Monday, October 27, 2014

Motion and stillness, silence and noise

Driving home tonight I marveled at the slender, sensuous sliver of moon adorning the dusk sky. I quickly called to mind the voluptuous fullness of the blood moon I watched eclipse nearly three weeks ago though it feels like just yesterday. How quickly this construct we call time passes by!
In the space between these vastly different vantage points of mother moon, I too have passed quickly through a vast range of experiences and energies. When last I sat to write I was preparing for my first foray into Vipassana Meditation, ten days marked by silence and stillness, or so it seemed to my uninitiated mind. That same mind was cranking out all sorts of thoughts, worries and fears around the prospect of entering into that space, and I was bracing myself to be confronted with substantial difficulty and discomfort.

Ah, constructs of the mind!

In all my inner fuss over the challenges that lay before me and the practices, routines and rituals I’d have to set aside for this period of time, I hadn’t given much consideration to the fact that I would be receiving what I now know to be a beautifully profound yet surprisingly simple set of teachings around a very specific meditation technique, and staying so very busy with that would leave little time for missing what fills my space and time in day-to-day life.

Stopping to fill my proverbial cup at the hot springs en route to my Vipassana retreat, I found myself deeply drawn to a man who was sharing with me in a ritual honoring the full moon. As we got to talking and exploring this magnetic pull, I learned he had recently had his own experience in the silence, and his guidance to me was simultaneously vague and deeply reassuring: “You always have your breath” were his words to me. That seemed logical enough. Focus on the breath is front and center in yogic practices, and breath is the most essential element of life for us. So yes, of course I always have my breath.

Yet in his knowing words was a deeper implication that I would only come to understand through my own direct experience working the Vipassana technique and, more importantly, allowing it to work on and through me. And therein lies the true magic of Vipassana, in my opinion. It is a time tested (ya know, just 2500 years or so) and there are people all across the world from all races, faiths, etc. who attest to its efficacy and adhere to its wisdom. Yet there’s no way I could have fully understood it through them, just as I couldn’t really understand it through the people in my life who have sat in this silence and encouraged me to enter it as well. I had to have my own direct experience.

And that I did. After soaking my body in the healing waters of the hot springs, nurturing my soul with the magic of the blood moon and stirring my spirit through the spontaneous and fortuitous connection that came about during the ritual, my tension eased, and I began to truly open to whatever it was that Vipassana would want to give me. I arrived at the retreat center the next day energized and excited, every cell of my being aligned and inspired to embark upon this journey inward. I was ready.

Save for a brief settling in period the first evening, the vow of Noble Silence was taken almost immediately and the structure of the schedule we’d adhere to fell upon us. Up at 4am with every moment allocated until 9pm. No exercise other than walking. No talking, gesturing or eye contact among students. No dinner. No writing. No reading. 
Inside of all that “no” I found myself open to a giant “yes”. It started on Day One, which was actually the day after we arrived. As soon as we began to receive instruction and I began to attune to the rhythm and flow of the center, something in me relaxed and started to open into a state of total receptivity. It was my intention to open to a full embrace of everything and anything that wanted to show up in me throughout this experience taking hold viscerally, and from there I dropped in with surprising ease.

This is not to say I was instantly sitting in perfect stillness and experiencing bliss. To the contrary, the first few days included trying out a wide variety of cushion configurations to get myself as physically comfortable as possible, and I believe it was Day Three when I wanted to jump out of my seat, cross the meditation hall to the men’s side (did I mention the sexes are totally separated?) and find the guy breathing like Darth Vader so I could strangle him. Day 5 included a serious debate about whether or not I should reach out to my ex-husband to share the astonishing array of memories and insights that were surfacing around him and us. Somewhere around Day 7 or 8 I found myself scripting a YouTube parody of sitting through a Vipassana retreat, and I got stuck on creating a third verse to the song ;-) Challenges of all shapes, sizes and humors arose.

But challenges also pass away. Like waves in the ocean, no sooner do they arise only to disappear back into the vastness. Nothing lasts forever. Not our moments of sublime joy or our tortured sadness. Not the sweet sensation of new love or the searing sting of betrayal. Not the height of orgasmic pleasure or the ache of chronic pain. Our lives, as we try to define and know them, are predicated on total impermanence. All that we are, right down to our physical bodies, arises and passes way.

That is the fundamental lesson that Vipassana, just like practically every wisdom path, teaches. There is no point to attachment because everything, and I do mean everything, changes. That’s just the nature of things. Vipassana provides us with a direct experience of this phemomena via the technique being taught. It encourages the necessary strengthening of equanimity given the ephemeral nature of our very existence and that of the thoughts, objects, relationships, etc. that we attach ourselves to.

But reading my words can’t really impart this any more than reading the words of any of the great saints and sages of the world can without you embodying their wisdom for yourself. And it turns out that Vipassana Meditation is a highly embodied practice! I expected stillness, and yet experienced near constant motion as I sat for over 100 hours inside of ten days. I committed to silence, and yet engaged in a deep inner dialog and subtle conversation with everyone around me, even if our lips never moved.

In that space I accessed memories long forgotten and tapped into insights that existed on subtle conscious planes. I made amends, made love, made music. I played the role of both teacher and student, imparting lessons to myself and then integrating them into my being. It was totally fascinating, and though my commitment was to cultivate neither cravings nor aversions, but maintain balanced, harmonious equanimity, I must say I quite liked it!

I liked being with my breath and my sensations. I liked the peacefulness and the simplicity. I liked playing within my own energy field and sensing into that of those around me without the usual distractions of our modern world. I liked watching the evolution of my mind and body over the life of the retreat. I liked walking among the pine trees during our breaks, breathing deeply of their delicious scent when the sunlight hit them, and communing deeper than ever with Mother Nature since even in the silence I could still talk to her. I liked consciously practicing metta (loving kindness) toward myself then gifting that to others with renewed understanding and commitment. I liked bonding with new friends beyond the limitations of words and form, then meeting each other within the world of words and form.

And I liked coming home. I liked returning to the feel of spring water on my bare skin, penetrative eye gazing, lingering hugs and intriguing conversations that first day back as I revisited the springs with fresh energy. Back in my space, I like engaging my housemates in conversation as we pass each other. I like waking up in the morning now and delighting in sitting in “stillness” and “silence” for an hour, which would have seemed like a bit of a chore, or at least a duty, previously. I like sharing my enthusiasm even while knowing it isn’t for me to actually give that to anyone else. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Each one of us must experience it directly.

My belief, my hope and my prayer is that we all will. If not in this lifetime then in the next, or in however many it takes for this pathway to peace to pervade the hearts of all beings everywhere. When we truly understand the temporal, transient state that is the underlying, and unifying, characteristic of all aspects of life as we know it on earth, we shift. We shift into our highest consciousness, our pure Truth, the essence of the witness who sees this all yet remains unchanged.

And it’s such sweet comfort to know that until we get there, we always have our breath.

Bhavatu sabba mangalam. May all beings be happy.

(If you’re interested in learning more about the technique and retreats, visit )

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