Sunday, 25 April 2010

To Vipassana or Not to Vipassana…….That is the Question?

Once upon a time in a land not all that far away, named anxiety, lived a beautiful but worried princess (at least her prince was constantly telling her she was beautiful so in someone’s reality she was….or is!). Why she was worried didn’t really matter. There was always something or other she could find to worry about. And if there was nothing in particular to be worried about on that particular day she would just somehow manage to worry about nothing at all – but worry she would! So much so, that one day the princess noticed she was becoming the beautiful princess with the wrinkles across her forehead from all that constant worrying. What to do? What to do? Well, the princess had heard about a train called the Vipassana Express. It was a 10-day train that could potentially deliver her directly from the land of anxiety to a land of peace and harmony otherwise known as the state of liberation. She was very excited to find out how to get on this train. Could anybody board? How much would it cost? And could it really take her all the way to that place she so desperately wanted to go? She was so tired and fed up of living in anxiety. She felt sure she was ready for a change. Well – the only way to find out if a train like this really existed was to head on down to the railway station and see if she could buy herself a ticket.

By now the astute ones among you (that’s right – you crazy folks actually bothering to read this little tale) will have figured out that the ‘princess’ of this story is actually myself and this tale is just a simple metaphor about my own state of mental health or more accurately apparent lack thereof. And going to the train station was like coming to India to find the tools that India has to offer that might just give me the chance to explore a new way of being in the world. Because it just so happens that India is the home of all (or at least most) things spiritual, and the current heartland of the ancient technique of Vipassana that has been passed down through the generations by teacher after teacher from the original teachings of the G-man himself (and by G man I am of course referring to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha).

Before arriving in India I had heard a little bit about Vipassana from a wonderful and spiritually well versed friend of mine, named Claudio, who had given me the vague low down on how it worked – he explained it was a 10 day, silent meditation retreat in which you could find a way to quieten your mind and reach a profound level of inner peace. And although the use of this technique has now spread pretty much all around the world, since India was it’s birth place, with the Buddha, and India is where it is most widely practiced today, I felt sure that India was the place to give it a whirl.

So, here I was in India – with just a small amount of ‘unplanned’ time to fill, before my yoga teacher training was to begin and still I hadn’t managed to ‘squeeze in’ to the 9 month timetable of our travels one of the most important aspects of what I came here to do – one of the things that I was most seeking from our journey. I was running out of time to set out on my spiritual quest and was determined not to leave without at least attempting to fulfill my goal. So finally I hunkered down and gave it some serious thought, opened my laptop and starting googling around. And low and behold – as I hunted around on the website for a centre that was holding a course during this gap…..serendipitously – there it was – in a location that fit with my plans perfectly – on a date that would allow me to arrive just in time to begin the little ‘train ride –The Vipassana Express’ and finish with time to spare before yoga. It was a clear indication to me (some might say it was a ‘sign’) that now was the time to board that train. Now was the moment to seize the day, pursue my intentions and take that final step. And so I enrolled for the course, booked my overnight train (a real one, not a metaphorical one) from Delhi to arrive in Dehra Dun at the allotted time and my date with destiny had been secured. All I had to do now was show up…….. My bags were packed, I was at the station and I held the ticket in my hand for the Vipassana Express (back to the metaphorical train). All that remained was to board the train and wait for the engine to rev up and pull away from the platform with me aboard and I would be on my way to my escape from anxiety (or on a crash course to insanity).

Now the only problem with all of this was that my good friend Claudio didn’t really go into all the details of exactly how the ‘Vipassana Express train’ worked. He didn’t mention that once you got onboard they would lock the doors and there would be no escape from the train until the 10 days were over – and he certainly didn’t mention that during those 10 days there would be many many moments when all you would desire would be to run kicking and screaming from that train, because it would almost certainly feel like the train carriage was about to burst into flames at any moment, or at the very least it would be an incredibly unnerving rollercoaster ride with the train feeling as if it could derail at any moment, rattling, uncontrollably rapidly along the tracks with seemingly no driver at the helm. But I’ll get to all that in due course!

So – to return to the language of the ‘here and now’ I should probably explain a little more about the technique of Vipassana. The concept is simple. Over the course of 10 days, with the use of some simple meditation techniques while following a few simple rules, you will learn how to quieten your mind, and connect with actual reality through awareness of a few subtle bodily sensations. The ultimate goal is to become equanimous with one simple truth. The law of nature dictate that all there is, is the here and now. Every experience shares one simple quality: that of impermanence. Each moment arises and passes away and if you can remain equanimous with that fact and your experience of reality, be it good or bad, you will connect with the deeper truth and reality of yourself, find peace and calm and ultimately liberation (from your attachments and cravings to worldly things and your fear and aversion to all that you despise), which will lead to an escape from the misery of existence and real joy and happiness. On the surface of things this can sound like a pretty depressing outlook on the reality of existence but if you can get beyond the first impression there is apparently a joyous state of enlightenment amongst all that, that will liberate you from your suffering in whatever way it manifests itself; be it anxiety, depression, aggression or any number of other serious mental afflictions.

Now I’d like to mention – many of my friends held serious doubts that I would be able to pull it off. They thought that although I might manage to stay on the train for the full 10 days there was no way that I would be able to adhere to the rules and regulations that applied. And here’s why: The first and most obvious of those rules was complete and utter silence. Being that I am a naturally gregarious and outgoing soul it is true that this first rule could potentially have posed a bit of a challenge to me. However, I felt sure that it would be easy – and indeed it was. In actual fact (and for you some of you this may come as a surprise), for me the prospect of 10 days without talking was positively a relief. Many times I have actually found that the main source of my anxiety is of a social nature. Sometimes the impulse for conversation arises out of an uncomfortable silence, or the need to be ‘interesting’ and have something spectacular to say. So, to have silence imposed: what a relief! I don’t speak because I can’t – and so it is simple. No words were to be uttered and it was easily done. But you see the ultimate goal of the outward silence is not just a test of will and determination. It is actually to assist the meditator in reaching a state of inner silence. To quieten the mind. And for me it’s just not that simple. You can take out my tongue, but that certainly doesn’t mean you’ll shut me up. The voice inside my mind is a truly persistent one that will not go down without a fight. By day 4, the mind is supposed to be more easily approaching silence. Well – I’m afraid Mr. Buddha that you are going to have to come up with something a little more compelling than the observation of my breath to keep me quiet in the music halls of my mind. The first 3 days of a 10-day course are spent simply observing ones own breath and becoming acutely aware of any bodily sensations in the area directly around the end of the nose, where the breath enters and exits the body. By doing this the mind becomes focused and tuned in to the capacity to sense more subtle and subtle sensations throughout the body. That part of the technique worked well enough, but I’ve always been a pretty good multi-tasker I’m afraid. And so while I was busily honing my skill as a sensation senser – I was also madly chattering away to myself about, as usual, anything and everything that my little mind could think of, to keep me busily twisting and turning myself into little knots and twirls about. Interestingly enough most of the first 2 days of distracted thinking was spent ruminating and jumbling around the most recent and fairly insignificant drama to have unfolded in my life regarding none other than……wait for it……my piano. On the grand scheme of things – it wasn’t even something that important……and it wasn’t even involving people of any great importance to me…….and yet I simply could not put it out of my head…….and so, there lay my first of many lessons that I taught myself in those long 10 days. Most of what I think about, neigh obsess about is little more than banal and boring bullshit that I would do well to dismiss instantly from my mind – in actual fact this was not a new awareness for me – but at least a powerful reminder – but still not necessarily a lesson that is easily acted upon.

And so – by day 3, I was still chattering away in my mind but I had managed to become quite a smarty pants at feeling my upper lip tingling away (supposedly this level of ability to feel subtle sensations allows you to connect with the awareness of the reality of the human body at the atomic level)….yay me! Wasn’t I doing well? (Despite the fact that I’d wanted to smash my face against the wall of the meditation hall with hell and fury out of sheer boredom on more than one occasion… I said……come on, Buddha……give me something a little more compelling!)
Well – what is it they say? Be careful what you wish for! Day 4 arrived with the delivery of stage 2 of the technique and something, at least initially a little more compelling. Now that we had perfected the ability to be aware of sensation on one square inch of our skin we were suddenly given free rein to explore our entire bodies from head to foot, inch by inch, part by part, piece by piece in sequence, moving from head to feet. OK – so this was a little more interesting and seemed to me to have a little more potential to take me to a state of ‘bliss’. There were moments when the sensations were verging on pleasant and I was feeling like a bone fide meditator, with the potential to feel that light and fluffy feeling that one imagines meditation is all about. But hold on a minute……the instruction weren’t quite finished. Before we got carried away feeling all tingly and lovely we were severely reminded that this warm fuzzy feeling was not at all the point of the exercise. The point was to experience all this at the physical level from the Point of view of an objective observer, to remain equanimous with the experience and maintain the knowledge that all was impermanent. All would arise and pass away and that nothing, good or bad was to be reacted to with either craving or aversion. OK – so it did seem like a bit of a party pooper move on the old G man’s part – but maybe he was just saving the best for last…..or something…….and so I went along with it……. until the slap in the face arrived.

And for the final twist of the knife. Now that you’ve figured out how to be acutely aware of every sensation on your body at an incredibly intense level……don’t move…..not an inch…….for a whole hour! OK – before you read any more……just try it…go on ……I’ll be here when you get back…..go on…….I’ll time you……ready….set…..go.

I thought so…….it’s only 7minute, 37 seconds and you’re back already! Not that bloody easy is it? In fact it’s f*&^ng excruciating isn’t it? My good friend certainly never warned me about this part. Now maybe he’s just a masochist and he liked this part. Or maybe he knew if he told me about this bit there was no way in hell I’d ever be crazy enough to try it – but Claudio – I have one question……WHAT THE FREAKING HELL? To sit in a meditative pose, with your eyes closed without moving your arms, legs, or any part of your body for that matter is one of the most painful experiences I’ve had in my life time….and there’ve been a few – including fracturing my pelvis and sustaining a pretty serious third degree burn on my upper, inner thigh (don’t ask……a teenage camping trip in the garden gone wrong!!). But anyway – none of them even compare with the pain that you will experience the first, second, third, fourth and probably fifth time you try it after about 30 – 40 minutes or so. After that……well – let’s just say that Buddha teaches you how to deal with the pain! And here is where my problems with Vipassana began and why I began this little story with the title that I chose… Vipassana or not to Vipassana…..a play on words based on one of the many great and famous speeches from a little ditty by the bard: Hamlet. Since at the essence of this meditation is the question of what it means ‘to be’. The theory behind dealing with this pain is that in remaining equnimous with the pain – by not developing an ‘aversion’ to the pain one gains control over the mind…..that old ‘mind over matter’ phenomenon. But to me it just seems like you get really good at playing games with your mind and convincing yourself that what you are experiencing is not really pain, when in actual fact it is incredible, excruciating agony. Any technique of meditation that involves habituating yourself to pain, conditioning your mind to ignore one of nature’s most natural and helpful instincts – that of responding to pain to protect one’s own well being – well – to me it just can’t be a good idea. It simply can’t be healthy. And so, in my mind, on day 4 began the constant debate about whether or not by continuing on this train I was actually doing myself more harm than good. Now the first couple of times that I tried to adhere to this new stipulation of complete stillness I managed to bring myself to tears. Quite literally rivers of tears were streaming down my cheeks with the pain – my face was twisting into all sorts of shapes and contortions reminiscent of the face that stares back at you from out of a fun house mirror and I felt like the sad and lonely child in the playground with no friends that tries to hide it’s pain following a tumble, resulting in a bloody knee, for fear of ridicule and rebuke.

But after a couple of goes – I did somehow manage to hold back the tears – quell the urge to scream and run away and simply ‘deal with the suffering’. And at this point, sure, I could tell myself that I had gained control of my mind – that mind over matter works – but the very fact that I breathed the biggest sigh of relief when that hour was finally over, that for every minute of that last 30 minutes I was craving and praying for the final bell to arrive was a clear indication to me that all I had managed to do was muster the will power to prevail and repress the painful sensations rather than, as was instructed, remain equanimous in the moment being only aware of the nature of the sensation, that of its impermanence and begin the process of releasing my negative karmic pain.

From here on in, each day I would ask myself whether or not I could believe in a process that uses pain as it’s primary tool to effect change and each day I would almost come to the conclusion that I could not, only to be persuaded by the daily discourses, scheduled at the end of each day that my thought process and experiences were all just part of the process and that the wisdom of it all would finally prevail. Through it all I tried hard to remain open to the possibilities, and undecided about the potential of the technique – but my tendency towards skepticism was only compounded by the obvious potential weaknesses and failings of its implementation at the instructional level. You see, despite the 10 day vow of silence, we were permitted to discuss any problems or issues concerning our meditation practice with our assistant teachers (the actual teacher, S N Goenka – was heard on audio tapes during meditation sessions and seen once daily on the TV screen for the evening ‘discourse’) and during several of the meditation sessions we were called forward in pairs by the assistant teacher to discuss our progress and receive ‘advice’. In one or 2 of these brief ‘interviews’ it became quite apparent to me that the other half of my pair was struggling considerably with the process; suffering from panic attacks with increasing frequency as the days progressed, and it was blatantly obvious that the assistant teacher was completely incapable of offering any useful advice or words of comfort.
Now, one can argue of course that my growing aversion to the practice was simply a symptom of the sickness of my mind, the weakness of my mind, my inability to become master of my mind and therefore I am a person in greater need of the technique than the next guy – but one could also argue that my aversion was simply a natural reaction to a process that was potentially quite damaging and harmful to a delicate mind – just exactly the type of mind that might seek out and hold hopeful expectation for great results from a technique like this. I myself, at times through the process felt a little like I was losing my grip on reality, that I was potentially spiraling towards insanity – but fortunately for me, my analytical mind was able to look at it all from many angles and gain a little calm objectivity outside of the pain of the meditation hall. Again I admit that perhaps this belief I hold is simply my overwhelming ego taking hold (the ‘I’ that desperately wants to maintain control and protect it’s very existence) but on the other hand, perhaps this belief is actually an accurate understanding that for me, and likely many others this is not a technique that offers a healthy approach to enlightenment.

I was fast coming to the conclusion that if reaching enlightenment means pursuing this past time of sitting with your own sensations hour upon hour then I feel confident I’d actually rather continue in the ‘misery’ of my life than trade it for the ‘joy’ provided by the utter boredom of meditating on impermanence.

Or perhaps it’s simply that I’m just not ready to give up my cravings and aversions. Perhaps I enjoy the dramas of life a little too much. What is it they say? “The unexplored life is not worth living” and I have to say that I agree. I know a great number of people who know exactly how harmful cigarettes are for their health but have absolutely no intention of ever quitting – because they like it, they like the way it makes them feel and they are OK with the fact that their pleasure seeking behavior may ultimately result in their own demise.

I was fast concluding that yes – my addiction to life is alive and well. My affliction of loving the highs and the lows is at this point in my life incurable.

And so Vancouver I’ve got news for you.

I will be arriving in the city, happily and thoroughly unenlightened and truly equanimous with that fact. I came on a journey of discovery: a search for the truth in myself, and the possibility of inner peace. Well – I’ve found out that the cost of inner peace is a price I am at present unwilling to pay. I actually like my life the way it is and myself pretty much the way I am. I simply love to love with fiery passion, and to react with infuriation to the irritations of life, in equal doses. How else would I know that I was actually alive? How would I know that I was living? Buddha would tell me that I can know I’m alive by being in the now and walking on the path of dhamma – but I think I’m realizing that I like my way just fine. Sure - I recognize that my tendency towards reacting to the world the way I do may cause me some anxiety, and this is not always my favorite sensation to experience – but for right now this may be just be a symptom that I have to learn to live with.

Partly in my mind I wonder if I ever actually boarded the Vipassana Express at the beginning of the ride or whether I was just standing at the platform with my suitcase in hand, watching the train disappear into the horizon, only imagining what it would be like to be on board, but part of me definitely feels like I took at least some of the journey before I bailed out. Maybe I was just hanging out of the door, like one of the last passengers to alight that couldn’t quite keep a firm grip of the handrail to pull herself up. Or maybe I was riding on the roof. Taking the journey without actually being inside the train and experiencing all the delights that came inside the carriage. I’m sure I could go on and on with the metaphors but you get the point!

But before I completely dissuade any of you potential Vipassana heads out there from giving it a shot, I should point out that there was also an incredible amount of very powerful things that came out of those 10 days. Each night, during the dhamma discourses, Goenka manages to weave so many of the teachings of Buddha, into his exploration of the Vipassana process. And let’s face it, a lot of what Buddha taught was just pretty damn good, good old common sense. I learned that none of the meditative aspects of the practice can do a dash of good without first living a life of ‘Shila’ – a moral life. And as guidelines for this he offers, not 10 commandments, not 5 pillars, but 5 simple rules to follow: Do not kill, do not steal, do not participate in sexual misconduct, do not lie and do not take intoxicating substances that will introduce impurities to the mind. I think you’ll agree that most of us can pull that off for at least 10 days. A life time? Well that may be a little more tough, and we can always find ways to justify bending the rules in our mind but at the core of it, I think that most of us will agree these rules are in fact pretty sensible rules to live our lives by (yes – even the one about intoxicating substances. We may like having them in our life, but essentially it’s pretty obvious they really aren’t beneficial in the long run). Now once you have these rules in check you move on to Samadhi: mastery of the mind. Which is where the meditation comes in. I’ve already explained how I feel about the Vipassana technique itself so I won’t repeat myself again, but in principle the concept of learning to become master of your mind, rather than slave to it through meditation is obviously a pretty good one (even though one may argue that on some level this is actually just creating a little control freak of your inner conscience!). And then the final step of leading a good life is to develop Panya: wisdom, which is gained through the process of Samadhi. Again – who can argue that they wouldn’t like a little more ability to see things as they really are – rather than through the rose tinted, dark mirrored or perhaps polarized spectacles that they may be filtering the world with! Throughout the discourses, Goenka peppers his teachings with little fables and tales to offer clear examples and a direct understanding of the theory, which are so simple and yet so perfect in their application that you can’t help but be persuaded by their logic. Nevertheless, when it came to the actual Vipassana technique my instincts just told me that the involvement of pain was simply not something I could accept. Now it’s true that this method clearly works and is cherished by thousands and thousands of Vipassana meditators around the world (one guy on my course was on his eleventh retreat) and there is a great deal of good that comes out of 10 days of silence, but for me the hunt is still on for a way to find inner peace. I do at least now know exactly what it is that I am looking for and think I have a great deal more clarity about how I may be likely to reach that place, so for that I am grateful.

There were also moments of incredible euphoria in that meditation room. During one of my first hours of complete stillness I experienced a few moments of utter bliss and loving joy emanating from my being – that feeling of love and compassion for one’s fellow mankind that I have always believed should be the ultimate goal of deep meditation – and I glimpsed it, I tasted it! As tears of joy streamed down my cheeks I felt like I was peering into a vast ocean of possibilities and only just tapping the surface of an eternally deep and never ending supply of pure and clear love. It wasn’t until later of course that my left brain kicked in and decided that those sensation were probably just my mind’s interpretation of the sensation caused by the rush of endorphins that had been released by my body to help me cope with the excruciating pain I was experiencing. I was quite surprised though with how much I managed to avoid growing an attachment to this sensation and managed to remain equanimous as the feeling past me by, only to be replaced by the more familiar sensation of a burning throbbing agony throughout most of my legs. Now according to Buddha, as soon as you experience this euphoria and attach a preference to this sensation, you have failed at the purpose of the meditation, which is to reach a deep understanding of the nature of reality – that all is impermanent and you should remain equanimous, with no attachment to this sensation, however I will admit that although I didn’t try to cling to the sensations in the moment, those moments are definitely cherished and savored in my mind, because they opened my eyes to the potential of a person to feel a complete harmony and joy with the world. To me, that is where the potential for a better world to live in can be harnessed. If everyone could share in that awareness then surely the world would be a much happier, safer and more joyful place to be. And so – to Buddha I apologize, but to that experience I will remain attached. I certainly will not crave it – but I will place it on a little bit of a pedestal, as a state to aspire to in one way or another – permanently or impermanently – so that it may color my choices and actions in the world and make me a better person, a more loving and giving person who wants to take care of the world around her and the people in it. And this was my greatest lesson from those 10 days and one that I can already feel permeating the choices and decisions I am making and the way that I choose to interact with the world.
So to conclude, I suppose I should answer the question that I posed at the beginning. To Vipassana or not to Vipassana? Well – if the Vipassana Express was supposed to deliver me to peace and harmony (which in actual fact it isn’t, as I learned through the course – since a 10 day Vipassana is actually just the beginning of a life long journey), I could come to the conclusion that it didn’t work – that my carriage got unlatched and I was left somewhere along the track – I didn’t make it to the final goal and so in a way for me the process failed (or I failed at the process) and one might decide that embarking on those 10 days was a complete waste of time – one might say ‘not to Vipassana’. But when I step back from it all – with a couple of days to clear my head from the vivid memories of the pain, I am certain that I did take at least a part of the journey. Maybe the train almost got derailed and so decided to go back to the station for another service before setting out again. Anyway, whatever part of the journey I did manage to take, along the way I certainly gained a big chunk of wisdom and some wonderful insights into my soul that I believe can guide me forward in a happy healthier way in life. So I would have to then conclude: ‘To Vipassana’.

Now, would I do it again? Well that’s another question. Probably not……but don’t quote me on that when I’m signing up for another round of torture a few years from now. But am I happy that I did it? Absolutely! Although it is without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life (even harder than climbing a 6153M Himalayan peak), it showed me the potential of a life – it showed me the possibilities of ‘being’ and for that I will be eternally grateful – that is as eternally grateful as one can possibly be in the moment, the only moment, the here and now of existence, the ultimate truth of being!

1 comment:

  1. wow, Carrie, what a journey!!
    loved reading about it!