With a hesitant smile, I just voluntarily signed a document to commit myself to 10 days of around 10 hours of silent sitting meditation a day.
No talking, no phone, no writing, no reading, no eye contact or other distractions.
As the teacher SN Goenka calls it: It’s time to tame the ‘wild elephant’ that we call the mind….
Although I have been practicing more than 10 years of mindfulness and attended many meditation retreats in the Zen tradition, I feel a bit nervous about my first Vipassana retreat.
I realize that the last 6 months weren’t my most mindful months of my life. And that is an understatement. My mind is scattered, worried and only occasionally in the now.
We are about 100 people, both Thai and foreigners. It is hot season. And in central Thailand, that means hot! On the first day you can feel the agitation in the meditation hall as we all try to focus on our breathing in a room of 30+ degrees.
Sweat is streaming down my body while listening to the roaring sounds of fans all around. 1 hour down, about 90 hours of sitting meditation to go….This will be a rollercoaster ride I think by myself….
My ‘wild elephant’ mind does what it always does: Think of things that I still need to do. Or it comes up with ideas or opportunities for the future. My mind is a ‘future-mind’ more than a ‘past-mind’.
Thinking about the future is perhaps more useful, but still incredibly disconnected from the present moment.
And I know that in the now is where life actually occurs, where all the conditions for my happiness can be found. The flowers, the trees, the blue sky, gratitude for having 3 meals a day, a smile of a child, my beloved ones, my health, my organs, my friends, my breath etc.
I once started writing down all the conditions for happiness I already have today and after 4 pages I got the point……
These conditions for our happiness are just hanging out there in the now waiting to be discovered! However, like most of us, my tendency is to look for those last few conditions somewhere in the future.
As a teacher once called it: The Western disease is: I can be only happy when…..[fill in your condition of choice]. The fundamental error!
So back to the sweaty meditation hall. It’s me and my future-oriented mind. Interesting ideas pop up every other minute.
The fact that I can’t write anything down for 10 days works brilliantly for me. I know I can’t possibly remember all my great ideas (I think they are great ;)) for 10 days, so I just let them all go…..just let it go….
And I meet again my competitive mind! I want to sit longer hours than the day before and longer than my neighbors. I challenge myself to sit hours without moving. At day 8, I humbly realize that this really got in the way of my practice for about 4 days….My ego liked it though smile emoticon
No day is boring. Every day is different. One day I feel calm and can sit with a gentle smile. Other days, I feel pains in my body and annoyed in my mind.
One day there is joy. The next there is despair. Pleasant sensations come and go. Unpleasant sensations come and go.
Sounds familiar? Welcome to our life story!
The whole idea of Vipassana is actually to recognize pleasant and unpleasant sensations without turning that into liking/ disliking and eventually craving/ aversion.
In one word: EQUANIMITY, which I would translate as welcoming any sensation with an open mind and open heart, knowing deep down that this sensation too will pass.
Practicing equanimity prevents me from holding on to things that I will lose one day. And it prevents me from suppressing or escaping things that I don’t want, but that are part of everyone’s life (e.g. disease, unpleasant emotions, aging, death). Don’t confuse equanimity with indifference, its close enemy.
Once our mind is equanimous, we can observe without judgment ANY sensation without a programmed reaction to it. A sense of calm and non-fear arises. With non-fear, I mean no fear of fear when it arises.
I realized that from such place of equanimity, I can then take very wise and effective action and stay content irrespective of circumstances.
Sounds cool right? Well, easier said than done.
As the teacher tells me: Understanding this intellectually is virtually meaningless. It’s needs to be experienced.
But on day 9, my mind started dwelling in equanimity. I am sweating in a full meditation hall with a pinched nerve in my back, a numb foot and a shallow breath, but feel more calm, happy and peaceful than ever before. I feel zero urge to move or react to anything. I just feel content. For hours and hours.
I just observed with awareness both pleasant and unpleasant sensations without adding any story, drama or interpretation to it from my mind. They can be there and I know they will go away as well. No need to change my posture or do anything really.
Just watch. It’s all part of this journey called life.