Thursday, September 30, 2010

Life as it is now...

These days are tough. Especially Mondays and Thursdays are packed with heavy teaching schedules. I teach in 2 Universities--University at Buffalo & Uni-SIM. I begin teaching at 12 noon--first Statistics for 2 hours, and then Social Psychology for another 2 hours and on Monday evenings Organizational Psychology for 3 hours. On Thursday evenings it is Developmental Psychology for 3 hours.

Teaching includes hours spent on preparation and marking/grading . So though the other days of the week are non-teaching days they are taken up for preparation & marking.

So where does my practice (Vipassana meditation) figure in this kind of schedule? Fortunately I have had time for it. Morning practice is regular as usual, but on Mondays and Thursdays as I am out of the house from 11am to 10pm, my evening sitting meditation gets affected. So I usually sit for a few minutes in the staff lounge of SIM just focusing on my breath (natural respiration). Challenges keep coming up during the day, and I am able to meet them calmly, and with equanimity.

Recently, my phone fell in water and stopped working for sometime. I dried it and waited for a day; it started working the next day. When it stopped working, I was a trifle disappointed, because it was my lack of awareness that caused it to fall in water. Then I was reminded of Goenkaji's story he narrates in 10 day courses--about a wrist watch. It goes like this:

I own an expensive wrist watch and due to some negligence on my part, it falls and breaks. I feel very very sad and lament that it was such an expensive watch, I can't get it repaired here in this country as its spare parts are not available here...My wrist wrist watch... such a wonderful watch... how proud I was of this its sad...

However, let's say, that my friend had an expensive wrist watch and again due to some negligence on his/her part it falls and I feel the same way as I did when mine broke? No...on the contrary I am gleeful..and I offer advice, I sermonize to him---Oh you should have been careful---such a watch--you cannot fix it here in this country because you won't get spare parts for such a watch.. ..
I am not sad --in fact happy--such a foolish, careless man/woman--doesn't know how to take care of his expensive watch...he didn't deserve to have that watch!

No body is unhappy over the breaking of a watch..... It is only our attachment towards the watch (especially if it belongs to us) that makes us unhappy. Such deep attachments we have towards our belongings--our watch, our phones, our cars, our possessions......

They are only things after all...they come, they also go..and can be replaced too. The faster we understand this, the less problematic our lives will become. What we have is this present moment and in this moment life gives us so much that we can be grateful for. For me on that day when my phone stopped working, Raja was there to pick me up from SIM and transport me to Singapore Polytechnic where I had my evening class. I was fortunate that my life was made that much easier.. grateful for these moments, grateful for having him there in my life.

Monday, September 20, 2010

20 Days in New Zealand

"Meditation is taking you places" said a colleague and friend when I first went to US to take part in the Mind & Life Summer
Research Institute Conference in 2006. That seemed to become a convincing reality when I decided to go to New Zealand in 2009 for my 20 day course of Vipassana meditation. It was certainly taking me places in more ways than one!

New Zealand wasn't planned intentionally. That was the only center running a 20 day course in the time period convenient to me. I was looking for a breakthrough from my attachment to the Vipassana center in Hyderabad. Barring one 10day course in Chennai, all other courses that I attended were in Hyderabad. 20 day courses are less frequent compared to 10 day courses and the eligibility requirements are more stringent. New Zealand happened also because I wanted to know if I could survive on non-Indian food for 20 days. That year was very well planned in terms of work--I chose to teach only two semesters--Spring and Fall and so kept May to August free for Vipassana courses.

After some minor hurdles at the Quantas check-in desk at Singapore airport which refused to fly me as I did not have an Australian visa ( I had not known that Indian passport holders are required to have transit visa if they stop over anywhere in Austalia) I bought new tickets on SIA direct flight to New Zealand.

Auckland was cold in July, but something which I was prepared for. After checking into a hotel for a day, a van picked a bunch of us from different countries at the city center and we headed for Kaukapakkapa, a lovely valley, little away from Auckland.

We were a total of 16 people taking the course, 10 females and 6 males. All rules were the same as for a 10 day course, but with one major difference. We were given the freedom of choosing where we wanted to meditate--in the Dhamma Hall, or in our meditation rooms. The environment was serene, calm and beautiful in fact a haven! As one co-meditator remarked it was quiet even by western standards! We each had a room to stay in and an additional room for meditation. Normally, established centers have a pagoda with meditation cells in them for solitary practice, but as it is still in its planning stage we got an additional meditation room instead.

What a course it was! I loved the location, I loved my hot-water bag (to beat the chilly weather) I loved the continuous meditation practice, I loved the experience of it all.

7 days of Ananpana meditation (awareness of natural respiration) and 13 days of Vipassana meditation. The first few days my past came to me in torrents---long forgotten childhood memories--which I never knew existed, all came back to me, including painful memories of my sister's accident and death. I spoke to my teacher conducting the course, a kind gentleman, Mr. Ross, who advised me to just let go of the thoughts and get back to focusing on my respiration. With total silence around me, with just the instructions of Goenkaji in my head, I was gradually able to fully focus on my breath and progressed to remarkable stages of inner quiet.

A quiet stillness which was so peaceful, so tranquil and so harmonious descended on me. In this wonderful state, I started the practice of Vipassana. Then slowly trouble began-- first an excruciating pain in my right ankle as I sat in my normal meditation posture. At first, I took this to be a pain like others that come on the body from time to time--but no, this was here to stay for quite sometime. Just as I was learning to accept this as a part of my "dukkha" my old migraine-like headaches started. Now I didn't know which hurt more--my ankle or my head.

Well, after a few days I decided to change my posture so as to ease the pressure on my ankle when I sat cross-legged. It helped a lot and I continued my practice with balance of mind restored. My headaches wouldn't go--they continued unabated--and in this case there was no question of shifting positions! The pain was not as bad as the nausea accompanying it. Finally, I thought I should speak to the teacher and get myself a painkiller perhaps? With this thought and with perfect equanimity towards all that I was experiencing inside, outside, I sat for the 6 o'clock group sitting. Just an hour more and I will go and speak with the teacher and ask for a pain killer, I thought to myself.

The hour was gone, and so was my headache. Just like that...

Many things I learned on that course- An internal quiet and an ability to access that internal sanctuary at will.

"Make an island of yourself,
make yourself your refuge
there is no other refuge
Make truth your island
make truth your refuge
there is no other refuge"

This assumed a meaning and significance so clear, so distinct.

Additionally, a deep realization on how much energy I give towards likes and dislikes. The mind constantly keeps evaluating in terms of likes and dislikes. This was significant because I noticed that I would frequently get irritated with Raja whenever we had a conversation--this irritation stemmed from the fact that he could not hear/listen to me well ( does that sound a typical wifely complaint?). The course helped me awaken to the reality of the fact that he couldn't hear me--so why can't I accept that? why do I have to resist it?

That brought about a huge transformation in my day-to-day life even after I returned. There was a willingness to accept reality as it manifested itself. The tendency to engage in negative thinking greatly reduced, and has almost become non-existent.

I also became more and more aware in my interactions with people, suffusing it with warmth and genuineness which brought greater peace and harmony.

"Happiness is a function of acceptance of what is" This is no longer a quote to me--it is my reality.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mind Matters Most!

One of the main reasons for my attraction to courses in Vipassana meditation is that the teaching provides me a method, a way, to directly experience the reality of mind and matter. The process of knowing what is happening within is through direct experience, it is not a belief nor do I have to follow a ritual.

The instructions are clear and precise and to the point. The theoretical explanations given during discourses in the evening throw light on one's practice during the day and is very meaningful. In fact Goenkaji is very spot on in his teaching--he has a good comprehension of students' experiences on each day of the course.

Because of the importance given to practice of meditation, the theoretical aspects become easier to comprehend and don't remain just a philosophy. What becomes clear in the course of the practice is that we all have a consciousness and more specifically, this consciousness is linked to our sense organs. Therefore we have an "eye consciousness", "ear consciousness", "touch consciousness", "taste consciousness", "smell consciousness" -- the 5 sense organs. In addition, we have our "mind-consciousness" (example, a thought that arises).

We know we have this consciousness because we are able to perceive the external world through our sense organs. With this important faculty of perception we are able to give meaning to what we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and think. Giving meaning is possible because of past experience with the external object. Therefore if somebody praises you, your ear-consciousness hears the praise and is able to interpret the words as something good, something wonderful.

The instant we are able to perceive the stimulus in our environment, there is a sensation that is aroused in the body which is in line with our perception. The words of praise that reaches our ears gives us a corresponding sensation of pleasure --such as a tingling feeling, or a sense of pleasantness, a wave of exhilaration. This sensation makes us want more and more of the stimulus that set it off--the words of praise, so we start craving for more words of praise--a reaction.

Described thus far, there seems to be consciousness, perception, sensation and finally reactions. It is because of these four faculties that we experience our world and it is worth while to understand these processes clearly and help ourselves out of the mess we land ourselves in very often.

The fact that we have a consciousness cannot be altered, and as long as our sense organs are working, we will keep becoming aware of the stimuli at various sense doors. We can neither stop ourselves from giving meaning to the objects in our environment so the process of perception goes on, based on our past experiences. However, what is not very apparent to us is that there is a gap between our perception and our reaction to this perception and that is our sensation on our body. The moment we perceive, we evaluate the external object (or an internal phenomenon such as a thought in the mind) as being good or bad, favourable or unfavourable and depending on this we experience a sensation. Reactions are based on the sensations we experience--if it is pleasant we crave for it --if unpleasant we want to avoid it.

When we stop reacting to our sensations, we find that the sensation passes away on its own without us having to do anything about it. This helps us understand their impermanent nature.

Therefore meditation helps us in 2 significant ways:
1. it helps sharpen our minds so that we learn to detect these sensations on our body, and pay attention to them
2. it helps us remain objective (equanimous) about our sensations and understand the truth about their nature-- that they are impermanent.

This is the main and most significant role of meditation. It trains us to become more and more aware of our sensations and helps us to understand their true nature of impermanence and thus helps us become objective about them (equanimity).

Time and again many enlightened people have asserted, that we have no control over the objects in the external world--we only have control over our reactions to them. The process of meditation provides us a method of gaining that control over our reactions. It helps us find the gap between stimulus and our response. It enables us choose our response wisely not out of blind, automatic reaction.

An intellectual understanding alone rarely helps us in life, it can probably inspire us. Turning this into a belief or accepting it as a philosophy doesn't help as well.

It is only with continuous practice that one begins to see the truth of these processes; it is with practice that one is able to comprehend the impermanence of our sensations and develop equanimity towards them. By doing so we put a stop to blind reactions to sensations.