Monday, August 30, 2010

Importance of Daily Practice

After taking the 10 day course it is important to maintain the continuity of practice everyday. What Goenkaji advises is to sit for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. On the face of it this is quite a challenge and many people tend to stop after a few days. The effect of the course (as in any other course) tends to wear off if there is no practice.

If you don't use it, you lose it.

After my first course I found it difficult to maintain my daily practice--I found it difficult to sit even for an hour. I was working (teaching in college)and had two young children and although I had a strong desire to continue on this path, I did not know how to re-organize my life to fit in the hours of practice. So the first year, I was happy if I could get even a few minutes a day to sit and meditate. In these few minutes I tried my best to practice anapana (focusing on the natural respiration). I couldn't really practice Vipassana.

Association with Sabrina really helped in those initial years. She was so dedicated and so inspiring! She would call me to assist her in the children's program--some of which I went for. More importantly, whenever I had a problem or a daily hassle, I could discuss it with her and she would explain the Dhamma to me which helped me stay on the path. She had this ability to apply the teaching to real life. So what I learned in the courses became more and more practically relevant.

After my second 10 day course my one hour of morning meditation became regular. I did put in a lot of effort to make it regular. I would wake up at 4 am mediate for an hour and then get ready for the day--that is, cooking for the family, packing and dropping off my kids in school & getting to work. Life was hectic but I was able to fit in one hour of daily practice. People marveled at my energy, my ability to wake up at 4 am no matter when I went to sleep in the night. But I still feel it was mainly because of my one hour sitting, that I got the energy to carry on with a hectic day.

I had plans to do my course in Satipattana (Establishment of Mindfulness). For this, my practice had to become more regular. Serving at the center in Madras, attending one hour of group meditation on Sundays, involving myself in children's courses, helped me in my daily practice.
As all courses are run on donations by old students, there is a constant need for people serve on the course. Whenever I had time, I would drive to the center and offer my services. This is called Dhamma seva. When you help others on the path, you get helped in turn---it gave me the energy to practice everyday.

By this time, my two daughters had attended the children's course and they could understand my meditation practice at home. When I did my 3 rd course, my husband agreed to come for the course. Although he found the course useful, he lost practice soon after.

There were brief periods of time when my practice was not very regular after my course in Satipattana. When I say "not very regular", I mean the 2 hours of daily meditation. I had, by this time stabilized on one hour of daily practice except on very rare unusually busy days.

It made sense to maintain regular practice. This is because, in the courses you go to deep levels of your mind and change certain unhelpful patterns of behaviour and gain deep insights into your life. If there is no daily practice, these gains are not maintained, and very soon one goes back to original patterns of behavior. With daily practice, one gets the opportunity to learn new things about oneself and remove further obstacles in experiencing life fully, in every course one takes.

One analogy that would help understand this is learning to swim. After a few days of learning to swim, one needs to maintain regular practice to swim well. In fact, the mind itself can be analogous to an ocean, and the first course is like taking the first dip in that huge ocean. Subsequent courses help you to explore the ocean of the mind by diving deeper--but lack of regular daily practice, would only keep you on the surface level of the ocean (mind).

After my fifth course finally I began sitting the second hour fairly regularly, and have tried to maintain that till now--there are a few days when I do not achieve this regularity--but I try my best to do so.

The regular practice also helped me understand the theoretical aspects of Dhamma, the teaching. For instance, I could clearly understand the 4 parts of the mind as explained in the discourses by Goenkaji. Earlier my understanding was very superficial, but regular practice and doing the course seriously, following every rule, every instruction scrupulously, I was able to achieve new levels of understanding and this again helped me change my way of thinking and behavior.

I will be elaborating on this new understanding in my next post.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Connecting with oneself ........A typical 10 day course

As Goenkaji says, right from the time we are are born, we are encouraged to be extroverted. We are taught to speak, respond to people and interact with them. In contrast to this, the 10-day courses helps us learn to connect with ourselves and understand our innate tendencies towards behaving in certain ways.

A typical 10-day course has 3 parts to it : Sila, samadhi and pannya:

Sila or moral code involves taking the following 5 vows (also called precepts):

1. Abstain from stealing
2. Abstain from killing
3. Abstain from speaking lies, harsh words, back biting etc.
4. Abstain from taking intoxicants
5. Abstain from sexual misconduct

These vows are taken because to engage in any one of theses actions creates a lot of negativity or disturbance in the mind. For instance, it is impossible to kill without generating anger and hatred; it is impossible to speak lies without generating greed of some sort or jealousy or similar negative emotion. As the objective is to investigate the mind, these actions are abstained from, in order to set the stage for deep exploration of the mind.

Samadhi--concentration of mind:

Exploration of the mind is quite a difficult task in itself but there is a way out of this. Observing the natural respiration is one way; that is. the breath, as it enters and leaves the nostrils. There are many reasons for choosing the breath to explore the mind, make it an object of meditation.
1. It serves as a link between the mind and body--whenever the mind becomes disturbed--as when we are angry or sad, the breath loses its natural rhythm--we begin to breathe rapidly or very slowly, disrupting the oxygen flow into our body. Focusing on the breath helps to set imbalances at rest, as by doing so we breathe evenly and normally.
2. It is the truth at any given moment. The fact that one is alive, one is breathing--this is truth--it is not an imagination or a visualization, or a belief, it is the truth of the moment.
3. Lastly, it is always there with us--you don't have to remember a mantra or carry an object of meditation.

Focusing on the natural respiration--the breath as it comes through the nostrils and as it goes out sounds very simple but it is in fact quite a challenge. This is because our attention does not remain there, it keeps rolling away in thoughts especially about the past, the future. Whenever one notices his/her attention rolling off into other directions, one patiently brings it back to the entrance of the nostrils. With time and sustained practice, the attention wanders less and less and stays for longer duration at the nostrils. The mind thus becomes more and more focused, and one-pointed as it is also called.

Vipassana--purification of mind:

When the mind is thus reasonable attentive, after 3 days of persistent, continuous practice, one is instructed in the practice of Vipassana. This means getting this concentrated mind to survey the entire body, beginning at the top of the head and slowly and gradually scanning the entire body, to the tips of the toes. While doing so, one learns to develop equanimity towards all sensations experienced. Equanimity is observing the sensations as objectively as possible--not identifying with any of them, but just taking note of them.

Generally speaking there are usually 3 broad classification of sensations--pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations and sensations which are neither pleasant or unpleasant--the so-called neutral sensations. In the initial courses it is the unpleasant sensations that seem to dominate, especially as one sits in the same position for long periods of time. Noting these sensations, without reacting to them is again a huge challenge as the normal instinctual tendency is to shift one's position in the hope that the unpleasantness may decrease. One slowly understands that the only way to deal with the unpleasantness, the pain, is to experience it without judging it as bad, without wishing it would go away. In fact, I even learned to 'experience' the pain by observing it part by part, dividing and dissecting separately noting sense of pressure, solidity, heat etc. This helps to observe the sensation in an objective manner, thus developing the faculty of equanimity.

Gradually one realizes that these sensations which were so intense, change and cease to exist, go away on their own even without having to move one's seating position. This is true not only for painful sensations but whatever kind of sensation that experienced as one scans the body. This is one of the important truths that is experienced and understood--the phenomenon of annicca or impermanence.

This practice goes on up to day 9. Experiences may differ from person to person, but by this day one gets a general idea of the teaching, and some insights into one's dominant behavioral tendencies. The 10th day, is a special day as the meditators are taught to radiate the peace they experience into the outside world along with unconditional love and harmony to all beings. This day is also a day when the silence comes to an end--a relief to many!

While the courses help us explore deep into our minds, training it to be less reactive and impulsive, this can be sustained only with regular daily practice outside of these courses. I will be writing about this in my next post.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Why I sit..."

Part V (Forgiveness)

Forgiveness...that's what I wrote in my last post (Part IV). People usually have mixed feelings about forgiveness. Some understand that it heals but have difficulty in putting it to practice. Others--quite a number of them, feel that forgiving people who have hurt you, harmed you is a sign of weakness. It is a like condoning and excusing the bad behaviour or actions of the other person. Some feel that their anger towards the person harming/hurting them is justified and therefore there is nothing wrong in "righteous indignation" or righteous anger.

I understand how that feels having gone through such experiences myself. Tales of other's acts of forgiveness of their tormentors evokes mixed feelings of admiration and disbelief and some times makes you want to be able to do likewise, but yet seems an unthinkable path to follow.

"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned"

said The Buddha, and how true it is! However righteous or justified one might think our anger is, this is so true! So how do we behave with a person who has wronged us? Before we act, we need to understand ourselves first, calm ourselves down and reach a state of balance. It is a choice--and a sane and rational one.

Viktor Frankl said "Between a stimulus and a response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

We need to understand the pointlessness of reacting with anger in the face of an unpleasant situation, take a step back, calm ourselves down and the deal with the situation. This is where I found my meditation practice very useful. It helped me find the gap between the stimulus and response, it made me aware of the choices I had.

When a person says unkind things to me the initial reaction is one of anger and the training in observation of natural respiration helps me focus on my breath till I calm down. Sometimes I do nothing else but just calm down--if it is not an appropriate situation to say something back to the person, I just don't say anything.

I also realized that the person who acts in an unkind and angry manner could be doing so for many reasons. Maybe he has problems himself which I am unaware of ? His outburst of abuse may or may not be directly linked to me who was at the receiving end. If you feel/think you have done something to warrant the other's anger, the best thing would be to apologize for it. If you feel/think you have done nothing to cause his anger, the best thing would be to forgive him, because then his anger is not due to something you did, but something he is not able to handle and therefore is in need of some compassion.

Also, are we not guilty of behaving in a similar manner at some time in life ? Sometimes overcome with our cares and stresses do we not burst out in anger ? Do we not wish to be treated with compassion ourselves at such times, for mistakes we have committed?

Unfortunately, we are so immersed in our own lives and needs that we rarely think that each one is going through their own private hell. What externally appears to be a happy, successful life may not in reality be exactly that all the time. Each one of us need some love, some compassion.

The practice of Vipassana meditation opened up such avenues of thought. The discourses of Goenkaji combined with the practice enabled me to appreciate a different perspective and find value in doing so. Because by learning to forgive, I was only helping myself--I was refusing to engage in negative thoughts of the other and instead cultivating positive thoughts of compassion and unconditional love.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Why I sit...

Part IV (Satipattana)

Sometimes the gains that I claim I had after the courses may sound exaggerated. Did I suddenly change? Did I become a different person? It may seem dramatic and unbelievable.

Maybe the word "change" is not appropriate--was I not ok before? Was there something undesirable in me that needed change? The answer is no. However, there was that feeling of unsatisfactoriness about life in general which I mentioned earlier. I had a lot of resentment accumulated over the years, a tendency towards depression, and my mood mildly melancholic. Compared to an average person I was less depressed, resentful and melancholic--but personally it was not what I wanted to be. I felt I wasn't living fully, I felt I could do better if I had my anger, sadness, anxiety under control and in better physical health as well.

It was in these directions that I changed gradually, each course providing for some incremental change. There were times when I felt I was becoming worse too. I particularly remember the Satipattana course in the summer of 2000. This is a course one could take after a minimum of 3 ten-day courses.

Satipattana means establishment in awareness, a very important part of The Buddha's teaching. This course is similar to the 10-day course with respect to the time-table and the meditation instructions but different from the chantings in the morning and the discourse in the evenings. Needless to say, it is meant for serious students who have decided that this is the path they want to follow. The morning chantings are from the Maha Satipattana Sutta and the evening discourses are an explanation of the same chantings. We were a few students --about 5-6 females doing the course. I did it with all seriousness but around the middle of the course started feeling very restless--a feeling that I might be called back home for some reason. In fact, when the dhamma sevika came to the hall one morning during our 8 am meditation hour and whispered into the teacher's ear, I was quite sure it was a call for me to get back home. Later, I found out that the unfortunate call was for my roommate, who had to leave the course--I had no means to find out the reason.

The course being done, I left for home on the last day to be greeted by an unusual reception at my parent's place. My husband had taken ill with vertigo during my absence and had to be hospitalised in Chennai. Unfortunately his close relatives chose to view the incident as being due to my negligence towards him and my family and a pre-occupation with my own interests. A lot of unkind and things were said about me and my parents. I was told that my mother was urged to call me back from the course (coincidently on the same day that I felt uneasy and restless during the course) while my father stopped her from doing so and instead decided to ascertain the facts from my husband himself first. I am extremely grateful for his thoughtful decision without which I may not have been able to complete the course.

It's about 10 years since this happened, but I remember it very distinctly because I struggled to learn to forgive the person who said nasty unkind things about me and my parents. I wanted to say a lot of unkind things to this person too--but was stopped by my friend and guide, Sabrina who tried to teach me to forgive. For many months I struggled with this incident unwilling to forgive, to let go. Those were the times when the path seemed very difficult--it was a challenge to practice what I learned in the course. It took me years--4 or 5 until my 5th course in 2005 to let go and learn to forgive.

Yes, forgiving people who have harmed you or said unkind things about you is difficult. But the entire incident helped me understand suffering and the way out of suffering. When I posted on my facebook wall recently, something on forgiveness, one friend said it was better to keep enemies away from you rather than forgive them, befriend them and find that they harm you as a friend. Another person said she agreed that forgiveness heals but it takes a long time to learn to forgive. Quite true. Most things in life which are worth learning takes time, takes patience.

As Viktor Frankl said in his book--Man's Search for Meaning, "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves"

But how does this change come about? What the subsequent intense courses taught me was that when such an incident (like the one above) occurred there was a pattern---the person (in this case the relative) said those words and the incident was over. However, I kept replaying the incident again and again in my mind, re-calling every hurting word and emotion. To this I would create an imagined response I should have given the person or may give if another opportunity arose in future. In short, I was creating a mental drama of an incident and replaying it ever so often in the stage of my mind. The incident was painful the first time it occurred and yet here I was replaying it in my mind hurting myself again and again adding a number of dialogues and counter dialogues.

Each time I recalled the incident there was a fresh wave of unpleasantness. Examining this thread bare in each of my courses, closely observing my sensations each time these thoughts came to my mind, with the understanding of impermanence (annicca) as taught by my teacher, I was able to comprehend what I was doing to myself and the way to let go, to forgive. Every thought that arises in the mind is linked to a sensation in the body. These sensations are impermanent by nature--they arise and pass away. During meditation we train ourselves to observe this reality that happens within the framework of our body. In our ignorance of the impermanent nature of the sensations we keep blindly reacting to them in everyday life, just as I was doing earlier with that painful incident. With practice I learned to observe the sensation that came up along with the thought, learned to be equanimous with the painful sensation it brought along with it and then could free myself from the negative emotions associated with it.

This requires training. Therefore sitting on the cushion motionless for about an hour was not just a test in physical endurance but in fact a training of the mind. Training to understand that what arises in the mind ( or any other part of the body) is linked to sensations experienced on the body. Additionally, learning to develop equanimity towards the sensation with the understanding of its impermanent nature-I gradually learned that all sensations I experienced were characterized by impermanence.

Ignorance of this truth of sensations causes our suffering. This realization I started applying in my day to day life. It became easier to forgive some people. When I was able to do that, it increased my confidence in interacting with people--because afterall it is the fear of hurt which becomes a barrier at times in our interactions with people.

By the time I completed my 5th 10day course in end December 2005, there was a huge leap in my understanding of what was going on within me in various situations I faced in life--particularly in my interactions with people. I was able to now regulate my emotions in a better manner, understand myself better and become more content.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Why I sit...

Part III (Progress in the 2nd and 3rd courses)

My sister's death, painful as it was, was still only part of the reason for my taking this path of Vipassana meditation. There was always a sense of disquiet within me... a yearning to make sense of this world, this life. There was a sense of unsatisfactoriness, a kind of emptiness. There were moments of great joy as well. And to many, I was leading a normal, happy life--I had a good husband and lovely daughters.

But as Thoreau said..."Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.." women too! Another gem of his echoes the sentiments I experienced at that time.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Yes, I wanted to live deliberately, to confront my inner self and what was going on in there....and learn if I could whatever lessons it offered.

Meditation was something I had come across when I read J. Krishnamurthy. However, he did not believe in teaching meditation and believed it to be an individual's personal journey. That didn't help much though his teachings in general did.

Then I briefly attended a class in Transcendental meditation but was disappointed with the instructors lack of seriousness of teaching it.

It was in Mumbai sometime in 1984 that I first heard of Vipassana Meditation. Raja, my husband brought home a sheet of paper on which was given the time-table of the 10 day course and the address of the center in Nashik. One look at the time-table and I felt like attending the course. Raja laughed at me and said I cannot stay silent for 10 minutes--leave alone 10 days! And in my immaturity I took offence at this and abandoned the idea.

Anyway, as I have described in Part I of this series of posts, I did my first course in October 1995. The immediate benefits of the course was reduced anger in my interactions with my family--I had greater patience dealing with my young children and discovered the magic of the breath. Whenever I was upset, bringing my awareness to my natural respiration helped me calm down. That was a very significant change in my life.

I tried to practice everyday.. but was not very successful and even when I did sit down occasionally, found it very difficult to do so for more than half-an-hour. I did not consider going back to do another course.. it was with great difficulty that I did the first one. However, I kept in constant touch with Sabrina, who was my mentor, guide and friend. She was and has always been a source of inspiration to me on this path.

It was not until we moved to Chennai from Hyderabad and I decided to enroll for my PhD program in Madras University, that the possibility of doing a second 10 day course came up. So impressed with the teaching I was, that I toyed with the idea of making Vipassana meditation, the subject of my research.

An invitation to assist in a Teenager's course at Chennai's Santhome School for Boys, became a subject of a research paper. It was a study on the role of meditation in the emotions ( anger and anxiety) of adolescent boys. It was after this publication that I went on to attend my second 10 day retreat.

In many ways it was a significant 10 day course...My parents weren't so angry this time--may be they decided there was just no point in it--in fact after I returned from the course and described it to them, they were pretty much inclined to try it themselves!--or so they said.

During the course I had a painful headache which lasted 2 days. I was forced to observe it --"observing" pain - and there were pains everywhere-- not only in my head. I struggled with it initially and then realized that the only way out was to accept it and experience it without resisting it. I experienced first hand that whenever we encounter something we do not like, our mind immediately shuts off, resists it or tries an escape route. Anything to avoid pain and experience pleasure! Here I was forced to face up to pain, experience it without reacting with aversion towards it.

It was also the first course where I could sit in addhitan ( sitting still without moving for one hour 3 times a day from the 4th day onwards). It was also the first course when I experienced a my body dissolve into wavelets.. albeit for a just about a minute--after which the experience never came back.

As I went through these significant experiences, the real test of any change I might have gone through, was to be observed only outside of the retreat. And sure enough there were many changes. First major change that I noticed was that I experienced greater comfort conversing with people. Prior to this I felt uncomfortable with strangers and could not really connect with many of my acquaintances. I could get along only with very few close friends. This course helped me knock out layers and layers of fear and people discomfort. This change helped me immensely in my interpersonal relationships. I felt a genuine warmth and liking for people and found it being reciprocated as well.

Another significant realization was that I could survive a headache without taking a headache-tablet. Although this did not sustain outside the course--I suffered unbearable, mild migraine type of headaches frequently-- first time I realized that I could overcome a headache without taking a pill. This helped me strengthen my resolve to stay on this path.

In addition there was a deeper and clearer understanding of anicca ( impermanence), which helped in dealing with my anger and other negative emotions.

Most importantly, I realized that this was the path for me... and all I had to do was to keep walking on it!

I will be elaborating these significant changes in my next post.