Well, folx, this is the third and last part of the Vipassana Diaries. Please enjoy 🙂
Sitting in the morning feels like having arrived. Like homecoming. This presence of mind! No more ‘kneedles’. It’s ‘bumfire’ now. Effortlessly aware for about 90 minutes: already it is a memory. Anicca. The continuation of the practice shows that the pain is manageable. After a while it’s the pleasant states that become a prob as I get easily attached to them.
Deep anāpānā – pain doesn’t concern me. Every action becomes so efficient, so precise. Eating out of a small bowl instead of a plate. Not hungry anymore. Peacefully abiding with the momentary change of different tastes while chewing. No thoughts. Quiet mind. The inner monologue/commentary has subsided into the background. Every now and then, a whisper, an insight, an idea, an image, a memory. But 9 out of 10 minutes: silence.
With some distance I get a clearer picture now. It’s not that ‘my mind is defiled’ or that ‘I am defiled’. Rather, there are defilements which everyone shares. Every woman and every man has a share in these defilements (kleshas) which are craving (lobha), aversion (dosa) and delusion (moha). And sankhārā, as I understand it, is not used in plural but in singular. In plural, it would imply that you have some stock of them somewhere which you need to clean out like Augias had to clean that mythological barn. Sankhāra (sing.), however, means nothing but the habit pattern of the mind to identify with the five aggregates (skandhas) and the resulting defilements. Once you watch them, they become weaker because the habit pattern gets weakened by depersonalizing, i.e. objectifying the experience of this present moment.
I feel a bit awkward today. As if nothing really matters. A bit mad. Crazy thoughts of fantastic skills, superman. At the same time: pulsating headache across left temple and eye. Anicca. Anicca. Anicca. Anicca.
The denial of how temporary life is and how ephemeral the things, places and persons are which we tend to get attached to is ridiculous. Well, it would be ridiculous if the level of our clinging wouldn’t have reached epidemic proportions. We have become addicted to craving. Addicted to craving. It’s not about the worldly objects anymore. It’s a sign of our endless search for pleasure. We are pleasure seekers who deny the fact of decay and death with cosmetics, operations, tricks and mindgames.
Taking good care of myself: Drinking enough water to keep the vessel going. Mettā-bhavana at the start and ending of a sitting to keep the attitude bright. Taking a shower when I need one, especially after sittings of strong determination. Walking in nature appreciating its lush beauty.
At least three things have become clear today:
1. Guard the sense doors
2. Transform craving into mettā
3. Observe pain only when you’re ready for it
1. Whenever I attend a meditation retreat again, I will guard my sense doors. Utmost priority will be: Not to look at the female group. There is always one who will look extremely skilled in practice, have a supermodel shape, and be equipped with mysterious tattoos w/ superb style. Dangerous! It ruins practice. So difficult to watch that objectively: blood, urine, pus, body hair, nails, teeth etc. of someone who I find extra hot 😉 Once you’re hoked you’re hooked and it’s all about the future: “How do I get in contact with her?”, “Where is she from?” etc etc. playing movies of how it would be. There is no end to it. Therefore, from beginning to end: Guard the sense doors!
2. To get a glimpse of dhamma is what ten day retreats are for. Practitioners get desperate and exchange gestures, glances, whispers. They don’t keep to themselves. It becomes obvious on day 9. People stuff themselves at lunch. That’s usually a sign of how their meditation is going. Also, on day 8 or 9 you might get really deep into the practice. You might be i spired to stay but alas, the course is over when you just start to see the results. And there you go: You want results. Being swept away by virtual romance, imagination, mindgames, and all of a sudden it dawns on me: I wanted results! As soon as I transformed craving into mettā by applying the technique, I was free from suffering. All this hoping and manoeuvering because of this lady. To find back to dhamma is so wonderful, so wonderful. So liberating. Like coming out of a hut in which the air is so thick it’s hard to breathe you walk out of it onto a field where there is a meadow, there are trees and you breathe in the fresh air and your lungs are frolicking!
3. You are not observing pain to lessen it or to make it go away or to extend the threshold of pain you can bear. You are here to observe it and learn a lesson.
This is somehow a very difficult day for me. At 10 a.m. the Noble Chattering starts. The mind jumps back into the same old habit of chitchat like a child runs back into the room in which its toys have been stowed away.
Oh how beneficial is silence. Silence is really golden!
What can we do? Something can be done: Love and compassion and equanimity regarding my situation in the midst of it all. Not deeming myself any better because I prefer to be still, silent.
A lot of rain is falling today. Rain rain rain rain, beautiful rain 😀 It reminds me of the acronym:
The last sitting from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Incredibley smooth. Flow from top to bottom, bottom to top. Pain starts, anāpānā comes almost automatically for help, cutting and piercing the stings away like swords of wisdom. Then, concluding mettā. I cry because… when will I be so intimate with my breath again, and because it’s Day 10 and all the misery in the world, and we’re all sitting here, and the whole scene is just so moving I am exhilarated to be a part of it, and so indescribably happy for the new students that they pulled through with it and stayed despite the difficulties, despite the ups and downs! I am so grateful to experience this! Je suis très joyeux, très heureux, très content!
Bowker, John: “Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World”
Here you can read about my impressions during my stay at Dhamma Malaya during a Vipassana Meditation retreat. If you’re interested in the previous three days, please click here.
Between two palm trees of the compound I notice the intricate structure of a spider’s web. I follow the threads in order to know where I am able to pass without destroying it. I walk over to my room in block T. Inside, I spot an ant crawling across the room and inspect it. I watch it and take note of the fact that the shadow of an ant is tiny, indeed. Entering the bathroom I see so many of them. They are all checkin de surf in the water basin every time I turn on the tap. Some are coming way too close to the waves I produce and after one or two are swept away into the abyss I refrain from using the basin, taking compassionate action by using water instead from a tap I find next to the shower.
The incessant chatterbox has calmed down. Quiet mind. Images arise from childhood memories to past relationships to future plans. Jumping from past events to future plans becomes so obvious. The workings of the monkey mind, so obvious. No reactivity. Samādhi is stable for about 5-15 minutes. Almost no pain when I sit for an hour. The body adjusts. It seems so, at least. In the morning I eat something even though I am not hungry.
After the Ecstasy, the Laundry
In the afternoon, Vipassana instructions are given. A humbling experience! All I feel is ‘kneedles’… thousands of them. After the stable experience of calmness due to mindfulness of breathing for four days, the judging mind emerges: “I am unable to sit still. Impossible to focus. Mind goes haywire. Is everywhere but here. Like iz my first time at such a retreat. I feel like a beginner again.” Making the mind crammed and narrow. Then again making it wide and spacious “Beginner’s mind, yes, but different: I know very well that it will pass. Remember: Anicca. Impermanence.”
Later on I remember that whenever I try to focus… and try and try… and exhaust myself in vain. It simply does not work. It is like trying to empty or control the mind. A big misunderstanding of how the mind works. Any attempt to control it only creates more misery.
The task at hand is to observe.
I remember yesterday when I was in pain, sweating profusely, and held still until the chanting, using the breath as a bridge between periods of intense pain. When I opened my eyes, I could see the back of my frontman. His T-shirt was soaked in sweat, too. Well, and today after that challenging group sitting in the afternoon I wonder, yes I wonder: “Am I feeling this body or am I also the impact of something I’d name ‘collective pain’?” If nothing else, it is an interesting concept: collective pain. Maybe you, dear reader, have experienced something similar: You go somewhere and people are tense and in pain or they are stressed out (and try not to show – even though these days it seems to be prestigious to be stressed and to be “sorry, don’t have time”) and you somehow get your share of stress as well, and you tend to get irritated easily. Of course, this is not to say that you’re not responsible for how you perceive the world each and every moment. Nor should this be taken as a way to evade your response-ability to a particular situation by blaming it on external circumstances. Rather, it is a chance to practice compassion in daily life. Wherever the pain might originate, and whatever the reasons might be of its arising: mindfulness acts like a shield.
How I love how the air smells after heavy rainfalls!! You know what I am talking about. Especially these monsun downpours at five pee emm after it has been building up humidity and heat for the last two hours or so. After the heat the world smells and feels so incredibly fresh, so alive and awake!!
As I have come to notice in the previous Goenka retreats, this is usually the day when breakfast and lunch become like a dance, a spontaneous choreography. We move in unison after having spent time in the same boat named ‘dukkha‘. This is the time when many a greenhorn comes across the term ‘equanimity’ for the first time in her/his life and learns its meaning in regards to physical sensations and their respective feeling tones (vedanā).
To sit still in the midst of pain and pleasure alike doesn’t make sense per se. And yet, as you might recall, it does, as soon as it changes what you think and who you are. The choreography during lunch time is made possible by that human ability to note, to know, and to let go. By feeling my own body so intimately I come to know how others are feeling, too. Mirror neurons? Could be. But as long as one keeps talking about theories one is unable to touch the inner well of peace.
“Even though your view may be right, if you cling to it you’re wrong.”
(Ajahn Fuang Jotiko)
Entanglement with thickets of views and words and thoughts comes so quickly. ‘Know thyself’, the sages of all eras have said. Equanimity is most important – at the beginning, and the middle, and the end of each and every endeavor.
Pain is a concept which can be used as an overly to hide actual feeling tones. The untamed untrained mind has been conditioned to avoid pain. During these ten days one is trained to observe instead what is actually happening. Instead of reacting to it one simply watches it.
By now, compassion and sympathy have come about. I see the faces of my fellow practitioners. There is pain, misery, sometimes desperation, and a flicker of hope. The question seems to be written in the long faces of new students: “What have I gotten myself into here?”
Insights arise. Many things become so clear once the sensibility is heightened, the awareness of sensations on and in the body. Eating, for example. I skip teatime every second day. At breakfast I sit and watch the spoon being lifted to that hole in my face. Then I go to the toilet and feel poo coming out of that hole in my lower back. Just facting. Not: Oh the first activity is so deli and the second is so disgusting. Having written this down, it sounds weird. But I can’t tell it any other way. (Or maybe I can…) One has to experience it. In society two extremes are followed: indulgence and binging on the one hand; fasting and abstaining on the other. It seems as if it’s hard to find a middle way in a society which is so accustomed to live im Überfluss which can lead to Überdruss.
It seems to me that it’s really quite simple: Don’t eat too little. Don’t eat too much. Listen to your body. Leave ¼ of the stomach empty, better even ⅓. Then there is no drowsiness. Instead, one is able to be awake and alert, laugh heartily, do sports, concentrate effortlessly, meditate, dream calm dreams. Of course, there are more factors than just eating habits and it is therefore important not to become obsessed about when and what and how to eat. Otherwise, worrying might have more detrimental effects on the overall health than the best quality superfood might have beneficial effects.
Another thing. When one smokes, the taste buds get desensitized, so one is led to eat more spicy food because of the craving for more intense sensations. The stomach will adjust after a while. The habit is formed. Hard to let go of wanting artificially flavored food as long as smoking continues. Of course, everyone knows that. Wir wissen alle Bescheid. But unfortschnittly, one lacks the experience to sensitize one’s taste buds by chewing long enough to notice what is actually going on inside that hole in one’s face.
The more resistance I develop to pain in the body, the more doubt comes up in the mind. Doubts about the practice, the teacher, doubts about my aptitude. Thoughts about why Goenkaji emphasizes hard work. What about Mooji? What about Tolle? They all state that their teaching provides a shortcut to nibbāna. The assistance teacher raises his eyebrows and asked incredulously: “You don’t believe in defilements?”
All that brainwashing about purifying the mind. When you state that the true nature of the mind is pure, and therefore, there is no need for all that hard hard work, then it is only a sign that you are deluded, ignorant, and that you are not observing yourself properly, that the fact you don’t see defilements is a defilement, namely ignorance (moha). For me at least it seems easier to grasp the term ‘conditioning of the mind’ and to call the process of vipassana ‘deconditioning’. In my humble opinion, that sounds more appropriate than the doctor-speak of impurities, operation etc. Yet again, Sayadaw U Tejaniya helps me out:
“Try to recognize that defilements are simply defilements; that they are not ‘your’ defilements. Every time you identify with them or reject them, you are only increasing the strength of the defilements.”
… until it changes what we think and who we are.
I read this statement in a book titled Running from Safety by Richard Bach. It conveys very well what I experience at meditation retreats time and again. Since my first vipassana retreat (as taught by S.N. Goenka) I have refrained from unveiling what’s actually going on there. There are already enough testimonials on YouTube, I thought.
Another reason I hesitated was that up til now I was not at all sure what to write and what to omit. Trying to jot down an insight or rather its verbalized form does not necessarily contribute to a deeper understanding. Instead, it might create expectations and thus, disappointments which in turn are prone to create confusion. The motivation to write arises partly out of an anxiety, namely to forget, when in fact insights are by their very nature only accessible to memory in a limited sense. Insight changes my ideas, views, habits, priorities, behavior. If it is truly experiential insight, i.e. bhavana-maya paññā, it has the power to change the way I perceive myself and the world, it changes my reality altogether, in one word, it has an impact on how I live my life.
As Sayadaw U Tejaniya puts it:
“The account of someone describing certain experiences leading up to an insight and the actual insight itself are two fundamentally different things… You can express the effect an insight has on you or the experiences’around’ it but not the depth of understanding you gain through the insight.”
That pretty much sums it up and may serve as a brief rationale for why it took a while to write about it.
Regarding the ‘setting’, the timetable is clear. You get up early and you go to bed early. No food after noon. Every participant has to observe the precepts. This includes keeping Noble silence at all times. So far as the framework is concerned, it seems quite clear.
Now, what about the inner turmoils, the questions that arise, the internal storms within the external quietude? Of course, one wants to know what one is getting oneself into. My intention is to make it a little bit easier for anyone to be prepared for such a workshop and also to encourage you, dear reader, to go ahead and apply for a course. It’s well worth your time and energy. What’s more, you will find this investment is going to leave you with all the time in the world, and an entirely new form of NRG which gives you a fresh perspective on what really matters.
The first thing I notice is how agitated my mind is. Usually that fact goes unnoticed. I only react to the agitation. Come to think of it, I do not become aware of it right away during the first day. Rather, it happens on the second and third day. Why? Because the mind is so beleaguered by thoughts there is not enough room to realise: “Wow! I can’t even do such a simple practice as observing respiration for one hot minute. I get distracted so easily.” There is no room for that recognition, let alone the ability to be relaxed about the fact. Over time, the mind has become so entangled in its own magick that there is no way of noting the in-breath as in-breath and the out-breath as out-breath. It can be quite a humbling experience to notice how unstable and capricious the mind is. Hitherto, I thought it is my mind. I ought to have control over it. Now I am embarrassed to see I am not at all in charge.
Also, questions arise: “Why am I doing this? What is that supposed to do? What is it good for?” It is only later that the results present themselves in a most extraordinary way.
After a while it becomes clearer and clearer that this simple (but not easy) practice is a preliminary for vipassana. In order to calm the mind down, it is essential to find an object that is sufficiently stable, like the breath, and stay with it. On the second day I notice that I am trying too hard. In the evening, I am quite hungry.
Also due to the Goenkaji’s evening dhamma talks critical thoughts come up:
This being my fifth or sixth retreat in the Goenka tradition, it becomes obvious how strong the emphasis is on ‘washing out defilements’ and on ‘eradicating impurities’. It is presented in an apodictic manner. It seems to me that the man who emphasized the teachings to be ‘non-sectarian’ and ‘non-dogmatic’ is actually followed by a sect-like entourage propagating strict adherence to his so-called ‘non-sectarian’ teaching.
Then again, I reflect and ponder:
Am I critical about the teachers while in fact it is rather the followers who are worthy of critique because they interpret Buddha-Dhamma in a certain way? Can I really hold a teacher responsible for the structural setting his followers established?
Currently I am reading Bowker’s recommendable anthology (see below “Sources”). He investigates the history of Marx’s ideas, too, and finds that they were corrupted by tyrants to become an ideology but that there were passages in his writings that could foster ruthless aggression towards reactionaries and the belief that the ends justify the means. Same goes for Christianity which started with the message of love and freedom and was instrumentalized to instill guilt into the hearts of the people. First the Christians suffered from prosecution and then they prosecuted and burnt those who were later titled martyrs. So from that perspective innaway I dig Goenkaji’s worries about the Dhamma being diluted or misrepresented but in his sayings these interpretations were already implicated.
Thus, it is clear that Day 2 is kind of a dhamma-vicaya day.
Goenkaji repeats again and again: “Continue to work. Patiently and persistently. Patiently and persistently.”
As with every other skill you just have to practice, man, for hours and hours just practice. After a group sitting suddenly a thought I’d had long ago once again resurfaces: Now at least I know enlightenment doesn’t exist, so I can relax. Endowing this thought with some credibility, the next few sittings go pretty smooth. A relaxed breath is an easy breath. Later, I feel energy arising naturally and sit extended periods. Even so, there is still a lot of pain when I try to sit for one hour without moving a muscle. Also, a slight headache visits me. In my mind, I crack a joke to myself: “Better headache than heartache. Take it easy, Kimo.” My smile turns the headache into something else not quite so disturbing.
Theoretical questions don’t bother me so much anymore. Even though, I have an interview with the assistance teacher to ask him if Goenka was a Buddha. No, he says, a bodhisattva with a lot of ‘mettā power’. It becomes clear that awakening is a gradual process, so I also ask a question about sudden awakening, “what about Mooji and Tolle?”, but alas, he only explains method and lineage of Goenkaji.
During Goenkaji’s dharma talk this evening I heard him sing ‘Happy Birthday to yuuu’ with more than 100 people around not knowing that it is actually my continuation day. I am aware that I am another year closer to the cemetery 😉 It was only after the course that I realized it was the day before that: Day 2 of the retreat. Funny dat.
Bowker, John: Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World
Richard Bach: Running from Safety
Sayadaw U Tejaniya: Don’t look down on the defilements. They will laugh at you
In the middle of a Vipassana retreat, I think it was Day 5, I asked myself how Goenkaji could know that this particular technique as he taught it and as he so vehemently urged everyone to follow scrupulously without changing anything, that this very technique would lead to full liberation? I mean, he was not a Buddha, he said so himself – the assistance teacher from India pointed out this fact to me, adding that he is basically a Bodhisattva, filling up huge pots of paramis (i.e. faculties supporting one’s awakening/liberation) and building a big ship for many to sail across the ocean of samsara.
And now, in the middle of the retreat, an answer to that question emerges from the depths of stillness within. With certain sensations certain thoughts arise, certain emotions come with certain thoughts, and these in turn influence how the body feels. One of the memories that came up was this: when hiking in the mountains or on the Camino thru Austria and Switzerland I got landmarks and some instructions by people I met on the way which were reaffirmed. That way, I knew I was on the right track. Yes, it is just as I was told it would be. Confidence arose. There is a difference when it comes to insights arising from meditation, though. Yet the purpose was served: the question and with it, the doubts concerning the practice, dissolved.
Another thing I remember: at times when I was playing table tennis as a child… I trained twice a week, I won tournaments, went to training camps for weeks on end, then lost sometimes and learned to lose better, sometimes with the help of a close friend or a family member who reminded me where i am and what I’m here for! And what I was here for was to win or at least make it as hard as possible for the other to win against me. Me. ME. Ambition arose. Or as my liefie calls it: my kaprikorrrn turns loose. My Capricorn spirit manifested in my wanting to win something, be it a medal or a trophy or, extended to the personal realm, and always closely connected to it, to win a friend, to win over a girl, gain sympathy.
It became very clear. ‘My world’ as a child revolved around getting what I want. This is changing now. As I travel I keep on exploring both the inner and the outer world, and I see how they correlate. The tendency to give from a place of abundance becomes more and more predominant as clarity increases of what is essential in life & death. What stands out is what I already have got instead of what I think I need to get. This also applies to my attitude towards meditation. Instead of striving too hard and tiring myself in the process I start where I am at the moment and try to stay relaxed about any tension that arises. In order to do that, I have to be aware of it, of course.
Thus every day and every night I grow in gratitude for my family, friends, ancestors, community, for this body, voice, for this pliable mind, for the loving and compassionate heart, for all hospitality wherever I come, it is so incredibly easy to come around! Thank you thank you thank you!!
Like this I prepare for the final hour so that when it finally comes, and it is bound to come — every ‘birth’day is a reminder — I go in peace. And if rebirth turns out to be just another story to keep me in check and to teach me I-better-be-a-Goodman, then at least, if nothing else, I have led one happy life!