When I heard the morning bell, I was curled into a fetus position, with the duvet covering my head. There'd been a big storm the night before and the temperature suddenly dropped. I hated the idea of getting up. But I had another thirty minutes before the first sitting, so I didn’t move and closed my eyes again. Something wasn’t right though. It was unusually quiet around – no sounds of people rushing about and getting ready. But I didn’t make much of it and thought it must have been the cold and everybody was still in bed, just like me. As I was lying there, half-asleep, waiting for the second gong, I felt a nudge at my feet. I lifted the duvet off my face and saw one of the dhamma workers. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. I knew what had happened. That WAS the second gong! Somehow, I didn’t hear the first one.
I got up quickly and put some clothes over my pajamas, wrapped myself tightly in my blanket and rushed to the meditation hall. I felt like a naughty school kid who’d overslept for the first class. Although if I really had been at school, I’m sure I’d have taken my time. Especially if it was Maths class first.
I sat down quietly on my pillow and shivered. It was cold and damp. I wondered if the leaf had survived the storm. The chances were pretty small, it rained heavily all night, I could hear thunders and strong wind. Was it symbolic? Did it mean that things were going to get more difficult? Or was it a sign that the worst was over?
It was the first day of Vipassana meditation and we were supposed to observe sensations on our bodies – itching, throbbing, pulsations, vibrations, heaviness, lightness, cold, heat, pain – anything. We were warned not to look for anything in particular, just to sharpen our minds and focus all our attention on watching what’s going on. If we came across any blind spots, areas with no sensations, we were asked to scan them very slowly and carefully and then move on without creating any cravings. It was easy to feel things on my arms and legs, but my head and trunk… not much there. Except for pain and tension in my neck and upper back.
My mind was definitely more focused. It was easier to concentrate on scanning my body than to just watch respiration. It still wandered away quite often, but seemed clearer and sharper. There was still some pain, but it was manageable. It really seemed like things were getting better.
The first session at dusk and the last in the afternoon were still the hardest and had little to do with meditation. I was too tired to concentrate and I would catch myself waiting for the final gong to go off pretty often. But the others weren’t too bad. I felt like I was slowly regaining control over my mind, the bird would sometimes listen and sit calmly on top of the cage, chirping happily.
Was this really how Buddha got enlightened? Sitting under a tree and observing sensations in his body until it completely dissolved and enabled him to see the reality beyond mind and matter? Apparently so. I was definitely nowhere near that. And at that stage, I didn’t really believe I’d ever be. I didn’t think I could give up sensual pleasures of everyday life. I didn’t even think I would like to. I love treating myself to a cocktail and a new dress. I love these simple days when you sip coffee for the whole morning, feeling perfectly content. I don’t think I could completely devote my life to serve other people – and apparently that’s what happens when you get enlightened. You need to share it, spread it, give it to others. Fair enough, but giving up your life? Yourself? Not sure about that. Don’t all spiritual teachers preach self-love as one of the most important elements of a happy life? What about self development and exploration? Don’t you need time for yourself to do that? Or does it mean you’ve explored everything and there’s nothing left? Again, I’m not sure I like the idea. Or maybe my ego doesn’t.
I decided that the best I could do is work on creating some good karma in this life and being a better person. That should be enough, shouldn’t it? And maybe in the next one… Who knows. I could already see the effects of the technique – I was much calmer, more aware, more in control. Some of the anger and frustration I had been feeling for the past three days had disappeared. By observing sensations in our bodies and remaining equanimous to them, we eradicate subconscious reactions of our mind. When we feel pain, our mind straight away creates sadness, irritation, resentment. When we feel pleasant vibrations, it produces joy. By learning not to react to these sensations, we learn to change these hidden patterns of our mind and to be aware of how we react to things that happen to us, which in turn changes the way we perceive them and how we feel about them. If somebody insults us, we react straight away with anger and similar verbal abuse. But if we step back, we will realize that this unnecessary unconscious reaction will only leave us frustrated for the rest of the day and will give the other person satisfaction and make their behavior justified.
Observing your own reactions is something you should do in your daily life. It may be a slow process – first you’ll learn to see them in retrospect. You’ll look back on things and admit you weren’t right. Later on, you’ll be able to recognize them when they happen. You’ll be able to say ‘Hey, I know what’s happening and I’m not going that way!’ Stopping these subconscious reactions can have a tremendous impact on every aspect of your life. You’ll learn to communicate openly, leaving your ego and emotions behind, explaining your ideas and expectations clearly and not settling for less then you deserve. You’ll be able to see things as they are and not as your mind projects them. And meditation can help you achieve that – it will help you unclutter your mind, make it calmer and sharper, capable of seeing things clearly, without the interference of your ego. It will teach you how to stop reacting to outside factors and listen to yourself. Because all answers are inside you, you just need to look very closely to see them.
During the break, I was surprised to find out that the leaf had survived the storm. I couldn’t believe it was still there. When I’d first seen it a few days earlier, it looked like it was going to fall any second. It looked weak. Maybe because I felt weak myself. Now, after the storm, it looked like nothing could break it. I smiled and sat on the bench. I thought of different religions and how we let them become so impure. Islamic extremists killing in the name of god, devoted hinduists gang-raping women, Christian priests sexually abusing children… And these should be people we look up to. Every religion has the same fundamental values – creating good, peace and love. It’s great to believe in God – it makes life easier and purposeful, gives us hope. But instead of focusing on mechanical rituals, instead of just going to church on Sunday and saying prayers every day, we need to look inside, start with ourselves. Work on being better people and making the world a better place. Whatever the religion, whichever path you choose.
And that’s what I like about Buddhism. Have you ever seen an unhappy Buddhist monk? One that would harm other people in any way? They’ve got the basics right. Buddhism is not a religion and Buddha is not God. Every enlightened person is a Buddha and God is truth. I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, I don’t really need a label. All I want is personal and spiritual development. Happiness and peace starting deep inside, balance which can’t be shaken or destroyed by outside conditioning.
There were still a lot of thoughts in my head. I thought about my life goals, future plans and ideas, dreams. Where was I going? Where did I want to get? And how would I do it? Yes, I was living a yogic life, living in the present, enjoying the moment, not planning too far ahead. But somewhere at the back of my head, I had a pretty clear picture of what I wanted to do. And I knew I had to take action and make it happen. Living in the present does not necessarily mean having absolutely no plans. It’s about not getting attached to them. Not letting them restrict you. Not thinking this is the only way to go. Because they might change. They will change. They should change. And if you’re attached to them, if you hang onto them at all cost, you’ll just waste time and miss the moment when you’re supposed to head in a different direction. I’d done it myself for a really long time. I’d had a ten-year plan and thought I knew exactly where everything was going. And ever since I let go of it and started listening to signs around, the most amazing things started happening. Naturally and organically, without any force, stress or tension. And I’d never been happier.
I realized there were still some things I needed to sort out, things I hadn’t dealt with. I thought about people I hadn’t been in touch with for a while and promised myself to write to them. All this came when I let go and stopped craving for big realizations. Another proof that everything happens in its own time. All I had to do was let go, breathe, observe myself and everything slowly started to unfold. It really looked like things could only get easier. At least that was what I thought until the evening discourse and the instructions for the next day.
DAY 5 AND 6
Addithana means strong determination
In the evening discourse we were told that the next day we would start practicing Addithana, which means strong determination. This meant that for the three one-hour sittings we should try to stay completely still. No adjusting , moving arms or legs, or opening eyes. ‘You’re joking, right?’ I thought to myself. ‘I’ve only just managed to stop crying in pain. There’s no way I’d be able to sit for an hour without any movement!’ Especially not in the afternoon. Afternoon sessions were still tough and although the pain seemed to have gone down (or I got used to it), I really didn’t think I was ready for that.
When the first addithana session started, I took my time to find a comfortable position and make sure that I was warm and tucked up in my scarf and blanket as tightly as possible. I closed my eyes and started watching my breath. For the first few minutes I focused on observing my respiration and calming my mind before I moved to scanning my body for sensations. It felt good, I was focused, there were some pleasant vibrations on my arms and legs, I could feel the energy flowing. A few blank areas, a little bit of pain in my upper back and some tension in the neck… but generally, it wasn’t bad.
The first half an hour went well, I followed the instructions and kept scanning my body. My mind was listening to me. But then the pain in my right hip came back and my left leg went numb. I remained still but got completely distracted. All I could think of was the final gong. Was everybody suffering like this? I could definitely hear some people around moving. ‘It must have been more than an hour. Maybe the teachers have forgotten?’ I wondered. I wanted to look around the room, but remembered I shouldn’t open my eyes. All I could think of was the final bell. I couldn’t feel my left leg and my mind was telling me I should move, but I kept pushing the idea away. I knew there wasn’t much time left and I was determined to make it. When the bell finally rang, I slowly opened my eyes and straightened my legs. I spent a few minutes massaging my feet and trying to bring the circulation back. But I felt a real sense of achievement.
The purpose of these sittings was to learn to accept the reality as it is, without creating cravings for or aversion towards any particular sensations and therefore eliminating subconscious mental conditioning. Going through the pain and unpleasant sensations without reacting to them is the path to liberation, the path to realizing that nothing is permanent. This is the nature of life. Everything comes and goes. We cannot control it. All we can do is let go and accept it. It’s easy to understand it on an intellectual level, but eradicating all the reactions and mental conditioning? How hard is that? How long would it take? And what do you need to go through to get there? It still felt like something completely out of my reach.
Having survived the first addithana sitting, I couldn’t help feeling proud and happy with myself. I felt strong. I felt inspired to do things, full of ideas and hope. When I sat down for the first one-hour sitting in the afternoon, I was sure I could do it. I’d done it before. But after ten minutes, my legs went completely numb. I tried to ignore it, but about half an hour later, I got scared. ‘It can’t be good for me,’ I thought. ‘The blood isn’t flowing down to my feet. This can’t be healthy. What if I lose feeling in my legs completely?’ My mind won, I moved, stretched my legs and massaged my feet for quite a while until they got back to normal. I returned to Siddhasana feeling disappointed.
The last addithana session was even worse. I had to adjust the pose two or three times and my mind was all over the place again. During the break I lay down under my duvet (it suddenly got really cold so I was spending most of my free time in bed, wrapped up in as many layers as possible) and thought about the day. One successful session, two crap ones. I realized I was being too harsh on myself. It was the first day. It was perfectly fine that I couldn’t sit still through the whole hour. Most people needed to adjust their poses. Some would still get up and walk to the back of the room or go out for five minute breaks. It wasn’t a competition and I didn’t need to be the best. There was nobody to impress, nobody to judge me. Except for myself and my ego. If I was supposed to learn equanimity, I knew I had to stop judging myself. ‘If I really have to move, I’ll move,’ I thought to myself. Without a trace of disappointment. Trying to maintain focus. Sensations are not important, it’s our reactions to them that matter.
I could see how much progress I’d made. A few days ago I was crying in pain on the floor. Now I could feel my right hip opening up every day, something I’d been working on in my yoga practice for years! I wasn’t counting the days down anymore. I wanted to make the most of the days I had left, make every minute meaningful.
To my surprise, I wasn’t missing talking to people. I loved having time just for myself. This was something completely new – I realized I’d been unable to be on my own for too long – I’d always go out and seek company of people, I'd never spent too much time at home. I knew this would change after I finish the course. The main thing I missed was writing. There were so many things going on in my head that all I wanted to do was to note it all down. I felt like I was writing books in my head. I was narrating things that were happening in order to understand and process them. I missed physical practice a little bit, but I knew it was good to give my body a break. And I did some gentle stretches every day, mainly for my upper back, hips and quads.
Before I started, I’d thought ten days was too much. I didn’t understand why beginners had to go through that straight away, it seemed like it would make much more sense to make shorter courses. Now I knew why. It was only now, on day six, I was slowly beginning to understand how to do things and what it was all about. I felt like I’d need more than ten days. I was already thinking when to take the next course.
To be continued