My friend, colleague, and meditation teacher extraordinaire, Shinzen Young, after paraphrasing a long comment and question of mine that some in the back couldn’t hear, kidded me, in our group process session this morning, that I would be writing an article about my experience next week. Since I feel I need a break from 10 days of meditation already, I figured I might as well make his kidding come true and write something. Last time I wrote something serious during a break on one of his meditation retreats a beautiful and serious poem came flowing out of me (see The Buddysattva Promise on www.paradigm-sys.com/cttart/ under Articles Online), so maybe this will be useful to someone.
I have had a lot of trouble with sleepiness when I try to meditate for more than a decade now. That old hypnagogic imagery starts up behind my closed eyes, faint at first, but quickly gets stronger and more interesting. My conscious mind, “I,” goes away as the imagery gets stronger, and eventually it’s no longer a case of a “me” observing that I’m having hypnagogic imagery, I’m gone, my head falls (the famous “Zen lurch”) and I snap back awake, but I’ve been asleep for a moment. Not only is the imagery interesting and absorbing, but my body and all sensory input fades away as I slide into the hypnagogic state. That body fading is especially nice if I’m tired or uncomfortable, my body just disappears.
When I complained about this to Shinzen some years ago, during a retreat in Santa Fe, one alternative he gave me was that if I was going to spend so much time in the hypnagogic state – the “bhavanga” is the Sanskrit term for it- than I could try to develop clarity within it and explore it, use it as a vehicle for meditation, rather than simply see it as an obstacle. I definitely got better at doing that (add story about reprogramming head lurches), but it’s still really tricky. It’s like climbing part way down a slippery slope to observe things. A little ways down I don’t see much, the imagery is pretty dim and undeveloped and overwhelmed by sensory world info, but I still know who I am and what I’m doing, and can climb back to the surface easily. As I let myself slide further down the seeing gets better, the imagery brighter and more extensive, but the slope gets steeper and slipperier, there’s little or no more input from my body or other external senses to help anchor me to the waking world, so it’s easy to lose my footing and slip all the way down into full sleep.
At the beginning of this retreat (Santa Barbara, 2008-9) I got curious about the hypnagogic state as “visual thinking,” just what was the style and rules? During one of our long sits I found myself much better able than before to get pretty far down and still make relatively conscious observations in words to myself, things like “The new visual thinking theme starts where the last sensory stimulus/loud noise occurred in image space,” or “Barring outside sounds, new topics usually start in the lower left corner of image space and work upward.”
Encouraged, two days ago I decided to try anchoring myself to the waking world more firmly to see if that would help me keep a stable footing far down in the “hypnagogic valley,” instead of slipping off into sleep. How? I reasoned that if I could keep better, steadier sensory contact with body sensation, that would do it.
I’ve done a lot of meditation following body sensation, including the “flow” part, the way one body sensation will morph, usually over the course of a few seconds, into a different kind of sensation and/or shift its locale or intensity, for example. So I thought I would start one of our long sits following the flow of body sensation, and then make an effort to keep some contact with that body sensation flow as the hypnagogic state came on.
Having decided this I was surprised when a new type, for me, of flow experience started, which I’m calling FLIPS. Instead of a relatively gentle morphing of one sensation into another in an adjoining body area, it was like the gain was turned way up on my body sensation receptors, so I was aware of a huge, undifferentiated mass of all sorts of varied body sensations all over my body, and my attention started flipping rapidly from one to another. It could be something like a striated sensation across the back of my right hand for a second, flipping to a pulsing ache in my right foot for a second, flipping to a tenseness in the left part of my stomach, flipping to a lump in my throat, etc., etc.
I was a little started and wondered if somehow I was “faking it.” But these felt like genuine body sensations, as if I were observing body flow at my normal slow transition times, and except for a general background desire to keep my attention scanning, flipping, I was not consciously controlling the flipping of my attention in any discernible way. It was like my initial intention sent two commands to myself, (1) turn up the gain all over so lots of or all body sensations are strong, and (2) ping them about once per second at random.
So I let the process continue, paying attention to this rapid flipping at first, following the “flow,” and quickly the hypnagogic state developed. Then indeed I did go quite deep in terms of vividness of imagery, with a “ping” of a body sensation every second or two in the background anchoring my consciousness. This went on almost continuously for about an hour or more, and there were only a few occasions when I lost the body sensation but still stayed in the hypnagogic, although I never slipped all the way down into sleep.
The experiment was successful, and I’ll try it again today….didn’t get very sleepy and didn’t get much experienced FLIPS, too much coffee I guess…
Note that in the long sit yesterday, I tried starting with a more usual, “slow flow” following of body sensation flow, and it was nowhere near as effective as FLIPS in letting me stabilize in the hypnagogic state.
My theory of the moment is that it gets harder and harder to keep some contact with the sensory surface as you climb or slide down the walls of the hypnagogic “valley,” it’s inherent nature is that it gets steeper as you go further down, but that by having a more intense and often repeated, every second or so, body signal, it could reach me and remind me of my conscious aims while I was further down. The stronger signal of the FLIPS – intense, rapidly changing – could be seen “further down.”
Shinzen commented that he had used a similar technique fighting sleepiness in long Zen sits…..
As a final note, in a long sit after I had this initial success in penetrating deeper into the hypnagogic state my wife, who sits beside me, elbowed me occasionally during the sit, as I have apparently acquired a new “talent,” the ability to start snoring without my head dropping first….. Progress?
I remember reading 30 years or so ago that researchers had found that Transcendental Meditators were showing sleep EEG patterns while meditating, and I remember feeling somewhat scornful, why learn to sleep sitting up when it’s so much more comfortable to sleep lying down? Karmic payback for my scorn? 😉
Oh, FLIPS? For those who like scientific sounding acronyms, FLIPS obviously stands for Fast Lateral Intermittent Punctuate Stimuli…. 😉