By guest blogger, Brian High
My most recent blog entry (emphasis on recent) concluded with the list of questions I collected after considering the various “levels” to our thought processes. Most importantly was my open-ended musing as to whether or not there’s a way to intentionally impact the way we think.
In my own effort to explore the potential answers to that question, I’m going to attend a ten-day meditation retreat. For anyone that’s interested in all the nitty-gritty details, you can review the web site, but I’ll give you the condensed version. This retreat is all about Vipassana meditation and only about Vipassana meditation. The regimented daily schedule consists of over 10 hours of meditating, with the first session starting at 4:30am every morning. No contact with the outside world is allowed, the food is all vegetarian and just in case that doesn’t sound “hard core” enough, there’s essentially no talking by participants for the first nine days of the experience.
So how does this relate to affecting the way we think? To understand that, I’ll probably need to share an analogy that I use for what meditation represents. I like to imagine our thoughts and mind as a mental food processor. Our “mind” is represented by the whirling blade, always slicing and re-slicing anything that comes in contact with it. The problems start when we drop anything sticky in there, after which no matter how many times it gets knifed, it ends up stuck to the sides. Then at any time in the future, especially when triggered by some external event that reactivates a negative memory, that sticky mess can fall back onto the blade and consume more of our mental focus. This analogy is great because we’re simply rehashing the same material over and over again.
One theory on how to clean out the inside of our mental food processor is to stop tossing new items in and focus on what drops in from the sides of our memory banks. If we completely process the material, whether by intensely examining it, unraveling it or just plain observing it, there’s the potential to move past it. This is important because that “sticky stuff” has been building up since we were old enough to form memories, which some will claim is even before we were born. When viewed in this light, the idea of doing nothing but meditating and not even interacting with others, we can see how the intent is to engage in a form of mental deprivation. The intent of this exercise is to stop tossing things into the food processor and give it the opportunity to clean itself out. That spinning blade just won’t stop spinning, so it will find its way to anything it can get itself into. Without new material it will start working its way backwards through whatever it can dig up. Given enough time, all the sticky memories can find their way “out.”
And then what? Well, that’s the big question. Is it like pressing the off button on the food processor and finally feeling the constant process of thinking come to rest while we’re still conscious? Or with nothing of interest to hold our attention, does our thinking become something that is easier to ignore and raise our focus to a level essentially above thinking? Would it be more like our hearing then, where even though we always hear the sounds around us we can effectively tune them out when we focus on something else? There are various schools of thought on this, none of which I can fully subscribe to until I’ve had the first hand experience myself.
I mentioned that the “code of silence” observed during the course is only for the first nine days. It is lifted on the final day to allow for everyone to start reintegrating normal social habits. My close friend (who doesn’t often frequent this blog) warned me, “Dude, if you come back wearing a toga, I’m not going to hang out with you!” I’ll only give you one guess at what I intend to wear the next time I show up at his house… if only for a good laugh!
Be well, and I’ll try to share my experience as soon as I return (there’s not even any writing or journaling allowed while I’m there!)
First, the essentials; I lost six pounds and I’m not fully enlightened.
While my experience taking a 10 day Vipassana Meditation Course was quite different from what I expected in some ways and surprisingly familiar in others, I came away with difficulties in how to convey my story. Any significant experience of such duration requires more content than a single blog entry and it’s quite likely that material will find expression from me in another place. Yet, as I progressed through the course, I couldn’t help but spend some of that trying-not-to-think time on how I would craft this entry. Would I give a day-by-day recount of my experiences? Would I share the story of Casey, who likes to joke that his name is spelled “Kazzy”? The concept of identifying days by number (Day 1, Day 2…), meeting my roommate and then not speaking to him for nine days while we shared a bathroom, 4:00am wake-up bells… what to share?! Maybe the progression of postures and chairs that I went through would be the most entertaining! And then something thoroughly unexpected happened. Well, to be quite honest there were several thoroughly unexpected discoveries during this deeply personal process, so this one might be best cast as the most surprising of the thoroughly unexpected. To be direct, I was overcome with humility.
I suspect that the thought of me being humbled might cause anyone that knows me much at all to smirk slightly (or even laugh hysterically,) especially given the context of having it “surprise me.” However it wasn’t the fact that I was humbled that surprised me, but the ways in which I felt humbled. It wasn’t the undeniable genius of these 2,500 year old techniques or the depth to which certain aspects have been substantiated by modern science, although this was quite impressive. It also wasn’t the number of people who all donated their efforts to making my experience possible, although I was truly humbled by this part of the experience as well. No, the portion of the experience that was surprisingly humbling was when I came to the realization that I couldn’t effectively do justice to documenting the experience.
I like to think of myself as not only intellectual, but also capable of explaining complex systems using simple language. I felt this was a yardstick of a certain type of intelligence, being able to bring something perhaps mystifying in its complete detail, down to the level of a non-expert. I even think I’ve established a reasonable track record at doing just that throughout a variety of casual conversations. I never even considered going in that this might be something that I couldn’t similarly squeeze through an intellectual reduction. While I could certainly produce a better attempt at such a written distillation than this blog entry, the essence of my humility came via my own learning of the difference between intellectual understanding and experiential wisdom.
Take any of a thousand examples of something that we will likely never experience but feel like we can intellectually understand in spite of that, like being on the winning team of the Super Bowl. I’m not talking about being a fan of the team, I’m talking about actually being on the field as a player experiencing that victory. We might have similar or relatable experiences and so we can intellectually observe the events from afar, but that’s not even remotely the same. We can read every article, re-watch every angle and take in as many documentaries about the game as are produced, yet it will all still pale in comparison to the elation those players feel.
Diametrically, there are the same number of players on the field that are experiencing something quite the opposite of elation. They just lost the biggest game of the entire season. Up until three hours, three minutes or possibly even three seconds prior they had the chance to feel the elation they now know belongs to their opponent. Such is life in any competitive game. These player’s feelings similarly can’t truly be understood by any non-participant. As the saying goes, there’s simply no substitute for experience.
So while my experience had absolutely nothing to do with Super Bowls, I can draw at least two simple analogies to what it was all about; life includes both winning and losing, and we must be equipped to deal with them both effectively. This should be easily understood, however until we actually experience certain things with a degree of true equanimity, there will always be a feeling of wanting all of one and none of the other.
And just in case this account hasn’t proven to be mystifying enough, I will leave you with these points.
- I started the course with excellent physical health and what I perceived to be a calm disposition. This tranquility was clearly the product of more than a year out of the “rat race” and much introspection before I even considered this 10-day excursion.
- I came out of the course with a cold that started on Day 8 that is producing sinus headaches along with body aches that only serve to augment the accumulated aches of trying to sit still in the same posture (in a chair mind you) for up to 11 hours a day.
- Yet to say that I am “better” would be a gross understatement. I actually am better than I was when I went in despite the physical illness and now have more clarity and energy than I did on Day 0. I see things more brightly, hear things previously undetected and understand things about myself and the human experience that I previously had no concept of. I am better than I have ever been.
One of those understandings is actually why I am this way as a result of this process. Yet that same process has left me humble enough to understand that the only truly effective way for anyone to grasp this apparent impossibility, is by seeking it for themselves.
May all beings be happy!