Nine and Half Months at the Forest Refuge

From mid April, 2011 until February, 2012, I spent 9 1/2 months in retreat at IMS's Forest Refuge. The retreat was - well, everything: good, hard, wonderful, terrible, I wanted to leave, I didn't want it to end, I was bored, I learned a lot, etc., etc. The first 2 1/2 months were much like my previous retreats at the Forest Refuge - except for the "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE! You're crazy to go away for this long! This is forever." I managed to stick it out - based 1/2 on my innate stubbornness and 1/2 on having told so many people that was what I was going to do (had to save face). And I kept saying to myself "You didn't come here to have fun. If you did, that was a really stupid idea - there's no fun here!" It did mostly go very well and there were good insights during that time as well.

Then Ven. Pa Auk came for 4 months: July - Oct. That was really different, Really Intense. With the 2 1/2 months of momentum, I got the preliminary nimitta pretty quickly and after about a month with him, got the full on "counter-part sign" nimitta. But, shall we say, it was Really Intense working that hard. Towards the end of August (2 months in), I melted down one night. "I'm outta here - this is crazy. Well, I'll at least stay until the end of Pa Auk's retreat, then I'm outta here. Yada yada yada...." The next morning, I was "Wow, what was that all about?" and that evening I thought "What would I tell a yogi of mine who came in with the symptoms I have?" "Take A Break!" So I did. For 4 days, I meditated only about 4 hours a day instead of pushing for 8 or 9. Then I went back to work, but not pushing as hard.

And a week or so later - I got to Ven. Pa Auk's 1st jhana. I would go for my usual walk after lunch and come back and do lying down meditation. Sometimes, especially on hot days, I might get a bit drifty.... I had my little timer set to vibrate after an hour since I was counting breaths for that first hour. Well, one day as I came out of the drifty, the nimitta was really bright and I stopped counting an went straight for the nimitta. Bingo, I was gone. There was ONLY the nimitta. No body. No sounds. No thoughts. No passage of time. Nuthin' but the nimitta. I came out of it about 45 minutes later (guessing from the clock and when I had started). The state was nothing like any jhana I'd ever experienced! The was no materiality. No vedana. No perception. No sankhara other than the nimitta. Only consciousness of the nimitta. If that sounds like "the cessation of feeling and perception" to you, it does to me as well. In fact I would say that the 1st Visuddhimagga jhana IS "the cessation of feeling and perception." This is not just my opinion - Rod Bucknell says the same thing in a paper in the "Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies" 16.2, pages 375-409. Interesting.

But I was never able to get back there! I could get that solid nimitta and hold it for up to 2 hours. But I could see that I was too curious to see "what happens next" and that was preventing me from getting back to full absorption. Sometimes hanging out with the nimitta, I would drift off into 2nd jhana (the one that I teach), sometime into 4th, occasionally into 3rd. And sometimes the nimitta would hang around until my bladder said there was now something else to do. And that was all that happened for another month. Then for the 4th month, Ven. Pa Auk, suggested that since I clearly wasn't getting back to full absorption again, I should do 4 elements meditation. Interesting - but too busy really for my tastes - at least to do it all day long.

Ven. Pa Auk left Oct 31 and 4 Nov I "escaped" down to BCBS (1/4 mile, ~1/2 km, down the hill) to do a previously planned Insight Dialog retreat. That was a really great break and and a wonderful retreat. I got more insights during those 10 days than during the 4 months with Ven. Pa Auk! Of course, the momentum from those months with Ven. Pa Auk plus the fact that I was doing an insight practice rather than working on concentration might have had something to do with it. And Insight Dialog is a very interesting, wonderful practice - see HIGHLY Recommended!

Then back to the FR for another 2 1/2 months -- with a whole lot better attitude - something about being in the home stretch maybe.... It went really well until about 3 weeks before I was scheduled to get out - when my mind hit Distraction City. Every computer programming idea I'd had during the previous 9 months (and there were a lot of them, as usual) came rushing at me, one after another. Then even more distractions. And it never settled down again until the end. But it was interesting watching the distractions do there thing. Clearly, they are not me and and I'm not in control of this mind! I was able to really appreciate what a wonderful experience this has been, especially to be away for all the craziness of 21st century western civilization. Actually, I thought of Gandhi: they asked him when he came to London what he thought of Western Civilization and he replied "I think it would be a very good idea!" The peace and clarity of being at the FR is unmatched anywhere I've ever been.

But I did miss fun. And it's nice to be out again. And I'm already overwhelmed by all the email and stuff to do.... I was at BCBS the 1st 10 days of February, and then took the train(!) across the USA to the SF Bay Area where I hung out for 10 days before heading off to teach my month long retreat at Cloud Mountain. It is the good life indeed.

Cessations of consciousness in meditation: Advancing a scientific understanding of nirodha samāpatti and my comments on the paper.
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