Like so many other young adults (and a number of old children), I enjoyed a period of experimentation in which I snuck a peek behind a variety of curtains in hopes of figuring things out. These explorations included, but were not limited to, the consumption of various concoctions and substances which resulted in a variety of desirable (and, at times, less-than-desirable) sensations.
It is easy to regard mortality with fit and folly when one has sneaking suspicions that one will never die. Oh, youth!
Ecstasy is an aptly named pharmacological substance based on the sensation of the user's experience. Halfway through one particular ecstatic occasion, an enjoyable evening took on an unexpected and remarkably amplified frill of distraction. The bouncing ball that danced across the bottom of the screen in my mind-- the one I was following intently in order to make sense of the evening-- suddenly exploded into a cloud of confused butterflies.
I suspected something was up - although not at the time, mind you. The only choice was to keep calm and continue enjoying the ride. Sifting through the fog of morning retrospect, one interesting recollection was a deep and meaningful conversation with a carrot. Last night did not go as planned. This was chalked up as a complete success, because last night was extremely fun.
Years later, when I actually chose to try LSD, did I realize that someone had given me a pill dosed with acid. Butterflies and bouncing balls notwithstanding, they say one must first fully experience in order to truly know.
During the tail end of my first Vipassana retreat, a very similar realization occurred.
When I first started this whole yoga thing, I was the kind of guy who really wanted to meditate but had no idea if I was doing it right. The dam controlling my stream of consciousness was clearly broken. Thoughts jumped around with impunity. Everything else in the room, in the world, was more important than what was going on behind the eyelids. I was convinced my mind acted out of spite, in defiance whenever eyes closed with meditative intent. The only time true focus was found was while moving. A competitive swimmer for 16 years, my most calming experiences were had during extended periods of extreme physical exertion. Hours would pass in the blink of an eye. Years of swimming became running. Years of running became yoga. If anything were to help my meditation practice, I was going to need the extra-strength version.
Virtually unchanged after thousands of years of practice, Vipassana is a method of personal transformation through self-observation. One learns to place a great depth of attention on the intimate relationship between the body and mind. Through focused awareness of physical sensation, one is given tools of impartial surveillance to help work through deep rooted seeds of misery called Sankara. Upon dissolving these mental impurities, one ultimately can create a balanced lifestyle of love and compassion. Traditionally shared in a 10-day silent retreat format, one meditates for 14 hours a day in a seated, cross-legged position with brief breaks for food and contemplation. Talk about a crazy trip.
Upon mastering the basic skills required to move and communicate shortly after birth, we actively exercise them on a daily basis. Work. Play. School. Fitness. Love. Over and over and over. A healthy heart is a muscle that requires equal parts work and rest. The brain is a dynamic organism that processes vast quantities of information daily, and will easily overheat if not properly maintained. The soul is no different.
Vipassana delves deep into the understanding of Anitya, the law of impermanence, of change, the act of rising and passing away. The practitioner is asked to engage in equanimous observation of sensation. Essentially, one practices the art of non-judgement towards any of the physical sensations, emotional feelings, or mental thoughts that bubble up. And man OH man do things arise. Back hurts? Observe it. Foot asleep? Observe it. Nostalgic childhood memory? Observe it. Experiencing an overwhelming urge to stab the left eye of person behind you who keeps yawning, farting, and kicking your cushion? Observe it. Observe it. Observe it.
This too shall pass.
It is said that these sensations are physical manifestations of Sankaras. Misery seeds need water to grow. By remaining equanimous and simply observing as they come up, these seeds eventually dissolve away. By attaching a feelings of craving (desire) or aversion (fear) to the observations, they take hold and sprout. Vipassana works by helping one learn to not feed the body's habit patterns of reaction connected to the unconscious mind.
A lot of ego must be released in order to truly drop in. Thankfully, I had plenty to spare. If one can get past the sitting, the silence, and the solitude, the only challenge is to truly allow true equanimity. Negative things invariably come up, as do pleasant sensations. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed feeling good and didn't like feeling bad. Like any true skill, it takes practice to see past the surface and delve deeper.
About 8 days into my first Vipassana experience, an interesting observation arose. At no point during the whole experience had I doubted my ability to do the practice. In fact, the deep state of meditation I had floated in for hours, days, was not unlike the full sense of focus I had during the peak of my swimming career, hour two of a marathon run, or halfway through the secondary series.
Hot damn. Somebody dosed my movement with spirituality.
I laughed out loud. Cried a little bit, too. Observed both as they came up and floated away, compassionately hopeful that the guy sitting in front of me wasn't going to stab me in the left eye.
Thus, I sat.