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As far as I understand, awareness is an important concept in buddhism, and an asset to develop through meditation.

During meditation (following vipassana as taught by Goenka), it has happened to me that I forget where I am at that moment. When this question/feeling arises, the answer comes little by little being really general at the beginning, and gradually refining to a more detailed description of where I am, like: you are in this country, you came to this place, you are in a retreat, your are sitting in this meditation hall, etc.

My questions are:

  • Is this feeling expected at any meditation stage ?
  • Is this experience maybe pointing out a mistake in the practice ?

Answers with references are strongly appreciated.

  • Sounds to me like your mind is drifting from your meditation object. All that's really important is your awareness of that. Could you specify the type of meditation that you are doing? That would allow for a more specific answer. – user698 Oct 26 '14 at 12:34
  • @enenalan : Updated. I try vipassana as it is taught at Goenka's retreats. – user3275957 Oct 26 '14 at 12:37
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    Afraid I can't help you there, but knowing that should make it easier for someone to chime in. – user698 Oct 26 '14 at 12:39
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Since you are asking from a specific tradition, I can give a pretty specific answer:

Is this feeling expected at any meditation stage ?

Yes, it is expected at the stage of bhaṅga-ñāṇa (knowledge of dissolution). Though generally available texts don't mention this phenomenon, teacher manuals make reference to it. Here is the general state that leads to this phenomenon:

For at that time each object that is being noticed seems to him to be entirely absent or to have become non-existent. Consequently, at this stage of knowledge, it seems to him as if he were engaged in noticing something which has already become absent or non-existent by having vanished; and the consciousness engaged in noticing appears to have lost contact with the object that is being noticed.

-- Mahasi Sayadaw, Progress of Insight

Is this experience maybe pointing out a mistake in the practice ?

No, but it is common in bhaṅga-ñāṇa to think that your practice is not progressing because of an inability to notice objects clearly (only noticing their disappearance):

It is for that reason that a meditator may here think: "I have lost the insight"; but he should not think so.

-- Ibid.

The reason for losing perception of where you are in bhaṅga-ñāṇa, or the similar observation also common to bhaṅga-ñāṇa of losing perception of the position of the body (i.e. thinking the body or part of the body has disappeared), is because with bhaṅga-ñāṇa the meditator has broken through the illusion of concept into the reality of ultimate existence, no longer putting attention on concepts like "place" or "body". Since in ultimate reality you aren't anywhere and your body doesn't exist, these concepts have no place in the yogi's mind at that time.

  • What kind of advice would you give (in particular to beginners) when facing this kind of experience? I never expected that this experience would have such a deep meaning/implication. – user3275957 Oct 28 '14 at 21:13
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    @user3275957 the experience itself is just a bi-product. You think your surroundings/body parts have disappeared because they never were there and you are just realizing it. In our tradition, you would note the experience, e.g. "knowing, knowing", just reminding yourself it is what it is. – yuttadhammo Oct 29 '14 at 2:23
  • Thank you Ven. Yuttadhammo, and OP for the question. This has happened to me on Goenka retreats too, where I've emerged from meditation a few times with temporary loss of awareness of space or time or both. The teacher had told me I was doing something wrong, getting stuck somewhere, but I strongly felt the sit had been useful, so I decided to follow my inner guide and not change a thing. – Buddho May 28 '15 at 19:06
  • I've always had trouble matching the words of Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw's progress of insight with my experiences. I've simply come to accept that on a Goenka course, the following things happen to me (so far it's happened each visit)- fear or panic by day 3 or 4, depression and wanting to get out of there because I can't concentrate on anything by day 5, amazing happiness, love, kindness etc. by day 6 or 7, and then usually some difficulty going back to concentration afterwards. I don't remember clearly everything, but these peak events stand out in my memory. Cont'd... – Buddho May 28 '15 at 19:38
  • There's a few periods of body pains here and there, on days 2, 4, etc, can't recall clearly. Definitely there's intense body pain, but also enormous capability to sit through it just before the amazing happiness hits me. One time I observed this transition clearly, just pain everywhere and then a sensation like squirting of liquid (like felt in an injection after the pain of entry is gone), even with an audible squirt noise was heard at the nape of my neck, inside the spine and then suddenly pure happiness. Your verification of bhanga nana helps me kind of put the others on the map. – Buddho May 28 '15 at 19:43
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Since the one who keeps track of where we are in time and space, the question really is asking what happens if I forget myself.

Here is how Dogen answers this question http://zmm.mro.org/teachings/meditation-instructions/

The great Master Dogen said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.”

In another text, Dogen mentions forgetting objects of thought. What is the place we think we are in but an object of thought. If we lose our memory through amnesia, the place we are in is not an objective place but a subjective memory experience that can disappear so that we cannot use it as a point of reference.

http://www.thezensite.com/ZenBookReviews/DogenManualofZen.htm

Dogen's second version of the Zazen gi expresses this scheme far more clearly. Bielefeldt's sixth chapter studies the vulgate text of the Zazen gi, noting Dogen's unmistakable departure from Tsung-tse's meditative framework centered on the mental exercise of "forgetting objects" of thought. In contrast to "forgetting objects," Bielefeldt points to "nonthinking" (hishiryo) as the key to Dogen's understanding of true meditation. There, the practitioner, instead of attempting to forget objects, becomes the state of nonthinking itself.

So if you are becoming the state of non thinking itself, then your experience is drawing from a deep well.

It may be unnecessary to mention that even if you find you are drinking from this deep well, you must forget that too. Even a greater impediment to our unfoldment and awakening than the attachment to places is the attachment to the idea we are attaining spiritual levels, or we have ATTAINED nirvana. Ditch this kind of thinking as soon as possible. Beginner's mind is every moment is fresh and unattached to the past, good or bad. So whatever you decide, let it go so you can drink deeper in the well of experience.

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Our perception of context is a compound phenomena (sankhara) fabricated or assembled (sankharonti) by the mind from multiple individual thoughts: what is this, where is this, what am I doing, what is my goal, where I came from, etc. As you can see thanks to meditation, mind does quite a lot of work to assemble what it calls reality.

This works the same way in the waking state as in a dream, except the waking state gives you more clues, but the effort of fabrication is the same.

This insight, that reality is a fabrication we make, is almost more important than meditation itself. It gives us new frame of reference in which we can finally choose how we perceive reality, by choosing what we turn our attention to ("guarding the doors") and gluing it together with power of will (loosely: faith, determination, mindfulness, concentration). So we no longer have to get stuck in negative thinking of the six kama-dhatu worlds. Instead, we can feed our mind with positive information, until it gets strong and healthy (first 3 jhanas). Once our will gets strong we can be free to choose our reality on case-by-case basis (4th jhana and beyond).

You say "awareness is an important concept in buddhism" -- but what is this "awareness" really? Aren't we always aware of something, even when we are obsessed with desire or negativity? In Buddhism, mindfulness (sati/smrti) is not just passive awareness of whatever worldly activity we may be performing at the moment, it is a mastery over one's context. We can see this power developing through five levels (panca bala): faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.

  1. At entry level mindfulness starts as faith in the live tradition. Inspired by an encounter with Sat-Dharma, your mind gets the bug of Buddha-fever. Unable to resist the urge to find out more, you keep thinking about mysterious Dharma.
  2. At beginner's stage mindfulness means applying effort to constantly check one's current physical, verbal, and mental activity against the context of Eightfold Path. Is my mind presently biased by attachment? Is my current action motivated by egoistic intent?
  3. The next level is when staying always mindful of the context of Dharma becomes automatic and no longer requires effort, which means one is now always operating in the phenomenological context of the Four Right Efforts.
  4. At middling level mindfulness grows into concentration (samadhi) which means we can now design, assemble, and maintain any context we choose.
  5. Finally, at advanced level mindfulness becomes wisdom (prajna), which means seeing all contexts at the same time and freely juggling their elements as required by a situation at hand.
  • The impression I have is that in general there is an experiential and an intelectual experience of reality. What I describe is experiential and of course, your answer gives an intelectual approach to the experience.Thus, I have the following question: how can we close the 'gap' between the experiential and the intelectual experiencies/approaches?I ask this as, based on the experience of forgetting where I am, I never thought what you describe. Indeed, I can not see how by myself I would be able to come with such intelectual understanding. – user3275957 Oct 26 '14 at 21:06
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    Well, first I heard/read the words of the teachers, then followed their guidelines and attained an experience of the above, and now I use intellect to put it in my own words, but since you don't have quite the same experience, for you it remains just words. Even Buddha had teachers, even he did not invent Dharma from nothing. So you can't just get the above from meditation alone, you have to read it, understand it, play with it in real life, then you will get it. Dharma is practice practice practice in real life, meditation is only a small part. – Andrei Volkov Oct 26 '14 at 22:44
  • @AndreiVolkov Can you please help me understand this line in a bit more detail "In Buddhism, mindfulness (sati/smrti) is not just passive awareness of whatever worldly activity we may be performing at the moment, it is a mastery over one's context." Perhaps if you could point me to some reading material which explains it in detail with anecdotes etc. Thanks! – Parag Jun 7 '15 at 10:18
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It is the matter of concentration. Whenever thinking of "where am I" arise, try to focus on meditation with what you start. If you start noticing breathing in and out at the tip of nose , just start it again. But it is not meant that you are not making progress. Mind used to get wander like that. All the things whatever happen , just focus simply on the meditation with what you start. It is better noting mindfully "breathing in, know it, breathing out , know it". Whenever you noticed wandering thoughts, just focus again on this "breathing in, know it, breathing out , know it".

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This feeling isn't unexpected. But to ask if it's expected... one of the meditative points is to overcome the need to have expectations.

If we expect something to happen and it doesn't, then we're more or less causing suffering to ourselves; if we expect something to not happen and it happens, then we're causing the same kind of suffering: conflict and stress from that conflict which arises from dramatising the lack of control we have over the world. It's not unexpected for strange reactions to occur with any form of meditation.

It could be that your focus has gone so deeply on one thing that you're no longer focusing on your "where" but instead are looking at your "what" and the interconnections between mind and heart. Re-check the discipline you're being taught, and manage the situation by reconfirming that you aren't making any obvious mistakes. But once you've done that, it's not necessarily a mistake; it's likely just a reaction from ahaṃkāra (ego). Over time and with practice, it should diminish.

As to whether or not this is a mistake in practice, I think this classifies as "overthinking the situation". Accept that it happens, and it's a part of your experience. Eventually, you may even get into a state of non-locality, which would be excellent. While I wouldn't consider this non-locality, it certainly points to that as a possibility for future practice. But you can't make it happen; it just has to grow into that.

My answer would then be: Let go of your worry. It isn't serving you well.

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