These are reflective notes on my experience of practicing Culadasa’s 10 stage meditation system. The notes in this post are from my 19th day of practice in the system. There is a page summary of my TMI series with links in the site overview. For an introduction to this project, see this page. Occasionally I will post-edit the journal. Any post-editing of journal entries is [in square brackets like this].
At this point in my practice of the Mind Illuminated system I began having dissociative experiences. On day 19 I wrote down the first of these: “I’m looking at my iPhone and notice the shape of my hands holding it. Suddenly they’re not a part of me, not mine, they’re outside of me. It’s as though I’m looking at a Rodin sculpture: a moment in time, beautifully captured by someone else, there for me to appreciate – without any sense of personal, physical embodiment. The hands that “I’m” looking at are separate from my subjective experiencing.”
In retrospect, I recognized such experiences as seeing parts of my body, or my body in its entirety, as objects that were not alive.
The only language I can find to write about this kind of experience is dualist: “separate from my subjective experiencing” was the best fit I came up with at the time. I regard subject-object binaries as an approximate model for experience; that is, “good enough, most of the time”. It’s not normally my preferred prescriptive or descriptive language for meditation. But here, it is the language I find closest to the experience induced by the practice.
I remember having these sorts of experiences in childhood. They haven’t featured particularly throughout my time practicing the four naljors. My first meditation experience, prior to encountering Vajrayana practice, was an intensive three week retreat. I jumped in at the deep end and meditated for many hours, daily, never having done so before.2 During that retreat I had “out of body” and other dissociative experiences.
At that time I was taught that these experiences indicated I was beginning to see what was really real, behind the illusion of ordinary experience which, by contrast, is not really real. Nowadays I prefer to regard any states of mind, however extraordinary or mundane they may be, as versions of ontological experience.
Illusion vs. reality is an important Buddhist theme. The binary manifests somewhat differently according to the historical development of the yanas (Buddhist paths). There’s the illusion of the self vs. the reality of no-self, that of Samsara vs. Nirvana and in later Buddhism Ultimate Reality is seen to be better than relative reality.
It’s dualist and, I think, bogus, to separate experience into ‘real’ and ‘illusory’. Who says one experience is real when another is not? Why should I believe them? If dissociative experience is different to ordinary experience, why consider dissociation more real than immersed connection? I will talk about the value of different experiences, particularly non-ordinary ones, without pretending that one is somehow ‘more real’ than another.1
Dissociative experience can be valuable in leading to the felt understanding that life is not quite so invulnerable, permanent, continuous, expansive and immortal as ordinary experience would have us believe. ‘Self’ experience is so pervasive that even momentary relief can be revelatory. Distance from ordinary self-ing catapults every day experience into a different perspective. Things can seem less vital: unimportant, funny, cool, weird and nebulous.
On the other hand, dissociative experience can be harmful. Fixating it as the only important reality can lead to feeling stuck, drowning in a sea of meaninglessness, personal isolation, becoming an air-head, or psychological pain. Without the ability to move fluidly between different cognitive states, dissociation disturbs practical and social functionality.
Dissociation characterizes a path oriented to the final realization of no-self. This is opposite to Buddhist Tantra. The path of the tantrika is characterized by vivid moments of connection. The goal of Tantra is to experience the inseparability of our different experience as individuals. The vividness of connection is associated with the second meditation in the four naljors, ‘lhatong’ (further vision), so I will not write more about it here.
1.5 hour sit:
- I had some bad news before I started. Took me about 20 mins to settle from thought stories about it.
- Once I was able to sit in a peaceful, thought-free state, started the body scanning technique.
- Went through the individual body parts then brought attention & awareness to the whole body for the rest of the sit.
- As I did so, sensation gradually became more subtle, light, cool.
- Very light, subtle vibrations started in the left arm then spread into left side of body and across my body until it was much of of the body. This wasn’t consistent, but it was mostly there while I maintained stillness and awareness of the whole body.
- I had the sense that this would’ve increased if I’d continued the sit for longer after the alarm went off.
20 mins walking meditation.
Second sit, 2 hrs:
- Quickly settled into the same state that I’d left off with in the previous sit. An awareness of my whole body, much internalized, still aware of sounds from outside in the periphery of awareness.
- Did the body scanning technique.
- After that, brought attention to the breath and maintained close following, occasionally with attention taken to a part of the body if sensation arose.
- I had a concentrated focus and awareness was ‘inside’ my body, defined by the parameter of the body, mostly.
- I became aware of consistent noises from a construction site outside. A machine beeping, with a simultaneous low hum, of alternating pitch. These noises were sufficient enough to cause my awareness to spread outside the body to them. This became like a distraction experience. I wanted to maintain the deep focus in the body sensations and had the sense that I was on the edge of slipping into a deeper, strongly internalized state, but was prevented from going there by these construction sounds.
- This became intensely annoying.
[Post edit: at this point, the TMI practice has substantially diverged from shi-ne meditation. The experience of being irritated, annoyed or distracted by sounds arising during meditation is alien to my usual practice. This experience was both fascinating and horrific. I got so mad. ]
- Sat in complete stillness, felt the irritation arise and attempted to resist it. Watched it turn into insane anger.
- Had a shouty thought, directed at the sound, “SHUT THE FUCK UP MACHINE, I’M TRYING TO MEDITATE.”
- I was aware that from the perspective of Tantra this was hilarious. I intentionally held off the view from outside the experience and stayed with the irritation until the end of the sit, noticing the sense of division between the ‘edge’ of the state of physical, internal absorption where I wanted my attention and awareness to go, and the sound outside.
- The room was bright from daylight. Despite my eyes being closed I felt it would have been easier to slip into a deeply concentrated state with more internal focus if the room had been dark.
[Post edit: It’s worth noting here that the thought arose that the machine was interrupting my process and an associated feeling came with the thought, that the machine was somehow intentionally getting in the way of my meditation. Of course, this idea is inaccurate: the machine has no agency, its driver was doing a job with no knowledge of circumstances outside the construction site. As I mentioned previously in my journal the interpretive framework and concentrative method gives rise to the notion that distraction is an interference and that some meditation experiences must be ignored in favor of others. This understanding applies equally to the idea of internal sounds. The Mind Illuminated interpretive framework is that sub-minds “compete for attention”. This impression arises because the method is to intentionally direct focus elsewhere, and yet thoughts continue to arise. I had the idea that the machine and the unwanted thought were interrupting my process and an associated feeling that they were somehow intentionally demanding attention, away from the chosen focus. The comparison between machine noise and related thought is useful: thoughts arise circumstantially. They are not organisms and have no personal agency.]
Experientially, today, I feel like I’m turning my mind into a totalitarian regime in which some thoughts, sensations and arisings are ‘allowed’ and others are intentionally ignored. Simultaneously I’m enjoying the sense of peace and contentment brought by the meditative focus. But there’s a tangible, if subtle, friction between my perception of a world that is obstacle to my aim, and the internal experience of quietude, the world resulting from my meditation.
Third sit 1.5 hrs:
- No internal conflict or grumps against the machine in this sit. Generally harmonious, peaceful and poker-faced. The construction noise continued til about half way through but was relegated to periphery of awareness and stability of concentration excluded it.
- After external sounds subsided it was easy to sit in stable, concentrated awareness.
- For the most of the last half hour or so my body felt lightly fizzy, all over. Not just the skin but a layer deeper than the skin.
- Took my attention more internally than the fizziness. It did not seem to be around the central channel. Focused behind my sternum for a while, keeping awareness of the nose & sensations of the breath & rest of the body.
- Crown of head started to tingle a lot, increasing in intensity for the rest of the sit.
- Had the sensation of a ‘slow beat’, like a pulsing, deep inside my head above the spine.
- Awareness became intensely ‘internal’. My sense of internal body defined the parameters of awareness, there was no experience of a world outside the body.
1. Some experiences feel more intensely meaningful than others. It’s not unusual to hear such peak expereinces described as somehow “more real”. I’ve done so myself, but I tend to use “full” or “vibrant” now instead. ↩
2. I wrote about my first retreat experience in a Twitter thread starting here:
It was my 22nd birthday. I was in Bodh Gaya on a meditation & social outreach retreat. I’d been working remotely in basic conditions (no electricity or running water) with a tribal community in Bihar for months before that. Went to this retreat, having never meditated before.— Charlie Awbery (@_awbery_) June 21, 2019