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Saturday, April 02, 2011


Beop-sung (a Korean monk): Silence is the path by which a human becomes himself. For us to become anything at all, we must learn the silence of the seed buried in the ground.

John Taylor Gatto: The children I teach have no time... After television, schooling sleeping, and eating, they have only about nine hours each week to spend on growing up.

Blaise Pascal: All of man’s unhappiness stems from his inability to stay alone in his room.

Like to try a little experiment? Turn off your jukebox. Close your eyes. Direct your attention to your nostrils and the area just under them. Breath slowly, naturally, and see if you can feel the air moving across your skin as you inhale and exhale. No need to count, or visualize, or say "in, out," or anything like that. Just breathe and feel. Try to keep it up. Only for a minute or so. Go!


Did you try? How long did it take for your first random thought to pop up? What was it about? Some recent conversation? Some person in another place? Some bit of work you need to finish? Maybe something a little more distant in time? How long did it take you to notice that you were thinking about something other than the present moment, and how long did it take you to return to your breathing, if you did at all. How long did it take for the next thought to pop up?

Are you at all curious about, or bothered by, the fact that you don't know how to just sit down and be completely in the present? I am. I have been, ever since my sophomore year of college, when I first ran into Pascal, his Pensees, and the aphorism I quoted above. I suppose there are several ways to take this statement, but what struck me was this: we're always looking for something outside ourselves to provide us with entertainment, or solace, or happiness. Who can even imagine simply sitting, with no books, no TV, no work, no conversation, and simply experiencing being for a few moments? Why is so much of our action at bottom just distraction? What are we distracting ourselves from? Why is it that, even when we are alone, in the dark, in the quiet, our minds insist on jumping back and forth between the past and future, between memories of pain or pleasure, fears of failure, dreams of success, and thoughts of little, banal tasks that we'd rather not be bothered with?

So, yes. If you're curious about this, please read on. I would like to tell you about Vipassana. Again. But better than I did last time. I think I can.

Last time, I wrote a lot of objective stuff - about the place, about the schedule, about the theory. Maybe that's because last time, that's all that I really took in. I spent most of the time shifting around on my cushions, trying to find a pose I could hold for an hour. Any time that wasn't spent shifting around, I spent doubting and debating and disproving the contents of the lectures. By the sixth or seventh day, dismayed by a perceived lack of progress, I felt that the technique wasn't for me and more or less fizzled out. It was too late to go home, but I was too tired to try to meditate, so I mostly just looked out the window and listened to the chickens.

On the final day, once the silence had been lifted, I overheard a conversation between one of the new students (a man in his 30s) and returning student (a guy slightly younger than me). The new student asked the old one why had decided to do Vipassana a second time. The returning student replied "because I had forgotten how much it hurt. This is the last time." I thought to myself, "Wow. What strength. He knows how to differentiate between something being too hard and something being just plane wrong; how look at something and and say 'that's not for me' rather than 'I'm not good enough for that.' He doesn't feel weak or inadequate, and doesn't equate choosing something else with giving up."

That was more or less my mindset when I left the first course; I still felt, for very hazy reasons, like meditation was something I ought to be doing, and something I ought to be able to do, but I wasn't sure if I could. I didn't meditate at all after returning home, let alone keep up a daily practice like the teacher suggested. I felt conflicted about whether or not to do it again, and was relieved to see that the one course offered in Korea this winter had been canceled. I thought I could push off the confrontation for another semester at least.

How wrong I was! As I may have mentioned in mid-February, the manager of Nunbisan Village, where I lent a hand tending chickens for a few days, knew a teacher nearby who was running an unofficial/unlisted course. He offered to call the teacher on my behalf, sign me up, drive me there, and stay for a day or two. I had already been sort of freewheeling around the province for two weeks, bouncing and forth between Nunbi, another research organization called Heuksallim (the subject of an eventual future post), and Heuksallim's farm, sort of sleeping wherever there was someone to host and entertain me. Having sort of already given myself up to circumstance/fate for the duration of my trip, I figured the opportunity was too special to pass up.

It turned out to be a good decision, or rather lack of a decision. My experience this time was completely reversed - rather than fizzling out and going home disappointed and frustrated, I came out of the course energized, lighter, and happier, so much so that friends who saw me upon my return said that my face and voice had both changed. After the first course, I wanted to want to meditate, but didn't; after the second, I just plain want to, and have been. At the beginning of the semester, I managed to wake up at six each morning and do an hour; now, things are in full swing and work keeps me fairly exhausted, which means I only manage to medidate for two or three hours in a good week. Sometimes I'm too tired, and sometimes I forget how nice it is and just let myself get distracted, but when I finally come back, sit down, wrap up, and start to breathe, I think to myself: "Finally. What took me so long?"

I hesitate to talk about it, since I don't think I can really do much to communicate such subjective and internal changes without sounding like I've gone off the deep end. This is particularly true over a distance, when all you've got is my words, and you can't see directly whether or not I've changed in the ways I'm mentioning and in other ways I havnen't. And yet, I want to try, since I think the courses have helped me to feel happier, more stable, more energetic, and more hopeful. After all, what's the point of blogging, if not to share this kind of stuff?


Vipassana is at once the easiest thing I've ever done, and the hardest; maybe it feels hard because it sounds so easy. No duties, no distractions, no diversions, no mundane concerns of any sort for ten days. Doesn't that sound like a dream vacation? Au contraire - it's extremely tough. Or rather, you let yourself make it tough. In talking with the other participants after the program, I found that not a one hadn't contemplated giving up and going home, whether out of boredom, pain, depression, frustration or something else. I realize this paints a bleak picture, but remember: most people overcome these obstacles, very few leave the course, and many go back for more.

There are two main segments to a Vipassana course. The first, Annapanna, takes up about the first third. Annapanna is what I asked you to do at the beginning of the post: attempt to empty your mind of thoughts by focusing on breathing. Other meditation traditions ask meditators to focus on counting, visualizing, or repeating a mantra; Vipassana, which aims to give us direct experience of the truth about our minds and bodies, asks the meditator not to activate his or her will at all, to only sit and observe the truth of the body in each instant. Is the air passing through the left or right nostril? Is the breathing deep or shallow? Does the air you draw in scratch your lip? Does the air you breathe out warm it up? At first, sensations are faint, if present at all; thoughts pop up and distract you, and as soon as you realize it, you clear them away and go back to breathing. As time goes on (Vipassana meditators do about ten hours of meditation each day), you become more sensitive, feeling differences in humidity, temperature, and forcefulness of breath, in addition to unrelated other sensations: tingles, tickles, twitches, and so forth.

The point of all this is to develop sensitivity so that you're ready for the latter two-thirds of the course, in which you practice Vipassana, the observation of things as they really are. In less metaphysical terms, this means sitting and mind-patrolling your entire body, part by part, for whatever sensations may occur. At first, you notice the things you'd expect, big stuff: cool breezes, flies landing, beads of sweat, your pulse, and, of course, terrible, seemingly unbearable leg and back pains, the kind that kept me squirming throughout the first course. You have to struggle to focus on areas where there's apparently no sensation; but the longer you stay at it, the more sensitive your mind becomes, and the more you can feel things you didn't even know existed. You come to realize that these sensations are always present, on all parts of the body - how could it be otherwise? We all learned in middle school that our bodies are composed of organs, and organs of tissues, and tissues of cells, and cells of tinier parts, and that those parts are composed of molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of subatomic particles, which are made of smaller stuff yet. Every single one of these components is in constant action, whether it be physical, chemical, biological, or intentional. Why is it that we don't feel the heart beating, the skin breathing, the mitochondria contracting, the cells dividing, the electrons orbiting, and the quarks blinking in and out of existence a million times a second?

This sounds so odd that I think a little allegory might be useful. When I first started trying to meditate, long before I knew anything about Vipassana or before I had even discussed meditation with anyone, I had some interesting experiences with my pulse. If I tried to focus my attention on one of my fingers, my pulse felt strongest there; if I moved to, say, my kneecap, then after a few seconds, my pulse would move too. No matter where I directed my attention, my pulse followed. I didn't quite know what to make of it, and I didn't know who to ask, so I just kind of let it be. It wasn't until recently that I realized what should have been obvious from the first: my pulse never moved at all. My pulse runs to every part of my body all day, every day, at every moment, and if it didn't, I wouldn't be around to notice the problem. It was only my awareness that had changed; after a few seconds of calibration, of quiet observation, sensations that are usually too subtle to be perceived become easily noticeable.

As with the pulse, so with other sensations, though not all of them are so easy to identify. Parts of the body stretch and compress, heat up and freeze, buzz and go into paralysis. As you learn to pay attention to the sensations, and to ignore the ones that occur on parts of the body you're not focusing on, you feel more and more of them, including ones for which we lack words. You may eventually feel your entire body vibrate, or petrify, or even dissolve. You may be able to observe sensations inside your body, not just on the surface. (I experienced some of these and not others; I won't tell you which. It's not particularly useful to talk about what any given individual felt, since all of us are so different in terms of physical and mental experience. Reading about others' experiences only makes you jealous, which will hamper you from developing on your own. Suffice it to say, I had enough to let down my doubt and let the technique take me where it would.)

You may still be asking, so what? You could probably postulate a good evolutionary reason why we wouldn't want to be aware of these sensations all the time. How could we avoid predators if we spent all day reveling in our particles' vibrations? How could we remember the past and plan for the future if we were completely mesmerized by the present? I constantly asked myself questions like these during the first course, rather than just giving the technique a shot; I still ask them now. But, if you let go of them for a time, you come to realize that it's not an all-or-nothing scenario. Being able to experience your body and mind as they are doesn't mean that you're unable to react to what already did happen or provide for what is likely to. On the contrary, understanding the way your mind has been conditioned to react to sensations like these makes you all the more powerful and effective.

Actually, I've only explained about half of the course so far. A great deal of time and energy is spent on developing awareness of sensory perceptions, but this awareness is not an end in itself. The point of the whole enterprise is to give you direct experience of the transience and therefore absolute arbitrariness of these sensations. Strong or subtle, pleasant or painful, novel or not, all of the sensations vanish shortly after they appear - and this is more true the more time you spend observing them. An unpleasant sensation may be unpleasant, but fearing it, fighting it, and generating aversion towards it only multiplies the effect. Why choose to multiply your own suffering? Likewise, a pleasant sensation may be pleasant, but it's guaranteed to vanish; all the anticipation, expectation, and craving that you generate for it will eventually be for naught. So, when your face starts to itch, don't scratch it; when your mind starts thinking about what you should do next weekend, don't indulge it; when your goes numb and feels like it may explode, don't move it; when you start to feel an infinite number of pleasant subtle sensations all over your whole body, don't get attached. Keep in mind that it will all go away.

If you can learn to treat all sensations with this kind of objectivity, you've already taken the most important steps towards remaining balanced in the face of larger, more complicated, emotional issues. After all, moods and emotions fluctuate every bit as much as the random sensations on your skin. I recall being extremely depressed on Day 2, so much so that I thought of running away from the course and visiting a therapist friend in Seoul; so happy and overwhelmed by gratitude on Day 6 that I couldn't fall asleep; and so angry on Day 7 that rather than meditating I sat with fists tightly clenched for two hours. And yet, nothing had really happened to me during that period, or at least, nothing that could justify jumping around from despair to elation. The dizzying ups and downs were all of my own making. Just like the pain in my right knee, the one the kept me squirming throughout the first course, the one that mysteriously vanished sometime during the second, the one that hasn't come back since.

Treating the pleasant and unpleasant alike may sound like a recipe for total ambivalence - another of the thoughts I wrestled with for far too long - but it's not. It teaches wisdom, understanding, and peace. Longings become mere "would-be-nice-ifs," frustrations become "oh wells," annoyances become trivialities; not all at once, and not all the way, but enough to make a difference in how you feel. Now, personally, I feel more free to go after things I believe are of value and to ignore things that aren't, less hampered and dismayed by setbacks, more grounded in times of conflict, and more patient and compassionate in general. I'll admit that I don't exactly understand how equanimity in the face of low-level bodily sensations is supposed to generate total piece of mind; then again, I don't know how hitting clicking the little orange "publish" button will transmit this post to you. I've just clicked it enough times to be pretty sure it will. Likewise, I've spent enough time meditating to be fairly convinced of its effects.

I don't expect these words to convince anybody of anything. Not only are the words poorly chosen and sloppily organized and incomplete; they're also too distant, too abstract, too impersonal, too forced. I could write on and on, trying to define terms better, give livelier examples, and make tighter arguments, but I don't think it's worth it. Words can only take us so far, and in many cases are even counterproductive. A year ago, just listening to this stuff would probably have turned me off. In fact, I still hold doubts about maybe half of the things I wrote here, probably even more than when I began writing. That said, enough happened to me during the course - from new sensations to extreme mood swings to the total disappearing of what had been such an unbearable pain - to convince me of the soundness of its basic premises. And since then I have felt different, better, more confident, so much so that I wish I had found Vipassana earlier. Had I gone into the first course with even a tiny, vague, endorsement such as this from a person I knew and trusted, I think I could have opened myself up and learned more, and more quickly, saving myself a lot of wasted time and struggle. While in the end the only thing that matters is your own experience, in the beginning, words from a friend can count for a lot.

I'd like to end with one more conversation I overheard. Vipassana meditators maintain silence all day, but have a brief opportunity to speak to the teacher and clarify issues of methodology. I often stayed to talk for a minute or two, and usually the teacher called me first, maybe because I was one of the returning students, or maybe because I was a foreigner, I have no way of knowing. One night, though, he called the guy next to me up first instead. I tried not to listen (as I said above, it doesn't do you any good to know how enlightened or pitiful the next guy is), but I couldn't help it. The man, also a returning student, wanted to go home. He said he was tired, and depressed, and not getting anywhere. Here's what the teacher said:

"You've already come so far. You've finished one course and are halfway through another. Most people live their whole lives not even knowing a wonderful technique like this exists, never having a chance to meet it. Particularly in Korea, where other forms of Buddhism have taken hold, and been degraded. You must have done so much good, built up so much positive Karma in a past life, to have had the good fortune of encountering these teachings in this one. Don't throw it away."

I believe you can take that as a compliment.