The Anxiety of the Long-Distance Meditator

New York Times piece on striving for “stream-entry” with Daniel Ingram. At the end is a response to reader comments from the Times website.

NYTMeditatorYou want to cultivate the crackling intensity of the ninja,” Daniel Ingram told me.

Ingram made a living as an emergency doctor, but his real passion was teaching advanced meditation. It was day one of a 30-day solitary retreat, and this was my first meditation instruction. We were sitting in Ingram’s straw bale guesthouse, a squat round building next to the main house at the end of a long country road in rural Alabama. Behind the house a thick forest buzzed with insect life.

Daniel Ingram, MD

Ingram made a living as an emergency doctor, but his real passion was teaching advanced meditation. It was day one of a 30-day solitary retreat, and this was my first meditation instruction. We were sitting in Ingram’s straw bale guesthouse, a squat round building next to the main house at the end of a long country road in rural Alabama. Behind the house a thick forest buzzed with insect life.

Ingram stood and began to walk, arms outstretched and eyes shock-widened, as though his entire body was communing with the humid air, which it probably was. “Feel the weirdness and wonder of everything.” He took a step in slow motion. “Notice the moving, the physicality, the contact with the ground, the air on your skin, your joints balancing, the planning of the next step, the room shifting around you.”

He made strange guttural clicks as he moved, like the bionic man. “It’s the same when you sit — notice every detail of the sensation of breathing in the abdomen, as fast as you can, as many frames a second as possible. If you notice everything from the moment you wake to the moment you sleep, there will come a time when everything congeals into a single 360-degree fluxing field of awareness.”

He opened his hands and clapped them together so forcefully that I started in my seat. “At this point you’ll get stream entry. That’s how it works.”

Searching for Stream Entry

“Stream entry,” is a Buddhist term for initial enlightenment — a shift in perspective where the practitioners’ mind flips inside-out and for a split-second recognizes its own inseparability from the rest of the natural world. Everything is said to be different after this; there has been, in Ingram’s language, a “breach in continuity.” Meditators reported dramatic reductions in personal suffering, although more mature commentators also discussed a commensurate increase in heartbreak and vulnerability. For better or for worse, they have now entered the undulating stream of true spiritual practice.

I wanted stream entry. Seven years ago I started meditating because I was in agony. I had nothing ostensibly wrong with me — I was healthy, I had friends and romance and interesting work. The problem was in my mind. I felt trapped behind a spinning barrier of rumination. I couldn’t connect — not in a real way, not in an intimate reassuring way. It had gotten so bad that I could hardly look people in the eye, convinced they could see the shadows of my anxieties and my alienation flickering behind my gaze. It made me desperate — panicked — as though I were strapped to a bomb I could neither explain nor get rid of.

I tried everything to fill the hole: sex, exercise, creative expression, psychotherapy, even, for a few grim weeks, ADD medication. Nothing worked. I made a living writing about the mind — mostly the science — but I had read enough Eastern philosophy to recognize that my condition was probably spiritual in origin. The meditators and practitioners who delved deep into the mind all reported the same thing: each anxiety is descended from the original anxiety of separation, the perceived gap between self and world, a gap that could apparently be closed. This wasn’t a religious fantasy. It was an empirical observation, one that in today’s culture of information-sharing and transparency, more and more practitioners were speaking openly about.

Mastering the Core Teachings of The Buddha

I began attending week-long meditation retreats in different traditions and as I did things began to shift. For long periods of time I felt calmer and more expansive, but also more sensitive, more tender. Yet always the alienation and the anxiety returned.

mctbThen I came across a book by Ingram, already an underground classic in some Buddhist circles. Published in 2008, “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha” is a lurid first-person account of what is known as the Buddhist “progress of insight” — a map of sequential contemplative shifts that unfolds when practitioners adhere rigorously to a single technique. Hard working meditators, Ingram writes, can “attain” to stream entry in two or three months of hard practice, an accomplishment that should cleave a large chunk of suffering from their lives.

It’s an audacious claim — most Western Buddhist teachers are far more restrained. And yet it’s a claim an increasing number of practitioners are corroborating in articles and podcasts and online forums. Ingram himself professes to be living proof. He signs the book “The Arahat Daniel M. Ingram” — a Buddhist term for a fully enlightened being.

The only way to know for sure was to see for myself. I knew that Ingram had hosted a single meditator at his home the past couple of summers. I contacted him and he agreed. The retreat would be entirely self-policed, based on a rigorous Burmese monastic schedule: up at 4:30 a.m., to bed at 10:30 p.m. Alternately sit for an hour, and then walk for an hour. Thirty minutes for breakfast, an hour for lunch, no dinner. No writing, no reading, no leaving the house except for a lunchtime shower. Eighteen hours of practice a day. I would get out of it what I put into it. Ingram would check in on me every other day.

Moving Through the Progress of Insight

The first days were a struggle, my mind unruly and distracted. Half my walking sessions degenerated into me crawling around on my hands and knees looking for tics in the floorboards. Sitting, my attention would drift to the groan of the metal roof, or I’d find myself reviewing, again and again, my microwave lunch options. They were stacked in the freezer — 3 piles of 10 — arranged by preference and cuisine type.Kashi all-natural Mayan Harvest Bake, Amy’s Light and Lean Spinach Lasagna. I pondered the apparent advances in microwave food technology.

Outside the window I watched the trees move in the breeze, and looked forward to my short lunchtime walks, when I got to move in the open air. Sometimes I exchanged a silent nod with Ingram’s wife Carol, an artist who worked in a studio next to the main house. I questioned my decision then. It seemed perverse that, seeking connection, I had placed myself in such isolation. At night in my little cubby-hole bed I thought about my friends and family at home. The days passed very slowly.

electric-skyThen one afternoon perhaps a week into the retreat I realized that, actually, things were fine. Better than fine. I felt as though I had atomic vision. My attention was zingy; electric.I noticed everything — bap, bap, bap — flickers of intention before each movement, a vibrating topography of tensions and fluctuations under my belly skin, even my own keenly observant self. Such a good noticer. I noticed my ambition, my self-satisfaction, my disappointment that there was no one around to brag to about my progress (“You wouldn’t believe how hard I can look at that tree”).

This was a well-known progress of insight stage — the machine-like acceleration of mental noticing. Nothing can escape my highly-calibrated attentional precision, I thought, still walking in circles, although rather briskly and dispassionately now, like that liquid cyborg thing from “Terminator 2.”

Ingram was encouraging but also somewhat ambivalent. He seemed to have some reservations. I soon found out why: the next day everything fell apart. My mind jangled like a live wire — old fears and insecurities, the heartbreak of an unhappy love affair — images and judgments tortured me for hours and then for days on end. I dreaded the meditation now — it was like sticking my attention into an electrical socket.

My schedule collapsed. I couldn’t sit, and the prospect of walking around the room pretending to be a wonder-struck bionic ninja was agonizing and ridiculous. Instead, feeling guilty, I went for long walks in the 100-degree heat, accompanied by the sinister hum of cicadas. People went on retreats for months — years even —- yet the thought of being confined for three more weeks terrified me. There was a Greyhound station in Huntsville, a 20-mile hike. Filled with self-loathing, I decided to leave the next day at dawn, before Ingram could convince me otherwise.

I plugged in the guesthouse phone and called a friend, looking for comfort. Ingram happened to make his visit then; as he entered I quickly put down the phone. He arched an eyebrow. “If you’re gonna blow the retreat, we have free long distance up at the house.”

It turned out that this too was part of the process. It was on the map: fearfulness, dejection, the desire for deliverance. “Dark Night” in the popular meditative vernacular. Ingram was reassuring. “It’s normal. Once the insight machine starts it eventually boomerangs back and starts to work on your core issues. You can’t stop the machine. This is progress.”

Was I doing the technique correctly? Was I deluding myself with magical thinking? I remembered a technique for dealing with anxiety taught to me by the Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young — “divide and conquer,” he called it. One by one, I teased my fears into their constituent parts — the body feeling, the imagery, the inner talk. If the full sensory gestalt was overwhelming, each piece on its own was manageable. I found a friendliness in my attention. ‘Just like listening to an old friend repeat that same old story at a dinner party,’ I told myself. ‘No need to get uptight.’

Knowledge of Equanimity

More long days passed and I persevered. Eventually on about day twelve, a strong equilibrium overtook me. This too was on the map — “knowledge of equanimity.” Everything was clean and undramatic. I could sit for hours now, my heartbeat slowed way down. Concentration was easy, almost unnecessary. There was only the world, the view from the window, my own breath so silky smooth and consoling in in its ordinariness. I stared at my face in the bathroom mirror, shining now like a newborn’s. Nothing needed to be any different than it was.

Ingram was excited. “You’re on the verge of stream entry,” he said. “The danger is you’ll get complacent. This is the equanimity trap. Keep noticing — notice the way everything changes, the slight tension in things, the way each sensation is devoid of any “thing” called a self. Notice and let go.”

How do you notice and let go? A low-level anxiety returned. Occasionally I felt as though I were sliding into a kind of inversion, but as soon as I did my journalist mind seized on the moment with nerdy analytic curiosity. My equanimity ebbed.

I began experimenting with different techniques: wondrous states of absorption, mantras that echoed choir-like in my mind, paradoxical “nondual” cognitive reframing exercises. I pretended these would help but I knew I was only distracting myself, avoiding a piece of work I couldn’t quite identify.

Days passed and I lost all sense of progress. I became stressed, obsessed; instead of meditating I dug out my meditation books and guiltily read them in the corner of the room, pouring over the maps, looking for clues, trying to organize my vacillating experience. At this point Ingram was checking in almost every day. I engaged him relentlessly in intellectual discussions, recording each talk. He indulged me, but it was clear he was losing faith in my abilities as a meditator. “You think too much,” he said, “you’re more interested in writing about your experiences than having them. If you don’t stop strategizing you’ll blow this opportunity.”

But I couldn’t let go. I wanted to problem-solve my own liberation and the more I did the further away it got. I cycled up and down more wildly than ever, one moment beatifically clear, the next confused. In this way, my retreat ended.

I was both relived and shamed. I knew I had not had the strength or the faith to see things through, but I also wasn’t sure what I might have done differently. Ingram was sympathetic but distant. He too was disappointed — he had wanted to show me what the world was like from his perspective. I realized then that Ingram too was lonely. Even in his enlightenment.


Before I went on retreat I asked another Buddhist teacher — a friend of Ingram’s named Hokai Sobol — how he would describe the stages of contemplative development. He paused for a long time, because unlike Ingram, he didn’t think that progress was quite so linear or predictable. When he finally answered he said he had noticed 3 flavors. The first flavor, he said, is bitter — the bitterness of effort, of beginning to recognize the depth of the contraction and the alienation and the subsequent struggle to address it. If you are sincere, he said, then you are rewarded with a second flavor: a sweetness. The sweetness of surrender, of opening. A new tenderness. This is what most spiritual practitioners crave, and it is delicious when we find it.

But ultimately, even this doesn’t last. The final flavor, he said, is bittersweet. It is marked by a recognition that both effort and surrender are ways of re-tracing the basic illusion, the first that there is a self that need to get somewhere, the second that there is some “other” to surrender to. True devotion, he said, is not having faith in something or someone. It is a vehicle of questioning, and in that questioning our consolations are impossible to sustain.

It has been five months since my retreat ended. I keep meditating. My anxiety has lessened, although I don’t know how long this will last. I stay curious, certain only that things will keep changing.


NOTE: This piece received many reader responses on the Times website, some approving, some critical, some confused. Here is my own response:

Thanks to all those who’ve taken the time to respond to my piece. Many thoughtful and supportive comments.

Some readers seem to feel that meditating with the goal of getting somewhere is indulgent or ‘materialistic’.  But the act of meditation does change people.  It changes something in the nature of how we sense the world around us, and that in turn leads to shifts in identity, a new openness and empathy for others, and – according to many of the practitioners I’ve spoken with – a reduction in personal distress. This is a great motivator, especially since in an interconnected world our own suffering is intimately linked with that of others. This link becomes more explicit the longer one practices.

The depth and complexity of these inter-related changes go far beyond what is normally presented in the popular mindfulness and meditation literature. When it comes to the explicit goal of Buddhist practice – “awakening” or “enlightenment” – the subject is fascinating, with many facets and conflicting views and paradoxes.

Perhaps the largest of these paradoxes concerns having a goal in the first place. The Vipassana and Rinzai Zen traditions have found that the systematic training of attention leads to quite specific developmental stages and shifts (whatever vocabulary you want to use). And yet, other traditions inside and outside of Buddhism – Soto Zen, Vedanta Advaita – argue there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. We are already exactly where we need to be. This view obviously appeals to humanists, but when you pan back the camera and look at cross-cultural approaches to practice, it may be incomplete. Within arguably the most mature expression of Buddhism – the Tibetan “Diamond Vehicle” – there are lucid approaches that work with both perspectives simultaneously. One thing I hear frequently from practitioners of many different traditions is the longer they practice, the less these apparent contradictions seem like a problem.

The whole endeavour of contemplation is profound and exciting and mysterious. You practice to find out for yourself, but you discover you bring your own expectations and cultural assumptions along with you, like a heavy woollen coat. You struggle to remove the coat and find another coat underneath. And another.  All these layers!  The well-trained intellectual in you, now keeled over on the side, arms straightjacketed by all these confounding sleeves, is forced into a position of humility. As this happens, space for another kind of knowing opens up. You sigh and relax into the earth. Something shifts.

This is the experience people report, and it is one I’ve tasted in a very ordinary way myself. Mystical mumbo-jumbo? That’s one coat.

Keep going.

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