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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Vipassana: The Experience

Three links, then down to business:
1) My Vipassana Overview
2) My Vipassana Prelude (about making my way to the site)
3) Stacia's Take on Vipassana. I've read it now, it's a good compliment to mine. Mentions some things I didn't realize, along with some things I realized and neglected to mention.

Ok, so.

Day 0 (June 27, Sunday Evening): We checked in, signed a form stating that we would stay for the entire ten days, handed over all of our forbidden materials (see post 1), received our beds and seating assignments for the meditation hall, ate an awesome dinner (I don't remember exactly but it included fried dried peppers, black beans, peanuts, various kimchis, a soup, rice, and some sort of main dish), listened to the rules, and began our noble silence at 8pm.

Day 1: The purpose of the first day was to work on containing "Monkey Mind" (try to sit quietly for 1 minute and you'll know what this means immediately - without your knowing it, some thought pops up, leads to another though, then another, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch through the canopy, until, 3 minutes later, you wake up to the fact that somehow you're thinking about that one time in elementary school when someone teased you about your sweet red-eyed Dragon necklace). This is an important step, since you can't really investigate your mind or body if your thoughts are always whirring about. In particular, you can't pay attention to the present moment, the things that are happening in your body at any given instant, if you're perpetually stuck thinking about things that happened or may happen, that you should have done or want to do, or if you're some other fantasy land altogether.

To combat these tendencies, we were supposed to develop "awareness of natural breathing," meaning trying to keep our attention on the feeling of air passing through our nostrils each time we breathed in and out. Sometimes you can feel it, sometimes you can't. Depends on your state of mind (and state of nose) and how sensitive you've become to subtle sensations. We did this all day. The first 4AM wakeup was pretty tough, though, and I wound up taking a few more naps than I should have. I was pretty happy with my performance - I managed to have a few lengthy periods during which I stayed focused. Not many, but enough to keep disappointment at bay.

Oh, one other thing: at some point during the day, the only other foreign guy, who also taught in Daegu, left. I don't know why. I haven't talked to him since. But later, both the teacher and manager asked me if the sleeping arrangements were OK. So maybe it had something like that?

Day 2: Next step in sensitivity training. The feelings on your nostrils are caused by the regular, predictable movement of your breath. We were told to pay attention not only to that, but also to any other sensations - heat, pressure, itching, wind, tingling, pounding, throbbing, buzzing, sweat, whatever - that showed up either on or in your nose or nostrils or on your upper lip. The idea is that your body is composed of smaller parts, down from organs to tissues to cells to molecules to atoms to strings to whatever, each of which is decreasingly solid and stable. They're all wiggling and jiggling and vibrating and spinning and interacting with other things in the vicinity of your body (though actually when you get down to that level, the distinction between body and not-body becomes less and less apparent), and the effect of all those movements is that sensations are always appearing and disappearing. Whether or not you are sensitive enough to notice it is a different matter. Usually, we're not paying attention, and we're not in a situation that lets us pay attention to the subtle little buggers. That's what the retreat is about.

I felt like I was doing pretty well here. Noticing lots of itching and twitching and wind blowing and things like that. Nothing phenomenal (tempted to insert a pun about phenomenology here, but I think I'll refrain), but a lot of things I hadn't really noticed before. When nightly question-time came up, I asked the teacher about my knee pain. He said that through the following day, I shouldn't try to fight the pain, that I'd be allowed to move if the pain became severe. This comforted me and freaked me out at the same time.

Sometime during day 2, a Korean man from Daegu left. I began to sense a curse.

Day 3: Similar method to Day 2, but we focused on a smaller area, this time just the lip area directly under the nose. Again, the purpose was to increase our sensitivity and ability to notice sensations appearing and disappearing. I tried to shift my position a lot less in anticipation of mandatory stillness to come. The pain in my knees and hips was so severe at times that I thought about leaving; then I thought to what my friend Joel told me while floating along on a little boat in the Kerala backwaters:

"At one point, I remember feeling like the pain was going to kill me. But then, eventually, I understood that "this too will pass" and was able to handle it."

This thought, along with thoughts of other people I knew who had [well, allegedly] completed Vipassana courses and were certainly not any more awesome than I am, sustained me and gave me the motivation to try and kick my pain's ass.

Thus, at one point, when the pain came, I remember bracing my whole body all the way down to my fingertips, and concentrating on the area under my nose. I did this as long as I could, but finally had to give up. I stretched out and it was 20 minutes before I could cross my legs again.

That night, during the evening mediation session though, I managed to sit for the entire hour without moving. It required some intense focus and probably some odd facial contortions (except everyone else in the room had their eyes closed, too, presumably), but I managed it. When I told this to the teacher, he smiled and said, mysterious and guru-like, "You have progressed."

My confidence renewed, I was happy to have made it through the grueling hour before the course strictly required it. Nonetheless, my legs were rubber for a good hour and walking down the stairs (our mediation chamber was on the second floor of the former school building) was actually kind of freaky.

On this day, I heard a third guy, a volunteer at the farm school, telling someone that he might quit the course and just go back to working on the farm. I thought about following suit.

Day 4: In addition to my battles with the pain, new difficulties sprang up: I began to have lots of intellectual fallings-out with the theory propounded in the lectures. Once the lecturer started talking about misery being the essence of life (isn't that an empirical claim? Is it justified? I don't think I feel that way...), about the Buddha reaching the highest enlightenment (how can you know if your enlightenment is the highest or whether there's more to come?), about how you can only reach enlightenment if you don't kill (we continuously kill beings we don't even know exist - our cells, our symbiotic bacteria, tiny bugs, etc, not to mention that modern industrial agriculture, the source of all our food, destroys ecosystems, whether you eat vegan or not, so does that mean none of us will get there?), and about how equanimity is the ultimate goal (so we should let ourselves be pushed around as governments and corporations destroy the earth and other communities in our name?). My Monkey Mind, which had previously just been jumping around thinking about Sadhana and Korea and my love life and how I should spend my vacation and this and that day back in high school and whatever, now started begging me to leave since the theory was a load of BS, propably perpetuated by the Brahmin class to get the poor to accept their suffering, or by the Kings to keep the plebs believing that pain and opporession were natural and acceptable.

On the other hand, I felt like the point was to spend a week practicing the meditation, regardless of the theory. The theory could be completely wrong, and yet the practical benefits might still materialize. Who knew? Was it worth a week of my time to find out?

I was also conscious that my mind might just be willing to latch on to any excuse to get out of there. After all, it was a fairly new and freaky experience, one which, if it was all it was cracked up to be, would reveal to me a lot of inadequacies and dysfunctions in my mind. What sort of mind wants this stuff to be found out? Isn't it natural to get defensive?

Plus, that other guy hadn't left yet. Perhaps ironically, to some extent it was my ego that kept me going for the time being.

This was the day that a major change in method came, where we started practicing the technique of Vipassna Proper. Before we had increased our sensitivity by focusing on just one area for an extended period of time. Now we were to start scanning our bodies, slowly, from top to bottom, part by part. Note what kind of sensation is there, objectively. Don't pay any attention to whether it's pleasant or unpleasant. Don't react. Just notice the sensation, then move on to another part of the body. If there's no sensation, wait a minute, focusing, to see if one appears, but don't actively hope for it. Also, note that every sensation that arises will also disappear of its own accord. They are all temporary. For this reason [actually I'm not sure I follow this logic, but I'm just relaying it], maintain equanimity in the face of any and all sensations, or even in their absence. This is the technique at the root of the Buddha's philosophy, and the one which we would practice for the remainder of the course.

Day 5: Starting from Day 4, actually, the three 1-hour sessions were now to be considered "Adithana" sessions, sessions of strong determination, in which we did our best not to shift at all. Surprisingly, by Day 5, though my intellectual qualms persisted, I found myself able to sit consistently for 50 or more minutes or so before having to deal with the pain. Plus, the pain faded quicker after I stretched. Whether this was because the muscles were getting stretched out, or simply accustomed to all the sitting, or whether it was because my mind was mantaining better equanimity, I couldn't quite tell. Nor could I tell if it was possible to tell.

I started to have some odd experiences this day, whether because I was becoming more sensitive or because I was going stir-crazy. I found subtle sensations of prickling and thumping and itching and swirling, particularly on my head, though my legs were mostly just large lumps of pain and numbnes. Where strange, subtle sensations appeared, I also had lots of weird visualizatoins. Colors and flowers (particularly coming out of my ears) and animals and cartoon or video game-style sequences imaging whatever it was that caused whatever sensations I was having. It got to the point where I couldn't tell whether the sensations were causing the visualizations or the other way around, and I had to consciously try to imagine strange visualizations and test to see if I could feel them and was deceiving myself. Usually, it seemed like I wasn't, that the visualizations were somehow results of my mind reacting to sensations.

One of my strangest experiences came at the 8-9 Adithana sitting on Day 5. Almost without realizing it, I passed the entire 55 minutes or so, and the teacher turned on the tape, which played about 3 minutes of chanting and then told us to go to bed. Just as it neared the end and I realized I had made the whole hour almost effortlessly, I "felt" a periwinkle ribbon form around my head, making space for a little kind of spire-hat that some Buddha statues wear. Then the ribbon was somehow beamed out to a (nonexistent) radio tower on a mountain. I sense it shooting and pulsing and also congratulating me. I don't know what else to say about it, except that it was a very different feeling from a purely visual daydream.

Day 6: Was a day mostly of serenity. I made it through the morning Adithana without much effort. I talked to the teacher after lunch and confessed that I disagreed with the theory and found it simplistic and unsuited for actual life, that rocks displayed the utmost equanimity and didn't care if they were moved, crushed, tossed, or used to bludgeon someone, and I didn't think that was a good ideal for people to hold up. Surprisingly, he said that he agreed and that this was not the sort of equanimity he, or Goenka (the lecturer), or the Buddha had in mind. The point was, through focus on and study of our sense perceptions, and from practice on witholding reaction to pleasant and painful ones, to later be able to better control our reactions to craving and aversion as we encounter them in normal life. This should enable us to make wiser descisions, from a more objective plane, rather than hasty judgments based on immaterial or irrelevant foundations. He also told me that, as I had thought to myself before, this was a 10 day course in practice, not in theory. Just see where the meditation technique takes you. Afterwards, you can analyze whether it confirms the theory or disproves it.

Something kind of switched in me at this point, as I realized that a lot of the lectures were just hyperbole, or at least, were overstating the case for things that I already believed. Who can contend with the idea of making decisions calmy, after thinking thoroughly, rather than acting rashly with a concern only for the immediate future? And does it take a Buddha to teach us to contain our responses to small joys and trifles in order to avoid later disappointment and frustration?

That night, in the final Adithana sitting, I had another crazy sensation, also after sitting for the entire hour. My left thigh, usually a throbbing hunk of numbnes, "felt" like an infrared map, with concentric circles of blue and red and orange. The rest of my body tingled all at once as my leg shot colorful fireworks every which way. I tried not to feel overjoyed at having "achieved" such a weird sensation, but I was pretty proud of myself nonetheless. I went to bed thinking the next few days would be a piece of cake.

Day 7: Not at all the case. Perhaps because of the philosophical coming-clean from the da before, and the resulting feeling that "I got it" and was already pretty good at reacting properly to my cravings and aversions, I developed some sort of Vipassana senioritis. Something was telling me I didn't need the course anymore, that I should go ahead and go back to Daegu and work on my plot and read some books and do what I had been doing before.

This was all and good, except for the fact that almost all of the sensations had stopped. The instructions were moving ahead, asking us to scan both arms simultaneously, to attempt to detect subtle sensations spread out over increasingly wide areas of the body. But the only sensations I was getting were from my shirt, or my ankles being crushed into the floor, or a stray fly landing on my face. Nothing to do with my body's subatomic parts. Was my mind screwing with me again, trying to get me to run off? The pain wasn't so bad, but the ambivalence was. I had a lot of very empty meditation sittings, where I let my mind wander and didn't try too hard to stay still, sometimes even moving before the pain got bad, just because I didn't see the point any more.

Day 8: Depression mounts as the Lecturer continues to tell us to maintain equanimity whether we are having no sensations at all or pleasant vibrations running through out the body making us feel as if we had dissolved. It is too late to leave the course, but I no longer feel like I am getting anything out of it. Curse myself for being too lazy to bust out of the funk. Just a few more days, give it your all!

Day 9: Similar. Motivation has all dried up. Instructions sound increasingly cool - penetrating the body, feeling the sensations in your liver, pleasant subtle uniform sensations throughout the body - but I have yet to "top" my Day 6 craziness. In fact, I'm feeling less sensitive now that when I first started the Adithana. I go back to the first methods, of breaing and contained-area focus, but to little avail. I feel like it's too late to start over. During the last two days, I don't make it through a single 1-hour sitting without moving around. I hardly even try.

Day 10: Wake up feeling OK. It's pretty much over. Have an OK morning Adithana, enjoy the new technique of trying to share your newfound peace with all other living beings (even if I don't quite buy into the idea that the process actually sends out healing vibrations. I'll accept it tentatively as a way for me to make some of my own desires clear to me.). Noble silence is lifted and we can all talk to each other now. Several people told me they were surprised I made it through, given the no-privacy sleep and shower situation, the all-Korean fare, the centimeter-thick mattresses, and Westerners' reputatoin for being unable to sit on the floor (due to our culture's fondness for chairs and high dining tables). I respond humbly, mentioning that I routinely took group showers with rambunctious squash buddies, have long been dreaming of veganized Korean food, slept in similar arrangements in my Indian community for several months, and have been working on sitting skills since 2006, though it was still extremely painful. Exchange some numbers, promise to visit some people's farms and pottery houses, chat about this and that. Watch a video about Vipassana being used, apparently with great results, in maximum security prisons in India. Greatly reduces recalcitrancy rates. Listen to a lecture saying that all we have done in these 10 days is plant a seed; that it needs to be cared for daily, that the fruits will only appear after we have incorporated an hour or two of mediation into our daily lives.

That's the end. If the mood strikes me, I may do a Retrospective/What I Learned post later. But I'm still not sure what i'll put in it.

Two photos for your edification:

A relatively happy me, Morning of Day 11, stuffing my face on vegan Korean breakfast.

What to call these folks? Vipassanites? Vipassinators? Vipassassins? You see the grandmother in front? In nearly indecipherable dialect, she called me a cutie and told me to come back soon. I told her only if she promised to feed me kimchi. Nothing like a "White dude likes Kimch'i" joke to elicit a Group Chuckle! (Damn, I didn't think to look and see whether or not the teachers laughed too! Very useful information, that would have been!)


the vipassassin said...

Wow, deats, what an experience. I like all the descriptions about your thought processes...shows how well you can break things down into constituent parts.

I'm also jealous of these "visualizations" you were having! Sounds pretty awesome.

Dave said...

I had never heard of the phrase "Monkey Mind" before, but am very much aware of the phenomenon. (I feel like we've talked about the following before) A fun exercise [once you realize your mind is thinking about something completely random and seemingly incongruous with previous thoughts] is to try and trace back one by one how your thoughts lead you to your final destination. Maybe everyone already does this.

You leg pain sounds like my experience in a couple of racquetball tournaments--only with much less swearing. I'm impressed you made it through. There's no way I could take that amount of floor sitting. I blame a lack of back flexibility.

Finally, should I have been listening to electronic music while reading your meditation posts? On the one hand, Kaskade's new album is awesome, but on the other hand, it's probably the antithesis of enlightenment.