Sunday, May 22, 2011

Awareness and Equanimity

I am back from my meditation retreat and finally feel like I am reintegrating into the real world. I feel wonderful. And new. And I think I have never worked so hard in my life. The challenge of this retreat was something that I had been desiring. An opportunity to work at something diligently, to push myself to go beyond what is normal and comfortable for me in order to grow and develop in new ways.

I loved the lack of stimulation. No talking, no sounds except those of nature, no looking anyone in the eye, no touching. Only healthy light vegetarian food in my body, no caffeine, no unhealthy inputs whatsoever. I loved all of this. I have realized in recent years that I am most comfortable in situations where I am not overstimulated. Where dozens of sensations are not interacting with my body all at once. The lack of sleep and early rising was also not a problem, which I found delightful and interesting. I had trouble falling asleep most nights, my mind and body seemed to be abuzz in a pleasant way, so usually I would get about 5 hours of sleep with the gong waking me up at 4 AM. But I would feel refreshed and aware. I have always been a firm believer that I need 8 hours of sleep to be productive and healthy, so this dissolution of that truth was a curiosity to me.

So all of this was very very nice. But the meditation was HARD. I can't believe I meditated for 10 hours a day for 10 days. I had heard from others that have done these retreats in other parts of the world (the U.S., India, Thailand) that a majority of people leave by the third or 4th day and that the rules are not always adhered to. Not so in Japan! Everyone stayed (except for one person) and did the whole thing, and NO ONE broke any rules. The Japanese are some diligent folks and their commitment and discipline inspired me and encouraged me. I feel so empowered and happy that I pushed myself to complete the whole thing, and I feel like I received enormous benefit from it. Let me try to explain why.

The Vipassana meditation technique is very teachable, pragmatic, scientific and non-sectarian. It is a technique that was discovered by Buddha himself over 2,500 years ago to help others be "liberated" from their miseries in order to start walking on the path towards enlightenment. It revolves around 2 things. Being very aware of the sensations you experience physically on and in your body, and being equanimous when you feel them in order to avoid experiencing aversion or craving for any sensation. This means that while you are meditating, and are not supposed to move your body at all, you may experience pain for example (severe pain!) but that the goal is to not attach aversion to that pain. To observe it objectively as it arises and understand that it is temporary, just as everything in this life is temporary. That attaching emotional frustration or anxiety to that pain exacerbates the pain (I found this to be very true) but that neutral observation allows for acceptance of what is, instead of craving for another reality that is not. The same goes for a pleasant sensation. Observing it objectively as it arises instead of craving for it to last. And in this way, there is a practical approach to staying "in the now", something that I have been working on for the last 2 years, but have not been successful in maintaining or sustaining for even a short period of time.

I loved this direct translation of the physical meditation to mental processes that we experience all of the time in our every day lives. If you can stay aware and equanimous, you experience much less misery in your life, it is true! Let me give you an example.

On the 10th day of the retreat, the noble silence was lifted after the morning meditation. This meant that all of the meditators can chat and finally find out who each other is, talk about their experiences with the retreat, etc. Almost all of the women at the retreat (men and women were separated) were Japanese and did not speak English. There was one Bulgarian woman there who did, and I was looking forward to seeking her out to have a conversation. All around me were these Japanese woman laughing and talking animatedly and I started to feel left out. I found the Bulgarian lady, and she was speaking Japanese with a few other women. I hovered for a moment hoping to get her attention, but she didn't notice me or was not interested in talking to me. So I then walked away around the garden in back in circles trying to process the pain sensation in my belly and the negative emotions that had arisen. So quickly had my equanimity been shaken after the silence was lifted! But it was incredible to find that as I observed what was happening in my body, and then chose to be objective and not emotional about what I was experiencing, the sensation and emotion passed easily after that and I was back to a state of peace and harmony with what was. Soon after I had a lovely talk with the lady as well as other Japanese women that tried very hard to communicate with me :)

Another experience I had during this time was a release of a lot of painful experiences and memories from my past. The meditation technique is supposed to work such that after a time, you stop generating new Sankaras (cravings or aversions) so that old, very established Sankaras arise within you and can be observed and then released. I didn't know if I believed in this possibility, but one day during a long and deep meditation I had this moment where all of these painful memories seemed to arise from my toes and out my head, one after the other. Memories I didn't even think I cared about anymore, painful things I thought I had really let go. But they were all there, heavy and sharp and ready to be released. And I was able to observe them and then let them go. And as I walked in the garden outside after that session, I had never felt so light, so peaceful, so joyful.

What I want to impart to all of you after having this experience, is that I really believe we have the power within ourselves to change our negative mind patterns and habits. We do! It takes work, but it is possible to increase the amount of peace, love and harmony we experience in our lives. I think we have to be willing to observe ourselves in a way that we are not used to, but the benefits are so wonderful, so powerful.

This Japanese maple was a comfort to me when I was struggling...

My belief in our ability as human beings to create a more peaceful, loving and joyful world has strengthened with this experience. We have the tools and faculties to change the way we interact with each other, with the earth and with ourselves. And I am not saying that Vipassana mediation is the answer for everyone to begin developing these faculties. But that it seems to be helping me, encourages the belief that we are all not f**ed here. I now truly believe there is a real possibility that a life can be lived full of joy, love, peace and harmony, and that that possibility rests on the shoulders of each of us - not on forces outside of us that frustrate us, frighten us, etc. And I think it all rests on understanding how the body and mind interrelate and operate, and how best to use that understanding to change behavior.

I am grateful I had 10 days to experience this. I am going to do my best to keep up the 2 hours of meditation recommended by the center (1 hour in the morning and one hour at night) to continue to develop the skills I learned. Please let me know if you would like to know anything more about this, it is hard to summarize the experience well here in one blog post!


  1. That sounds incredible. I'm excited to hear more about it in detail.

  2. Me too, I'm inspired to one myself this year. Looking forward to seeing you!!!!

  3. I love this post! I very much agree that we can change the negative habits in ourselves with attention and practice. When Eric & I lived in Bangkok it was always so hot (you know...) we had to learn how to not attach negative emotions to the heat or else life would have been miserable. It is so interesting to try and do this with all feelings and emotions. Thanks for the inspiration!