Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Realm and Rewards of Vipassana, Part III

This is the final piece in a 3-part series on this subject.

Read Part I here. Read Part II here.

Part III: The Harmony of Breath and Pain 
When vipassana boot camp ended, I was more than ready to return home and be with my family, and even more ready to plunge into my normal life with my husband, children, friends and family, and I did so with a renewed sense of spirit. One of my chief concerns during the course had tethered on whether I’d make the transition back into talking and how challenging it would be to get back into the rhythm. The thought surfaced in meditation, especially in the beginning, and I remember wondering if there would be any “side effects,” such as hours of speech training and therapy. And then my mind had switched orbits. What if I’m so taken by silence that I decide to embrace monkhood, trading in my home for a monastery? Imagine, Sister Raji! Oh, my poor family! How are they going to manage my loss? Oh, the mind is so rooted in fears and self-importance! Of course, my concern was completely baseless as I neither ended up in a convent nor have I stopped talking since the course concluded.

Vipassana, the blueprint of a new life, has helped me fashion a world in which I’m able live in sync with my heartfelt longings, without the fear of failure or of being judged. I live life with a keen sense of awareness. I understand that I should stop reaching out for sense gratification, and instead, reach in, within myself, to find the authentic me. The Buddha’s teachings have taught me to focus on my myriad strengths, surround myself with positive people, and tailor my attitude to be more accepting of people and their behaviors. I’m less inclined now to fulfill others’ expectations at my emotional expense. Vipassana has also turned down the volume on my “complain” and “demand” notes. Forever I had experienced anger and frustration because I could never win arguments or dominate conversations like some of my friends and colleagues did. Post vipassana, my “deficiency” has transformed into a skill—a skill that allows me to be a better listener and remain open to others’ points of view, one that has added a whole new dimension to all of my relationships. I now understand that dominance and defiance are the hallmark traits of the ego, not of an individual; that traveling in the fast lane and multitasking are recipes not for effectiveness, but rather dissatisfaction. Making peace with what I cannot change or make go away has been, paradoxically, empowering.

Continued practice enables me to operate in a realm in which I’m truly excited to be myself and I’m energized to serve the greater whole. Awareness of the overwhelming impacts of perfectionism and self-recrimination has resulted in my being kinder to me and less self-critical. What is really great about silence is the simplicity it evokes, the opportunity to observe, absorb and appreciate the miracles in seemingly ordinary things, including bees buzzing as they flit from flower to flower transferring pollen, puffy white clouds that drift away to reveal a blue sky, or sunlight glistening through raindrops to erect a rainbow. I’m also learning to integrate flexibility into my life through the art of prioritizing. Each day now is a celebration of life’s bounty—food, shelter, health, friends, and family.

By profession, I’m an environmental engineer. Years ago I had a sweet government job, owned a house in the suburbs, had a wonderful family, and lived a perfect life by all external accounts. Yet I felt restless, powerless, and driven—if not consumed—by an inability to accept my good life. I always wondered why I was among the few that flourished while millions languished in hunger and poverty. I later traded in my career to become a stay-at-home mother, which, unexpectedly, proved to be a turning point. I became involved in volunteering, a new life experience that allowed me to have a meaningful, positive impact on communities worldwide, and eventually helped channel my distress into gratefulness. I have since stayed active by being involved in my children’s lives and in charitable causes. A privilege that I’m truly grateful for is using my thoughts, words, and action to inspire my children.

Before long, the waves of life washed me over to vipassana’s coast. Looking back at my early years, I now realize that I lived like an iceberg, a drifting existence, a mere flick of the potential that lay obscured below the surface of who I am. Vipassana has helped me tap into that potential, giving form and expression to my creativity. I’m sure glad to still have the house in the suburbs and a wonderful circle of family and friends. I’d like to believe that I write more adroitly now. In addition to responding to my family’s needs and fulfilling my various responsibilities, I am beginning to articulate my own needs, voice my opinions, express my preferences, and nurture my passions like never before. As a youngster, I loved to sing. So I enrolled in voice lessons to revive and enjoy the art. I wrote and published a book about my vipassana experience, entitled Inner Pilgrimage: Ten Days to a Mindful Me. Thereafter, I started writing a blog. I maintain my Facebook fan page and a website. I’m now a motivational speaker and deliver talks on topics such as meditation, life lessons, health and wellness at various venues. And to think that public speaking had always buckled my knees! My hope in sharing my story is that it’ll inspire others to begin their own journeys of self-discovery, at their own pace, through vipassana.

Having said that, I still experience low days. “Inner” conflicts still hold their grip. Despair, dread, and doubt continue to clutch at me. Anger and frustration over what I can’t change, like when my neighbor overwaters their lawn, still burns my insides. But the equanimity derived from vipassana has made it easier to release irrational fears and negative emotions. Vipassana meditation is helping me reconfigure my life, one fear fragment at a time. To say that these changes happened overnight would be a gross exaggeration. Finding the authentic me is—and will be—a lifelong journey of exploration, trial, and acceptance.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Realm and Rewards of Vipassana, Part II

Read Part I here.

II: The Anguish of Pain 

The three-day rigorous practice of watching my breath prepared me—mind and body—to enter the realm of vipassana. The technique itself is not complicated; it consists of observing the sensations the breath creates. Sensations represent pre-conditioned, mental patterns of the mind. They are a basic form of experience and existence that precede the thought processes, i.e., they exist before the litany of commenting, editing, labeling, qualifying, and judging begins. Per the Buddha, sensations are “karmic” in nature, in that an individual inherits the previous life’s “sensation load” at birth—a congenital disorder of sorts! This defilement “reservoir’s” extent is directly proportional to the past lives’ karma buildup. In the present life, sensory contact with the outside world through the portals of sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and thought can activate dormant sensations and/or fashion new ones.

Sensations are also described as “defilements” or the very specific emotions, memories, fears, attitudes, expectations, beliefs, pain, likes, dislikes, and stories that appear repeatedly in our consciousness. When summoned through a mental practice such as vipassana, the sensations manifest on the physical body in a variety of forms: pricking, pinching, itching, goose bumps, tingling, tickling, burning, pulling, tugging, pressure, tightness, heaviness, numbness, dryness, creepy-crawly sensations, pins-and-needles type sensations, pain, heat, chill, and/or sweat. And while these sensations are present at all times throughout the body, the conscious mind can’t detect them because of its lack of focus.

With each breath, as my attention moved throughout my body, from my scalp to my toes, the sensations slowly began to emerge from within. Continued meditation intensified my attention and accelerated my awareness of the arising sensations, which consisted mainly of pain, pressure, heaviness, numbness, pricking, and a few pleasant sensations. Whatever their nature, the sensations arose and passed away. As I learned to observe them, new sensations surfaced and bounced off of the physical landscape of my body. Ongoing mindfulness showed that no single sensation lingered for longer than a few moments. Per the instructions, I directed my attention to what was happening from moment to moment without holding on to what felt good or pushing away what felt bad. The directive was to survey the sensations with perfect calm and objectivity. Thus when sensations surface, and the meditator remains nonreactive or nonjudgmental to their emergence, the sensations can make a permanent exit from the meditator’s system. Through consistent practice, this “shedding” of sensations “lightens” an individual’s load of defilements, helping change unhealthy attitudes, perceptions, and habits at the deepest, unconscious level.

Goenka’s nightly lectures provided the doctoral dissertation for observing the sensations. It is striking how external, sense perceptions—what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—veer towards, but ultimately elude, a sustained experience of joy and contentment. The human focus rests primarily on externally oriented functions and results in a good part of our lives used up in planning, researching, analyzing, implementing, and decision making on the external plane. The Buddha advocated going past the external plane, beyond the physical form and paying attention to the reality of human life: what can’t be seen by the naked eye, but stimulates the brain; what can’t be touched, but tightens the muscles; what can’t be sniffed, but burns the lungs; what can’t be heard, but throbs in the ears; or what can’t be tasted, but produces a sick dread in the pit of the stomach.

The human resistance, owing to bias, ego gratification or error, to look inward and acknowledge paralyzing thoughts and feelings is self-defeating, and keeps individuals locked up in unhealthy patterns. Sex, alcohol, drugs, food, power, fame, money, work—the list is exhaustive, really. People take refuge in material pursuits, falsely believing that these pursuits will lead to Nirvana. Life becomes a contrived cat-and-mouse game as individuals mindlessly fasten themselves to sights, sounds, tastes, words, motions, or electronic stimuli, chasing after the next job, the next house, or the next spouse/partner, until fatigue or death triumphs. Reacting to situations in the outer environment, the Buddha said, affects the inner environment, spawning two types of sensations: (1) “Craving” sensations generated from reacting to anything that satisfies pleasure. (2) “Loathing” or aversion sensations generated from reacting to pain, both physical and emotional. The human predisposition to react with craving and loathing sets up a vicious cycle of reactions and sensations. The reactions eventually dissipate, but leave behind a residue that reinforces an existing sensation or begets a new one. Either way, the outcome is “suffering”—a life that reinforces addictions, compulsions and emotional dysfunction, and is filled with dissatisfaction, emptiness, stress, anxiety, anger, fear, and other negativities.

A question emerges: how is the Buddha’s ancient, psycho-spiritual doctrine relevant in the digital age? The first revelation that jumps out for a vipassana practitioner is the impermanent nature of the arising bodily sensations. When an individual observes change at the experiential level and sees firsthand how things arise and pass away, they soon begin to associate impermanence on a more conscious plane, in life situations and challenges, an ocean wave-like activity—they come and go. Some of life’s challenges arrive unannounced like earthquakes and tornadoes, and unleash unspeakable horror. Job loss, financial loss, divorce, emotional betrayal, and illness are a few examples. Others, like hurricanes, leave behind a trail of destruction but are more predictable and can be planned for. Ongoing family and marital conflicts are examples. The regular practice of vipassana builds up equanimity, an opportunity to harness pain into something positive, more workable, usable, and sustainable. Loss and change are facts of life, but reactions, negativities, impulsive behaviors, and self-destructive habits don’t have to be. They don’t have to define who we are or how we live life.

Humans are creatures of habit. We hold on to our past, because we think we can go back and fix it. We’re also emotional beings and cling to our fears and insecurities because we are afraid of change. Looking inward helps determine what enslaves us. Learning to let go and moving with the flow of life—disaster and all—is a wonderful shift as it helps break free of the limitations that have held us back, encouraging us to grow, to live meaningful lives. As the veil of inner blindness lifts and we learn to accept the present, cravings transform into love and fears dissolve into faith, ultimately fostering a healthy, balanced, connected life. After all, humans are social creatures. It is binding on us that we maximize that connection and learn to live harmoniously with peace and equanimity. And where we find peace, balance and composure, therein, we find Nirvana

to be continued... 

Read Part III here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Realm and Rewards of Vipassana, Part I

I: The Agony of the Breath

I dread committing gaffes. There—I said it! Until a few years ago, I wasn’t even aware of my fears or of the simmering, underlying dissatisfaction that fueled their existence. A surge of awareness has since developed, helping me become increasingly mindful. Today, I acknowledge and accept failures and limitations as a gallant step toward positive mental health. This is just one example of the many gifts vipassana meditation has given me.

To understand how an ancient meditation technique correlates to an individual’s acceptance of their fears, and in doing so, of transcending dissatisfaction, let’s first understand what vipassana is. Vipassana, a mindfulness technique the Buddha practiced nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, is the process of examining one’s mind through silence, breath, and body awareness. The Buddha advocated the three marks of existence: dukkha, or that dissatisfaction is inherent to life and causes suffering; anicca, or that life’s sufferings are impermanent; and annata, or that releasing attachment to worldly pleasures and the ego can help an individual release suffering. Vipassana in the ancient Indian language Pali means “to see things as they are.”

In the summer of 2008, I was among a group of nearly 120 people that attended a ten-day, instructor-led vipassana meditation course offered by Spiritual Master S. N. Goenka. The setting couldn’t have been more picturesque: a quaint retreat center in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. At the time, I lacked even the faintest understanding of just how swiftly this experience would transpire change. The retreat consisted of ten days of breath awareness and meditation, at the rate of ten hours each day. Grueling? You bet! Actually, it was downright brutal. For ten days I spied the vast cosmos of my mind, searching for inner peace and clues to unravel the mind’s myriad mysteries. For ten days I lived like a monk, shunning all luxuries and self-indulgences. Imagine a benign, insipid world of no computers or cell phones, and no texting, reading, writing, praying, listening to music, or watching television. Here’s the granddaddy of all forfeitures—no talking! The only highlights were the food and Goenka’s nightly video sermons.

Notwithstanding the sacrifices, my meditation got off to a roaring start. Just waking up at the crack of dawn was energizing. Experiencing nature amid all of its beauty enthralled my senses. Taking a break from my normal life seemed rejuvenating. Goenka introduced retreatants to a technique called anapana, which consists of observing one’s own respiration. Per the instructions, I watched my breath as it traveled in and out of my nose. Outside, all was quiet but for the minor distractions stemming from fellow meditators’ digestive track faux pas, or the air conditioner’s intermittent drone, or the occasional straggler’s muffled strides. The governing diversion was “inner” commotion. At every meditation sitting, my conditioned mind became readily absorbed in thought, reaction, analysis, drama, and fantasy. At this stage, a meditator has two goals: become aware of a spiraling thought, and restore the mind’s focus to the breath. Simple, right? Not really! The primary hurdle is the ability to recognize a wandering mind. Many minutes would drift by before I would realize that the movie playing on my mental monitor, starring me, was headed to Nowhereville! I would shudder back to the present and return to my breath. Then Mental Films would roll out its next production. Again, the minutes would elapse until the next realization and refocus. Needless to say, this happened over and over. The first day in meditation turned out to be more of a game involving constant pursuit, near-captures, and repeated escapes.

In addition, other sources of external distraction, such as physical aches and pains caused by long hours of sitting, the struggle to acclimatize to a new place, the anger and irritation that arose from people’s insensitive behaviors such as checking out early from meditation so they could make a beeline for meals or trading a sit for sleep also took up a good portion of my attention. My conditioned mind judged their conduct with a roll of the eyes, or a bobbing of the head in disbelief, and even an occasional snort and snicker. It took me many hours to let go of the memory of the woman in the dining hall who sneered upon seeing a grimy plate on the buffet table. All she had to do was pick it up and put it for wash. She didn’t; I did. It took even longer to forgive the woman in the neighboring bed whose constant squirting of a nauseating mist interrupted my sleep.

My awareness and my capacity to observe my mind strengthened on Day 2, enabling me to follow my breath for longer durations. But it had been two days since I had left home. I missed my family. The lack of social interaction sprouted boredom and restlessness inside of me, which was ironic as I was continually amidst people. The lull of the exterior offered a clear contrast to my mind’s chaos; both drove me crazy. That night, the swell of stimulation I had experienced upon arriving at the retreat deflated to a mere ripple, and I felt physically, mentally, and emotionally fatigued.

The third day unraveled a surprise: my mind’s clamor began to fade into a calmness that I never knew existed. I found myself eating meals slowly, mindfully, pausing between spoonfuls of food, and then chewing and swallowing it with a sense of gratitude. Thoughts still dominated during meditation, but my tranquil mind’s focus had shifted from engaging in melodrama to merely observing thought. It hadn’t come easy, but my mind had finally learned how to disentangle itself from thought’s nomadic ways and ease into the oasis of the present moment. During breaks I found myself contemplating on the art of “being with oneself,” emitting compassionate vibes in response to others’ disruptive behaviors, and making a mental list of potential candidates for this course, among other things. I wasn’t just living like a monk; I was beginning to feel like one too! Although I didn’t grasp it at the time, this exercise in honing patience and concentration helped ground me in the reality that is the now, and would remain as an anchor to help endure all future emotional upheavals. 

to be continued... 

Read Part II here. Read Part III here.