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Saturday, July 17, 2010

At long last, a bike trip and some farming

The bike trip that I mentioned in this pre-Vipassana post is officially about to begin!

Actually, I wanted to leave yesterday, but it was rainy all morning and I didn't have a coat. So, instead, I waited out the storm, then looked up the location of a thrift shop I hadn't visited before. I biked out there (25 minutes if I had know where I was going), bought a crappy little rain jacket and a sweet vest, swung by the market for some fruit and nuts (the apricot lady asked me if I was married), and stopped by the bookstore to get an atlas. Did you know that South Korea is small enough that a 1:600,000 scale map, folded up, will fit in your pocket?

After a massive breakfast of leftover kimchi and red bean porridge, along with banana-almond-soy milk-roast grain powder-shake, and maybe all the remaining fruit in the house that I can manage to scarf, I shall attempt my first long-distance bike ride. About 80 kilometers, it looks like. Doable in a day? When I'm prancing around the city, I can usually keep my speed around 20 or 25 (not counting time spent at traffic lights), so I'm hoping that on the flat parts of the country ride, I can maybe cruise along at 30ish. We'll see.

If the ride goes well, then it will be a mere preamble. One week at the Farm School, another week of teacher training (I'm training Korean elementary school teachers...eek), and then my real vacation begins in August. I'm thinking about biking up the East coast of the country, eventually heading West to Seoul to reconnect with a few friends, and then coming south again and stopping at some farms along the way.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Breakfasts of Champion

Up until now, my breakfasts have mostly consisted of oatmeal (cooked in the winter, raw in the summer) with fruit (raisins, prunes, jujubes, bananas, persimmons, whatever else is around), nuts (peanuts and almonds), ground flax seed, cinnamon, and some soy milk, black bean milk, or home made bean milk yogurt.

Tasty? For sure. Healthy? Pretty good. Food miles? Leaves a little to be desired.

As always, I've been thinking about other ways to reduce my footprint, and have been thinking about trying to cut down on eating imported foods. Part of me says "I already eat vegan 99% of the time, buy organic as much as I can, buy local when it's available, don't have a car, ride my bike around, and almost never buy any non-food items. Isn't that enough?" But, for some reason, no, it isn't.

I noticed that my lunches and dinners mostly contain local stuff and that breakfasts are the big killer. Oatmeal, almonds, prunes, and raisins from the states, bananas from the Phillipines, soy milk probably from China. But I didn't really know what else to do. I didn't really want to bother with tofu scrambles and all that morning vegetable chopping hassle.

But the I went to Vipassana and had awesome vegan Korean cuisine every morning for 11 days. No way to tell how local everything was, but anyway, all of it can be procured locally. Surprisingly, I didn't really miss the almonds, fruit, or richness of my standard breakfast. Instead, I enjoyed a different variety of rice porridge every morning, along with rotating side dishes. Various varieties of salty or spicy Kimchi, some crunchiness provided by fried peppers, and sweetness from sugared peanuts or beans.

So, since the Vipassana course, I've been trying to do similar stuff for myself. I biked over to the market with some tupperware, visited a banch'an (side dish) lady, and stocked up on black beans, lotus roots, and kimchi:

The long green ones are young radish, the thicker ones are cabbage.

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, the lotus roots had lots of mini-shrimp in them. I couldn't handle the taste and tried to give them away, but my friends couldn't handle the taste either, so they wound up getting tossed. Poor guys.

Here's a tour of my week:

(Plated side dishes, peppers just for decoration. Also, I made that plate!)

(Black rice and other mixed grain porridge, with pumpkin seeds (not recommended) and sesame (pointless))

(Mixed grain and split-pea porridge)

(Put the sesame right on the sides! This one also has some stir-friend kimchi from a friend)

(This morning's read bean and mixed grain porridge.)

Funny story about the red beans:
I bought them a long time ago at a local organic shop. I made a few rounds of burgers with them, then stowed them away and forgot about them. When I next looked, there were little flies inside of the sealed bag; I suppose there must have been eggs on the beans or something. I didn't want to throw away the beans, but I didn't want to let the flies out, so I just left it there. Then when my parents came, my dad suggested I just throw it in the freezer. The flies would freeze and then I could pick them out. Crafty! With some apologies to the bugs, I gave it a try.

Result, after a good 30 minutes of picking through:

Wisdom #1

"There is surely a word—in German, most likely—that means the state of active non-accomplishment. Not just the failure to reach a specific goal, but ongoing, daily failure with no end in sight. Stunted ambition. Disappointed potential. Frustrated and sad and lonely and hopeless and sick to death of one's self.

"Whatever it's called, this is what leads people to abandon their goals—people do it every day. And I understand that decision, because I lived in this state of active non-accomplishment for many years."

From the Slate article "What Took You So Long?The quiet hell of 10 years of novel writing"

New Blog Category: (Wisdom 0)

Perhaps I just have way too much time (5 posts in 2 days?), but I've decided to put a new category up on the blog: quotations.

I can't count the number of posts that are inspired by some quotation I see, but which wind up either being nixed or left in perpetual limbo because I don't have the time, energy, honesty, ability to decide whether my take on the post is straightforward or ironic or only faux-ironic, or whatever, to explain what exactly draws me to it and what I think it means. Add to this the number of posts that start off strong and then dwindle/piddle/whimper to a close, often with a remark like "I'm sorry to have wasted your time with this," and you have a whole ouvre of stuff that would have been better off simply presented in the nude.

While I am aware that this will throw off the post count (since it's not fair to count these things as real posts, due to the fact that I didn't even write them), I think it's worth it in terms of bringing quality content to the blog. Solution: I will number each post in the title so that future yearly post symmetry inventories are not disturbed.

I think I will deem the section "Wisdom." Enjoy.

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:

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!)

Vipassana: Prelude

If you intend to read this, I suggest you first read the previous post, an overview of what Vipassana means, is, is supposed to achieve, and that sort of stuff.

Then you can read my post.

If you're not tired of reading about Vipassana by then, you can read secret MikeinDaegu fan (does this mean there might be others???) Stacia's take on Vipassana, which I still haven't read yet, since I didn't want it to affect me while going through the course. Nor do I want it to affect my writing here. But as soon as I'm done with this post, you know where I'm heading.

The following chronology is bound to be a little inexact, since we weren't allowed pens or diaries or anything. But it's more or less accurate.

Day 0: I took the bus to the subway station, subway to the big intercity bus station, bus to the other city, taxi to the village bus stand, and village bus out to the center. On the way, two mention-worthy things happened. First, when I got off at the intercity bus terminal in Geoch'ang, I was a little confused. This was the hardest part of the voyage: finding the bus stop for the bus going out to the boonies. I kind of meandered around the station looking for maps and info. An old guy was staring at me, in the awkward "I want to talk to you but I'm not sure if I can or should" way. Eventually he came up to me, but didn't say anything. So I just asked him if he knew where the bus stand was. He told me to take a taxi, but my directions said it was only a 10 minute walk and I didn't really want to use non-public transportation if I could help it. Then he opened up his wallet and stuffed a 10-dollar bill in my hand. I kept insisting that despite my unshaved state, vagabond hair, and backpack, I was not a traveler. I told him I was gainfully employed and appreciated but didn't want his money. He wasn't having any of it. He nudged me over to the taxis, told me to explain where I wanted to go, and saw me off.

I arrived at the bus stop. The fare was 2.20. I had to wait two hours for the next bus, so I walked around, couldn't find anywhere selling iced noodles, and settled for the standard vegan meal, stone-bowl bibimbap (rice, sesame oil, red pepper paste, and vegetables mixed up in a hot stone bowl, along with side dishes), no egg please. I paid with some of the old man's money (5 bucks), and still had some change left.

Before leaving, I had checked out the Geoch'ang Farm School website and had browsed some pictures, including this one of a family who lived nearby and often went to volunteer:

Well...guess who I wound up sitting next to at the bus stop, and again on the bus? I didn't recognize them immediately, but when I asked them if they knew how far it was to my stop, rather than answering, the guy (Dong-seok) said "Oh, are you going to meditate?" We wound up talking (in Korean, of course) for the whole 40 minute ride. He told me about how he worked in Busan in textiles but he and his family moved back to the country so as to "lead a fun life." They decided to skip their stop and take me all the way up to the school, since they went by to visit fairly often anyway. AND, they paid my bus fare, again, despite my telling them that I had money left over from that old guy at the bus station.

Part of the deal with Vipassana is that you don't pay for anything. Room, board, and instruction are all free. This serves two (maybe more purposes).

1) If you don't pay for anything, you're less likely to get upset by or complain about inconveniences. For instance, 15 of us slept in one (admittedly large) room on mats on the floor. You don't think about getting your money's worth in terms of food or help. In other words, you don't feel entitled to anything. This is helpful in practical terms, but also bears some relation to the idea of letting your ego dissolve over the course of the...course.

2) Good karmic opportunities. While you are there, you are being supported by money that some stranger donated, hoping that his money would help you towards eventual enlightenment despite having no idea who you were. When you leave, similarly, you have the opportunity to give as much as you'd like to help support the next group of students. This way, after you end the course and re-enter the real world, your first act is one of selflessness. Sets a good precedent. Plus, the last thing you learn in the course is metta-bhavana, a kind of meditation where you try to share your peace, equilibrium, and goodwill with all other living beings. It's kind of nice to have an opportunity to put that mentality into practice right away.

I mention this stuff only because I thought it was nifty how all day long I received goodwill from others, even before the official stuff started. The old man's money and the family's picking up my tab covered all the transportation costs from my house to the Farm School. Boded well, no?

Vipassana: An Overview

Where I went: Geochang Farm School, situated in a nice valley about 80 km West of Daegu. Tons of apple trees, walnut trees, rice paddies, and greenhouses all around. The compound, for lack of a better word, was an elementary school for about 40 years, then became a drama school, then became the farm school.

What I went to do: A Vipassana 10-day meditation retreat in which the students practice "noble silence." (This is all I knew when I signed up).

What "Vipassna" means: There are many varieties and methods of medidation and Vipassana is just one. However, according to those who teach it, Vipassana is unique among meditation techniques in that it's the method the Buddha used to reach enlightenment, the one he taught to his followers, and the only one that gives us access to the deepest truths and can take us all the way down to the source of misery. The word, in Pali (the language Buddha delivered his sermons in, or at least the one the old scriptures are written in), means something along the lines of "right seeing" or "true insight" (into the impermanent nature of mind and body).

What Vipassana is supposed to help you achieve (I heard all of this once I got there): Happiness. Liberation from misery. To be more specific, it's supposed to help you understand the sources of suffering and unhappiness, how they're related to your mind and body, and how you can deal with them. The central premise is that if, through medidation, you develop the ability to monitor your sense perceptions closely and respond to them with equanimity, then you will be able to free yourself from craving and aversion, which more or less dominate and motivate us in dialy life.

Why I went: I met lots of people in Sadhana and around India who said they had done it and that it was a neat/interesting/eye-opening/mind-blowing. I thought I'd give it a shot. Throw myself into a new situation, figure out what medidation is supposed to be a bout, give it an honest try, spend ten days letting other people cook awesome Korean vegan food for me, and also, of course, see what it's like to go for an extended period of time without speaking. Also, I guess, I'm kind of a masochist? I wanted to see if I could handle it.

Not why I went: I didn't have any particular philosophical or life dilemma I wanted to solve with hours and hours of thinking (actually, you're not supposed to be conemplating anything when you medidate, at least as far as Vipassan is concerned). I wasn't searching for the way out of the wheel of misery or cycle of Karma. I wasn't trying to connect with God or experience the true nature of reality. I wasn't trying to cure myself of any physical or psychosomatic ill.

History: The Vipassana technique, though orignally taught by the Buddha 2500 years ago, was over time discarded in favor of or watered down by combination with other techniques. I don't remember exactly, but I think that after about 500 years after the Buddha's death, the technique had mostly been lost in India. It was preserved only by a series of monks in Burma until S.N. Goenka learned it sometime in the mid-20th century.

Goenka?: A man of Indian descent, born in Burma, who eventually became a wealthy industrialist. Suffered serious migraines that led him to doctors on various continents, none of whom could help him. He eventually took a Vipassana course from Ba Khin, having heard that Vipassana sometimes cured people of psychosomatic illnesses. The experience changed his life, both by eliminating his headaches and in other ways. He continued to practice it independently, until his mother got sick. He asked his teacher for permission to lead a Vipassana course for his family, after which he began giving courses to others as well.

The course: Is identitcal no matter where you go in terms of schedule and content. All teachers have been personally approved by Goenka. It consists of alternating medidation sessions, rest periods, meals, and listening to recordings of Goenka's lectures (history, theory, practice, and parables relationg to the technique) and Pali chanting (of scriptures).

Rules: No contact with the outside world. No talking. (Exceptions: theory and method questions can be addressed to the teacher at certain times, and practical problems can be brought to the manager). No phones or computers or diaries. No reading. No writing. No non-verbal communication. No outside food. No other religious rites or rituals. No other meditation techniques. No yoga. Follow the five precepts of Sila (morality): no killing, no taking anything not offered to you, no sexual misconduct, no lying, no drugs or intoxicants. Males and females were separated, with a curtain hung in the dining hall, a dividing line in the meditation hall, and a string dividing the men's part of the complex from the women's.

4:00AM: Wake up.
4:30-6:00: Meditation.
6:00-6:30: Meditation while listening to Goenka's chanting.
6:30-7:00: Breakfast.
7:00-8:00: Rest.
8:00-9:00: Medidation. From Day 4, Adithana meditation. (will explain later)
9:00-11:00: Meditation.
11:00-11:30: Lunch.
11:30-1:00: Rest. Consultation with teacher if needed.
1:00-2:30: Meditation.
2:30-3:30: Medidation. From Day 4, Adithana meditation.
3:30-5:00: Meditation.
5:00-6:00: Snack and tea time. Rest.
6:00-7:00: Medidation. From Day 4, Adithana meditation.
7:00-8:30: Listen to Goenka's recorded lecture.
8:30-9:00: Final meditation sitting. First practice of the following day's technique.
9:00-9:30: Individual Q&A with the teacher if necessary. Otherwise, go to bed.

I think that's all the objective stuff. I'll try to do another post in a few hours about the actual experience.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

This post is turning out to be much longer than I intended and actually I'm making up the title about an hour into writing it just because I need a br

[Apparently I reached the title character limit. The last word was meant to be "break."] [First post ever to start with a (bracketed) parenthetical (or two?)??? Go number 197!]

A few weeks ago, just before heading off for the Vipassana course, I wrote a post called "Two Images," speaking briefly about the well-documented, oft-cited mismatch between developed countries' population and their levels of consumption. (Actually, it occurs to me now that maybe the most general definition of "developed" is indeed something like "capable of making use of or consuming great amounts of resources"). The maps had no time element and so didn't indicate the following, though I'm nonetheless reasonably sure it's true: consumption is increasing just about everywhere, and population is too. There are some exceptions, but in this case they mostly prove the rule.

This is clearly a problem, because our total impact on the earth =s the number of individuals multiplied by the amount each one consumes.

Long aside: (Well, technically, it should be times the difference between what each individual consumes and his or her positive contributions to the environment, but that fact is that we don't contribute anything anymore. Maybe our food waste (though we often through it in landfills and cover it with stuff so that it doesn't decompose properly, and even when it does, it's all mixed up with plastic can't help anything grow anyway), or our carbon dioxide when we exhale (but we've already created a CO2 problem), or our pee (except it's flushed more or less directly into water sources rather than being deposited on the ground where plants can absorb some nitrogen), or our poop (except we dump that into the ocean too, rather than leaving it out where bacteria can work on it and turn it back into soil), or our dead bodies (but we embalm them and put them in wood or metal boxes, so that we can't even give our flesh and bones back to the fungi and trees and bugs that would otherwise much on them), and anyway the last three are probably so full of chemicals and antibiotics that nobody would want to consume them anyway. Come to think of it, that may also be true about the first one as well.)

In the West, we often like to focus on the population part of the problem, since that way we can boss other people around rather than accepting the blame and shame that are rightfully ours and then change our lifestyles accordingly.

That's not an entirely fair characterization, though. Maybe not even a half-fair one. There are lots of people doing good if incredibly difficult, confusing, and ambiguous work. I admire them from my comfy apartment in Korea where I grow my own Basil and Chocolate Mint and pretend that my armchair rants are productive and complain that my students aren't interested enough in syntax. Among said people is Laura, another close friend's girlfriend turned my friend turned my friend's wife (I wonder if any language on the planet expresses this in just one word, the way Korean has separate words for both "my father's older brother's wife" and "my father's younger brother's wife", [I think, don't quote me on this]), whose comment made explicit one thing that I think about from time to time, but didn't mention in the post itself, which is the tension inherent in our usual proposed method of reducing population growth rates: increasing the standard of living through encouraging integration with the global economy. A quick look at the formula above makes this tension clear: decreasing future population by increasing current consumption has an uncertain effect on a society's environmental footprint. This is a serious issue, since it pits two worthwhile, even necessary goals against one another.

Having spent a fair amount of time traveling, I am, like most of us, convinced that there are good reasons to want to improve the standard of living of the truly unfortunate. A few days in Chennai, formerly Madras, was enough to drive me into near total despair and eco-guilt and what-the-hell-have-people-like-me-done-to-the-world self-detestation and what-the-hell-have-people-done-in-my-name antipatriotism and anticorporatism (see my post about my time there, though I'm not sure how detailed I got about my mental state), and I think even there people are about twice as "well-off" as in Africa. I believe that anyone with any amount of sympathy at all should have a hard time arguing against the goals of reducing population growth by increasing income.

But how can that be reconciled with the ecological ramifications of increased income, wealth, and consumption? Why care about the welfare of the poor if helping them hurts everyone else (include non-humans, if you want), and may even hurt them in the long run? Then again, what's the ecosystem worth if people have to be kept in misery to maintani it? Is there anyone unbiased enough to answer?

Certainly not me. But it occurs to me that maybe we don't have to answer those questions. Maybe they're the wrong questions, based on the some bad assumptions. Please hear me out. And help me out.

At first glance, the proposal makes sense - there's a definite trend for inhabitants of rich countries to voluntarily control their own population growth, whether because they're more concerned about the costs of raising a child, or because they're less concerned about needing support in their old age, or just because it's no longer regarded as strange not to have any progeny. See below:
But is that all there is to it? Are those the only reasons people might choose smaller families over larger ones?

Have a look at the following graph:

Clearly, for most of human history, population growth has been close to nonexistent, or at least stable, or maybe just slow, and certainly not explosive. Certainly improving technology (nowhere near the rates in today's developed countries), increasing standards of living (same), and considerations of the sacrifice children require and benefits they may bring had little to do with this (since if this had been a consideration, growth rates should have been more similar to those in modern developing nations). So there must be some other factors that play into human population growth rates.

It's tempting to look outside first - external limits such as predators, disease, high infant mortality, short life spans, etc. We often imagine that people used to live in a harsh and hostile world, just barely scraping by, leading a brutish, "animal" existence. Threatened at all times by forces seen and unseen, understood and not understood; unsure where the next meal would come from; chronically uncomfortable, exhausted, and miserable.

Where do these images come from? In my case, I imagine cartoons (tigers mauling Tarzan), TV shows (poor survivors on Lost!), movies (10000 BC, 300, maybe some without numerical titles too), books (Lord of the Flies), and even textbooks (Life is competition! Survival of the fittest is nasty business!) and museum exhibits (Whoa, the wax models only have loincloths and spears!) have something to do with it. Even the ones that aim/ claim to be realistic strike us as pathetic or pitiful.

I don't think these perceptions and responses are accurate. At least, not according to what little I've read from anthropologists, linguiststs, and others who spend their time and energy researching these things. Rather, a growing part of me, has been coming around to an idea that these images are mostly fantasy. Or worse, self-deception. Or worse yet, intentional deception by others. In order to justify our choice to live with 40+ hour work weeks, crushing mortgages that necessitate them, and dependence on our government or on Pepsi/Aquafina to provide us with clean water (since almost all natural sources have now been ruined by fertilizer runoff and other forms of pollution), we need to believe that our situation is, on the whole, better than what came before. This belief sustains us through difficult times (no matter how hard life is now, how much harder it must have been in the year 0. Or 1000. Or 1500. Or 1900. or 1950. Or 1980. Or 2009, before the IPad came out.), and insulates those in power (e.g. Pepsi) from a population that might be more disgruntled, if only they were less dependent. Actually, writing on autopilot just there, I used the word "sustains," but that's a little too positive. Rather, it makes us (ok, I'm imagining and projecting here) feel like we (again) need to accept what we've got, because to live in the other arrangements that most readily occur to our imagination would be...well...unimaginable.

OK, so if that's not it, if the external limiting factors aren't important, or if they're not all important, or at least aren't all-important, if that image is just propganda whose purpose, whether intended or self-generated, is to defend the status quo, then what's left? What kept population growth so low?

My answer is (wow, it took forever to get here): an awareness of place. When you actually live in one place for an extended period of time, when you depend on that one place for everything - for sustenance, for housing, for entertainment, for satisfaction of spiritual needs - you have the biggest incentive imaginable to know and understand your environment. Of course, some societies aren't up to this task - read Jared Diamond's Collapse if you want to know more about this. (Actually, I guess those that fail, die, which lowers the population growth rate somewhat dramatically.) But the ones who do succeed almost certainly have some idea about what their surroundings can support. They understand when animals populations are thinning out, when forests are growing sparse, when the land is losing fertility, and when water supplies are drying up, because they go out hunting themselves, cut down their own trees, maintain their own gardens, and take trips to the river themselves. Problems can be recognized as problems; the inconvenience they cause is experienced, not intellectualized, not abstract, and thus it requires some sort of response. So inhabitants know, more or less, whether children will bring hardship or assistance. They can see where their own interests lie.

We, on the other hand, aren't really connected to any place, even if we live in the same house for 30 years. Does it even make sense to say I live in Daegu when the food that sustains me comes from the USA, Egypt, Malaysia, China, and some other cities in Korea? When my clothes are from Southeast Asia, my bike from Japan, my neighbors from Europe? We are worlds away from everything we use and produce and have come to need. I can't name where more than 5 percent of my possessions come from, let alone what they're made of. I consider myself to have a relatively highly developed sense of sympathy, but I have no connection at all to the people who assembled my laptop or stitched my shoes. I'm a lot better about knowing the provenance of my food, but it's a superficial sort of better. I don't know what the farms look like, what gets spread on the ground, where the runoff goes, how much power and water are used by the irrigation systems, how the food gets to me. I probably don't even know the extent of the things I don't know. And what little I do know, I know intellectually. From pictures, and articles, and logic, and extrapolation. Despite the tone of my eco-posts, the seriousness and urgency that I feel and try to convey, still, none of my knowledge is visceral or direct.

Because of this disconnection between what we cause and what we experience, we are able to regard problems as "externalities," even though they're inherent in the processes of production and distribution. They don't affect us directly, or we don't see how they do, so we can pretend they don't exist. However, if not now, then at some point, there will be people for whom the externalities turn back into realities, painful and destructive and immanent ones that won't disappear when the TV is turned off.

So, in terms of the whole first 70 percent of this post, I don't think the answer to the question can possibly be to try to free the poor from the restrictions imposed on them by their locale; that amounts to exporting the problems to somewhere else, the way Korea and Japan maintain their beautiful forests by exporting their deforestation to Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Making them dependent on foreign consumption will encourage degradation of the immediate environment as well as willful ignorance of damage done elsewhere. There's no way this stuff won't come back to hurt them eventually. Maybe there's some way to encourage constructive, non-exploitative interaction with the international economy while also encouraging stewardship of and dedication to the local environment.

Then again, it doesn't make much sense to try to encourage people to develop a sense of "place" if their environs have already been ravaged by foreign industry, short-sighted and misguided policy, and uncontrollable environmental change. So, in the end, I am not sure what I'm suggesting. A post this long never fails to let down. I've been at it for too long. Commenters, to the rescue, please.

*This idea of "place" will figure into my upcoming post about a book I just finished, Neill Evernden's The Natural Alien. Wow. Exciting blogging days ahead. And I still have that Vipassana post to get to, too.

**Or maybe it's all just about the geometry of the curve? Maybe it's entirely natural to start slow and then accelerate. That's how geometric a series progresses, right? Maybe the last 2.5 or 3 hours have been a total waste.