More on Vipassana

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.

Another thing that often filled my mind was thoughts about religion, and my own religious path.  Here I am finished with my first of three years of an MDiv program, my studies sponsored largely by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and I find SN Goenke’s words about religion and about impermanence resonating with me and my own belief system.  Does this mean I am Buddhist?  I have a dear friend who once told me that I cannot call myself a Christian.  I have another who laughingly accused me of being a closet Buddhist.  I have believed in the impermanence of the self/soul at least since my junior year of college when I wrote a paper suggesting that we change with each moment and each experience.  That really, there is no “I”.  And I heard  Goenke ji saying these same things.  I found myself seeing truth in his claim that truly, if we are to follow a teacher, we must be more concerned with devotion to their teachings, to striving to nurture in ourselves and to embody to the best of our abilities the qualities we see in this person.  He talked about how Christians are often extremely preoccupied with the point that Jesus is the son of God.  Well, Goenke ji posits, if God is mercy and grace and truth and compassion and Jesus embodied these things, then surely Jesus is of God, surely we can even say that Jesus was the son of God.  This sounds about right to me.  And surely it does not matter if I believe that Jesus was actually conceived of some disembodied spirit that entered Mary or whether his body actually rose from the grave after he died if I too am trying to follow Jesus’ teachings and his characteristics of compassion and mercy and grace and truth.  Surely the disciple of Jesus shows herself through her devotion to cultivating the characteristics that Jesus displayed in his life, not through the persistence with which she proclaims his divinity or his superhuman abilities.
One of my works for the summer is to try to work my way through the gospels – reading the stories of Jesus again, re-enlivening my thoughts about who he was/is and what the crux of his message was and what he calls each of us (me in particular) to do and be.  I have more yet to write – thoughts about salvation/liberation/enlightenment, thoughts about sin and suffering, thoughts about the nature of life and human beings in particular and then thoughts about compassion and love, the practice of “metta” in vipassana.
I hope you are all well.  Thank you for sharing with me in my ramblings and thoughts.  Oh, and I’m thinking about starting a blog on which to share these musings of mine.  if anyone has any input, do let me know.
Much love and peace,

About Thandiwe

Hopeful cynic, creative, seriously silly, lover of people and places, hypocrite, third-culture kid, queer, life-long learner, white woman, Christ follower, outdoor enthusiast: I am a seeker of justice and truth who has re-found my spiritual home in progressive Christianity. I serve as the Associate Pastor at a small Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation near the mountains of Colorado where I live with my beloved.
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8 Responses to More on Vipassana

  1. I wouldn’t call your writing rambling! It’s very insightful! Namaste.

    • Thandiwe says:

      Thanks. I appreciate that. I’ve enjoyed writing for so long and sometimes I just get swept up in the train of thought I’m on. What fun it is to share.

  2. Manuel says:

    Please, keep on rambling!? I’ll definitely reblog this one. Very inspiring… besides, you write so well!

  3. Manuel says:

    Reblogged this on Circle of Meditation and commented:
    This is the first post i reblog. A very sincere and deep search into the core of ourselves… thoughts about life, compassion, religion… from a Christian meditator who actually transcends labels.

  4. very nice information abt the technique. combined with the personal inputs it is a great read. amazing pics too!

    • Thandiwe says:

      Thanks for reading! It’s interesting, I sat this course in Kathmandu and then served a course here in the USA. Though the technique is exactly the same, I was grateful to have sat the course in Kathmandu where we were all required to be in the meditation hall for all hours of meditation. Also, I think the simple food that I was served at the Nepal site (chapati and chick peas in the morning; rice, lentils and veggies at lunch; and fruit and puffed rice in the evening) really made it easier for me to have a really good meditating experience.

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