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.

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