After sitting many 10-day Vipassana meditation courses, I got a chance to sit for a 30-day course last month. The same context of no reading, writing or talking but with more intensity and seriousness. How was my experience? What did I learn? In a way, there's a lot to say and in a way, there's not much to say. :)
Here are seven reflections that stand out ...
One: Meditation is a revolutionary experience. When you are sitting in silence, observing the arising and passing phenomena at the level of your body sensations, the tendency of the mind is to react -- I like this, I don't like this. It makes no sense to develop any attachment to things that are constantly changing but in ignorance, we repeatedly cultivate this pattern in trillions and trillions of moments. So, meditation goes against ALL the momentum. Just like Gandhi's satyagraha or birthing a new paradigm, one has to keep persevering with unflinching commitment and a compassionate gentleness.
Two, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Perhaps the first few days were the hardest part of the course, for me. Somehow I was seriously tripped up by the heat. It was hot, the meditation cells had no fans, I was constantly sweating, electricity wasn't guaranteed, and water was only available for 90 minutes in the morning. On paper, these things shouldn't be a big deal, as I've lived in far more challenging circumstances. I knew that, but still, my mind started to panic. I would sit to meditate and start sweating profusely, the walls literally made me feel trapped, and it was hard to stay equanimous. Then, I would realize -- "This is day 3. You have 27 more to go." Yikes. What to do? You're crawling through the dirt of your inner-most basement, and it is simply impossible to back out. The only way out is through. And you don't know how long that'll be. You just have to breathe. And breathe again. Bit by bit, you release the fear, the walls start expanding, you stand up and even smile. :)
Three, the practice is to do-nothing. As Fukuoka would say, doing nothing is hard work. :) One has to let the mind unwind itself of its entanglements, naturally and without interference. If we don't run away from pain or indulge in pleasure, our mind becomes still and we start to see reality as it is. Because of our own past conditioning, though, we project our own hopes and dreams and fears and desires onto reality and convolute its perception. When we fight with reality, we always lose -- and subsequently suffer. After a while, we forget the cause of that suffering and even become addicted to that suffering. So, observing, ie. "doing nothing," becomes the difficult but fruitful process of allowing these delusions to unravel.
Four, grace happens. Along the way, of course, there are signs of encouragement. For the first ten days, we were to watch our natural breath. That's it. Breath coming in, coming out. Simple, painless task unless your ADD generation mind starts wandering every minute or two. It can be quite disheartening to see that you can't even be in the present for a little bit. One would imagine that there would be progress after dozens and dozens of hours of continuous practice, but no! Still, one keeps trying. On Day 7, I sat with the same heart of effort. A minute passed. Two minutes. I was still with my breath. Five. Ten. I couldn't believe it. There was no struggle and it felt almost effortless. Twenty minutes. Thirty, forty, fifty. And the whole hour passed and I was still there -- present. Really?!? I couldn't believe it myself. Surely, I must've had to have some help, but what, why? Speechless, :) and with renewed zeal, I carried on, knowing that I hadn't created this state, and that it wasn't going to operate on my terms.
Similarly, on Day 18, I came out of a focused meditation sit in my cell. On my way to get a drink of water, I noticed an old fellow hobbling with very short steps in front of me. During the course, your eyes are to be constantly downcast to minimize distractions, so I couldn't see what he looked like; yet I could see that he was carrying a giant jug in his left hand, presumably to fill it up and keep in his room so he didn't have to take frequent walks. Almost out of nowhere, I had this overwhelming thought -- "Oh, here is an old man, wanting to purify his mind. He doesn't have the strength to walk but he's still got the will to meditate. How noble! May he have access to ALL my assets. May his journey be strengthened." Just with that one thought, tears streamed from my eyes.
Five, the posse stays with you. Whether I'm in a meditation retreat or not, I often get a strong sense that there's a whole load of people with me. Physically, I may be alone but what I always carry is the inner transformation of all those small acts of service and resulting affinities with all those beings. It's a truly solid feeling. You're no longer meditating to purify *your* mind so *you* can be happier; you are cultivating because of the gifts of others and your merits are being cultivated for the benefit of others. It's really an indescribable feeling of gratitude.
Six, meditation culminates on the cushion, but germinates off the cushion. Sometimes retreatants get into this mindset of, "I need to sit more courses." While the ultimate show for Lebron James is on the basketball court, he wouldn't be Lebron if he didn't do cross training, off-court drills and off-peak exercises. Similarly, to be a solid meditator, you have to cultivate your strengths off the cushion. Just sitting alone isn't it. Buddha elegantly identified 10 paramitas (virtues) that really help -- practices like generosity, wholesome action, loving-kindness, truth, effort, and renunciation. Maybe you do an act of kindness and build your loving kindness, or work two jobs to support your grandparents and build your effort, or run a business with an impeccable code of ethics and build wholesome action. When I sat my first course after the walking pilgrimage with Guri, for example, I experienced a deep state of renunciation and subsequently had some profound sits on the cushion. In that sense, most of my off-the-cushion training happens via an instrument called CharityFocus and I remain grateful to all who keep it possible.
Seven, gratitude. I would imagine that it's impossible for anyone to spend extended time in solitude without feeling thankful for the inter-dependent parts of their existence. From my immediate family to the larger CharityFocus family to an even larger family of truth seekers, there is a long (and perhaps endless) list of things I feel grateful for. Many years ago, though, it was my brother who went to a 10-day meditation course -- which then inspired me to go, although he never insisted that I should go. :) I'm grateful to him for many reasons, but this is certainly one of them. And I'm grateful to Guri, with whom I was able to start meditating much more seriously. It was almost exactly five years ago, when Guri and I serendipitously stumbled into Igatpuri's meditation center and a seemingly random coin-toss :) kept us in town for three blessed months.
All in all, if I just had to say one-word, it simply would be: thank-you.