Compassion as the Refinement of Individualism

A common conception in so-called “spiritual circles” is that we should willingly and directly try to be less egocentric, think more about others and become more compassionate.

I disagree, as I find this to be a dangerous, ignorant, idealistic and self-culpabilising approach to the development of compassion. And as countless examples have shown, it is also amazingly ineffective ; pretty much everyone “wants” to be less egocentric, yet our world is dramatically lacking in compassion. This indicates a fundamental problem in the way we perceive compassion, and in fact, in the way we see the development of good traits and qualities in general.

I support that we shouldn’t directly “try” to be more compassionate, but instead develop ourselves in a way that makes compassion arise.

Why Trying to be Compassionate Can’t Work

One of the mains flaws behind the view than one should simply try to be more compassionate is that it brings oneself to repress parts of one’s psychology, while leaving one completely unprepared to face the inevitable negative effects of this repression.

This would be like telling a chained prisoner to “try to feel free”. Not only would this result in an artificial and deluded mind-state, it would also lead the prisoner to try to repress and escape his unavoidable reality, leading to an additional and much greater layer of suffering being unnecessarily created. A much more efficient approach would perhaps be to direct his attention on the the few bits of freedom he still has, and to progressively drench and delight his mind in this freedom until it becomes an integral part of his reality.

States of mind can’t be brought into existence by a mere act of will because they simply emerge when the right conditions are met, not when one wants it. Compassion can’t arise by thinking or wishing, because it is much more than a thought or a concept, it is a feeling and a state of mind that integrates and permeates the whole being.

How to Develop Compassion

Only through a process of self-discovery and sensitization can one develop genuine compassion, as this is the only way to become aware of the causes and effects of the arising of compassion in the mind and to be sensible to its benefits. Without this, compassion is just another cute-sounding dogma to be blindly followed out of faith, for hope of a better after-life or a miraculous reward, which equates to preaching distance from life. This fairytale-ish view can only lead, at best, to hypocritical kindness and at worse, to dangerously destructive neurosis-driven mind-states.

Faith alone can’t motivate and stimulate the growth of compassion. Faith can be useful, insofar as it can imbue one with the confidence needed to undergo a certain practice or with the courage not to give up in the midst of difficulties, but one can’t rely solely on it. I compare faith to training wheels on a bicycle, they help you get started and shield you from hurdles while you’re still weak, but their purpose is to help you reach a level of understanding, confidence and independence where you no longer need them.

Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi didn’t practice such admirable compassion because they hoped for an after-life reward, they did so because their minds were refined to the point were they saw that this way of living was the most beneficial for them, as well as for others.

The only way compassion can authentically be practiced is for its immediate benefits, which are immense if the mind is sharp and well-tuned enough to see them.

Seen this way, compassion is not a simple act of “thinking about others” but a realization and a refinement of what makes you happy as a human being. This also makes compassion much more solid, since it thus takes it roots inside yourself as opposed as in the external world. Compassion thus becomes a inevitable symptom of the refinement of one’s perception of reality and happiness, as opposed to the mainstream view, which sees it as “giving something”.

You can’t “try” to be less egocentric. Your whole being has been biologically engineered to prioritize yourself, and no amount of wishful new-age thinking has the capacity change that. What can be accomplished is a refinement of this unavoidable individualism, a process during which one progressively notices and gives more importance to subtler aspects of his reality, among which are the self-benefits brought by compassion.

Altruism is thus only a very evolved, refined and sensible extension of individualism.

You shouldn’t willingly “try” to be more compassionate, but instead refine yourself in a way that makes compassion arise.

The best way I know to develop oneself in such a way is by meditating.

40-Day Meditation Retreat at Pa-Auk Tawya, Burma

From January until June, I had been traveling in Southeast Asia. I ended my trip in Burma, where I spent 40 days at Pa-Auk Tawya, a forest meditation center renowned for its very rigorous concentration practices.

Why I decided to go meditate at Pa-Auk Tawya

I heard about it by doing a web research ; exploring the fascinating world of concentration practices specifically appealed to me. In my previous 10-day Goenka Vipassana retreats, we only did 3 days of concentration practices and then proceeded to insight meditation. I always wondered what the results would be if I pushed my concentration further.

I e-mailed the monastery in April and they agreed to send me a sponsorship letter, which allowed me to get a special meditation visa. This allowed me to stay for as long as a year in Burma (Myanmar) as opposed to the maximum 28-days normally allowed for tourists. I got the actual visa at the Burmese embassy in Vientiane, Laos. The process only took a day, which was surprisingly quick!

Pa Auk Tawya Monastery

Pa-Auk Tawya’s meditation hall as seen from a nearby mountain.

Getting at Pa-Auk Tawya Monastery

I flew to Burma from Bangkok, took a bus the next day from Yangon to Mudon, and asked the driver to drop me off at Pa-Auk Tawya Monastery, which was on the way. It took a couple of tries and a few crappy drawings to get my point across, but eventually, he understood!

I got there at about 3am, walked around and in fact, kind of got lost in this vast monastery! This allowed me to explore this beautiful place while the sun was rising. At Pa-Auk Tawya, the wake-up bell is struck at 3:30am every morning so the monastery was already very lively. I didn’t see any lay people though, there only seemed to be monks.

Eventually, I found the foreigner’s registration office, where a monk – who spoke an accent-heavy and hardly understandable English – asked me a few questions concerning my motivations, goals and reasons for coming to Pa-Auk Tawya as well as my previous meditation experiences. He and two other monks also kindly gave me some of their alms food so I could eat. Seemingly satisfied with my answers, he then handed me a copy of the Pa-Auk Tawya Monastery’s rules as well as the daily schedule:

3:30 am Wake-up
4:00 – 5:30 am Morning Chanting & Group Sitting
5:45 am (approx.) Breakfast
(Exact time depends on the time of dawn)
7:00 – 7:30 am Cleaning & Personal Time
7:30 – 9:00 am Group Sitting
9:00 – 10:00 am Interviews,Walking Meditation & Personal Time
10:10 am (approx.) Lunch
1:00 – 2:30 pm Group Sitting
2:30 – 3:30 pm Interviews & Walking Meditation
3:30 – 5:00 pm Group Sitting
5:00 – 6:00 pm Interviews, Work Period & Personal Time
6:00 – 7:30 pm Evening Chanting & Dhamma Talk (in Burmese)
7:30 – 9:00 pm Group Sitting

He then proceeded to recite the 8 Buddhist precepts in Pali, which I had to repeat after him, as is the tradition. Thumbs up to him for not laughing at my terrible Pali accent!

Another monk then led me to my assigned room, which I shared with another guy. As the 8th Buddhist precept dictates, the bed was low and “not luxurious”. By not luxurious, I mean it was an elevated wooden plank, without mattress. It did, however, have a small pillow.

From then on, I started following the regular schedule. At 9am, I met my appointed teacher. The teacher interviews happened in a group setting, my group consisting of about 30 monks and 2 other lay people. Turn by turn, we went up front, answered the teacher’s questions and asked our own and received his instructions. I really liked this “case-by-case”, personalized approach! It was fascinating to hear about other meditators’ experiences, especially since some of them seemed very advanced in their practice.

My first impression of the teacher was good. He spoke fluent English and explained in a very clear, concise and simple manner ; he definitely seemed to speak from experience.

Not surprisingly, I was instructed to start by focusing on the breath at the region below the nostrils, above the upper lip. My teacher specified not to focus on the individual sensations that made up the breath but on the breath itself, seeing it as a continuous entity. In pure concentration practices, individual sensations are not the object of meditation since they can’t lead to absorption states (Jhanas) because of their impermanent nature (they’re always changing). At Pa-Auk Tawya, meditators typically wait to master pure concentration practices before proceeding to insight meditation (in which sensations are observed, amongst other things).

After meeting with my teacher, it was lunch time. Unlike in the Goenka Vipassana retreats I had attended before, I had to go for almsround, like the monks. This was rendered possible by the local people who supported the monastery by providing meals for us twice daily. We therefore stood in line with our bowls, which was generously filled with vegetarian food. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and diversity of food we were given. I was even given some energy drink powder and a wet towel!

Going for alms is a very humbling experience ; you basically depend on the generosity and goodwill of other people to eat. I found it to be an additional motivational factor for practice, since the support is given to us so that we can dedicate ourselves fully to our meditative practice. After lunch, I went for a nap and then proceeded to the meditation hall.

With the temperature often exceeding 40°C, Burma is hot as hell.  Drenched in sweat, I could hardly maintain awareness of my breath.

After an afternoon of meditation, I went to the monastery’s library and talked with an Indian monk who recommended me the book “A Map of the Journey” by U. Jotika, which was indeed a very good read, detailing the stages of meditative practice and addressing some practical concerns meditators may encounter. I then went to the evening meditation, which went much better than the afternoon one (it was a bit cooler, so that definitely helped) and then went to bed. As is usual, especially when I do a lot of meditation, I had sleep paralysis and some pretty cool lucid dreams. This allowed me to somehow maintain my practice while sleeping.

First week – Getting the mind into it

The next day, I woke up at 3:15am, 15 minutes before the wake-up bell. Even though I slept on a hard wooden plank, I actually felt quite mentally refreshed, even though my body was a bit sore. I did some stretching and a little physical exercise and then took a shower to chase the sluggishness away. I then went to meditate, I was clearheaded and it went quite well.

Wake-up Bell Pa-Auk Tawya

The wake-up “bell”

The breakfast was simple but good, consisting of noodles with tea. I also chatted a bit with my roommate, a 30-year-old Iranian guy, and went back meditating. The morning session went quite well, I got some early “lights”, which typically are a sign that concentration is improving, although these lights weren’t stable at all. I kept my attention on the breath, and for some brief moments, it actually was quite pleasant and effortless. One of the first checkpoints in concentration practice is when your meditation object appears as a bright light in your “mind’s eye”. This “mind object” is called a Nimitta. The more solid and stable the Nimitta gets, the better one’s concentration is.

Carrying on with the daily schedule, the afternoon session was uncomfortable, the discomfort caused by the heat made it very hard for me to concentrate and maintain peace of mind. I thus decided to ask a monk in charge for permission to meditate in my room, which he granted without hesitation.

In the evening, I started coughing and sneezing pretty badly. I woke up the next day feeling sicker, so I slept in to attempt to speed up my recovery. It’s ridiculous how I always seem to get sick when I go on a meditation retreat! That day, I had no success in solidifying the Nimitta. I must say that my ceaseless cough didn’t help me concentrate.

The next day, I still felt quite a bit sick but the worst of it was behind me. In the morning, a monk gave me a bag of potato chips, a peanut bar and a carton of soy milk. Monks aren’t allowed to store food overnight, and therefore often gave me stuff they couldn’t keep for themselves. :)

I also began to really see the value in taking formal resolutions before meditating. These resolutions mostly consisted of stating exactly what I was doing, for how long I was doing it and why doing it was a good idea. It made it much easier to stay focused and committed to my meditative practice. Here’s my resolution for mindfulness-of-breathing meditation:

For the next hour, I will train the mind to remain aware of the breath. This will improve my relationship with the present moment, generate peace and happiness and sharpen the mind for insight meditation. I will not let a single breath go by unnoticed.

I had some fairly concentrated meditation sessions, I felt the mind becoming increasingly malleable and less resistant. However, I still didn’t get as deeply concentrated as I wanted. About halfway in a session, I realized that even though my gross thoughts were sparse and weak, there was still an underlying layer of very frequent “micro-thoughts” that impaired me from becoming fully absorbed. These micro-thoughts lasted only a a blink of an eye after which I went back to the breath. These thoughts could be anything, from awareness of a surrounding sound to a subtle opinion or judgement about my practice.

I felt like the mind always wanted to grasp on to something, ANYTHING! The mind is so damn WILD!

The following morning, everyone had to go to a hall and take the 8 precepts again by repeating after a monk. I’m not a huge fan of the whole “taking precepts” thing, I find it dogmatic and somewhat useless but hey, they were hosting me so the least I could do was to respect their tradition.

Precepts Hall Pa-Auk Tawya

The hall where we took our precepts every week

That day, my perception of my “meditative progress” really shifted. Although on the one hand, I saw that my concentration was improving fast, I began to see how much of a beginner I still was, even after a few years of regular meditation practice. It was getting clearer that the impression of having good concentration abilities was only caused by the grossness of my mind. Isn’t it ironic that the better my concentration got, the weaker I felt it was? Great lesson of humility!

I also began to include a fair amount of walking meditation in my routine. Practicing walking meditation helps you to develop the habit to meditate in everyday circumstances, it gives your body the opportunity to exercise and allows you to chase tiredness and drowsiness away. In the context of a meditation retreat, it helped me maintain my practice throughout the whole day, and not only in formal meditation periods. In my experience, it also makes sitting meditation SO MUCH easier! I find it unfortunate that walking meditation is not encouraged in Goenka Vipassana 10-day courses. When my mind was very agitated or I just wanted to take a “break”, I often just did walking meditation instead. It gave me all the benefits of a standard “break” without me losing the inertia of my meditative practice.

Following the breath was slowly becoming my mind’s “default mode” of activity. Of course, the mind would wander once in a while, but these gaps in my practice were getting sparser and shorter. I really began making use of every opportunity and free time to practice. Even upon waking up at night, the pleasure of going back to sleep was weaker than my desire to meditate, therefore I sometimes meditated for a good part of the night. Obviously, the fact that I was sleeping on a wooden plank didn’t help me want to indulge in excessive sleep!

Again, my concentration was improving, my meditation sessions were peaceful, but I was still not getting a clear Nimitta. Was I doing this right?

On a side note, one day I was given some ice cream for lunch! Definitely didn’t expect that in Burma! And it was GOOD!

Second week – Am I doing this right?

Continuing my meditative practice consisting of remaining aware of the breath, I began to wonder whether I was practicing correctly. I remembered the teacher telling me I had tofocus my attention on the “conceptual breath”, and I felt like I was probably putting too much emphasis on the individual sensations themselves. The impermanent nature of the sensations made it impossible for my concentration to become very stable and my attention kept wavering in a subtle way.

After the last evening meditation of the 8th day, a sense of frustration emerged in me. Never being sure whether or not I was actually focusing on the sensations or the conceptual breath itself, I felt puzzled and clueless. Interestingly, I felt like the “conceptual breath” was easier to nail down and focus on when doing walking meditation than when sitting, perhaps because the act of walking made me not “try too hard”, which is common in sitting practice.

Nevertheless, the mind was definitely getting more and more inclined to watch the breath – or the breath sensations – to the point where it would take strong conscious effort not to be aware of it.

The next day, I read the section of Mastering the Core Teaching of the Buddha discussing concentration practices (the book was available at the monastery’s library). This passage helped me quite a bit:

Try not paying too much attention to the individual sensations themselves, but conceptualize the breath as a coherent and continuous entity, with many different types of sensations all being thought of as a single breath

In the morning session that came right after breakfast, it felt like I kind of “nailed it” for a few instants. I got a pretty clear, bright and round Nimitta for what felt like a few seconds. Obviously though, I couldn’t help but get excited so it quickly faded away. I think that the key thing in “nailing” the conceptual breath was to seek and find the only constant and unchanging part of the breath, which is the mental conceptualization of it. Note that this concept is not “ultimately real”, it’s just an idea, an agglomerate of diverse sensations that we identify as the breath.

The Road Leading to the Meditation Hall

The Road Leading to the Meditation Hall

I went to my teacher to describe my experience, and he told me that I got the “light”, as he called it, very quickly. He proceeded to tell me that this was likely because I had practiced this technique in a recent past life, but I’m always skeptical when facing these kinds of claims. He told me to keep practicing and that if sensations arose, not to fight them but to keep the attention on the conceptual breath. There’s not point in seeing sensations as enemies. In concentration practices, they are seen as an indicator that the breath is present, but shouldn’t be the primary focus of attention.

The afternoon meditation sessions went well, the Nimitta appeared once in a while, in correlation with the intensity of my concentration. The appearance of the light was really helpful in letting me know that I was on the right track. On the other side, in some later meditations, I felt like my breath wanted to progressively stop, and that I was gasping for air. According to theory, this is normal, but I still couldn’t “break through”. Once in a while, I had to take deep conscious breath, since I felt like my breathing had stopped. My concentration was always “blocked” by this.

In the evening, it didn’t go so well, I was quite tense and my eyes were flickering. Perhaps was I trying too hard? I definitely needed to relax and realize that only an attitude of positive openness and acceptance was likely to produce any results.

The next day, I was still experiencing the shortness of breath, and I felt like this was really stopping my concentration from getting deeper. I also started to feel some sort of tension in my solar plexus and overall, I felt agitated, sort of as if there was something stressful going on. Nothing external seemed to have triggered this, so maybe it was just some subconscious thing coming up. It happened regardless of my posture, I tried sitting, lying and walking, nothing seemed to make a difference. My heartbeat was fairly constant at 60-65bpm, so nothing abnormal there. My best guess was simply to keep practicing and see how this evolved. At that point, although it had already been 10 days, like in my previous retreats, I still felt like a whole lot more stuff had to be done and definitely didn’t feel like I’d want to re-enter the “real world” soon.

During the day, these sensations progressively faded away and I was left with a much more stable concentration. The Nimitta was seen on numerous occasions, but it still was pretty hard for me to keep focusing solely on the breath when it appeared.

Also, randomly, in the late afternoon, a monk came up to me and gave me money (about 5$ in Kyats). Someone probably gave it to him but since he wasn’t allowed to keep or use it, he decided to give it to the first non-monk guy he saw (and I was one of the only ones at Pa-Auk Tawya). Didn’t expect that!

The next day, my early morning meditation didn’t go so well. I was lost in thoughts and had trouble finding and staying with the breath. A defilement I could clearly notice is the tendency for the mind to try to “plan” the future. It uses this as sort of an escape from the present moment. Somehow, the mind doesn’t like to surrender to the NOW. This tendency felt like a boulder tied to my ankle, and I couldn’t seem to let it go.

Concentration improved in the session before lunch. I had hints of blissful bodily feelings, which also are an indicator that concentration is getting deeper. In the evening session though, my eyes began flickering again, this always seemed to happen during the end of the day.

The following morning, I went to my teacher and asked him about my flickering eyes. He told me it was likely because I was trying to “see” my meditation object with my physical eyes. He said it was a natural tendency, and that I should strive to ignore my physical eyes and to just perceive the breath with my awareness/mind.

Again, I felt that although my concentration had its ups and downs, overall it was improving. I  had (and still have) the common and bad habit of trying to “seek” specific states as opposed to simply resting in simple awareness of the breath in the present moment, and I should definitely make efforts not to indulge in that tendency. When meditating, one must let go of expectations and be fully mindful of what is occurring NOW.

That night, I had an interesting dream.

I was coming back home, so I went through the whole day of taking the plane and eventually arriving back home, in Canada. I was having lunch with my family and discussing my trip. Strangely, I found that I was left unchanged. Basically, I felt like I had wasted the opportunity and this made me feel disappointed at myself. After lunch, I went outside and reflected on my meditation retreat experience at Pa-Auk Tawya.

Thinking about it and wondering “what went wrong”, I realized I couldn’t remember anything past the 13th day. What had happened? I wondered how I would blog about my retreat, not remembering a thing. It then occurred to me, my meditation retreat wasn’t over yet!

The dream thus turned into a semi-lucid dream, semi-lucid because I was still quite puzzled and although I knew I was dreaming, it was very hard to recall waking life and be aware of the whole experience. Interestingly, I “figured” I had to “go back” to the monastery, so I teleported back to Yangon’s airport and then jumped really high and landed in the dining hall (it’s a lucid dream so hey, might as well do fun things). People looked at me with smiles, welcoming me back: “You’re here just in time!” they kindly said. A woman approached me and told me in a gentle yet serious manner: “Watch out showing off these powers, there are newcomers here!”.

I then woke up to the 14th day, motivated and determined to practice persistently. I was happy the retreat wasn’t yet over.

Third week – Shifting the practice

Pa Auk Sayadaw

Pa-Auk Sayadaw

It was the full moon, which is sacred in Buddhism. I was astounded by the quantity and variety of food and stuff we received during the almsround. It included flowers, pieces of cloth, cough medicine, skin balm and even DVDs of conferences by the main teacher of the monastery, Pa-Auk Sayadaw!

As far as meditation is concerned, I noticed I was able to sit for longer periods of time without moving too much, which I was quite happy about. By that time, my body was getting more accustomed to long periods of sitting meditation and my increased concentration, which often generated blissful feelings, definitely helped a lot too.

Although my body was getting adapted, the next few days, it got very hard to concentrate. I was swarmed by thoughts, especially thoughts about the future. My teacher told me to pay strong attention not to fuel these thoughts, and that it was typical for the mind to try to “escape” the meditation practice by grasping to thoughts and creating stories.

Despite knowing that, my mind felt so agitated, it was hard to believe. More than 2 weeks of trying to tame it, and I still couldn’t?! Was I just perceiving subtler levels of agitation that weren’t brought to awareness before or was I regressing?

I knew that the way I was dealing with some thoughts/sensations was problematic. I kept practicing, and quickly saw that I was reacting to thoughts way too much. I was either letting myself “participate” in some of them, drawn by the entertainment they seemed to promise, or simply tried to overcome them by force, which obviously led to more and more agitation.

I took the resolution not to indulge in this habit. I did my best to try to simply acknowledge them without participating and when they were attempting to get me off track, I immediately put my full attention on the breath. Almost instantly, I felt that there was a shift in my state of mind. This change in mindset made it easier for me not to see thoughts as “enemies”, and this definitely helped me to maintain mindfulness, peace of mind and concentration.

It’s so easy to “try too hard” and to develop expectations of oneself in meditative practice … !

The next day, my concentration went up and my overall level of agitation went WAY down. I must say, meditating felt really good.

The Nimitta also improved and became more stable, and for one of the first times, I started getting strong waves of bliss and peace. Practice became effortless and the days went by really quickly.

I still definitely wasn’t getting into full absorption (Jhana) though. To be considered proficient in absorption at Pa Auk Tawya Monastery, a meditator has to be able to enter the first four Jhanas at will and stay in them for a few hours, being so absorbed that he couldn’t even notice if someone was screaming at him. Without getting into too much details, the Jhanas are characterized by their respective factors, which get subtler and subtler as you progress through the Jhanas.

Different schools have different classifications for Jhanas. By some standards, I was already decently proficient in at least the first Jhana since all its factors were present to some degree. However, my teacher told me to keep focusing on the breath until the Nimitta and breath “merged” and pulled me into the first Jhana.

I got somewhat discouraged by the whole thing. Yes, my concentration was getting good, and yes, I was noticing improvements, yet as I kept learning more about the types of Jhanas taught at Pa Auk Tawya, I felt like I wasn’t going to achieve even the first one before leaving. In the group teacher’s interviews, I repeatedly heard of monks that couldn’t even reach it yet. Was I wasting my time?

My confidence in the concentration practice taught at Pa-Auk Tawya went down, and even accessing blissful states seemed totally pointless. What were they good for? Like everything else, they would come and go, but would leave me unchanged. I didn’t feel ready to return to the real world at all. How was this practice making me a better person?

After 20 days of focusing solely on the breath, I decided it was enough. I was strongly determined to use this retreat to grow as much as possible as a human being, and didn’t feel like pure concentration practices were the most efficient use of my time. I therefore turned my attention to the always-changing and endlessly fascinating reality. I switched to insight meditation.

And that’s when shit got real.

Fourth week – Sickness strikes again

Now, for those of you not familiar with insight practice, my object of meditation now became the sensations, thoughts, emotions and states of mind that made up my reality, from moment to moment. This is the technique taught in the Satipatthana Sutta, which is arguably the most influential discourses of Buddha, and upon which Vipassana meditation is based.

The goal is to mindfully observe reality as it is being experienced in order to gain understanding and wisdom.

Upon changing to insight meditation, reality immediately started “breaking down” before me. It really was incredible to witness, every sensation was quickly deconstructed into tiny vibrations by the mere act of observance.

Unlike in Goenka Vipassana retreats, where meditators are instructed to only pay attention to the body sensations (at least in 10-day courses), I also turned my attention to thoughts, emotions and states of mind, which are more somewhat more subtle.

From that point, I embarked on a roller-coaster that took me back and forth from extremely blissful states to severely depressed ones. And it was mind-blowing.

While reading, keep in mind that it’s very hard for me to put into words some of these insights and experiences, but I’ll do my best to make this understandable to you readers.

On the 22nd day, in the late afternoon, while meditating, I began experiencing my sensations and thoughts as very distant. They really seemed to be “out there”, and my sense of self, which I guess we could call “the observer”, was “over here”.

And trust me, this was not merely a small mental game I was playing with myself. Physically, my five sensory inputs were experienced with so much distance that it didn’t even feel like it was actually happening to me. I couldn’t even see properly! My sense of sight was so strongly perturbed, I could only “see” reality from far away, with my two eyes resembling two round separate windows. The best way I can describe is that it felt like I was “watching” a movie that included all 5 senses and thought. I was experiencing everything, yet none of it felt close to me.

This experience lasted between the sitting meditation sessions, and it was so intense that doing anything besides meditating seemed pointless. While meditating, the notion of time was hard to keep, as if it was suspended and somewhat irrelevant.

At that point, although most of “my” experience of reality seemed very clear, a gigantic problem was still left unsolved.

Who was I?

As soon as that question arose, I felt very strong vibrations and palpitations throughout my body. Nothing made any sense. Nothing was me. Who the hell was experiencing all of this? Who was looking? Who was “The Observer”?

It didn’t make sense that experiences were “out there” and that the observer was “over here”. It’s hard to explain why, but on some visceral level, it became so obvious that this created a fundamental tension that was inevitably tainting all experiences of reality, regardless of them being pleasant or unpleasant. The subject-object duality was profoundly flawed.

After a few hours of meditating – that seemed like half an hour at most – I went back to my room and drifted into sleep.

The next morning, upon waking up, my reflex was to immediately resume meditating, it was effortless. However, I felt really weird, physically and mentally. I was still experiencing reality in a very spacious and distant manner, so it was hard to put these sensations into proper perspective. My condition worsened as the day progressed ; in the afternoon, my body was hurting terribly and I had strong fever (to give you an idea, the outside temperature was above 40°C and I asked for a blanket because I was cold). The only thing I found relief in was meditating, not because it “removed” any symptoms, but because it made them seem so distant that they didn’t bother me at all, it was as if they were happening to someone else. Equanimity  – the ability to see reality without desire or aversion – was maintained effortlessly in this particular state of mind.

Although it wasn’t making me “suffer”, I still can say that the pain was extremely strong, it felt like every muscle and organ of my body was twisting in the wrong direction. In fact, I didn’t know that experiencing such strong pain was humanly possible. At times I truly felt helpless, and my only comfort was found in meditation. I had virtually no appetite, and barely ate for the next several days.

The rest of the week basically consisted of almost non-stop meditating, since it was the best way to deal with my physical discomfort. My meditative insights pretty much remained the same, “I” still couldn’t figure out who was “watching” all of this, and clearly felt like something was wrong.

On the 28th day, to my relief, I was feeling much better. To this day, I’m still unsure what this sickness was. The symptoms sound somewhat close to Dengue Fever, but since it happened in such a unique context, it’s very hard for me to properly identify it.

Fifth week – Is Consciousness me?

It definitely was a huge relief to finally feel better.

Continuing my meditative practice, the nature of every phenomenon that occurred from moment to moment slowly kept getting clearer. I still experienced sensations, thoughts and mind states in a very spacious and distant way, and the big “who’s seeing all of this” question was still puzzling me on a visceral level.

It also got increasingly obvious that nothing “out there” would every bring deep and lasting satisfaction, and maintaining the illusion that things were “solid” was downright impossible. Everything was simply always “moving” and “changing” in subtle but undeniable ways, and somehow, this gave me a strong sense that everything was profoundly connected. My most predominant mind state was peace, but even peace was experienced with a distance and detachment, and interestingly, this brought the overall experience to a whole new level of peacefulness, which was diminished as soon as I “clung” to the peacefulness.

Meditation Hall Pa Auk

The meditation hall

On several occasions, even thoughts were very hard to form. It’s complicated for me to describe how I experienced thoughts, but they just seemed like tiny abstract ripples. Observing them in their “abstract” form was in fact a “sober psychedelic experience” in itself. Thoughts were so much more comfortable in their “abstract” form that it was hard to understand how I could ever go back to normal “formed” thoughts. Even “intentions” were seen in “3rd person”, which was somewhat weird, since intentions are typically strongly associated with the sense of “who you are”. Like everything else, they were just arising and passing away, and were definitely not “me”.

What was unchanging in all of this? What was left of “me”?

Mind states?

No. None of this was stable. None of it was me.

The only thing that seemed to be left as stable, was the consciousness that was noticing and “knowing” all that was happening.

But was consciousness me? I used to think so.

Upon meditating, around the day 30-ish, there was a definite shift in the way “I” experienced reality. While observing sensations, it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t conscious of the sensations. The sensations were conscious of themselves.

It might not make sense to you readers, or perhaps you wonder why such a difference would mean anything, but at that particular moment, it made all the difference in the world. “Consciousnesses” were arising jointly with their respective sensations. It all came as a “package deal”. There wasn’t “anyone” watching, the “process” was just watching itself. Consciousness was permeating what it was conscious of, just like the color yellow is imbued in a lemon.

Nothing was happening “to” anyone. It was just happening. And it was FINE! How could it not be fine anyway? All of this wasn’t even happening to anybody!

It’s very hard to describe how this made “me” feel. It’s like asking what a camera sees when you turn it off.

Any question asking how “I” felt is fundamentally flawed.

Last week – Preparing to leave

After this insight, I guess I could say I felt somehow relieved, although while going through it, all of this wasn’t as clear as it is now.

As I was going back home, in Canada, the next week, I started thinking a lot more about “real life” and about “what I was going to do next”. Somewhat “satisfied” with my insights and experiences so far, I became a lot less intense in my meditative practice, and mostly meditated for enjoyment as opposed as for insights. I also read The Way of the Superior Man, which brought back in me a strong motivation and enthusiasm to go back to the world and merge my spiritual insights with “real life”. It’s often quite a shock to return to normal life after a retreat, especially a long one, so I figured it was a good idea to relax on the “heavy-duty” meditation a little bit.

A few days before I left, a monk also offered to teach me yoga in a wooden cabin he had built himself on top of a nearby mountain. This was actually my first yoga experience, and I absolutely loved it. I think it does an amazing job at integrating the body in my practice, something I had neglected to do in the past, seeing “mental” practices as superior. I now include yoga in my daily routine, along with meditation. I definitely feel like they both reinforce each other in very positive ways.

Then, it was time to return home. I feel like 40 days was the right amount of time, as a shorter period might not have given me the opportunity to have such insights, but more would probably have been a little too much for me, as I felt a small eagerness to return to “real life” at the end of the retreat. I packed my things, said goodbye to my roommate, and took the bus to Yangon, leaving Pa-Auk Tawya behind, but preciously keeping the wisdom it had helped me cultivate.


Although at some point I felt like they were leading nowhere, I feel like concentration practices definitely helped me reach some very interesting territories. It’s hard to describe into words precisely what has changed since then, but some strong shift has definitely occurred, especially in my perception of “who I am” and in the way I experience reality.

Everything is always all right.

Special thanks to Klaus, a German monk, for the stunning photos in this post.

Suggested Reading: Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is a book I came across a while back but I didn’t actually take the time to read until recently. I started reading it a few days ago and was instantly hooked; I read it all within a day!

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is a thorough, “straight-to-the-point” and “no-bullshit” guide to meditative practice. It is very practical and easy-to-understand and it providMastering the Core Teachings of the Buddhaes the interested readers with a complete road-map of the “spiritual path” and of the stages of insight they can expect to encounter when practicing meditation. It also answers some commonly asked questions and has really helped me understand some parts of the practice I previously had trouble with. This has proved to be very valuable to me, especially since, in other sources, these teachings are often taught in an ambiguous and hard-to-understand way. Sometimes, it even seems are though some “teachers” want to keep some information hidden and secret! Not in this book!

If you want to get more specific about some particular subjects, Daniel M. Ingram, the author, does a great job by suggesting several other reads on the matter.

I very strongly recommend reading Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha to anyone interested in meditation; whether you are a complete newbie or an advanced practitioner, you will most definitely get a lot out of this book.

You can buy Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book here!

Current Drug Policies Are Irrational, Irresponsible and Dangerous

The more I look at drug policies in the world, the less I think they make any sense. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the illegality of drugs and their actual safety. In fact, for many cases, the correlation is reversed!Irrational Drug policies

Let’s break down and analyze the essential facts about these substances one by one:

Junk Food is in large part responsible for diet-related conditions such as obesity, asthma, type 2 diabetes, liver diseases, strokes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Obesity alone causes an estimated 300 000 deaths per year in the US. Yet, junk food is fully and cheaply accessible to anyone of any age.

Tobacco is responsible for an innumerable amount of health-related problems. In fact, cigarette smoking causes more than 440 000 deaths annually, which represents about one of every five deaths in the US. Worldwide, almost six million people will die from tobacco use this year. Yet, it is legal to buy and consume tobacco products from the age of 18 or younger in most countries. Nicotine, the active product in tobacco, is also highly addictive; it is even harder to quit than cocaine!

Alcohol also has a terrible record. Even though it is considered safe (and even beneficial, e.g. red wine) if used responsibly, each year, about 2.5 million people die from harmful use of alcohol worldwide. Additionally, countless people also suffer from alcohol-related problems such as alcoholism, drunken driving and other crimes committed under the influence of alcohol. Studies have also consistently shown that alcohol is one of the most addictive and hard to quit drugs.

Pharmaceutical Drugs are killing more people each year than illegal drugs. While prescription drugs have been the cause of more than 22 000 deaths in the US in 2010, 17 000 people have died from all illicit drugs use combined! It is also very frequent for people to get addicted to prescription medication, especially painkillers and sleeping pills. Over the past several years, there has been a constant increase in the number of prescriptions of these drugs, up to staggering amounts.  In 2010, enough prescription painkillers were prescribed to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for a whole month! How does that even make any sense!?

Cannabis, on the other hand, has caused … 0 death. In fact, to be at risk of dying, you should smoke from around 20 000 to 40 000 typical joints in one session. Despite strong evidence pointing to its innumerable medical benefits, to the very small risk of physical dependence, and to the lack of results from the existing drug policies, cannabis remains, for many countries, as illegal as cocaine and heroine. The situation seems to be evolving though, as many countries contemplate decriminalizing the drug; in late 2012, the states of Colorado and Washington have even passed a bill to legalize it!

LSD and Magic Mushrooms A highly misknown fact is that LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) present no potential for addiction and are virtually impossible to overdose on. A recent study has also shown that the use of psychedelic drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms does not increase the risk of mental health problems. In fact, studies say it may even help! Albert Hofmann, the scientist who first synthesized and ingested LSD and who, in 2007, was considered the greatest genius alive, said the following about LSD at his 100th birthday conference:

It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation. […] I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.

Although not physiologically dangerous, these drugs have a immense impact on the way you perceive the world.  These substances give you the opportunity to take a step back and look at your mental processes in a whole new light, they heighten your fascination and appreciation of life, make you realize the interconnectedness of everything and their responsible use often results in profound, life-changing and long-term shifts the way one views life. Here is a quote from Matt Johnson, Ph.D. in behavioral pharmacology, when asked what the most mind-blowing observation about the use of psychedelics was:

The most mind blowing observation is for people in their 60s who have never taken a psychedelic before say that it has dramatically changed the way they interact with the world. To have a 70-year-old man tell you that for the first time he knows what it means to stop and smell flowers, that he can’t walk down the street and watch a tree without being brought to tears by the unfolding miracle of existence. Or to have a lifetime nail biter say he has gone a year without biting his nails after a session – the tendency just disappeared. Or to have a decades long smoker say he didn’t even experience withdrawal when he quit smoking (as I was recently told by a participant 6 months after quitting). How in the world does a 6 hour experience on a substance have the ability to change somebody in such dramatic ways? We know very little about what is really happening cognitively. Much to learn! [Source]

It is a shame our culture and social structure doesn’t allow these great tools to be used in safer and more enlightening contexts.


Now, I’m not suggesting everyone should stop drinking and start taking LSD, but shouldn’t drugs be as dangerous as they are illegal? What erroneous assumptions are drugs policies built upon? Isn’t it time for more intelligent and comprehensive drug policies?

I want to live in a world where drug policies are based on evidence and reason, where laws are founded on understanding as opposed to fear, and where doctors prescribe meditation before medication.

Polyphasic Sleep Conclusion

Hey guys! It has been almost a year since I had not updated you on my Polyphasic Sleep experiment. For those of you who weren’t following it, my goal was to reduce my sleep to the bare minimum and to attempt replacing some of my sleep with meditation.

Biphasic Sleep – Sleeping less than 5 hours total

My first step consisted of replacing my average of 6 hours of sleep a night by a 4h30 core sleep and a 20-minutes nap. I was usually sleeping from around 2-3am to around 6-7am and taking my nap shortly after lunch, at about 1-2pm. Although the first few days were slightly hard since my body was adapting to the schedule, I quickly experienced success with the technique. I felt like on average, I had more energy throughout the day and had a lot more lucid dreams than I normally did with a monophasic sleep schedule, especially in my afternoon nap.

In my core sleep, I also woke up frequently after only 4 hours and generally felt better when I woke up after 4 hours than after 4h30. I assume this is because my sleep cycles are slightly shorter than 90 minutes (probably around 80 minutes or so). This step being a success, I moved to the next step.

Triphasic Sleep – Sleeping less than 4 hours total

At that point, my goal was to sleep 3 hours at night and to take two 20-minutes nap spread evenly throughout the day. It was a bit harder to adjust to that schedule than it was to adjust to biphasic sleep; when you  wake up after only 3 hours of sleep, you really don’t feel like you’ve been sleeping that long.

Interestingly though, once I was able to get up, my overall level of energy was higher than what it was with biphasic sleep. I had more motivation and felt happier throughout the day, but these could be attributed to psychological factors, since the mere fact that I was succeeding with the experiment could have made me more motivated and happier.

On the downside though, I also started experiencing sleep paralysis at an unusually high frequency. Although most people will experience this once or twice in their life, I was getting sleep paralysis episodes at least 10 times a week. I must say that at some point, I was getting quite annoyed; sleep paralysis can get pretty scary and sometimes, I really felt like I would never be able to fall asleep again. Each time I’d lie down, I would feel my body falling asleep, yet my mind would remain fully awake and alert, and I was getting some pretty disturbing hallucinations at times. Since I wasn’t as educated in sleep paralysis and trained in meditation as I am now, I had a hard time dealing with those.

Moreover, this step is where I really started to feel the effect of my daily habits on my sleeping requirements. I felt like what I ate and drank had a tremendous impact on my sleeping needs. I noticed that vegetarians foods and light meals made me less sleepy whereas heavier meals made me drowsier and made it harder for me to strict to my schedule. A funny anecdote is that any alcohol I drank had many times the impact it would normally have on me, which I guess is interesting if you want to get drunk for cheap, haha :P. Obviously though, drinking also made it much harder to strict to my schedule.

Talking about the schedule, I also felt that at this point, sticking to it diligently was very important. I would feel the effects of a missed nap for days and even delaying it by a few hours yielded some pretty bad side-effects.

Stepping Down

I realized I had underestimated the flexibility of my daily schedule. Although on most days keeping my strict sleep schedule was doable, on others it was simply impossible. I would have had to turn down a lot of invitations and events simply to “take my nap”, which seemed unreasonable to me. I opted for quality over quantity and decided to go back to a biphasic sleep schedule, which was clearly more flexible and adapted to my daily life. This was about a year ago. Except a few times, I have never slept monophasically since. From experience, I can definitely tell that I feel much less energetic when I sleep monophasically for 7-8 hours or more.

On average, I now sleep about 5 hours each 24 hours, often less. Exceptions are when I drink or undergo more intense physical activities. I have also had success replacing some of my sleep with meditation. In fact, I feel like if I meditate about 2 hours a day, I will need about 1 hour less sleep. Obviously, meditating has a ton of other benefits, you should definitely learn and practice meditation!

One of the interesting things this experiment has also made me realize is that although most of us wish we had more time, when we actually find ourselves with a lot of free time on our hands, we usually waste it and find other reasons why we are not doing X, Y and Z. In my opinion, one of the most valuable skills any human can learn is time management.

Lastly, I now feel like I can much more easily deal with sleepiness. This can be due do this polyphasic sleep experiment but also to the Vipassana meditation I’m practicing, which makes you much more capable to deal with negative experiences in a peaceful and detached way. In times where it is needed, I may only sleep 2 or 3 hours a night for a few days and function without any difficulty and then “recuperate” sleep at a later date. I have heard similar experiences from other polyphasic sleepers.

I hope you enjoyed reading about this experiment. Also, I encourage you to like UP Development on Facebook and follow me on Twitter so you can stay updated! :)