Here’s my update on Michelle, from when I was in Colorado a couple weeks ago. Sorry for the delay.
So … how is Michelle? Let me begin by saying that this meditation business is doing strange things to my wife. I learned the first night that Michelle has neither gone for a run nor eaten chocolate since she’s been at the center. You heard that right. As far as I’m concerned, case closed: meditation is a radically transformative process. They can end this crazy experiment and send everyone home. Especially my wife.
Before I ramble, here are the Michelle headlines: she says she’s doing great, she’s glowing, and seems like she’s flourishing. She sends you all her love – and thanks for your words of support.
I arrived, after the full-day gauntlet of trains, planes and shuttle buses, on Tuesday evening, March 27th. I settled in that evening in my room, in the Shambhala Lodge. The geography was a bit tantalizing. Just a few feet away, I could see the neighboring Rigden Lodge, where Michelle and the other retreatants are sequestered – pretty much everything they do is there: dining hall, meditation hall, their rooms, the testing labs.
The set-up couldn't be better for Michelle and the retreatants - the scientists and staff are completely focused on being supportive to the meditators' practice, the accomodations are excellent, the grounds couldn't be more quiet. And the expansiveness of the landscape provides a nice stretching exercise for the mind that's spending most of its day looking inward. As Alan Wallace wrote in his welcome letter to us: "I have meditated in many places on three continents, but never have I found a more conducive place to practice than this."
I've set up Flickr account here, where you can see some pics of Michelle and the landscape.
Crazy as it sounds, Michelle’s schedule’s quite packed, and I was only able to see her for an hour in the evenings. She’s practicing 8 hours plus a day – mostly in group sessions. In the morning, Alan leads a session, his interns lead sessions throughout the day, and Alan leads one in the evening, followed by Q&A. Everyone gets a weekly one-on-one interview with Alan. On top of the practice, she performs her daily chore – cleaning the women’s bathroom – plus she participates in the daily yoga class (important not only for exercise and to deepen the practice, but also to avoid injury), plus she has reading on the practice (a terrific list of books), plus she participates in the scientific trials, which includes filling out a long (read: endless) nightly journal/questionnaire. My schedule was pretty jammed while I was there – juggling work by remote (which, between having to dial 30+ digits to get a line out, phone lines going down in flash floods and intermittent internet, was kind of a nightmare) plus the study trials, and we agreed to see each other each night after her last session. She would come over at 8:30, and we’d have an hour together, before she had to go back to her dorm to work on her nightly questionnaire and produce a saliva sample.
We’d agreed to meet the first night and go for a hike up the mountain, to the stupa, a magnificent meditation hall, recently spruced up to honor a visit by the Dalai Lama.
Other nights, Michelle came over to the Shambhala Lodge to see me. I was so excited to see her each night, and I’d wait, heart skipping every time footsteps passed my door around the appointed hour, but I have to confess that seeing her was hard. We’re already stretching the study’s guidelines by spending time together. A few weeks ago, I spoke to a friend, who, with her boyfriend, are the only other couple in the study, and learned that they’ve gone cold turkey: they’ve chosen for him not to know when she was there for her control group visits, and have planned on not speaking until the retreat’s over. As I described in my earlier report, interactions, even benign ones, throw off the practice, and make it almost impossible to keep going deeper. When you go into retreat (dang it – expedition), you starve the brain of the daily stimuli it’s addicted to, and it can grow desperate, greedily devouring any scrap it can find. Give the hungry brain a conversation, and words’ll rattle around and around and around (and around and around …) for the following day’s sessions. To try to soften this problem, I’ve censored what I tell her – basically, no chit-chat, give her very little specific daily life info to grab onto -- no headlines, no news on friends, no … well not much. Furthermore, she can’t talk about her inner experience except in a generic way (this is not only important for the study, it’s important generally for one’s practice), and as part of the study’s guidelines, I’m not supposed to talk about my experience in the trials with any other participants, Michelle included. Which means that we have to keep our conversation to a pretty superficial level.
By wishful thinking, we’d convinced ourselves that my presence wouldn’t have too big an effect on her practice, but of course it did. Michelle admitted that her practice had been pretty shallow since I’d arrived -- which tinged our time together, knowing that I was doing neither her nor the study any favors. And the whole time we’re together, I’m keeping a corner of my brain on the time, like someone on the other side of the glass in a prison’s family room.
A long way of saying, I don’t have a ton to tell you beyond what I have already. It sounds as if Michelle, and everyone in the retreat, has been on a pretty wild ride. Michelle did make one comment, that people were experiencing what in Tibetan are called nyam (in Pali: sankharas) – crazy psycho-physiological experiences considered to be a rebalancing of your neuro-muscular system and possibly a flushing out of your deepest mental complexes. I’m obviously no psychologist, but my layman’s interpretation of these nyam is that when you meditate, you trick the brain, in some sense, into behaving as if you’re dreaming, and it starts to flush out all kinds of crazy fears, memories and desires from the limbic system (i.e. the primal brain). Here are some examples of nyam, (taken from various sources, including The Vajra Esssence, a seminal text on the practice) to give you a feel for what Michelle might be going through:
· The impression that all your thoughts are wreaking havoc in your body and mind, like boulders rolling down a steep mountain, crushing and destroying everything in their path;
· An ecstatic, pleasant feeling, as if your entire body has dissolved into microscopic bubbles and you experience everything with complete equanimity and clarity, as if you had been viewing the world through frosted glass previously, and now someone has pulled the frosted glass away;
· A sense of panic flowing through you as if from without, combined with dramatically increased heart rate and sweating and muscle twitching;
· The experience of visions, which you know to be hallucinations, but which are as vivid in the mind’s eye as if they were real. Often these visions take on frightening forms, such as skeletons, giant spiders or venomous snakes;
· The sensation of external sounds and voices of humans, dogs, birds, and so on all piercing your heart like thorns;
· Unbearable anger due to the paranoia of thinking that everyone around you is gossiping about you and putting you down;
· The perception of all phenemona as brilliant, colored particles;
· Such unbearable misery that you think your heart will burst.
Michelle didn’t stay with me at night, although she tried once. The problem is that she’s going through fitful, restless nights, only getting three or four hours of sleep a night. I should qualify my comment earlier: Michelle is glowing, but she's glowing the way someone halfway up Everest might be glowing - this isn't an easy journey. I was supportive of the idea that she sleep in her own bed at night, for her, and for the study. But at a primal level, there’s something a little unsettling about your wife leaving your bed …
Sleeplessness is a very common side effect of the practice (compounded, I suspect by the 8,000 foot altitude). It sounds as if many people in the retreat group are facing this issue. Sometimes, this sleeplessness can be a very pleasant experience, akin to the second bullet point above. At other times, the sleeplessness can be less pleasant, closer to garden variety insomnia – full of discomfort and nightmares. It sounds like Michelle’s had both kinds of sleeplessness. Unfortunately, for the past ten days or so, she’d had more of the latter. The good news is that she says maintaining equanimity in the face of these nightmares – watching them as if they’re moving on a screen but not reacting to them – remaining calm, peaceful. Nightmares in sound and image, but not emotional content.
In fact, Michelle had her first lucid dream a few days before I got there. Lucid dreaming, well-studied in the West and a long tradition in Tibetan practice (where it’s called Dream Yoga), is when you dream, but know you’re dreaming. It’s a pretty common side-effect of Shamatha practice and is a crazy experience (I’ve had a couple lucid dreams, although both times I got so excited when I realized what was going on that I woke up pretty quickly). As you examine the dream world, it seems completely real – tables are solid, windows cold to touch, people rich with idiosyncrasies and emotional subtleties and knowing and saying things you can’t imagine have come out of your own psyche. You actually have to convince yourself that you’re a body lying in a bed in some so-called reality (there are specific techniques to help you do this). Besides being a really cool, exciting experience, lucid dreaming can play an important role in the practice. Essentially, it allows you to continue your meditation while you’re sleeping.
To understand Lucid Dreaming’s significance, it helps to be familiar with one of the key practices on this retreat, known as “Settling the Mind in Its Natural State.” This practice entails turning your attention to what might be called the ‘movie screen’ of the mind. You watch ‘mental objects’ (thoughts, emotions, images, sounds, etc.) arise and pass in the mind without reacting to or getting carried away by them. It’s like letting a movie play on a TV screen while making sure that your awareness is bigger than the frame of the screen – you keep your attention on the whole room, perceive the sound and images playing across the TV as sound and images without meaning, and you don’t get caught up in the movie. You don’t let yourself get lost in the story, the characters, the reactions to happy or sad moments – you watch these images and sounds like an impartial scientist, in a viewing booth above the lab. Lucid dreaming is the nighttime analog to “Settling the Mind in its Natural State.” You watch the dream, but your awareness is bigger than it – you know it’s just a dream playing across the screen of the mind. With a key twist: you can choose to get involved in the story, with the bonus of knowing that it’s only a dream, so there’s no downside. Forgive the cheesy analogy, but for those of you who’ve seen “The Matrix,” it’s a bit like Neo’s constant reminder to himself that “there is no spoon.” Once he’s convinced of this, he’s able to fly and do all sorts of other groovy things. Same concept here. In the dream world, you can bend the rules in trippy ways, once you've convinced yourself that you’re in a dream. And most importantly, when demons and monsters and other unpleasant characters arise (presumably manifestations of your deepest anxieties), you can turn and face them with total equanimity and kindness, and dissolve them. Which is what Michelle did with her lucid dream. She half woke up from a normal nightmare, full of anxiety, then slipped back into it, knowing it was just a dream. And she stayed in the dream, and faced the demons – whatever they were – head on, without fear, anger, or other ugly nightmare stuff. Pretty wild. And, I suspect, healing.
I mentioned the daily yoga class. Three of the retreat’s participants are leading them – two different styles of yoga, and one that is actually Qigong (not completely sure what that is, except that it’s Chinese and Tai-Chi like). Michelle’s loving this part of the daily routine – physical exercise that connects closely to the practice – and is particularly fond of Qigong.
One thing I worry about a little bit about in the way Michelle talks about the experience is her tendency to be a bit hard on herself. Michelle and I are definitely among the least advanced in our practice and in our scholarship around it. Every night, Michelle sits in a Q&A session where she’s reminded of how much other people seem to know. I think she feels a bit like she’s playing catch-up – and is working extra hard, especially on the reading. Unfortunately, working extra hard can be counterproductive in this practice, because it can bring up tension. It’s a bit like golf, where you hit the ball farther by relaxing and not trying to hit the ball harder. She seems to be doing so well for now, I hope she doesn’t set herself up for a cycle of frustration.
One humorous side-note: I have a little bit of a running joke with Michelle, ribbing her for her enjoyment of clothes shopping (not because she’s much of a shopper, but because she’s so self-conscious about it when she does go shopping). There’s a little store on the grounds, open for all of two hours a day (apparently French work rules apply in the Rockies), and I went in one day to get shampoo, and there was Michelle, in the clothes section, sorting through the racks. She gave me a big, embarrassed “whoops!” look and I burst out laughing. So busted. Turned out the joke was on me: she was standing at the men’s t-shirt rack and she was trying to surprise me with a gift ...
What else can I tell you about Michelle? Can I see the effects of the practice? Yes, of course. She’s still my wife, thankfully. But there’s something … different. Elation, but without the nervousness that usually defines that state. Elation grounded in exceptional calm.
Sunday morning, Michelle snuck out for a few minutes to see me off. She said something that I’ve kept with me. The long questionnaire that Michelle has to fill out each night includes a page that says at the top: “Today, I generally felt …” and then lists 42 emotions. She has to rate the emotions from 1 (Disagree strongly), to 7 (Agree strongly). “One of the emotions is grateful,” Michelle said. “Every night, I put a 7.”
She sends her hugs to all.
Plenty more to write on, especially about all the crazy trials she – and all of us – have been going through, but there’s my update for now. Again, sorry to take so long to get this out. I've getting a little crushed by a couple of work projects.