A Walk in the Woods (Part 2)

Dec 9, 2005 12:45 am

The accommodation was simple and clean, if cramped. I was rooming with two other guys. I hadn’t spoken to either of them before the course started, so it took me a few days to get some idea of who they were. I sensed they were both similar to me, in their own way. From time to time during meditation in the hall the teacher would call us up the front in groups of three and question us quietly on our technique — it was the only way to hear the other meditators speak. This was how I learnt the names of my room-mates.

My bed was in the middle. On my right was Chris, a guy who enjoyed his sleep. He occasionally snored and talked to himself in his sleep. He had a habit of letting out deep sighs whenever entering or leaving the room, and throwing things in disgust. Several times in the first few days he packed his bags to leave (he was desperate for nicotine, as it turned out), but he always unpacked again by evening. During some of the meditation sessions you were allowed to meditate in your room, and at first all three of us took the option. It was a good change of scenery — although, since you meditate with your eyes closed, I’m not exactly sure what we were thinking. Unfortunately, Chris often meditated lying down, making snoring-like sounds during these meditation hours. Occasionally he would rise with a snort and sit on the floor for a while before going back to bed. I started thinking of him as Evil Chris.

I wasn’t the only who wanted to throw a pillow at him, though I didn’t know it at the time. On my left was Chris — the other Chris that is. He was a lanky fellow with long hair and a thick beard who wore a green skirt. Unlike Evil Chris, he sat motionless for long periods of time, and seemed completely absorbed in his meditation. Naturally, he became Jesus Chris. In my moments of weakness, when the snoring seemed particularly inviting, I asked myself: Who do I want to be, Evil Chris or Jesus Chris? I chose Jesus. Well, most of the time.

***

The meditation hall, where we spent most of our day, was a hexagonal building at the top of the sloping property. The front half was taken up with interview rooms and accommodation for students who had done the course before; the rear half was the hall proper. The assistant teacher, Paula, sat at the front on a raised platform. The males sat facing her in rows on the left side of the hall, with the old students up front; the females sat on the right. You could use as many cushions as you liked. As the course progressed, the females maintained precise ranks and rigid backs. The males let it all hang out a bit, with more cushions.

Our teacher was S. N. Goenka, from Burma. He wasn’t present in corporeal form, only in the form of audio. His subcontinental voice was part mellifluous Kamahl, part matter-of-fact Yoda. In the evenings, we watched a one hour video where he explained the technique in more detail. He had an uncanny habit of knowing what we were thinking each day — born, I guess, from decades of teaching. I was highly sceptical at first, but someone who can laugh at his status as a guru and make fun of people bowing before statues of Buddha has to have something going for him. So I listened with an open mind.

Goenka explained that the Vipassana technique was based on three things: sila, samadhi, and panna. Sila was morality, or the precepts we had agreed to follow these 10 days. Without sila it was impossible for samadhi, or concentration. To learn samadhi, for the first three days we practised Anapanna meditation, or concentrating our awareness on our breathing. It wasn’t easy. Here are my thoughts over a sample 15 minute period:

“Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … I can’t believe we have to do this all day … You’re not supposed to be thinking, just concentrate on your breathing … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … My legs are killing me and it’s only been 5 minutes … an hour and a half to go … I wonder how many breaths I do per hour? … Focus … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … Nothing’s happening … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … Hurry up, get some insight into the meaning of life or something … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … Am I doing this right? Maybe my breathing’s wrong … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … I wonder how long it’s been? … Would it be 15 minutes yet? Hard to say. Probably only 10 … It’s not as easy as I thought … Focus, focus … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … This is really boring … Would you shut up and focus on your breathing … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … Nah, definitely 15 minutes by now, for sure … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … That new student at school is pretty hot. I hope she’s still there when I get back to work. What if she … [Ed: This section has been deleted for the sake of brevity. Your local newsagency has a wide range of quality erotic literature.] … Well, that killed some time … I wonder how much? 5 minutes? 10 minutes … So together with the previous time check we must be up to the 30 minute mark now for sure … C’mon, focus … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … God, my legs – I need another cushion … Just breathe … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … And I’m a bit hungry too … Can you just breathe for 5 minutes? 2 minutes, even? …. Okay, 5 minutes, then I’ll think about that chick on the bus … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
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Is it 5 minutes yet? … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … Shut up and breathe … Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out … Man I think a lotta shit…”

***

Hey, you try, and see if you can do better. I did get better at focusing, eventually. They key is not to get bothered by your mind wandering — you just bring it back each time and very slowly it calms down. I started to feel individual nose hairs moving, and my upper lip tingling. So now I had something approximating sila and samadhi. Next was panna, or wisdom. This arises from Vipassana meditation, which aims to see the world “as it is”.

The technique is to move your awareness through the body, one part at a time from head to foot, focusing on any sensations you feel, large or small, pleasant or unpleasant. You watch them from a distance, learning to remain equanimous with whatever the sensation happens to be. As Goenka put it: “It could be enny sensation. Ennyting. It could be heat, or it could be cold. It could be a sensation of dryness, or a sensation of moist. It could be pressure, or pain. It could be tingling, tickling, itching…” On and on he went, listing every kind of sensation possible, from the bizarre (“insects walking”) to the obscure (“subtle vibrations”) to sensations impossible to label. We had to listen to this description multiple times, and I developed a serious aversion to it.

That’s the basic technique. And the wisdom? You begin to appreciate at a very deep level that the nature of the world is Anicca (uh-nitch-uh), or Impermanence. Whether a subtle sensation or a gross sensation, pleasant or unpleasant, they are all characterised by impermanence, passing away. Anicca, anicca, anicca. There is nothing especially mind-blowing about this, of course. “This, too, shall pass” has long been one of my favourite aphorisms. In fact, almost nothing Goenka had to say at a philosophical level was new to me. The difference was the direct experience I was having — the intellectual knowledge seeping into my bones. It’s like the difference between describing water, and actually being immersed in water; completely different.

As you deep down get how everything good and everything bad eventually changes, you begin wondering why you bother craving and hating sensations. Anicca, anicca, anicca. It’s not the sensations that make you suffer, it’s your reactions to them. You become more and more equanimous to sensations. You still feel the pain in your legs and the ache in your back, you just stop generating negative emotions, mental pain, when you notice the physical sensation.

I was beginning to realise what Goenka meant when he said we were doing deep mental surgery. And that was when things started getting really weird…

~Chris

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