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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Doing Time, Doing Vipassana

I recently returned from ten days of camping in nature; ten days away from my brand of workaday living; ten days cut off from all communication with the outside world. However, to say it was ten days away from working is... well, bullshit. Instead, it was akin to sending an old, schoolhouse janitor to scenic Alaska with only a dust mop to clean up an oil spill. I toughed out a ten-day, Vipassana meditation course.

If you’re not familiar with the guts of the Vipassana approach to meditation, let me stop you before you assume I was off in the bush, chanting fruity mantras, staring at candles or visualizing “happy places” in a desperate attempt to taste some fleeting bliss before returning to the harsh reality of life. No, no... not at all. The theory and approach to Vipassana is actually quite rational, yet learning that approach is nothing short of meditation boot camp. To my mind, it was the most challenging ten days I’ve endured. There’s a reason they documented it on maximum security prisoners.

So, why did I do it? I have to tell you, for the first few days I routinely asked myself - the only person I was permitted to communicate with during the course - that very question. Initially, I enrolled in the interest of consciousness expansion and, yes... also because the course is free. Vipassana meditation was mentioned here and there in the research I was doing on human consciousness, so I knew the gist; that it’s an insight meditation which aims to have one see things how they really are, but it wasn't until I stumbled upon a course in my area that I decided to pack up my naivety and check it out for myself. I had no real idea what I was in for and when I was in the early midst of it, I found my mind seething with anger, frustration and doubt. (That’s not to mention the agonizing, physical torture.) In the beginning, the only thing that fueled my determination to power through was the return students. Of the sixty or so attendees, I would guess about fifteen had been through the course more than once. I had to know why. Either there was huge payoff just around the corner or I had simply made a horrible judgment call and landed myself amongst a group of masochistic, fucking retards. If the latter was indeed true, I couldn’t imagine a better crew to uncork my ever-brewing torrent of hostility upon. So, either way, it was going to be worth the wait.

Late in the fourth day I started to feel there may be something to this technique and sputters of affirmation peppered the following day, too, but it was on the sixth that I got my first dose of Vipassana’s essence. Following the afternoon group meditation, one of the days three “sittings of strong determination”, where you’re asked to not change your posture or open your eyes for a full hour, I left the hall awestruck. I walked aimlessly into the trees of our cordoned-off walking area and just stared into oblivion, trying to get a grasp on what I’d just experienced. My mind was blown. From then on I was rife with enthusiasm and days went from dragging at an dreadfully slow pace, to flying by so fast I wished for more, so I could better establish myself in the technique before returning home to familiar distraction.

At the center of Vipassana is an explicit focus on the experiential and everyone experiences it differently, so I'm not going to detail my own breakthroughs. I can only state the basics for sure; that, given a fair trial, this technique can show you universal truths - within the framework of your own body - by training you to remain absolutely mentally and emotionally composed under a full range of sensations from the orgasmic to the excruciating. But, again, the key word is experiential, because Vipassana doesn’t merely pontificate; it proves itself to every level of your being. I’m not sure if this is common, but I personally found there was often something very fractal about it that way, too; as if understanding how natural laws affect oneself was to understand them on cosmic and molecular levels as well. Although I do believe phenomena exist that can never simply be weighed, measured, counted and explained away by modern science, I am still partial to a rational approach and there's nothing mystical about Vipassana. I mean, I suspect that under some scrutiny one might even find that the physical stress of a Vipassana sitting, whether your mind is tuned into that stress or not, triggers a rush of endorphins or something and that the magic of the technique lies in coupling that with its philosophical aspects. Or, perhaps I should just shut the hell up and admit that, whatever it is, Vipassana works.

Beyond the personal benefits this breed of meditation offers, I think it could serve as a valuable preparatory tool for handling future shock, too. I'll spare that rap, but from hippy-dippy, new agers preparing for transcendence to those comfortably ingrained in western, materialist culture under the assumption that evolution ended when we grew thumbs, I hope everyone can agree than an inevitable paradigm shift is upon us, no? If so - and, man, I do hope so - Vipassana could help stabilize one through the transition.

Anyway... I’m definitely not Buddha himself after this course. Nor does the technique ask me to be, by the way. Although it does have ancient Buddhist roots, Vipassana is intended for anyone of any faith or no faith at all and has absolutely no rituals, dogma or anything else that it asks you to subscribe to. (The evening discourses were explicit - with sickening repetition - about this.) In ten days, they simply guide you through the harrowing process of forging the sword you need to slay the demons that stand in the path between you and liberation from every manifest misery in your life. They’re your demons and you still have to find the strength to face them. That’s never easy and neither is Vipassana, which makes me wonder how many students stand up to its long-term challenge once they're freed from the confines of a regimented course schedule that allows for almost zero distractions. I’m not sure I can. Nonetheless, having confidence in the actual technique, the onus is solely on me now. I may finally be out of excuses which, in itself, is a pretty heavy meditation.

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