Meditation Journal 18 Feb 2013

Vipassana Meditation Feb 18

Coming back to the cushion after nine days I wonder where I’ve been. Awareness is more consistent during the days but its nothing like when sitting still. Back to the cushion, back to sensation after so much distraction. Delaying tactics. Delaying what I don’t and can’t know of, but think I do. Certainly sensation. Gross sensation as they say. And that means pain. And there’s a response to it that can be seen and understood and so pain isn’t what we think. And the pains themselves, forever subtly changing, even if in their intensity it will seemingly last forever. In listening there is shifting, movement, aliveness.

Such deep aches! I’ve been living with this, going about my days, weeks, months, years, carrying so much within the organism. It’s incredible really that the body and mind can do such a good storage job. Hold it and lock it down with thought. And yet there’s really no need. No one wants it, this task, heavy heavy task. It does a very good job but entirely unnecessarily. Just that we were taught this way, how it’s been done. In sitting still I am finding out simply and clearly what is needed and what is not.

Teach Us To Sit Still – ‘Self’ is an idea we invented

More from the book Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks (A Sceptic’s Search For Health And Healing).

Attention attends, unrequited.

Then, all at once, the temples!

I remember distinctly my first session of vipassana, it was in my temples that it began. First one, then the other: singing, buzzing, dancing. Had I wished to induce the sensation in this part of the body, I would never have imagined such mayhem, as though insect eggs had hatched, or breath on ashes found the nest of live embers. Yet it wasn’t creepy. And it wasn’t hot. It was the lively sparkle of freshly poured soda water.

In my temples.

At this point you realise that focusing the mind – eyes closed – on a part of the body is quite different from focusing on something outside yourself, a ball, say, or a bottle, or a boat. In that case the object remains an object, however long we look at it. But like light through the lens, or through a glass of still water perhaps, the mind sets the body alight, or the body and the mind. It is hard to say which; the skin glows in the mind and the mind fizzes in the skin. Together, neither flesh nor fleshless, or both flesh and fleshless, they burn.

This is the beginning of vipassana.

The encouraging thing is that once one part of the body has answered your polite enquiry, others to seem more willing to respond: here a band of heat, there a patch of coldness, here are dull throb, now a tingling current. The whole house is waking up and as you pass from door to door each occupant acknowledges your presence by turning something on: now blue light, now I read, hear the coffee grinder, there are TV. The tower block starts to  hum.

At the retreats, the first-time meditators are hungry for drama, for an encounter with the demons, submission to a guru. We all want to add another episode to the narrative of ourselves, the yarn we are constantly spinning of our dealings with the world. This is why so many go to India, I suppose, to do no more than sit on a cushion, eyes closed. They hope the exotic location, the gurus robes and foreign voice will add intensity to the tale.

But as words and thoughts are eased out of the mind, so the self weakens. There is no narrative to feed it. When the words are gone, whether you are in Verona or Varanasi hardly matters, whether it is morning or evening, whether you are young or old, man or woman, poor or rich isn’t, in the silence, in the darkness, in the stillness, so important. Like ghosts, angels, gods, ‘self’, it turns out, is an idea we invented, a story we tell ourselves. It needs language to survive. The words create meaning, the meaning and purpose, the purpose narrative. But here, for a little while, there is no story, no rhetoric, no deceit. Here is silence and acceptance; the pleasure of a space that need not be imbued with meaning. Intensely aware, of the flesh, the breath, the blood, consciousness allows the ‘I’ to slip away.

Teach Us To Sit Still – The pain had quite gone

More from the book Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks (A Sceptic’s Search For Health And Healing). Park’s experiences painlessness after years of near constant pelvic pain.

The first few minutes have passed now. However excruciating, I must lie still. I breathed deeply and remembered Eliot. ‘Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.’

Don’t verbalise.

Then after a while something would happen. The breath breathed itself and I slid down into that dark landscape with its low sky and damp hills. At once the muscles of my face buzzed and sang with tension.

I say ‘something would happen’, as though these sessions were all the same. Certainly there was an element of repetition, particularly at the beginning: the itches, the fuss, the trivial adjustments, the mill of defeatist thoughts. But from this point on, from the moment I entered my bodyscape, as it were, every day was different. And as the first week moved into the second and third, things grew more intense, more – here was a real paradox – exotic.

There were curious pulsations. In my wrists perhaps. Not a regular wrist pulse of the kind you can check and count. Rather it might move along my right wrist, from hand to forearm, then ripple over to the left. Faster than an ordinary pulse. More fluid, mobile. The wave was picked up by a ticking in the stomach. Then leg too. A sea swell of pulses were criss-crossing the muscles. The tension in my cheeks was exactly superimposed over the tension in my calves. The two seemed to be the same. Both were growing and changing, glowing and noisy. Suddenly, it was all so interesting that the mind found it easy to concentrate. More interesting than thoughts. As when you surrender yourself to strange music. It was so busy. Parts of the body were calling back and forth to each other with little ripping pulse oceans, as if the tide was lapping in and out across underwater weeds.

Stop describing it!

Concentrate.

Suddenly my belly drew a huge breath, absolutely unexpected, and a warm wave flooded down my body from top to toe.

I nearly drowned. Shocked and tensed, I sat up and opened my eyes.

What in God’s name was that?

The feeling had vanished at once. It was gone. But so too, I realise now, was the pain. The pain had quite gone. Not even the shadow of the pain. Not a ghost. I was lying still, painless.

 

Teach Us To Sit Still – Constant Motion

More from the book Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks (A Sceptic’s Search For Health And Healing). Parks has begun to experiment with sitting still and sees that he is always moving:

The pain surged to the fore. It was strong. You deal with the pain by keeping in constant motion, I realised now.  That was the truth. Even when I was still, I moved. My knee jerking. Scratching. My fist clenching and clenching. That kept the pain at bay. And when my body was still my mind moved. My mind was in constant motion. All day every day. The thoughts jerked back and forward like the knee that twitched. The difficulty when I was writing was not to come up with thoughts, but to give them direction and economy. Like a climbing plant that must be pruned and tamed, pruned and tamed. Above all pruned.

 

You are supposed not to be thinking.

 

Or not supposed to be thinking.

 

Or supposed to be not thinking.

 

I moved the ‘not’. Language is always on the move.

 

Even when I slept I moved. To sleep I needed to be on one side with one knee pushed forward. Then I switched to the other side. And I switched my earplugs from one ear to the other. I can’t bear having an earplug pressing the pillow. I pulled the earplug out, turned over, put the plug-in. Six times a night.

In the silence, eyes closed, I remembered a documentary had seen years before about some kind of desert lizard  that stopped its feet from burning on the hot Sahara sand by constantly and rapidly lifting and dropping the right front foot and back left foot, then the left front and back right. Alternately. They lifted and fell in the blink of an eyelid, almost too quick for the camera to see. A sort of Purgatory, I had thought, when I saw the images.

 

 

Teach Us To Sit Still – ‘Something’s got to change! Please!’

Next month I am going to a vipassana centre in Hereford for ten days of silence and sitting; meditation. Having  been on shorter retreats I’d like to immerse deeper into this exploration, and a ten-day retreat has been recommended by several friends. The decision to go was helped along by the book Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks (the subtitle: A Sceptic’s Search For Health And Healing), a very interesting account of the author’s freedom from pain after suffering for many years. Having exhausted all other possibilities to treat this pelvic pain, he undertakes a sitting meditation practice, eventually learning that the pain itself is a gateway for release. The writing is refreshing as Parks had no interest in spiritual matters or meditation beforehand and so the language is refreshingly free of anything new age.

Getting desperate, Parks visits an Ayurvedic doctor while on business in India. He is told that his symptoms can be relived but…

‘On the other hand…’ He sat back and looked me in the eyes. His face was frank. ‘This is a problem you will never get over, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradiction in your character.’

I can’t recall being more surprised by a single remark in all my life.

‘Ah,’ I said at last.

‘There is a tussle in your mind.’

I sat still. I had wanted a different story, to challenge the ‘official medical version’. I was getting it.

‘What actually causes all this pain?’ I asked.

‘It is blocked vata.’

‘That is an energy that flows in the body,’ his wife explained. ‘ One of the five elements. It balances others and needs to be balanced by them. When the balance goes wrong, then the vata is blocked and causes pain.’

‘It is this mental tussle that blocks the vata,’ the doctor said.

I reflected. ‘So, what is the tussle about?’

‘Good question!’ The doctor smiled.

‘A tussle like this is not really about anything,’ his wife explained. ‘It is part of the prakruti.’

They began to explain what prakruti was: the amalgamation of inherited and acquired traits coming together to form the personality. If those traits were at odds and the two couldn’t mix, you’d be in trouble.

‘In that case a person may get the impression that his life is a series of dilemmas. He may think: if only I could resolve this or that dilemma, I will have resolved my problems. But each dilemma is only a manifestation of the deeper conflict.’

…’are you telling me it’s entirely psychosomatic?’

A slow smile spread across the doctor’s face. ‘That’s not a word we have much use for, Mr Parks.’

I looked at him.

‘You only say ‘psychosomatic’ if you think that body and mind are ever separate.’

The generator fell silent. What a pleasure sudden silence is, as when a harsh light goes out and your eyes can attune to the friendly dark. I picked up faint noises of plumbing, cries from the street, and I reflected that most people feel ashamed if told their problem is psychosomatic. They feel accused, guilty. It’s acceptable to have a sick body, that’s not your fault, but not a sick mind. The mind is you, the body is only yours. Choosing to go to an analysist because you’re unhappy is another matter. There is a respectability about being unhappy in a complicated way and most people would agree that to recognise you need professional help shows humility and good sense. But someone who makes his body ill because he doesn’t want to acknowledge his mind is in trouble, because he’s repressing his fears and desires and conflicts, is just a loser.

At exactly the moment I formulated this view, I realised that I was actually extremely eager for my problems to be psychosomatic. I was more than willing to countenance the idea that my pains only existed in my head, or that trouble in my head had brought them into existence in my body. I want to change, I told myself, returning from the bathroom. Why else would I have gone to an ayurvedic doctor? I want everything to change, inside me.

My parents tried to exorcise my brother and heal his polio. He was not changed. My sister gave birth to a severely handicapped daughter. The power of prayer did not transform her. Nor a trip to Lourdes. My father’s cancer was not helped by the laying on of hands. He lost his mind and died in pain. Afraid of anything that reminded us of their spiritual aberration, my brother and I counted entirely, perhaps aggressively, on official learning and official medicine; perhaps the only opinion we now had in common with my mother and sister was that all alternative therapies were baloney. Even today, if you mention acupuncture to my atheist brother, he will declare it  hocus-pocus. Just like my mother.

So where was I to turn, now that I had washed my hands of the doctors and they have me? The previous week, at the University, I had had to interrupt a lesson; for the first time the pain had obtruded  on my teaching. On Sunday afternoon at the stadium – for I was still an avid football goer – I was barely able to sit down during the second half of the game. I had to keep jumping to my feet as if excited by what was going on on the pitch. ‘Arbito di merda!’  I yelled, when nothing much was happening. My stadium friends laughed, but somebody client asked me to sit down.

On the bench in Regents Park, among the pleasant trees and lawns, I shouted: ‘Something’s got to change! Please!’ And a young man turned and glanced at me and hurried on.