Vipassana means “to see things as they really are,” not as we think they should be. (Goenka) “Insight, a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens…. cultivation of the mind, aimed at seeing in the special way leads to insight and to full understanding.” (Gunaratana) That’s a mouthful. I was looking for a piece of it.
The fourth day of our retreat marked a new beginning to me. I had no expectation, only wanting to take in all that was given. There was a two-hour session planned for the teaching of the Vipassana technique. I went in really excited to see what was next. I sat on my cushion, and prepared to kick back for a video.
I noticed that there was a good bit of movement in the room, and the older students seemed to really be preparing for something. What was going on? Why was everyone not just getting comfy? The truth became clear. The lesson would be one in practice. Right now. For the next two hours. Oh shit! I’m not ready. I don’t know how I’m going to sit! Yes, I‘m high maintenance like that. But I wanted to “get it right.” I had no time to prepare my wooden stool. I was going to have to sit just as I was, with my legs crossed, and face whatever came up. This wasn’t the worst situation in my life, I could do this. Be here now. Calm the anxiety with my breath.
We had spent the previous three days bringing all of our attention to the sensations of the breath at the nostrils. It was the sensation specifically that we were to focus on. The purpose of that was to “develop a more stable and concentrated mind.” Vipassana would take us a step further. We were now to begin paying attention to all sensations on the body, starting at the top of the head and working our way down to the feet. We were to notice everything, not excluding any sensation.
I was aware of the touch of clothing, the weight of a blanket, a cool breeze on my skin. I could feel the pressure of my hands resting on my legs. Our work was to notice any sensation without having a blind reaction to it. If the sensation felt good, don’t have a craving for more of it. If the sensation was “bad,” accept it without having an aversion to it. If I was hot, don’t remove the blanket. If I was cold, don’t cover up. Those who know me already know this challenge. I have had a/c wars with most people I’ve lived with. I get cold. I like balance, and homeostasis! Never mind everyone else who’s hot.
Having an “equanimous mind,” according to Goenka, and my own understanding, meant that I would have the same reaction to all sensation. Each just was what it was. The purpose of this was to recognize the impermanence of all of it. Annica, he would say over and over. Anicca (pronounced aneecha). It means All is Changing. That is important to remember. Where there is pain, anicca. Where there is pleasure, anicca. The law of nature, Dhamma, is that every earthly thing changes. So pain is pain, ok; and pleasure is pleasure, ok. I had heard of this kind of peace of mind before, and had desired to experience it. Now I was learning how.
I knew I had an imbalance in my body, but what to do about it? Just observe. It was important to look at the pain as a Sankhara, a developed negative habit pattern of the mind. I had already been paying much attention to this concept thanks to Louise Hay. I recognize how much our bodies store our emotions. However, it is difficult to see discomfort and not try to fix it. Yet that was the practice. “To see things as they really are,” is to allow the discomfort, the negativity, to arise, to manifest and pass away. We were not to try and change any of it. We would recognize sensation as that, and then move on. The deep ache in my shoulder and base of my skull was begging me to change… Oh crap. I said a lot in that statement huh? I had been begging It to change. I was going to say that it wouldn’t budge, but I guess maybe it’s me. I’m the stubborn one. I had been stretching and shifting and looking for a way out of or more quickly through the pain. I knew it was trying to tell me something, but I wasn’t really listening…
The pain in my hip had things to say as well. I could feel the muscles twisting in their position, as they do. I felt pulsing and maybe pinching up through my gluteal muscle towards the top of the iliac crest of my pelvis. Was it safe? My logical mind wanted to discuss this with me. It wondered if my sciatic nerve was in danger. Oh no. Let’s not go there. “But what if the twisting in our gluteus causes the sciatic nerve to pinch and then we will have to deal with all that pain for the rest of our lives?” (So dramatic) My thoughts went to my sweet little student whom at the time of our coming together had been suffering with sciatic pain for three years. It broke her heart, and mine for her. I considered myself lucky to have not had that experience. Well hell. Now the anxiety was speaking. It yelled something that sounded a lot like, “Attica!” I was breathing and calming and trying to be reasonable, and logical, and safe. All while trying to not have a blind reaction. Finally, I sided with the part of me that wanted some more information first. I would have a meeting with the teacher later to discuss the possibility of sciatic worry. I extended my leg and allowed all the feels to subside. I would shift my position as needed until then.
We had three one-hour sittings during each day; morning, afternoon, and night. During these individual hours, we were instructed to make these Sittings of Strong Determination. This meant that we were not to move at all. Don’t open the eyes or mouth, don’t move the hands or feet. Uh-oh. New layer.
The next step in the practice would take us a little deeper, moving away from the gross physical sensations and looking for the more subtle ones. We were encouraged to spend a little extra time in the areas that he called “blind spots.” These were areas that seemed to have no sensation at all.
Focusing on my chest, I could feel my heartbeat quite easily. As I focused on other small areas, I noticed that I could feel my pulse there too. As a matter of fact, I could feel my pulse everywhere. Wow. How cool, I thought. This was a step. I could see where this was going: Through the observations of the subtlety of sensations, we can begin to grasp the subtlety of the universe. I wanted this. A craving. Hmm. Well shoot, how do I create my world through desire if I can’t crave? There is a difference between a knowing desire and a blind grasping with the fear of losing. Point taken. Thanks for the lesson Self.
Initially, I would allow my eyes, while closed, to move through the different parts of my body. Later I would overhear the teacher say not to do this. In my yoga practice, as I gaze forward, rather than focusing my eyes on a point ahead of me, I tend to focus on the space instead. This allows movement to happen around me without my being effected by it. Here, I allowed my closed eyes to gaze straight ahead while my attention sunk deeper inside to the center of my skull, to that space behind my eyes. From there I would move the attention up and down. This practice would reveal some interesting observations to come.
Day 5, Hurricane Irma arrived. The rains came down hard, and the wind screeched in the dark early morning hour. My roommate and I each opted to meditate in our room for the first session, rather than the meditation hall. Later, on the walk to breakfast, even though it was quite windy, I chose to take an umbrella. I knew the risks. Sure enough, my umbrella turned inside out. I laughed and laughed. There is just something about running in the rain that makes me giggle. I popped it back in place and kept going, using it more as a shield. The waters were beginning to pool, and by lunchtime, we were wading above our ankles to get to the dining hall. We had lost power by this time of the day, but still had a hot lunch, thank goodness. Those generators should be kicking on before the evening though, so we will have hot water for tea then.
After lunch, I laid in my bed and rested. I would not sleep though, because sleep was becoming less necessary. No, that day, instead, I cried. I had already come halfway. I was doing the hard work, and I was proud of myself. To look at us from the outside sitting in the meditation hall, you would think that we were all so peaceful, and maybe some were. But on the inside, for others, chaos. That’s always the way with the journey inside. A lot goes on underneath our shells.
The curtains were open, and I watched the wind move about the earth. The hurricane would not stop us. The rain had become more of a drizzle, but everything was very wet. The sky was various shades of gray, and the trees were greens of all colors. It was a beautiful contrast. This one little tree had limbs that extended like arms. He was the brightest green of them all. He danced and swayed in response to the wind, and I cried and cried tears of joy and gratitude. I was living in a moment that I had seen years before, and had honored and manifested into my reality today. I smiled for all that was, and all that was to come. I knew the rains were bringing a cleansing.
After lunch rest period, I wanted to continue to practice sitting in Sukhasana. I was quite comfortable with my legs crossed this day, having curled into a flat space, and focused on my breath at the nostrils. I did as instructed and began paying attention to the sensations. Then I allowed my awareness to move up and down my body. At this time, there seemed to be a clear and open channel, and my awareness flowed well and more quickly, with no hesitation. I felt my focus narrowing more and more. I could feel my thoughts commentating the action, but then begin to move to the outskirts. Something was happening.
I felt no pain in my body and my mind was pretty clear. With each pass of energy from head to feet and feet to head, I felt a change coming. I began to See vibration; fast-moving particles flashing back and forth across the space in front of me. It was as if I was stepping into, and becoming, the white noise of a TV screen. I could feel my thoughts knocking on the door to come in, but my determination was strong. I wanted to stay in this place and explore as long as my mind would allow it. I knew I was seeing the Universe on an energetic level.
Now I would not say that I had experienced Samadhi, or bliss, according to yogic traditions, because “I” was still there. I was still aware of my own presence, and it is said that during nirvana, there is no thought of self. But I was experiencing something. To me, I had stepped into a layer of the subtle body. This was yoga on the real scale, a union of mind and body. After a few moments, I felt and saw, my skin, my body, my earth reality, re-materialize around this space that I call Me. Oh, you know what? It was actually like on Star Trek where they do that teleport thing. Vibration and re-materialization. Truth. I know it sounds weird, but it happened. I promise you this, the rest of the day did not go as delightfully. I had a much harder time concentrating. I may’ve been craving the experience rather than accepting what each new hour brought. Revelations of the practice.
After our evening discourse and meditation, we retired to our rooms once again. I could hear the water pump working outside our window and thought how helpful that would be given the lake forming outside. After brushing my teeth and doing the routine, I went to lay down in bed. Since we still didn’t have power, it was quite warm in the room. I broke silence and asked my roommate if she minded me opening the window. She said not at all but that the water pump was loud. It had stopped running, so I opened the window and let in a breeze. Just as I sat back down on the bed, the pump started up again. My roommate said she had earplugs so it wouldn’t bother her; it was up to me. I said I would be fine with the noise, and left it alone. Until it became too much. I got back up and closed the window. The pump shut off. We looked at each other. I reopened the window, sat down, pumped turned on. Are you kidding me? ha! We laughed about that again and again. I closed the window for the final time, curled up and drifted into a good sleep.
That night, my dreams were crystal clear, like never before. I dream often, and in color, but this was different. It was as if my vision were a rectangular tv screen, and I could see every corner. All the shady spots and vignette that normally accompany my dreams was washed clean; the colors were vibrant. I could see every space between and around the figures. It was at once one of the most amazing and most bizarre experiences of my life.
When I awoke on the morning of the sixth day, I did not feel well. I felt off. I went to the morning meditation and have no idea how that went. Actually, all of the morning meditations are a little foggy to me now; probably because I was still half asleep, or wishing I was. But this particular morning was different. On the way to breakfast, all I could think about was black tea. That’s all I wanted, or needed. Some tea would set things right. I walked into the dining hall and guess what? The power was still out. No hot water for tea. I put my hand down to steady myself. Mutiny! I say. I felt the temperature of my blood rise in an instant. What about those generators?! I wanted to scream. But knowing life as I do, I knew that this was one more layer, of shit, to navigate. Families go days or weeks without power, or water, or even food, due to hurricanes; have some perspective, I said. I accepted what was and moved on. It is amazing how once you learn to accept the things you cannot change, how that alone changes everything. I sat and enjoyed my delicious breakfast, keeping my peace.
On the way back to my room for a morning nap, I stopped at the banks of the pond and looked out over the lily pads. The sun was rising and the sky was a beautiful blue. That crystal clear vision from my dream had carried over into this waking moment. The greens and browns were so vivid. The sounds of the birds and frogs so clear. I was in a state of peace and awe. I did return for a nap, and after the morning meditation, equilibrium had returned and all was well.
I continued to struggle throughout the rest of the course with sitting for the hour and a half, and two-hour meditations. Though certain discomforts began to subside, others would pop up in their place. My mind would wander, and wonder, and I would “smilingly bring it back” as Goenka had instructed. I liked that a lot because I am one to berate myself for shortcomings. I read one of the bulletins where he said to not sit in torture, that was not the point. I was grateful for this advice. If needed, stand up in place, or go for a walk and come back. That was another saving grace in the moment. I had been contemplating the difference between discipline and dogma. Where do we draw the line, and hear our own intuition? And where do we hold tight, reaping the most benefits from our strong determination? These were questions that would remain over the next few days.
I also wondered what was to come. What more would I learn? What would the end of this journey look like? Every ending is a new beginning. What would life be like on the other side? I would have to wait and see. I still had four more days to go. Or rather, I only had 4 days left. Does that make me a glass-half-empty kind of girl. Maybe, but I wanted to savor every moment.
To Be Continued…