Sitting in silence, day 4 to 6: sankharas, pathways and robots

Sankharas: the source of misery

I believe it was on day 4 that we were introduced to the idea of sankharas.

Sankharas: feelings of craving or aversion deep within you; the source of misery.

This is an important concept to understand in the practice of vipassana, so I’m going to delve in a little to what a sankhara was described to be from a vipassana perspective and what I came to think of it as.

So, imagine you find out that instead of spending the weekend relaxing with friends you have to work. This sucks, and you aren’t happy. You’re averse to working all weekend. This aversion, from a vipassana point of view, is kind of stamped inside you in the form of a “sankhara”. Stamp! Next week, you find out you are up for a promotion — one that would come with a hefty pay raise. You want it, you crave it! This craving, from a vipassana point of view, is stored in a sankhara somewhere inside you as well. STAMP!

The next time you have aversion or craving to the same or different things, you generate more sankharas, all of them stamping on top of the ones before it, all adding up, all weighing each other down and you down, all prepping you to react the same way you did in the past.

Mental Pathways

Now, the idea of a sankhara is kind of a nice way to think about how craving and aversion works, but it was a bit too mystical for me to this of sankharas all piled physically on top of each other inside of me.

So the way I came to think of sankharas instead were as mental pathways. You react a certain way, and you create a pathway: something happens —> you feel averse to it.. Then the next time that situation occurs, you find the aversion pathway. Then the next time, you find it again. Soon, it’s automatic. You forget you’re even choosing to feel this way. You are immediately averse. Every time you follow the same pathway, its groove in your mind becomes deeper and deeper, more ingrained.

Throughout my life, when something unpleasant happened, I would feel upset or sad or angry. It didn’t feel like those feelings were choices. Working on the weekends is annoying. Being lied is hurtful. Getting sick is painful. Being broken up with is sad. But the idea behind vipassana (and a lot of other meditation and therapy practices) is that these reactions are actually choices. (Another way some therapists phrase it is: “you can only control how YOU react” or “you are in charge of your own happiness”) They may be deeply ingrained, seemingly automatic choices, but they are choices nonetheless. Being lied to can be unfortunate, and may cause you to reevaluate relationships, but it’s a choice to wallow in hurt versus accept that it happened and determine the new way forward. The choice to wallow, to be averse to these things, it creates misery.

In the moment, I am miserable. When I think about it later, it makes me miserable. When I think about it happening in the future, I feel miserable.

Vipassana is kind of tagged by Goenka and its practitioners as a method to break the cycle of misery. (they’d say it’s THE method, but let’s get to that later…)

But, it’s not just getting rid of our reactions to the bad things that breaks the cycle of misery (that’d be too easy, right?). According to Goenka and vipassana (and, again, other meditation and therapy practices), aversion isn’t the only thing that creates misery. So does craving.

Imagine it. I move away from Colorado to Boston. I really miss Colorado. I want the mountains. I want the sunshine. I want the snow that melts. I want it so bad, I loved it there. But maybe I have to be in Boston for work or family or school or something. And there’s nothing really wrong with Boston except that it’s not Colorado. There might even be stuff Boston has that Colorado doesn’t. But it doesn’t matter. I crave Colorado but I cannot have it. This makes me miserable. Or maybe I have homework that is going to take me the whole weekend to do, but I really wanted to go hiking and now I have to go for a quick run instead. But i really really wanted to hike. I crave hiking. So, I am miserable that I cannot hike.

Or maybe the craving is on a more general scale: I want to purchase a writing notebook so I have something nice to write in. I look at all the options and I pick one. It’s okay and it works, but then I wonder if maybe there is a better one, and there is! I want it! So i get it. And then I wonder if maybe a better pen would make it easier to write, make the ideas flow so much better, and there is! I want it! So i get it. And then i figure there’s probably a better desk out there to write at, one that helps me focus and that I look at and just FEEL the words float out of me. And there is! I want it! So I get it! The cycle is endless. And this seems ok — you’re just getting things that make you happy, right? But really, you’re just always wanting, craving more, better things. And while you don’t have those things you aren’t enjoying what you do have because a part of you seems to know there is something better out there. So, you are miserable.

Craving becomes a mental pathway just like aversion. Your mind gets used to craving, the pathway gets deeper, and so your mind is constantly, automatically, making the choice to crave more, maybe without you even noticing.

In that way, in the perspective of vipassana, craving and aversion are the building blocks of misery.

Vipassana: Measuring by equanimity, not sensation

On Day 4 and 5 and 6, as Goenka starts talking about all this stuff –craving and aversion — all of us meditators start learning Vipassana in earnest.

The practice of vipassana is about sensations. You close your eyes, and you let your breath do whatever it wants to, and you basically scan the body from head to toe, toe to head, first just on the surface of the skin. You do this slowly at first, mostly because it’s hard to feel sensations on your body. You find that some areas have blank spots where you can’t feel anything at all (for me it was my chest and stomach, for some it was their whole left side, or their back).

Also around now, we began to have “strong determination” sittings. This meant that during those three hour-long group meditations in the hall, you were supposed to do your very very best to not move for the entire hour. Now, of course, you can move. But you’re strongly encouraged not to.

The point of not moving has to do with equanimity. “What’s equanimity?” you ask…

Equanimity = not having craving or aversion to any sensation. 

So, if you’re sitting in your meditation seat trying to be equanimous, and you get this tingling sensation all over your body, which maybe is a pleasant sensation, you’d equanimously say, huh, my body is tingling. and if you had an itch or a painful sensation, you’d equanimously say, huh, my body itches or is in pain. The point is that pain isn’t bad and tingling isn’t good. They both just ARE. Now, if your body itched or tingled or was in pain and you moved, you’re reacting to those sensations. If the body is in pain and you move, you probably moved because you were averse to the pain, right? Right. And in doing so you dug the aversion sankhara/mental pathway a little deeper.

When we first started these “strong determination” sittings, I was all like, I got this! Sitting for an hour in one place. that’s cake. And then around minute 35, I got a twinge of pain in my hip, and I was like, psh, i can handle pain! and then by minute 45, I was in the throes of what felt like the most immense pain of my life. I was dizzy and sweaty with pain. It burned and shot up and down my legs and bag, creating what felt like electrical hot wires all around my hips. so I moved because SCREW EQUANIMITY. that shit hurt.

Why is equanimity important? 

But, equanimity is an important part of vipassana. In fact, equanimity really is vipassana — it’s the whole shebang, the final goal, the source of the end of misery. Why? Well…to answer that question, let’s talk about sugar.

I love sugar. Desserts really. cookies, cupcakes, cake, chocolate, marshmallows, graham crackers. NOMNOMNOM. Why do I love sugar? It tastes good, right? But the idea in vipassana is, when I eat sugar, and my body goes NOMNOMNOM and craves more of it, it not only generates a sankhara/strengthens the craving pathway, but it also generates a pleasant sensation in me. You know when you get that warm happy feeling in your stomach when something wonderful happens? I imagine the sensation I get from eating sugar being a little like that, but much less intense. Maybe like the same kind of pleasant sensation would occur if you, say, won a buck on a scratch off ticket. Or got a free coffee at your favorite coffee shop. You’d probably only notice these sensations when they’re big — like you win the lottery, or get a new, awesome raise, or something of the sort. And, you’d get the same but opposite kind of sensation when something unpleasant happened. You’d generate a sankhara/strengthen the pathway, and an unpleasant sensation would bloom (like when you get anxious, or hear someone talking about you when they think you can’t hear them, or realize that you just made a mistake that will cost your company money/time).

So vipassana teaching assumes your body is experiencing sensations all the time, and these sensations are tied to the mental pathways of craving and aversion.

Interrupting misery

Now, if you practice vipassana meditation, and you experience pleasant and unpleasant sensations, and you react to them, you’re building more sankharas/strengthening the pathways of craving and aversion, which, as noted earlier = misery.

BUT, if as you experience these sensations, you react with equanimity (or, a neutral reaction), you interrupt these mental pathways. I began to like to think of it like overriding your brain and the pathways that you’ve spent a lifetime building. And once you start overriding your brain, it slowly stops automatically reacting. And the less you start automatically reacting, the more you start creating a new mental pathway — one of equanimity, one of control.

I’m not a robot

I cry, a lot. It’s something that I’ve done all my life. If I am sad, happy, angry, embarrassed, worried, excited — doesn’t matter. There are tears. I’ve never seen it as a choice. I’ve always seen it as me, the sensitive part of me that responds to the world with compassion and love and wants to help make it a better place.

It sounded a little bit to me like the goal of Vipassana was to strip me of all those things, all my feelings, and leave me a simple robot, nonreactive to everything.

So, for most of day 5, I was furious. Screw Goenka! Screw vipassana! I’m not a robot and I don’t want to be! what a waste of these ten days! By day 6, I’d chilled out a bit, but decided to go air my grievances with the teacher, who after all was there to answer questions after all.

I told the teacher, Judith, that I wasn’t on board with the idea of getting rid of craving and aversion. If someone dies, should I just shrug my shoulders instead of feel pain and sadness, instead of crying? And should I never feel happiness again? Should I just feel nothing at all? If enlightenment, if vipassana’s end goal, meant that was what I was aiming for, I told her, I wasn’t interested. Judith’s response interested me.

ME: So if someone dies, vipassana says I’m just supposed to react with no sadness, no tears, no nothing, just blankness.

JUDITH: But what if it wasn’t? What if it wasn’t blankness? What if what you felt was compassion and love, but not the intense aversion. not the wallowing in sadness.

Hmm…that kind of emotion sounded reasonable to me. not robotic. someone i love dies and i would feel love and compassion. That’s pretty much what I’d feel now, except coupled with an intense feeling of loss. Maybe with the vipassana kind of outlook, you just don’t feel the intensity of the loss-type feeling. maybe that was a kind of emotion i had just never experienced before. and maybe it wasn’t a bad thing? I wasn’t sure. I’m still not. But I felt satisfied that I wasn’t being asked to be a robot, and that was enough at that point.

That night, I had my most intense meditation experience, which deserves its own blog post….which I’ll write tomorrow. It’s kinda a doozy.

Sitting in silence: Day 0-3

So, what was the meditation retreat like?

I got back last Sunday, and if you’d asked me that question each day between Sunday and today, I would have given you different answers each time. But, I feel my thoughts have finally settled down, and I feel more grounded, so I thought I’d take some time to share what the meditation retreat experience was like, what was surprising, and what I learned about myself over ten days.

The schedule

  • 4:00 a.m.: Wake up bell rings
  • 4:30-6:30 a.m.: Meditate in the meditation hall or in your own room (or, eventually, the pagoda)
  • 6:30-7:15 a.m.: Breakfast
  • 7:15 a.m.-8:00 a.m.: Rest
  • 8:00-9:00 a.m.: All students come together to meditate in the hall
  • 9:00-11:00 a.m.: Meditate in the meditation hall or in your own room (or, eventually, the pagoda)
  • 11:00-11:45 a.m.: Lunch
  • 11:45 a.m.-1:00 p.m.: Rest, or, sign up to talk to the teacher to ask them questions.
  • 1:00-2:30 p.m.: Meditate in the meditation hall or in your own room (or, eventually, the pagoda)
  • 2:30-3:30 p.m.: All students come together to meditate in the hall
  • 3:30-5:00 p.m.: Meditate in the meditation hall or in your own room (or, eventually, the pagoda)
  • 5:00-5:30 p.m.: Fruit dinner and tea
  • 5:30-6:00 p.m.: Rest
  • 6:00-7:00 p.m.: All students come together to meditate in the hall
  • 7:00-8:15 p.m.: Watch a videotaped discourse of Vipassana teacher, Goenka
  • 8:15-9:00 p.m.: All students come together to meditate in the hall
  • 9:00 p.m.: Retire to room.
  • 10:00 p.m.: Lights out!

So you don’t have to, I counted it. During the day’s schedule there is generally:

  • 10.75 hours of possible meditation during each day
  • 2 hours of meal time
  • 3 hours of possible “rest” time
  • 1.25 hours of discourse

AKA There’s a lot of meditating!

Arriving

I arrived at the meditation center at 4 p.m., nervous and excited. I signed in, signed several sheets of paper (all of which said I agreed to follow the rules of the center and the five precepts), and — the weirdest part — turned in my iPhone. No clock/camera/internet/news/communication for ten days! I found out that I’d have a roommate during the ten-day course, and the moment I met her, I knew she was my kind of people. A sweet smile, a good laugh, an open and genuine way about her — meeting her put me at ease. Since we could talk until 8 p.m. on arrival day, we spent the evening chatting and walking around the center.

My room was in the older building (no air conditioning–which was only an issue on the brutally hot first day). April and I shared one main entrance and a bathroom, and then we each had our own bedrooms with doors we could enter through. Those bedrooms had a window (through which many a chipmunk could be watched), a bed (comfy),  a shelf for clothes, a little side table, and that’s pretty much it. It felt clean and homey and good.

Since we could talk till 8 p.m. on Day 0, April and I shared our stories with each other and ran into two other women who we chatted with while we explored the boundaries of the center. I’m not sure what the men’s side looked like, but the women’s side included the old women’s dorms, the new women’s dorms, a hallway to the meditation center and the pagoda (another meditation area with single cells for meditators), and a walking area. there was a landscaped lawn with trees and flowers and benches, a very short dirt road you could walk on, and then there was about .2 miles of slightly slightly elevated trail walking through some pretty trees and a zillion kinds of mushrooms.

That day, it felt small. For many days, it felt small. Mostly, it felt small. All over the center there are these signs “Course Boundary.” We all got a kick out of those signs. They were everywhere. At the end of the road and along the trail where we weren’t supposed to go past, on electrical and mechanical and staff closets, on the kitchen. partly the signs instigated that rebellious piece of yourself that’s like, “I GO WHERE I WANT.” But it was also pretty amusing as well.  It was like we were little mice allowed in only certain areas of the cage.

So, at the 8 p.m. meditation, silence descended, after which we weren’t allowed to talk anymore, or gesture, or make eye contact. The purpose of this “noble silence” was to experience the whole meditation shebang as if you weren’t surrounded by 150 other people. It was to experience it all as if you were on your own. The meditation that night, I believe, was pretty short. I don’t think it was the whole hour. I don’t fully remember everything I thought about or did that night, but I recall feeling like the whole thing was pretty surreal, that ten days was a LONG TIME, and that it was going to be a challenge. That night, I went to sleep wondering how it all would go.

The mind running away without me

Have you ever tried setting a timer for 2 or 3 or 5 minutes on your phone and trying to sit there and only focus on the breath you’re breathing through your nose for those 2 or 3 or 5 minutes. Try it now. Notice that you get about three breaths in before your mind is off and away? Thinking about god knows what. Notice how after what feels like a hundred thoughts, you remember, oh yea, my breath! So you return to the breath coming through your nose, and you get one breath, two breath, and then you’re off again, thinking. And then you realize oh, yeah, my breath! And then eventually you think, I’ve thought a million thoughts by now — the time must be almost up. So you peek. And it’s been 55 seconds. Rinse, repeat.

And that was basically how Day 1 passed for me — in a whirlwind of thoughts. Anytime my mind realized I wasn’t thinking of something, it made five suggestions, and then five more and five more and five more. The meditation instructions we listened to from Goenka noted that if our mind wandered of five minutes or less before we realized we were supposed to be focusing on our breath, no worries, we were doing great! If it was more like ten or fifteen minutes, make our breath a little harder for a few breaths to focus our mind, but still, you’re doing great! It did not feel like I was going great. It felt like I super sucked at meditation. I started to calculate (during meditation, of course) that if I only was able to focus on my breathing for ten seconds at a time in a span of five minutes for the next ten days, that I was pretty much only going to get 2 minutes of meditation in every hour. Super!

And then, my mind started to slow down. Imperceptibly at first. On Day 2, I could meditate for longer periods of time without thoughts interrupting. When thoughts did interrupt, I’d realize sooner that I wasn’t meditating. On Day 3, I could meditate noticeably longer. I found my thoughts were slower, less ragged, less frantic. My thoughts felt more like the suggestions they were instead of things i had to think about RIGHT NOW. It’s was also on Day 2 and Day 3 that I realized the silence was invariably helping my mind slow down. There were no real inputs. Sure, I saw and smelled and tasted and moved, but I didn’t have other people’s stories and thoughts and experiences swirling in my head. There was nothing to compare myself to anymore. There was only me, my mind, my thoughts and my experience.

This process, the ability to see my mind slow down, to start to see glimmer of the control that you have over the mind, and the control is usually has over you — for this and this reason alone, I would suggest the course to someone.

Living on, on videotape

During the discourses from Days 1, 2 and 3, the rest of the students and I were introduced to Goenka, a man who, for most of his life, taught Vipassana all over the world. In 1991, as the number of Vipassana courses began to multiply, and Goenka could no longer be present at each one, they filmed and recorded him teaching a ten-day meditation course. Nowadays, if you attend a Vipassana course, you’ll see those tapes during the discourses (and in that way, everyone is taught that same thing no matter the course they are doing).

I was concerned about these discourses — it seemed weird to listen to videotapes instead of a person. But it turned out that Goenka was funny. From all of his experience teaching these courses, he pretty much knew what we’d be thinking about on those first few days. “I’m outta here! I’ll come back later!” he mimicked from the TV as we laughed on Day 1, all of us pretty much sharing the sentiment. “No, no,” he said, “you can do this.” He had the gift of public speaking, that is for sure. Goenka died two years ago, but he lives on in these videos.

At the end of day 3, we found out we’d spent three days just preparing our minds to learn vipassana. We’d spent 3 days doing mostly breathing meditation and meditations where we only focused on the sensation of the breath in and around the nose, the purpose of which was to help our minds learn to focus, to become more sharp.

At the end of the third day, I felt good. I felt like it was possible vipassana was going to do something for me. I had already realized how LOUD my mind was, and how much nicer it was when my mind was quiet.

I felt ready to learn vipassana.

Soon to come: days 4-9