Learning To Meditate Takes More Than Just Sitting On Your Ass.
By Sam Negri
MAY 10, 1999: Mysteries are everywhere, but there is nothing more mysterious than leaving the earth unexpectedly.
It was late spring, a week or two before the May Vipassana meditation retreat at the Regina Cleri Center on East 22nd Street. Regina Cleri, a Catholic facility built in the 1950s as a prep school for aspiring priests, is now used for a variety of religious and community gatherings, Buddhist among them. Probably it wasn't intended for out-of-body experiences, but you never know.
Vipassana meditation is a part of the Buddhist tradition, but those attending the retreat came from a wide variety of backgrounds, and became instantly anonymous. In a setting where the participants do not speak, conventional labels disappear. Many of them not only practice silence, they also avoid any eye contact whatsoever. At mealtimes, with nobody to talk to or even look at, you develop an unusually intimate relationship with the food on your plate.
But not talking has its value. The man or woman across the table might be a surgeon, a pilot, or someone just out of prison. They might be a Jew, a Catholic, an atheist or a Baptist. At a Vipassana retreat, it doesn't matter because the emphasis is to learn to appreciate what is happening at the present, at any given moment, without wasting time making judgments about religious or professional labels. There's a popular Buddhist joke that captures the spirit of the thing succinctly: "No self? No problem!"
Vipassana is a word from the Pali language of India and means "to see distinctly." Sometimes it's translated as insight meditation because, when practiced over a long period of time, it leads to an extraordinary degree of mental clarity and perceptiveness. Never is the word translated as levitation, yet there I was on that Sunday afternoon, weightless on the patio...
The morning was warm and I was seated on a kitchen chair. It was early in the day and the sun had not yet reached the incineration stage. I could feel its warmth on my back as I closed my eyes and began paying attention to the triangle formed by my nostrils and my upper lip. Isn't this what everybody does on a Saturday morning in Tucson? I was going to relax and observe my breathing, watching the gentle flow of air gliding up the nostrils and down into the lungs.
Critters surrounded me. On my left I could hear a curved-bill thrasher; about 30 feet behind him, perched in an arthritic paloverde tree, there was the unmistakable soprano chirp of a cardinal; closer, on the wood fence behind me, I could hear the obnoxious cackling of a cactus wren. Somehow I was going to shut out all these distractions, but the first thought that came to mind was a New Yorker cartoon showing a cow and a simple caption: "Oom spelled backwards is moo."
I smiled my best pre-senile dementia smile and then relaxed into a meditative state. I watched my breath for about five minutes, growing more relaxed and settled. Then I moved my attention to my left hand. That was one of the first practices Mary McWhorter had taught me.
MARY, WHO HAS been practicing the Vipassana techniques taught by Shinzen Young for many years, converted her garage into the Tucson Community Meditation Center. One day I drove over there and introduced myself. It wasn't exactly like visiting a Salvation Army mission. I wasn't looking for salvation and she wasn't preaching any religious dogma. What I was looking for was a way to relax and cut through my many discursive thoughts, and I wanted a method that did not involve drugs, psychiatrists, money, God, or ethnic blackmail. Which is another way of saying I didn't have any idea what I was looking for other than a way to cut through all the noise and find simple clarity.
A good way to start, Mary said, was to close your eyes, let your body settle, and then bring your attention to your left hand. Not just the hand, but each finger, each nail, the space between the fingers, the palm, the veins, the wrist. Sitting in the morning sunlight, I did just that. To tell the truth, my left hand wasn't all that interesting, but studying it made me stop thinking about 14 other things.
From Mary, I heard a lot about Shinzen Young, a Vipassana teacher who leads retreats in Tucson once or twice a year. Shinzen is an American-born meditation teacher who has established numerous meditation programs in North America. In 1967 he entered a Ph.D. program in Buddhist studies at the University of Wisconsin. Three years later, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk at Mt. Koya, Japan. After several years of training in various Asian monasteries he became interested in the scientific study of meditative states and worked at the Princeton Biofeedback Institute. In 1992 he co-founded, with Shirley Fenton, the Vipassana Support Institute (in Santa Monica) to train meditation facilitators and to create a network to support meditation practice. His teachings emphasize applying the benefits of meditation in daily life, and he freely admits that some Buddhist purists are critical of the hybrid method he has adapted for Western sensibilities.
Mary gave me some tape recordings of his lectures on Vipassana. As a result, I became familiar with his voice and his thoughts long before I met him face to face. When we met at the Regina Cleri retreat last spring, I had a hard time connecting that recorded voice to the image before me. What had I expected? Someone with a shaved head and a saffron robe, at the least. But Shinzen wore ordinary clothes and had the kind of haircut you would see on any middle-aged male. He could have been the man next door, the banker, your doctor, an educator. Educator seemed to fit best.
After a good deal of wrangling with my own head (What is this guy up to? I asked), I came to the conclusion that if there is any clear testament to the value of meditation, Shinzen may be its personification. Both in his speech and his writings, there was a clarity and level-headedness that was emotionally and intellectually appealing.
While participants in the Vipassana retreats do not speak to each other, there are group question-and-answer periods with the teacher, and at one of these, I told Shinzen about the day I left the earth:
"I was meditating, feeling pretty relaxed, when I suddenly realized I could no longer detect my body. I couldn't feel my feet on the ground. I just felt weightless, like I was up in the air. It felt great, but then I thought, 'This feels so good that maybe I'll just keep going and never come down.' A part of me knew, of course, that I was still just sitting in a chair and had never left the ground, but still I wondered if somehow I might just go away."
"There's no need to worry about that," Shinzen said. "Eventually your bladder will bring you back."
It was an inglorious but accurate observation, and it was typical of his approach. Many westerners want to think of meditation as an esoteric or trendy practice that requires a predisposition toward mysticism. However, even though it is unusual and seemingly mysterious to those who have never experienced it, those who practice it on a regular basis see that its applications are plainly practical. Who would not see the benefits of "a clear mind and an open heart?" as Eric Kolvig, another Vipassana teacher, put it during a retreat in Tucson last fall? Does this sound like utopia, the detour that leads to self-knowledge and perfection? If so, it is an unexpected variation of perfection similar to the one described by Palo Maurensig in his new novel, Canone Inverso:
"Perfection, you see, is related to infinity, but infinity is not the infinitely big. It is also the infinitely small. Perfection can suggest the idea of forward movement, but also the idea of coming to a halt. The search for perfection proceeds with a pace that becomes infinitely slower. It is a continuous progression that nevertheless gradually reduces itself as it approaches its goals."
SO, THAT SEARCH for a clear mind (if not perfection) led me to a minimalist world, a chair, a cushion and silence in an unadorned room at Regina Cleri. The Vipassana retreat started on a Wednesday and ended on Sunday. We slept in dormitories, woke at 5 a.m., and could attend as many "sits," or scheduled meditation sessions, as we wanted from sunrise to 9 p.m. Some of these sessions were guided meditations which were particularly useful to those who hadn't spent much time thinking about meditation or trying to distinguish it from other experiences like thinking or praying or smoking marijuana. Shinzen, in a paper entitled "Stray Thoughts on Meditation," says of the Buddhist tradition, "Meditation consists of two aspects or components. The first, called samatha in Sanskrit, is the step by step development of mental and physical calmness. The second, vipasyana [vipassana], is the step by step heightening of awareness, sensitivity and clarity...
"Samatha, if taken to an extreme, leads to special trance states; these may be of value, but they are not the ultimate goal of Buddhism. The practice of clear observation, on the other hand, if developed with sufficient intensity and consistency, leads to a moment of insight into the nature of the identification process. At that moment, awareness penetrates into the normally unconscious chain of mental events which gives us rock-solid convictions like 'I am so-and-so' or 'such-and-such really matters.' This insight brings with it a radical and permanent change in perspective, and the full manifestations of its implications in daily life are the goals of Buddhist meditation."
So, how does one get to this place where the mind is still? For starters, Shinzen explained one morning during the retreat, you break down any experience to its components and sub-components. For example, when meditating, a thought can be regarded as a tangle of the mind and a body sensation. If you can keep track of how much is thought and how much is feeling, you can diminish suffering. Letting go, or simply accepting what you experience without judging it, is a major aspect of meditation.
"Conscious thought is some combination of words and pictures," he said. "As things pop into your head, note each component: Is it talk? Is it image? Is it some combination of the two? In meditation, you can think of experience as a melting and a freezing--meaning that a thought or feeling comes up in some loose form, you freeze or stop it and see if it's 'talk' (telling yourself a story) or image (a picture that comes to mind). If you keep track of which part of a thought is words and which part is images or pictures, you are beginning to break down the sub-components of thought."
The same thing can be done with feelings. Most of us experience body sensations every minute of every day, and in meditation those sensations--an itch here, a ping there, pain in the lower back, and so forth--are simply acknowledged and accepted. As he or she is sitting quietly, a meditator may be tracking subtle sensations that surface all over the body. If he feels an itch near his right ear, he may say to himself, "Ear, accepting," or just "ear," and not move to scratch that itch. Most of the time, the itch just goes away. Often, the same process can eliminate pain.
I hadn't thought about pain when I started investigating meditation. Specifically, it hadn't occurred to me that sitting still could be painful, but, next to taming one's discursive thoughts, the discipline of sitting still for any length of time was initially excruciating. At first, 10 minutes seemed like a long sit, but by the end of the retreat I found I was meditating in sessions that lasted between 45 and 90 minutes without having to be carried off on a stretcher.
How did it happen? By paying attention and letting go. At some point, I was sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, listening to Shinzen's voice. This is a paraphrase of what he said:
When you perceive a sensation, try to locate it in the body. Identify its center and focus your awareness on the center. Then look at the imaginary lines leading away from the center (up, down, right, left). Then look at how the sensation feels a centimeter away from the center. In other words, if you feel a pain in the back of your neck, try to locate the center of it or where it is most intense, and then move your attention to the right or left of that point. Think of it this way: if you throw a rock into a pond, the point where it hits the water creates the most turbulence. That's were your pain would be greatest (its center). But, the stone that hits the water sends out ripples here and there and the turbulence is less intense the farther away you look from the point where the stone landed. Usually, it's the same with pain: it will send out ripples throughout your body, so you may notice that you feel it a little less an inch away from where it is most intense, and less two inches away, etc.
Once you've explored the entire sensation, do nothing. The foundation of Vipassana meditation is noninterference. You do nothing. Often--some would say always--suffering comes from resistance to pain; it's the resistance that makes you hurt for longer periods. Take away the resistance and the pain dissipates.
I didn't believe it. And yet, in the last year, I've employed this method repeatedly and often with success.
Getting the mind to shut out its own noise is perhaps the most difficult exercise for those of us caught up in the world of work and domestic obligations. In the beginning, my thoughts either drizzled or rained down on me, then flowed like a gravity feed to this or that subject. What needs to be done tomorrow? Who needs to be called? What bills to pay this week? When this mental avalanche comes at me now, I often hear a reminder from the instructor: "Confusion is intrinsic in our lives. Sooner or later you have to make friends with your confusion."
The implication was enough: while you may get calmer and more clearly focused, your confusion will never disappear.
When discursive thoughts pop into your head (driving you nuts), said Shinzen, "Realize that each sentence is you talking to yourself, each corresponds to an internal dialogue. You may see a picture of yourself doing something. A feeling in the body manifests itself as internal dialogue, internal imagery or internal sensation (fear, bliss, frustration, etc.). If you keep at it--that is, if you simply observe and note that you had a thought, that it came as words or as an image, at some point the talk will stop happening." Or, at least, it won't happen as intrusively as it previously did.
You start, he said, by taking a systematic inventory of experience and then you start all over, each time expanding and contracting the experience. This is one way of meditating. You have a pattern and you know what you're looking for and you stick to that pattern. The hand meditation was my starting point. Then I began the "inventory," moving my attention from head to foot--allowing myself to become aware of my forehead, eye sockets, jaw, tongue, chin, neck, shoulders, chest, torso, legs and feet. Then I would begin the sweep up the back of my legs to the spinal column and picture each rib wrapping around my body, eventually ending my imaginary journey at the back of my head.
Sometimes (often, in fact) my attention would get diverted by some thought. As time went by, however, I found I could simply say to myself, "talk," or "image" if a specific scene had come to mind, and bring myself back to the focus of my concentration.
The idea is this: precise observation leads to clarification. It becomes clear when its components are identified. Things go from being opaque to being transparent or impermanent. At times, doing this, you can't always predict where you'll end up. One day I was sitting in the meditation hall at Regina Cleri with my attention focused on sounds, and somehow I ended up under the basement floor.
I was relaxed and my eyes were closed. I could hear the rumble of traffic out on East 22nd Street. I started to visualize an imaginary circle around my head and went from the point where sound was loudest to points next to it to see if I could find silent places. In that imaginary circle, I heard a hum which varied in intensity from place to place. Then I invented an imaginary vertical line perpendicular to the circle. I explored the intensity of the sound upward along that line but it didn't seem to change. I followed it down and it changed to the image of steam. I followed it through the tile floor to the basement (was there a basement? I don't know), and under a concrete floor until "sound" became part of the soil under the whole building.
Then the meditation period ended.
During subsequent periods of guided meditation, the focus shifted in other directions so that different times the object of the session was to explore the sense of touch, Touch, the feel of the ambient air, breezes on the skin, the points at which one body part touches another (folded hands, lips touching, feet against the floor, tongue against the teeth), clothes touching the body, shirt against neck, sleeve on the arm, etc.; or on sound: isolating the sound coming to one ear, then the other, then looking for silent spots; or on light, meaning the light coming through the eyelids.
MINDFULNESS MEDITATION, or Vipassana, Shinzen says, is similar to using a microscope. "The microscope is an awareness-extending tool that allows us to see something that is always there but not evident to the naked eye. The mindfulness practice, the concentration practice that you will be developing here, is to the exploration of your internal world what the microscope is to the exploration of the external world."
In other words, meditation is a movement from the macrocosm to the microcosm, or, as the late Joseph Campbell put it (in a positive sense), a movement toward the infantile unconscious. Campbell wrote, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces:
"It is the realm that we enter in sleep. We carry it within ourselves forever. All the ogres and secret helpers of our nursery are there, all the magic of childhood. And more important, all the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of our self, are there; for such golden seeds do not die. If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvelous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life."
That is as good a summary as any to describe the residual effects of Vipassana meditation.
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