Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Vipassana: thoughts after (part 2) "Equanimity as if the world matters"

Charming Charlas (day six)

It´s 7pm and our small group of english speakers are settling in a small upstairs room to listen to todays CD talk ("charla") from Goenke. The rest of the group are listening to a spanish translation in the main hall but I´m glad to hear the original: Goenke speaks a charming Indian english and his warmth, wisdom and good humour shine through. This is the hightlight of my day and if it wasn´t for these I couldn´t have made it this far. Today he has us in stitches, voicing as always our own experiences, the thoughts in our heads, "Goenke´s says 'Anicha, Anicha, Anicha', the Law of Impermanence, but this pain is not passing away! This pain is permanent! Someone should tell the teacher - she must have forgotten to look at the clock!"

His teaching is clear and illustrated with countless witty stories. It´s clarity is part of my problem: I am doubting if I want to accept it.

At this point I ask you to bear in mind that this is one variety of Buddhism and that after only a week I do not claim to be an expert. Yet this is my interpretation of Goenke´s teaching:

Two and a half millenia ago Gotema de Buddha was not original in his interpretation of life as a cycle of misery, or that enlightenment was the way out, but what he did discover, or rediscover, was the powerful technique of Vipassana, "so rational, so scientific", for achieving this. When the body receives sensations it registers them, perceives them and then reacts to them with either craving or aversion - wanting more or less of the sensation. This is the root cause of our misery. The vipassana technique uses meditation to achieve, firstly, an acute awareness of bodily sensations, developing until one can feel every particle in the body vibrating. This direct, physical experience teaches us "Anicha", the Law of Impermanence: everything is arising and passing away. From this we gain the wisdom that forming attachments to anything dooms us to unhappiness. And so, the second "wing" of the technique, we practice being equanimous towards these sensations, knowing they are passing: sitting with these keenly felt sensations we train ourselves to stop reacting to them, to accept all equally, whether of pleasure or pain. Thus, eventually, we achieve enlightenment and escape from the cycle of misery into a place free of all desire and hence free of suffering. We know "real peace, real harmony, real happiness".

No mas sankaras?
My question is: where´s the pleasure? There seems no room to enjoy the good. I love life. I know it´s short, but this wisdom makes me determined to make the most of it, appreciating each moment. I can see the benefits of equanimity for dealing with the bad, for cultivating peace and solidity, but do I want to sacrafice my ability to enjoy? Goenke talks about this technique as a "deep surgical operation" to free us of sankaras - our reactions of craving and aversion - but I´m scared it amounts to a pleasure lobotomy. And I´m not sure I´m prepared to forsake the whole world in order to escape its unpleasant parts.

It seems utterly radical, this response to misery. I imagine the Leutenant reporting to his General "Sir, we´re having a spot of bother with this living business: so many desires are disappointed and it makes the men suffer so", to which the General decisively replies "Right, cancel desire. No more desires for anything, good or bad. Complete equanimity. That should do it." "Cancell ALL desires, Sir! But... but... you mean ALL desires!".

And really, is this even possible? Desire, in its broadest sense, drives life, from the biological roots of reproduction upwards. Surely to end desire is in some senses to die? Seen in this way Buddhism is an utterly pessimistic response to the unpleasant aspects of life. It characterises all experience as misery, because even the pleasant creates suffering by generating attachment to that which will not last. In response it seeks to disengage. Is there a difference between equanimity and indifference? I don´t want to become some sort of Buddha Zombie, floating outside of life, passive and unmoved.

La Rosa y La Mierda (day seven)
Surely it must be a certain type of desire we abandon? I book a ten-minute slot with La Professora on day seven and in my less than perfect Spanish ask the question as clearly as I know how:

"I have a rose in my left hand and a piece of shit in my right. According to the teaching the natural reaction is "Mmmm, la rosa, I want more of this!" and "Urgh, la mierda, get me away!". So am I right in thinking that we are trying to get to the place were we do not react to either, and if offered more rose or more shit we would be completely indifferent? Surely there is a space for enjoying the rose, in the moment, while accepting that it is passing away? When it does, you let it go. Surely there is a space for pleasure without attachment?"
Smiling down at me with kind eyes she shakes her head. "Lo pega", she replies: "It sticks". Pleasure always creates attachment.

This is what is troubling me. I don´t want to give up enjoying life, not even to escape all suffering. It seems to me like deciding that, because some days are sunny and some days wet, you will concrete up your windows and doors and sit inside listening to Bach, at peace and unmoved. Or like choosing to exit the river and travel beside it in a solid train carrage with no windows, feeling compassion for those poor souls still caught in the rapids outside. I think I´d rather be in the rapids, under the sky, taking the knocks with the thrills.

There must be a middle way. I search for metaphors to capture it. Can we not, like plants, have roots deep in the ground, stable and equanimous as sun or storm pass by above, yet with the rest fully in the world, opening petals to the sun or closing them against the rain? Or, is equanimity not like the anchor that secures the boat, no longer blown across the sea by passing storms but still fully experiencing them and also the glorious days of calm?

Do Buddhists live in an orange submarine?

I may be mistaken in my interpretation of the teaching, but Goenke seems very clear on this point: all pleasure creates attachment and attachment creates suffering. In none of the talks did he distinguish types of pleasure, with say a "moral enjoyment" - such as arises from serving others - that free of atttachment and therefore available for the enlightened. Yet he talks of happiness, compassion and service. Is the desire to serve not a desire? I notice that even instructs us to pursue our equanimity "ardently": "Ardent - having, expressive of, or characterized by intense feeling; passionate; fervent."

I see you (day nine)
This is peace. The clocks have all stopped. The meditation hall is still. The stillness of a silent ocean floor, where all the sediment has settled down, leaving a peace that is so alive. I sit and drink it in. The light has faded and outside the crickets chirp like tiny referees. A car hums and grinds its way up the steep road. Even The Cougher is silent. I often enjoy this last meditation of the day.

Yes, I am pleased to be nearing the finishing line, but the experience has been so rich that I wouldn´t take it back. I am grateful for what I´ve learned but my fundamental question - "Do I want to go where I´m told this practice will take me? - has caused what I hope is a healthy sense of rebellion. Earlier a fellow meditator passed me, leaving the hall early, and I wondered if my blissful grin of 'enlightenment' added to his frustion. "If you only knew" I thought "that I´m smiling at the juicy steak and glass of Sauvignon I´ll be celebrating with in a few days time."

One thing I appreciate about the teaching is that is founded firmly on "Try if for yourself" and "Use your noodle" - as Goenke has repetedly stated this is not to be accepted as "blind faith". Dhamma (the path) requires hard work and patience but it will show results at every stage. If I question Dharma´s destination I do so joyfully, perhaps even equanimously (wink). I don´t accept everything but I don´t reject it all either.

The Noble Chatter (day ten)

The final day and the silence has ended. Last night Goenke sounded perhaps a tiny bit dissappointed as he explained that many years had shown that Vipassana students did not fair so well going straight from the silence back to the outside world. So on day ten we speak once more. I am very glad of it. What a transformation. From sombre silence to glorious interaction. Finally we can discover the people behind the shoes and socks. I hug The Cougher (something I´d promised myself) and seal my journey from annoyance to compassion - I mean the poor guy couldn´t help his cold and it must have frustrated him no end.

The veil has been lifted and men and women mix freely again (I smile noticing my thoughts turning to who´s phone number I want to collect - still the bachelor!). There is a palpable sense of joy, often mentioned by past students, and it is not purely from relief at making it to the end. I am helping clean the kitchen the next morning, before our coaches take us down back into the frantic city, and it seems like the most enjoyable activity ever. What a pleasure to be helping, to be serving. One of the morning meditations, early in the course, had left me with a sense of seeing past the clothes and bodies and passing actions of everyone around and into their fundamental humanity: fundamentally loveable, irrelevant of the outside. This is still with me and I feel a deep compassion and a profound joy as I look around at all these fellow souls, scrubbing and washing and laughing away in the kitchen.

I´ve found a friend to chew my doubts over with: Nick from Massachusetts. It is an instant meeting of minds. He shared my doubts a year ago on his first course, still shares them to some extent. We swap metaphors and search for ways to process what we´ve learned, to find a space for the pleasure of life within the Buddhist path. This is noble chatter and it is an essential ending to the course for me.

We were asked to give the technique a fair trial, follow the rules and persevere for the duration. This I have done. Now I can take the time to think and read and talk it through. I´m on my lookout for some real life Buddhas, to see if they´ve a sparkle in their eye and a deep pleasure in life´s riches.

It starts with this moment, but where do you go from there?
I will try to summarise my current thoughts. Life is short, it is passing away and I believe that really grasping this is essential for contentment. I do not believe that the response to this ´Law of Impermanence´ must necessarily be the abandonment of desire. I do not want to disengage from the world. I want to smell the rose and love every second of the experience.

I believe that life´s passing away can lead to a different response: this moment is all I have and I am going to live it fully, enjoy it fully, appreciate it fully. For me this draws me in to "suck the marrow out of life", as a good family friend puts it. Yet this commitment is always given with the understanding that I cannot hold on. This gives equanimity in the face of pain and disappointment. The fleeting nature of the present amplifies the good and dampens the bad - for me it teaches "make the most of all there is to enjoy and keep the misery in perspective."

This was a lesson that I felt I started to learn earlier this year while I was ill (see April post). Was I going to get angry? - At whome? Did I think I had a right to be healthy? - Why? This is life and you accept it. How many days had I woken with a healthy stomach and taken it for granted, and now that health was gone was I going to react with unhappiness? I had to accept the illness and find the good in it. And if and when I had the good fortune to be healthy again (which I did) I would try to be thankful for that every day.

It is understandable to feel that true value requires permanence. I do not accept this. The good can be good even though it is passing. The value you can know right now does not REQUIRE surety that it will last forever. This is a strand in many philosophies and religions that I have to question:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6 v 19-21)
I hope my heart is in the moment. I hope that it is possible to hold tenderly and lightly to the joys of life. I raise a glass of wine with my favourite poet, Omar Khayyam, and ask the Buddha to join us in a toast to life:

One Moment in Annihilation's Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste--
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing--Oh, make haste!

Oh, come with old Khayyám, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Ah, fill the Cup :--what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn TO-MORROW, and dead YESTERDAY,
Why fret about them if TO-DAY be sweet!


Reminder: these posts on Vipassana have been an account of my own personal journey. There are thousands who have had different experiences and I am not putting this forward as either a definitive account or an authorative summary of the teaching of Buddhism. As a friend pointed out, chuckling at me, my ´grit and battle´meditations probably say as much about me as about Vipassana!

If you want to make up your own mind, Vipassana courses are available free, worldwide. See

The final quotes are selected from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (not in order). I heartily recommend a read: First Edition.


  1. What a journey... It's great to read how your mind tosses and turns and considers these ideas. How interesting to consider what a 2500-year-old philosophy would mean to us in this world, especially a world so focused on daily pleasures.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to share; many will learn a lot.

  2. kinda had a similar experience. the dhamma philosophy sounds really practical/logical but it does make you question if there is any room for relishing the fleeting joys of life in it. cheers for putting your thoughts down in such a clear manner. made for a thought provoking read!


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