Here's what I caught myself thinking about in meditation this morning.
I was wondering where I should live once this year of traveling has ended. I don't want to move back to New York just out of reflex. Maybe a new town, instead. Austin is supposed to be nice. And Chicago has all that beautiful architecture. Horrible winters, though. Or maybe I'll live abroad. I've heard good things about Sydney . . . If I lived somewhere cheaper than New York, maybe I could afford an extra bedroom and then I could have a special meditation room! That'd be nice. I could paint it gold. Or maybe a rich blue. No, gold. No, blue . . .
Finally noticing this train of thought, I was aghast. I thought: Here you are in India, in an
Ashram in one of the holiest pilgrimage sites on earth. And instead of communing with the divine, you're trying to plan where you'll be meditating a year from now in a home that doesn't yet exist in a city yet to be determined. How about this, you spastic fool--how about you try to meditate right here, right now, right where you actually are?
I pulled my attention back to the silent repetition of the mantra.
A few moments later, I paused to take back that mean comment about calling myself a spastic fool. I decided maybe that wasn't very loving.
Still, I thought in the next moment, a gold meditation room would be nice.
I opened my eyes and sighed. Is this really the best I can do?
So, that evening, I tried something new. I'd recently met a woman at the Ashram who'd been studying Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is an ultraorthodox, stripped-down and very intensive Buddhist meditation technique. Basically, it's just sitting. An introductory Vipassana course lasts for ten days, during which time you sit for ten hours a day in stretches of silence that last two to three hours at a time. It's the Extreme Sports version of transcendence. Your Vipassana master won't even give you a mantra; this is considered a kind of cheating. Vipassana meditation is the practice of pure regarding, witnessing your mind and offering your complete consideration to your thought patterns, but allowing nothing to move you from your seat.
It's physically grueling too. You are forbidden to shift your body at all once you have been seated, no matter how severe your discomfort. You just sit there and tell yourself, "There's no reason I need to move at all during the next two hours." If you are feeling discomfort then you are supposed to meditate upon that discomfort, watching the effect that physical pain has on you. In our real lives, we are constantly hopping around to adjust ourselves around discomfort--physical, emotional and psychological--in order to evade the reality of grief and nuisance. Vipassana meditation teaches that grief and nuisance are inevitable in this life, but if you can plant yourself in stillness long enough, you will, in time, experience the truth that everything (both uncomfortable and lovely) does eventually pass.
"The world is afflicted with death and decay, therefore the wise do not grieve, knowing the terms of the world," says an old Buddhist teaching. In other words: Get used to it.
I don't think Vipassana is necessarily the path for me. It's far too austere for my notions of devotional practice, which generally revolve around compassion and love and butterflies and bliss and a friendly God (what my friend Darcey calls "Slumber Party Theology"). There isn't even any talk about "God" in Vipassana, since the notion of God is considered by some Buddhists to be the final object of dependency, the ultimate fuzzy security blanket, the last thing to be abandoned on the path to pure detachment. Now, I have my own personal issues with the very word detachment, having met spiritual seekers who already seem to live in a state of complete emotional disconnect from other human beings and who, when they talk about the sacred pursuit of detachment, make me want to shake them and holler, "Buddy, that is the last thing you need to practice!"
Still, I can see where cultivating a measure of intelligent detachment in your life can be a valuable instrument of peace. And after reading about Vipassana meditation in the library one afternoon, I got to thinking about how much time I spend in my life crashing around like a great gasping fish, either squirming away from some uncomfortable distress or flopping hungrily toward ever more pleasure. And I wondered whether it might serve me (and those who are burdened with the task of loving me) if I could learn to stay still and endure a bit more without always getting dragged along on the potholed road of circumstance.
All these questions came back to me this evening, when I found a quiet bench in one of the Ashram gardens and decided to sit in meditation for an hour--Vipassana-style. No movement, no agitation, not even mantra--just pure regarding. Let's see what comes up. Unfortunately, I had forgotten about what "comes up" at dusk in India: mosquitoes. As I soon as I sat down on that bench in the lovely gloaming, I could hear the mosquitoes coming at me, brushing against my face and landing--in a group assault--on my head, ankles, arms. And then their fierce little burns. I didn't like this. I thought, "This is a bad time of day to practice Vipassana meditation."
On the other hand--when is it a good time of day, or life, to sit in detached stillness?
When isn't there something buzzing about, trying to distract you and get a rise out of
you? So I made a decision (inspired again by my Guru's instruction that we are to become scientists of our own inner experience). I presented myself with an experiment-- what if I sat through this for once? Instead of slapping and griping, what if I sat through the discomfort, just for one hour of my long life?
So I did it. In stillness, I watched myself get eaten by mosquitoes. To be honest, part of me was wondering what this little macho experiment was meant to prove, but another part of me well knew--it was a beginner's attempt at self-mastery. If I could sit through this nonlethal physical discomfort, then what other discomforts might I someday be able to sit through? What about emotional discomforts, which are even harder for me to endure? What about jealousy, anger, fear, disappointment, loneliness, shame, boredom?
The itch was maddening at first but eventually it just melded into a general burning feeling and I rode that heat to a mild euphoria. I allowed the pain to lose its specific associations and become pure sensation--neither good nor bad, just intense--and that intensity lifted me out of myself and into meditation. I sat there for two hours. A bird might very well have landed on my head; I wouldn't have noticed.
Let me be clear about one thing. I recognize that this experiment wasn't the most stoic act of fortitude in the history of mankind, and I'm not asking for a Congressional Medal of Honor here. But there was something mildly thrilling for me about realizing that in my thirty-four years on earth I have never not slapped at a mosquito when it was biting me. I've been a puppet to this and to millions of other small and large signals of pain or pleasure throughout my life. Whenever something happens, I always react. But here I was--disregarding the reflex. I was doing something I'd never done before. A small thing, granted, but how often do I get to say that? And what will I be able to do tomorrow that I cannot yet do today?
When it was all over, I stood up, walked to my room and assessed the damage. I counted about twenty mosquito bites. But within a half an hour, all the bites had diminished. It all goes away. Eventually, everything goes away.