Monday, January 31, 2011

Tear Down The Walls!

A few words about the retreat i recently sat:

The schedule started with a one hour sit the night we arrived, before the actual 10 days began. It ended with a two hour sit the day after it was over, before eating breakfast, cleaning everything, and leaving. The first 9 days are lived in complete silence (as in not one word to anyone). That was relaxed on day 10. No jogging, no yoga, no mp3 players, no books, no journaling, no nothing but eat, sleep, and sit. Period.

The schedule for the 10 days called for 10½ hours of formal sitting every day, beginning at 4:30 in the morning and ending at 9:00 at night. With breaks between some of the sits, though, that probably worked out to about 10 actual hours on the cushion. During the last few days they encouraged all to continue meditating all day — while walking between buildings, while eating, during breaks, while in the process of going to sleep, etc.

The gist of the technique they taught was to stay completely focused on the sensations in/on your body. To do that you mentally scanned your body from the top of the head to the bottom of your feet, inch-by-inch, from top to bottom, and then back up, over and over and over and over. Once you could feel sensations everywhere (the cold air, your shirt touching the skin, an itch, pain, tingling, numbness, heat, ..., whatever it is) you could then scan whole sections of the body at once.

As i understand the explanations, once you get past the "gross," as in obvious, not subtle, sensations of pain, numbness, etc., the more subtle sensations are biochemical, biophysical, reactions to the mental response to all perceptions, either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

According to Buddhist Psychology, whenever a perception takes place, our mind immediately and automatically produces a pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling. If pleasant, the mind takes the next step and grasps for more; if unpleasant, it takes the next step and tries to avoid further similar perceptions. Mindfulness meditation is learning to observe those feelings as they arise in order to head off the grasping and avoiding we constantly do throughout the day.

This retreat goes one step further and says that it is very hard to see those feelings — they are very, very subtle. But, because of the way we are built as human beings, when a pleasant or unpleasant feeling occurs, we will always, always, have a biochemical reaction in the brain which transmits throughout the nervous system and gives us some form of biophysical reaction. Those, with training, we can sense, can feel, can notice.

The training, then is to teach ourselves how to focus the mind well enough, and to concentrate long enough and uninterruptedly enough, to notice all the physical sensations that occur continually in and throughout our bodies.

This serves three purposes, as i understand what they were trying to teach:
One, with practice we learn to see that a sensation will always appear before an emotion arises and breaks uncontrollably to the surface. Before anger gets out of hand, before lust overtakes us, before that uncontrollable urge to buy something grabs us, we learn to notice the sensations that foretell of that arising. It's recognizable and it's consistent.

Two, as we sit and watch the sensations come and go, we begin to see, not just intellectually, but experientially, that all sensations do just that — they come and go. They are all impermanent. With this we come to understand that everything in life, with no exceptions, is impermanent. Nothing is permanent; nothing lasts forever (except the numbness in my right leg when i sit, that is...)

So what good is that? Three, With practice you get to the point where you can observe the sensations and not feel compelled to react. You don't need to react anymore; you know it will go away of it's own accord, in it's own time. For example, you feel that itch on your nose and you don't automatically, without a thought, reach up and scratch it. You feel the pain in your knee and you don't, without a thought, change your seated position. You feel your legs go to sleep and you can just sit there like that, with them asleep, not automatically, without a thought, changing your posture. You learn that you have the ability to just sit and watch sensations as they begin to arise, as they build in intensity, as you begin to feel you'll go insane if you don't react NOW, as that intensity begins to fade, and as it finally disappears — which can be humorous as you catch yourself saying, "hey, where'd that itch go??"

Taken to your life off the cushion, you see someone that pisses you off for no other reason than having appeared before you. The usual reaction is immediate anger and a response, usually inappropriate. You now have the ability to recognize the sensations that precede that emotion and stop the emotion before it arises. You see that new gadget on the shelf and would before have immediately reached for your credit card. You now, though, notice the sensations preceding that out of control feeling of "i gotta have that," and stop yourself from reaching.

Those are the practical lessons i think they wanted you to walk away with. On a much, much larger scale, though, i think the message was to finally make people notice just how much of the mental activity that goes on in our minds is uncontrolled, uncalled for, undesired, unbeneficial, and just plain destructive.

Most people, myself included, marvel at what we as humans have accomplished with the minds we have been given. That's all good and well, but the real issue is, what could we accomplish if we actually learned to control our minds, to choose what thoughts to listen to, what thoughts to focus on, to weed out and ignore the unbeneficial and only act on the beneficial? If we as a People were to only act on the beneficial thoughts and no longer react to the unbeneficial ones, what could this world be? What couldn't it be?

While there two thoughts constantly plagued me, one from the Dhammapada and one poem from that 19th century Greek, Constantine Cavafy:

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.

Dhammapada, Chapter 1, "Choices"
Thomas Byrom



Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built great and high walls around me.

And now I sit here and despair.
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind;

for I had many things to do outside.
Ah why did I not pay attention when they were building the walls!

But I never heard any noise or sound of builders.
Imperceptibly they shut me off from the outside world.

Constantine Cavafy

Let me tell you, for those that don't sit now, this work is much harder than it appears. I knew that just sitting at home was already difficult, but to concentrate for 10 days was brutal at times. During one session, before i realized what was going on i had completely reworked the design for a landscaping project i have planned for this spring in my front yard. In another session i had watched huge sections of Kill Bill 2 (sheepish grin).

In the end, though, as i was getting ready to leave it occurred to me that the whole retreat had passed in what felt like 3-4 days. It in no way felt like i had been there for 12 days, although i talked to others who told me it had felt they were there a month or more. :-)

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