First Post to the Dharma Overground

[This post was made to the Pragmatic Dharma site the Dharma Overground (DhO) 4 August 2013, soon after I had read Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, by Daniel M. Ingram, the site’s owner, soon to be my friend, and nowadays my “enemy” as we are in a legal dispute over rights to the second edition of the book, which I worked on. I had been practicing fast “noting” in the Burmese style as the first edition of MCTB enjoins, with some scary results.]


Hey, guys. I’m new and wanted to come into this forum more gradually, but I find I need some triage. Incredibly, I just lost a post I spent hours writing while trying to fend off “wave” vibrations that have me, um, starting to freak the hell out, frankly. I can barely see to type, for example. Basically, I’m now going to have to cut and paste a clumsier background and skip some things for now, including a description of an OOB experience I had around age 18. Apologies, but triage is triage. I’ll backfill later — if I survive, heh heh.

Early Meditation Background

I started meditating and identifying myself as a Buddhist only 2 years ago (after 25 years as an atheist existentialist poststructuralist, etc., etc.) in an effort to cope with pervasive fear and an odd sensitivity to the edginess surrounding pleasures that I felt I just “flitted” to and from.

I experienced raptures and firework-like lights (like flying shards of mirrors) after only my first sit or three, and after only 10 minutes. I seem to have a low threshold for crossing over into altered states and seeing everything as not solid. This propensity hasn’t always been convenient.

My immediate concern is that I’ve stumbled into vipassana territory I am not ready for, or haven’t practiced nearly enough to push up through precisely to higher insight stages. I’m worried I’m risking a meltdown. Yet I feel trapped, like I can’t go back now and simply dwell in samatha states. I wasn’t carelessly disregarding my medical history by engaging in noting practice; this just happened. I’m sure now that I’ve been “Dark Night” cycling most of my life.

I want peace.

General Medical History

Briefly, I have a history of anxiety/depression (no depressive episode since 1999, though) and, more disturbing and impactful to my life, vivid complex migraine auras that often include full-blown hallucinations, panic states, and neurological deficits that amount to loss of all but the strangely surviving and struggling-to-survive Observer. This is a rare but well-documented form of migraine diagnosed at UNC Hospitals back in the late eighties. My son has a version that is milder on the aura side, but heavier on the headache side, not really complex but classic textbook migraine. I only rarely get actual headache, which is why diagnosis was so difficult back in the day. It used to be known as basilar-artery migraine and hemiplegic migraine, which are poorly sorted diagnostically. Most just say “complicated migraine variant.”

Recent Progress through Insight Stages

I’m sure I crossed the [Arising and Passing Away insight stage] A&P (again) last weekend and have been experiencing irritation/fear states (along with vibratory and “boiling” vision all this past workweek. I had a short Misery stage Tuesday at work, though nothing in my life situations was making me miserable. As best I can make out, I entered Reobservation Thursday or Friday, if not earlier.

Yesterday afternoon, at a coffeehouse, experience shifted. The fine, irritating, furious vibes (mainly visual) suddenly morphed into much bigger “macro” waves of undulating distortions, like fabric on a slow but crazy breeze. Very LSD. They, like the finer layer of vibrations, never stop, even in my nighttime dreams, which remain ridiculously lucid and suddenly a bit powers-y (last night I was making other people do things in my dreams, just for perverse fun).

These big waves are even more obtrusive off the cushion than the irritation vibrations were, making me barely able to read as I sit here and queasy as if seasick. I want them to frigging stop! I’m now experiencing some anxiety spikes because I can’t control them and need to get some work done for my new job! Everything is “breathing,” but in distorted, house-of-mirrors ways I’m emphatically not enjoying.

Triage suggestions anyone? Or will I have to resort to lorazepam, rolling up the mat, and hanging on for dear life and sanity? I thought the waves meant I had hit Equanimity stage, so I meditated last night diligently, but this doesn’t feel nice or even neutral. I don’t even want to be conscious for this, let alone practice. What should I do? And is there hope I can hit a nicer version of something soon?

Migraine History

I had my first altered experience of consciousness at age 12, in an overheated crowded church while singing a hymn and staring at the cross above the altar. I suddenly experienced a “rain” of bright sparkling white lights, altered sound (everyone sounded plunged under bass-booming water), loss of perception of body fields, profound numbness, loss of speech, a plunge into slow-mo, and more (ie, less sense of even being there). This event was later diagnosed as complex migraine aura. My family has always joked that it was a religious experience. Now I wonder.

I’m 49 now and have sometimes been disabled for months with these migraine attacks (though less so since the last bad one in 2007). I would experience radically altered states of consciousness that are difficult to convey but not at all subtle in experience. These involved shimmering lights (common migraine fortification spectra), total blindness in the center of vision only, distorted or absent body fields, profound numbness, left-sided paralysis, slurred speech, loss of the ability to think in or understand language, uncontrollable twitching and body movements, and so on. These attacks usually began with a visceral fear state (terror, really) that suddenly arose from my gut into my mouth. It was much the way you feel when an elevator drops too rapidly and your heart is in your mouth, so to speak.

I had the last big one of these during a vacation in the Smoky Mountains in 2007. I had been well for a long time before that vacation. Suddenly, a particularly bad attack came on, proceeded by extreme vertigo (I lay down on the floor for stability, but the room was spinning). It went on for hours. At its worst, I was screaming because I was “experiencing” utter annihilation. I was yelling to my husband, “I’m disappearing! I’m disappearing! I’ll never come back!” Just real terror like you can’t imagine–the observer was there only to witness the impending destruction of even itself. All sense of body and most of mind were turning off. I was struggling at all costs to maintain a self.

After the first attack when I was 12, I was eventually diagnosed, but not before suffering extremely for decades and often feeling I was literally losing my frigging mind. In fact I suffered three nervous breakdowns because of the poorly controlled migraine condition and was then also diagnosed with severe agitated major depressive disorder. Phobias emerged also around travel, because of the migraine disease and the attacks that caught me by myself on the road or trapped in an airplane.

History of Other Strange Experiences

At age 19, trauma induced two weeks of hallucinations. I witnessed my mother have a seizure, stop breathing, and turn blue. I “saved” her when I bolted up out of sleep after hearing her fall. When we returned from the hospital after this event, I was drawing a bath and, sitting on the side of the tub, I went through a white light tunnel, thinking, “Oh, a migraine.” When I emerged, for a couple of weeks, everything I looked at that was organic died and rotted to nothing before my eyes: fruit, people, whatever. Music was broken down into its individual notes, and was painful to listen to, as if each chord was a tactile lashing. The music sounded discordant. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced and not to be forgotten. I was rational, too, and knew that I was “seeing things.” But I couldn’t stop it, until I finally slept one day after consulting a psychologist for hypnosis, woke up, and it had all just completely stopped. This happened 30 years ago, and it still haunts me.

I also around the same time experienced leaving my body, as if a mirror flipped into outer space and I was seeing myself and a friend from the other side. It was rapturous and time was passing. I felt like I could keep going deeper into space and never “come back.” I remembered my loved ones, though, contracted, and flipped back into my body state and point of view lakeside, with a friend, where we were watching “falling stars.”

“Letting Go” as a Practice Sand Trap

Last night while sitting for samatha (calm-abiding, concentration) breath meditation, I felt blockages catch up the breath at the level of the throat and chest. My mind was swimming, and I noticed that certain petty
stories obscuring energy arose and that my mind chased after the stories for long whiles, indulging in them. Then I remembered that I was intending to focus on and enjoy the calming breath, that I should “let go” of anger by letting go of the stupid, infuriating stories.

Effort as Practice Trap

However, I then realized deeply, because as personal experience, something I have only read here and there before now: I cannot “let go” of anger simply by foisting this agenda for release on the actual inner situation I, through karmic propensities, find myself in. In other words, intending to let go is trying to make something different from “what is” happen. It is aversion to here and now.

Consequently, what I ended up intentionally letting go of during this sit was the injunction to “let go” of anger and return full focus to the calming comfort of the breath. Instead, I remembered something more I had read in Thanissaro Bhikkhu about having to master states of mind before letting go of them. Although I did cease chasing after the crazymaking stories, I invited the anger itself in for the duration of the sit. I observed what it was doing to snag my breath in the throat and chest. Mindful of this discomfort, I realized through adherence to direct experience that anger is an inside con job.

Anger as an Abandonment Recital

Truly, whoever I’m angry at isn’t the object; I myself am the object of all that red steam. If I crack that con fount open and admit some clearer light, anger is seen to be really a frightening degree of sadness — a horror of abandonment.

Anger as Best Door to Insight

Anger is never itself, you see. It is a sham emotion, a delusion the mind fabricates and then 100% believes in only because being angry at x seems  less devastating than feeling hurt, left out, betrayed, or rejected by x. Paradoxically, in this sense, anger is important to feel and not to simply “let go” of, as if that were even possible–it is important to invite it to stay the night within a framework of Right View. It is in fact the best emotion to begin insight practice with, because it is, I further realized, the prototype for all emotion-delusions that the mind fabricates.

Interestingly, when I examined my anger this way and knew it intimately, “letting go” was the natural result, at least for the rest of the sit. Only – it wasn’t really “letting go,” which still implies some fiat on my part. 

Ajahn Chah on Separating Mind from Feeling

After I opened my eyes and rose from the floor, I started reading the collected works of Ajahn Chah, who happened to address this very realization in the passage I randomly opened to:

“When we say the Buddha told us to separate the mind from the feeling, he didn’t literally mean to throw them to different places. He meant that the mind must know happiness and know unhappiness. When sitting in samadhi, for example, and peace fills the mind, happiness comes but it doesn’t reach us, unhappiness comes but doesn’t reach us. This is how one separates the feeling from the mind. We can compare it to oil and water in a bottle. They don’t combine. Even if you try to mix them, the oil remains oil and the water remains water, because they are of different density.” 

When you really thoroughly know a thought-fabrication, in other words, you automatically experience the mind as separate from it:  “We say that we separate mind and feeling in this way but in fact they are by nature already separate. Our realization is simply to know this natural separateness according to reality. When we say they are not separated it’s because we’re clinging to them through ignorance of the
truth.” This is why we must meditate — to replace delusion with such insight.

Samatha-Vipassana as One Practice

Another realization during this sit was that Thanissaro is correct: samatha (calming) and vipassana (insight) meditations are not actually two separate types of meditation; instead, there is more properly samatha-vipassana, where stillness gives rise to discernment, and discernment gives rise to stillness (they help each other along by turns). I’m not at all advanced in samatha, so it was astonishing to have experienced vipassana at all, which is often taught as attainable only after stability in samatha. Thanissaro is always stressing that meditation requires individual experimentation in using one branch as a crutch for propelling the other forward; now I understand — through experience — what he means!

Language as Nonconstative Performance at Best

Another paradox ripening as I write is that none of this “stuff” can be satisfactorily reduced to language and transmitted to others — especially by a beginner, like me. The evidence for what I’m speaking of is existential, experiential; where there is no effort to meditate, there will be absolutely no apprehension of the ways in which beings fabricate delusion and believe that delusion is inescapable “reality.” Nevertheless, I was helped early on and am still helped by those who have taken the trouble to try to reduce meditative insights to words. They point to a mere hint; I walk on now beyond that trailhead alone.

Postscript 3 Years Later

[A full 3 years and several awakenings after having written the above entry, it is interesting to note that I’m now cycling back around to work, at a deeper level, on the same obscuration – anger as fear. I’m doing so through some advanced Chöd-like tantric practices and work on first and third chakras. As my teacher says, “The victim and the perpetrator are bound together, and if you identify with being the victim and aren’t willing to feel what it is like to be the perpetrator, then you won’t free up the clear vajra energy underneath anger.” These more current practices are documented in my current journal, Dharma by Daylight.


This was a difficult session. I knew beforehand that it would be; I just didn’t know exactly how. I had to deal with anger and unfairness in two big ways today. The first was from my turning away a publisher that is committing systematic tax fraud and cheating its workers. The second was that tension finally popped through the surface of my connection with L.

The Eruption

The eruption of anger at L was really more like longstanding resentment that I finally voiced when she was grouchy enough to first voice irritation with me. She seems to censor my “Buddhism” as not really “Jenny” and as inherently judgmental. It is probably fair to say that I do judge her and let her repetitive obsession-suffering patterns frustrate me until passing judgment is the only way I feel I can disentangle myself. But it is also fair to say that she is in fact indulging in patterns of thought I do not want to make my own ever again.

Although I can sympathize with her suffering, she does in fact intentionally, if ignorantly, create it, as we all create our own suffering. But it is clear that I cannot advise her. When I even inch in that direction, my “Buddhism” sounds smugly doctrinaire to her because she has, I just learned, decided to reject it without, of course, considering it. She is not as open as I at first thought and in fact has lately been angry and dismissive toward others in general. She enjoys raging, in short–or she thinks she enjoys it. Instead of drawing her in, my perspective puts her further off. She reacts fiercely to my even saying she is not on this path, as if that phrase were in itself not just a fact but a judgment. Well, it is a judgment. I judge indulgence in sexual obsession and denial of the obvious suffering it brings to be places I myself am not interested in exploring. Because our society extols romance, sex, and intoxication of passion, her view is normative and mine is dismissable as “inhuman.”

Almost every time she chats with me, she seems to leap on me with news of the latest failing by her would-be lover and her conviction that whatever ultimate future state she desires with him is already over. And the next week they are on again. Then off. And then on. It is silly. And she is so enmeshed that she won’t acknowledge that it is a pattern that she perpetuates with men. I understand these obsessions and how they feel. But my path has been to renounce those recursions. I find nothing enjoyable about feeling at the mercy of passions, including this saying-so. The difference is that she dismisses and censors my honest view, but I’m to spend ours helping her indulge this nonsense simply because it is the norm.

This arrangement is not fair. It hasn’t been fair for a long time. In truth, I’ve been disenchanted with her for months, often feeling like she sucks my energy away instead of building up a mutually helpful energy between us. Her having no toolbox is not something I should fault her for. But she is interested in feeling-addictions, not in ideas or understanding. In our tense exchange, she said “nor am I willing.” She was very pointed in her dismissal and sarcastic at one point. 

I finally regained mindfulness enough to realize I should stop the conversation, as it was becoming harmful, mutually harmful. She said she would never mention her bf again, which is not what I asked for but didn’t correct her about. I had asked only for the dismissive double standard to stop. But it is clear that she doesn’t want me to mention the dharma, and in exchange she’ll not mention boyfriends. 

The Gulf

When I said I needed to go meditate and sleep, she sarcastically wrote, “Oh yes. Go meditate. That will sort it all.” I answered this jealous stab calmly instead of reactively, and the calm was no act. And how was I able to? Because the complete loss of control, rage, and delusion on her part was suddenly so clear and foreign to where I’ve so far come that I really did feel some at least relative-level compassion for her, for what she does to herself in the name of High Romanticism. I used to be like that, just like that. But I’m tired of it, and she is not, not yet, not enough. It is strange–the point at which suffering becomes so thorough that it divides from itself just enough to become aware of its own intentionally self-harming nature. That is the point of renunciation, the first step. And there is truly no going back.

For many months I have been vaguely in unease over how my commitment to my practice is affecting and will affect relationships. Buddhist monks seem to offer contrary advice on whether to put oneself aside and just be there and listen, or whether to cultivate seclusion in order to safeguard the practice and what little progress has surely been made. I look across a gulf and see my suffering fellows. But I cannot single-handedly change their karma, and I’m not skillful enough to begin to teach them when I’ve barely begun to control myself (though I am going to give myself credit and truthfully acknowledge that things have shifted for me, and profoundly). 

The Seclusion

I think Tharissano is correct: It is necessary to cultivate seclusion, to make that really solid, to be unafraid to be alone, to befriend oneself in a truly unconditional, not-backward-looking way. I have long known that Facebook is poison. In fact, it was mainly while engaging in online convenience friendships that I first felt the stirrings of compassion for myself, that I simultaneously felt distanced from and sympathetic with my fellows on this ship of deluded fools called the Facebook newsfeed.

The skill of content seclusion and nonpublicity is the most important skill fo rme to work on. I will be tempted to turn to others, but I need to keep this firmly in mind, no matter the siren. I am so grateful for finding Thanissaro, because he has taught me how to find meditation so pleasant and interesting. He has taught me that it is in fact good to be mightily attached to the practice, for now. For how else can I slacken the pull of more poisonous forces?

During tonight’s meditation, my mind chased after past and future scenarios, and I could not find the moment of arising, the seam of becoming. I don’t even know whether what I decided to say to L today was mostly skillful, or mostly unskillful or even harmful. But I think it had to come out somehow, and at any rate it did. 

The Black Howl

During tonight’s sit, suddenly all this black howling grief arose in me. It came as from a bottomless black pit in me, astonishingly fast, all at once, full force. I was crying. I never heard the bell. So the sit was in chaos. Yet I noted afterward, and even during, that somehow I don’t feel the searing shrinkage at heart that I normally would. I feel sorrow, but not the fear of sorrow. 

Compassion and derailment both come from my father, from his pain and the karma that was and is my family. How do I behold others’ weaknesses and neither engage to save them nor boredly/smugly note to myself the gulf between us?

Is this separation part of the path? Yes, and it is saying that you need to retreat for a while.

Do I need to literally cultivate aloneness? Yes, and break the addiction to self-publicity.

Did L need to hear my criticism? Yes, she did, even if she doesn’t understand it at this time.


[As I write now nearly 3 years later, I have to remark how dear a friend L still is of mine, and note that, during my recent grieving over the loss of my friendship with Daniel, it was she who said to me the wise words that grief is never over whatever occasions it but is a release of much that has been long stored up.]

Drowning in Air

It took quite a while to quiet my mind, which tells me that I am not sustaining that centeredness that Thanissaro writes of. But when I fill the whole body with the Breath, everything calms and I want to stay. Tonight I felt a sense of drowning, drooling, and not having enough air, but I remembered that this is an illusion. Thanissaro speaks of a “drowning” sensation during meditation. But the body will take what it needs from the surrounding energy.

Lost Again but Tripping

I just lost my entry again, which angered me and then made me laugh.

I had no pain or numbness tonight. Breath became still but energy hummed along limbs and buzzed in my head. Enlarging the Breath to fill the body sort of dissolves the body. And then the meditation becomes like this rapid visionary trip: Layers peel off. Sharp bliss twinges, but better calm prevails.

I realized I wanted to sit longer. At one point opened my eyes and saw some swirls but couldn’t really control them. I decided not to fully trust them, because I know I create them yet they didn’t listen to my overt intention.