I started down a path many years ago of trying to understand my mind, a need that arose out of necessity. I was mired in the past, in the future, in desire, in aversion, in uncertainty, analyzing, dreading, wallowing, churning, drifting, dreaming; all of this genuinely impeded my ability to lead a good life, to find peace and genuine happiness. My consciousness appears to need a constant stream or feed by its very nature, something that either comes from within or without. For years I ran from my mind into distraction through substances, through entertainment, through quite frankly anything that could occupy my consciousness, permitted me a momentary modicum of freedom. This type of escapism begins a misery generating cycle of its very own, one of never ending craving and aversion.
It seemed to be an axiom from looking at the world around me that this is the way our minds work; that this is existence. I was living my life groping through a labyrinth after phantasmagorical carrots, until one day it all suddenly appeared Sisyphean and unbearable.
On this day a strange journey akin to unraveling or slow dissolution began; it was not clear in the moment, but something broke in my mind. The initial question, the very moment in which something ruptured, sent dendritic and incisive questions echoing through my mind; questions that could no longer be contained, the opening of a Pandora’s box. In this moment I began palpate the labyrinth of my own mind for the first time.
My own journey into the depths of my mind is exactly that; there is only a vague outline that can be conveyed through intellectual understanding, but I am going to write about a recent foray into my mind nonetheless.
There are many avenues to explore the mind; altered states of consciousness and meditation seem to be the most incisive. There are many different conceptions of what mediation is, it may or may not involve the following: hovering; extreme suffering; abhorrent boredom; flowing robes; removal of all body hair; lighting oneself on fire; mental dissociation to the point of a dronelike existence; mindless acceptance of precepts delivered through a hierarchical structure, such as a cult; enlightenment to the true relation between mind and matter, permitting oneself to live a liberated existence; robe soiling ecstasy; indulgent Western self importance; dissolution of spaciotemporality and a consequent renunciation of all that is material leading to one living in a cave with unacknowledged colonies of spiders breeding in one’s arm pits.
I remember the first time that I tried meditating seven years ago after delving into beat literature for the first time: I sat on the floor allowing my mind to range freely from small preoccupations such as looming assignments, an argument I had with my girlfriend, my lack of money before spiraling quickly into uncertainty regarding what I wanted to do with my life. My pulse quickened, my stomach knotted and sweat prickled my forehead before I arose with a panicked start, running away. Always running to the next thing.
There came a day when I was committed to a job and a life; I had to find peace within these confines. I had learned more about meditation, about the mind, in the years following my initial foray into idle sitting. I decided to start meditating seriously, to start a daily practice after reading a book entitled Full Catastrophe Living by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn written about the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. There is a completely nonsecular field within traditional Western medicine, called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a treatment used for terminal illness, chronic pain, addictions, anxiety, depression, hypertension, stress, psoriasis… many ailments that affect humans have been treated and seen positive results with MBSR. The approach is similarly practicable for anyone interested in living a better life, to anyone who would like to be more mindful of each moment, which should be anyone and everyone.
The difficulties that I encountered previously were still extant, yet I began countenancing them for 45 minutes a day, regardless of what my life circumstances were, which often meant getting up as early as 3:30AM to sit in the cold, darkness. I was faithful with this practice for four months before it faltered with some job/life changes. My mind changed though; my stress evaporated; I found myself experiencing everything more richly; my food tasted better; I saw beauty where there was nothing before; I found myself living calmly and tranquilly; I found myself watching my mind in wonder rather than pursuing the same objects or sensations, a process that had become perceptibly futile.
Often times I have turned back towards meditation as a way to swim out past the breakers and look back at the agitated ebb and flow of my mind and my life, no longer unconsciously caught in the tumult. I found myself seemingly riding away from my life last November towards something uncertain. In the months before the trip I was looking forward to the idea of spending eight hours a day on my bicycle with my thoughts. The reality of meditation, whether on a bike or sitting on the floor, is that it isn’t always pleasant. Every memory, every possible future contingency, every relationship, every desire, every aversion arose over the four months I was riding. Everything disintegrated, again. I launched off in another direction.
I found myself in Guatemala perpetually ill from parasites, with a demanding job, a new relationship, dwindling money, and an uncertain future. A familiar darkness was assiduously creeping in from the sides, slowly blotting out the brightness of each day. I watched myself searchingly flailing. As I was riding through Mexico I met several people who had taken a ten day silent Vipassana meditation course, it sat there lingering in the back of my mind. I started my meditation practice again this summer and decided to register for one of the courses in Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico.
Vipassana International operates on a donation only basis teaching the meditation technique used by Gautama Buddha through meditation centers and courses organized around the world. Attendees of the course are required to refrain from any form of communication amongst themselves, but are able to question the assistant teacher regarding the technique or the volunteer coordinators regarding health issues or issues with the facility. Attendees are asked to forsake all religious practices, of any form, for the duration of the course. Attendees are required to stay within the confines of the facility. No electronics, books, or writing implements are permitted. The course is divided by gender. Ultimately, one is asked to accept five basic precepts and to work diligently within teachings of the technique for the duration of the course.
1. To abstain from killing any living creature.
2. To abstain from stealing.
3. To abstain from sexual misconduct.
4. To abstain from false speech.
5. To abstain from intoxicants.
The technique is simple in a sense, but complicated as it not something one can learn or appreciate through discourse; it requires work. The intensive nature of the course – 10 hours a day of pure meditation for ten days – is required to demonstrate the veracity of the teachings on a personal, experiential basis. The course, in its best light, merely offers guidance as one goes through a personal, yet surprisingly universal, experience of self exploration.
4:00am – Wake up call.
4:30-6:30am – Solo meditation in hall or residence.
6:30am – Breakfast
8:00-9:00am – Group meditation in hall.
9:15-11:00am – Solo meditation in hall or residence.
11:00am-1:00pm – Lunch and rest.
1:00-2:30pm – Solo meditation in hall or residence.
2:30-3:30pm – Group meditation in hall.
3:30-5:00pm – Solo meditation in hall or residence.
5:00-6:00pm – Tea and rest.
6:00-7:00pm – Group meditation in hall.
7:00-8:00pm – Discourse on technique and Buddhist philosophy.
8:15-9:00pm – Group meditation in hall or residence.
The first three days are spent working with Anapanasati meditation, a form of breathing focused meditation used to prepare oneself for work within the Vipassana technique for the rest of the course. Both forms of meditation are essentially the cultivating mindfulness, of impartial, concentrated self observation.
I looked forward to the course with nervous anticipation, seemingly preoccupied with the challenges that would arise to my current life, realizations that could disrupt the precarious balance of my life or the lancing of a heretofore latent misery that would begin suppurating…or something.
We arrived at the convent where we would be imprisoned for the next ten days with roughly 100 strangers. I talked briefly met a few people before silence descended. The rest of this is a weird collection of jumbled observations and experiences from my addled mind.
The gong rings and I step out into a frigid and lightless desert morning. I feel like a boxer ready for a fight; this is a mistake. We have a 7m by 10m courtyard where we can walk, I pace under the star speckled sky before retiring into the meditation hall. The day passes in struggle as I try to maintain a rigid posture in half lotus with the piece of me that is asking why I am doing this, doubting whether I can, constantly redirecting my attention to my back and legs that burn ardently, and striving to quell the uprising of thousands of thoughts relating to life.
Here the illusion of cohesive, flowing thought is apparent; for me it is a meaningless wallowing. There is no catharsis, no one directing, a shifting and muddled stream. I am deeply focused one second, shaking and sweating as I focus on the breath passing through my nostrils, and then a throbbing pain in my back grabs my attention and then a thought arises regarding a problem that I have at work which forks into questions about my future, which catalyzes questions about my relationship, which makes me wish I could talk to Lauren, which makes me realize these are going to be ten long days….My consciousness is easily diverted by this wayward thought that morphs into another and another. I feel my breathing quicken, the sweat run down my skin, my blood pressure rising, my stomach tightening. I bring focus back to my breathing assiduously as soon as I realize it has been lost, which sometimes takes a minute and becomes more difficult as the physical agitation seems to build and remain.
I stretch constantly each time I leave meditation. I pace in the courtyard wondering when or if the pain will abate. I fight through several sessions, waiting in quiet desperation for the gong to ring before sprawling out on the floor in release. I am aware that the very craving, the desire for the pain to cease is exponentially increasing my suffering. Minutes seem to endure for hours; time appears to be completely nebulous.
There is one man who has bronchitis and coughs incessantly without covering his mouth; he is a challenge to my equanimity and meditation in many ways.
The pain, although I have realized that the very notion of calling it pain is part of the problem, is more manageable. I am learning how to objectively view it and not let it drive my thoughts.
I lay out in the courtyard in the afternoon, feeling the sun on my face. I focus on the sensation and it grows; it becomes stronger with each passing second until it almost overwhelms me. It feels like my face is on fire, I realize that the sun is on fire, it is on fire right now and then I get the urge to remind everyone by running around screaming ‘THE SUN IS ON FIRE!’ I lie on the ground chortling, imagining that everyone would completely lose their meditative state and equanimity, the retreat devolving into sheer chaos as everyone ran frantically screaming in panicked horror at the realization of the true nature of the sun. The afternoon is characterized by levity, everything suddenly becomes funny. I stop fighting and ruminating.
Vipassana meditation is introduced. The technique consists of learning how to objectively observe all of the sensations that the body is continually generating in every area where there are nerves. The theory: all thoughts are catalyzed by sensations, often times they never even enter into our consciousness as such rather only as thoughts generated as a byproduct. Our mind’s very nature is to react to these sensations, to characterize them as positive or negative. This process leads to the creation of cravings for positive sensations and aversions to negative sensations, our minds try to hold on to these sensations. The most fundamental law of matter is that it changes and therefore every sensation inevitably arises and disappears. Craving and aversion towards something constantly in flux leads to suffering. Through Vipassana meditation one can observe this process and begin to break this cycle through impartially observing sensations and the world around us in the proper light of change; to let it all arise and pass away.
I lose my concentration for a long time in the afternoon as I intentionally fart as loudly as I can and then childishly laugh about it.
The morning passes pleasantly, the pain completely disappears for half an hour or so and is replaced by a feeling of flowing energy throughout my body. I feel an immediate release as I understand this as some sort of breakthrough. In the afternoon I painfully realize just how perceptive the concept of craving and aversion really is, as the pain returns with the next sitting. I become preoccupied with it, my attention being pulled to the strong sensation. It gains strength and I am quickly mired in aversion to the pain and in frustration that the pleasant sensations of before have gone. The hours drag on.
I suddenly see myself in the midst of this process. I take a deep breath and then the following dialogue happens in my head:
‘This pain feels like it is eating away at my soul, eating away at me. Maybe I should take a break.’
‘That is just the ego speaking, the pain doesn’t really exist, it isn’t going to hurt you. It will arise and pass, let the ego get whipped for a bit.’
‘Listen to you talking to yourself you fucking idiot!’
Then I sat with a blank mind wondering where all of this comes from. You, me, I, ego, who, what? Where does this come from? Is there something cohesive behind all of this? I worry that I have begun a spiral into some sort of madness only previously experienced with drugs.
I work diligently. I pace in the courtyard in between meditation sessions thinking about the ego, the ego that drives me, this conception of Alex, this delusion of a cohesive person. I sum up meditation in my mind in the following way:
‘Meditation is you fighting with yourself until one of you gets tired.’
My mind now easily remains concentrated for longer periods of time; it is losing its reactionary nature. I no longer wince in Pavlovian response to the ring of the gong. My breathing remains steady; I sweat less; there is no more shaking.
My practice continues to deepen, time easily slipping away along with the dominion of the pain in my back. As this state reigns, memories freely rise from my childhood that have not surfaced in over a decade, from previous relationships, from friends and family lost, from the recessed folds of the mind. There is a slight melancholy with all of this as I feel like it all slipped away without me every appreciating it, without me ever knowing, and I can never have it back. Ultimately, I realize that I want to live more mindfully, more aware, more present with what I currently have in my life as there is nothing more.
In the afternoon I am sitting and a mosquito passes my ear. I observe the following passing: I hear the sound of the mosquito passing my ear, which causes my muscles to tighten and my breath to sharpen, which gives rise to a negative thought regarding the mosquito, which derails my focus and simultaneously gives rise to other negative thoughts. I calmly return to my breath and then the sensations in my body.
I am sitting in the early morning meditation session, sitting in deep concentration. I am accustomed to feeling subtle sensations all over my body and this is generally what I experience. I am scanning up and down my body trying to feel sensation in every part. Suddenly I am observing myself rocking side to side, my entire body moving. Woah, what does this mean? Is this some sort of profound moment? Am I reaching enlightenment? Am I now a god? My attention shifts to the ground below me that is rocking, moving back and forth. I hear a distant siren wailing. EARTHQUAKE! I realize that everyone is silently running out of the meditation hall and I do the same. It is important to react to some sensations. This was the first earthquake that I have ever felt in my life, although I have been present for hundreds.
As I lay in bed at night a beautiful particolored moth flies into the room and I watch its circles spiral in around the fluorescent light bulb dangling from the ceiling in the middle of the room. It frantically flies in circles around this singularity, careening into the bulb, likely injuring itself. Moths use what is called transverse orientation, which is using a bright fixed celestial object as a point of navigation. There essentially were no artificial lights until recently and their terrestrial location means that moths that are circling them perceive themselves as flying in a straight line. They are unable to see that they are flying in circles as they are inherently trapped within the confines of their perception. There is a profound concept here. I turn out the light.
I wake a few hours later and the moth is beating its wings against the window above my head. I gently catch it in my hat and then release it out of the window.
Each person will see a direct correlation between the effort that they put in and the progress that they make with the technique. I dedicate myself to working purposefully, earnestly for the entire day. My concentration builds throughout the day; I do not stop meditating when I take breaks; my mind is undiffused, fixated. I walk outside after one sitting and find myself staring unwaveringly at the wall until the gong rings again. I feel subtle sensations rippling through my body, there is no more pain. I still have constant proprioception and body awareness. I pass hours feeling them flowing up and down before moving onto sensations that are passing internally. I feel air passing through my trachea and into my lungs. I feel movement in my bowels, methane pushing through my serpentine guts. I feel behind my eyeball. I feel my inner ear cavity. I feel my heart beating and each pulse of blood drumming on my finger tips, on my cranium. I feel strange sensations throughout the inside of my body.
Then the form to my body gradually disappears. I pass through my legs, my torso, my arms, and ultimately my head and they only exist as subtle sensation without form. I no longer have any awareness of the position of my limbs, of any sort of separation from the matter that surrounds me. There exists only some sort of indescribable faint sensation with no location. I am aware of this process as it unfolds, but it is not something that evaporates with this awareness. My mind is pure awareness; I sit with a blank mind for an indeterminate amount of time until the phrase ‘surgir y desaparecer’ begins repeating in my mind, appear and disappear. The gong rings.
I perceive all of my possible lives. Not specific jobs, or wives, or houses, or places, rather where I will end up if I let myself be dominated by greed, by drugs, by lust, by fear, by hate. I see where these motives, if decisions are made over and over again with them in mind, will lead me; it is nothing but misery. I have a hard time sleeping.
The pain returns faintly in the morning and I lose my strict adherence to the technique. I play with the sensations in my body and visualize the chopping of my body into small pieces or the amputation of limbs, sensations from these areas disappears as I do this. It is strange and amusing.
After breakfast we will break the silence, something that I anticipate will not make much of a difference. I imagine everyone slowly coming back to life, some process of gradual reentry. Instead, the compound erupts with conversation and laughter the moment that we finish. I hear myself talking and it is loud, it vibrates and echoes in my ears.
We discuss our experiences, our reasons for being there, what we have learned. I have never discussed my feelings before with a group of 40 year old men.
This is my life. This is my insane mind.
We have nothing but the actually moment that is passing; the past is exactly what it is and the future will soon be as well. This is not a trite expression exhorting Dionysian dissolution; it is quite the opposite. I am earnestly expressing an idea that I have circled around like a moth around a lightbulb for years. It could be artificial light, but it seems real to me. Through cultivation of moment to moment awareness, one can be aware of all that is passing within one’s body, everything exterior, and how this relates to the past/present in order to mindfully make decisions that enrich the series of moments and sensations that our minds artificially string together into a cohesive narrative that we call our life. We can learn to live in and appreciate the present, which is ultimately all that we have.
Our moment to moment decisions are the footsteps determining the direction of the path that we walk, the one upon which we look back and project into the future. Wisdom is being aware of how these decisions are made and being able to perceive where they will ultimately carry us.
I emphatically believe in meditation, travel, education, conversation, essentially in challenging oneself and one’s values continually, as a means to cultivate mindfulness, nonjudgement, renunciation, and acceptance in our daily lives. The exercise of these virtues is taught by most philosophies and religions as they are recognized as a means free ourselves from the suffering created by an existence in a material world that is morally neutral, in constant flux, and ostensibly devoid of purpose. In each of our lives we currently embody these ideals to varying degrees.
I would recommend a Vipassana course to anyone who is interested in meditation or living a better life, but I feel the need to attach several asterisks. Vipassana teaches a universal concept, but situates it in context that, despite all of the proclamations to the contrary, is dogmatic and secular. The most damaging dogmatic concept is that one can only reach ‘enlightenment’ or ‘freedom’ through strict adherence and practice of the principles of Vipassana. There is the presentation of many Buddhist concepts as truisms that are wholly incompatible with other religions, despite claims to the contrary. In one sentence the founder of Vipassana International will rail against ritual or rites, but will staunchly adhere to esoteric and culturally relative concepts such as never pointing the bottoms of your feet towards the place where your teacher sits, regardless of whether the person is there at that moment. There is chanting in Pali, a dead and therefore inaccessible language for the layman, at the beginning and end of every group meditation session; chanting to which the majority of the people chant ‘sadhu’ three times in blind obedience and acceptance. It is no longer presented as something universal in this form; there is absolutely no reason that the teachings cannot be completely abstracted from Buddhism and religion in general. Approach it with an open mind; take what you like and throw away the rest.
Start learning about yourself, about your mind, about humanity, about existence. As far as meditation and the mind goes, accept nothing that cannot be self realized. The only reason to mediate is that it will improve your life, if this is not the case, then don’t do it.