You can learn a lot about your mind in a year. In the Summer of 2019 I had an unexpected peak experience while at a meditation retreat (I commonly refer to this as my “A&P” experience). I wrote a series of posts in early 2020 trying to make sense of what happened and to understand the particular interplay between meditation and depression at the core of the experience. The conclusions I came to and the path they set me on were probably the best I could have hoped for at the time, but I have now spent over a year in dedicated practice. Stuff that was conceptual has become more practical and I now have some additional data points on the effects of meditation with depression (at least as far as my particular psyche is concerned). With that in mind, I’d like to make a brief report about what I’ve learned and experienced over the past year, and how that has affected my personal assessment of where I am in life.
No Going Back
Since my return from retreat in the Summer of 2019 I have had a dedicated meditation practice. The advice from the retreat teacher at the completion of the 5-day retreat was to make a realistic commitment to daily practice, with an emphasis on the daily part. Rather than commit to an hour a day, she recommended a more digestible commitment — like 30 minutes — and then to sit longer if you felt like it. (Although she did make the point that to really make progress, you should be sitting for about an hour a day.)
I followed her recommendation, committing to sit at least 30 minutes but soon finding that I could sit easily for an hour — sometimes more. For the first few months I know I had at least a 100 day streak (with one day off for a horrific ear infection). Much of that consistency and ease was due to the post A&P Honeymoon, where everything was easy and wonderful. Since then I’ve mostly practiced an hour a day, but not always. I had a family trip where I didn’t practice for a week and another two weeks where my teacher recommended I take a break. I’ve also had days here and there where I skipped and others when practice was 20 to 40ish minutes, but otherwise it’s been a consistent dedicated practice and one of the top priorities in my life. My best estimate is that I’ve conservatively done about 430 hours of meditation in that 16 month time period.
It hasn’t been heroic. I have not left my home for month-long retreats in Asia. And yet that simple consistent commitment combined with good guidance and the right practice has had a profound effect on my mind. I have had lots and lots and lots of ordinary, boring, and sometimes uncomfortable sits, but I have also had experiences that have opened my understanding of the vast potential of the mind. I have had deep experiences of tranquility and bliss, roaring surges of pleasure, high resolution dreams, euphoric psychedelic experiences and incremental insights into the subtle interworking of my mind. I sometimes think of the past year as a slow motion acid trip. Even when meditation is boring, it has not been boring.
And yet, the past year has not just been about trippy experiences. There is a clear sense that the baseline functioning of my mind is changing. It can feel liberating, empowering and exciting, but it can also be terrifying. I had one experience where I was so overwhelmed by the rush of sensations I felt radiating out of my body that I exclaimed, “My God, what am I doing to my mind?” Once you start on the path, it can gain a momentum of its own. Meditate enough and the mind starts meditating you. This sounds all fine and dandy if meditation were just a nice smooth linear curve upwards — “Wow, eventually it just goes on autopilot!” — but it turns out the ride has dips and valleys in it. I referenced this a bit in my previous posts. Meditation can take you to painful places. Within the community I practice in, this is often referred to as the Dark Night, but I also like the more traditional Pali designation of the Dukkha Ñanas (Dook-uh Nyah-nuhs), which translates as “Knowledges of Suffering”. When I first wrote about the Dukkha Ñanas they were conceptual. Months later, I even thought I might have skirted them. They are no longer conceptual.
This is perhaps the most important part of this log. Especially if you are thinking of taking on a dedicated meditation practice, you should read this and every other warning there is out there about the perils that await you. Consider this my thread of yarn through the Labyrinth of the Minotaur.
The Dukkha Ñanas
I spoke in a previous post about the Progress of Insight (or POI). The POI is a map of perceptual development found in the 5th century Buddhist meditation manual, the Vissuddhimagga. It describes predictable phenomenological patterns that present themselves as an individual meditates. Within the Pragmatic Dharma community, the POI is considered to be a description of universal human development, regardless of its particular Buddhist origin. There are thousands of accounts of meditators describing the POI in their practice at places like the Dharma Overground. I’ve seen the patterns present themselves in my own practice as well. I’ve found it to be incredibly useful as far as describing what is happening to my mind, what will come next, and fitting the best practices to each phase.
A shorthand description of the POI can be broken up into 3 chunks: First, an individual starts investigating the experience of being alive. It could be done intentionally like with a meditation practice, but it could also happen in the natural course of life for lots of different reasons — changes in life circumstances, stress, drug use, or just natural curiosity about things like the mind, dreams and existential questions. Whatever the reasons, the investigation eventually leads to a peak experience called the Arising and Passing, that is generally novel, euphoric and life changing. For me it was an amazing, illuminating surge of joy that erased years of depression and allowed me to see through a certain illusion that I had been carrying with me my whole life.
Second, the Arising and Passing is followed by the Dukkha Ñanas. They are about gaining knowledge about the various types of suffering that the mind is capable of. They are the crash after the high, the descent into the cave of the beast, they are Christ on the Cross lamenting, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?” In almost any tradition, after an account of a spiritual high, you will find some sort of account of a descent into the Dark Night.
Third, with the right practice, and the right guidance, eventually you enter a phase known as Equanimity. Equanimity stands out in contrast to both the highs of the A&P and the lows of the Dukkha Ñanas. Equanimity is about not being carried away by either extreme. You are okay with both. That may give the impression that it turns you to an emotionless robot, but the truth is that it is quite pleasant, just in a more subtle, easy-going way. I like how Daniel Ingram describes it — as embodying the unflappable coolness of James Bond or Laura Croft.
With time, eventually Equanimity develops to a point where the conditions are right and Stream Entry occurs. Stream Entry is the first true taste of awakening, and once it happens it sets a process in motion that leads inexorably to greater awakening.
That’s the POI in a nutshell, but 2020 has not been about Equanimity or Stream Entry, however much I would like it to be the case. 2020, as we all know, has been about suffering.
In my personal case I got the first taste of the Dukkha Ñanas sometime in March of 2020. At that time I was in the midst of what was likely a 2nd A&P experience. I had a simple dream one night, but one that had the quality of dreams that you only get with lots of meditation — high resolution, clear, stable and hyper real. It was a vision of the front room of my home, in broad daylight, with the door ajar and a breeze blowing through the door. It had the quiet stillness you might expect from a Buñuel dream sequence, and it came with a terrifying sense of complete exposure.
A few weeks later, after a particularly euphoric meditation session, I had another dream of similar quality. It started with the non-sequitur, foggy randomness of a typical dream but as I moved through whatever absurd situation I was in the midst of (I think I was visiting a yarn factory with friends) something caught my attention over my shoulder. The dream suddenly snapped into HD as I looked in confusion at a roaring, sky-scraper-tall geyser of water towering above the trees nearby. As I craned my head upwards I saw it was capped by a mushroom cloud. I goaded my friends into the basement of a nearby house where we frantically tried to turn on the TV to get more information. Before we had the chance, I looked out the basement window and saw in horror as a wall of earth broke away from the side of the house and then stars as the world shattered into pieces. I awoke from this dream in a panic. The curtain was totally pulled back. A house, walls, a door were nothing — silly attempts to try to comfort myself in the face of the truth that we could all die at any moment. The panic was so intense that I had to consciously and carefully keep myself from screaming and writhing in terror. With time, my mind calmed and was followed by a flood of gratitude and love for life and my family. After that dream, I decided to get a teacher.
If I could make one recommendation for anyone else thinking of taking on a serious meditation practice, it would be this: don’t do it alone. Find a community to practice with, and when the time is right, find a teacher, and get the best one you can find — someone with years and thousands of hours of experience, but more importantly someone that has experience with awakening and helping others with awakening. Even better, follow Bill Hamilton’s advice as shared in Saints and Psychopaths — find an Arahant to teach you.
This Dukkha Ñanas stuff can take you seriously off the deep end and you desperately, crucially need people that can keep you grounded and safe. While they can offer valuable support, the everyday people in your life will not be enough. They won’t understand what you are experiencing and most of what you share will just freak them out. Practitioners will have the benefit of having passed through this stuff themselves. They will have the ability to recommend practices for navigating the rough territory, but more importantly they have the ability to normalize the experience. They can help to keep you from thinking you are going crazy.
I retained the services of a teacher in May of 2020 and it didn’t take long to see the wisdom in that decision. One day, in the end of July, I decided to microdose some mushrooms. I’m a very infrequent drug user. Most psychoactive substances, in one way or another, make me sick. Mushrooms in very small doses seem to be the exception, and provide a subtle high that’s nice for relaxing activities like listening to music or going for a hike. I’d kept a log over the years of each of my microsoding experiences, and had gained enough confidence in my reactions that I had even microdosed with family around. It had probably been 8 months since the last time I had microdosed, but one afternoon I decided to do a small dose. I’m not sure if I’ll ever do mushrooms again.
About an hour after dosing I felt the high coming up but it almost immediately transformed into anxiety. This was made worse by having my family in the house with me and not wanting to freak out around them. I explained the situation to my wife, apologized and had her run interference while I rode it out in the bedroom. The anxiety quickly began to suffuse my entire body until every sensation felt wretched. It was like fingernails on the chalkboard from head to toe. I wanted to scream and writhe, but I did my best to relax through it. As I lay in bed, the sensations intensified until my entire body began to convulse. It was mostly spontaneous contractions through my core, like I was doing lots of fast crunches, but as the feelings developed my hands and legs began to flail around involuntarily too; punching in the air in a ghoulish dance of agony.
I wrote it off as a bad drug reaction and didn’t mention it to my teacher. About a month later I began to have a series of experiences that made me think the convulsions were more strongly related to meditation than I had thought. In late August, after a stressful day, I had a grinding sense of exhaustion and collapsed into bed after dinner. After waking up, I joined my family who were in the process of watching an episode of Fixer Upper. There was an uneasy emptiness and I quickly got the sense that something was off. I went back up to my room and soon enough the finger-nails-on-chalkboard sensations returned. Everything felt awful, and the thought of making any mental choice felt unbearable. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone or direct any energy to acting or doing. There was a strong sense of wanting to get out, wanting it to end and feeling hopelessly trapped. I had intense sensations in my brow area and my face began to smirk and convulse. This soon spread to my whole body until I was in the midst of full body convulsions again.
This time I contacted my teacher. Her recommendation was to stop practicing for a bit and to do some “grounding” activities. I’m sure with more time I’ll understand this better, but Insight Meditation, at some level, is about letting go of the things that give you habitual comfort but prevent you from clearly seeing the sources of suffering in your life. Again, the Cloak of Depression metaphor applies here. As you slowly let go of these habits, your mind and body can panic. There is nothing to hold on to, no place of safety, no root, no ground. Eventually, as I have heard it reported, your mind adjusts to new a perceptual reality. I’ve heard it described as jumping out of a plane and realizing you have no parachute. You panic, until you realize that there is also no ground. The trick is to make the adjustment without freaking out so bad that you do harm to yourself or others. This is the most serious danger of meditation practice. There are those that push their minds so hard that there is a break with reality. I’m not sure how common it is, but meditators have taken their own lives in the midst of this type of distress. Having passed through it myself, this is in no way shocking.
As my teacher has described, the strain you put on your mind with meditation is not unlike the strain you put on your body when you exercise. Just as your body must recover, so to your mind. Grounding exercises are ways to take your attention out of the abstract mental heights and put them back into your body; to re-establish a sense of safety and solidity until your mind can recover enough to return to practice.
I ceased practicing, but I had a few more destabilizing experiences over the next few days that left me in a fragile puddle by the end of the week. I was terrified of doing or not doing anything, of being with others, but also of being alone. My wife asked me if I would like to drive down with her and the kids to a family dinner or stay home by myself. The overwhelm of trying to make that decision made me break down in tears.
The grounding practices included things like eating heavy meals, doing chores, taking long walks, and being social. There are lots of mature trees in my neighborhood, and as I would go on walks I would place my hands on the trunks of trees and imagine an electric current flowing through my body into the heavy mass of the trees. Maybe it is something archetypal about trees, but feeling the texture, solidity and weight of these trees seemed like magic. The tree huggers are on to something.
Sharing the experience on Dharma Overground was also comforting. Just having others say, “yeah, that stuff happens’’ had a powerful effect of bringing me back down to earth. They also reinforced the idea of reality testing — reminding yourself in the midst of distressing experiences that you are in a safe place, and that you have the time and space to let the process unfold; there is nothing to do, no reason to worry and that the unpleasant experiences are part of a process that leads to the next step on the path.
I also started sessions again with my therapist. I wanted to make sure I had a professional, objective opinion from outside the realm of meditation practice. I felt like there were other psychological issues exacerbating the distress. It was like the psychological issues created an interference pattern with the meditation stuff that made all of the Dukkha Ñanas sensations more intense. Whatever the reason, good old fashion talk therapy seemed to help.
Eventually I stabilized enough to start practicing. Slowly at first and with a focus on grounding within the practice, but to reiterate, finding support from others was the most important move I made. Getting a teacher, having a community of practitioners to talk with, doing therapy and perhaps most importantly, having the trust and faith of my wife. There are other recommendations I could make about passing through the Dukkha Ñanas, but the support system seems most crucial.
I’m increasingly convinced that relationships are essential to our sanity. My teacher has spoken about the possibility of what she calls “unbalanced awakening”. My instinct is that a disconnection from others is at the core of such outcomes. Pragmatic Dharma is essentially a post-modern project. It is about pulling the practices out of tradition, culture and community and testing to see what works, but at some point the pieces need to be put back together into something integrated and whole. The communal context that awakening occurs within ought to be much more carefully investigated, understood and integrated into our spiritual practices. While I can’t speak too much about the particulars, institutions like the Monastic Academy are at least making attempts to address this issue. It may take decades or more before we develop mature institutions that incorporate this in an elegant, stable and ethical way, but the work is as essential as the work of awakening itself.
I’ve had regular dips into the Dukkha Ñanas since then, but nothing has felt quite as intense. I went through a period where lots of spontaneous face smirking and contorting happened in practice and I still have occasional convulsions, but they are smaller and less uncomfortable. I recently went through a 2 month period where I was overwhelmed with sleepiness in almost every single one of my sessions, which is another manifestation of the Dukkha Ñanas. I’m currently taking a break from practice again. I had a recent breakthrough which is proving difficult for my mind and body to adapt to. Christmas was pretty raw, although the new Megaminx has been a nice palliative (not too tricky to solve if you’ve got some 3x3 experience).
All of these Dukkha Ñanas experiences clearly put into question the effects of meditation on depression. They sound pretty horrific. So does this mean I didn’t escape the chains of depression after all? Time will tell. It’s always a moving target, but at least I can report what the last year has been like. Let’s put the icky stuff into context.
The Depression Report
As I mentioned in the previous posts, I have long since come down from the months-long euphoria of the 2019 A&P experience. Part of the dramatic depression-evaporating diagnosis was due to this euphoria. The fact that it lasted as long as it did was pretty wonderful but also could have led to a bit of an overcalling in the diagnosis. At the time, there was a hope that this would be the new baseline — getting up effortlessly every morning, being full of love and gratitude and finding pleasure in just being alive — but this has since proven not to be the case. I can’t say that my mind has gone back to feeling how it did before — far from it — but clearly it has also not been a walk in the park.
All that having been said, I can’t honestly say that I would call myself depressed. First, I’ve done more than a few depression assessments with professionals in the past. I know the questions they ask and how they define depression, and I’m pretty confident that I wouldn’t qualify by the clinical definition of depression. I have ups and downs. As I’ve described, some of the downs are profoundly distressing and raw, but the downs are not consistent enough or of a long enough duration to qualify as depression. I keep a regular meditation log, where I also record how I am doing in life in general, and when I look back at it, the really bad Dukkha Ñanas stuff is a small portion of what I’ve experienced in the past year. Mixed in right alongside the bad stuff is lots of ordinary stuff and a decent amount of really good stuff too. I have an entry in my log where I am sitting on my bed in the morning enjoying the sensations of coolness on my feet, an experience I could have never imagined before meditation. I went through a period of about a month where I was having these profound experiences of joy hiking in the hills above my home. I am more engaged and loving with my family and more able to just enjoy simple things. I don’t binge watch television or get addicted to video games anymore. In my practice and in my life, I’ve also tasted the Equanimity phase of the POI. Much of this year has seemed to be a cycle actually. I reach up into a new height of Equanimity and my mind has to adjust, which brings me back down into the Dukkha Ñanas. I like to call this the spin cycle of the POI. It can be kind of a grind, but with each cycle things get better. I get more adapted to the hard stuff and more open to the good stuff. My mind is changing, and it’s mostly changing for the better.
This all seems to confirm the Cloak of Depression model I described in my previous posts. I have more ups and downs because I have become better at allowing myself to feel. My highs are better. They come at the cost of feeling some lower lows, but there is a healthy clarity about all of it. It just feels like a much more psychologically balanced way to approach being alive.
Second, and this is a big one, all of the ups and downs come within a framework of a purpose. I am not suffering pointlessly. When there are downs, I see them within the context of a spiritual path. As a concept, this is nothing new, as it is a core part of the Mormon ideology that I grew up with, but it is now something I am experiencing in a direct way. The concept still matters, but the experience enriches the concept with a powerful, practical faith. I can see the growth possible when suffering is approached in the right way. It is part of the journey now. I have something to look forward to even in the face of pain, fear or misery.
So, in short — life is at times painful, but no, I’m not depressed.
Do I Still Recommend Meditation to Others?
I’ve thought a lot about the ethics of promoting meditation in the past year. Are the potential risks worth the benefits to practitioners? How would I feel if my efforts convinced someone to undertake a meditation practice and it led to their death or some sort of permanent psychological damage? What if it was my own children? In general I am inclined to err on the side of caution, but as I more carefully investigate the issue, I think it is more nuanced.
At the very least, making a recommendation for an individual would require me to have an understanding of the risk factors and best practices for harm reduction that is beyond my abilities. Even among those that specialize in answering those questions there are still important gaps in understanding (Check out Cheetah House and the EPRC to read more about those that are at the forefront of this work). We are still very much at the early stages of establishing the scientific rigor that would be necessary to confidently prevent harm let alone prescribe meditation as an intervention. Making a blanket recommendation that everyone should meditate then makes absolutely no sense to me.
That having been said, I don’t believe in being quiet about it either. I think the most ethical approach is to inform rather than advocate. My aim is not to get people to meditate necessarily, but to lay out the risks and rewards as best I understand them, with a full acknowledgement of what is missing from my understanding.
I take this approach for two reasons: First, mindfulness is already a huge trend, and is only growing. The pro-mindfulness movement is already advocating for mindfulness to be part of our school curriculum, our workplaces and our health care system. Promotion of meditation is already happening at a large scale in every corner of our society. It’s spreading without me doing anything about it. People are going to stumble into the POI, just as I did, at greater and greater numbers as time goes on. The urgency then is to catch up with the mindfulness fad, to get more information about the POI out there, so people understand how deep meditation might take you and how perilous that might be.
Second, If our intent is to reduce harm, there is also a moral obligation to inform people about the potential benefits of meditation. There is immense suffering in the world that could be alleviated through contemplative practice, including the possibility that lives could be saved. People must judge individually if the risks are worth taking and if they have the requisite psychological stability and support systems in place, but they have the right to know the option is available. The path is an adventure. It’s Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in the most literal sense. Everyone has the right to know that there is a treasure, and to decide for themselves whether it is worth the descent into Grendel’s Lair. The decision to walk the path should be made soberly and cautiously, but it is not my decision to make for anyone but myself.
Third, if someone does decide to walk the path, I want company. A quest is always better with company, but this is particularly so in a quest with so many perils. For my safety and the safety of others, I want to make sure we are connected, for all the reasons listed above. In general I find the Lord of the Rings to be a tedious, overwrought viewing experience, but there is one scene that gets me every time. On the precipice of Mount Doom, when Frodo has given all he can, he collapses in exhaustion. At the edge of despair his friend Samwise lifts Frodo to his shoulder and cries, “I can’t carry the ring for you, but I can carry you!” In his last desperate act of loyalty Samwise carries his friend to the threshold. As the old Zen saying goes, “Best not start, but if you start, best to finish!” For the love of all that is holy, you and I must get that ring to Mount Doom, but we’ll all be much better off if we’ve brought a Samwise along. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have my wife, at least in part, to act in this role; to be able to take over when I’ve become completely incapacitated. I don’t need it often, but when I do, it’s a life saver — maybe literally so.
Perhaps someday we will build institutions that can guide people through the path with the loyalty, love and strength of a Samwise Gamgee. There are those starting to do the work towards this end, but we are far from it. The most crucial work to be done within mindfulness is an acknowledgement of harm and the development of loving and sophisticated tools for minimizing it. The psychedelic and general psychoactive community is way ahead of mindfulness in this regard. In general, there are better resources for people navigating their minds on drugs than there are for people navigating their minds as they are.
With that in mind I have to come to this with a massive dose of humility. I still have much to learn about the potential of my own mind. Much can happen within a year, but it’s still just a year, and it’s still just my own mind. I eagerly await the adventure ahead, I’m happy to share it, but what lies down the path is still almost entirely a mystery.