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Friday, July 16, 2010

Vipassana: Things I Didn't Say Before

So, hopefully you've read the previous three posts about Vipassana and have virtually undergone the experience yourself, with about one percent of the time commitment and hopefully zero percent of the joint pain. Here are some things I had meant to mention, but didn't.

1) Not talking was easy. Much easier than concentrating on my breath, or scanning my body for subtle sensations, or remaining unmoved in the face of knee pain. Actually, I consulted the teacher often, almost daily, so I really spoke about 3 minutes each day. Except for one day, when both teachers and I had a little philosophy chat that went on for almost 30 minutes. I understood that the silence, in addition to keeping us from lying (one of the parts of moral behavior we were supposed to follow) also kept us from asking each other questions about our meditation experiences, which in turn kept us away from feelings like pride and jealousy, allowing us to concentrate solely on our own practice.

2) There was some other communication. One time, three ducks were walking around in the drizzle, waddling and leaving little footprints in the dirt and quacking up a storm. Someone pointed them out to me silently. Another time, I saw another guy squatting in the dirt looking at something. I squatted down next to him and looked at a bunch of ants crawling into and out of holes which had been dug in the middle of the dirt parking lot for no reason apparent to us. Another time, I watched another guy feed leaves and reeds to the poor little goat that was chained up to the tree. Another time, I spotted a frog climbing up the wall of a building. I tried to point it out to another guy, but he wouldn't acknowledge me.

3) Seating. For the first few days, I tried different seating arrangements almost every meditation period. Normal "indian-sitting," seated fetal, extra pillows under my butt or knees, folded pillows, sitting with shins on the pillow and butt on my ankles, etc. I found out that pretty much, no matter what pose I picked, it was acceptable for 30 minutes, unpleasant for 15, and grueling thereafter. I returned to a simple position and accepted the fact that the pain was unavoidable, and that after all, the point was not to avoid the pain entirely, but rather to learn how to note it and react with equanimity. It's there, but you don't have to react to it. While this sounds ridiculous at first - whether because you believe pain serves a useful biological function, or because you value your own comfort - there's definitely some bit of truth in it. The pain eventually becomes less severe, and the need to get up and stretch disappears, and the amount of time it takes you to get back to normal leg consistency after the mediation decreases almost to zero.

4) My monkey-mind turned often to this very blog. I often thought of how I would describe each day or experience, and which experiences I would selectively leave out (that's right, I didn't tell you the full story, only the story that will lead you think what I want you to think). At meals, we often sat four to a table, but just looked at our food and not at each other. One time, though, I watched a guy leave the buffet and try to pick which table to sit at. Of course, it didn't matter, since nobody would talk to anyone anyway, but there's still this feeling like...do I sit next to the person who sits next to me in the meditation hall? Or the guy on the cot next to me? Or that guy who really looks like he knows what he's doing and who's probably half enlightened already? Maybe I can absorb his vibes??? He saw that I had caught him amidst these ridiculous considerations and cracked a big smile and came and sat down next to me. I had to stifle my own laughter for most of the meal and didn't dare look up at him. The point is, maybe even while it was going on, I was thinking about the blog. I thought I'd write that "the laughter was nearly uncontrollable" but that in typical self-slandering, syntax beast style, I would point out that the laughter was in fact entirely controllable. I held on to this idea for several days and am surprised that I forgot to include it.

This brings up an interesting question, one not unrelated to Vipassana. Does the blog, and by extension writing in general (actually, I ask myself this about my travel, photos too), draw me into experience or draw me out of it? Of course, the real answer is somewhere in between the two, depending on the event and the situation and of course the author. On the one hand, I feel like writing after that fact like this helps me imprint experiences in my memory. I can recreate the details that come to mind, and in the process reflect on the sort of things I pay attention to. Not to mention that I can later revisit and relive the experience, or at least whatever partial retelling I gave it.

On the other hand, what moments and things do I miss when I start thinking about what sort of stuff I can post about, rather than about the experience at hand? Is there some sense in which beginning to write the report forestalls further investigation? In which beginning to write about something declares it over, perhaps before it's really finished?

Actually, a year or more back, I watched a TED talk by a guy named John Francis, who stopped speaking for 17 years because he realized that all he did was interrupt people, responding to what he figured they were saying rather than to what they actually wanted to say. But he didn't do it in the context of a monastery. He actually taught classes and somehow managed to (wordlessly) spread the word about sustainability and respect for the planet. Also, he stopped using petroleum-based transportation and walked all over the place. Baller extroardinaire.

5) I had been writing an intro to the post in my head since maybe Day 3, but somehow it slipped my mind. I am too exhausted from all this other writing (good thing I did my bicentennial post in advance - the real occasion passed without being noticed) to recreate it. It was going to compare the Vipassana process to running marathons 10 days in a row, starting with the following picture (yes, I even knew exactly what picture to use and where it was in my web albums - evidence that the blog is borging my mind):

I would that the fellow in the middle (identity protected) has run a marathon in, I don't know, 3 or 4 hours, and that, due to stride length and other distances, it would probably take me 10, which is approximately how much meditation I was (supposed to be) doing daily.

I would also compare the knee pain, endurance, mind-battling, ease-of-quitting, unclear-purpose, and masochism issues.

And it was to end like this:

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