: “Form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness (the Five Aggregates) are empty of self.” That’s it, it’s all there! Understand it, see it, feel it.

Finally, what also struck me was the similarity of the tantric approach to magick. The three basic tantric practices are deity (internal and external visualisation),mantra and samadhi. Come on. Maybe this accounts for the speedy progress of those god-forsaken demon-conversant Baptist’s. Magick seems to build upon the same premises as tantra, skilfully guiding all energies and desires towards the goal of union, through visualisation, concentration, invocation, desire, will, emotional excitation etc.

Ok, back to the retreat!

Mindfulness of What Is (awareness, shunyata element), compassionate non-attachment (equanimity, renunciation in action plus bodhicitta).

Moving without solidifying, witnessing without grasping, loving without squeezing!

Day Sixteen

One of the usual resident teachers at Gaia House, Rob Burbea, was unfortunately away for my first two weeks. This week he was back and today I had an interview with him. I immediately took a liking to him, and he sat patiently as I gushed out all my experiences, neurotic concerns and hazy understanding. He talked a lot about stream entry as a deepening of understanding, a deepening of freedom, rather than some linear accumulative process whereby insight drops into your head. I understood the gist of what he was saying, but didn’t appreciate it much at the time.

He also advised me to ask, what is my relationship to practice? What is the mind’s relationship to practice? This was another subject I hadn’t really given any thought to, usually because I’d categorise any notion of mind or thought as something to be zapped into impersonal transient vibrations. Mind? What mind? I also told him that the cool equanimity of the past few days had got just a little boring now. I considered that a natural part of the cycle, but Rob disagreed and told me to investigate the texture of boredom. Throughout our chat, Rob emphasised that the Progress of Insight was just one map, and one he wasn’t a very big fan of. I think he could see that I was getting caught up in it before I could.

Later that day I realised how caught up I was. Walking outside I began to feel a bit groggy for the first time in a while, and immediately my mind was analysing it in map-terms. Slipping back, moving forward? This isn’t good, better get ready for some bad shit… As this was happening, I thought “No! Fuck that—what am I doing? Why am I using this map dominate and categorise all of my experience?" I carried on walking, let the grogginess do its thing, remained calm and detached, and things were very quickly fine again. I had some great sittings afterwards. I realised, amongst many other things, that I’d begun to use the maps as an excuse to not even try and maintain equanimity in the face of mood swings, emotions etc. “Oh, it’s just another stage, better let it do it’s thing…”

After I had told the map to go fuck itself (it was all the map’s fault not mine!) so many things sunk into place. Everything Rob had said started to become clear. I began to let things mature instead of lining everything up to be penetrated and analysed. That allowed me to discover what Rob had meant when he talked about the deepening of freedom, and my understanding settled down a lot as well. By settling down, I mean sinking from the head to the heart. Everything could breathe a little more freely, and it was just lovely. I was so chilled out. I found an equanimity independent of any nana, and kept it up throughout the day. I forgot about cycling, fruitions and nanas, and haven’t seen much of them since.

I think I was holding onto the maps and expectations too tightly. Then I thought “What the hell are you waiting for?! Find your freedom now!” The truth is always available.

Back to compassionate non-attachment… Exploring unhindered undistracted awareness. Just relax and let the illusions dissolve into effortless knowing.

On the evening I was working with the non-distracted walking meditation, and began staring at a tree. If non-duality is here and now, I’m going to see it, I thought. I rested my gaze on the tree, turned off any conceptualising, and really let things fall away (this happens on progressively more subtle levels.) It deepened until I just saw it, clear as day, for an instant. It was shocking, and quite startling. It’s the only time my jaw has genuinely dropped!

The glimpse made me jump and something pushed up from my solar plexus, through my heart to my throat. It felt like I was going to cry, but the energy calmed quite quickly. I also felt some activity around my heart, which hadn’t happened before. Unfortunately, when I do sense anything in the heart area, it feels like my heart is set inside a sphere of metal. It feels a little closed off, which really isn’t much of a surprise. I worked on my heart later on that evening by focusing on it in meditation, slowly breathing any anxiety and suffering in “through” my heart, and breathing out compassion and wisdom. This is quite a powerful practice, and really engaged.

Around this time I’d also thoroughly scoured the Gaia House library from top to bottom, and found some new gems to help with the more open sitting and walking focus that I was playing with. In particular, I’d fallen in love with the Tibetan Buddhism shelf, where I found a little book of paragraph-length nuggets of wisdom called Vajra Speech by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. It’s Dzogchen/Mahamudra focused, and his advice was similar to the kind of lessons I’d been picking up on through experimenting with my own practice. He talked about “non-distractedness” a lot as well.

I personally found the Dzogchen approach to non-dual practice much more clear, practical and applicable than the Advaita-style literature. Another great book I found was Clarifying the Natural State by Takpo Tashi Namgyal:

“A practical manual for both teacher and student alike, Clarifying the Natural State covers the path from mindfulness to complete enlightenment, simply and methodically. Presenting the profound and ultimate instructions of Mahamudra, it embodies the realization of India and Tibet’s great masters.”

Precise, powerful and methodical, also comes with a good pointing-out instruction. It was after reading this second book a few days later that I had another “glimpse” of the non-dual. I was staring at a tree again until suddenly it all fell away and awareness was utterly without distinction or centre. It had no idea who was who, what was what, until it grasped back onto this bodymind again. Profound, short-lived, reasonably funny.

It’s worth pointing out here that I believe vipassana naturally lays the groundwork for non-dual practice, and also that some degree of competency in vipassana seems necessary before one can really work from the non-dual angle. This was my experience at least. I think of vipassana as providing the initial penetration into the appearance of things, this world of apparently solid self-existent objects and subjects. That initial penetration is really important and should be worked with for as long as it takes to set in. Otherwise trying to “do” non-dual practice might just have you fixating on structures that haven’t yet been seen through.

Since I’ve been at home I’ve mostly been working with the basic – yet endlessly fruitful – vipassana technique, probably due to my concentration abilities returning to normal. If the non-dual aspect presents itself, I just let go of the technique and allow whatever’s present to just be, all equally known. I find the vipassana naturally fades into non-dual practice, which may mean that what I’m doing is not non-dual practice at all, I don’t know. In my experience vipassana demolishes the buildings so that non-dual practice can rest calmy and non-distractedly on a equal un-biased surface.

Day Seventeen

“Seemingly concrete appearances will arise, abide and then disappear back into the clear nature of our mind. As each thought disappears in this way, we should train ourselves to feel that this disappearance is even more real than the thought’s original concrete appearance.” (Yeshe, Introduction to Tantra)

Really getting a feel for this ”letting go” approach. On the evening I got pretty deep and then decided to imagine myself as space, with each and every sensation as an asteroid or planet impersonally arising and passing, but not in least part affecting my “body.” This was fun!

Day Eighteen

Rob kindly made time for another interview with me on this day, so we could chat more before I took off. I told him that his advice had really helped, and about the deepening of freedom and understanding. We talked about not just “getting” insight i.e. “All things are impermanent… that sensation has arisen and passed, that sensation has arisen and passed…” but about really letting those realisations penetrate you and effect your consciousness, your daily being. He called it “milking” the insight. So instead of just seeing impermanence, the milking phase would be: “sensations arise and pass… sensations arise and pass… wow, I don’t have to hold on! How freeing.” For me, that’s where the real reduction in suffering came from, and increasing our freedom via reducing our suffering is what this is all about right?

I also talked about how my practice had moved towards the subtly concentrated just “letting go” perspective. I said that I’d been wondering whether there was any contradiction between seeing the Three Characteristics vipassana-style, and just letting go. I’d eventually realised the night before that skillfully letting go (i.e. not just drifting off) actually shows a deep understanding and application of all 3 characteristics! When you’re letting go, you’re knowing moment to moment that things are just arising & passing, you’re knowing moment to moment that attachment just creates suffering, you’re knowing moment to moment that all of this is happening on its own, without any self governing it. He seemed happy that I’d figured that out, and said that that was the understanding that a stream enterer should have. (Something he’d quizzed me about in the last interview.)

Finally I told him about the compassion element coming through and seeming suddenly important. He said that was natural with the leap in insight. Wisdom and compassion are two wings of the same animal.

“Wisdom desolidifies our rigid, conceptual versions of ourselves and others; compassion is the natural, intelligent, appropriate outflow of this desolidifcation. Once one no longer sees oneself as separate it is natural to feel sympathy for others’ suffering and a desire to help in some way.” (Reggie Ray, Secret of the Vajra World)

We ended by talking about my increased enthusiasm, and how incredible it is when these simple teachings actually become truths! How incredible this whole thing is. I have become a total dharma fan-boy.

Days Nineteen to Twenty-one

Suffering? What suffering?

Fun. Lots of fun. I was sad to leave, I’d really begun to settle in.

Home

So I’m home now. I’m still on a high, and having fun exploring wisdom and compassion in day to day life. The only “issue” I have at the moment is that there hasn’t been a repeat fruition, and the first pop was two weeks ago. This doesn’t really bother me, but I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on it. If you’ll allow me to return to nana-land again, I’d guess that I’m already in the next cycle, which is holding the fruition off? Who knows.

I hope these open accounts of what the path of insight and adventure are really about help to inspire others, and help others to learn from my shortcomings. It’s worth pointing out though that whenever practising on retreat or at home, it takes a while to be able to look back and see with some clarity what was going on. This blog post was written after a few days of reflection and a careful harvesting of the collection of notes I took while I was on the ride.

There are a lot of big issues brought up in this post that I wanted to talk more about (value of maps, skillful use of maps, issues with Western Buddhism etc.) but I’ve tried to keep this blog on track and flowing. Word count is telling me 7800 words, so I suspect I’ve attained mixed results at best in that endeavour…

Before closing, I’d like to express enormous amounts appreciation towards Daniel Ingram, for writing a book/bible that helped move me from spiritual skeptic to stream-enterer in around 8 months. Tarin Greco’s A Reformed Slackers Guide to Stream-Entry was also a very useful guide to have around throughout the retreat. The set of reminders, the part about compartmentalising enlightenment away from every-day experience, and the “learn to have fun” section really challenged me, while also helping me along in many hard times. Kenneth Folk’s writings and DhO contributions have also been incredibly enlightening throughout the past few months, particularly the discussions on the Progress of Insight, the boundless encouragement, and the talks about non-dual practice. Duncan Barford’s encouragement and trust was also a great help/kick in the ass. Finally, a big thanks to everyone at the Dharma Overground for providing so much food for thought over these months, and such an amazing place to share experiences and support eachother on this wild ride.

Most importantly, remember that you can do this too! Some day, all seekers should become finders.

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