Retreat Report #1 (RR 1) - Non-Dual Insight Into Not-Self - "It's See/Hear/Feel All the Way Down!"

I am blessed to have been able to sit a two week meditation retreat in the midst of the current COVID 19 crisis. I'd been looking forward to the retreat for several months now, so I was quite bummed when I learned in early March that the retreat had been canceled because of social distancing guidelines. Eventually, however, the retreat teacher and organizers graciously offered to hold the retreat online. At first, I was skeptical. What would a two week online retreat from home look like in the middle of the state-wide lockdown that I found myself in? How to create a suitable container for retreat practice at home, with all of the distractions that this most comfortable of all venues entails? How to conduct a meditation retreat from home when my wife is not sitting the retreat? These questions sorted themselves out eventually. Agreements were reached, and arrangements made. The online two week retreat was a "go".

Happily, I survived the two week retreat. It was tough. Tougher than a residential retreat. There are so many distractions . So many memories, so many hopes and dreams pinned to the walls, floors and ceiling of my home. Still, with the incredible help and support of my wife, we managed to create a quiet space for the retreat to take place. And as I settled into it and got into my meditation groove, the insights began to come. Slow at first. But eventually it was as if the floodgates opened and the insights came pouring in.

So many insights came, in fact, that I've decided to do a "Retreat Report" (RR) series of blog posts on the most salient of the understandings that emerged from the retreat. It is common to hear about "insights" in meditation circles. But it is less common for people to report in some detail the nature of the insights reaped and  the conditions that allowed the insights to ripen.

In this series, I hope to shed some light into how these insights coalesced in my own practice, in the context of this very special two week retreat in the times of coronavirus. There are many more reports to come as part of this "RR" series. I hope you find them helpful as you continue to blaze your own trail through the thickets of meditative and contemplative life.

RR #1 - Day 4 of April 2020 Two Week Retreat - "It's See/Hear/Feel All the Way Down!" - Insights into Not-Self and Non-Duality

Every day of the retreat would begin with a long 1 hour and 40 minute sit. The Day 4 early morning sit began with "Do Nothing" meditation practice. After a few short minutes, the mind spontaneously dropped into a very still place. After about 10 minutes of bathing in this profound stillness, it dawned upon me that the stillness felt essentially identical to the equanimity that is experienced when one is in the Fourth Jhana. I then decided to cultivate the state as if it was the Fourth Jhana. To confirm, I went down to Third Jhana and eventually down to Second Jhana. It worked. Pleasurable physical sensations (Piti) came online in the background of awareness as I switched to Second Jhana, while a deep sense of happiness (sukha) dominated my attention. Having confirmed that I was accessing Jhanic states, I made my way back up to Fourth Jhana and spent about 20-30 minutes suffusing in that most concentrated and still of states.

At the one hour mark, I emerged from Fourth Jhana with a highly concentrated and collected mind. A mind that was clearly ready and primed for some insight practice. And then the fun stuff began. I started doing Shinzen Young's "See/Hear/Feel" noting practice and the insights started pouring in right and left. And then a big insight happened. I'd say it was an Insight with a capital "I". A deep insight into not-self, with a heavy dose of non-duality to boot. Here are the gory details, as taken from the notes I prepared right after the sit was over:

As I was doing see/hear/feel noting practice, I combined see/hear/feel with self-inquiry to develop my own version of the practice. What I would do is that I would note something using Shinzen's noting system, and I would then follow up the notation by inquiring as to who is actually knowing the sensory experience being labeled. Say, for example, that the sound of birdsong was detected. That experience would be labeled "Hear Out" under Shinzen's system, for it is an auditory experience (hear) that originates in external sensory stimuli (out). The added twist to the practice is that  right after mentally noting "Hear Out", I would ask myself "hear out becoming known by whom?" This question is meant to incorporate a self-inquiry element into the see/hear/feel noting practice.

As I was doing this practice, I noticed that there was a period of what Shinzen would call "rest". "Rest" takes place when there are no salient sensory inputs. That is, when there are no obvious internal or external sounds, sights or physical sensations. When this happens, the body-mind is temporarily at "rest", so Shinzen's noting system labels this state as one of "Rest". Having labeled the current experience as "rest", I then proceeded to ask "rest becoming known by whom". I was astonished by the answer. As is usually the case with these kinds of insight experiences, whatever "answers" come to these questions, they seldom come in words. Instead, they come by way of non-verbal understandings. This ineffable quality is a hallmark of understanding brought about by insight as opposed to understanding brought about by intellectual effort. This being said, I'll do my best to put it into words. The answer to my question was something like "rest" is "becoming known by see/hear/feel".

This marks the end of the experience itself. In what follows, I'll try to explain how I've processed this experience and what I think it may mean.  


What I mean by the state of "Rest" becoming known by "see/hear/feel"  is that there was no sense at the time of an independently existing "knower" that was becoming aware of the state of rest. That is, there was no notion of an independently existing subject, observer or self that was having this experience. This is contrary to the ordinary way of experiencing things, in which there is typically both an object of experience (e.g. a sound or a sight) and a subject of experience (e.g. the "self" that is experiencing the object of experience). 

But in this particular sit, there was no observer. There was just the raw sensory input. More specifically, when the inquiry was made into who is knowing the experience, the answer that came back was "the experience is being known by other sensory experiences". That is, the experience was being known by mental images re-constructing the experience (labeled "see in" in Shinzen's system), mental talk about the experience (labeled "hear in"), and physical sensations related to the experience, such as sensations of pressure where the seat meets the body (labeled "feel out"). 

And, crucially, these sensory experiences that were becoming aware of the state of "rest", were not experienced as an independent doer/observer/watcher. Instead, they were processed as sensory phenomena that would arise dependent on certain causes and conditions. More specifically, the question of who was becoming aware of the state of rest prompted a mental image of myself meditating (see in), and the precise contours of the image were in turn produced by feedback received from physical pressure sensations (feel out) that would allow for a rough sketch of what the body would look like given the position it was seated in. All of this seemed to be accompanied by mental talk that appeared geared to confirm that "I" was the one becoming aware of rest (hear in). But at the time, the mental talk was seen for what it was: just mental talk that was arising in response to certain conditions (the asking of the question). As such, the mental talk was seen as "not me", "not mine" and "not self". It was experienced, instead, as a mere thought. As an impression in awareness that arises and passes away, like all other sensory experiences. And as most learn quite quickly once they begin to meditate, these thoughts are seen to arise on their own, with no input from the meditator. As such, the thoughts cannot be "me". Instead, they appear to be happening to me. In much the same way, the mental chatter and mental images that arose in response to my question were clearly seen as simply additional impressions in awareness, arising and passing away pursuant to certain causes and conditions, in much the same way as all sensory experiences come and go.    

What I was left with at the end is what I have now conceptualized as ""see/hear/feel" all the way down", meaning that every sensory experience was preceded and followed by another sensory experience over which "I" had no control or authorship over, thus leaving no space for a self to coalesce into the subject of the experience. There was very clear awareness of the state of rest, but there was no sense of a self to which the state of rest could be ascribed to. There was, in sum, a knowing without a knower. 

After recounting the experience to my teacher, they explained that it not only entailed a significant insight into not-self, but also a dropping into a nondual state where there is only sensory experience without a subject to which the sensory experience refers to. As meditation teacher Michael Taft defines it, nonduality is an experience in which

"The sense of being a witness or seer of things vanishes completely, and instead you feel yourself to be whatever thing you are beholding....Awareness is no longer split into a[n] experiencer and the thing that is experienced, there is just pure experience with no divisions." 

In the particular meditative experience that I'm sharing here, the question of "rest becoming known by whom" induced a nondual state where there was no witness to witness the state of rest, no observer to observe the momentary lack of salient sensory input. Instead, there was merely rest and whatever accompanying sensory experiences were triggered by the question. 

The sense of self was thus seen as illusory, if only for a moment. Instead of a self, what was found was a combination of internal and external sensory inputs that combine and recombine to give rise to what we call the self sense. But underlying that felt sense, there were only sensory experiences. More specifically, there were only sensory experiences that arose in the midst of more sensory experiences, with no room, space or gap for a sense of self to emerge. It was, as my teacher put it, "see/hear/feel" all the way down!


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