Monday, January 12, 2009

Sitting out the Old; Sitting in the New, Part III

In this third installment of How I Spent My Christmas Vacation, I'm going to describe Vipassana philosophy and how it's touched me. It was a profound experience—of the kind where the discoveries and resultant changes are likely to continue to unfold for weeks and months to come.

The essential claim is that S.N. Goenka's teachings are the result of a direct, unbroken connection with the teachings of Gotama—aka Buddha—from 2500 years ago. As the story goes, Gotama's teachings were widely popular at the time of his life (he actively taught from his enlightenment at age 35 until his death at 80), especially in northern India, where he spent most of his life. For perhaps 300 years following his death, his teachings remained popular and emissaries were sent to spread his spiritual practices to other parts of the world. In particular, two monks were sent to the country that is now Burma, or Myanmar.

While the teaching got diluted (and perhaps polluted) with other spiritual practices over time, the claim is that in Burma they remained pure. Though they were apparently never that popular in Burma, there was a continuous line of adept practitioners safeguarding the method and the teachings. In the middle of the 20th Century, a civil servant named U Ba Khin (1899-1971) was exposed to Vipassana for the first time at age 38. He took to it immediately and quickly advanced in proficiency, eventually becoming noteworthy as the only advanced practitioner who spoke fluent English. He established the International Meditation Centre in Rangoon in 1952. His career as a government official continued until 1967 and it was only the last four years of his life that were devoted exlcusively to teaching Viapssana meditation. He was Goenka's mentor, and the person who encouraged Goenka to spread Vipassana to other countries.

Goenka first met U Ba Khin in 1954 (at age 30), hoping that Viapssana might offer him relief from crippling migraine headaches—after allopathic medicine proved ineffective in treating them, excepting through opiates that were debilitating and addictive. As Goenka tells the story, U Ba Khin refused to teach him Vipassana if his goal was merely to conquer migraines. In Vipassana, the goal is to vanquish all misery, not just headaches. Goenka agreed, and that started him on the path to becoming the Princpal Teacher after U Ba Khin passed away.

With U Ba Khin's blessing, Goenka reestablished a Vipassana center in
India, its birthplace, in 1969. It thrived and from there he spread it worldwide, notably assisted by a 128-day worldwide promotional tour he conducted across Europe and North America in 2002 (at age 78). Today there are five meditation centers in the US (two in California, one in Texas, one in Massachusetts, and the one I sat at last week in Pecatonica IL) plus an additional three in Canada. Interest in Vipassana is clearly on the rise worldwide, in no small part do to Goenka's tireless proselytizing.

The course I took is anchored by a set of 70-minute videotaped Goenka discourses that are offered every evening of the 10-day course. These were recorded in 1991, and it is highly impressive how fluently he communicates in English (even to his facility with colloquial humor), all the more so when one realizes that English cannot be better than his third language (and may be his fifth or sixth, given that he established successful commercial centers in Japan and Germany in his career as a post-Word War II businessman before being introduced to Vipassana). He's a tour de force, and a compelling personality.

Today there are approximately 800 assistant teachers around the world, all of whom, I believe, have a personal connection with Goenka. Every official 10-day Vipassana retreat must be overseen by having either Goenka or an assistant teacher in attendance.

The main idea of Vipassana is that each individual—regardless of upbringing or situation in life—can take control of their own happiness and end misery by understanding how we each ignorantly create cravings and aversions in response to sensations. By focusing the mind and becoming more aware of sensations in the body (this includes thoughts as well as the other five senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch), we can become better attuned to how we respond on the biochemical level to stimulation and understand that we have choice in whether we subsequently create a craving or an aversion (called a sankhara in Pali—the language of Buddha). To be clear, a sankhara is a bad thing (leading to misery) and yet we can also rationally want a thing and work actively towards its manifestation without having our happiness and equanimity inextricably linked to whether we get our wish—after all, what happens outside our bodies is not much in our control.

Also basic to Vipassana teachings (and Buddhism in general) is the concept of anicca (uh-NEECH-uh), which is the Law of Impermanence. The basic idea is that everything changes; nothing lasts. To be sure, some things change more quickly than others, but everything changes. Thus, something you dislike (or something you crave) will pass away—just like everything else—so why get attached? In fact, the dynamic of attachment is analogous to planting a seed, which will sprout in the future and lead to a thing last longer, because of the bitter fruit that will be borne. Because each sankhara is capable of multiplying into hundreds of new sankhara through this method of propagation, it is all the more imperative that you are careful what you plant.

The state you are encouraged to reach is a combination of high awareness and high equanimity, where you notice as much as possible what is happening and are as unreactive as possible. (Some people seek equanimity by walling themselves off from the mundane world; this is not Buddha's teaching.) Caution: "unreactive" does not mean passive, nor does it mean passionless. It means centeredness. While high passion is often linked with a high degree of attachment, it need not be that way. Being a passionate Buddhist—which I am now inspired to—is highly appealing to me.

[While my knee jerk thought here was to ask readers to wish me luck in this endeavor, my advancement toward this goal will have nothing whatever to do with luck—I will succeed directly in proprotion to my willingness to consciously work at it. That too, is part of the teaching.]

Vipassana [vi-POSH-uh-nuh] translates to "seeing things as they really are." The idea being that we can objectively sense and know what's happening in our bodies and that this is the way we should be engaging with reality. The foundation of the practice is comprised of three basic building blocks:

1. Moral conduct, or sila (SHEE-luh). While there are a handful of precepts that Vipassanists delineate, it essentially matches up with the code for right livelihood that all main religions perscribe, such as adhering to the Thou Shalt Nots of Christianity, or eschewing the Seven Deadly Sins. While there's nuance around whether meat-eating can ever been seen as moral (Vipassana doctrine says no, but I demur), let's leave that aside. We can all agree that it's a dubious moral practice to kill, steal, lie, or screw your neighbor (in any sense). The main path here is well described.

2. Mental focus, or samadhi (suh-MAH-dee). In order to be fully aware of body sensations—and not just on the gross level, like a leg cramp; we're talking about subtlties even down to the molecular level (though I question my ever achieving that kind of depth in my practice)—it is necessary to train the mind to pay attention, and not be distracted. It was highly humbling to me, as a professional facilitator with a reputation for (and no small amount of pride in) his ability to accurately track mutliple meeting threads simulataneously, how susceptible I was to "monkey mind." When asked to focus on my breathing for 60 minutes straight, at first I doubt I could do it for two minutes wihthout my attention jumping to something else. Forutnately, as the week progressed, I got better.

3. Encompassing as many perspectives as possible, or pañña (PON-yuh). The idea here is not relying solely on how you see things with your head. Consider both the perspectives of others and what your body tells you. This expressly includes the wisdom of insight and the information that is embedded in your bodily sensations. You just need ot tune into it and to understand what your body is telling you. Mostly, I think, it's opening up your intuitive "ears" and not letting your brain get in the way. (Pañña is a great help in consensus, by the way—but more about that in a future blog.)

While Vipassana offers assistance in future lives as well as this one, you don't need to buy the concept of reincarnation to benefit. In fact, if you are not achieveing positive results right away, according to Goenka, you're not doing it right. It is key to Vipassana teaching that the method be accessible, relatively straight forward to understand (not esoteric), and of immediate application. That does not mean that it is simple to achieve profound results or, ultimately, total liberation and release from misery. However, it is not that hard to describe the path, or at least the first sections of it. (As Goenka reminded us in one of his discourses toward the end of the 10 days, this is just Vipassana "kindergarten," yet enough to give us a sound beginning and tools robust enough to effect an immediate diminishment of misery.)

Finally, Vipassana is non-sectarian and not meant to be at odds with any other religion. People from anywhere and any persuasion are welcome to learn it and there is no request for allegiance other than to follow sila. The rest is up to you.

Dhamma (DOM-uh) is the Way, or the practice. Each person's dhamma is unqiue, and no one esle can practice dhamma on your behalf.

The course starts with students being asked to simply focus on their breathing for three days. This is called anapana. Breathing was chosen by the Buddha as a starting point because it is universal, an excellent example of impermamence, realtively easy to notice sensations with, and tends to be a simple way to showcase how poor most of us are at focusing our mind.

On Day Four we were introduced to Vipassana, which involves switching focus from breathing to noticing sensations all over the body.

It was impressive to notice a itch, to not scratch it reflexively, and then to notice it go away on its own. It worked every time.

For the 10 days of the introductory course, students are asked to live in silence and that extends to not touching or looking anyone else in the face. We were asked to not bring reading material (we were only allowed a copy of an 8-page introduction to the meditation technique and the code of discipline) nor any writing equipment. For the duration we were expected to simply be with ourselves (and all the sankharas we'd created in a lifetime of ignorance).

For me, the hardest part was not the silence; it was not being able to write, or even make notes. I had a craving for writing, and I was my choice: I could either use the time to lament the limitations of the retreat, or to reflect on my attachment to writing—now exposed as one of my sankharas. I benefited greatly from an old student (a repeat retreatant) pointing this out to me the last day (when talking was once again permitted).

On the form we filled out at the outset, we were asked what addictions we had. While I owned that on average I consumed one alcoholic drink per day (some days none, and some days more), I don't consider myself to be addicted to alcohol. Would it be one of my cravings? It turned out I didn't miss alcohol at all (which doesn't prove that I never abuse it; only that it's not a fixation). One the other hand, I thought about sex all the time!

No Sex Please, We're Monkish
We had agreed, for the duration of the reteat, to abstain from all sexual activity. While this made sense to me, and I didn't dwell on it for the first couple days, that gradually changed. While I noticed some aversions creeping into my consciousness as the course went on (mainly stories about dynamics with someone that I felt raw about) and they provided excellent sankhara fodder for me to chew on (it was now uncomfortably clear how I had been carefully nurturing my own misery), the biggest distraction for me throughout the sit was my tendency to fantasize about sex. This, of course, was a craving.

On the one hand, the centerpiece of my imaginings was some rather creative (and occasionally acrobatic) lovemaking with my wife, so I didn't think I was breaking sila. Still, it was undisciplined, and defiitely a craving. After going through a gauntlet of guilt (we were supposed to set sex aside for the retreat) and titillation, I noticed that frustration predominated in the end. Ah, the essence of craving.

After watching this melodrama continue for a few days I tried working it the other way, and imagined never having sex with Ma'ikwe again. (Maybe she'd lose interest in me; maybe sex would become too painful for her; maybe she'd get hit by a truck.) That was interesting. While sad, it was not crushing. I saw that I could live through it. That helped me find something approximating equanimity. After all, sex with Ma'ikwe, however wonderful, would ultimately be subject to annica like everything else. It would pass.

Then there was another level. For the past 20 years I've wrestled with occasional impotence (unreliable erections)
. All indications are that this is psychological rather than biochemical, and I'm convinced that the issue is more in my head than my penis. What's more, it's in me rather than in my partner. While I've made some modest progress on this by noticing more closely when the symptoms occur (impotence is more likely when I'm under stress or feeling less emotionally connected with my partner; it's less likely to occur when I'm tired; erections are more reliable in the morning, less so at night), I suddenly had an insight about my impotence as I wrestled with commingling sex, equanimity, and passion.

I realized in a flash that I tend to be anxious about erections
whenever making love (never mind whether that was true when the impotence first surfaced 20 years ago; it's true now), and anxiety is not equanimity. I wondered whether my new-found understanding of passionate equanimity (a retreat insight that was only hours old) could guide me toward being both fully passionate (clearly a superior way to make love) and fully equanimous at the same time. While I didn't know how hard it would be to live in this double state, my 25-watt light bulb was that I felt sure that those double doors would lead to reliable erections.

Given that I'm convinced that my impotence is psychosomatic, it means there's a disjunct between my head and my body. Vipassana is perfectly geared toward helping with that, as body/mind integration is central to the practice. So even if my above insight is wrong, I've still got new tools for noticing what's happening when my erection goes south. I've now discussed all this with Ma'ikwe and it's piqued her interest as well—both as someone who is vibrantly sexual and as the daughter of a biologist with latent scientific instincts. At the very least, it will be interesting field research. I'll let you know what comes up (so to speak).

Post Retreat
Upon arriving home, I noticed right away how much calmer I felt, and how I could listen to the disjointed ramblings of Ma'ikwe's 11-year-old son, Jibran, with equanimity. Instead of tuning him out, I just noticed what was happening and didn't react.
That was different.

Goenka urged students to continue meditating twice a day for an hour, plus five minutes each day when we first get up and when we go to bed. On top of that, we're to look for an opportunity to meditate one hour per week with other practitioners in the area and attend at least one 10-day retreat per year. I'm unsure how much of that I'll embrace. The claim is that we'l get all those hours back in increased vibrancy and efficiency, and it may be true. I'll watch for that.

So far, I've continued my yoga practice [see my blog of Oct 12, 2008], which Goenka says is highly compatible with Vipassana meditation, and I'm looking forward to discussing my experience with the four others at nearby Dancing Rabbit and Red Earth who have atken the Vipassana course. We'll see where that leads and how much my ability to see and control my own misery depends on ongoing meditation.

Taken all together, I unhesitantly recommend that everyone take this 10-day introductory retreat and tasting Viapssana for themselves. It could change your life.

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