Sunday, January 25, 2009

Adventures in Meditation—Continued

Vipassana—Seeing Things As They Really Are

By day 4 my hay fever and cold had mercifully subsided and I was feeling more into the swing of things. Day 4 was also significant in that it is the day we learned the actual Vipassana meditation technique—body awareness. To fully learn the technique properly you have to take the 10-day course, but in a nutshell you learn to focus all your attention on the sensations in your body and scan your body from head to toe and toe to head. Every cell in our body experiences some sensation every second, we have just never been aware enough to feel or notice most of the sensations. I remember the first time doing Vipassana (“seeing things as they really are”) that day and tears coming to my eyes as I scanned my body and reached my hands. I felt such life and energy in my hands and thought “I’ve had these hands my whole life and have never really felt or realized their power until now.”

Vipassana also helps you experience first-hand the universal law of impermanence. Every sensation in our body shares the same characteristic—impermanence. Sensations arise and then pass away, arise and pass away. This is always the case. Pleasant sensations or painful sensations, they are all the same. By learning this through our own experience we develop “equanimity”, meaning a balanced mind. When we have equanimity we don’t crave pleasant sensations or hope they always stay when they arise, and we don’t feel aversion to unpleasant sensations and hope they go away as soon as they arise. We realize that all sensations are the same—impermanent—and so we learn to observe objectively without craving or aversion.

Sittings of Strong Determination—Meditation by Fire

To help us develop equanimity, starting on day 4 three of the one-hour meditation sessions each day are designated as “sittings of strong determination”. We are instructed to strongly determine in our mind that we will not move our legs, hands, and arms or open our eyes for the entire hour. I literally almost choked on the intrepid fear that jumped in my throat at that announcement. You’ll recall my stark inability to sit still on day 1, and although my hay fever and cold had improved by day 4, my ability to sit still in meditation had not. But, almost in a split second of foolhardy courage, as that first one-hour meditation began, I determined in my mind that I would not move. That split-second decision may have been one of the most important of my life.

Words literally cannot describe the ordeal and physical turmoil I went through in that hour. Nor can they encompass the shear fear and mental struggle of one hour. How long can an hour be? Is it possible that hours can actually be different lengths in our lives? All I know is that was definitely the longest and most arduous hour of my 26 years. The only mental image that comes close to describing what I felt is a soldier being tortured in a prisoner of war camp, except my pain was self-enforced. My legs felt like burning bricks, and my knees throbbed with so much pressure I was positive if I opened my eyes they would be three times their normal size. I just knew they were going to explode. Our teacher says that everything is impermanent, but I was positive this pain was not going away. In fact my biggest fear was that the pain and damage from such a foolish experiment would be more long reaching than just this one hour—was this even healthy? Could I be doing permanent damage to my body through such foolishness? Oh the mind games your devilish little mind can play in such times. But the words resounded in my head “The heavens may move, the earth may move, but my legs WILL NOT MOVE”. I had already strongly determined in my mind. I had come to Vipassana seeking peace and even if I had to walk through hell fire I was not going to turn away from my purpose. So I sat there forcibly shaking in pain, fear, and determination to not move no matter what…second after second, minute after minute after minute.

The mind games you play in such times really are endless. Every little sensation is torment. Your nose starts to itch, but you can’t scratch it. How long can an itch continue before going away?—a minute, five minutes, ten minutes? How long can you go just observing an itch without scratching? A bead of perspiration forms on your forehead and slowly starts to inch its way down your face, taunting you with its itchy crawl knowing you are powerless to stop it. In vain you wish that drop of sweat would just quickly fall and be done with it, but instead 5 more droplets of sweat form on your forehead and start their own slow descent. “Wait, what’s that on my back and arm?” you think. “It’s a spider. It’s just your own sweat. No it’s not I know it’s a spider” the mental banter drones on. “Just observe. Well what if it bites me? Then that is impermanent too, the bite will eventually get better—just observe. Well what if it is a fatal, poisonous-spider bite? Then you will die and that is impermanent too—Just observe!”

In spite of my belief to the contrary, the hour did eventually end. I opened my eyes, but could still not move my legs—frozen, or was they burned—etched into my meditation mat. After a few minutes I was able to pry my legs open with my hands and mentally will myself to stand and stumble, literally, out of the meditation hall. I wanted to cry, but all I could do was stifle back laughter, a kind of crazy, traumatized laughter. I felt like I had witnessed a car crash, or was in a car crash. Maybe I was the car crash. Post-Meditation Traumatic Stress Disorder—maybe that should be added to Psychology textbooks.

But the important thing was that I did it. I had faced pain beyond my imagination and stared my own fear in the face—and remained still. Still. Maybe that’s what peace is, or at least the beginning of peace.

Well, peace was not exactly what I felt when the next hour of strong determination rolled around. “You mean I have to do this three times a day, every day, for the next 6 days?!!” That’s what I was thinking, kind of more along the lines of fear and disbelief. The amount of courage it took to walk back into that meditation hall knowing exactly what I was going to face. Removing my sandals and stepping barefoot into the hall, I felt like the countless others throughout history who have knowingly and willingly walked to their death. The fear had definitely returned, but there was a big difference this time. Somehow the fear was a lot more manageable. This was fear of the known. The first time I had no idea how long an hour was, I did not know if my determination would be enough. But now I knew. This was not an academic or mental knowledge; I knew from my own experience. That is wisdom. That is liberation.

I could write and want to write so much more about that first Vipassana course. But right now I am sitting in my Taipei apartment with bags packed and a bus to catch to those same remote mountains in central Taiwan, and another Vipassana course awaits. The adventures in meditation continue.

I’m excited to tell you all how this next chapter goes on my quest to enlightenment when I return February 6th.

Until then…

Lots of Love,


  1. Good Luck!!! Sounds crazy hard.

  2. Is this journey to enlightenment also in Abercrombie? We miss you SO much! Best of luck in your meditation!

  3. Haha...I love that you remember that Alicia. In fact, yes, this was also a "journey to enlightenment in Abercrombie"...although with a twist as you'll see in my next blog. This time it was Enlightenment in the kitchen : )