Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Vipassana experience

Disclaimer: These are my thoughts and interpretations of what was taught during a 10-day Vipassana introductory course. I'll try to be accurate, but I'm doing this from memory so I apologize for any mistakes. I suggest the Vipassana Wikipedia entry as a starting point if you want a more neutral, matter of fact synopsis.

Summary: Vipassana is a nonsectarian meditation technique, focusing on results and practicality. One should be able to immediately see improvements in one's ability to deal with situations, with an aim towards liberty and eventually enlightenment (in the Buddhist sense). I personally found the living conditions a daily strain on my nerves, which greatly hindered my enjoyment of the 10-day course. I am currently skeptical of the results and am withholding judgment on its efficacy.

A) The Vipassana Course
Day 1 -- Observing respiration: Instructions on sitting are not given, with only the suggestion that one keeps one's back straight and head high. As such, people adopted various sitting positions. I switched between several, eventually keeping to a relaxed half lotus, both legs lying on the floor, with a couple cushions to prop my rump up. All meditation was performed with the eyes closed. The first day or so was spent trying to breathe normally and to observe the air flowing in and out of the nostril (or nostrils, whatever the case may be), feeling it on the edges of the nostril as well as along the inner walls. When one's attention wanders (which it inevitably and naturally will), gently pull it back to this task, without feeling disappointment or frustration. This exercise serves to a) begin the process of training one's mind to sharpen its area of focus and b) to get in the habit of pulling one's thoughts back to respiration, or whatever task was originally at hand. These random thoughts that distract one's brain are quite prolific in quantity, a response of the brain when given a task that requires minimal sensory attention. To paraphrase S. N. Goenka, it would be impossible to attempt to make a diary of all the thoughts that intrude onto one's meditation -- they are too numerous.

I thought of food, sure. Hamburgers and steaks and chicken curries. My entirely non-existent relationships with women, so very virtual in nature. Work and the people there. Curiously enough, I also found myself thinking, unbidden, of video games. Unreal, Warcraft 3, Diablo 2.

Day 2 -- Focusing on the triangle of nose: We shift the area of concern to the triangular area of the nostrils and include the skin of the upper lip, feeling the breath pass over this area. When one finds it difficult to get a sense of where this area is, or is unable to feel the air there, a couple harder breaths may be temporarily exercised to refocus. Once we get a hang of this, we shrink the area of focus to the skin between the nostrils and the upper lip, or the moustache area.

At this point, one should begin to find that one feels a sensation on this concentrated area. It can be anything, from something gross like the passing air to a subtle numbness. It can be a sharp prickle, or just feel cold or hot or sweaty. I often experienced a kind of poking or prodding, though I recall one time getting the sensation that three beetles were crawling around my nostril and cheek area. So real was the phenomenon that I had to resist reaching up to verify that it was imagined.

Day 3 -- Scanning the body, part by part: Now that we had trained this skill of focusing on searching for sensations on a part of the body, we were instructed to now sweep the entire body for sensations, passing the mind's eye from the top of the head down to the shoulders, over each arm to the fingers, down the chest and back, and down each leg individually. I found the hardest places to get a feeling for was my back and upper chest -- if I concentrate long enough I am able to feel my clothes against my skin, but it's arduous and slow going. I noticed that I would subconsciously expand my chest to press against my shirt so that I could feel it.

I also found myself scanning not my body from the inside out, but rather imagined a model of my body and looking at that from the outside, like a 3D wire-frame computer model being rotated in some cheesy sci-fi manner. I had to actively force myself to look out from the inside (or rather feel outwards), though for a long time I kept seeing my mind's eye as a kind of scanning laser.

Day 6 -- Sittings of Determination ("What is in the box?" "Pain."): Three times a day we would now have to perform sittings of determination, meaning we would meditate for one hour without moving, without re-adjusting our positions. This stipulation drastically changed the meditation from an exercise to real work, grueling, intensive work. I found myself reciting the Litany against fear:"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.", as I allowed myself to be swallowed in pain three times a day.

The point of all this is thus: To break free from the bondage of desire and aversion, to lift oneself out of misery, one must accept that life is change, that good can change to bad and that bad can change to good. As such, one needs to learn to not despair when things go poorly and, equally, to not exult when things go well. This is easy enough to say, but Vipassana trains you to do it. When meditating in this manner, you strive to remain both aware and equanimous. That is, to be aware of the sensations as you pass your focus over your body, and to merely observe them, to keep telling oneself, "This sensation will pass" and to neither crave it (if pleasurable) nor to resent it (if painful). In this way, one conditions one's responses to situations in life. This is because when faced with a pleasant or unpleasant situation, the body reacts without the mind telling it to.

For example, when someone insults you or aggressively confronts you in some manner, your body automatically reacts without your mind (your conscious mind) thinking about it -- your heart rate increases, you become flush, you tense up, your brow may furrow, you might be holding your breath etc. This is because your subconscious mind recognizes this insult and reacts as it's been conditioned to when upset. Vipassana meditation seeks to break this conditioning, allowing you to see the situation for what it is, suppressing the typical emotional response from interfering with your ability to observe and assess the situation. In theory, this suppression will lead to an extinguished state where you have no (physiological) reaction at all to what happens, freeing your mind to act as it sees fit.

I know it sounds a little kooky but it does have a kind of logic to it. The rest of the days were pretty much working on these Sittings of Determination, and time became slower and slower. On the second day I found it difficult to accept that I had eight more days of meditation left, it seemed so agonizingly far away. With the Sittings, the last few minutes of the hour were nigh intolerable. There were times I just wanted to stand up and exclaim, "That's ENOUGH!" and storm out. Later I got better at ignoring the hurt (without ignoring the pain) and still I couldn't wait for the hour to end. I found having my eyes closed for so long suffocating, claustophobic, like trying to sleep when one isn't tired.

On the tenth day the Noble Silence (the vow to not talk, to avoid eye contact, to not gesture or otherwise communicate with the other practitioners) was lifted. When I broke it by saying hello to someone, I was unable to stop smiling and a wave of elation washed over me and I was bemused to find myself thus. I had not craved or missed talking to others, but when finally I did it changed everything.

Many people ask me if I had any epiphanies or if I feel any different. Epiphanies I do not recall, which the teachers warn not to expect. However, I certainly do feel different but it's too early to say what is causing that. It could be sleep deprivation, it could be that I lost 8lbs, it could be that I was mostly miserable for 10 days and am now free again to live (and eat!) as I choose. I do admit that it could also be because all that meditation really did make a difference, but I rather think it's too early to definitively say.

Monday, August 25, 2008

a letter from Vipassana

Here's the text of an email I wrote a friend regarding my Vipassana experience, a teaser of a much longer article I'm working on.
it was the most grueling thing i'd ever done. i was pushed to the limits of my mental tolerance. it is not easy stuff to do.
i don't think it has any particular agenda, but i didn't enjoy their "If you are doing Vipassana correctly, you'll want other people to join." philosophy. Otherwise, there doesn't seem to be anything suspicious or fishy about it.
Most of the people, on the last day when we could talk, seemed to have loved the experience. i was mostly just glad to get out of there, but i admit that i was curious as to what effect it would have on my daily life. thus far, it's hard to say. i think i'm still recovering from the lack of sleep and food (i lost 8 lbs!), so i'm hesitant to gauge any differences in my emotions and reactions.
it might be a lot less shocking if you are already in the habit of meditating every day, which most of the others seemed to have. As a non-practitioner, I found it quite a bit to take. I was very tempted on the 2nd or 3rd day to just leave and forget the whole thing.
but in the end i'm glad i persevered and stayed, if only for the experience. i don't know if i can recommend it, but maybe my mind will change later. right now i can only remember the suffering and intensity.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

back from Vipassana

Well, I'm back. Tired, mentally and physically. I'm not sure yet what effect 10 days of Vipassana meditation (100 hours total) has or will have on me. Right now I feel the drain of little sleep, little food and little exercise. In fact, I may just treat myself to some McDonald's! I have many thoughts and notes which I'll leak out over the next while. Right now I need real sustenance, to consume the flesh of an animal and feel ALIVE.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pineapple Express, kung fu, BBQ, Musa the restaurant

I find Seth Rogen funny. He may not have a lot of range but he's consistently amusing whenever I see him. In Pineapple Express he plays yet again the relatively straight but fun-loving and easy-going slightly chunky dude, this time teaming up with his old Freak and Geeks alumni, James Franco. Franco's a natural for that stoner role he's carved for himself, and in Pineapple Express he's just as endearing as ever. So, we've got this lovable pair who are funny whenever they're on screen (which is the most of the film), and the film itself has all the ingredients of being great -- the right atmosphere, the right plot hooks, and some likable, engaging characters. Unfortunately, the second half just unravels and gets out of hand and is silly and predictable and doesn't tie all the ends and lets you down as you watch it slip away, bemoaning the promises of something better. Like the drug, Pineapple Express is light and airy fun.

I went to a black-belt seminar on Saturday, seeing my old friends and teachers again. It was good to be back, working and training hard. Though called a seminar it was more of a relaxed "train what you want" type session. Myself, I worked on tiger-crane, of which I held a fragmented version in my head for many months. A complicated, lengthy form, I learned almost half of it in the two hours we were there. Afterwards was a BBQ at someone's nearby house. I say house, but when someone has their own swimming pool, cabanas, hot tub, sauna, tree-house with leather furniture and a skate park, "house" seems inadequate.

Someone pointed out to me that this has been the coldest and wettest summer in Toronto in a while, which at the time I wasn't so sure about but definitely this past weekend has put up quite the argument for it. I mean, it has been downright chilly these past few nights! I actually had to turn on my car's heater at some points. Which reminds me, on the drive to KW I had a near-religious visual experience. Saturday evening, Toronto overcast with no sky to be seen, dark and heavy clouds spewing down. As I near Kitchener, I can see that the sky is opening up ahead of me, a band of blue at the horizon. The sun is peeping near the edge where the clouds end and the sky begins. And as I'm cruising on the 8 off the 401, I'm struck by this golden beam. I keep driving and the walls of the highway (where the 8 dips as it approaches the downtown) and the road are still slick with rain and the sun is just at the right angle to blind you and it's reflecting on all these surfaces and they're all gold and all brilliant and you put your hands in front of you and are still driving and can barely see the car in front of you, it being nothing more than a vague outline, a darker shade of gold. Everything is gold, in every direction, shining. It was incredible, something I suspect I may never see again, something that cannot be captured on film or in a painting. Even these words are but a pale description, falling short of the experience.

Once I got to my destination, while BBQing we took in the remaining amazing view -- ocean blue skies, clouds sharply defined with orchid purples , a double rainbow, and an ethereal light to it all. Oh, I was in KW to watch UFC with friends, which was overall fun.

And yet, somehow there is more this day, which you may have heard about. I didn't make it home until after 3:30 or so, and that was about the time of those propane tank explosions near Keele and Wilson, not far from the Downsview Airport. I experienced it as this loud rolling rumble, which I had a first thought was thunder but it just kept going and going and going. Oh yeah, I remember the first distinctive bang, a crack that shook my apartment's windows. Nutty, to think about it now. And all those sirens! I had assumed it was the usual Saturday night crowd. Huh.

Ok, last point for this post -- I just had the steak and salad special at Musa and it was fantabulous, just amazilicious. The steak was a regular tasty steak except that it was covered in wine-soaked portobello mushrooms. This scrumptious duo sat on a bed of salad with balsamic vinaigrette and a few shavings of Parmesan. This combination of flavours was angelic, delightful, a veritable explosion of delectability. Highly and wholly recommended, if any of their other dishes are as good.

Ok, enough for tonight. I have packing to do the next few nights, but maybe I'll have another entry before my trip.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

a quickie about getting ready for the retreat

Just another six days until I leave for Barrie and Vipassana. I decided, perhaps rashly, that I would stop my coffee consumption today. I got through work well enough but my ride home was filled with unease and mild headaches. I seem to be paying quite a bit now, but that could be the orange Mr. Clean fumes as I am trying to tidy my place up before leaving. I also got rid of a rug that I suspect was responsible for the vast majority of the dust in my apartment. Whoo craigslist!

Anyway! Six more days. I bought a couple cushions for meditating on, a travel alarm clock and some clothes (but I may get more). They say to bring mosquito repellent and a water bottle, which I think I'll get tomorrow from MEC. I do worry that I'll forget much of my Korean, and how much my body will atrophy without exercise.

Oh gosh this was a bad idea. This journal entry, I mean. a) I don't have any news, and b) I am bushed. Time to shutdown.

Monday, August 04, 2008

bell or rogers

Yes that's right -- I hate BOTH Bell and Rogers. Rogers, well, there are so many, many reasons to hate those guys, fumbling over themselves to snatch every penny they can shake out of you. But most recently my disgust has flared up with their iPhone offerings, a package so pricey, so draconian I wonder that they should have the gall. Yet that is not the worst of it -- the worst is that people who are already with Rogers have to buy out their old plan first and lose their old number. Oh jaded snipers and bombers with agendas, wherefore do thee not do away with these media tyrants? Please send your head-cutting psychopaths to do something useful with thine Bowie knives!

Oh, and Bell? I just learned (although apparently it's been in place since January) that if you do not have an long distance plan, your LD calls are subject to an extra "LD network connection fee". WHAT THE HELL!!! Long distance calls are also charged by DISTANCE. Dudes, seriously, can we not do something to stop these crazied nickel-and-dime policies?

Thinking about it, I'm going to get rid of my Bell line. Screw 'em.