Neuroplastic Visualisations for Chronic Pain: Day 6

I have found this the most challenging day so far. I haven’t had a day with this many pain spikes since I started. Because of the frequency of eruptions, the “Relentlessness” aspect of the technique interferes with everything! The only thing I don’t interrupt is yoga teaching — both arriving on time to teach, and the teaching itself. Everything else is fair game — appointments, meetings with friends, housework. When I become aware of a pain spike, I drop everything and focus on the pain maps. Even during mindfulness practice. Normally, meditation gives a cumulative benefit, but I have to let go of it in order to maintain the relentlessness of the neuroplastic technique. I miss it, but need to remember that this is a time-limited thing. The neuroplastic retraining takes 6 — 8 weeks. After that it should no longer be necessary.

Neuroplastics for Chronic Pain: Day 5

This is my fifth day of using Michael Moskowitz’s visualisations for chronic pain. The relaxation response is starting to become ingrained. In Day One I noticed that when I stopped whatever I was doing, closed my eyes and went through all the steps (establishing intention, crafting a visual map of my brain’s pain system, and then shrinking them in my mind’s eye) that I became more calm. In response to this, the pain, always in my peripheral awareness, eased to 1-2/10 and my whole body, but especially neck, shoulders and core, relaxed. Today, it seems all I need to do is start the process, even visualising with my eyes open and the relaxation starts to take place — not, perhaps, to the same degree, but subjectively still very noticeable.

Two things from this. Firstly, an observation and some speculating. On Day One, the relaxation response was so pronounced that, as I said, the pain all but disappeared and this disappearance was accompanied by feelings of freedom and blissful breathing that I’ve hardly experienced all these years since the accident (June 2012). Since then I’ve been able to access this level of pain relief only a half dozen or so times in total across the four days.

Could it be that my body-mind is accustomed to the new level of comfort, and though the relaxation response is actually occurring to the same degree, my experience of relief has faded? Or is there some objective difference between the way I was visualizing and the effect it had on Day One vs the way and effect of subsequent days? Perhaps some inhibitory response has begun taking place alongside the visualisation that wasn’t present on Day One but is now having a dampening effect?

Perhaps (and this seems most likely to me) the newness of the practice and the novelty on Day One stimulated my brain to higher levels of concentration and this, combined with early placebo effects, led to greater temporary relief than in the days since?

Regardless, the practice does not actually rely on achieving a certain level of temporary relief in each session. The aim is to reassign the duties of certain networks of the brain that also happen to process pain input (the posterior parietal lobe and the posterior cingulate as well as the prefrontal area which is involved with creativity). By relentlessly coaxing these systems to work with stimuli other than pain, we make structural changes in these areas so that the neurons are less dedicated to pain processing. So, while I suspect that having a greater sense of temporary relief equates to stronger motivation, deeper concentration and therefore more vivid visualisation and greater engagement of the above brain regions, which we could assume would lead to faster progress, in the long run, repeated effort will still create the desired result — it may just take a week or two longer. Still worth it.

Secondly: a cautionary realization that I must follow the full practice through each time, from setting intention to creating visual maps to shrinking them, and not simply stopping when I feel the realaxation. While that may be tempting, such a method skips the step of engaging the specific brain areas mentioned, so will not lead to the kind of neuroplastic change that this technique is designed to engender. Instead, I’ll become reliant on the temporary relief of relaxation through visualisation, which although real and beneficial, is in the end just like any other form of pain relief in that when stopped, the pain returns.

The ‘I’ in MIRROR stands for Intention and the intention is this: to focus the mind, in order to change the brain.

“Mental efforts help build new circuits and weaken the pain networks.” Norman Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing

“If focus is merely on immediate pain control, positive results will be fleeting and frustrating. Immediate pain control is definitely poart of the program, but the real reward is to disconnect excessively wired pain networks and to restore more balanced brain function these pain processing regions of the brain.” Michael Moskowitz, Neuroplastic Transformations Workbook

Visualization for Chronic Pain

I have begun reading The Brain’s Way of Healing by Dr. Norman Doidge. It details case histories in the new medical field of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change itself), and was recommended by my GP at Helios Medical Centre. It appears to be well researched, and is endorsed by neurologists, psychiatrists and physicians from institutions like the University of California, Boston School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School…

Bless Doidge for putting chronic pain as the subject of chapter one.

In that chapter, Doidge reports a way of retraining the pain circuitry in our brains that was discovered by a pain specialist in the United States named Michael Moskowitz. Not wanting to necessarily wait on a copy of Moskowitz’s “Neuroplastic Transformation Workbook” to arrive from Amazon, I will be undertaking that mental rewiring programme at home here in Christchurch, kiwi-style. I will be using as motivation and further study all the blogs and websites I can find of people doing the same. I’ll also be using that single chapter by Doidge, while continuing to inhale the rest of his book. And I’ll write a brief post each day about my findings, and changes or setbacks I notice.

There are likely to be plenty of the latter over the next six to eight weeks, which is the timeframe Dr. Moskowitz suggests before results are truly signs of neuroplastic change, and not just placebo and the result of temporary distractions from the pain. Hopefully I already have some useful experience from my seven-years-since, daily meditations.

Eventually, the visualizations and constant relentless effort of retraining the circuitry should be pretty much unnecessary, and my pain circuitry will have returned more or less to what it was before the chronic feedback cycle set in.

So, the preliminaries.

May all beings be happy. May all beings be free. May all beings share my good fortune.

Days One — 3

I’m currently on Day 5 — here are my brief catchup notes for the previous four days.

Day 1: elated. Probably mostly due to the placebo effect and the simple fact that, when in pain, anything that takes your mind off it is going to have a relaxing effect. Went to the park with my partner and her toddlers. Because of the elation, I probably overdid things. Lots of monkeying around — shoulders and neck!

Day 2: confused about the technique. Setback in terms of pain — possibly caused by trying to keep up with toddlers yesterday! Lots of questions — do I have to interrupt what I’m doing at any time of the day when I feel pain, and visualize? I am in almost constant pain sometimes for hours. Should I continue visualizing all that time? Feeling as though I can’t guarantee I’ll be on time for things if I need to keep stopping all the time. Even visiting friends was tricky today. Don’t seem to be getting any relief from the technique at all today.

Day 3: Moskowitz uses the MIRROR acronym to describe how to apply the technique. The first ‘R’ is for ‘Relentless’. So, in answer to yesterday’s questions — yes. All of that. “Anytime pain intrudes on consciousness”, writes Moskowitz, “it is greeted with visualization.”

Which seems intimidating — and yes, it’s hard to be that consistently motivated. But, reading about the experiences of others helps. Learning about the science behind the technique is motivating for me. And I’m also learning to do the visuals “on the fly” — closing my eyes at red lights to imagine the brain maps. Sometimes the visualization is bringing relief from the pain. Other times, I’m working on accepting that sometimes the visualization will be feeble or feel ineffective.

Day 4: elation returned. Feel emboldened to continue with the technique. Visualizations more vivid. Relaxation more pronounced than last two days. Quite significant relief from the pain if I stay focussed, fades as soon as I stop visualizing though. And still nothing like as much relief as Day One.

There! All caught up. From now on I will post each day separately.

Further Reading

This blog post has a reasonable summary (if you squint past the typos): http://www.lifeinslowmotionblog.com/visualization-chronic-pain-and-neuroplastic-transformation-an-introduction-to-dr-moskowitzs-neuroplastic-pain-management-strategies/

Here is Dr. Moskowitz’s book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Neuroplastic-Transformation-Workbook-Michael-Moskowitz/dp/0615814654?ie=UTF8&keywords=neuroplastic%20transformation&qid=1456245317&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

And The Brain’s Way of Healing on Norman Doidge’s website: http://www.normandoidge.com/?page_id=1042

What Are Nano Practices?

Nano practices are quick momentary habits that can change your life. I like to experiment with these lean brain-hacking techniques because they punch above their weight for how much time investment is required. Although I do not think they replace a daily formal meditation practice, they do assist us when integrating “on the cushion” insights into daily life, or making use of neuroplasticity to overcome unhelpful patterns of wiring in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Or both.

But taking advantage of nano practices requires persistence at first, while we craft the habit.

How to craft a habit
(this is an aside — you can skip it)

One way to build a good habit is to craft a three-step cycle: trigger -> action -> reward. You choose a trigger (or sometimes our own habit-forming consciousness will choose one for us) and use it as a reminder to perform a certain action, that you then reward yourself for doing. Ideally the action will provide its own reward, but it doesn’t have to.

It takes persistence to start that cycle rolling, and you’ll have to deliberately notice the triggers and decide each time to follow through with the action part. But as we all know, habits build their own momentum — a good thing, in the case of nano practices. Eventually it will establish a virtuous cycle of habit: the more you do it the better it feels and the better it feels the more you do it. But unlike some habits, there’s no Breaking Bad-style drug addiction looming in your life if you take one of these practices on.

Once that cycle is established through persistence, it will form a virtuous spiral that has the potential to rewire the reward circuitry in your brain through neuroplasticity.

Depending on the results you are trying to achieve you may need to graduate from persistence into something more like relentlessness. For example, in February of 2016 I was suddenly and unwillingly cut out of three parallel careers by chronic whiplash pain 1. In July 2016 I cobbled together a home-based neuroplastics intervention based on my own reading and research (I kept a diary of it for 30 days). Although still not capable of full-time work, I’m a lot better off thanks to the habitual nano practice of visualising during pain spikes (which is ongoing and probably will be for the rest of my life). I can work to a “one hour on, one hour off” schedule for most afternoons, which is a huge win compared to where I was at.

But in order to shift the pain to that extent, I had to be more relentless than the pain for about three months before it started to become baked in 2.

Just remember, no matter how much effort it takes to begin with, soon you will not need to work at it. You will automatically ignite a flicker of intention with every little trigger and then engage the practice without question. Like letting out the clutch. What an investment those early efforts are!

Further Reading

One man who wrote a book on habits (literally) is Charles Duhigg, and The New York Times has kindly reviewed his work. He suffers from the usual “motivational talker” oversimplifications, but there is some useful stuff in there.

Although much of James Clear’s content on habits is taken from Charles Duhigg’s book, habits are His Thing and he does a good job of illustrating the repercussions of habit theory. Similar to Charles Duhigg, there is a lot more to habits than what he highlights, but it is very clearly explained for what it does cover (which for both authors is a great deal more than I am, tbf).


  1. I am coping fine thanks, and not looking for sympathy 🙂 Empathy is OK, but do not pity the man who has more time to write than ever before!

  2. {Look, another little clicky balloon}
    Until I get around to writing an Introduction to Neuroplastics for Persistent Pain, the following diary update provides a basic starting point on the technique with some further reading links at the bottom: neuroplastic brain hacking technique for persistent pain.

Mind Training and Mental Health

Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light -- Groucho Marx
Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light — Groucho Marx

Some of the sanest people I know also have the most disordered thinking underneath. We all do have plenty of that in reality. But those of us with a bonus dose of thought chaos — we are the ones who’ve had to learn to pause before we leap. To mind the gap between thought and action. To calm ourselves inwardly, somehow, first, before we jump to conclusions or react. No matter where you are in life, it’s those pauses that make us sane. Nothing else. One can have the most measured, efficient, rational thought processes in the world, and if you never pause from one thought to the next, you can still be a complete psychopath. Maybe that’s even a workable definition of a psychopath (I don’t know — IANAP).

Morality

We pause. We doubt our own minds — our own ego — our own so-called self. Most of us have learned to do that through toil and pain. Seeing how negatively our disordered thoughts affect others or our self. And so at this stage the pause is more like suppression — a squashing down of our own thoughts and feelings for long enough to consider the feelings of others. We have to or else the chaos takes over.

Squashing down is ok. It’s like morality — what Buddhists call the first training. (By the way I should mention that I don’t identify as Buddhist. I’m way too zig-zaggy for that. But I have done a lot of Buddhist meditation training, and naturally use their frameworks for talking about our minds).

The problem with just relying on morality for our sanity is that it becomes a habit of mistrust towards ourselves. We don’t give ourselves free rein, ever, even when our intentions are good. We have learned to never listen to ourselves. This is plain unpleasant.

Not only is suppression unpleasant, it’s also not enough in the long run — because, by not listening to ourselves, we learn to not look at ourselves, and then all sorts of shadow issues start coming out sideways without us being aware.

Moralising alone is necessary, and yet both painful and not sufficient. This is why we need mind training.

From Morality to Mind Training

What mind training teaches is a new way to pause. A new way to “mind the gap” between our thoughts / emotions and our actions; a way that doesn’t involve suppressing our feelings. The disordered thinking won’t go away. Although it may lessen somewhat, we’ll still need to pause. But we learn to use those pauses to let our feelings flow through us like rain (American Beauty, major spoiler alert). Instead of squashing them down anymore, we let ourselves feel them; radically, like never before. This takes some serious emotional-mental strength and insight. Which is most often called “mindfulness”.

Morality really shines, and ceases to be unpleasant or difficult or boring, when it’s combined with high levels of attention and awareness.

In short, while there may be good reasons why we suppress our knee jerk reactions, over time that’s harmful to ourselves, and even with all that hard work it’s not reliable.

That’s why we need mind training. We all need it — but especially the sanest, kindest-acting ones among us, who’ve learned not to trust ourselves.

There is a better way.

Afterthoughts

Since penning these words, I realized that of course sometimes we are so confused or baffled in our thinking that we cannot even learn to squash down our thoughts or mind the gap, even in a suppression sense, let alone take mind training practices into our lives. Although my post does intentionally edify emotional and thought disorders, which I think is a much needed and refreshing viewpoint from current attitudes of mental “illness” (I dislike this term), it was not my meaning to minimize the suffering of being in the full grip of our difficulties. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that, when we find ourselves gripped by chaos, we should just “try harder”. Internal suppression or transcendence are impossible for all of us at times — and some of us more than others. When this is the case long-term, I still recognize the need for conventional medicine in helping to find traction within thoughts / emotions / moods, as imperfect and riddled with side-effects as most of those treatments are.

I guess the times I’m talking about — when we are apparently sane but inwardly tortured — are those in which we are in active recovery. I define active recovery as putting into daily practice some system of morality to keep us from getting trapped by our own internal chaos. Whether we arrive at active recovery through medication (and I include herbal medications in that), through internal work, or a combination as in my case, it is an essential first step.

Vipassana Retreat #1: A Contraband Diary

Yep, I went on a 10-day retreat and ruined it for myself by writing a diary the whole time. Goenka-style vipassana retreats have clear rules about the use of a diary (don’t), reading (don’t) and doing yoga (well, you get the picture!) and I broke them all.

A dubious honour perhaps! But here’s the thing: there are few things that I’ll never give up, but that small list happens to include journal writing, reading and yoga. All three are against the retreat Code of Discipline, which (me being me) I saw as a set of rules to be broken. Despite this, I loved the retreat and look forward to doing another one. But there remain some aspects of Goenka’s vipassana teachings that I don’t agree are necessary. The rule against journaling is one of them.

As you’ll see, I was not in fact a model student. For this first retreat, I was approaching it more as a “dip your feet in the water” type fact-finding exercise to learn what the hell this whole retreat notion was all about. I didn’t really take it too seriously (maybe that’s not such a bad thing with a new experience). I also have to admit to being a smart arse, and second-guessing pretty much everything that someone tells me. Especially if it’s expressed in terms of Rules. So much so, that when we received instruction from Goenka where he says “start with a calm mind. Balanced and equanimous mind…” it made me quite mutinous. At first I thought he was joking! But I’m getting ahead of myself now 🙂

Retreat begins with Day Zero, the arrival:

Day Zero :: Arrival :: 27 Dec 2008

Have arrived at Vipassana course. No room of my own: I am in a barn with 12 other men! Very dormitory-styles, although there are sheets strung between each bed and in front, to make curtained cubicles and give a little privacy.

The Men’s Manager reckons the barn is quite an experience and though I asked about rooms he sounded doubtful. I guess this course is especially busy being holiday-time for everyone.

I will not let it stop me from remaining open to whatever comes along. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to practice & has already yielded a lot of feelings that I can watch.

At least there’s a flush toilet 🙂

Day 1 :: 28 Dec 2008 :: 7:30am

OMG. I can completely understand how Dave (note: not actually Dave) went manic in this place. I want to break every single rule and precept purely because everyone is acting so bloody devout! It’s like: give me a friggin’ break! You guys are just ordinary like me! Get over it!

All walking around as though already in pain, slumping in the shoulders and trudging. Trudging!

It’s a freaking miracle that we are here, alive, able to learn … and people take it like martyrs. Maybe I’m not getting something, but it’s driving me nuts.

This place is beautiful. Why so miserable?

Day 2 :: 29 Dec 2008

Things I like about this retreat:

  • Technique of teaching Anapana works for me — extended sitting is great for discipline and I already feel much closer to my practice.
  • Being only supported through dana removes all questions of “is it a cult”, “is it a bird”, “is it a plane”.
  • The food is delicious!
  • Plenty of insightful dharma instruction around impermanence

[Edit: there are plenty of other things to like about these retreats, but I didn’t list them in this journal entry. They are embedded in the later entries.]

Things I don’t like about this retreat:

  • Very little content / dharma discussion around around no-self/True Self.
  • Some of Goenka’s statements are confusing/distracting. E.g. “You are bound to be successful, bound to be successful”. I found this statement quite misleading. Define “success”.

Day 3, Day 4 :: 30 Dec 2008 — Nothing to report

Day 4 :: 31 Dec 2008

Further things I don’t like about this retreat:

  • Rules against reading and writing without justifying it. This gives a bootcamp feel. Reading and writing are important to my sanity. I’d like a bit more explanation around why the rule is in place before I’m prepared to honour it.
  • The retreat leader (aka the “Assistant Teacher”) doesn’t seem to add much value. All the instructions and dharma discourses are recorded video and audio from Goenka himself. Although Goenka has a good presence, I think more active teaching from the retreat leader (e.g. pause the tape, give a few tips and some interpretation of the more confusing instructions, restart the tape) would create a more “well held” atmosphere.
  • No walking meditation.

The Day 3 discourse is brilliant! Inspiring stuff about Gautama’s life. Loved the deconstruction of reality down to wavelengths, wavelengths, wavelengths. I don’t buy all the pseudo-scientific clap-trap about kalapas tho 😉

“Today you are angry because your wife dropped hair in your soup, but last night you were saying ‘Oh, such beautful hair. So wonderful.’

“Where is beautiful?”

Goenka makes it plain that we must experience directly the Three Characteristics to attain “right understanding” of insight. This is in line with other Buddhist teachings as far as I can tell.

What’s my middle way?

Me: v conceptual, intellectual, escapist. Lack emotional integration.

  • Strict discipline is good, because I’ll do it in an escapist manner and not get carried away thinking enlightenment means “to follow the rules”.

Dave has good ability to integrate emotional swings already, developed through his habit of pushing to the limit and beyond to see what will happen. A bit short on the conceptual stuff perhaps.

  • Studying of scriptures good because he’ll duck back into the realm of direct experience (vipassana/zazen/asana/daily life) when necessary. Won’t try to think himself to enlightenment.

Unresolved questions:

  • Does Yoga have the same result as Buddhist meditation?
    • What about pranayama?
  • Zen emphasises posture more than Theravada — is the Zen emphasis similar to Yoga full-body awareness?
  • Is posture the Yogic object of meditation? Or the breath? Or both?
  • Does mindful awareness of controlled breath (ujayyi/pranayama) and posture give the same results as mindful awareness of natural breath and bodily sensations?

Day 5 :: 1 Jan 2009

I’m so tired! Struggling with the vipassana technique. Strong feelings of being not good enough 🙁 I don’t know if it’s ADHD or not, but I can’t keep track of where I’m up to on the body scanning, and can’t even feel anything in most areas. It takes me ages, like half an hour, to scan through my body just once.

During self-directed meditation periods I will use a clock, so that I stop at an unpredictable place on the body: good for developing equanimity. Otherwise it becomes a race to reach said part so I can rest my mind.

More positive reinforcement from teacher or Goenka would be helpful here. I wonder how many other people have these problems as beginners.

Obviously Goenka has a great depth of experience in these matters. But I find that his teaching methods for vipassana are not entirely suitable for me, struggling with a lifetime of Western-style thinking. Instructions such as “have a balanced mind”, “remain perfectly equanimous” are too much a temptation for the perfectionism that lurks within me. Within most of us modern souls, let’s be honest. From what I’ve read, this is a peculiarity of our culture. So our meditation practices could perhaps benefit from an approach that takes it into account.

Especially in an atmosphere like this retreat, which is so goal-oriented already. He should explain:

  1. How realistic it is for a beginner to have “perfect equanimity” (not very)
  2. How suppression can easily be mistaken for equanimity
  3. Some tricks to help people approach equanimity instead of just being told “remain equanimous”. It’s like: ok, but HOW?

E.g, for me the following help:

  • Use a clock so that I am not rushing to reach a certain number of scans through my body, but instead “I will sit until 11am and during that time I will scan”
  • If at a blank spot, don’t strain further. Don’t try to study harder. Don’t call it a blind spot! (“Blind spot” is Goenka’s term for areas that have no apparent sensation). Don’t try to attain freaking “perfect equanimity” at the same time!
  • I’d love to have a few more for this list… *significant look at Goenka*

On the topic of blind areas, his instruction is to wait one minute on that blind area then move further. This is the reason why it takes me about half an hour to make a body scan (so many blind areas). It also leads me to a kind of droopy-eyed boredom and then I forget where I was up to and must start all over. Nevertheless, I do find that the one minute idea is helpful, because some blind areas are starting to “come online” and I can feel sensation where previously there was none. But I’ve had to ignore the way he words it. He says “if no sensations after one minute, maybe next round. You will soon reach the stage where you can feel sensations over the entire body”. OMG!

My mind interprets this as “I must reach the stage of feeling sensations over my entire body”, completely contradicting what he said earlier about remaining equanimous. I’m sure that’s not how he intends it to be taken, but I’m finding the technique so hard! And statements like that just feed right into my feelings of inadequacy and self-criticism.

Instead I deal with blind areas by having a very matter-of-fact, on-the-job conversation with myself. “Got anything at your left temple? No? Ok. How about now? No? Ok. How about now? No? Ok. How about now? No? Ok, fine. Time’s up. Next… ”

Like a supervisor of longshoremen, going through a manifest. Tick tick tick cross (wait a while, cross, cross, cross). Cross. Tick tick tick tick. Neither the longshoremen nor their supervisor particularly care about the crosses or the ticks … they care about an accurate inventory. Missing cargo is the responsibility of the Customs officials! Same as missing sensations — leave it to dharma (the law of nature) as Goenka would say.

Some further gripes (Jeez I’m such a moaner!)

  • Schedule is gruelling (bootcamp feel again) and from what I’ve read quite extreme compared with most Zen or Tibetan retreats, which break the sitting every now and then for a bit of walking meditation
  • One-size-fits-all: how would a low-IQ person fare? Someone in a wheelchair? This may be a problem with Theravada or Buddhism in general…
  • Rules against Yoga… I mean come on! WTF? Why not incorporate some gentle yoga practice? Some of the people here need to relax & strengthen their back muscles. Myself included lol.
  • Reading and writing not incorporated because it would mess with the (IMO far too gruelling) schedule and “impair progress”. OK, I get that writing can be a distraction (here’s looking at me, not exactly meditating right now) but surely sometimes it can help to avoid getting caught in emotional loops and circling needlessly for a couple days. Maybe some structured writing or worksheets would be a good idea. So we can get it out of our heads and move on. I dunno. Automatic writing could be great way to unclog after a long tiring sit.

Day 6 :: 2 Jan 2009

Aversion from aversion.

Problematic. How to prevent aversions without averting from them?

So I have finished my meditation due to aversion from pain. Not because the timer rang, or because of any other reason than because I hurt. The awareness of having done that, in turn has sent me down a rabbit-hole of self-doubt and regret — “oh, I’m so useless at this stuff, why did I let myself stop just because my body was sore…” This is literally how my thoughts roll. They are averting from the fact of my aversion.

The important thing is … not to try and “prevent” anything. I have awareness of that happening. I observe the thoughts. I do not in turn react to that aversion from aversion by deepening my fear of aversion to aversion from aversion … this is classic anxiety. Fear of fear. If I had ended my session due to time and not pain, with equanimity, then that would have been one thing. But since I did not, that was another. No problem. No need to fix. Reality is. Awareness and how one reacts (or not-reacts) to the unceasing occurrence of Buddha nature … that is all.

When one seeks freedom from all sankaras, it means your mind will get stuck in a fixed pattern of “I should not react”. When the mind does react because we have not yet attained to enlightenment, what should we do? We see misery — we need not react to our reaction. But if we do? Then, maybe we need not react to our reaction to our initial reaction. At some point it becomes possible to just rise above it and say “all of that stuff? I allow it. I’m just going to accept it, and watch it change.”

Respect oneself and ones effort… do not kick at yourself for strengthening sankaras from time to time. It is natural. Just be aware. Just observe. And if you forget this instruction and you kick yourself anyway, if you become aware of it, just observe. Just be aware.

In fact, to think “I should not react” is the wrong understanding. There is always a reaction — one should just do the non-action of not-to-react!

To think “I should not react” or “I should not have sankara” is the same as saying “I wish I had no sankara”. None of this is living in the moment. It is not-nowness, which is itself a sankara.

Even if you got rid of all other sankaras by doing this, you would still have this fundamental sankara towards sankara itself. And because that aversion to sankara is the tool you have used to apparently rid yourself of all other sankaras, then that final, fundamental aversion to aversions and cravings carries with it all the weight and investment of all previous cravings and aversion with it. Like a giant tree whose roots are all tangled up in the huge forest that surrounds it.

To exterpate the root of the final, deep deep sankara, you would have to learn to react again. Learn to be one with the chaos and randomness out there, one with your own cravings and aversions and the feelings of atta (self) that go along with them. Without averting your gaze and without recreating all those sankaras that you thought you’d escaped from.

Escape. That’s what we all want and can never have. The good news is that you yourself are already full of freedom, you just have to accept it. Which is the final freedom.

To unravel the sankara of sankara you may have to undo all the work you have done. And you may become a tyrant to your own mind and others long before then. Better not to be so bothered by things… follow the path of spontaneity and allow your reactions to happen naturally without either amplification by sankara or suppression by sankara to occur. Live in the pure moment. There is no “I wish that…”

All things in moderation, including moderation.

Your Free Choice is the expression of Buddha nature that is fore-ordained.

Day 7 :: 3 Jan 2009

I really should stop writing in this diary so much 🙂

(I should not-write while here).

Craving abstract success (or aversion to abstract failure) aka perfectionism is a bane of the mind. It amplifies all the other attachments by adding a secondary chenpa.

Goenka:

  1. “Never generate new sankaras”
  2. “Come out of misery”
  3. “Do not crave a particular sensation or you will create deep deep sankara, that means deep deep misery”

Good discussion of the alternative viewpoint in Zen Mind, Beginnner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzukiroshi (Chapter “Repetition” esp. pp. 53, 54).

Chapter “Excitement” is also of a different flavour to Goenka. Practice zazen once a week!? At first I thought Suzuki was joking, but he means the rest of the time just practice what you are doing, your everyday routine. I will continue with daily meditation practice, but I can appreciate the attitude Suzuki is illustrating: you already have a life. Don’t live for your practice.

Chapter “Right Effort” speaks of putting in too much effort, and getting prideful in our practice, which he calls being “Dharma-ridden” or “practice ridden”.

Being Dharma-ridden could also mean taking Suzuki’s dharma too seriously and being prideful of having no pride 😉 Spontaneous practice could be the goer… set aside time daily or weekly and do or not-do on the spur of the moment, without gaining ideas or attempts to achieve things … mostly 🙂

Non-achievement is dharma and as such it refers to itself and is paradoxical. Non-achievement should be understood to contain “Achievement” within it as a spontaneous side-effect.

1:30pm

I am now officially over it. “Do this, do that, perfectly calm mind blah blah blah…”

I would like to see some of Goenka’s reference texts and whether he uses appropriate English translations of Pali.

But mostly I’m just over this retreat’s style of learning. Not afraid of hard work, but I would benefit from a less hurried training. It feels a bit like a production line. Why not learn anapana only on the first retreat? Take home, practice for a year or two, then come back and learn vipassana afterwards? Take that home, practice regularly and return for guidance.

Instead of this you-must-practice-for-12-hours-a-day-or-you’ve-failed rubbish. I quote: “continuity of practice is the key to success.” Define success for me.

That’s posted on the dining hall noticeboard every day, in the most prominent position. And the endless rules…

Later

A handy tip: if you are sneaking fruit back to your room in contravention of the Rules, don’t do it via the meditation hall for evening discourse unless you have a handy sweater to wrap it in. Hiding oranges up your trouser leg becomes quite distracting after a while.

Later

I don’t dislike vipassana — I’ll practice it for a year or two, just because I can practically feel myself growing new brain cells and taking medicine is wise. but I’ll do it in a way that I can practice sincerely — once a day, say, 30mins. Instead of this sankaras-up-the-arse style of practice.

Like Dave said also (except that’s not his actual name. I don’t know a Dave): I’m glad to be doing this and I’ll see out the camp to save money changing airfares if for no other reason 🙂 Nah, I will also make an effort (a sincere effort, not an OTT effort) to enjoy the remaining time here. I’ll do the 3 additthana each day (what Dave jokingly called the “Hour of Power”). I’ll go to the hall this afternoon for teacher (sorry Assistant teacher) guidance, but other than that, maybe the 4:30am practice because it’s so quiet and nice… could do 4:30 — 5:30 then watch sunrise!

9-11am is now optional.

Take a nap from 12-2:30 if I feel like it (wake briefly at 1:30 to take final medication).

3:30-5pm is now optional.

Can’t get out of 6-7pm additthana or the discourse, but they’re quite fun anyway.

This means I will make good effort at the times I choose to meditate, instead of driving my brain into rebellious states out of mental exhaustion and failing to be sincere about the practice.

I’ll still donate. I think that Goenka is a good man and his retreat centres are a force for positive change, that will benefit a lot of people. Have benefitted me too in a fairly brute force way, so I am grateful. And I’ll pay for the next person’s place. But I think that this is not going to benefit me as much as I might have wished. That’s not arrogance or humility speaking, I just have to trust my own instinct about it.

It’s not like I’m coming into this blind. I’ve experienced huge chunks of suffering and impermanence and felt insignificant in the face of the Big All. I’ve battled addictions to many things, and phobias.

I became aware of these experientially, by just being alive and paying attention (as Daniel Ingram would say) and OK I still have plenty of work to do — all good. The blooming Universe is one big lumbering snotty turtle anyway.

I’ll for sure continue to practice vipassana and anapanasati, but on my own terms. I can definitely see that having an understanding and familiarty of the touch door can help unshroud the mysterious spontaneous push that so fleetingly arises and passes… but even if not, if I remain caught up in all the aversions and cravings I currently carry, even adding more as I go… that is ok too. It all adds up to an enlightened universe.

Later

The Sakyamuni Buddha (as in, Gautama, “The Buddha”) chose to never be reincarnated … Where did he go? Was his misery so great that he chose annihilation to escape it? That is what Goenka tells us. Isn’t that an ultimate suicide?

I do not think I would do such a thing. Perhaps I have been too sheltered, or have not grokked the weight of misery around me, but what price existence? Is that grasping of me, to crave existence? I suppose it could be … but is it aversion to existence that led him to not reincarnate?

But I’m not sure I believe in reincarnation anyway, so to me it’s just a philosophical question, not a real gut-wrenching truth. Perhaps that’s why I don’t understand. One thing’s for sure: existence exists. If anything matters, we do; existence does. If nothing matters, then why am I still writing this?

You pop into my head though I
Stop my ears and
Block my mouth and
Squeeze tight my eyes to
Keep from screaming
I cannot stop that
Caustic soda pops
Into my head

Day 8

Recurring Dream: Surf Beaches and Whitewater Rapids

  • Rhythmic feeling of water rising and falling
  • Swimming in this current, it catches me, flows around, over, through me
  • I feel out of control but completely fearless
  • Water rising higher and higher,
  • Dream ends with a seemingly limitless surge of power, the water bursts its banks or overflows the dunes
  • I am washed into a Strange New Land, garden-like and mysterious
  • First occurred at age 13, repeated monthly for six months or so, then tapered off. Nowadays I have them about once per year

Potential A&P Events?

Fever Dreams: Fast-Slow events, Big-Small objects, Unglowing Lights

Blasting Ecstasy:

  • Complex intuitive grokking about universe during the rush phase
  • Masses of bodily sensations
  • Collapsed on bed in a postmeditation-like state
  • Arose declaring I knew the meaning of life: to live a long life, and to help our “host universe” live a long life

Acid Trips:

  • Liquid sky, black snow falling, experiences of fear un-nameable: perhaps heralding entry into Dark Night. It would fit with subsequent life events (separation from long-term girlfriend, descent into paranoic feelings and loss of sense of self)

Datura: definitely was not an A&P Event. I am still sorting out the meaning of that one.

At about age 14 I fell into periods of dissolution, fear, misery, disgust, desire for the end. This would have been just after the first occurrence of the Surf Beach dream. I’ve been cycling ever since, with disastrous results in my personal life, and it shows no sign of letting up, except perhaps recently with my intensified focus on yoga and recently-started practice of Buddhist meditation. Ask any of the people I’ve hurt in this time about how quickly and witheringly I can: point out their futility or my own, their hatred or my own, play to their worst fears, reverse course or apparently become a different person from one moment to the next. I now recognise the pain I’ve caused to others during this time, and I also have some compassion for myself. It’s been no fucking cakewalk.

Of course it’s always possible that I’m just a psychological basket case 🙂

Regarding the beach dreams, it feels almost as if the ocean has a consciousness that is not entirely benign. Not malign either, but simply rigorous and uncaring (for me personally) yet very much consistent and caring about some larger scheme of which I am unaware and unprepared. A feeling that here is something larger than I am, and I may participate in that, in fact I should participate in it. But I am not in charge.

Getting a lot from pp 61-63 of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

You are living in this world as one individual, but before you take the form of a human being, you are already there, always there. We are always here. Do you understand? You think before you were born you were not here. But how is it possible for you to appear in this world, when there is no you? Because you are already there, you can appear in the world. Also, it is not possible for something to vanish which does not exist. Because something is there, something can vanish. You may think that when you die, you disappear, you no longer exist. But even though you vanish, something which is existent cannot be non-existent. That is the magic. We ourselves cannot put any magic spells on the world. The world is its own magic. If we are looking at something, it can vanish from our sight, but if we do not try to see it, that something cannot vanish. Because you are watching it, it can disappear, but if no one is watching, how is it possible for anything to disappear? If someone is watching you, you can escape from him, but if no one is watching, you cannot escape from yourself.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind pp 61-63. Shunryu Suzuki.

Looking forward to return home and get something of a normal routine happening. 30mins meditation before (after?) pranayama. Work, errands, simple walks. Gardening. Maybe get to the beach now and then. Spend holidays together.

I think my path involves at some point the equanimous generation of new sankaras and equanimous reinforcement of old sankaras. But I’ll settle for the non-equanimous generation and reinforcement if it is the only alternative to ultimate suicide. No amount of suffering seems worth annihilation of the spirit. And I’m equanimous with that right now at least 🙂

Later

If sneaking food back into your room or contravening the Rules in any other way, and it makes you feel:

  1. Unfazed: great! Long may it last.
  2. Guilty, sad, scared, disappointed … lonely … etc: go easy on yourself. Welcome to Equanimity 101.
  3. Defiant, angry, powerful, excited: wait a few days, then goto 2.

Later

Just now I walked past a server who was packing up to leave early (servers can leave early if they wish). I felt a sudden urge to leave as well. When I spoke to him, he got twitchy, started looking over his shoulder and sent me to see Ben (male manager) who was very nice and got me an interview with the assistant teacher, also very nice.

Walking to the teacher’s private meditation room, I suddenly realised I have been intimidated by the teachings all this time. My retreat into the safe territory of my journal, and the defensive entries herein… like a mediocre way of consoling myself for the future failure I considered a certainty, without even knowing it. Before I even reached the room, I had tears in my eyes. Didn’t want to leave. Felt unworthy to stay 🙁

As if it’s possible to fail something like this.

During my interview with the teacher, he said I was welcome to leave if that’s what I truly want, but also pointed out there are not many days left, and I’ll have a better feeling afterwards if I see it through. Also made me realise I was being perfectionist. That self-doubt was one of the enemies of practice (Goenka talked about this just last night).

In the words of my wise and foresighted yoga instructor: “feelings of inferiority and superiority come from the same place.”

The assistant teacher’s advice on dealing with the perfectionism was to just be aware of it, and have a “little chuckle” with myself. Also, advised that vipassana goes quite deep, and to wind down the vipassana to anapana for the rest of the retreat.

Going to follow his advice. Makes sense.

After the interview, it was time for another aditthana, so I went to the hall and spent the whole hour silently leaking tears. No uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability when everyone around you is meditating 🙂

I’m scared of going home a changed person because of the unknown effects it might have on my life. But don’t want to go back with all the same weaknesses I brought with me.

Unfortunately both are inevitable!

[Edit: the diary ends here. I’ll leave it to stand on its own without any interminable discussion. It’s been good to type this out and go over it with fresh eyes. There are some good insights in here, buried amidst the bad-arse self-defensive fear-of-failure stuff 😉 it seems that’s pretty much how it goes for most people.]