Barely Holding It Together

The past 24 hours have been… immeasurably difficult.

Last night, I had a panic attack after having some very uncomfortable and never-before-felt chest pain out of absolutely fucking nowhere. I took my blood pressure and the measurement was the highest it’s ever been – like, cardiac event high. This, unsurprisingly, scared the shit out of me and triggered an hour and a half long attack that I only just barely survived without going to the ER. Half an Ativan, two aspirin, a frightened walk around the block, and much reassurance from both my spouse and mother later, I finally accepted I would likely live through the night and went to bed.

Today, I woke up crying. Crying and crying and crying after a dream where my dead dog Eevee visited me. I decided I would go for a hike – I’m supposed to do this at least once a week for my Local Flora class and getting out of my apartment, being in nature, doing something sounded like a good way to break the crying cycle.

It all went well and good until I was literally ten feet away from the parking lot, getting ready to get back into my car. A sensation like a sting hit me on the back of the neck so abruptly I screamed and jumped. Suddenly, my mind was racing a hundred miles a minute thinking about how people who are allergic to penicillin (like me), very often have a similar reaction to bee stings. Terrified of anaphylaxis, I bolted to the car and immediately took a Benadryl. I tried to call Nicholas, who accidentally denied my call (he was sleeping), then called my mother. I sped to an Urgent Care only to realize Google had actually sent me to a regular physician’s office, then slightly reassured by the fact that my only symptoms were a little bit of redness around my neck (maybe from the sun, me rubbing it, who knows), and my discomfort, I yelled at my mom to keep Googling symptoms as I peeled down the freeway at 80 mph back home so I wouldn’t be alone.

Once I made it back to the apartment, for a minute it seemed I would be okay. Until I heard what I thought was a wheeze – my throat squeaking – and the panic was reset all over again. I woke Nicholas from his nap, demanding fearfully that he take me to a doctor, then tore out of the apartment to sit in the car and wait for him. As I sat there, I tried to get my Maps to work but it wouldn’t. It seemed like a sign. I felt stupid. I took a few deep breaths. I stared at my reflection in the mirror. When Nicholas finally made it to the car, he looked at me and I burst into tears, admitting, “Maybe it is just panic again.”

After driving around for a while, I finally accepted that I wasn’t immediately dying. We got back to the apartment and I took a nap on the couch. When I woke up, I showered off all the bug spray and sunscreen from earlier. We ate mac and cheese and watched anime. It seemed like I was going to be okay. I had a little bit of a Charlie-horse in my leg when I woke up (still do), but nothing was swollen, I was still breathing, maybe I could relax.

Now Nicholas is back asleep and I’m sitting in the dark, illuminated only by my monitor, waiting for the half a Benadryl I took to kick in and maybe encourage me to sleep, too. My anxiety is simmering precariously. I’ve relapsed into an old habit of pushing my tongue to one side so I can better feel the air passing through my mouth. When reaching for the half rather than the whole Benadryl, I thought, “What if it doesn’t last the night and this barely controlled allergic reaction finally hits? What if there’s some kind of venom still working it’s way through my system? What if? What if? What if?”

These most recent events are the worst my anxiety has been in ages. I don’t know why now. If I did, I would address whatever was causing it. I should probably meditate but I’m genuinely afraid of it for some reason. Again, the why is lost to me. Were it not for my classes, I may have very well committed myself to inpatient treatment so severe is my anxiety. I haven’t even begun to think about class on Tuesday. I pray that a good weekend of being around my friends helps me out of this rut and I’m back to normal on Monday. Either way, I’ve all but decided I probably need to go back onto some kind of medicine. My therapy appointment is fatefully scheduled for July 1st. I can’t remember where I said it (Facebook, maybe?), but I had decided that if my anxiety didn’t improve by the end of June, I would go back onto an SSRI. Past Carly would probably say something along the lines of, “It’s a metaphor, you potato with eyes.”

Truth be told, I’d start it today if I could. As I stood outside of what I thought was an Urgent Care today, I had resigned myself to asking for a prescription to Lexapro. Just now I yawned and it sounded like I squeaked for a second. Half of the reason why I’m writing this is as some kind of prayer to the universe that it’ll relieve my present anxiety. I have the other half of the Ativan from last night in my pocket but I hesitate to combine it with the Benadryl.

Before I took the Benadryl, too, I thought to myself – should I just take the Ativan instead? But taking it last night is truly a sign of what desperation I had been driven to. After last year’s brief dependency on Xanax, I want to keep Benzos at arm’s length at least. I’ll survive another night. I think the first step is to stop running away from facing it and finally meditate. I can do this. One breath at a time.

Buddhism vs. Borderline Personality Disorder

Happy (?) Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) Awareness Month, gang! Did you know it’s also my birth month? Because of course these things are within the same month c;

I had begun to write a nice little “what BPD looks like” post to give you guys some behaviors, thought processes, and tendencies to look out for – because BPD is more prevalent than Bipolar and Schizophrenia combined. With utter certainty, I can guarantee that you interact with a person with Borderline in your daily life. Unless you never leave your home, like me. Though, to be fair, I have to interact with myself every single goddamn day so that’s not an entirely accurate exception! As Beyonce once sang, “Everywhere I go, damn, there I am!”

However, the truth is that I think that I’ve done a pretty alright job pointing out more common patterns in my BPD Trait Series. The series, though not entirely comprehensive (I actually have a recent story I may share in the near future that would probably best be described as “Perceived Abandonment”), sheds light on a few items in the diagnostic criteria: Explosive Anger, Unstable Relationships, as well as the unfortunate reality of Treatment Resistance. Today, though, I want to discuss something a bit more unique that lies smack dab in the middle of the venn diagram that is my human experience: BPD as it relates to my burgeoning Buddhism.

One constant feature in all folks with Borderline is the lack of stability in self image, relationships with others, and life in general. For many years, I felt like I was trying to keep up with everyone around me, riding along on their bikes, while I struggled to maintain balance on an electric unicycle. This was a metaphor I couldn’t tangibly understand until I started attempting to ride an electric unicycle (spoiler alert: it’s super hard!), but once I did, I cried the thing I’ve cried at least a hundred times before: “It’s a metaphor!”

Each time someone disappeared from my life, for reasons innocent or malevolent, my underdeveloped object permanence bucked me off the machine I had started to go a few paces on. I’d get my feet positioned on the pedals, lean gently and catch some wind when a change in routine or employment demanded a different side of me. The machine stalled underneath me as I spilled forward onto the concrete, barely catching myself. In the early years, I didn’t know to wear protective gear. The ensuing onslaught of scars marked every failed attempt at coping with my perilous center of gravity. Eventually I grew wise and put on knee pads. With this gear, I wouldn’t seriously injure myself. I could just barely keep up. Only the most intense falls would throw me behind.

Now I’ve become much more competent at this metaphorical unicycle (the real one, not so much). Most, if not all, of this progress is thanks to over a decade of practicing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques. You were probably expecting me to say meditation, right? Nope. Meditation came much later but truth be told, there’s a great deal of programming I’ve done to repair my self image and sense of constancy that meditation is now asking me to undo.

Anatta

Pali for “no self” or “substanceless”, this is one of the three characteristics of existence. In other words, this is arguably one of the most important factors to enlightenment. It is said that to understand two of the characteristics is to simultaneously understand the third, meaning one becomes aware of the reality of existence. When it comes down to it, this is my end goal. This is the real reason I meditate. It helps with a million other things, no doubt, but all the fruit I obtain slips away whenever I slack off on sitting. Truly understanding the characteristics means obtaining stream entry, and that’s not reversible. That’s seeing shit as it really is – and that sounds awesome.

The only problem? I’ve spent almost half of my life working really, really hard to establish a stable sense of self. Trying to more or less undo that work is… difficult. And scary, honestly. In doing this, will I relapse into old BPD tendencies? This stable sense of self I’ve created is nothing more than an illusion. In the conventional sense, there are things that “I am”. I am a cis woman, basically 30 years old, 5′ 5″, with wide duck feet, and a goofy buck-toothed smile that looks just like my father’s. “Carly” is a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a writer, a cat mom.

Here’s the thing though – I can rattle off all these things that supposedly make up “me”, but all these items are utterly transient. If I lose my feet, am I less “me”? If I cease to write, am I less “me”? Nothing about what “I am” is permanent. My body is constantly aging, my appearance slowly but forever shifting. Am I my hair? When I cut it off, are the strands on the floor still “me”? Perhaps I have a soul inside – something truly unchanging, some core that is utterly unique to this shell. Unlikely, though I can’t disprove this possibility. Considering the utterly impermanent nature of literally every other thing in this entire world, an ever-present, unchanging spirit just doesn’t sound realistic.

This sounds utterly depressing. Or at least I thought so. That is, until my sister talked to me about Indra’s net. The TL;DR of Indra’s net, or Indra’s web, is that every single thread that makes up our existence is connected. No one thing or person or action exists as an island – everything affects something, which in turn affects something else, and so forth forever. This results in everything being somehow connected through an intricate web beyond our fathoming. Where do “I” end and “you” begin? In a conventional sense, you could maybe say the cells of our bodies determine this line. What about the exchange of ideas? Or emotions that we invoke in one another? These things are much less easy to separate. But I’ve grown a bit long winded on this particular subtopic. For a more intricate explanation on the interconnectedness of all beings and Indra’s net, Alan Watts does a nice job.

So as a woman with Borderline who spent a long time cultivating a (false) stability of self, accepting the true transient nature of my existence may take a little time.

Anicca

Pali for “impermanence”. If you’ve been following my blog, these words should sound familiar to you. Impermanence is pervasive, y’all. Transience is the true nature of everything. Think about how a baby has to learn object permanence. We make assumptions constantly, all day. And for conventional purposes, this serves us. A train doesn’t “disappear” when it goes behind a building. However, in terms of meditation, reality is the sensations we perceive. Period. If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

Like my unstable self image, my relationships with other people and the world have been similarly inconsistent. I worked really hard to believe that just because so-and-so doesn’t text me for a week doesn’t mean that they hate me. And this is still probably true. But in order to truly treat each moment as the new moment it is – free of the past, with no concern for the future – I have to release my hard cultivated sense of constancy. It’s already begun in my emotional state. It’s… almost scary, honestly. I’ll be raging pissed and then suddenly I’ll remember that I don’t have to be angry anymore just because I was one moment ago. Each second is a new opportunity. So the switch flips and I’m fine again. Starting fresh. It’s the kind of emotional instability I used to be terrified of experiencing. Yet it’s different now because it’s intentional. It’s the kind of emotional control I used to dream of having – though I don’t always have it, unfortunately.

Reconciling these two schools of thought

But perhaps stream entry will change this. As much as I intellectually understand these two characteristics (which theoretically means I also understand dukkha, good ol’ “suffering”), I obviously haven’t grasped them with my heart. And truly the repetitive training I did to believe in “me” (so much so that I made a fucking brand out of my name), as well as the constancy of my relationships and world around me suddenly seems like a hindrance rather than a help.

For a long time, however, CBT teachings did help me. They still do in many other ways! And while it may have been better to not practice at all rather than to practice incorrectly, what’s done is done. I wouldn’t dare dissuade anyone with BPD to not work to cultivate a stable sense of self and relationships. In a conventional sense, it’s basically necessary in order to be a well-functioning human. In a spiritual sense, however, it’s been a very high hurdle that I may have to climb rather than jump.

Fortunately, a good deal of Buddhist teachings are more compatible with CBT/Dialectical Behavior Therapy techniques – like mindfulness. The first step to literally anything is to become aware. Awareness enables everything. So even if you’re not interested in “the big ‘E'” as I like to call it, meditation is still an incredibly useful tool for mental health. If you ever reach the point where walking the path sounds interesting or attractive to you, however, perhaps my above words will be of use to you on your journey.

As for the rest of you, this will at least illuminate my sudden mood shifts. Assuming I’m going from high energy to calm, anyway. Those are intentional and whatever just happened is 100% dead to me. Because clinging to the past is useless. And if I’m capable of remembering that, I’m going to let shit go. Hopefully you will join me. At the very least, you might understand. And that’s what I’m really hoping for above all else.

this is what an ex-suicidal person sounds like.

You know how people say things like, “Being The One is like being in love – you just know. Balls to bones.”

Okay, maybe the only time anyone said that was in The Matrix (or quoting The Matrix), but you get my point. Some things, you just know. And whereas the other day I was in a state of limbo re: do I really want to live or not? I’ve come to a conclusion. For now, anyway.

Yes, yes I do.

And perhaps in perfect opposite style of my last post, the way I came to this was thanks to a little help from my friends. I had thought that I had to make myself an island but my post, my video, was my one last flare being sent up, saying, “Please help me!” I didn’t expect a rescue effort. I assumed everyone was used to and sick of my shit – assuming they saw it at all. Truth be told, only one person reached out to me. But that one person was all it took.

They literally called me. As soon as they saw my video, they picked up the phone and actually called me. You wanna know the last time someone called me that wasn’t my immediate family or a debt collector? February 8th. The call lasted 18 seconds. It was probably like, “Where are you?” or “Sorry I butt-dialed you,” because people still do that.

When I came back from retreat, I had written that I wanted to try and call people more instead of texting. I have called someone once since then. It’s obnoxious how hard it is to deprogram this but I’m at the point now where I feel like I’m inconveniencing someone by asking them to take the time to talk to me. How fucked up is that?!

So in the spirit of rejecting my self-assigned isolation, I’m going to try and reach out more even if the fear of rejection is hot in my throat. Because I guess people care. Even though it wasn’t in response to me saying I want to die, I still received wonderful support from two friends last night. Long story short, I accidentally took my blood pressure medicine a second time. In classic Carly style, this triggered some good ol’ fashioned * airhorn noise * HEALTH ANXIETYYYY. At first I thought they wouldn’t respond to me. Instead, they gave me suggestions and words of encouragement. I was proven wrong again. They cared. They cared enough to try and help me even though honestly, there was probably nothing wrong.

Nicholas asked me, “Isn’t this basically the reverse of what happened last time?” referring to my ER visit due to my abnormally high BP. I nodded, irritated with myself. It should be pretty simple. Take one pill every day. Don’t take anything that interferes with said pill. Rinse, repeat. How dumb am I?

But looking at it now, I realize that this return of my panic was also the return of my will to survive. Plenty of anxiety-inducing things happened in between my ambulance ride and yesterday but I hadn’t reacted to them due to my apathy towards living. I am either depressed or anxious, never both at once. They generally fill up each other’s cup, but they do not exist equally at the same time. They are polar ends of a spectrum upon which I am constantly sliding violently back and forth on. In theory, their balance means that I am asymptomatic of either state. Unfortunately, this is an incredibly difficult balance to maintain.

Either way, my recent panic attacks seem to serve as the bookends of my current suicidal period. Something about that phone call genuinely flipped a switch in my brain, reminded me that “wow, people actually do give a shit, they’re not just texting me or whatever to absolve their guilt.” Because words without tone can be so easily swept aside. Words without the actual time commitment, the real effort, seem to mean so little to someone who’s all but lost interest in everything. So if you want to help a suicidal person, sound like you care. Actually call them. Because it makes a real difference.

And even though he’s not very good at checking my blog (but apparently is subscribed to my YouTube channel! lol): thank you, Michael. Thank you for spending ten minutes with me to convince me my life was worth saving.

this is what a suicidal person sounds like.

When I was in high school, I would cut myself for attention. I also did it because of the control, the endorphins, the eventual dependency I developed, and several other reasons but I absolutely craved the attention. I wouldn’t seek it out intentionally – I did my very best to hide my scars, eventually migrating all of them to my upper thighs, inner ankles, my stomach, and other hard to see spots. But the moment that someone would lay their eyes on the self inflicted wounds and I’d see their expression shift into pity, sadness, guilt… I would smile. I would smile every. single. time. I’d try to hide it, look away, change my expression quickly, but I could never stop the knee jerk reaction of a sickeningly satisfied smile slithering across my lips. This was the smirk that said, “Yes. This is my suffering. You can’t deny it. Witness me and how much pain I’m in.”

There was something very gratifying about having physical evidence of my agony, as well as being able to elicit such a response from people. The sorrowful, “oh, baby,” of countless lovers as they’d gently graze the scar tissue with their fingers, drawing me close. I would remember this is the point at which I was supposed to cry, act ashamed, beg forgiveness. Inside, I was delighted. Finally, the adoration and sympathy I so desperately needed.

Fun fact, if this shit reads as #relatablecontent to you, you might have Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s pretty textbook BPD. But that’s not really why I’m sharing this today.

I felt compelled to sit down and write because I’ve been more suicidal recently than I have been in some time. Last year when I was going through SSRI withdrawal and an enormous upheaval of my entire life at the same time, I was also quite suicidal. I honestly don’t remember if I addressed it directly – it would have been around the time that I started this website. That was a different flavor of nuts. That was almonds, this year it’s cashews.

And if I’m completely honest, I was suicidal long before I stopped taking my Lexapro or left my home town. I brought a gun with me out to the woods of Hamlin, fully intending on just putting an end to all of my misery, when instead my boyfriend got back to me and was available to hang out. I’m so grateful for him.

And it’s this gratitude that allows me to draw a contrast between this period of depression and that period. Last year, I kept going because everyone around me was telling me I should. This year, I feel like my only cheerleader. This isn’t totally accurate – I have one friend who texts me regularly and my sister listens to my bullshit about once a week. My husband is present as much as he can be with his obnoxiously demanding job. But largely, I spend every day, all day, alone in a hotel room with my thoughts. I haven’t been able to work out without aggravating an old injury from last year. Every time I try, I end up less mobile and in pain for the next few days, (the dull ache is with me now). Working out was a huge piece of the puzzle that helped get my chemicals back to some regularity last year – who knows why my hamstring is being such a bitch now.

Last week, I recorded a video that once I was done I realized was intended to be “my note”. The irony of a writer killing herself without leaving an actual note is not lost on me. But if ever I do go that way, it’s unlikely I’ll leave one because only on an intense impulse will that decision be made. Fortunately, I’ve spent years and years and years tempering my impulsiveness and more or less suicide-proofing my brain. Even with the “everyone would be so much better off without me” and the “I’m basically just a useless carbon footprint in the world” thoughts, I feel pretty confident I won’t actually kill myself. It’s a shame I don’t have some LSD to drop so I could hit the Reset button on my “I could never fathom killing myself” experience. That was neat. I was suicide idealization free for a good five years. Guess some of the psychedelic magic just wore off.

In lieu of tripping balls, I meditate. But my brain wants to cling to my suffering so I skip sits or only sit for a little while. It’s a vicious and quite frankly exhausting cycle. Hopefully I’ll get a better handle on it. In the meantime, I’ve eliminated a lot of my social media. I’m fucking tired of feeling like I’m the only one trying to reach out over and over and over. Spectator society is literally killing people. We’re so overstimulated that we don’t know what or who to pay attention to and end up wasting all our time scrolling nonsense we won’t be able to remember literally 24 hours later. The internet is a magical, powerful thing but the over saturation of content is beyond ridiculous at this point. Again! The irony of me writing this on my internet blog is not lost on me! To be honest, I’m utterly unsurprised that no one has commented on me unpublishing the carlykaxt Facebook page, deactivating my Twitter, uninstalling Snapchat, etc. How could you notice something being gone when there’s so much extra bullshit to fill that hole right up?

So I’m back to writing on this for my own relief, hoping that maybe one person reads it and gets it and it changes their heart somehow, at least a little. I don’t know if I’ll keep the domain when it expires in May. At one point, I certainly entertained the notion of the “carlykaxt brand”. I hoped that somehow I could make a living off of this thing that I’m very passionate about but I don’t know if I have the energy to market and push and do all the work that it takes to get people to see your content in this vast sea of noise. I don’t know if I even believe it’s worth enough to somehow make money – whether it be through sponsorships or ad revenue. I have no idea and little to no motivation. That’s the fun of depression. At least I have enough energy today to write about it. The past three weeks I’ve barely been able to brush my teeth or make dinner. Some days I didn’t. It is what it is.

If you didn’t know before, now you know: this is what a suicidal person sounds like. They sound like someone doing everything they can to keep their shit together, erasing all ties to other people while simultaneously desperately wishing someone would notice and give a fuck. Consider this my flash of scars. Though the older I get, the more clear it becomes that no amount of attention will ever satisfy this emptiness inside of me. The only way I’ll ever truly get rid of the rotting piece inside of me that whispers to end it all is if I dig it out myself. That kind of responsibility is terrifying. But I can’t deny this truth any longer.

That One Time I Panicked So Hard I Took An Ambulance To The ER

Here’s the thing about having anxiety and depression.

Usually, you have one that’s more prevalent than the other. This might change throughout your life, the dominant trait. In high school, my depression was my main source of focus. I didn’t realize I had anxiety until after I graduated. Looking back now, I can see a lot of evidence: my need to constantly keep busy, my aversion to sleeping or any quiet time, the irritability. In my adult life, my anxiety has been the star of the show most of the time.

When they work together, that’s when things really start to suck.

Right now, I’m standing in the middle of an abandoned highway. The headlights on the horizon are unmistakable – my depression, barreling towards me at a blinding 100 mph. On the other side, a pair of tail lights are all that’s left of my anxiety, retreating into the darkness. I’m clutching a prescription for Ativan and discharge papers that say the same shit as every other time I’ve made my husband sit in a sterile room into the wee hours of the night with me – “ANXIETY DISORDER UNSPECIFIED”.

How many times do I have to stand in this exact spot, allowing myself to get bowled over before I learn my fucking lesson?

I’m so embarrassed and frustrated and… well, depressed. The voices that I had thought I’d done so well with muffling are currently so loud. It’s taking every ounce of energy left over after four hours of sleep to not react to them. Oh, how I want to react to them. I want to sleep until I transition seamlessly to a quiet death. I want to lay on the floor of the shower and drown myself by a thousand tiny droplets of water. I want to scream until I lose my voice, I want to call an ex, I want to open an old scar, figuratively and literally. The voices are shouting over each other now.

“You’re a fucking idiot.”

“Everyone would be so much better off without you.”

“This will never go away. This is the rest of your life.”

“Just go back on your medication. You obviously can’t function without it.”

“You’re weak.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“You’re a fucking idiot.”

 Pro tip: Aleve and Lisinopril do not mix.
Pro tip: Aleve and Lisinopril do not mix.

I’ve gone to the hospital for my anxiety… too many times. Last night, after a really vague and unsettling attack with record high blood pressure numbers, I called a 24-hour nurse hotline to ask if I could take another dose of my BP meds to bring it down. By the end of the call, she told me to lie down on my left side and call 9-1-1. I was so rattled – it can’t be that bad, could it? – that I sat on the bottom of a hot shower, shivering out of my skin. Nicholas sat on the toilet and talked to me (“about anything, please, I don’t care”), to try and get me to be calm. I should have meditated. I thought it a hundred times it feels like. But the noise inside of me was so loud and I hadn’t sat in days and I slept poorly the night before and I’ve learned nothing and I like to think I don’t overthink everything but I do and I suck I suck I suck I suck

 I am that person who takes a picture in an ambulance. Anxiety makes me do weird things, like nervously ask my EMTs about their personal lives. They were really sweet, btw.
I am that person who takes a picture in an ambulance. Anxiety makes me do weird things, like nervously ask my EMTs about their personal lives. They were really sweet, btw.

Eventually, I called them. Nicholas refused to drive me to the hospital since the nurse had told me he shouldn’t. Or maybe he was trying to call my bluff. When four EMTs and a police officer arrived in my hotel room, I was already thinking I’d made a grave error. Dawn, the senior officer, said, “Better safe than sorry.” I’d hear the phrase several more times that night. Maybe they were right. But right now? I’m thinking I’d rather die of a heart attack paired with stubbornness than waste resources, money, time, and Nick’s precious sleep. (A side note to this: not once last night did Nick ever complain about me dragging his poor ass to the ER like I’ve done half a dozen times before. He was never anything but sweet and concerned for my health. He was one of my “better safe than sorry” people. I appreciate him beyond the capacity of words, even if he didn’t want to sit on my bed with me.)

The ride over to the hospital was maybe fifteen minutes. My BP dropped a little in that time. I was relieved, of course, but also starting to feel creeping dread settle in. Not again.

 After my phone died, I was glad I had a tiny journal in my purse. If you remember, grab your phone charger before you go to the hospital, seriously.
After my phone died, I was glad I had a tiny journal in my purse. If you remember, grab your phone charger before you go to the hospital, seriously.

Somewhere between having my urine collected, blood drawn, an EKG machine hooked up to me, and the hours upon hours of just listening to people who have real fucking problems, my anxiety was leaving me in its dust to deal with the mess it’d made. I’m fortunate that this particular time, I have health insurance, but it’s not a great plan. My medical debt will probably quite literally follow me to the grave. I’m starting to think I should just accept that instead of entertaining this fantasy that someday I’ll pay it all off.

And so the symbiotic relationship between anxiety and depression is triggered. Now feeling immense shame about how I was duped by my body once again, the depression approached rapidly. Waking up at 5 am after crawling into bed a little past 1 am, hearing my poor fucking husband force himself to get dressed for a long day of working so I don’t have to is pretty much the nail on the coffin of any feelings of self-worth. As much as I want to sleep for days, I peel myself out of bed. I won’t allow myself to sleep while he suffers because of me. This means staring in the face of my feelings of worthlessness.

 My sleepy, patient, beautiful husband who puts up with so much bullshit it’s unreal.
My sleepy, patient, beautiful husband who puts up with so much bullshit it’s unreal.

Last night I read a tweet that claimed: “depression is a choice”. The phrase makes me nauseated and I could not disagree more. That’s like saying diabetes is a choice. Though I could see some validity in an accompanying tweet, that more or less could be summed up like:

You: *binge drinks, sleep deprived, smokes cigarettes, never exercises, poor diet*
Also You: I’m depressed

There are choices that you can make. The real issue that comes in is how much energy do you have to make these choices? In my deepest pits of depression, I can barely force myself to get out of bed. Crying is asking too much. In those moments, I force tiny, baby steps to feeling better. Watching videos of cute animals. Texting my friends. When I’m able to physically move, I get water. Eat a cheese. Once I can add more than just “go to the fridge, go back to bed” to my range of motion, I brush my teeth or take a shower. Incrementally, slowly, I get my shit back together. But just the energy to convince yourself it’s worth doing these things and maybe they’ll help is a whole exercise in and of themselves.

Like a diabetic, they can choose whether or not to take insulin. If they don’t, they’ll fucking die. Plus no one tries to shame them into just producing the insulin on their own. So it’s a pretty clear cut decision in their case.

For depression, you can choose whether or not to do things that support the production of dopamine and serotonin. If you don’t, you also could fucking die. People will shame you constantly, whether consciously or not, into thinking nonsense like “depression is a choice”. Your treatment options have varying effectiveness depending on your body’s chemistry, the therapist you end up with, and your life.

In relation to my own life, I have a serious question to ask myself. Do I need to go back on medication? To be quite frank, I really ! fucking ! don’t ! want ! to ! I spent months working through Serotonin Cessation Syndrome and the idea of ever dealing with that again brings me inexplicable fear. Even with the Lexapro, I was still an anxious, depressed mess. I hated the side effects. Wellbutrin made me feel awful. Xanax had begun to trigger panic attacks (fucking ironic, I know). As it is, I’m so apprehensive of the Ativan I was prescribed that I’m probably going to take literally one-quarter of a pill and see how it makes me feel. I’ve had it in ERs before but something about the way I am now makes me absolutely loathe the way barbituates and related medicine makes me feel. Like I’m detached from my body, unable to sense anything. Just drifting uncomfortably through space.

I’d already planned on looking up a therapist when I’m back in Michigan since we’ll be there for a few months. While I feel knowledgeable about the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tools I have, my ability to utilize them well enough to not call 9-1-1 is obviously lacking. Maybe this is all I need. All I know is I can’t tolerate the idea of backsliding anymore.

That’s mental health, though. One step forward, two steps back. I keep reminding myself over and over that recovery is not a straight line and unfortunately, I probably will be dealing with this shit my entire life. It could be worse. It is what it is. All the phrases of acceptance in the world probably won’t ever make me stop thinking but wOW DOES IT FUCKING SUCK.

 Not pictured: the bag of fluids that hung for hours behind me after I rejected fluids and a shot for nausea. My nurse tried to push my IV through a valve and !!! FUCK it hurt. Immediately after voicing how she disagreed with giving me fluids anyway and complaining about how she has 20 patients and everyone was creating more work for her, no less. So I rejected treatment for the first time in my life because there was no way she was coming near me with another needle unless I really fucking needed it.
Not pictured: the bag of fluids that hung for hours behind me after I rejected fluids and a shot for nausea. My nurse tried to push my IV through a valve and !!! FUCK it hurt. Immediately after voicing how she disagreed with giving me fluids anyway and complaining about how she has 20 patients and everyone was creating more work for her, no less. So I rejected treatment for the first time in my life because there was no way she was coming near me with another needle unless I really fucking needed it.

I can only hope that in being transparent with you guys, it can help you from feeling horrible if something like this happens to you. If you asked me literally twenty-four hours ago, I would say I have my anxiety/depression well under control. I was in a car, zipping towards the New York state line with excitement in my heart to see the city of my dreams. Generally, I put up a brave face and most people (erroneously) think that I have my shit together. Most of the time I’d probably agree with you. But if looking back on the last twelve hours has taught me anything, it’s that while you may try and keep your shit museum as tidy as you can, it’s still a shit museum.

And as always, writing all this out made me feel a little less hopeless. Like maybe it’s okay after all. At the very least, I realize that beating myself up about the whole thing is basically the least helpful thing that I can do for myself. There’s a part of me that wants to punish myself (ahh, old cutting tendencies never really go away, even when you put away the knife), but I know that’s also counterproductive. Instead, I’ll probably cuddle my poor cat a lot. First, the poor guy had a vet appointment the day before. Then after a long day of being alone in the room while I went from place to place, last night he was so scared when everyone came into the room that he had to be coaxed from under the bed by Nicholas after we left. I’ll try to nourish my body because when the sadness hits, I either binge eat trash or starve myself, with no in between. And as guilty as it might make me feel to enjoy myself while Nick is suffering at work, I know he wouldn’t want me to deprive or push myself. Right now my job is to feel better. And if he’s hard at work, I should be too.

My Silent Retreat Experience: Faking a Fugue State, Sex in the Informal Meditation Room, and Illegal Vlogging

Sometime in 2018, when my meditation practice was becoming more regular, my sister recommended trying a retreat. Through what I read, as well as from her expert suggestion, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), was basically *the* place to go in the US. On an absolute whim, one random summer night around 3 am, I signed up for one.

The original dates I picked were in September 2018 I think, and I had to push it back because I couldn’t afford the flight. I was secretly relieved. At this point in time, I didn’t think I could handle it – though now that I look in retrospect, I’m sure I would have been just fine. I had been reading all about retreats and found a particularly scary story about a girl with “just a minor history of anxiety” going on a Goenka 10-day retreat and more or less experiencing a psychotic break while she was there. This made me insanely nervous and I kept thinking, “What if I’m the next one-in-a-million story of someone losing their marbles on retreat?”

Eventually, as I got more regular and relaxed into my practice, I became confident that I could handle what basically equates to five days in meditative silence (the retreat technically spanned six days but two of them were half days). Additionally, the difference between a place like IMS and a random Goenka retreat is… substantial. Not to shit on Goenka – I’ve never done one – but there’s no real guarantee of the kind of support you’re going to get. Meanwhile, there were literal support staff at my retreat available if anyone had issues. That was their whole job.

Still, I heard many concerns from friends and family. “Remember that we love you,” and, “Don’t forget you can always leave if you need to,” with a side of, “Just be careful, okay?” ended up in most conversations about the retreat. While I appreciated the love and intention behind the concern, in my moments leading up to retreat where I was less than confident, these rattled my cage a little. What had I gotten myself into? Why did I think this was a good idea? Why was everyone else so wary? Maybe I should just pay the van driver to take me right back to Boston – I’m sure my sister would send me money for another flight. It also begged the question: what is it about being silent for six days that freaks people out so much?

I had a panic attack on the way to the retreat center. After meeting up with Álvaro at the airport, we shared a ride all the way out to Barre, MA. Now that I had accepted this wasn’t an incredibly elaborate plot to kidnap me, my anxiety moved to the retreat itself. I messaged my sister and husband the entire time, almost laughing at the absurdity of it all. I can’t even remember the last panic attack I had before this one, they’re so few and far between now (thanks to – you guessed it – meditation). Even this one was all gums, a toothless bite. I was uncomfortable but the panic was transparent: it was my brain hitting the literal Panic button in the last ditch effort to get me to not do this. Once you start to recognize it, it’s genuinely funny how your consciousness will fight with all its got to resist sitting, resist facing suffering, resist the approach to enlightenment.

DAY 1

When I arrived, I attempted to give up my phone right away but learned there was a renunciation ceremony the following morning. So instead I picked a zabuton in the meditation hall, filled out paperwork, got in line. “Do you have any history of psychiatric illness?” appeared on the sheet along with “Does your therapist know you’re participating in this retreat?” Questions about gender identity, trauma, meditation background, medication and more all gave me a sense of ease that at least they would know what’s probably cooking inside the brains of each retreat participant.

We had dinner, got our rooms, grabbed linens for the bed we’d call home for the next week-ish, and then it was time to go to the Meditation Hall for our first sit.

 The Meditation Hall. See the cushion with the chair back and blankets on it? Count four behind it and that’s where I was parked for many hours.
The Meditation Hall. See the cushion with the chair back and blankets on it? Count four behind it and that’s where I was parked for many hours.

 Some past yogi left a bit of warmth behind for future retreat folks.
Some past yogi left a bit of warmth behind for future retreat folks.

The first night is a jittery blur. We briefly introduced ourselves to those sitting around us before reciting the precepts and beginning our vow of silence. I slept well, wrapped in sheets I had gotten from the laundry room. Although the flat sheets and fitted sheets were separated, I grabbed a matching set. I had picked them because I enjoyed their texture, but when I made my bed I discovered an additional surprise: they had the words “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu” which is Pali for “well spoken”. I felt connected to the sangha (Buddhist community), reinforced in my decision to truly be with my practice. My first journal entry was as follows:

 My room was in the Shanti dorm (there were three dorms: Karuna, Bodhi, and Shanti). S261. I may or may not have hidden tiny dharma notes in a few spots in this room.
My room was in the Shanti dorm (there were three dorms: Karuna, Bodhi, and Shanti). S261. I may or may not have hidden tiny dharma notes in a few spots in this room.

2-22-19

I have arrived at IMS. Tomorrow I renounce my phone. It’s so strange to know there’s over 100 ppl here yet it’s so quiet. Scott M–, from Illinois. Ex-lawyer, 2 daughters, lung cancer. Álvaro N–, from Spain/NY. Rideshare. Jen, on my right. Cheryl, in front of me. Laura, front/right. Her friends were concerned. Ben, to my left. Never meditated before. C: It’s gonna be great

DAY 2

At 6 am, some noble soul walked around with a massive mallet and a bell to each section of the retreat center and rang it twice in each spot as a wake-up call for everyone. The days following the first full day, the wake-up was moved to 5:30 am. Breakfast was not long after the first sit and I began to learn to appreciate all the different things you could mix into oatmeal.

 The dining hall
The dining hall

As the retreat progressed, I went from wolfing down my food like I was starving to closing my eyes, experiencing each bite. What was the flavor? How did my tongue move? What was the path my jaw traveled when chewing? I’d try to feel each swallow as the food traveled down my esophagus. The longer I was there, the more heightened my perception became and the more sensations I became aware of, which was delightful. Lunch, in particular, became the highlight of my day, an explosion of delectable sensations in a place where I was otherwise very sensation deprived. During one such meal, I caught out of the corner of my eye a man who looked like Ben Folds crying suddenly over his soup. Whether he was just so grateful for the food or had some kind of intense Insight, I’ll never know. I did get the chance to tell him that he looked like Ben Folds before he left, though.

 One of two tea stations.
One of two tea stations.

Tea was a similar experience. There were two different tea stations, with about ten different varieties of tea – half caffeinated, half not. I remarked to someone on the last day when we were allowed to speak again that I knew I belonged on retreat because it incorporated two of my most frequent activities – meditating and drinking copious amounts of tea. Being able to see how far down my throat I could feel the hot tea run became a game to me. Alternating between hot tea and cold water to compare the sensations in my mouth was a daily source of entertainment. Every nerve ending in my mouth was noticed.

 One of the two bathrooms I was responsible for cleaning.
One of the two bathrooms I was responsible for cleaning.

Everyone received a “yogi job”. For those of you who may not know, yogi is a term for a meditation practitioner. I had heard this used for people who practiced yoga before but didn’t realize that this term was also used in reference to the followers of several different eastern religions. Anyhow, my yogi job wasn’t until the afternoon unlike most folks who worked after breakfast so this afforded me the opportunity to go for a walk outside.

The phone renunciation ceremony on the horizon, I decided to vlog, breaking my noble silence. Walks became an outlet for my pent up energy and desire to prattle on unnecessarily. I don’t recommend doing this. While it wasn’t hard to fall right back into place at the pin-drop quiet retreat center, it certainly shuffled my energy in such a manner that I probably did myself a disservice with these brief breaks. Oh well. It is what it is now.

2-23-19 -> 7:30am

Went for a walk. The Loop is 3 miles but I only did ¼ and turned back bc I was defeated by the elements. Reminded of the time I had to shovel out my car w/ Brandon. Bright red thighs. Next time I’ll be prepared.

As you’ve already realized, I kept a very small journal while at IMS. This also broke noble silence as we were not supposed to read or write. Perhaps this was detrimental to my being fully present but I can’t say I really regret this since in was so instrumental in helping me write this post. Perhaps another example of craving: my craving to not forget anything, to cling to experiences as if they define “me”. If I do another retreat, I’ll ditch the journal and see how it goes.

Finally, at the 8:15 am sit on our first full, proper day, I gave up my phone as they rang a bell. At least half of the hall lined up – it wasn’t a requirement – but I was later incredibly grateful that I did. It removed the temptation to fill my hours with scrolling it or texting people, further jeopardizing my silence. Aside from my tiny journal, I had nothing to distract me other than my own mind.

As it turns out, this would be sufficient distraction.

2-23-19   3:30pm

I really had to catch a ride with the hottest guy at the retreat, huh? My brain wants a pleasant distraction and he switched cushions so now he’s like, right in front of me. Lust, the unexpected hindrance. In other news, my teacher Madeline hates noting. I’ve been doing it all day. Oops.

Noting practice, for those of you unfamiliar, is basically making a mental note of everything that you’re doing. Say you’re going to take a sip of tea: intending, reaching, lifting, sipping, swallowing, placing, feeling. I detail noting a bit more my last post.

At first, I was really bothered by this but I started to think about the sentiment she shared. Her argument was that you end up just saying the words in your head but not actually noticing the sensations. I generally found this to be true. While I think that saying the words can be good training wheels to help you learn to slow down and see the pieces of a process as they happen, eventually you have to let language go.

Her other argument was that you’ll end up noting with a certain tone – like saying “thought” while meditating, but angrily. I don’t necessarily find that to be as much of a problem as much as I do actually experiencing frustration itself. The idea is that you’re not supposed to get upset when you get distracted during meditation because you can’t control it. Therefore, noting could be a tool with which you notice what sort of emotional reaction you have to things. Followed up with a reminder to let it come, let it be, let it go, all would work itself out in the end.

So I tried to just be present, just harness “awareness: pure and simple”, as our retreat was so aptly named. My brain really latched on to Álvaro since we shared a ride together and he was the only one I knew. It wasn’t his fault, just the circumstance.

 My teacher Madeline and Álvaro in front of the bulletin board.
My teacher Madeline and Álvaro in front of the bulletin board.

In a nutshell, our days went pretty much like this:

5:30 am, wake up
6 am, sit
6:30 am, breakfast
7:15 am, morning work period
8:15 am, dharma talk & sit (there were three dharma talks per day, in which the teachers would give instructions, tell stories, lead us in semi-guided meditations).
9:30 am, walking
10:30 am, sit
11: 30 am, walking
12 pm, lunch
(I would work after lunch, though it wasn’t on the schedule. I cleaned bathrooms. I’m good at cleaning bathrooms.)
2:15 pm, dharma talk & sit
3:00 pm, walking
3:30 pm, sit
4:15 pm, mindfulness movement (basically the most lowkey yoga you can possibly imagine. It was fucking lovely)
5:30 pm, light dinner
Sitting, walking, dharma talk at 7:30 pm, walking, sitting, with the last sit at 9 pm. The final sit ended at 9:30 pm.

This isn’t exactly on the money – I probably switched a :30 and a :15 here or there but you get the gist of it. By no means were you forced to come to every dharma talk, sit, or walking meditation (I skipped probably about half the walking meditation periods and a quarter of the sits – either I’d be showering, one time I tried to nap, or one particular day I ended up NEEDING to pluck my eyebrows, having the desire to “do something normal”), but obviously the more you attended the more you got out of it.

DAY 3

SUNDAY 2-24-19   5:45 am

I haven’t shit since Thursday.

7 am ->

I’ve been playing a game in my head where I try to figure out what everyone’s name is, using the interview schedule. Blonde/brown hair nosering girl w/ the chair back sitting two rows up is Kelly, for example.*

I’ve also been writing a script in my head. This could make a pretty good comedy movie. Maybe a new staff trainee getting used to working at a retreat center. Someone’s got their eyes closed at breakfast & they’re like, “I just wanna *claps hands*, y’know?”

“Missed you at the morning sit, sexy.”

Oh, in more relevant news, I’ve concluded that my lying about a herniated disk on my intake sheet so I could recline during sits was an aversion to suffering in disguise.

(written later) *I asked on the last day of retreat AND IT REALLY WAS KELLY!

Words will never be able to adequately explain the sheer mirth I felt when I approached this girl standing by her luggage and asked sheepishly, “I know this is going to sound so weird but, what is your name?”

When she said it was Kelly, I literally did a gleeful dance on the spot. She asked me mine and we shook hands. This girl that I thought about everyday – things like, “Oh, Kelly isn’t here. I hope she’s okay,” – we only exchanged two sentences. That’s the nature of retreat, though. I thought about Jen who sat next to me often as well, noticing when she wasn’t in the hall and hoping my shifting wasn’t disturbing her when she was there.

As tempting as all my distractions were, the challenge laid in letting go of them and returning to the present moment. Sometimes it was easier than others. Some days I felt like I was swimming in a stream of equanimity, my sits steady with access concentration. Other days I squirmed endlessly. At one point, I thought to myself that the phrase “(screams internally)” was certainly coined by a yogi.

Having scoliosis, sitting upright for extended periods of time is uncomfortable for me. I went one step further and on my intake form, I said I had a herniated disk so I could get permission to recline when meditating. Most of my practice, prior to IMS, had been reclining. They were a bit more adamant about posture than I had anticipated. I got to use a nice chair back thing that I propped a pillow by my lower back to give me some actual lumbar support which made an enormous difference. Eventually, though, my posture improved enough that most sits I could sit straight up, not leaning on my lumbar pillow at all. Plus I felt really guilty about lying – after all, one of the precepts was to refrain from incorrect speech.

And a TMI: after my asshole got over clenching through flights and related travel, my poops became insanely regular. Like, better than they’ve ever been in my entire life. It was pretty fantastic. My body enjoyed the vegetarian diet greatly. I am now pescatarian.

1 pm:

Had group interviews. It’s the first time I’ve felt like something was done “wrong”. A girl* asked how groups were chosen, observing that everyone in our group was young. I don’t remember Madeline’s exact words but she confirmed that was how she assembled the group. I can’t help but feel irritated that one of the ppl in my group, World’s Loudest Digestive System Ben, has never meditated before coming to IMS. So I had to listen to a bunch of ?’s that were completely unrelated to anything I was experiencing. 2, no – 3 questions about the breath and one about watching squirrels. I hate being lumped with a group by age. Like, how is that relevant? S I G H I’m trying to let the irritation go. That’s why I’m writing this. I don’t hold it against my fellow yogis but I would have liked to have listened to some more “advanced” questions.

 M200, the room we had our group interview in (and also where my best sexual fantasies took place).
M200, the room we had our group interview in (and also where my best sexual fantasies took place).

Everything is very amplified on retreat with the lack of distractions. Poor Ben, who was probably just hungry, was a source of immense irritation for me as I could hear every gurgle and grumble his tummy made. The girl who made the astute observation was actually Laura. Despite sharing one (1) exchange with her – in which we said our names, I said I was grateful for the love my friends and family showed me before leaving for retreat, and she said her friends were mostly just concerned – I felt a kindred connection to her and her desire to understand how groups were chosen.

I had worked out this whole thing in my head before group that it was based on meditation experience, maybe previous trauma, psychological background. Nope, age. Not realizing this would be the one and only question I would EVER get to ask a teacher (and trying to be present meant I wasn’t spending hours trying to decide the perfect question), I asked a really mediocre question. So I got the mediocre answer it deserved. This was a huge source of animosity later in my retreat.

3:45 pm

I ripped out my last page w/ the drawing of Lion & Chewy’s child on it to write a note to someone. They were in the bathroom a long time while I was waiting to shower. Finally they left. But the toilet was clogged. At first I thought to myself, “do you not know how to plunge a toilet?” Then I thought about how embarrassed they probably felt. So I plunged it and left a note on the door that said “Don’t worry about the toilet. With Metta <3” I guess I’m warming up to this loving-kindedness

Metta roughly translates to “loving-kindedness” or “befriending”. You’re supposed to befriend all emotions, people, experiences – regardless of whether they’re “good” or “bad”. I had a base knowledge of Metta prior to retreat but this was probably one of the things I appreciated learning more about the most.

I attended the final sit on the second day after skipping it the first day (I was too exhausted to stay up until 9 pm the day before). In group, Ben had mentioned a “chant” and how they “felt the Metta”, so I was curious. And really needed that feeling, honestly. The loneliness was starting to set in.

The chant was actually sung, and we all got to sing along. It felt so, so, so good to sing. I’m literally tearing up thinking about this moment now. In this moment, I realized how important music and singing was to my life. Although I have no professional affiliation with either, I sing basically every single day. I listen to music incessantly. I was so moved that eventually, I stopped singing and just sobbed, overcome with emotion. Not only did it feel good to let my voice soar, but I could also sit and pick out individual voices, admiring the beauty of each one. We repeated the same stanza over and over, cycling through I, you, they, we after one complete cycle.

May (I, you, they, we) be filled with loving-kindness
May (I, you, they, we) be well
May (I, you, they, we) be peaceful and at ease
May (I, you, they, we) be happy

When I went back to my room, I decided to finally unpack Nicholas’ shirt. Before I left, I asked him to wear a particular shirt to bed and give it to me the morning after so I could smell him. This made me bawl my eyes out even more.

9 pm ->

I almost made it to Monday w/o any crying. God, I miss Nicholas.

I slept like the dead.

DAY 4

2/25/19 ->

So cold. Cried a lot last night/this morning. Had some Insight about sex. Mundane. I can tell my concentration and awareness are getting stronger. I’m starting to think a week isn’t enough! But I’m trying to be present, instead of worrying about how much time is left.

At this point, I’ve really settled into the routine and I’m starting to enjoy the concentration and awareness I’ve cultivated. I believe it was this morning that I sat for God only knows how long, after having sat with the whole group for an hour, and just stared at the fuzzies and dust caught in a stream of light coming through the window in the Meditation Hall. I could see literally every single one in that beam of sunlight, picking which one to focus on at a time while still perfectly aware of all the others. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen (and I’ve tripped fucking BALLS and seen some BEAUTIFUL SHIT from the confines of my brain, people. I’ve been to Alaska’s interior passage! I’ve been to Rainbow Falls in Kauai!! But this dust beats them all!!!), because I could truly fucking see it, with no noise or thoughts to distract me from admiring its simple beauty. As people walked by and the fuzzies danced around the airflow they left behind, I was reminded of the interconnectedness of everything. I cried some more.

Later when I told my sister Ariadne about this, she remarked that crying is a method of purification. It’s the soap that cleanses the soul. All the crying by day 3 was out of gratitude to be in this place, love for my fellow yogis, and appreciation that I could love and miss someone as much as I did Nicholas.

12:45 pm ->

Mushrooms for lunch. Of course this triggers anxiety. I knew this was going to happen eventually. Trying to resist the knee-jerk reaction to take a Benadryl. Hopefully my yogi job is sufficiently engrossing.

6:15 pm -> I was over my anxiety before I even got to my job. I sat after I wrote and used Madeline’s “ah! (emotion)” as if it was new. Helpful.

I’ve all but given up on obtaining stream entry while I’m here. Oh well. Obviously it’s still helpful. Maybe I’ll pick up some other fruit.

Among the other new things that I learned, I really enjoyed what Madeline taught about emotions. It applies to most other aspects of life as well – she said to say, “ah!” before recognizing an emotion so that we could approach these feelings with curiosity and an open mind, as if this emotion had never been experienced before. Often, we assume that we know things as soon as we see them. Oatmeal, again? Walking meditation, again? But the truth is that while things may be similar, each footstep is a new experience, each bowl is a new experience, each emotion is a new experience.

What does anxiety REALLY feel like? How do I know I’m anxious? Why do I immediately react negatively when I feel it? Sitting in my room, saying, “ah! Anxiety,” and really examining it made it so the emotion arose and passed away without my usual struggle.

As for stream entry, for those who don’t know, this is the completion of the first of four paths on the journey to enlightenment. I entered retreat thinking this was when I’d crack the code and finally become sotapanna.

Soon, I would have to confront the defilements of envy/jealousy in my walking practice. This realization that I would not reach my goal triggered my “hardest” sits the following day – our last full day.

DAY 5

2/26/19 @ 10 am ->

I! Don’t!! Want!!! To!!!! Meditate!!!!! Anymore!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (which means I definitely should) >:c ~ Charolette

You know how you can tell you’re really feeling something? You handwrite S I X T E E N exclamation points in a row. Not including the sets of one, two, three, four, five before that. The Charolette sign off came from my walk that morning. I talked aloud to myself for a good thirty minutes, narrating a fantasy in which I faked a fugue state, appeared on the doorstep of a nearby house, claimed my name was Charolette, and started a life there, working as live-in help. I grabbed massive branches that had broken off the trees from the day before when we had gusts up to 70 mph and broke all the limbs off of it, hitting telephone poles with my giant stick until it was too small to hit anything with anymore.

My sits this day were wiggly, distracted. I kept trying to sign up for individual interviews but I could never get my name on the paper in time. Only six slots a day were available and with a group of nearly 100 people, you can imagine how quickly these filled. By this day, I spent a lot of time actually sitting in the foyer where the bulletin board was to try if I could see when they actually put up the sign in sheet. I missed it anyway. This became the object of my attention for several hours.

This mood of intense disillusionment peaked during one of my walking meditations. A woman walking next to me stopped dead in her tracks about halfway and just started crying. I could tell she had some fucking huge, profound Insight and I was seething with jealousy. Several times I stopped and stood, staring out the window at a stone wall, at a dead spider, at the inside of my eyelids, asking the abyss why that couldn’t be me. If there was ever a time that someone should have radiated steam off of their body, this was one of them.

 The room I paced endlessly, below Karuna House.
The room I paced endlessly, below Karuna House.

1:15 pm

Angry and disillusioned. Saw Álvaro after having a very explicit fantasy ft. him and just wanted to punch him in the face. It’s not his fault but he just happened to be the person I shared a ride with so ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Gonna shower. Fighting the urge to just sleep until it’s time to go. Craving and impermanence… Had cookies (!!!) for lunch yet they didn’t satisfy.

Fun fact, I would not have considered myself all that horny of a person before this retreat. During this retreat? I was riled tf up. Of course, the reality is that it was the most “plausible” distraction my mind could conjure up. Remember that mundane insight I mentioned earlier? For me, sex is often about exerting my control. It’s a piece to be played in a game, not a genuine expression of desire.

My sugar addiction became very obvious during this time. I wanted cookies every single day. But once I actually got them, they (unsurprisingly), didn’t last, didn’t satisfy, weren’t me. I remarked at our final lunch when we were able to talk again that they made cookies specifically to serve as a silent dharma lesson about the infinite cycle of craving.

I finally cracked my anger during walking meditation. I keep mentioning walking but not really explaining it so for those who don’t know, there are four postures of meditation: reclining (laying down), standing, walking and the classic sitting. Everyone only thinks of sitting usually but it has its limits. If you’re struggling with drowsiness during your sits, either standing or walking meditation can help with your energy levels. If you are restless or agitated, reclining might be suitable.

Prior to the retreat, I didn’t do any walking meditation. At first, I really hated it. At one point, I even tried walking backward (I’m still surprised no one else gave this a shot). But I appreciated it immensely this evening.

It began with me skipping the post-dinner sit. I couldn’t tolerate the idea of being in the Hall. Instead, I thought I’d spent some time alone in one of the lower walking rooms and really give this walking meditation a serious try.

At first, my pace was fast. Nyoom! I zoomed back and forth, pacing a hole into the floor in front of a massive Buddha statue. My slippers tread soundlessly across the pale wooden floor.

I turned the clock in this room around so I couldn’t see it. I would walk here until the ball rang for the evening dharma talk at 7:30 pm. It was around 6 pm that I arrived.

Eventually, my steps began to slow. The ultimate goal of walking meditation is to be completely present with each moment of each step. At first, this can be as simple as “lifting, placing”. You notice your foot lifting, then placing it. You may notice your legs and hips instead, the way the weight shifts with each step. The deeper you get into it, you will deliberately lay down your foot so that you can feel each and every millimeter of it contacting the earth. I closed my eyes, examining the sensation of my foot lifting, traveling, placing, shifting. Each turn to reverse directions took at least thirty seconds. I progressed to a snail’s pace.

I did not have any major Insight that I can record here. The best thing I can really say is that I became fully, completely, utterly present. The emotions in the past were just that, in the past. I had let them go. Finally, I had found my way back to acceptance of the moment exactly as it was, not how I wanted it to be.

9:35 pm

Equanimity C: of course it all comes back around. Last night. Time to really appreciate my bed C: (In other news, I don’t know if my body cares for tofu.)

I’m still not sure about tofu. I’ll have to give it another shot sometime.

DAY 6

2/27/19

My lava stone bracelet broke right after bfast. It felt like a metaphor. Someone helped me pick it up.

I ended up speaking to that man after we broke our silence. He asked me if I could restring my mala. I shrugged and told him maybe, but either way, it was okay.

“It felt like a mandala,” I told him, “we were pouring the sand into the river.”

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m basically confirmation biasing my way through life via metaphors. Everything’s a fucking metaphor, you potato with eyes. While packing, my headphones broke on this morning as well, further contributing to my contemplation of impermanence.

We got our phones back and I powered mine on immediately. The bracelet was broken and in my mind, the retreat was already over.

I did three things immediately.

  1. I bought a game that was on sale on Steam. Ahh, endorphins.

  2. I texted back everyone I loved.

  3. I turned off Notifications for every single app besides messaging apps.

It was soon time to go downstairs for our final sit.

We did a reintroduction to speaking. We picked a partner (Jen and I turned to one another – after spending so many days thinking about how much I liked her pants and her silent presence, I was glad for this), and they gave us small prompts. First, establish whose birthday is first. Mine in May and Jen’s in… June? Or July. She was a Cancer. I told her my best friends were Cancers. Then whoever’s birthday was first, spoke first. The topic? Our yogi jobs. We were given three minutes to talk about this very innocuous topic.

While I didn’t really think that breaking silence would be such a big deal – technically I had done so four times, twice talking to myself out on walks, one random time I told my teacher that housekeeping had left a key behind in the bathroom I was cleaning, and one time I whispered to one of the chefs, “What’s escarole?” It’s a leafy green vegetable if you were wondering. He also featured heavily in my sexual fantasies.

After I was done talking, though, they instructed us to return to the body and see how we felt. Holy SHIT. I was filled with ELECTRICITY. I realized suddenly that talking required a great deal of energy. Then it was Jen’s turn to talk and they instructed us to try and stay in our body as we listened, be aware of the sensations. Finally, we were all given red cords or pieces of string and told to tie three knots, each one representing a promise or vow to ourselves. I vowed:

  1. To be aware of my judgements. Because, wow, I thought I was a nonjudgmental person but I am actually NOT.

  2. To keep meditating every day, regardless of whether or not I ever obtain stream entry.

  3. To have one mindfulness moment every day – a meal, a shower, a grooming activity, whatever.

Then we had the option to ask our partner to tie this string for us, whether it be around the wrist, ankle, neck, wherever. I chose my ankle so it would be relatively out of the way yet be able to stay on me until it literally fell off. Jen chose her wrist. The intimacy of this moment was… unexpected. Being deprived of human contact for a week made it even more special. I will never forget Jen, even though we never traded any information.

Lunch afterwards was optional and probably about half of the retreatants stayed. I found myself overwhelmed easily by conversation. I spoke with a man named Scott (not Scott M who I mentioned earlier), who was very enthusiastic and very well might read this since he is literally the only person I gave any information to (hi Scott!). He described an experience to me that sounded a lot like first jhana. I also spoke with a woman who I can only describe as my “Sitting Sister” since I’ve forgotten her name. Sorry! We spent two nights sitting next to each other in Bodhi house during the sunset. We discussed the playlists our brains came up with and how amusing it’d be to put it on Spotify and the noisy old white men who felt entitled to letting the rest of the Meditation Hall know what they were experiencing via loud sighing. One of the support staff, Alex, asked us if we were sisters and commented on our similar energy. I wish I would have had my business cards so I could have given her one and we could have connected.

 Bodhi House’s informal meditation room. I would sit in the chair all the way to the right, my sister in the one to the left. My “best” sits were in this room.
Bodhi House’s informal meditation room. I would sit in the chair all the way to the right, my sister in the one to the left. My “best” sits were in this room.

Several people remarked on my panda slippers – Alex at the beginning of retreat, two others at the final lunch. One man said he really appreciated them during walking meditation, which was a lovely compliment. I wore the bottoms of the slippers so much during this retreat I actually had to retire them. RIP Pandas.

Before long, it was time to go. I did one last lap around, taking pictures of everything. Álvaro and I actually shared a ride with one of our teachers back to the Boston airport. We talked about the environment and politics, mostly. Well, they talked and I mostly listened. Talking was still exhausting. I really wanted to drill my teacher with dharma questions but it didn’t seem appropriate. I’m fortunate in that I have my sister to talk to about these things. She was the one who diagnosed me as cycling between Desire for Deliverance and Equanimity. Oh, map theory. Guide me to stream entry!

PRESENT DAY

The evening after retreat, I took a glorious bath with the world’s most glittery bath bomb. Like the dust, I could see every single shimmering piece of glitter. My heightened perception lasted a few days. I’ve still been sitting, though I haven’t broken over 30 minutes. I’ve been instructed to OD on my equanimity. It’s really quite a pleasant feeling, being unperturbed by just about anything, but like everything else, it won’t last, it won’t satisfy, and it ain’t me.

I realize that this is an INCREDIBLY long post. To be honest, I expect absolutely no one to actually read it all. At this point, it’s really more for me to look back on someday than anything else. Though perhaps someone will really want the nitty gritty explanation of what a silent retreat at IMS is really like and appreciate how in depth I get.

Having had some time to process the experience, I’m insanely grateful that I had the opportunity to go. I had my moments of feeling like I didn’t get what I really wanted – instructions on how to really observe the three characteristics, how to initiate insights, how to investigate deeper than I already knew how – but it was good to get a really solid foundation that not only supported what I’ve learned but add on some additional tidbits for my practice.

Truly, I think that just about everyone would benefit from a short retreat like this. And if anyone reading this is considering such a thing, give up your phone. Really. I hesitated, and actually didn’t plan on doing it up until the day or so before, but I’m so very glad I did. IMS has a phone booth that you can use if you REALLY need to make a call but I can almost guarantee you won’t.

People have remarked to me that they don’t think they could do it. Yes, you could. Honestly, unless you have some really unbridled psychological issues, you’d be fine. Your brain would do the same thing literally everyone else’s did – make up stories, play songs, replay old TV shows, think of jokes you wish you could whisper to the person next to you. The rewarding part would be when your concentration and attention would increase, your perception and awareness would increase, and you’d realize how powerful your brain can be without having a screen shoved in front of it all the time. Your ability to notice things, appreciate things, be truly present would astound you. I am in no way unique in this capacity. This is inherent in each and every one of us.

I could have gotten my phone back if I asked for it. I could have left. I didn’t want to. And as scary as it may sound, it’s really not. There are shorter retreats that you can look up – often nearer than you think – if you’d be interested in trying a weekend or even one day. I’m now of the opinion that pretty much everyone would benefit from spending some time actually slowing down, being mindful, and living in the fucking moment. Like everything else, moderation is key. I’m not saying it’s time for four years at the Forest Refuge c;

Anyhow, should anyone actually make it this far – you’re sweet and I love you. And for those of you who don’t read this, it’s cool, I still love you, too, you just might not know it. I’m more than happy to answer any questions for anyone still curious about this experience. Whatever your relationship with meditation and mindfulness is: may you be safe and protected; may you be peaceful; may you live in love and in compassion.

A Brief Intro To Mindfulness Meditation – Part Two (The Three Characteristics & Insight)

Hi, gang! I hope your meditation practice has been going well and that you’ve gotten familiar with your current level of concentration. You may have been sitting all week since my last post and not really noticed a big difference in how long you can maintain attention – that’s okay! I hope you’re relishing the “aha” moment of remembering your intended focal object. If you missed it, this post is a follow up to last week’s post on establishing a practice and cultivating concentration.

Today we’re going to talk about the Big Gun of meditation – vipassana. Vipassanā is Pali for “Insight,” and it’s what we work to develop if we hope to one day obtain enlightenment. This sounds like an absurdly lofty goal but it is absolutely obtainable. And truth be told, even if you don’t make it all the way, you will gain many other “mundane” insights and fruits that make sitting worthwhile.

This is a rather lengthy post despite attempting to be a “Brief Intro” because the concepts in here are such a big deal I could not condense them any more than I already have. Perhaps bookmark this post and come back to it if you don’t have the time to read it all in one sitting.

And like my post last week, I was fortunate enough to be able to share this post with my sister and not only get some very good editing notes, but she also wrote most of the section on Anicca (Impermanence). It is with her guidance that I feel confident releasing this post into the world, with the hopes that this information is as helpful to others as it is to me.

Disclaimer

This series came at the request of several people who have had the pleasure* of listening to me prattle on about how meditation has changed my life. However, you should know that I am by no means a master of this material and I can only share the absolute base understanding of these concepts. I have faith in the path and its attainability due to talking to my sister (who Sakadagami or second path), crawling all over forums (like https://www.dharmaoverground.org), and reading several books. The thing that is quite fantastic about all of this? You can test it and experience it for yourself. Ask any Theravadin Monk or practitioner and they will highly recommend that you do just that. After all, reading this, listening to dharma talks, or absorbing any other material on meditation and Insight will give you some good markers of what to do or what to look for but at the end of the day, almost everything happens on the cushion.

What Is Insight Practice?

Insight practice is the key to a permanent end to sorrow. That is the most succinct way I can possibly describe Insight and why one would want to practice it. Concentration is lovely and gives you all sorts of temporary relief from suffering but for any kind of lasting change that prevails even when we’re not meditating, we have to practice Insight. It is the wisdom which enables one to see that sensations are impermanent, unsatisfactory and impersonal. Our perception makes us believe otherwise. It is the means by which we rid ourselves of defilements, cravings and wrong views(0). It allows us to see the world as it really is and clearly perceive The Three Characteristics.

Before we can get into the nitty-gritty of how to practice Insight, we have to have an intellectual understanding of The Three Characteristics or The Three Marks of Existence.

The Three Characteristics

Depending on the origin of the text you are reading, there are a few ways this will be referred to – the three marks or three characteristics are the most common that I’ve seen. I use the term characteristics generally though I bring up “marks of existence” in case you go to read other texts about the dharma. There are lots of other relevant teachings like The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, threefold training and more but at the end of the day, the information that most directly pertains to Insight are these three characteristics.

Impermanence (Anicca)

Impermanence means that all observable things, without exception, are inconstant.

The second-to-last sentence the Buddha said before he died was, “All phenomena are impermanent! Work out your salvation with diligence!“ This brings home how important this concept is and, in my opinion, it is the easiest of the three characteristics to observe. Physical, mental, inner, outer, pleasurable, intolerable – everything is transient. Absolute transience is the actual nature of experiential reality.

When we close our eyes during meditation, our entire world becomes our sensate experience. We have exactly six doors to experience things:

  1. Touch

  2. Smell

  3. Sight

  4. Sound

  5. Taste

  6. Thoughts

Yes, thought should be considered a sense door. It’s a sensation that only we perceive but it behaves in the exact same manner and thus should be treated similarly. As Ariadne so apty put it, “we have thoughts like bowel movements, and no one tries to control their bowel movements, other then to time them with finding a toilet.”

So before we decided to sit on the cushion, we were reading a book: does that book actually exist?

During meditation:

Well, the idea of a book certainly exists (a thought) but that idea came from our mind as a mental sensation. Of course we can open our eyes to see the book {being incredibly specific, our eyes do not relay the concept “book” but colors in space to the brain which then assemble these sensations into an idea} (another sense door), but that is our eyes giving us information about a book shaped object. We can pick it up (another sense door), building more sensory evidence that the book certainly exists. But does the book really exist?

Yes and no.

For example, when we are born all we get is sensate experience. Little by little we learn to combine sensations into abstract ideas like, “this item is a book which contains words, which describe a part of the world.” If you were to ask someone who had never seen a book before to describe it they might say, “It’s a square shaped item with strange markings inside” … So certainly those abstract ideas and concepts inside cease to exist (for them).

But does the book, exist? Well the sensations of the book exist, we experience them, but when we close our eyes all that is left of the book is an idea (the mental sensation). That sensation is necessarily incomplete, it won’t contain the whole book, word-for-word, it’s a mapping of reality, a representation.

Day-to-day we can assume the book still exists, but in meditation the goal is to remove assumptions. The heart of Anicca is understanding all that can exist is sensations via one of the sense doors, nothing more, and these sensations are temporary.

All sensations come and go in a flash. Even things that appear to linger are not constant and if you observe them closely you will see the flickering, vibrating, unsteady nature of these items. My anxiety, which once seemed so very sticky and constant, can now be broken down into moment-to-moment sensations, interspersed with other thoughts or feelings or sensations. Sure, it may pop back up during a window of time but it is inconstant and has never once lingered forever. Realizing and embracing this is what almost entirely eradicated an enormous problem I’ve had for years and years. Meditation did what medication, workbooks, therapy, drugs, and every other coping mechanism could not(1). From time to time, I will have sensations of anxiety arise (note: sensations! of anxiety – because that’s all it really is!), but once I engage them, observe them, and see their flickering nature, they are gone rather quickly. It’s my earnest hope that once I obtain stream entry, their occasional appearance will cease altogether. This is one of my biggest reasons for meditating. Remember, intentions are important.

For more on this particular topic, Prezi has an interesting visualization here.

Unsatisfactoriness (Dukkha)

Unsatisfactoriness refers to the fundamental suffering which pervades all physical and mental experiences.

Also translated as suffering, misery, pain, “dukkha” is a topic that was touched on briefly in the last post. There’s no one word translation that neatly explains dukkha but unsatisfactoriness is the English word I will use here. While our end goal is to end our experience of this very thing by accepting its existence, we will at times make ourselves a bit uncomfortable whilst observing it. Concentration meditation is generally quite blissful (and when someone makes a claim such as “well, meditation is supposed to make you feel good!” then it’s generally safe to assume they practice pure concentration meditation(2)), but vipassana is not always so. There are various texts that will point to the different facets of suffering but perhaps the most simple, and easy to observe, are these three causes of suffering: craving, aversion, and ignorance. Maybe the real reason I like Buddhism so much is because of how many things come in threes.

Craving

Even things that seem like they don’t cause suffering do – often due to craving. For myself, this is most obviously observable with food. Before beginning Insight practice, if you had asked me if ice cream caused me suffering, I would have made a noise that roughly equates to “??????” However, now that I’ve spent some time examining dukkha, I realize that all “good” things: sweets, sex, video games, music, attention, etc, cause me unsatisfactoriness due to my craving for them. If you’re highly motivated by food like me, try this easy real-life dharma experiment: observe your feelings prior to having the thing, during consuming the thing, and directly after you have finished the thing. You can apply this to really anything that brings you joy and you will likely come up with the same result every time: once it is gone, the excitement and happiness you experienced before/during is gone as well.

Not everything that you experience craving for is obvious and will take some time to uncover. However, it’s generally safe to say that if you like something, it indirectly creates suffering for you through craving.

Aversion

Aversion is a relatively easy facet of dukkha to understand – physical pain, aging, illness, and death are all universal and unavoidable sources of suffering for each and every human on earth. Like you, I have an aversion to catching a cold, hurting myself accidentally, realizing how my mental elasticity is declining as I get older, and, of course, dying. Though there are many other, less severe, things that create aversion. Going to work, getting out of bed, paying bills, doing chores – pretty much everyone can relate to not wanting to do these things. Observing this feeling of aversion in a neutral fashion and accepting its existence repeatedly is one of the ways we reach enlightenment. It might require a little “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality, repeating to ourselves over and over that this is simply the nature of life, but with time one should genuinely understand and accept this truth.

Ignorance

It is taught that “suffering begins with ignorance about the reality of our true nature.” Examining the very items that cause suffering in our lives can feel counter-intuitive. As someone who once very deeply subscribed to the thought process of happy thoughts -> happy moods -> happy life, I absolutely understand the desire to ignore the three characteristics. Do not mistake ignorance in this context to mean “uneducated” – it means to be unaware of pain and it’s cause. It’s our resistance to observing and accepting our cravings and aversions and damn is it a difficult process to unprogram. After all, ignorance attempts to make us feel like all is well, all is good, there’s no need for change. The number of defense mechanisms our brain develops to maintain this status-quo is pretty remarkable. But with practice, it can only hold out for so long.

Non-Self (Anatta)

Non-self asserts that there is no unchanging, permanent self or “soul” in living beings.

The doctrine of the no-self is a tough pill to swallow. As a result of having Borderline Personality Disorder, my sense of self was incredibly unstable for many, many years. However, I actively worked at creating a solid sense of who “I” am – to the point that I literally made a fucking brand out of my nickname. Look at the name of this website!!

This should give you an idea of why this is the characteristic that I struggle the most with. However, I will share with you the things I have read and perhaps we can contemplate it together, eventually reaching some kind of understanding through diligent practice.

As you may have noticed, impermanence seems to play a hand in suffering and it is the same with the non-self. Is my body “me”? If so, what happens when I cut my hair, slough off dead skin, lose a limb? Are those things me? We certainly look different than we did when we were a baby and this shell of cells will continue to constantly change until the day it perishes.

Are my thoughts “me”? They come and go, oftentimes without any sense of control over them. Like all other sensations, I can observe them and realize that they are utterly impermanent – no different than the sound of the dishwasher, the smell of perfume, the taste of a warm roll. Interestingly, in my current stage of practice, I have begun to have absolutely random thoughts that appear to manifest from nowhere and have nothing to do with me. A recent sit presented the thought, “My daughter would be so disappointed.” What daughter? And why on earth would she be disappointed? The origin and explanation of this thought is something I could contemplate all day but the truth of it is that this thought was not “mine”.

While “Carly” may exist conventionally, there is no aspect of myself I can describe which isn’t impermanent and superficial. This is a hugely difficult concept for many to understand and from all that I have read, an intellectual explanation is just not sufficiently capable of explaining this truth. So we must sit.

Alternatively, my sister explains non-self in this way:

For Anatta, the easiest path is “casual interdependence of all phenomenon.”

A tree grows because a seed fell, the seed fell because a bird carried it, the bird carried it because it was hungry, it was hungry because it didn’t eat the day before, it didn’t eat the day before because it was sick, it was sick because it caught a cold from the rain, it was raining, because water evaporated from a nearby lake, the water evaporated because sunlight hit it, the sunlight hit it, because the sun is 8 million miles away, it’s 8 million miles away, because of the big bang.

You are on the path because I told you about it, I told you about it because the dharma needs to be spread, it needs to be spread because it’s the truth, it’s the truth because its universal, it’s universal because it’s available to everyone.

We literally can’t do anything without everything having an impact, our minds generate thoughts based on previous states, which we don’t control, we are born into a world already formed, already in motion.

See also: Indra’s Net. It’s literally the definition of a fractal, you can’t look at one part and cut it out, it’s always a part of the whole.

So to go “this is me” lol, you born into this culture, in this time, with these circumstances, with this history. You remove all of that, you cut the person out of Indra’s net, they cease to exist.

Idk about y’all but as I said to her after I read that, “that shit about the casual interdependence of all things just knocked something loose in my brain.”

How To Practice Insight

By now, you might be feeling a bit apprehensive. After all, if we knew, accepted and fully understood the three characteristics, we would have completed the first path of enlightenment! It’s okay. Doubt is common in the beginning and nothing to worry about. The magic of vipassana, however, is that we can directly observe these marks of existence for ourselves in a first-person science which has been replicated over and over by people around the world for over two thousand years. C’mon, you gotta admit, that’s pretty compelling.

So how exactly does one go about practicing Insight?

There is no one perfect technique. Much like concentration, there are several different ways to get the same end result. However, you begin just as you would for concentration – comfortable posture, hands in the dhyana mudra, timer set. We keep our focus object – often times, the breath. We attend to this focus object but now it is time to introduce awareness.

Awareness

Whereas attention is about honing in on one particular item and examining it, with little to no regard to anything else, awareness is a much broader state of consciousness. We have both attention and peripheral awareness working side-by-side all day: as you make your way to the kitchen, you may be using your attention to think about how much time you have to get ready for work, planning what you’re going to wear, etc but your peripheral awareness is quietly making note of things like “walk around the dog”, “it’s cold down here”, “something smells good”. It’s what informs our reflexes and tells us to duck when we see something coming or catch something we’ve dropped.

In the context of meditation, with our eyes closed, our awareness is the subtle moment we notice the heat clicking on, the beeping of a snow plow backing up outside, the feeling of our foot falling asleep. Anything from our awareness can become the object of our attention should our brain decide it is important enough, which is exactly how we end up forgetting that we are meditating and getting caught in a daydream.

Awareness gives us context whereas attention does the analytical work. Ideally, we want to train these two processes to work together without either one dominating. It is awareness that discovers the sources of Insights and attention that guides our investigation of them. We need awareness to observe activities of the mind because attention is what controls the intentional activities of the mind.

The nonjudgmental observation of awareness is critical for Insight.

Noting

A preferred method of mine for Insight and strengthening awareness is noting. I mentioned it in my last post but Mahasi Sayadaw really crushed it in his explanation of noting practice. The following is an excerpt from his instruction:

If you imagine something, you must know that you have done so and make a mental note, imagining. If you simply think of something, mentally note, thinking. If you reflect, reflecting. If you intend to do something, intending. When the mind wanders from the object of meditation which is the rising and falling of the abdomen, mentally note, wandering.

If you envision or imagine a light or colour, be sure to note seeing. A mental vision must be noted on each occurrence of its appearance until it passes away. After its disappearance, continue with Basic Exercise I, by being fully aware of each movement of the rising and falling abdomen. Proceed carefully, without slackening. If you intend to swallow saliva while thus engaged, make a mental note intending. While in the act of swallowing, swallowing. If you spit, spitting. Then return to the exercise of noting rising and falling. Suppose you intend to bend the neck, note intending. In the act of bending, bending. When you intend to straighten the neck, intending. In the act of straightening the neck, straightening. The neck movements of bending and straightening must be done slowly. After mentally making a note of each of these actions, proceed in full awareness with noticing the movements of the rising and falling abdomen.

In the beginning, much like focusing our attention, noting can seem difficult. It suddenly makes clear how many things we do and think without conscious awareness of them. Noting “intending” is a very important key to seeing the gaps in between what we think and what we do. If you forget to note this or anything else, you can note “forgetting”. Don’t get too caught up in what name you use for everything – I have some days where I just note “thought” for every mental process that occurs, regardless of whether it’s imagining, reflecting, wandering. On a really fast noting day, notes will eventually become “blips” where everything just gets a “blip” note. Whatever word you use, it should always be one word. With time, noting will be too slow and your brain will have strengthened to the point where you clearly perceive without having to label sensations.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind with noting is to note everything without placing a value judgement on them. In a sit, for example, I may note “anxiety”, “hearing”, “pain”, “anxiety” but none of these things are good or bad. They just are. The purpose of noting is to let these sensations appear, accept them exactly as they are, and release them. Dr. Yates (from The Mind Illuminated), has a nice short phrase you may want to commit to memory: let it come, let it be, let it go.

If you ever read my post about DBT, this concept of radical acceptance is not a new one. In fact, CBT/DBT and mindfulness have a lot in common. This probably explains why my introduction to psychology teacher advocates both of these things.

Investigation

So how does all this tie in with the three characteristics? Well, noting – especially in the quickfire way described above – will reveal that all things are impermanent. Observing the exact beginning and end of your breath while keeping your awareness open is another perfect example of this. As an understanding of impermanence develops, vibrations become apparent and we realize that our sensate reality is littered with our brain trying to make things seem continuous.

As you sit, you will certainly have thoughts come about. You do not want to get too entangled in them other than to ask yourself, how does this relate to the three characteristics? To unsatisfactoriness? For example, thinking about what you’re doing to do after you’re done sitting is clearly craving/aversion, and thus related to suffering. Boredom is often aversion to suffering in disguise. Examining reality is not fun or exciting, so we’d rather engage in ignorance. Especially when we begin to observe the more heavy aspects of suffering. After you ask your question and see it’s connection to dukkha, all you need do is accept it and let it go. Repeatedly working to truly know, accept, and release the urges, impulses, tensions, and fantasies which fight against your attempts to sit will not only keep you from getting terribly distracted but provide good Insight.

As for the non-self, Daniel Ingram quoted a teacher as saying, “If you are observing it, then by definition it isn’t you.” In practice, notice how sensations arise on their own – even thoughts or intentions. Remember the six sense doors.

Whenever investigating, remember not to get too caught up in your brain’s “stuff”. While there are times that you may want to linger to get to the root of something, there is a lot to be said for being able to simply let it go. This is a skill that will directly transfer over to your life off the cushion.

Welcome to Insight

As I’ve said many times before, this 3k+ word post is really barely scratching the surface of what could be said about these topics – especially considering that understanding the three characteristics literally leads to enlightenment. However, it is certainly sufficient to get you started with Insight meditation and investigation of your reality. I encourage you to find the sutras, pick up a book or two, Google your brains out but most importantly keep sitting. It would seem a balance between gathering information and actually meditating is ideal for awakening as some folks spend years sitting without really getting anywhere versus some folks who read and read and read but never put in adequate time actually meditating. Of course, you can go through life without sitting and still chance upon many stages of the path just as someone can sit without any instruction and eventually perceive reality clearly. But neither of those journeys are “ideal” if we’re going to put a value judgment on them.

Next week, I will likely not post my next entry in this series as I’ll be traveling. Truth be told, this is a LOT of information and will likely be sufficient for your practice some time. Increase your time from five minutes to ten if you’re following along with this series, doing five minute sits on the days that you genuinely can barely spare a moment. Just like I said last time, if you miss a sit, do not beat yourself up about it. Just sit tomorrow. Keep making the effort.

As for noting, it may not come easily at first. That’s okay. Do the best you can and like any other skill, it will develop and get stronger. Although I’ll be on the road, I am always available for questions on Facebook messenger. Good luck! Note vigorously and investigate ruthlessly!!

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(0) – I intend on the next post being about Morality and these related items here as they really are quite important. However, for the sake of getting your Insight practice swimming along, I decided to zip right into vipassana from concentration.

(1) – I’ve said it many times before and I will continue to say it probably every time my words could be misconstrued to mean otherwise: medication, therapy and all forms of treatment for mental health issues are important, valid, and lifesaving. It is my observation that meditation has the potential to pretty much fix all these things in the long term with sufficient practice and determination however one should not stop taking any medicine, cease therapy or any other treatment in order to just meditate one’s problems away.

(2) I am not passing any judgment on people who practice pure concentration. That’s their choice to make. It’s not a choice that I would personally recommend as the long term goal of literally ending suffering sounds hella tight to me but I am a big fan of freewill. Plus, any kind of meditation has the potential to accidentally bump your way into Insight practice. At the end of the day, we’re all doing what we can to maximize our happiness.