a new president

“just to normalize this,” my doc said as i sat across from him, “i’ve had this same conversation eight time a day over the last week.” he smiled at me. “you’re not alone.”

it was november 17, 9 days after the election, 5 days after i left in the middle of my meditation course. i sat there in my therapist’s office, tears streaming down my face, heart ricocheting in my chest, panic coursing across my mind. there was no doubt about it — along with the rest of his patients,  i was breaking down.

on nov 8, i watched the results of the election come in at a friend’s house. there were several of us there, all certain our candidate would win, buoyed by the polls we’d seen, and by our belief that people just couldn’t find the man running against our candidate (who had all her own faults) presidential. We waited as the results came in, east to west, as the prediction on NYT \ went from an 85% chance for Hillary to win to 97% that Trump would. Each state that was announced, i grew more surprised, more heartbroken, more…confused.

that night, i stayed up to listen to trump’s acceptance speech, and I was honestly surprised by the tone and the content. I thought he sounded humbled. his voice had a new gravity. his words were kind and calm and rational. i went to bed thinking that, maybe, it wouldn’t be as bad as we all feared.

nov 9 dawned dark and dreary, which was how i felt. i had to pack for my meditation retreat, but i also wanted to see what the world was doing, what my friends were feeling. i went on Facebook to find that most of my friends were mourning their losses — maybe not even the loss of hillary herself, but out what she and her supporters stood for and what they stood against: for universal healthcare, for immigration reform, for helping refugees, for vaulting women and minorities forward, for cleaner air, for safety and respect; against bigotry and fear and hatred.

i mourned with them. i voted for hillary, and almost everyone I knew had as well (even though most had wished they could cast their vote for bernie instead).

I struggled to understand what had happened, how the people and news sources i trusted and relied on had been so incorrect. i wonder who these people were, who voted for a man who talked about grabbing pussy and who’s temper seemed always ready to erupt.

i knew that the loudest of his supporters were the most unsavory — the white supremacists, the alt-right, the fake newsers; those who had hate and violence in the deepest recesses of their hearts that. but i also know that trumps supporters were nothing like that. the parents of the kids i grew up with, who’d voted for him, they weren’t like that. maybe they hated hillary, and maybe it was for good reason. maybe they just didn’t want the same old, same old politics. maybe they truly thought america was failing and that trump could bring them wealth and prestige. it made sense to me that someone could vote for him, even with everything he’d said and done, if they really viewed the candidate i’d preferred as bought and paid for, unable to help them, unwilling to listen.

i posted something along those lines on Facebook, trying to mourn while still being hopeful, trying to, i guess, find forgiveness in my heart for people who had voted for a man that seemed to not respect women much – not respect me.

my cousin, who supported trump, posted a picture on his own wall that shocked me: a cartoon of a hillary supporter with a dozen penises shoved into their mouth. in a back and forth with him, he denied the fact that the post was horrifying and terrible. it was funny, he said.

then another cousin posted another meme. this one, though, went onto my wal. a fishbowl of blue water, with words saying something along the lines of “democrat or hillary support tears for sale.” when i told him i didn’t find that funny, either, he told me that because he found it funny, he wanted all my other friends on Facebook to get to see it.

they were both excited their candidate won. i would have been too. i would have posted videos and words of support, of how love had trumped hate, of how i knew that inclusiveness would always beat down exclusiveness. they were just doing the same, yet their words were jeering, of violence; they were ruthless and unyielding.

it was, in retrospect, two small moments.

but it was of those moments that my breakdown started brewing. my cousins, who i thought cared enough to show kindness (despite our different political beliefs) instead were the type of people who would find a cartoon depicting basically rape or sexual violence funny, as long as it was against a political opponent. they were the type of people who would rub salt in my wounds while laughing the whole time.

from the start, my time at the meditation course felt different than the first time. the first time, the course had felt like an oasis, a small, sometimes stressful oasis, but one where i just existed in and with myself, safe and sound, while the world spun softly by outside.

 

this time, though, i didn’t feel peaceful.

i felt unsettled. that small plot of land no longer felt safe; i felt trapped. in meditations and soon, in every moment, i started imagining that outside the meditation center’s walls, riots were raging. i started imagining that the future consisted only of people who would perpetrate violence against women, minorities, my friends.

I’d always trusted in people’s innate goodness — not that they will always do good, but that they always try to do good, or try to try to be good. at the meditation course, i began to feel that maybe i was wrong about people. my belief system broken down. i found myself imagining a gunman sneaking onto the property and shooting everyone while they sat in the meditation hall. i imagined acts of violence against people like me: a woman in a country that was now seemingly unfriendly to women. i imagined camps for muslims, like in the holocaust. i imagined white supremacy becoming the norm. i imagined losing my rights. i imagined women being stoned for getting needed or wanted abortions. i imagined a military or militia force keeping me in my place.

by day 2, i had a hard time closing my eyes in meditations, afraid that i would be the first one the gunman came for, that i wouldn’t hear them sneaking up behind me and putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger.

if my cousins would rub salt in my wounds, would try to hurt me when i was down, why should i trust that strangers would do better? why should i ever feel safe again? why should anyone? what was this country we lived in? how did i get it all so wrong?

on day three of the course, i left. leaving a vipassana meditation course isn’t really a thing people do, at least not often, and never lightly. but i had spent the last 24 hours in a constant state of panic, my mind and heart racing, my chest tight, my throat closed, and my brain increasingly feeling like it would crack under the pressure. I literally felt like my mind might just break if i stayed, if i couldn’t get away from the thoughts, if i couldn’t get back to safety.

in the office with my therapist, we talked about what happened at the course, and after. how scared i was. how helpless i felt. how i felt like i was living in a different country than i thought i had been. how angry everyone seemed. how i was afraid for myself, but more for my fellow minorities, for muslims and those who practiced islam, for refugees who risk everything only to be vilified by their new american neighbors. i was afraid of violence. of hate. of not being able to do anything to fight it or fix it. i was terrified; i felt like i couldn’t trust the people around me to keep me safe.

we spent that sessions talking about the fact that it was ok to be scared. that it was no out of the norm, in this scenario, to panic. yet that it was possible to work and live through the panic. we talked about the fact that i was not helpless. that i could write letters to mosque’s with my support. i could show by example. i could get involved with an organization that helps refugees and women and minorities. i could help one person. or two people. or more. i could wear a safety pin to show i was a safe person to talk to. i could write about it. i could act and help and cause change. we talked about how there might be tons of people who rub salt, but that there were also tons of people who felt like me.  together, we could keep each other safe, we could stand up for each other.

i took some time off of media after that. i didn’t listen to NPR, or read the NYT, and i asked joe and his sister and my own family to not talk about anything political with me. as the world moved on and worked through the election and the aftermath, i retreated. i built a shell around myself to give me the space to build myself back up. my mom and sister instituted a no politics policy, and told everyone involved in the thanksgiving holiday that they were not to bring up either candidate, whether we were on the same side of not. they helped, and joe helped, to insulate me from the news, from disagreements and harsh words and scary premonitions.

they helped to remind me of the love and kindness and safety that still existed. they gave me the space i needed so i could remember that i still believed that people were good, that i still believe everyone is trying to do their best.

a month and change later, trump is still president elect. he will be the president. his speeches have grown less kind. his off-the-cuff remarks may one day endanger the country. hate crimes, or the reporting of them, have increased. people like me still feel worried, watching who trump has chosen to take important posts in his new administration. i’m still afraid of trump’s presidency, of what it will mean and who it will hurt, and of where we’ll be, as a nation and a world, on the other side of it. but i do think that we will get there, and that those of us who are disenfranchised will find a way to fight back.

the world on a whole, at least the western one, is swinging right. country after country is electing or vaulting up other politicians who promise national unity, and greatness, but seem to feel okay getting those things by hurting others in the process. i believe that they will not win. i believe that there are rough times ahead, but that love and kindness and care and all the things all the great religions of the world preach will win, overall.

which is, perhaps, naive. it may just be that in order to not spend my life in a panic, that i *must* believe that things will be okay. I’m open to the fact that i may be very, very wrong, but i am hopeful that i’m not. i will fight to make sure i’m not.

I’m also heartened by a few things. like some republicans and democrats in congress are willing to work together, and at odds to trump’s positions. I’m interested and heartened by some of the information i’m seeing about those who voted for trump, who sound like they want a lot of the same things i do. I’m interested to see how the hearings in congress go for the cabinet positions, and who comes out for and against the different appointments. I’m interested to see the role President Obama plays after he officially leaves the white house — i think his role will continue to be important. I’m interested to see whether trump’s supporters continue to support the things he chooses to do, or not; whether they will stand up and oppose him when he goes to far.

nowadays, i feel calmer. my panic is much less frequent. I’m reading the news and listening to NPR daily. More information, now, is better, even when it sparks some anxiety in me. I plan to branch out to read more news sources soon, more conservative ones, which i’m sure will add some anxiety, but which i think is important, if i really want to understand the country i live in.

Before the election, I didn’t really want to. or really, i guess i thought i already knew the country. I thought I knew what people believed, what they cared about, and it turned out that I didn’t. I hadn’t been paying attention to the fact that people felt forgotten and empty and nervous about the future, and angry about their circumstances. those people matter. those people matter alongside women and minorities and muslims and refugees. we all matter.

i don’t know how you make a world where everyone gets to win, where everyone feels heard and respected and like they have a fair chance and are living a good life, but i think the first step is trying to understand where people are coming from.

i want to understand my fellow americans better. i want to understand my cousins better. not because i think i will agree with them or their political views, or them with mine, but because I don’t ever want those who disagree with me to become outlines, to be so simplified in my mind that i can just turn away from them without really seeing. i don’t want to forget that, even though we may disagree on much or most, that they are still trying to do their best, just like me.

 

 

 

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After sitting in silence: finding balance

its been about fourteen days since I got back from the meditation retreat, and those days have been pretty intense.

after getting home from the retreat with the instructions from goenka to meditate twice a day for an hour each, I did a pretty good job for the first day or two. All I really had on my plate (other than writing the next great American novel of course) was working on moving since joe and I were headed to the second floor from the third. It was easy to make time for meditation, but the meditation itself wasn’t easy. My intention was there, but my focus wavered. I was no longer able to tell time with meditation (of course I always overestimated — “it’s been 40 minutes!”  Nope. 20.). And the sensations I got were different. From sounds to temperature to a different posture to the brightness and darkness, it all felt different. All my sensations were also dulled, harder to notice, which I kind of expected.

Then, a day or two after getting back, I started getting angry again. I was still unhappy about the things I mentioned in the last post, and a few other things started nagging me. In his discourses, Goenka had noted that vipassana was the “true, undiluted” meditation that the Buddha himself had taught so many years ago but that had been lost for ages. He also alleged that vipassana was the only true way to reach enlightenment.

It took me all of the ten day course and three days after to realize that I thought this was kinda bullshit. So I got angry. I talked to Joe’s sister, Sarah, about it, and she agreed that the idea vipassana was the only way to enlightenment was pretty ridiculous. But, she asked — did it do anyone any real harm to believe it? No, not really. And did vipassana help me anyway even if it wasn’t THE path to enlightenment? Indeed, tons. Sooo…..does it really matter what was said?

No…………buuuuuttt.

But what? But I felt foolish! Like I’d been taken in and it took me what felt like forever to even question it. April, who it turned out was having pretty similar thoughts to mine, put it best:

There’s a lot of different kool-aids out there and that one tasted pretty good, but it was kind of the first kool aid for both of us, so of course we’re going to think it tastes the best. And of course everyone that sells the kool aid is going to think its the best.

Ha!

Maybe vipassana is the only true way. And maybe the only way to know for sure is to take it to its limits — to do a  45 day course, or become a nun or something like that. maybe the only way to know is to try every type of meditation out there and see what happens.

Or, maybe I can forget all that stuff, all the old stories and the buddha and karma and past lives and true enlightenment and everything that felt wrong to me. Maybe i can just use the vipassana techniques i know and see how they better my life.

And they do better my life. What I do know is that days I meditate, I’m happier and calmer. I know that when I sit for a hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, it feels right. I know that I feel more patient, that my anger and sadness are over more quickly, that I’m more likely to deal with “annoying” situations as if they are just neutral ones. I use waiting in line as an excuse to meditate.

And, I see the world a little differently, and myself differently. Now, when people say something unkind to me, I am aware of whether or not I wallow in sadness or anger about it (and sometimes I do wallow). When I get sad or angry or I panick, it passes more quickly. When pleasant or unpleasant things happen, I’m aware of anicca, that everything changes, and while I enjoy or dislike them, I try to temper my reaction. It’s as if the world I saw before the retreate was slightly off-axis, unnoticeable until attention was drawn to it, and now it feels like I’m seeing straight. Or maybe like now I feel like I can take a step back and see situations for what they are, instead of feeling as overwhelmed by them.

Its a good, stabilizing feeling.

So, ten days after my ten day course, I’ve moved, got a new part-time job teaching at-risk middle schoolers science in an afterschool program, starting writing again, and established a wavering but good meditation practice that improves my overall well-being. My meditation is also helping now that I’m in Orlando, planning to stick around for a few weeks to take care of my mom after a surgery. I had to take a leave from the teaching job, and writing will be more difficult to fit in, and sometimes those things are stressful to think about. But the reality is I want to be here now and those other things are less important right now. Anicca. Everything changes. 

So, I’ll keep you updated here and there on how the meditation is going, how everything is going, but if you have any questions about or the retreat, please feel free to reach out. And thanks for reading…I’ve enjoyed sharing very much.

Sitting in silence, day 10: make some noise

Noble Silence is lifted

We couldn’t start talking right away on day 10. Instead, the day started at 445 am with a required group meditation and chanting, after which noble silence was lifted.

It was a weird morning. I had mixed feelings about starting to talk. On the one hand, starting to talk meant i was going to be going home soon to the people I loved, to books and writing and whatever life was going to look like now that all my adventures were done. But on the other hand, I had really, overall, enjoyed the silence, how it had affected my mind and the space it had created around me in which I was free to change and think and just be.

 

What do I say?

I was also unprepared for what I would say. Over the last nine days, I’d realized my urges to speak were often just to fill silence (“so how’s it going for you?”) or to talk about something obvious (“hot day, huh?”) or to bounce my opinions off other people (“what’d you think of _____?”). All normal human ways to communicate, but those last nine days, I’d discovered that sometimes not speaking was better. Sometimes it didn’t matter what someone else thought. Sometimes I didn’t need to fill the silence.

So when noble silence was lifted, I ran off to the pagoda for a little more meditation instead of jumping right into the fray. And after that, I snuck back to my room so as to sidestep the sounds of conversation and the risk of getting pulled into one.

And in my room I found April! Awesome April! With April, I felt calm and at ease and we basically spent the rest of the day, except when we were meditating, talking about life, meditation, the last ten days, everything. We made plans to come back and volunteer at the center, to visit each other, we shared challenges we knew we were going to face when we got home, and how to handle them.

The experience would have worked without April, but having her at the end to talk to and feel at home with was a joy, and I was really thankful for it.

As I started to talk to other people at the course, I realized that everyone had a pretty different take on almost every aspect of the course: one girl said she had received no benefit whatsoever from the meditation. Some people thought every word out of goenka’s mouth was gold. Some (me) were getting turned off with the more spiritual and repetitive side of the discourses. Some people revealed they hated the pagoda. Others couldn’t wait to eat meat. Some had had surprising, tearful revelations. Others were surprised they hadn’t.

It was overwhelming, the different ways those ten days affected everyone. It was especially this day that I was so thankful for the silence we’d been forced into, for the ability those last nine days to only worry about what WE were thinking and experiencing for ourselves. What a gift.

 

Selling me vipassana, past lives, and things I don’t believe in

The discourses by day 7 had started to frustrate me and by day 10, I was over them. Day 7 had felt like an advertisement for vipassana, talking about all these old stories of people who were helped way back when about vipassana. The drunk whose alcoholism was cured. The woman who’d lost her entire family who found piece. The many people whose lives had seen profound changes because of vipassana. The thing was, I didn’t doubt these benefits. But it just felt too preachy, especially for a technique in which you’re supposed to only depend on or believe in what you experience. It’s great that it’s helped other people — one of the reasons I did the course was because I felt it could help me. But I was annoyed by the discourses that seemed to be trying to sell me on it with highly charged stories meant to make me think that vipassana was the true and only way to be totally happy. “Back off!” I wanted to yell at the TV.

I was also tired of the talk of karma. I’ve always thought of karma as something that happens in this life. So, you act like a dick to everyone and karma was probably going to bite you one day. But in the discourses, goenka talked about karma from past lives: “this man was poor because off bad karma from his past life.” “This woman was rich because of great karma from previous lives.” Screw that. Maybe maybe maybe there are past and future lives,  other dimensions in which we live infinite versions of our lives. But to me, what we get in this life is a combination of luck (where were you born, to who, in what health, and what happens to you) and character (how you treat others, how hard you work, what you spend your time on).

 

What we deserve

The biggest issues, though, came during the discourse on day 10. The first issue was in how goenka talked about how we might handle the philosophies or ideas he shared over the last ten days that we didn’t buy into – karma, past lives, sankharas, etc. His (good) advice was that it didn’t matter if we didn’t believe it. If we don’t believe it, fine, “take it out,” and just focus on whether vipassana creates positive change in your life. That, I was good with. But then he went on…

He compared this to a mother making her child a delicious sweet pudding with cardamom seeds (which are black). The child sees the black seeds and says that he won’t eat the whole pudding because there are black rocks in it. The mom tells the child they are cardamom seeds, but he still doesn’t want to eat it. She says to just eat around them, it’s still tasty. The child says no. She picks out all the cardamom seeds so that the pudding has no more black spots. But the child still says no and pushes the bowl away. The child still won’t eat any of it, because the cardamom seeds touched the pudding. The mom smiles and shakes her head knowing one day the child will understand the pudding and the seeds are tasty.

I didn’t love that in this story, I was the child, foolishly throwing out tasty morsels of knowledge (karma, past lives, etc) because I was too immature to see their tastiness, while mother goenka sakes his head with pity, knowing he is right, knowing I’ll come around eventually, when i grew up.

The last thing to turn me off was the biggest. In his last discourse goenka talked about how he’d received letters from all over the world from people who had attended his vipassana courses and gone home only to have amazing events take place in their lives.  Raises. Promotions. More money. Better relationships. “Don’t expect this to happen for you, but it might!” While I believe that vipassana and the meditation practice can improve our outlooks and improve our lives, I though that to even suggest that something like getting a raise could be related to having attended this course was just mean. Like those who go home and don’t get a raise or who instead get sick or lose money or experience the death of a loved one — like those people didn’t meditate hard enough or try hard enough.

No, I don’t think so.

I believe life is wonderfully, and sometimes unbearably, random, that pain and suffering are just as likely as joy and harmony. I firmly believe that bad and good things happen to good people and bad and good things happen to bad people. I don’t believe that wonderful things happen in mine or anyone’s life because we deserve them (or because of karma) and I don’t believe that horrible things happen in mine or anyone’s life because we deserve them. I think things just happen. And we do our very best.

 

yet still…

Nevertheless, meditation was still working for me. I felt calmer, more stable, more able to listen to others, to focus, to move with intention. I planned to continue doing it at home. I was happy I’d done the course.

So, just like goenka said (which yea, annoyed me as i decided it), I decided I would ignore the parts of the course I hadn’t liked. I’d take them out.


Last meditation post, on how the two weeks post retreat have gone, coming soon. 

sitting in silence, days 6 and 7: painful realizations

So, in the last post I talked about these strong determination sittings, in which for an hour, you’re supposed to do your very very best not to move. The purpose is to train your mind to be equanimous toward pleasant and unpleasant sensations — to treat them as sensations only, without feeling craving or aversion toward them.

In the last post I noted:

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.

One thing I didn’t mention that comes into play here is that on my first day at the meditation retreat, Judith, the teacher, requested an interview with me via a little note taped on my and April’s door. In this interview, Judith reiterated what I’d now been told what felt like 1000 million times (but was really twice): people with anxiety often have a tough time with vipassana. Judith said that a lot of people with anxiety have really intense experiences during meditation, that if i was to have these kind of experiences, not to worry, that if I started to feel anxious, to feel free to come talk to her. I nodded politely, disliking that my anxiety was being brought to the forefront by someone who was basically a stranger. I didn’t like being told I was going to *freak out*, especially when I felt rather calm.

Day 6 – Night

Five days later, though, Judith’s prediction came true. I was over being angry about the whole robot thing, and was probably 20 or 30 minutes into the 6 p.m. group meditation in the meditation hall when the pain in my hips started. This time I was doing a better job managing that pain, not giving it the power it demanded previously, viewing and searching the sensation, finding its edges, its intensities.

Now, for those of you who have done yoga, you may remember that a lot of teachers say emotion is stored in the hips. Goenka and vipassana takes it a little further — they believe that the pain (and pleasure) people feel during meditation are really manifestations of what they call “defilements” — anger, sadness, anxiety, old wounds deep within you. One of the reasons you start on the surface of the skin with your body scan — besides being a way to train your mind to feel sensations — is because the sensations you get on the surface of your skin are often less intense than the ones you get inside. Compare an itch on your nose to a muscle cramp, for example.

So anyway, i thought that was all pretty ridiculous (even though there’s research that’s changing our perception of the interplay between pain and emotion). But on the sixth night, half way into the hour-long meditation, humming along as I searched the intense sensation in my hips (forgetting to stick to the skin), it all changed.

It’s difficult to describe what happened, partly because it was a very intense experience which defies some explanation in words, and partly because its hard to write at all about the realizations that I had during the meditation course: they’re personal, they’re deep, and they, for most of my life, made up the foundation I stood on. But, just like I think it was important to share my experience with anxiety — because anxiety should be something we can talk about as a culture without fear or concern — I think it’s important to share what I think a lot of boys and girls grow up believing, subconsciously or not, about themselves.

Anyway. I’m not sure which came first that night as I scanned deep in my hips — the tears, or the reason for them. But all the sudden, a thought barreled into my mind, smashing across my consciousness: “You’ve never liked yourself.” And once this thought hit me, unbidden, from nowhere, I knew it was the absolute truth. And the tears began, tears that wouldn’t stop, tears that brought with them memories of the past, flash after flash of how my self-hate had manifested. I watched myself in fifth grade, as I started to realize that other people didn’t seem to be paying me much attention. I watched myself at summer camp, trying to make friends with the older kids, looking to them for acceptance. I watched myself as I hit high school, how my hate reached a new low, how I hurt myself for not being good enough. I watched myself in college, trying to be someone I wasn’t. I watched myself internalizing, over and over, all my life: i was no good. It came to me that so much of my social anxiety in the past had hinged on the fact that I knew I wasn’t good enough. I knew when people didn’t like me, it was because I was unlikable. And when people acted like they did like me, I knew it was because they felt bad for me, or they liked me in a tenuous way – one weird remark, one misstep and I’d be out.

I cried that night for the pain self hate had caused me, for the choices it caused me to make, for the fact that for so much of my life, i hadn’t realized that this dislike of myself shadowed every interaction, every choice. I cried for the time I’d lost not believing in myself, not knowing myself. I cried as I realized I’d been wrong all along: I was good enough.

Writing about this now brings tears. It’s…painful. Had you asked me before the vipassana course, do you like yourself? I would have said yes. of course. but during that silence, deep inside myself, I found a different answer, and it was shocking, jarring, devastating.

but, as I cried, it was also good. I could let go of the shadow that had dogged me my entire life. I could recognize it for what it was: a falsehood, an untruth. I could leave it behind. i could be free.

day 7 – Night

Day 7 had gone well. new parts of my body were blank that hadn’t been blank the day before — like the tears had somehow wiped some of my sensations away. But I felt more equanimous. I felt more ME than I ever had. And, strangely, the pain in my hips was less. Still there, but less. Each sitting felt easier, like I could sit for hours.

The night of Day 7, I had another realization during the 6 p.m. meditation session, one that built on the realization that I hadn’t liked myself: my whole life, I had been looking to others to like me instead, to fill that hole inside of me. maybe this was obvious, but it still surprised me, it still brought tears. it answered the question of why i acted like i had in high school and college, why i had and still did crave so much attention — mostly from guys, why it was so hard for me to handle it when people didn’t like me, why so many interactions with friends felt so wrought.

This night, I cried tears for myself, for how much i had grasped toward others for love instead of finding it inside myself. I cried tears for the person who had believed that she wasn’t worth it unless others said she was.

And then, finally, my tears stopped. and again, i felt free.

Now, I don’t know why, but after these two sessions of realizing these deep, difficult things about myself, my hips no longer hurt. the pain that shot up and down them on hot wires, radiating heat and electricity — it was gone. completely and utterly gone.

it hasn’t come back.

days 8-10 later…

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