The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of moments and musings
I recently finished a 10 day Vipassana course taught by S.N. Goenka. Since it is a 10 day course, I thought it would be cute to structure my reflections into 10 parts, each one slightly subtler than the one before. When all you do is meditate for 10 days, chronology falls apart, so I thought it would be better to organize this thematically. Hope you enjoy :)
1. Initial Encounters
Vipassana means to see things as they are, not as we want them to be. It is an ancient form of meditation that originates back to the time of Buddha. Vipassana just came back into the world. For thousands of years, the tradition was kept alive by a small community of monks in Burma. But in 1969, a wonderful man named SN Goenka, who was Indian-Burmese, began teaching and spreading it. There are now over 170 Vipassana centers across the world that teach the technique according to the curriculum that Goenka designed. New students must first take the 10 day course, and all courses are entirely free and sustained by donations of old students who want others to experience the same benefits.
I first learned about Vipassana meditation six years ago, when, almost on a whim, I went to South America for a summer. I spent several weeks WWOOFing outside of Buenos Aires, and that was where I met Ian, a travelling monk who also found his way to the same farm. Originally from the UK, Ian was an incredibly successful businessman until his mid twenties, until his girlfriend (a Japanese motorbike racer) introduced him to meditation. He then spent several months meditating in the mountains, and when he returned, he renounced that life and decided to spend his time on Earth as a monk doing service around the world. When we first met, he told me that he could sense me coming from miles away. At night, after long days of working outside, we would sit and meditate together after drinking tea. He introduced me to the technique of Vipassana, and we became best friends.
Ever since that summer, I had been trying to sign up for a 10 day course. I was accepted into the course twice, but each time, something happened, and I couldn’t go. Now, after turning 25 and having gone through some shit, the timing was finally right. On the 10th day of the course, a woman who had been practicing Vipassana for years, asked me how I found out about it. I recounted my story, how I learned about it six years ago, to which she replied, “Well, I guess you have to build an ego first before you break it.”
I certainly had developed an ego by the age of 25, a very sick one. I also knew that I was miserable a lot of the time. I had also finally reached a point where I was stable and mature enough to look at myself deeply. So on April 19, I found myself arriving at Dhamma Patapa, the Southeast Vipassana Center of the US, located in Jesup, Georgia.
There are many forms of meditation, each one with a different effect. Some forms work to build compassion, others to calm the mind. Vipassana works to purify the mind, and the way to do this is to scan the body from head to toe and back, observing the sensations that come and go, and not reacting to them. No visualizations, no chanting, no rites or rituals. It is non-sectarian, so anyone from any religious background can learn it. It's elegant and simple, and it works.
I will try to explain the theory behind all this in as few words as possible. To start out with, life is full of suffering, and we suffer because of how our mind reacts to life's events. We think in two modalities: craving or aversion. Craving, when something good happens and we want it to last forever, but it doesn't. Aversion, when something shitty happens, we feel as if it will last forever and want it to stop, but it doesn't. When we project permanence into impermanent things, we create illusions that birth to suffering. If we understand that everything will eventually change and we accept whatever reality we face for what it is, we will suffer less.
There's more. Every time we think or feel anything, that event in the mind is paired with a physical sensation. And we are all aware of this: butterflies in the stomach when falling in love, feeling hot in the chest when we're angry, our stomachs sinking when terrible news hits. Our conscious mind, full of thoughts and feelings, is not always aware of these sensations, but the unconscious mind watches everything. When we react with craving or aversion, it creates something called a Sankara, a mental reaction that, without our awareness, sinks into the unconscious mind, taking root. Over time, the Sankaras, like stones of impurity, build up in the unconscious, and the roots grow into trees that clog up the conscious mind. That's why someone with a lot of misery exhibits unexplained self destructive behaviors. Or someone with built up anger will have a hot temper.
We cannot access our unconscious readily, but by by practicing Vipassana, one finds a path, through bodily sensations, into the unconsciousness. It's a deep surgical incision, and doing so allows for old Sankaras to rise to the surface. When they do, they come up as sensations. When we observe and let them go away on their own, we cleanse the mind of impurities. In addition to that, Vipassana changes the habit patterns of the mind. It's kind of like working in reverse. If thinking a certain way causes sensations in the body, then changing the way we react to the sensations on the body can change how we think.
The thing is, I knew all of this before: desire is the root of all suffering, emotion is paired with physiological reactions. But learning all of this during the dharma talks of the course explained everything in so much more detail. It was like growing up knowing that metabolism involves converting glucose into ATP, and then learning how to draw out all reaction mechanisms for each part of the pathway.
3. The Nature of the Mind
Completing a 10 day Vipassana course is not easy. Of the 10 days of the course, the first 9 must be practiced in complete, noble silence. No talking, no eye contact, no holding doors, no communicating in whatever form with other students. Men and women are segregated into their own quarters, and we only eat twice a day for breakfast at 6:30 am and lunch at 11 am. Tea is served at 5, when we can eat fruit and drink tea. Every day, we must wake up at 4 in the morning and meditate for 11 hours a day until 9 pm, taking rest only during break times, for meals, and to shower. Before coming, I felt like this would be torture, and I wondered if I would be able to handle it. But when the course started, everything made sense, and I found that this structure actually made it far easier for me to learn meditation. The hardest part was dealing with my own mind.
We didn't jump into Vipassana right away. Before performing surgery, we must first sharpen the blade by sharpening our own minds. To do that, we first learned Anapana meditation, which focuses on breath. On the first day, we were taught to be aware of our natural breath, not breath the way we want it to be.The second day we began to focus on the sensation of breath coming in and out, and on the third day, to observe all the sensations that arise on the triangular area above our lips and below our nose. The theory was that the smaller the area of focus, the sharper the mind.
My mind protested at being confined to such a limited realm. The first few times I sat to meditate, it was as if my mind was playing at full blast the worst radio station in the world. First the talk host, my consciousness, would start the show with a shitty memory, then skip forward to an anxiety, and then play several disjointed songs. Then it'd be back to a memory, and then I'd think about something someone said 8 years ago that still makes me livid. Then a Disney song would play, and every now and then Elizabeth Gilbert would pop in for commentary.
I was so shocked at how loud my mind was, I met the assistant teacher after lunch for help. She said that as long as I can bring my attention back to my breath, it will be fine. She emphasized the importance of smiling at my mind when it wanders, and if I smile and am gentle, then it will naturally come back on its own, each time wandering away less and less. Somehow, it worked. My afternoon meditations on the first day became quite pleasant. The music became softer, Elizabeth Gilbert went away for the most part, and the memories and anxieties hit me with less frequency. Finally, by the beginning of the first evening meditation, my mind was still enough for me to feel the first blasts of pain.
4. Silence and Seeing
Everything ironically becomes much louder when one is immersed in silence. I suddenly became of all the noises surrounding me, which I would otherwise be oblivious to. There are lots of birds in Jesup, and lots of insects. When I had breakfast, lunch, or tea, I'd sit outside somewhere near the pond, focus on eating my food (and the food was always so delicious, made with compassion by people who serve for a course), and pick up on all the sights and sounds nearby. The sounds of people walking in different shoes. One insect sounded like a machine gun, and one bird sounded like it had throat cancer. The leaves would sound like wind chimes when rustled by the wind. At times, I became almost overwhelmed at all the noises surrounding me. For the first few days it was impossible to meditate outside due to the subtle raucous of nature.
I began to see more deeply too. It's amazing how much your other senses pick up when you just shut the fuck up. There was a walking path that I'd go on every day after lunch to walk off the food. Sometimes the machine gun insect would surprise me by flying out under my feet. After meditation for a while, I felt like everything gained a certain vividness that lacked before. It was because I was truly seeing and in the present moment, not half seeing and half worrying about something else. There are so many different leaf patterns. I was mesmerized at how some budding leaves first grow out red before turning green. I loved the resilience of tendrils yearning to find a solid branch to grow on. Often, when looking at a tree, I would get dizzy thinking of how many millions of leaves grow on that body.
There, too, was a pond that was covered in water lilies and filled with catfish. There was one white Koi fish that I saw a total of three times during the course. These were, of course, the biggest fish in the pond. I noticed them first, After a while, though, I saw some fish about the size of my palm that had a single black spot along their body. I saw two close to my feet and named them Freddy and Carl. Next to be observed, when I looked close enough, were the tiniest of little minnows. There was always something smaller and more subtle to take in. Aside from the fish, there were insects that buzzed around the surface: dragonflies (one landed on my hand while drinking tea and I nearly screamed), walking spiders, and dozens of other insects.
After noticing what is there, the next step is to observe the way things move. After I had gotten familiar with the inhabitants of the pond, I began to notice how the catfish moved differently than the spotted fish. They moved slowly and close to the bottom, curving their bodies into S's. Sometimes, when a catfish went into the territory of another, the latter would angrily chase the intruder away. The little fish did that too. I saw minnows chasing each other to the point that one would jump out of the water. It made me think that all people, no matter how rich or poor, educated or not, old or young, are full of the same shit.
One day, which was slightly overcast, had a lot of wind. As I sat and looked at the pond, I suddenly saw how the water lilies moved gently along the surface along with the wind. it was so beautiful to watch all of them nodding in unison, like a carefully choreographed Chinese dance with hundreds of dancers bending at the same angle. Looking at the pond, all its elements, and how the elements interacted with each other enhanced my facility for observation and ultimately helped me dissect the tremendous amount of pain I felt during meditation.
The first time the pain came, I felt like someone had stabbed a knife into my back and then kept on tazing me in the same area. It came without warning and then shot up my spine, paired with the sensation that someone was rolling a flattening rod up my back (it did make me sit up straighter, at least). The next time I sat down, that back pain came back at that same spot, and then halfway through my thighs started burning, as if my muscles all cramped up the knees. My knees themselves felt like they were going to explode, and my bones felt like they were being squeezed. What made it worse was that I had to be in such pain for an entire hour. And then another. And another, for 10 days. Thinking of how much pain I could potentially be in, I felt like quitting right then and there.
The pain wasn't always constant. Each time I cycled back, it would sometimes be in a different area or have a different quality. Sometimes it subsided into a pleasant buzz across my body, but most of the time, there was pain in one form or another. I didn't realize I had so much pain inside of me, and I didn't realize how many different types of pain existed. I've come up with ways to describe pain below:
Location: Most of the pain was centered along my back or chest. A few times, I felt pain in my knees, elbows, the back of my neck, and my ears. Along the back, it was mostly along my spinal cord, in my lower back, below the shoulder blade, or along the edge of the ribs. On the front side, a significant amount was centered on the lower ribs and diaphragm.
Depth: Sometimes the pain was skin-deep, other times it was deep inside the muscle. Sometimes it even penetrated through to the other side. At those times, it was like someone had drilled spikes through my body, multiple spikes that drilled a net of holes into me.
Size: Most of the pain covered very large areas at least 2-3 inches in diameter. Others felt like little needles pricking into the skin. At times, entire chunks of my body would be buzzing in pain. Some pains would be very long, like long knots that stretched across my back.
Density: Sometimes the pain felt like very solid stones embedded under the skin. Other times it felt very searing and electrical. Sometimes the larger areas of pain would be most dense in the center and then spread out getting closer to the edges.
Movement: When I got more used to the pain, just as how I observed the pond, I began to notice how the pain moved. Sometimes it just sat in the same spot forever, like lead. Sometimes it throbbed in one place, like a pulsing dwarf star. At other times, it spread out, or it dissolved into littler pains that then trickled to other locations. No pain was the same.
Intensity: Throbbing, aching, searing, dull, sharp, pressure. I thought of the pain scale that we used in the hospital to ask patients to described their pain. Most of mine were around 5, but some got all the way up to 8, and sometimes it would just be a unanimous 2.
Temperature: The meditation room was cold and air conditioned, but for most of the time, I was hot and sweating. It was like I was already going through menopause and having hot flashes. We were taught that heat comes from Sankaras of anger, and I had no idea that I was so angry.
By observing the pain, and observing the way that I observed my pain, I learned that I have a tendency to dwell on painful moments. I was fascinated by pain, perhaps have always been, and as such I tended to stay in the same spot for longer than I should have. And seeing how much pain was stored in me, I began to understand why so much of my past poetry had such destructive imagery, and why I incorporated so much anatomy into it. Talking of the spleen, the ribs, all the places that were now hurting.
Another interesting thing that happened was when the pain was couple with strong emotions. And in three distinct instances, I thought of something that made me very sad, and then I felt this little firework of sensation shoot up from somewhere deep inside. It flew to my eyes and then burst into hot tears that drizzled down my face. It wasn't the usual crying--I wasn't sniffling or sobbing, just simply releasing something that had been lodged very deep inside. But when I finished crying, I felt lighter, and the thoughts that had initiated the fireworks did not come anymore. Since we were taught to not react, I didn't try to blot away the tears when they came. At the end of the sitting, I finally wiped my face and saw that the tears had dried up into salt crystals at my chin.
About this Blog
I have no idea how to describe what my writing is about. I just write. I post when I can, which can be weekly or monthly depending on where the universe is taking me. As for the Grapefruit, my Vietnamese nickname, Buoi, means grapefruit.