SuttaCentral

Help confronting spiritual dryness


#1

Warm greetings to you all,

I have been practicing the Dhamma in relative isolation for about two years now. My life is fairly quiet for a lay practitioner. But in that time I’ve experienced periods of progress and periods of regress. In many ways, I’ve come to distrust the feelings and thoughts that arise out of both periods. It is especially difficult for me to judge the quality and efficacy of my practice because of this.

In times when my practice appears to be progressing, abiding by the precepts seems natural, and meditation appears to lead to deeper states of tranquility… well, it seems in a sense easier—though maybe this isn’t the right word. In those times of regress, which I am experiencing right now, everything seems to fall apart. What gains I’ve apparently made seem lost. It seems a struggle to be mindful. Where the precepts seemed front and center to my mind just a week ago, I now have to remove the mental detritus that seems to accumulate. I feel exhausted and meditation seems punishing. Bad habits and old thought patterns are struggling to resurface. And in spite of my best efforts, I find myself pining for the pleasant. The old bind of the mind training—itself—the mind that needs to be trained.

But I persist. Though there is plenty of grumbling from the committee that is my mind—especially from the Statler and Waldorf faction.

I have to think that the very fact that I’m experiencing this regression might imply that I’m not making the progress that I believe. The whole experience is humbling, painful, and discombobulating. I feel at times like I’m barely keeping my head above the crests and troughs.

I’ve shadowed this group for a long time. And I must admit that I’ve been too intimidated to comment or post because you all seem so experienced and I don’t know what I could possibly offer. But I’m currently reading the Majjhima Nikaya and the following passage in the Mahagopalaka Sutta resonated with me:

“How does a bhikkhu not know the ford? Here a bhikkhu does not go from time to time to those bhikkhus who have learned much, who are well versed in the tradition, who maintain the Dhamma, the Discipline, and the Codes, and he does not enquire and ask questions of them thus: ‘How is this, venerable sir? What is the meaning of this?’ These venerable ones do not reveal to him what has not been revealed, do not clarify what is not clear, or remove his doubts about the numerous things that give rise to doubt. That is how a bhikkhu does not know the ford.” (MN 33:9)

I know that what I’m experiencing is not an unusual experience. That it’s to be expected. This actually gives me hope. My question, submitted with reverence to both the Venerable and lay practitioners of this group, is what is a fruitful and skillful way to confront these moments of regression? What has been most helpful to you when experiencing spiritual dryness?

Thank you all so much for your time.

Metta.
:heart::pray::heart:


#2

If a practitioner works on seeing impermanence, then they drink the joy of insight:

"And how does a monk not know what it is to have drunk? There is the case where a monk, when the Dhamma-Vinaya proclaimed by the Tathagata is being taught, doesn’t gain knowledge of the meaning, doesn’t gain knowledge of the Dhamma, doesn’t gain joy connected with the Dhamma. This is how a monk doesn’t know what it is to have drunk.—MN 33

“And what are the six kinds of renunciation joy? The joy that arises when — experiencing the inconstancy of those very forms, their change, fading, & cessation — one sees with right discernment as it actually is that all forms, past or present, are inconstant, stressful, subject to change: That is called renunciation joy. (Similarly with sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, & ideas.)”—MN 137

When the practitioner discredits the sense appeal of objects, their claim to permanence, then that gives rise to a legitimate sense of joy. Even the conceit that arises knowing that knowledge is not shared by the uninstructed ordinary person is a legitimate form of desire for progress on the path. Practitioners may starve their practice through not understanding that craving is a necessary motivational force (AN 4.159).


#3

You might try recollection of the Triple Gem:

Recollection of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha

In order for our practice to progress to where it is truly transformational it’s essential that we connect with the triple refuge deeply within ourselves. This connection sustains our practice through the pleasant times as well as the less pleasant occasions which will inevitably arise from time to time.

Regularly reflecting upon and connecting with the Buddha, the dhamma that he taught, and the monastic community which has practiced and preserved this dhamma, instills a sense of joy in our life which induces energy to keep us focused and mentally balanced. Therefore, making these devotional recollections a regular part of one’s practice is extremely helpful. I highly recommend learning these recollections, reciting them, and reflecting upon them often.

Recollection of the Buddha (Buddhānussati)

AN 11.12 Paṭhamamahānāma Sutta gives the recollection of the Buddha as follows:

He, the Blessed One, is indeed the pure one, the perfectly enlightened one;
He is impeccable in conduct and understanding, the accomplished one, the knower of the worlds;
He trains perfectly those who wish to be trained; he is teacher of gods and humans; he is awake and holy.1

After giving this instruction on the recollection of the Buddha, the benefits of this practice are described in the discourse:

On that occasion when a noble disciple is recollecting the Tathāgata, his mind is not obsessed with passion, aggression, or delusion. His mind is straight, with the Tathāgata as its object. A noble disciple whose mind is straight gains a sense of the goal, gains a sense of the dhamma, gains gladness connected with the dhamma. When he is gladdened, joy arises. In one who is uplifted by joy, the body becomes calm. One whose body is calmed experiences pleasure. In one experiencing pleasure, the mind becomes composed.

Recollection of the Dhamma (Dhammānussati)

AN 11.12 Paṭhamamahānāma Sutta offers the recollection of the dhamma with these words:

The dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One,
Apparent here and now, timeless, encouraging investigation,
Leading inwards, to be experienced individually by the wise.2

Again, the benefits of practicing the recollection of the dhamma are described immediately after the above instruction:

On that occasion when a noble disciple is recollecting the dhamma, his mind is not obsessed with passion, aggression, or delusion. His mind is straight, with the dhamma as its object. A noble disciple whose mind is straight gains a sense of the goal, gains a sense of the dhamma, gains gladness connected with the dhamma. When he is gladdened, joy arises. In one who is uplifted by joy, the body becomes calm. One whose body is calmed experiences pleasure. In one experiencing pleasure, the mind becomes composed.

Recollection of the Saṅgha (Saṅghānussati)

AN 11.12 Paṭhamamahānāma Sutta presents the recollection of the saṅgha as follows:

They are the Blessed One’s disciples, who have practiced well,
Who have practiced directly,
Who have practiced insightfully,
Those who practice with integrity—
That is the four pairs, the eight kinds of noble beings—
These are the Blessed One’s disciples.
Such ones are worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect;
They give occasion for incomparable goodness to arise in the world.3

After giving this instruction on the recollection of the saṅgha, the benefits of the practice are described:

On that occasion when a noble disciple is recollecting the saṅgha, his mind is not obsessed with passion, aggression, or delusion. His mind is straight, with the saṅgha as its object. A noble disciple whose mind is straight gains a sense of the goal, gains a sense of the dhamma, gains gladness connected with the dhamma. When he is gladdened, joy arises. In one who is uplifted by joy, the body becomes calm. One whose body is calmed experiences pleasure. In one experiencing pleasure, the mind becomes composed. - Measureless Mind Buddhist Blog

“There is the case of a monk who remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & mindful—putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. As he remains thus focused on the body in & of itself, a fever based on the body arises within his body, or there is sluggishness in his awareness, or his mind becomes scattered externally. He should then direct his mind to any inspiring theme [Comm: such as recollection of the Buddha]. As his mind is directed to any inspiring theme, delight arises within him. In one who feels delight, rapture arises. In one whose mind is enraptured, the body grows serene. His body serene, he feels pleasure. As he feels pleasure, his mind grows concentrated. He reflects, ‘I have attained the aim to which my mind was directed. Let me withdraw [my mind from the inspiring theme].’ He withdraws & engages neither in directed thought nor in evaluation. He discerns, ‘I am not thinking or evaluating. I am inwardly mindful & at ease.’ - The First Six Recollections | A Meditator’s Tools : A Study Guide

:anjal:


#4

Greetings Nemo :slight_smile:

I’m sorry that I can’t give a nice sutta citation to broaden your perspective. But I do have experience from rehabilitation practice, where this feeling is very common. So I’ll offer a comment about my experience from this field :slight_smile:

Sometimes it is our perception that is not accurate. It may seem like there is no progress or even regression, but there are ways of viewing these things that may be more useful.

You mention peaks and troughs and a cyclic progression. Imagine this not as a circle, but as a coiled, spiral spring. Everyone has peaks and troughs, this is the cycle of pleasant feeling, unpleasant feeling; brought about by the constant change of conditions in every aspect of our lives. So it is normal. I believe that these things never cease :slight_smile: that is why Samsara is so unsatisfactory :slight_smile:
However, the nature of a beings reactions and responses to the cycles changes. Firstly you already know that there are cycles… so you know that it will change again soon enough - also perhaps you can notice the changes in the depth of the troughs or or the height of the peaks has changed in some way - perhaps the frequency in recovery has changed, or the length of time between troughs. The changes may be subtle :slight_smile:

Also evaluation/judgement does not occur in isolation, it is also relative to expectations. Assumptions about the degree of progress are good to contemplate, because these will highlight conditioned views and beliefs, and is another great place to investigate :slight_smile:

The analogy I like the best is one of a stretched out spring, in the beginning it is just a round coil, over time it begins getting stretched out, (this is the work on the Noble 8 fold path) the more the coiled spring is stretched out the flatter it becomes, slowly the ups and downs and round and rounds of the loops decrease. It may not be easy to see, as the changes can be very small, but think back 10 years, or 20 years and compare now to then.

All in all, your intentions and efforts point to the fact that you are making progress - you are not complacent. If you’ve felt increasing frustration at not achieving the degree of progress you may wish for, it may well indicate growth in right view :slight_smile: The mind is a tricky thing :sweat_smile:

with metta


#5

The way I understand that you have to be at least a Sotapanna not to be regressed.
That is the elimination of self view, doubt and clinging to rites and rituals.
However you do not have to worry about this problem.
I feel you will get their eventually just keep on practicing.

SN25.1-10 Good news!! Many of us in this forum are assured stream entry!

The above Sutta series gives us some assurance even if you not a Sotapanna. Basically, if you understand at least one aspect of Dependent Origination you are assured Sotapanna state in this very life.

“Mendicants, the eye is impermanent, perishing, and changing. The ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind are impermanent, perishing, and changing. Someone who has faith and confidence in these principles is called a follower by faith. They’ve arrived at inevitability regarding the right path, they’ve arrived at the level of the good person, and they’ve transcended the level of the bad person. They can’t do any deed which would make them be reborn in hell, the animal realm, or the ghost realm. They can’t die without realizing the fruit of stream-entry.


#6

To clarify, it should be pointed out that this translation puts the emphasis on impermanence:

"At Savatthi. "Monks, the eye is inconstant, changeable, alterable. The ear… The nose… The tongue… The body… The mind is inconstant, changeable, alterable.

"One who has conviction & belief that these phenomena are this way is called a faith-follower: one who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry shades. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream-entry.

"One who, after pondering with a modicum of discernment, has accepted that these phenomena are this way is called a Dhamma-follower: one who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry shades. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream-entry.

“One who knows and sees that these phenomena are this way is called a stream-enterer, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening.”—SN 25.1 Thanissaro

“A comprehensive realization of impermanence is a distinctive feature of stream-entry. This is the case to such an extent that a stream-enterer is incapable of believing any phenomenon to be permanent.”—“Satipatthana”, Analayo


#7

It is a Sutta series from SN25 one to ten. (ten Suttas emphasising different aspect of Dependent Origination)


#8

Welcome to the forum. I can certainly relate to that feeling of “one step forward, two steps back”. It’s probably not surprising, since we’re trying to change the habits of a lifetime. So it’s important to be kind to yourself, and develop some metta.

Some thoughts arising from your post:

Can you think of anything specific that you’re doing or not doing during the periods of progress? Any external factors involved?

Would it help to have more contact with others on the path? It can be tough trying to go it alone.

Do you feel like you have a “core practice” which provides continuity during the more challenging times? For me practising mindfulness helps to smooth things out a bit.

What really inspires you? It might not be something obviously “spiritual”. For me it’s being out in the natural world.


#9

Hi,

How about reframing your struggle in terms of insight into the 1st Noble Truth: not getting what you want is dukkha and coming into contact with what you don’t want is dukkha :slight_smile:

The fact you can’t control your experience illustrates not-self.

That one day your experience is pleasant and the next displeasing is impermanence in action.

As an experiment, perhaps you could try setting aside expectations of what you think should happen, and gently bring your awareness to simply knowing whatever is happening.

With mettā.


#10

Stream entry does not require any knowledge of dependent origination, but it does require “a comprehensive realization of impermanence”.


#11

Hi @Nemo, you should be happy that a) you have gained a human birth, in which you can b) practice.

suppose the earth was entirely covered with water. And a person threw a yoke with a single hole into it. The east wind wafts it west; the west wind wafts it east; the north wind wafts it south; and the south wind wafts it north. And there was a one-eyed turtle who popped up once every hundred years. What do you think, mendicants? Would that one-eyed turtle, popping up once every hundred years, still poke its neck through the hole in that yoke?”

“It’s unlikely, sir.”

“That’s how unlikely it is to get reborn as a human being. And that’s how unlikely it is for a Realized One to arise in the world, a perfected one, a fully awakened Buddha. And that’s how unlikely it is for the teaching and training proclaimed by a Realized One to shine in the world. And now, mendicants, you have been reborn as a human being. A Realized One has arisen in the world, a perfected one, a fully awakened Buddha. And the teaching and training proclaimed by a Realized One shines in the world. SuttaCentral


#12

Hey Nemo, good to hear from you, thanks for your honesty and openness!

The spiritual path is a weird thing, right/ we make these ads that sell it as all lotusses and peace, but the reality is … different. I don’t really think I can offer you much advice, as i don’t know you or your specifc journey. But you are clearly a sincere and intelligent practitioner, and if you stick with it, i have no doubt you’ll find your way through the maze.

If you can, find yourself a spiritual community, some people you can talk to and relate to, in the real world. Flesh and blood humanity! I know this isn’t always possible, but if you’re struggling so much, for me it would be a priority.

May I pick up one or two things that you said?

That’s an interesting observation. I get what you mean, and it is definitely a part of Dhamma wisdom to realize that one’s thoughts and feelings are only of-the-moment and will change. But still, I find it a little curious that you would mention this here, in this way. I can’t help but wonder whether there may be something deeper going on? yes, it’s true, our thoughts and feelings are affected by delusion and cannot always be trusted; at the same time, it’s all we’ve got. If we have an untrusting or suspicious attitude towards our own mind, things will get pretty unpleasant. One mom I know told me that she thinks of it like her kids: she loves them 100% but boy, never would she trust them! So maybe it’d be worth checking your mind and heart and asking, my mind may lead me astray, but do I love it unconditionally anyway? And if this is indeed an issue, the obvious remedy would be to do lots of lovely metta for yourself!

I may be completely off the mark here, so just ignore this if it’s wrong!


#13

If you understand impermanence, you have some understanding of Dependent Origination.
Even a non Buddhist understand impermanence.
It is not enough to be a Sotapanna.


#14

@Nemo. One thought that came to my mind while reading your excellent post was to substitute the word “progress” with the word “process.” So much of what we perceive as true and real is process; constantly changing and conditioned. Sometimes, we are improving the conditions of the process of liberation, and are only mindful of a perception of progress, and perhaps that is a mistake.

I think of a talk that Bhante Sujato gave once, where he described a novice Bhikkhu being assigned the task of the Dhamma talk in the evening. The young Bhikkhu really had no storage of Dhamma to share, and so he essentially told some funny stories that night. To Bhante’s surprise, he went back to his kuti and had a great evening of mediation, defying the expectations that this young monk’s talk would only get everyone laughing, and take them all off the contemplative path. In reality, the opposite became true for a good meditator.

So, it seems to me that the fact that you’re here, that you invest yourself in what is going on here at D&D, and were able to share so carefully and well your thoughts, that you’re really in the midst of a very positive process. How any of us will end up in terms of progress (stream entry??) is a big question mark. It’s just something to not get attached to, it seems to me.

So, as they say, trust the process. Don’t worry about the progress. You might just be one experience away from a great evening of meditation if you can just let go a little bit.


#15

Thank you, Bhante. Thank you, all. There is much here for me to work with and contemplate. I am very glad to have found this forum. I enjoy reading the conversations.

And I believe stepping up my metta meditation could be fruitful. That part of my practice has lapsed.

:heart::pray::heart:


#16

Thank you for this!

I have this dreadful habit of taking myself—and everything else for that matter—too seriously. I know this because I realize I haven’t laughed at myself recently. What a drag I’ve been. There’s nothing wrong with focus and resolve but… well there’s plenty to laugh at.

Thank you! And thank you all.

:pray:


#17

@Nemo, what a great point you raise. How stultifyingly serious some “Buddhist” discussions can be, with the net effect of enhancing all of the clinging, and grasping, comparing, and negative attachments.

I think of the smile that so many ancient Buddha statues exhibit on the face of the Buddha. Why is the smile there? Because at the heart of the Buddha’s practice is the absorptions, the jhanas. And with this complete letting go, and falling into absorption, is joy and happiness. Yes, joy is at the heart of the Path! No grinding of teeth, no growth charts, or comparisons as to who is winning the stream winner race…

So, you’ve hit the nail on the head! Letting go. Smiling. Metta and mudita to ourselves and others, as Bhante so properly pointed to.


#18

What proved to be true on my journey is that the tools of yesterday become the obstacles of tomorrow. Or, to put it differently, ‘it works - until it stops working’.

I’ve found an excellent example for this: Ferruccio Busoni was about the finest pianist of his time when at some point he realized that he has not fully realized his potential in playing Liszt. But he reached his limits with the way he played - so in spite of the status he has gained he decided to look at Liszt’s works again, fresh, and relearn completely how to play them…

What this means to me in terms of meditation is that we cannot outsmart the mind. Its tendencies to be stuck, trapped, build a tower of heavy ego, dullness and worldliness are much stronger than what we have ever learned to put against it. So if it ain’t feeling right I think it might be time to bust the bubble we created with our own past practice and start fresh, remember that this is a journey of truth, freedom, and joy - and not a dull repetition of what we once accepted to be ‘right practice’. Scrutinize everything, and dare to look at things in an unconditioned way.


#19

This is the second time I’ve quoted this passage from Ajahn Chah to you, so I hope you will study it. There is a difference between theory and practice in dhamma. Dependent origination lies on the theory side, while knowledge of impermanence is an experience of reality. Even if you haven’t experienced impermanence yourself, the main point for you to understand is the difference between theory and experience that Ajahn Chah makes clear, and I will not explain this to you again. I am speaking from the practical viewpoint, and anyone who experiences dhamma knows that their knowledge of impermanence is of a different order to that of the ordinary uninstructed worldling, as explained here:

“ Sustained contemplation of impermanence leads to a shift in one’s normal way of experiencing reality, which hitherto tacitly assumed the temporal stability of the perceiver and the perceived objects. Once both are experienced as changing processes, all notions of stable existence and substantiality vanish, thereby radically reshaping one’s paradigm of experience.”—“ Satipatthana”, Analayo.

In the introduction to the Anapanasati sutta, the Buddha lists the stages of practice and meditation subjects building up to stream entry, and there is no mention of dependent origination, but impermanence is there. I emphasize again that this is a description of the experiential side of dhamma practice.

It is irresponsible of you to mention dependent origination in the context of an OP who is seeking guidance out of difficulty with practice. What they need is to be plugged in to the practical experience of dhamma, not led away into the thicket of theory, and that connection can only be accomplished through knowledge of impermanence which is readily contemplated in everything around us.


“It’s likewise with the teaching of dependent origination ( paticca-samuppāda ): deluded understanding ( avijjā ) is the cause and condition for the arising of volitional kammic formations ( sankhāra ); which is the cause and condition for the arising of consciousness ( viññāna ); which is the cause and condition for the arising of mentality and materiality ( nāma - rūpa ), and so on, just as we’ve studied in the scriptures. The Buddha separated each link of the chain to make it easier to study. This is an accurate description of reality, but when this process actually occurs in real life the scholars aren’t able to keep up with what’s happening. It’s like falling from the top of a tree to come crashing down to the ground below. We have no idea how many branches we’ve passed on the way down. Similarly, when the mind is suddenly hit by a mental impression, if it delights in it, then it flies off into a good mood. It considers it good without being aware of the chain of conditions that led there. The process takes place in accordance with what is outlined in the theory, but simultaneously it goes beyond the limits of that theory.

[…}

Theory and Reality

The Buddha did not teach about the mind and its psychological factors so that we’d get attached to the concepts. His sole intention was that we would recognize them as impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self. Then let go. Lay them aside. Be aware and know them as they arise”—“ Unshakeable Peace”, Ajahn Chah


#20

Sorry.
I follow the Sutta not Ahahn Chah with due respect for him.