A Play With Mental States
This is a story. It has some personal insights. They are worth sharing. I have gone from feeling nothing for a long time to feeling miserable. To feeling great, to feeling miserable again, and so on and so forth like a wave in the last three months. All this started when I decided to step out of the house after having been locked inside for ~2 years of lockdowns. To push myself to stay in hostels so that I get to socialize with people. I believe I have found the tools to maintain a sense of calmness, composure. This is not a “not feeling anything” state. Rather an undercurrent of calm pleasantness that stays throughout the day.
You can ignore the background context and how I ended up at the vipassana retreat, and start reading from Nick Cammarata’s tweet section.
After the first covid wave had waned, I moved to my parents house and started staying with them. During this period I continued working remotely, and learn some math on the side. It kept me engaged. After some time math went off the rail because of other things that needed attention. Life became a routine, and the environment was quite predictable. My emotional state grew numb. There was a tinge of something missing. Except for that sense, everything was acceptable. Over time the desire to step out, and meet some people grew. I think social media also played a role in this :) I decided to step out, and stay in hostels. I knew it would be an uncomfortable experience but I didn’t let that stop me from doing this - thought was to push myself. But, I didn’t know the extent of this discomfort, I didn’t know the extent of pain it would lead to.
Travel and hostels
I moved to Pune in March. The very first day was intense. My guess about why it would be uncomfortable was because I would have to share a dorm room with random people. But rather, the dorm was empty, yet the emotional state was intense. Most of the hostel was empty since we were still at the tail end of the omicron wave. Over time, I met some people, changed hostels, met some new people. But the emotional state kept going up and down. Both ups and downs were intense. Except for work during the weekdays, I could barely do anything in evenings and weekends. The emotional states were debilitating.
After Pune, I moved to Goa with a plan to spend two weeks there. The emotional downs intensified to the extremes I don’t remember ever seeing in my life. One evening, I spent hours walking down the beach, feeling deeply sad, lonely, and empty. I could sense my whole being filled with it. Every inch, every root of the hair. I felt all my hair had stood up to exude some of these emotions before the vessel exploded with the underlying pressure. Then these exuded emotions had filled up the sky. Every inch of it. Then I thought the sky would have to do something about it otherwise it would explode as a result. Sorry for these kinda-poetic lines, but I don’t know how else to describe that state.
Sadness could mean many things. This one was more of a desolate, loneliness, emptiness kind of feeling. This is what continued throughout the travel.
I cut off my stay in Goa after that evening and returned back to parent’s place the next day.
I spent a couple of weeks in Bangalore after that, meeting old friends and colleagues. This helped re-balance and re-calibrate a bit. But the undercurrent of sadness continued anyway. During this period, I came across the following tweet.
Nick Cammarata’s tweet
A friend shared a tweet with me that sent me down the rabbit hole of exploring meditation, psychedelics, their impact on the brain, psychotherapy, internal family system, ideal parent figuer etc. This You are probably underestimating how good self-love can be is one nice introductory article to self-love.
Anyway, self-love in itself wasn’t interesting to me. The idea that you could tweak the mental state intentionally seemed very appealing. It made sense to try out different tools and see where they lead. The kid in me had awakened and wanted to play with emotional states. That in itself made me feel great for the next two days - the hope that you could tweak your states.
I think the first step is to have a sense of hope that, eventually the clouds will clear up
I started reading blogs, tweets, some research around meditation. Decided to give it a serious try.
After about a week of seeing Nick’s tweet, and thinking about it constantly, I registered for a vipassanā retreat for one month down the line. The earliest slot I could find. Vipassana retreat is ~10 hours of sitting and meditating for 10 days straight.
To prepare for it, I decided to meditate for an hour a day from that day onward. I haven’t felt sad ever since! I don’t know if this is because I started believing that meditation could fix my emotional state, or because it actually works. Also, I don’t know if it is going to stick or change in future. Regardless, I am grateful and I am hopeful. Recounting some interesting experiences below:
- It is challenging to sit for one hour without moving.
- The mind is usually chatty in the beginning, but it starts quieting down. The number of thoughts, and each thought’s pull on you starts going down.
- About 20-30 mins in, the mind goes completely blank (this doesn’t always happen, and YMMV).
- About 45-60 mins in, interesting things start happening.
- Some interesting things:
Pain kicks in about 30 mins in, and it becomes unbearable at about 45 mins in. If you still push through and observe the sensations of pain, they disappear. Leaving behind a sensation of tingling, or an easily tolerable sense of pain. My hunch is that pain works in two layers:
- (1) There is the actual pain. Your body sending a signal to your brain that something needs to be done about this built up pressure, and
- (2) your brain screaming at “you” to do something about it.
My hunch is, >95% of the pain you feel is (2).
Where am I? Who am I?: This experience is hard to describe, and there’s a lot more to it but to put it simply: you lose the sense of having a body, and even the mind. Only a sense of awareness remains. This has happened only once so far, other times were not as intense. This left me feeling light, and pleasant. I think this is what they call “mind/body dissolution”
Tears: Sometimes you cry. The first time this happened to me, I didn’t have a single thought in my head but a growing sense of some emotion. After the session I felt good, like any other.
An intense pleasant sensation, or am I having an orgasm: Yes, sometimes this happens too. Goenka says be wary or these states, and like always: observe, instead of giving in or reacting to them.
Anyway, the biggest observation and gain is this: Over a couple of days, I started noticing a change - I was noticing myself more. Every time I sensed a change in emotional balance, the awareness kicked in like an anti-virus software. It would follow the thought that caused the change, and reason about it resulting in its diminished impact. Some other times, I would let the emotion grow, watching what it does - it grows and then disappears. I believe this is the key, I think this is what mindfulness is about.
This is probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Here’s the regime for 10 days:
- Wake up at 4am
- Go down to the hall or your pagoda cell for a 4:30am - 6:30am meditation session
- Breakfast between 6:30am - 7:00am
- Wash, bath 7:00am - 8:00am
- Meditate: 8:00am - 11:00am
- Lunch, rest: 11:00am - 1:00pm
- Meditate: 1:00pm - 5:00pm
- Snacks, walk: 5:00pm - 6:00pm
- Meditate: 6:00pm - 7:00pm
- Dhamma discourse: 7:00pm - 8:30pm
- Meditate: 8:30pm - 9:00pm
- Lights out: ~9:30pm
Rules (among others which are mostly irrelevant like “no killing”):
- No mobile phones
- No communication: no talking, gestures, looking in somebody’s eyes etc
- No reading, or writing is allowed
On day zero, you are supposed to give up your mobile phone along with other valuables. They take care of lockers etc. The time I gave up my mobile I felt quite light haha. After moving to the room that was assigned to me, I sensed this gnawing need to check my phone, found it missing, and realized its hold on me (I’m still struggling with this). On this day, you have to take vows of “noble silence” among other things, but you get to talk with other people a bit. One guy was going around asking people how they came to know about Vipassana. Someone responded saying he came to know about it from Jack Dorsey (Twitter guy). We were all surprised.
A sudden gush of tears
On day two, in one of its evening sessions, I remember being highly focused. The mind was completely blank. Suddenly a memory of my grandfather came to the surface. Before I could process it, I sensed a gush of tears roll down my eyes. Then it ballooned and took over. I couldn’t stop crying. My grandfather passed away four years ago. I felt quite light afterwards - as if I had made peace with that fact. Rationally, it is hard for me to grasp how and why this could happen. I am curious to understand the underlying brain circuits that allow such thing to happen.
Dissolving the pain
In the first three days, we’re all supposed to do Ānāpāna which is focusing on the sensations of breathing in and around the nasal area. From day four onward, we start doing vipassanā. On day four’s evening, in one of their guided meditation sessions, Goenka says: This is an hour of adhiṣṭhāna. That is, you make a vow to yourself that you would not move in that hour. Co-incidentally, after having tried all other postures, I was sitting in the half lotus at that time. I tell myself this is adhiṣṭhāna. The usual 30 mins of pain to kick in were way shorter. The pain was excruciating. I remember telling myself this is impossible to put up with, and it is borderline torture. Yet I pushed through anyway, because I knew from my experience earlier that you could silence the pain. I believe something interesting happens in moments like these. I don’t know exactly what happened, or what I did, but I remember it being a conscious effort. That excruciating, unbearable pain turned into a tingling sensation. This was a proof once again to myself that - the pain is in the head.
It is our desire to push away the pain that causes the most pain. The reality doesn’t hurt as much.
What if something happens to my parents
On day 5, and 6 I had this recurring worry. I was completely disconnected from the outside world. I was worried if something bad happens to them, I won’t even get to know it until it’s too late. Again, I realized this is only a thought. My mind playing its tricks - I reasoned with it - first of all, the probability was too low. And one day they are going to pass on anyway, so why worry.
Interestingly, two other folks shared the exact same experience. Being worried about their parents. Another one was worried about his daughter. Everyone made peace with whatever-happens :)
Metta / Maitrī / Loving-Kindness
On day 10, Goenka runs through a guided session of metta meditation. Different meditation techniques act in different ways. Metta increases your empathy for other beings. As you go through it, you realize that self-concern reduces a lot more (it does in other techniques as well). It is replaced by concern for others. Paradoxically, it makes you sad, relieved, equanimous, happy all at the same time. I don’t know how to describe it. I shed tears in most metta sessions. Even after the retreat was over.
Tiny little mistakes
- Posture can be tricky in the beginning. The trick is to sit straight (even straight means multiple things, so try out a bunch of things). Goenka says this in the beginning. But like a good novice, I didn’t pay much attention to the man, and decided to continue sitting my way. But I realized over time that he was right. It’s sensible right? If the back is not straight, it’s going to put strain somewhere it’s not supposed to put. Imagine a curved piece of wood or metal - how much weight can you put on top before it gives out?. On day 4 onwards, I started sitting straight because there was no other way to sit long hours otherwise.
- Game of sensations - Goenka gives an impression that the goal or the objective is to feel “subtle sensations” throughout the body. I remember on day 5 or 6 feeling frustrated because I wasn’t feeling it in some parts of the body. I realized this had become a “goal” of its own, and was causing emotional distress. I gave up on it thinking - I came here to shed the existing ones, not create new ones. The idea of selflessness helps. Coincidentally in one of the discourses he warned about the same thing. He says even Buddha was concerned that people would get caught up in the game of sensations. The goal is to improve your sense-of-balance, or equanimity as you go through your day. Not to be in some mental state that allows you to feel sensations throughout the body.
To test your progress: Assess how mindful you are throughout the day. Observe what your sense of balance is like throughout the day
- Want to run away: Althrough Goenka says day 2 and 6 were the most challenging, that they see a drop of people on these days. I wanted to quit, or was counting the remaining days every single day up until day ~8. On day 8 I had stabilized in a way that I didn’t care much. On day 10 I wished that the retreat continued for some more. I think I have a huge sense of inertia - no change feels good. It was good that the training is to make peace with change. Anicca (impermanence), as Gojeka keeps repeating.
It’s been a couple of days since the retreat. I’ve kept the practice going. I am going through a book (Altered Traits) to understand what happens in the brain. This book is a meta-analysis (or review) of sorts of all the meditation research done up until 2014.
- I feel calm most of the times. I haven’t stepped out of the house to one of those crazy trips again, so I haven’t had the opportunity to put my new tools to the real test again. I will report back here, and on twitter.
- I felt serene for a couple of days post retreat, this has reduced a bit to only sense of calm now (today is day 18)
- I have kept up the practice. ~2 hours of meditation a day: one hour in morning, another in evening.
This is what I would say to my past self (and probably you too):
It is worth exploring different states of being: Go crazy; be miserable, as much as possible. Be elated, as much as possible. Try crazy different things that you wouldn’t normally because - you are trying to be in a state you haven’t been in before. If you don’t, you wouldn’t know what all you are capable of feeling and/or seeing.
Don’t be numb, or empty all your life. We overestimate the importance of intellect, and underestimate the importance of emotional being. Can you think of a single thing that is not driven by emotions? They sit at the base of everything.
Burn your books. They will confuse you, make you miserable. You haven’t learned it, until you have not experienced it (You know you don’t have to take this literally ;))
Watch yourself - this will change the whole game of life. It’s simple, but requires building a skill. It’s like swimming or riding a bike. You keep a sense of awareness alive somewhere at the back of your head. The unhealthy states arise because we let the emotion take hold of us. We let it grow from within, without being aware of it. Like a snowball rolling off the mountain. Catching it early on helps.