Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Vipassana: thoughts after (part 1) "Start again, smilingly"

That was without doubt the most challenging thing I´ve ever done. Yet never have I learnt so much or thought so hard in such few days.

Here we go (day zero)

I´m giggling like a schoolboy with my new friend, the silver-bearded Alejandro from Ecuador. Sat on a bench in the men´s outdoor rest area we´re talking about girls and waiting for the start of the first meditation. With it begins the Noble Silence, nine days with no talking, no touch and little eye contact either. Of course men and women live completely separately, except for the meditation hall, to help maintain our focus on the task at hand. We chuckle, enjoying our final worldly thoughts before the serious work begins.

The course is being held in a Catholic retreat centre, high up the Medellin valley with the city stretched out below. The main building has a dining hall, split into mens' and womans´ sections by a wall of cotton sheets, and from it two corredors of basic rooms run down, hugging the hillside. The men´s outdoor area runs between these, a path lined with flowers that we will all spend many minutes appreciating, that widens at the end affording a view of the valley below. The meditation hall is behind and above the main building and appropriately we climb stairs to reach it (the women entering via a separate staircase). It´s full of light from the wall of windows that looks out on the bobbled clouds and green slopes.

Monkey mind (day two)
"Start again...Start again", Goenke´s kind, serious, low meditation voice instructs us from the small speakers on the stage, either side of la Professora, who sits cross-legged under a white shawl and has just cued him up on her iPod Touch. "Start with a calm and quiet mind, alert and attentive mind, attentive mind..." Goenke guides and, adjusting my bum on the cushion for the umpteenth time, I close my eyes. I can hear others around me as the room slowly settles. We are sat in rows, men on one side and women on the other, facing the small stage with our digital guru and his assistant DJ ("The teacher is a CD!" I had exclaimed). It´s day two of the course and I `know` people in the room by their particular sounds: Miss Crinkle-Bag to my right, Snot-Gargler-Man back left, Senora Fake-Sneeze far front and, DIRECTLY behind my head... The Cougher.

But these sounds are not to be my focus. The first days of the course we are instructed in Anapana, a technique based on the breath and focusing the attention on the sensations around the entrance of the nose and the upper lip. Through a small hair in my right nostril I am sharpening my mind.

It is an unruly beast, the "monkey mind". We`ve been told to be patient, as though we`re training an elephant. I put the sounds of the room aside and pick out my friend the nose hair: "Just exactly what is that sensation like? Different on the inhale to the exhale? Yes. A vibrating? No, more like a gentle pressure. Bending inwards... then bending outwards... inwards... then outwards. They´ve been getting tricky recently, those tickly nose hairs. Maybe I´ve passed the stage of easy hair management? Maybe I´ve started the glorious depilatory journey where the hair you want abandons you to leave only the generous fountains sprouting from ears, nose and eyebrows ... Oops, lost it. Ok, back to the nose hair: inwards, outwards, inwards, outwards."

There`s a part of the mind that`s like one of those machines that spits tennis balls, but loaded with utterly random idea-objects. I sit getting fired at, mentally swatting them away: "nope, not following that one... inhale, exhale... no, there`s another one, back to the nose hair". Suddenly I find myself on the other side of the room, engrossed in a thought, wandering how on earth I had ended up thinking about Madonna´s castle in Scotland. Dropping it I retake my seat and start fending them off again. Little by little the time spent seated with my breath is growing longer and the mental meanderings shorter and less frequent.

It seems a little odd, these solemn instructions, session after session the same, to focus on the nose for hours at a time. Yet this is training with a serious end: developing our ability to observe reality "as it is". We are sharpening our awareness of our physical sensations, the first half of the Vipassana technique.

Meet Angry Mike (day four)
Meet angry Mike. I´ve had to. It is day four and I´m seething.

We´ve settled into the routine, rising in the dark at 4am to the sound of the bell that will call us to the meditation hall seven more times that day: two hours before breakfast, three before lunch, four before evening tea and an hour plus a talk in the evening. Blessed ten minute breaks split the long blocks into separate sessions, three of which are ´group meditations´ guided by the digital Goenke.

All this is conducted in absolute silence. I have decided that the Noble Silence is so called because we would otherwise be extremely ignoble. Without communication to smooth the inevitable ruffles of life together my character is having full reign to reveal its ugly undersides - the petty judgements, easy afronts and, frankly, violence.

This is one effect of the combined silence and awareness training: you begin to notice so many thoughts that are normally hidden in the tumult. They arrive in my head and instead of passing unnoticed and unchecked a little bell goes off: "Ping: Judgement", "Ping: Anger". Please don´t get the wrong idea, I´m not a surpressed axe murderer. These are sadly normal, judgements like "Can´t he see how ugly those trousers are" or "How dare he take the next washing-up sink when we´re waiting here patiently". Pointless and petty and popping up all the time. Realisation of how far I have to go?: check.

This background mental agression has risen to a crescendo in days three and four because: "these b******** keep making me sit for hours, again and again and again!" "This never stops." I think. "There goes the bell again, already. Don´t make me do this, please!" as I pull myself up from my bunk and trudge towards the stairs. Of course I signed up for this and I want to be here, but such a reasonable fact doesn´t take away the anger. I´m itching for a fight. At times, as the hours role on, I am sitting on my cushion desperate to start a royal rumble, turning on The Cougher and letting all this frustration vent itself in a giant macho pile-up.

Firm Determination
This is not surprising. This routine can only be described as gruelling, or it is certainly proving so for many of us, especially the new students. Ten hours seated per day. We have all become cushion sculptors. You will never see anyone plump a pillow as carefully or apply such origami-like precision to the folding of a blanket. It seems critically important because as you hit minute 90 or 110 those aches become the most significant events in the history of the universe. They expand and they swallow time."That´s what I need!" I caught myself thinking at one point "one of those professional cushions with the Ohm embroidered on the top. Bet that´s their secret", a riduculous illusion brought to an end when someone lent me theirs: "Nope, worse".

We have been introduced to ´Firm Determination´: from day four we are asked that we do our utmost to stay absolutely still during the hour-long group meditations, not shifting our position at all (I realise that I was trying this for every session anyway). The principle reason for this is to provide the raw material for developing equanimity, but more of that later.

When is a pain in the butt not a pain in the butt?
"Ring the bell! Ring the bloody bell! Don´t you realise how important this is! Just ring it! NOW!" It must be nearing 5pm but the toughest thing is I have no idea exactly what time it is. The small ache in my left buttock hadn´t been much trouble at first but it grew, and grew, and grew. Now it is an incessant orchestra hit of discomfort. But I am NOT going to give in.

An observer could gaze around the room clueless that behind so many of the faces of blissful calm rages a struggle of operatic proportions. I chuckle at the thought of a Meditation Olympics - not much to look at, but oh, if the commentator could read minds. I found myself climbing the steps to the meditation hall earlier humming the Rocky theme tune. This is the toughest challenge of my life so far, no question.

I´ve never run a marathon, but I imagine the similarities are strong: some of the sessions are a pleasure but those that become a test of the will always begin the moment when the thought "Ok, enough now." pops up for the first time. This is when the challenge begins. I´m finding the final sessions of the pre-lunch block and pre-tea block the toughest.

We have moved on from Anapana to practice the Vipassana technique proper, which involves scanning the attention up and down the body observing all the subtle sensations with equanimity. I am trying.

"Ok, great. Thank you, I´ve learned a lot from this session. Let´s have a little break. If you could just end now.... No, ignore that. I´m content. I´ll sit here as long as you want. Scanning the body... observing the sensations. So there´s a large and bawdy sensation of discomfort. So what. Just another sensation "arising and passion away" as Goenke says. I accept this.... No, no I don´t. Ready to finish. Bored of hurting now..."

So it goes, as the minutes tick by. I win the argument and sit in peace for a while until the next strong "Ya basta" (enough already) thought arises. This time I present myself with the options: "Going to give up? Going to shift your position and then feel disappointed in a few minutes when the bell goes and you could have kept going? Did you or did you not commit to this course and to giving it your all? Good. Well keep going then. OK. Back to the top of the head, sensations, scanning down..." Again and again I follow our teacher's advice to "Start again, smilingly".

Pavlov´s dogs couldn´t compete with our finely tuned ears, waiting... waiting... waiting... for the lunch bell. I notice it later when washing up, so innocuous, and realise that no object is as powerful. In those final minutes, stretching out like years, we long for it with every cell. I´ve begun trying to read the various kitchen sounds, searching for a pattern - "The blender. That´s for the fruit juice. They make that last!" - for signs that the moment of release is approaching. The tinkle of dropped cuttlery causes a jump of excitement followed by the crash of realisation. This waiting and wanting is awful.

And that is exactly the point: you cannot make it end by wanting it to end. The only tactic left, other than defeat, is to give up craving and accept, accept, accept. Accept the unpleasant feelings and sit with them.

I start to do this and an amazing thing happens: the ache, which had grown into a roaring tsunami threating to overcome my willpower, changes. The quality of the sensation physcially changes. It is like being in a recording studio with a bad heavy metal band, the noise sharp and horrendous, and I have just stepped into the sound room and closed the door. The band are still playing - I can see them through the window - but the sound is now muffled, bearable, separate. It has become a white heat somewhere below and above it my mind rests in a sort of solid, unchanging peace. The thought "make it stop" pops back and, like someone pulling the soundroom door open, the clash rushes up round my ears. I fight to close it: "I accept this. I will sit here for as long as it takes. I will sit here even after the bell goes."

This is a pretty profound insight: experiencing that the worst part of pain is our reaction to it, the craving for it to stop, and that giving up this craving actually takes out the sting.

I can recognise the power of this. Training oneself to accept the pleasant and unpleasant, the good and the bad, without prejudice clearly gives great strength and studies pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn have demonstrated the effectiveness of meditation and "mindfulness" in helping those suffering with chronic pain. More broadly too the quality of equanimity is one of the most important that we recognise in the Older and Wiser whose solidity and unflappability radiate strength and peace, even in the most stressful circumstances. It is an attractive attribute and one I would love to cultivate.

Except that I am troubled by a critical question: what am I giving up to be equanimous?


In Part 2: equanimity as if the world matters...

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