Thursday, November 10, 2011

Anicca, anicca, anicca. Everything is constantly changing

These are some thoughts about our time spent at the Dhamma Kamala meditation Center in Pranchinburi, Thailand for a 10-day meditation course at the beginning of May.  Might feel random, but I felt I had to share this before writing about an experience I had yesterday.  Enjoy this while I write the next one.  

Dhamma Kamala

"Start again, with a calm and quiet mind"  

I sit on a cushion, agonizing over the pain in my back and all over my legs while trying, trying, trying to focus my attention on the breath as a circus goes on inside my head.

Me, myself and I vs. I, myself and me

A bell signals the beginning of the day.  It’s 4 AM.  I gently rise out of a small bed in utter disbelief that I’m getting up this early.  I walk out of the bare tiny room; stumble by other still silent minds and into the common bathrooms to get the sheet off of my face.  I get dressed and slowly make my way to the meditation hall. 
The 4:30 bell, the beginning of the meditation session, goes off as I’m going up the steps.  As usual, I’m late.  I sit in my assigned cushion, #29, and look for the sweet spot combination of pillows and pads under my legs to hold me for the next two hours.  In a sleepy daze, I start to observe my breath, the warm air coming in and out of my nostrils brushing against the stubble of my unshaven upper lip.  Mornings are a pleasant moment to meditate—the air is calm, slightly cool, mosquitoes are still in bed, the body is rested.  One breath at a time, minutes go by.  I slightly move my arm and minimally separate my eyelids to peek at my watch.  More than one hour left before breakfast. Without any reservation, my stomach complains.  I quickly return to my breath before the deluge of thoughts about food hits, but it’s too late.

I’m hungry.
I hope they serve the same boiled rice soup they did yesterday.
I’m not going to drink coffee today even if I get a nasty headache.
Drinking instant coffee makes me feel like a junkie. 
Instant is never satisfying…

The 36th Chamber: My meditation cell 

I mindfully munch through a huge bowl of boiled rice soup and wash it down with a tall cup of lemongrass tea.  Hunger ceased, the pleasant feeling of a full belly replaces the yearning for chow.  I attentively wash the plates and rest in my room for a few minutes before going back to the meditation hall.  Noble silence is kept throughout the retreat; full silence, no physical or written communication with others, not even eye contact.  No books, no computers, no cell phones, no taking notes.  Men are on one side of the meditation center, women on the other.  Separate dinning areas, separate sleeping quarters, separate entrances to the meditation hall.  External distractions are kept to a minimum; you are here to confront the distractions and afflictions that most directly impede the way to happiness, the ones inside your head; a one-on-one encounter with the owner of the circus, not with the animals. 


Vipassana, which in the archaic Pali language of Northern India means to see things as they really are, is an ancient meditation technique rediscovered some 2500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.  Through self-observation focused on experiencing physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, and emotions one becomes familiar with what the real experience truly is and not la novela, the soap opera that we construct in our heads.  As preached by many other philosophical, spiritual, and religious traditions, the purpose of this practice is to know thyself.  In other words, the Buddha got enlightened by keeping it real. 
The practice of Vipassana travelled with Buddhist monks wherever they went to spread the teachings of Buddha.  It is said that: “Since the time of Buddha, Vipassana has been handed down, to the present day, by an unbroken chain of teachers.”  The present day teacher coming from this chain is S.N. Goenka, a Burmese industrialist of Indian descent who first practiced meditation to get rid of his migraines.  After many years of practice and eventually teaching in India for decades, he has established a large network of centers to teach the technique to “people of all races and all religions in both the East and West.”

For 10 days, 10 hours a day, I tried my best to sit still, focus, and observe the sensations expressed throughout my body; allow them to come and go as they are and not as I want them to be.  No labels, no judgment.  Initially the struggle is managing the physical pain of sitting for so long.   Trying not to focus too much on it or label it as negative, just observing it and moving on knowing that eventually it would go away.  After hours of practice the distraction of pain goes away, in my case it happened after the 6th day.  Then, it’s on like Donkey Kong.  The mind starts to wonder into the most random crevices of your memory; really random stuff you didn’t even know was there.  Slowly you start letting go.  By observing the always ephemeral, always changing manifestation of these memories and emotions it is possible to gain insight into the impermanent nature of reality.  Joy will dwindle, pain will subside, and desire will abate, every moment will eventually change. What you are experiencing just now already went away. 

"Anicca, anicca, anicca.  Everything is constantly changing"

Now the struggle is to make “the monkey” understand before he jumps onto the next thought.  The saga continues.

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