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Over the course of my meditation practice I experience pronounced cycles or ebbs and flows. This has been a feature of my practice for several years now and doesn't seem to be lessening - if anything it is intensifying. The pattern is

  1. Meditation goes well. Concentrated and experience vigour
  2. Energy, motivation and concentration increase to a peak
  3. Over the course of one or two days practice seems to fall apart. Poor concentration. Feelings of dullness and lethargy with meditation and lack of motivation. This can bleed over to time off the cushion
  4. After weeks or even months meditation starts to become pleasurable again and the cycle starts again

Sometimes the low point isn't too bad but sometimes it is so dominating that I can't recognize it for what it is. I've cleared my shrine away before now. The Buddha goes away and it's only after some days I remember what is probably going on.

Does anyone have any advice about the best way to work with these kind of cycles. Is it a well documented phenomena or documented at all? I would find references to established texts or teachers on this subject particularly helpful.

  • could you please edit to include the type of meditation practice? that could have an effect on what the correct answer should be. – Ryan Jul 9 '15 at 0:42
  • The best fix for poor meditation is more meditation. – user698 Jul 9 '15 at 12:51
  • @Ryan my meditation practice is mostly metta bhvana and minfulness of breathing but before my last 'crash' I was doing a lot of pure awareness – Crab Bucket Jul 9 '15 at 20:15
  • What is pure awareness? I would suggest you practice vipassana, this practice will help you see these crashes coming a lot sooner and deal with them in a very objective, non-reactive manner. – Ryan Jul 10 '15 at 2:12
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Everyone experiences ebbs and flows, it is the natural biological cycle of the mind. However its impact varies from individual to individual, and can definitely be controlled.

First, we need a good reason to continue practicing when meditation loses its stickiness. Second, we need to intervene early, before the multiplier effect sets in. If the dullness (which is what doubt is) of mind lasts for too long, then stronger and still stronger medicine becomes necessary, and it can be quite painful.

Best case:

If we are in a retreat setting where our attention and mindfulness are excellent, we can spot the exact moment the mind changes its hum. Doubt begins to creep in, and a lack of confidence, or a desire for samsara grabs one. At these times, provided this change is noticed at the very first moment of arising, it maybe sufficient to just note the change, and it will vanish soon without much harm because our mind will multiply it no further.

Usually for me this would happen on some days at around 3-4pm when I'm having a calorie crunch, being 4-5 hours after lunch, my mind is switching fuels, and has a lower performance initially when burning fat reserves.

Fewer calories coming into the brain = Depression, despondence, laziness etc.

Of course, I can't observe at this level of detail in everyday life, so this only works for me on a retreat or if I am already on the cushion when this happens.

Next best case:

Take the philosophical approach, and ask, 'who is losing faith?', 'what is reality?' etc. Again, this works only if the intervention is quite early in the phase, when the mind still has enough strength to be reasoned with. Maybe within a few minutes of the dullness arising.

Medium - to - Hard cases:

Once the mind has become properly dull by lack of mindfulness, which takes only a few minutes (less than half hour) really, it becomes difficult to reason with. Moods and opinions take root rather firmly, and one may want to get up from meditation if one is already in meditation, or take a break from reading a book on dhamma etc.

If the lack of mindfulness lasts for a little longer, like an hour, then the mind becomes a proper bucking bronco. It wants pleasures, it wants a movie, it wants distraction, the works. It may want to leave the retreat right away etc.

If we let the dullness persist for a day or two or a week, or more, then yeah, giving up the practice all together becomes a real possibility. There are people who abandon meditation for years because they got dragged away by dullness, and then got caught in daily life.

Solution:
The only option that works on a dull mind that is not sharp enough to reason with is faith and perseverance.

One time when I'd let my mindfulness slip on a retreat (in this particular case it wasn't lack of calories, it was the dukkha nanas), all of a sudden I had thoughts of quitting the retreat. It wasn't my first retreat, so I knew this isn't normal, this isn't right. I had no choice but to walk around in my room, cursing Mara, telling him he won't have his way, he is not going to weaken my resolve. I was simultaneously aware that I was talking to myself like one of those people in cults blaming the devil for everything, but what could I do, my mind was too dull for anything more rational or intelligent. The dull mind can't reflect within and see nuanced internal reality, so blaming the devil is what worked.

It brought me back to the cushion within an hour, because I was quite angry with Mara and wasn't going to let him win. The mood had passed by the evening. All one needs is some convincing reason to continue to practice - devil, biology, philosophy - whatever resonates at that moment. The good thing about blaming the devil is it fights depression and self blame - I don't indulge in the '"I" screwed up' thinking and get demotivated, instead fury at being wronged by Mara gives strength to fight back.

Off the retreat setting, there's been a few times, when I've abandoned all practice for 3-4 days, maybe a week, and binge watched some nonsense TV series or the other usually with a lot of stomach churning violence and sex. All the while knowing I don't really enjoy it, but I'll feel powerless. Of course in these cases I didn't catch the dullness early enough, and allowed it to multiply in strength. Once the mind is properly dull, it looks outside for entertainment. Sex and violence is popular in our present day culture because it is the lowest grade of entertainment - even the dullest mind can appreciate it even though it renders one even weaker. When my mindfulness is quite high I am repulsed by the sight of such things, and my mind will naturally stay away with no effort.

This situation is quite bad, because even after I've decided to pull myself up, which I usually do after a week maximum, I have to make up lost ground, and my concentration won't get back to normal for a week or two, and the whole time my mood and relaxation won't be so good. I might wake up a little extra tired, I might sleep late and wake up late etc.

Exception:
Some other times I've just zapped out of the dullness as if by magic, and got back on the cushion after watching 3 seasons of a TV show back to back, as if nothing happened, and my concentration has not suffered much. This I can't explain.

My problem these days is complacency: I know how all this works, and I know I will eventually always return to the cushion, so I no longer fight it as vehemently as I used to. I'm trying to fix this but I can tell I am taking it easy.

  • Great answer thank you. I think faith and perseverance is about right. But this entire post really chimes with my experience. It seems like this is it really. It is a manifestation of doubt i think. So do you think that dullness and doubt are the same thing? – Crab Bucket Jul 9 '15 at 20:19
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    My personal observation is all negative states (doubt, depression, diffidence) arise from an initial dullness. The mind takes the dullness and give its a cognizable form as doubt or depression. Fear of the selfview at being eliminated is always waiting for resolve to weaken. I've seen research that says the sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system is to blame. One inclines us towards samsara, the other towards faith. When one or the other goes out of balance, we fall down. Like learning to walk on two feet, we need to learn to handle the imbalances as we grow our meditation. – Buddho Jul 10 '15 at 3:52
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    The saying the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak comes to mind. Maybe it is junk food, or a man or woman who is attractive but is just trouble to let into our lives, or alcohol, whatever the addiction, we can't often help it. We are not acting rationally in these moments of weakness, we are succumbing to an external pleasure seeking sensation in the brain. Sometimes this leads to crazy conclusions like anger is good, even though anger is certainly not pleasurable. When we completely and always see through this we are enlightened. Even Sakadagamis don't always manage this :) – Buddho Jul 10 '15 at 4:07
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    Meditating with a senior teacher or a class of advanced meditators who can transmit mindfulness energy is very good for this. Like a mother watches over the toddler taking his first steps, and ensures he doesn't have a bad fall, the shared mindfulness energy will prevent dullness and negative states in everyone as and when they need it. This is why often on a good retreat at a monastery with hundreds of seasoned meditators, one can make progress worth a year of meditating on our own in a few days. Again, I don't have anything scientific except my personal observation to back this. – Buddho Jul 10 '15 at 4:15
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I was wondering about the clearing away of the shrine. It could be that there exists an attachment to the shrine. By clearing it away when periods of stagnation occurs it is like affirming that a period of stagnation is "bad" or "not good" or "a problem".

These are merely concepts designated to a certain situation. In ultimate reality what you experience is only a combination of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, feeling, thinking.

Making the situation into either positive or negative is one's own work. We create our own suffering by wishing for reality to be something different than it already is.

The clearing away of the shrine could indicate that there is a self involved in this. It is like saying "i am angry" or "i am sad". There is an affirmation or validation going on here.

In reality there is mental and physical phenomena arising and ceasing on their own accord. Do not identify or take ownership of these impersonal and uncontrollable phenomena.

By reacting to them you provide them further fuel to burn. See them for what they are. You can turn these phenomena into objects of observation and create a foundation for cultivation of insights.

Lastly, here is a great dhamma talk by Ven. Yuttadhammo. Robin was so sweet to post it in one of my questions. In here it is talked about how one can adjust ones own practice by using 4 different tools. This talk is very beneficial for any meditator.

Hope this helps. If you need me to elaborate on anything i've just said, please let me know.

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    pretty much this. by limiting the experiences you're willing to deem as acceptable, compartmentalizing reality, you hinder your progress. these "undesirable" states aren't the issue...your response to them is. – Ryan Jul 9 '15 at 0:41
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    I agree, learn to observe everything that happens without self blame, or attachment, even to the good times in meditation. No matter how many times the ox runs away, we patiently go and bring it back. (See Zen Ox herding picture series) – Buddho Jul 9 '15 at 10:36
  • @Buddho. Great analogy with the Ox. I heard a Tibetan saying that goes something like this: "If the mind wanders a thousand times, bring it back a thousand times". – Lanka Jul 9 '15 at 10:48
  • @Lanka :-) not my analogy, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Bulls - The calf, bull or ox is one of the earliest similes for meditation practice. It comes from the Maha Gopalaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 33). It is also used in the commentaries, especially the one on the Maha Satipahna Sutta (Digha Nikaya 22) and the Satipahna Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10). – Buddho Jul 9 '15 at 19:14
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    @Lanka thanks for the answer. Helpful as always. I should have filled out the part about the shrine - i cleared it away and put on a record player and bought a load of vinyl. The problem wasn't anger - it was craving. I ended up craving stuff that really I know doesn't cause any lasting happiness. Fortunately the record player broke and I came to my senses! – Crab Bucket Jul 9 '15 at 20:17

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