August 5, 2010
I am supposed to be meditating. but so many thoughts run through my mind. My mouth is silent, but my mind, well, my mind is not so easy to silence. It will take more than simple determination. It will take practice. Perhaps it is impossible. Perhaps the mind does not get silent but simply still. As Jon and I meditated this morning, both of us simply watching our breath (a technique sometimes known as anapana meditation), I found my mind wandering. I would rein it back in, and then it would wander again. After we finish Jonathan likens it to a potter’s wheel that spins out of control, so fast it is only a blur of color and shape.
Anapana meditation is like putting your hand out to stop it, you grab it, and it burns your hand. You must let go again, but the speed lessens a bit, it slows a little. and you reach out your hand again. And each time it burns a little bit less, you can hold it a little bit longer, you can begin to see the pattern engraved on the top of the wheel. The wheel never stops, but you can slow it, and examine it. I think this is a good analogy for the mind. Today it seemed oh so fitting. Smile.
At Vipassana, it was like this, especially when I began to practice Vipassana and not just anapana meditation. In Vipassana, you use your mind to scan your body for sensations – some sensations are hard, solidified, perhaps an ache, or an itch or a throbbing, perhaps a blank space where my mind is not sharp enough to notice the subtle sensation beneath the blank above it; and some sensations subtle, tingling or subtle vibrations. My mind scans my body. But if I feel tired or full or whatever, it also tends to wander. I find myself thinking a great deal about religion here – my faith. SN Goenke, one of the teachers of Vipassana, talks about how Vipassana transcends the sectarianism of religious movements to grasp at something universal: our reactions to sensations in our bodies, reactions that we often make without thinking to sensations that we are not often conscious of in our everyday awareness.
Vipassana teaches one to be conscious of these sensations and the objective of anapana meditation is to sharpen the mind, to hone its awareness and sensitivity so that with it we can feel these slightest sensations, the feather of a breath on your upper lip, cool coming in and warmer going out, the awareness of breath coming in the left nostril or right nostril or sometimes occasionally both at once. Awareness of the breath and its sensations helps us sharpen our minds so that we can feel and be aware of sensations throughout our bodies. And as we gain this awareness, we are to practice equanimity towards these sensations – neither craving the subtle sensations, the pleasurable vibrations that course through our bodies, nor feeling aversion to the ache of our knees after sitting for an hour or the stab of pain in our backs, or the tingling feeling of a leg that has fallen asleep, or the throbbing of a headache. As we practice equanimity towards these sensations and awareness of them, we can learn to be aware of the sensations in our bodies in response to the world around us (a pounding heart after someone has insulted us, or a nauseating sensation of fear, or the pleasurable warmth when we receive a compliment or a kind touch). Aware of these sensations we can practice being equanimous towards them – not responding with anger or aversion to an insult or fear, nor responding with craving to the words of praise.
Of course this is very difficult indeed. It is the work of a lifetime. The work of a lifetime to learn not to respond with either craving/desire nor aversion/hatred, to learn, truly to learn and understand that all things are impermanent, all things passing. The best of things and the worst of things. It is a reminder of our own mortality, a reminder that we shall indeed lose all of those people who are nearest and dearest to us, a reminder that our youth will pass away, that this moment shall be gone, as will the next and the next.
Funny how these reminders make me think so much of the future. I think part of me expected some cathartic reliving of past events and the sure reconciliation in my heart with people I have hurt or who have hurt me (an old lover, a dear friend, a colleague, a boss). Instead, I found very present in my mind were thoughts of the future. Fear at the knowledge that my current relationship won’t last forever (everything will pass, everything is impermanent, in the pali word “anichya, anichya”). My response to this fear was a desire to be in control, to make things hard and fast, or as hard and fast as they can be. How do we, how do I, learn to live in the moment and practice doing this? Well, I don’t want to end up in such and such a situation, I don’t want to end up alone. I think. But what about now? What about living in the now? These thoughts filled many of my free moments, and to be honest, many of my meditating moments.