Before the meditation course began I worried about the long days of silence. I did not worry about spiders.
My exhausting meditation retreat: 10 days of Vipassana, silence and spiders
This was a mistake. The course was on a bird sanctuary outside Auckland, and I arrived only to find that spiders carpeted the wooden buildings, inside and out. When you take a Vipassana course, you agree to abide by five precepts: No writing, no talking, no eye contact, no communicating. At the end of day one, I noticed a daddy longlegs struggling on the carpet but heading toward the door. Instead, I took a deep breath, skirted around the creature, and opened my door.
I stood there silently cheering its departure from my room. In the meditation hall, daddy longlegs dropped from the ceiling, feeding my anxiety. Huge black spiders dotted the corner of the room where we picked up our pillows, watching over us as we shuffled into yet another meditation session. This was a Tupperware container plus a piece of paper to slide under it for ease of transport. I did not find this helpful. Then, on day five, I hit peak spider. Just before bed, I caught a glimpse of a bulbous black spider in my peripheral vision, dropping out of a tiny hole near the ceiling.
Unlike the many spiders on the veranda, this one was huge. I leapt out of bed in a panic. Every time I tried to reach the spider, it would crawl in the hole again and disappear. I left the light on, drifting off only to dream about spiders and wake up breathless. Finally I shut the light decisively. At 2am, I awoke to a feeling of deep alarm and turned the light back on. The spider was dropping from the ceiling, right above my head. Gasping, I fell sideways out of the bed. The spider, as startled as I, hastily clawed its way back toward the ceiling.
I watched in horror as it spent the rest of the night eating other spiders in my room. I did not sleep at all. Studies have shown that people who are blind or deaf have heightened ability in other bodily senses. I felt a small, temporary version of this phenomenon at the course.
I could not speak or write, but my mind was whirring away at an alarming speed. Trapped in a cognitive cycle of shame and blame, my phobia of spiders was magnified. The next day, I swallowed my pride and broke my noble silence. I begged the female volunteer leader to let me switch rooms. At that point in the course several people had left, and I was able to move to a different cabin. For the rest of the week, as everyone else sat on the grass enjoying the sun between sessions, I stayed in my room, too scared to leave. A friend once said that in life, worrying ahead of time was futile, because what you are scared of never manifests.
Instead, what you least expect creeps up behind you and scares you out of your mind. Or in my case, drops down from the ceiling in plain view. I wish I could say that the spider incident was a turning point. It was simply a bump along the way.
By day six, I felt exhausted by the pain, the sleepless nights, and a mind slowly unspooling. Some people talk about intruding memories of childhood or overly sexual thoughts during their Vipassana experience. For me, the challenge was suppressing the urge to run around like a toddler. Instead of doing a body scan, I fantasized about flinging off my pillows and running through the empty space in the center of the hall, screaming like a banshee. I daydreamed of doing snow angels on the worn carpet, making a mockery of the meditation. When the gong rang, I was covered in sweat from the effort of thinking past the pain.
By the end of the course, students often report feeling full body flow of energy during meditation. I felt shelves of pain along the way, no fluidity between them. But by the last day I could scan fluidly through arms or my right leg. More importantly, I could refocus my mind away from the pain.
I emerged from the course a calmer, temporarily less anxious version of myself. I started to sleep again. The relief of rest was palpable. Our collective obsession with finding happiness is not a reason to meditate. Logic and neuroscience might ground the modern rationale for meditation, but to meditate in order to be happy is counterintuitive. The practice is a counterweight to the jagged peaks and valleys of the human experience.
To remain stable when life goes awry is a happier result than grasping for whatever society tells you will make you happy. So much of what complicates our lives comes from assumptions we make and our reactions to them. In the quiet of those 10 days, you see how much your mind distorts the reality you perceive. You project your fears on to their perception of you. For me, this meant creating inaccurate stories about the other participants, as well as their reactions to me. I kept falling asleep during morning session, keeling over into the person next to me.
I heard the snickers of the group as I righted myself again, and vowed to apologize to that woman as soon as the course was over. When I did say sorry, the woman looked at me askance. Often, anger or fears are reactions to a reality we have created in our own minds. A reflection of the stories that we tell ourselves. We take sensory input as objective, but what we see, hear and feel is not objective. It is colored by what we have known, and the grudges we hold without even realizing them. Shortcuts exist in life, but to train your brain you need put in a significant amount of effort.
The first few days are devastating because the work is both mindless and extremely taxing. But you can see a change in a mere 10 days, with disciplined practice. The course reminded me that if you have a value system that thrives on making decisions with integrity, for the right reasons, doing your best is good enough. As someone with chronic pain, this lesson was important.
Then when you begin to meditate consider your posture. With spine erect and a spirit of awareness be mindful of sitting without strain but with complete alertness. Now you are ready to begin. But, first, some introductory thoughts.
- All Hands Down: The True Story of the Soviet Attack on the USS Scorpion.
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As Sujata states in his little book Beginning to See , "Meditation is the best thing you can do for yourself. It takes a strong urge to peer deeply within oneself and beyond it. It takes discipline and willingness to go farther than merely trying to escape or sidestep personal problems one may have. There are many reasons. But those that stand out most strongly are learning to think clearly, and to dispel ignorance, illusion, greed, hatred and craving.
This is the road to Nirvana or Nibbana through which one must lose all clinging to "self. It is persistent and devious. Often one may feel it has vanished only to have it crop up again. Only by diligence and persistence -- and the road for many may be long -- can victory over it be achieved. You are seated now, cross-legged on the floor, in a quiet chamber.
In lotus position, if you can, or in half-lotus, or even on a chair if disability precludes otherwise. Keep your head erect and balanced lightly on your shoulders. Still, do not strain; be comfortable, relaxed and attentive. The first stages of meditation should be simply observation of breath. Concentrate on the nostrils where the breath flows in Be aware of the touch of air as it strikes the passage through the nostrils. In fact be aware of everything and nothing. Yet it is really not. For this is no time to daydream, to entertain vagrant and migratory thoughts.
You are aware of your physical posture. Then you forget that also. You are aware that the past is dead, that it is gone. Yet specific consciousness of your whole preceding life is absent. The future does not yet exist. All you have is "right now" The idea is to "empty the mind," to get rid of all "garbage," all fleeting and intruding thoughts. Simply to breathe -- in out -- in out, never forcing the breath. You are not even the breather, but the breathing breathing you, the you, which as time goes on, will grow more and more vague as it begins to dissipate, disappear. Just allow the mind to feel the "touch" of breath as it flows in and flows out.
In your first sessions think of nothing more. You will find the breath thinning out as it becomes more subtle and finer until in time you begin to feel you are not breathing at all. This is the calming of the breath flow. It becomes very pleasant and satisfying. I keep a candle burning in the meditation chamber. It serves two purposes, maybe three. At first, if the mind wanders, it serves as a point of focus.
The eyes, at first observing the candle, soon close, lightly, easily, by themselves. But even through closed lids one feels the presence of the light. One can see it in one's mind's eye. It restores the mind's wandering back to the present. The second purpose is symbolic: And finally, it makes for a pleasant, lovely atmosphere. Incense, flowers, Buddha sculpture are nice but really not necessary. One can, in truth, meditate anywhere , any quiet place where there can be no interruption.
Wherever you meditate, if it is at home and you have a telephone, it is wise to remove the receiver to avoid incoming calls. Bear in mind that the place of meditation is not of key importance, but it is wise to return to the same place at the same time daily so that the habit of meditating becomes established.
Vipassana movement - Wikipedia
The Buddha meditated under a Bodhi tree where he achieved enlightenment. An advanced meditator can choose almost any place and it will serve his purpose -- a crowded market place, a burial ground, a cave, a park or a refuse dump. In his inward turning he becomes totally oblivious of his surroundings; or, contrariwise, makes the very surroundings, as he advances deeper and deeper into meditating, the subject of his thoughts. The important thing to remember is that these thoughts must be schooled and channeled.
They must be kept "on center.
Living Two Traditions
But you, now, are still in your beginning stages. Untoward thoughts will persist in entering your mind. This is only natural. You will be amazed at how many and how trivial these intrusions can be. You must learn, however, to treat these intruders with courtesy. Do not shove them away in anger. Label each one -- past -- present -- future? Your very act of branding them will assist in their cessation.
As they begin to disappear, your mind will gently return to your nostrils, your breathing. It will grow quieter and quieter. Other hindrances will obtrude themselves. Noises will penetrate your consciousness -- children playing and shouting, buses or airplanes passing.
Beginning Insight Meditation
Label them as you do other passing thoughts. Keep centering on the breathing, the slowing inflow, outflow. In time the noises, too, will vanish. Whenever you find yourself "out there," bring yourself gently back to "here" and to "right now. I find it helps in all of this to keep a semi-smile on my face such as that of the Buddha.
It aids in brightening the mind, makes it happier.
At this point in your beginning meditation, if you have been at it a half hour or longer, you may terminate it if you wish or continue as before. Or you can go on to extend metta or loving-kindness. This meditation subject is good because it eliminates hatred, envy, anger and self-pity.
It accomplishes love for all, destruction of self, sympathetic joy, and a good feeling for every being or non-being that lives or has left this life. Your extension of loving-kindness should reach out to encompass the earth, the universe. You will find it difficult in time, to snuff out the life of even the smallest insect. In extending loving-kindness it is of great importance that you first love yourself. In the right way, of course. You accomplish this by ridding your thoughts of all "impurities. I will make my mind clear, fresh and pure. Like a transparent window is my mind. Then with my stain-free mind, I pour out thoughts of loving-kindness, of love and of kindness.
Try to get a mental image of each one you are extending this loving-kindness to. Get into that person. Feel his or her personality enter your own being and direct your feeling straight into the mind and heart of that individual. You will find in time, that there is a sort of mental telepathy emerging.