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‘Please hold the handle down for a count of four.’ Thus read the sign above the toilet at The Rocky Mountain Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Elbert, Colorado. Upon first glance I had little idea what gravity I would associate with such a sign. For as it turned out, these short words were some of the very few external distractions I would have for the following ten days. More so, they slowly engrained their way into a metaphorical understanding of the most extremely intense, rewarding and earth shattering experience of my life.
Vipassana, a Pali word which means to see things as they really are, is one of the world’s most ancient techniques of meditation. The tool was rediscovered by Gotama The Buddha 2500 years ago and is the practice which he used to attain enlightenment. For decades of his adult life the Vipassana technique formed the foundation for his teachings and in its entirety is encompassing of the three tenants of a spiritual path: sila (morality), samadhi (mastery of the mind), and panna (wisdom gained through detached observation of the reality of mind and body from moment to moment.) The lineage in its most pure form was maintained throughout the millennia in Burma and was spread throughout the world over the past several decades by S.N. Goenka.
I first heard of Vipassana on a trip to India from a vivacious Australian lad who I had the pleasure of sharing residence with in an ashram in Rishikesh. His description of the experience was daunting and alluring, it left my mouth in a state of recoiled salivation. It seemed that, while severe, the austerity of the course provides the energetic platform to make a deep incision into the subconscious mind, stay under the blazingly sharp knife for a prolonged amount of time and experience actual tangible and reality shifting results from the operation. Many other practitioners whom I questioned were eager to report that result oriented fruits manifested both during a normal ten day course and throughout the days, weeks and months to follow. The seed was planted in my mind two years ago and was watered and tended with irregularity since then. It wasn’t until a chunk of change from the IRS made its way back into my digital pocket that I had the time and resources to sojourn into the deep recesses of self exploration.
Silence is Golden
The most important precept to the Vipassana experience is that of Noble Silence. Upon initiation to the course each student signs an agreement to abstain from any communication with other members of the retreat or with the outside world. This includes talking, gesturing, passing notes and making direct eye contact. In addition to Noble Silence, it is expected that each student agree to completely abstain from reading, writing, participating in any sexual behavior, listening to music, practicing yoga, indulging in any kind of intoxicant or holding any previously undertaken religious or spiritual practices. The strict separation of men and women clearly precludes any longing gazes of sexual distraction. These rules pave the way for an opportunity in which the student has literally no where to turn but inside.
I arrived on ‘day 0’ as a blank page, parked my car and checked in with registration. After getting settled in at around three o’clock I quickly came to a glimpse of what the next ten days of distraction-less life was to entail. Dinner and opening formalities weren’t scheduled until six, I now had three hours to make an attempt to absorb the increasingly gravitational weight of what was to follow. As a virgin I immediately avoided contact with the other people around me having already signed the agreement of the Code of Ethics. I took a quick jaunt around the grounds and in only a handful of minutes had scoured the entire property within the signs which read, ‘course boundary.’ Alright, now what? A few other male students were sitting at a picnic table chatting. I gathered my already out-of-element self and went to join them. As it turned out the Noble Silence didn’t start until eight, upon the first entry into the Dhamma Hall, the room in which I was soon to shed blood, sweat and tears for hours which numbered into the triple digits. I was relieved that I didn’t have to pass the next three hours in silent unknowingness and quickly jumped on the opportunity to converse with the other people at the center. The cornucopia of attendees was more diverse than I had expected: a farmer in his mid 50’s, a grey bearded family doctor and the director of NORAD’s department of training and education applied smatterings of paint to the expected canvas of spiritual intellectuals, massage therapists, musicians, yoga teachers and Naropa students.
Silence began after we were introduced to the unique, ethereal and avant-garde voice of S.N. Goenka himself. The entire course is overseen by two assistant teachers who sit in elevated stoic silence while the teachings are handed down through audio and video media over the course. The technique is a progression of teachings taught entirely by Goenka through recordings.
When you have the opportunity to listen to only one voice for an entire ten day period, it grabs you by the short and curly hairs whether you welcome it or not. Goenka’s quaint Indian accent and serious tone provided the only external input to be experienced throughout the course. As the days of sensory withdrawal began to mount, each and every sound was amplified by the psyche to grandiose proportions. Not long does it take for sniffles, bathroom fans, shuffling feet, chewing mouths, deep breaths, barely audible passings of bodily gas and even the internal heart beat to transplant the world of locomotion, incessant chatter and digital noise. In bringing myself to the extremity of the retreat I had already relinquished myself to be a willing and open soul ready to dive in and do my very best to make it out alive, sane and maybe even enriched.
The Space Between
A day of Vipassana retreat begins at four AM. It includes about ten to eleven hours of sitting meditation, a light breakfast, a two hour lunch break, a five o’clock tea and a hour of video lecture. By the time the day’s activities are numbered by nine PM the mind and body have little left to do but seek refuge in the warm comfort of bed. The very few areas of dead time were excruciatingly hard to fill. You can either sit and stare, lie and stare, walk and stare or shower and stare. It wasn’t long before I found myself trying to break the unbearably long days and even the entire course up into manageable sections of time. ‘Ok, if I can get through the nine-eleven AM sitting and make it to lunch I’ll be fine…Alright, if I can just make it to the end of day three, I’ll be almost a third of the way done.’ This was how I found myself coping. In doing so a quote by Henry David Johnson that used to hang on my brother’s mirror echoed through my mind, ‘You can’t kill time without injuring eternity.’ I found quickly that the only interval of time which was truly manageable was that of one breath.
The course on Vipassana Meditation begins with three full days of a different practice, Anapana Sati. In this practice the mind is given one single object on which to drop anchor, the breath. The task is to simply observe the respiration holistically, notice the nature of its coming and going without trying to control it. It isn’t before the first hour passes that you come into a real understanding of the frantic chaos of the mind. Like a pinball bouncing recklessly from bumper to bumper, when observed the internal cognition is tumultuous and frenzied. A cascade of thoughts and emotions immediately shed light on the reactionary nature of our thinking. One thought translates into one or more emotions which in turn is subconsciously reacted upon and transformed back in an unrelenting feedback of unfocused mental discourse. They key isn’t to try to control this natural progression of mental processes but to engage focus away from it, on the breath. Noticing that the mind has wandered off you simply acknowledge its haphazardness and draw it back to respiration.
I considered myself to be a casual meditator prior to my Vipassana journey. My sitting practice seemed to move in cycles. I periodically made the time to navigate the world behind the eyes for thirty to sixty minutes everyday and sometimes missed the cushion all together for months. In the first few hours of the course I was, like everybody, simply trying to put a leash on the reactionary internal narrative. Slowly but surely the intervals between the time that I noticed the mind leaving the breath and returning to thought began to widen. The mind is slowly but noticeably sharpened into a razor’s edge by spending each of the ten hours of sitting for three days focused entirely on respiration. You watch the chattering monkey mind gradually find anchor and allow it to unhurriedly climb the ladder to pinpointed observational awareness.
Day four sees the upshift of the practice and the initiation into the purity of Vipassana meditation as it was practiced under the famous Bodhi Tree of Enlightenment by the Buddha twenty-five centuries ago. In this change of gears one passes from the second limb of the mental single-pointedness of samadhi into the experiential wisdom of panna. Vipassana is the process in which one slowly moves their sharply focused awareness over and throughout every single point of the physical body. The honed consciousness that was for hours initially set to watch the nostrils now moves calmly over the surface of the entire body. Awareness covering one square inch of space is passed over the surface of the body from head to toe repeatedly and patiently while the nature of sensation is noted in each part of the body. While doing so, the meditator’s sole task is to be an objective observer of sensation without connecting to any identification with it.
The wisdom of panna is built upon the foundation of direct experience. Vipassana meditation is based on the tenet that the lessons are to be learned by the practitioner through experiential observation not intellectual abstraction. Not one teaching is meant to be taken as fact until it is experienced and substantiated through intimate understanding. By noticing the quality of experience from moment to moment, the meditator forges a pragmatic apprehension of the inner world.
This practice of observing sensation gives an experience of the nature of reality and its impermanent nature. Sitting for upwards of ten hours a day is excruciatingly painful. Most bodies have no prior experience on which to draw upon to open the muscles of the back, hips and legs in order to sit comfortably for long periods of time. It is this pain which becomes the most valuable tool of the practice of Vipassana Meditation. Each and every corner of the body has its own sensation, all of which are impermanent in nature. Some manifest quickly, build and cry for your reaction and some are subtle and hard to notice at all. The goal of the technique is to step away from reaction, to notice the pain or pleasure from an objective standpoint and recognize it as being entirely separate from the entity that is doing the observation. If through the unceasing and mechanized passing of attention over the body my awareness is focused on the right elbow and there is simultaneously an aching fire of pain in my lower back, that sensation is ignored refocused back into the area of current inquiry. When that area of inquiry happens to be on fire you simply notice that fact and move on to the next section of the body. Part of the beauty of the human vessel is its resilience. It doesn’t want to be in pain just as much as you don’t want it to be in pain. I found that after three days my body had gained dynamism and opened up considerably, which is certainly not to say that there was no intense sensation for the remaining week.
Over time, the practice of cycling bodily awareness is molded into a fine art. In the beginning hours it is hard to feel areas of the body that aren’t in pain. They simply feel numb and lifeless. In that case the square inch of awareness is widened to include larger chunks of the body until the mind becomes subtle enough to experience the sensations that exist in every millimeter of surface area. Just as the mind found solid ground in the breath so does it patiently develop the ability to experience the subtle vibrations of sensation that exist from head to toe. With the technique of Vipassana you essentially build bridges of awareness throughout the body. Like the pixel of an Etch-a-Sketch carves the mass of sand, consciousness engraves pathways of awareness to each sector of the bodily form. After countless hours of practicing, these tiny paths turn into superhighways of consciousness and the mind can not only travel freely and focus on a tiny part of surface area but it can actually experience the vibration of energy that exists there. These experiences of subtle bodily vibration can be quite pleasant. But just as the observational consciousness noted pain without attaching to it, so must it experience vibration without generating clinging. The name of the game is equanimity. Every sensation, thought and emotion is dissected by an equanimous knife of awareness. This practice provides the very tool needed to combat the two forces which lead to all human suffering: aversion and craving.
The Technology of Mind
Our existence as humans is highly based in subconscious and unaware responses to stimuli. We trudge through our days as slaves to conditioning and past experience. Our lenses of free thought and action are muddled by reactions which abide on an entirely unconscious strata of existence. By bringing awareness to the these long held tendencies of reactionary response, we are able to slowly understand where they come from and take ownership over them. When misery arises in life it is due to one of two experiences, either the vacancy of an object of craving or the experience of an object of aversion. Throughout life every time we react to stimulus without equanimity we engrain a new emotional aversion or craving in the depths of the subconscious mind.
Through the patient and persistent practice of Vipassana meditation, these long held aspects of subconscious patterning begin to swim to the surface of experience. I liken the practice to shoving a spoon to the very depths of the caldron of the subconscious mind and stirring as vigorously as possible. This action churns the muck of existence loose and allows it the freedom to float to the surface to be experienced by the conscious mind. These subconscious reactionary rubrics of dealing with life and framing reality are directly experienced as sensation by the conscious mind. A comfortable or uncomfortable thought appears in shining brilliance out of nowhere and engenders and emotional response which is experienced as a sensation in the body. If the mind reacts to this exposure with aversion or craving the very same pattern is shoved back into the depths of the caldron. If, however, the same thing is observed with an unattached equanimity the fuel is immediately drained from its tank and it is eradicated from conditioning.
As the days mounted at the retreat they were becoming more and more intense. I was looking for a way out of my head but nothing was to be found. The very few present external distractions such as the note above the toilet, the pine trees outside, the sound of the wind and few moments of eating and drinking all were escapes from passionate introversion. When these distractions were incessantly indulged in they became drained of diversionary quality and left me once again with nowhere to turn but inside. The days grew longer and longer and the light on the horizon was getting closer but somehow less bright with each hour. I was beginning to experience complete and utter desperation of which I have never experienced before. Spending hours on end facing my subconscious demons and resisting the urge to run from them took every drop of will power I had. There is literally nothing to do but sit there in silence, allow the muck to float to the surface and then break out the pond skimmer of equanimous awareness.
While the difficulty mounted it wasn’t without abundant reward. Each session of sitting seemed to build on the previous. My mind continued to sharpen with each hour and the movement of awareness through my body got easier and easier. It became a beautiful extension of my yoga practice. I was beginning to gain the ability to watch the energy which makes up all matter flow ceaselessly through the vessel of my physical body. The equanimity and objectivity so perpetually encouraged by the voice of Goenka was seemingly beginning to flex its muscles and I felt real progress rearing its sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrifying face. The adventure continued to blossom and grow and did so until the middle of the eighth day when I experienced the most amazing, frightening and eye opening experience of my entire life.
After long hours of passing the pure light of consciousness through every corner of the body it begins to open up in ways that are truly magnificent. The subtle direct experience of matter as vibration continues to mount and snowball upon itself. Over time I was beginning to be able to pass a solid disk of this light from head to toe and toe to head very quickly. At about the pace of a very calm breath consciousness traveled through my entire body, not only moving along the surface but penetrating deep inside affording me the ability to real feel my body for what felt like the first time. I watched this build while trying to muster the best equanimity I could.
It was in about the seventh hour of sitting on the eighth day of silence that my pool of experiential understanding received the strongest jolt of lightning it had witnessed in its twenty five years of waves. As you enduringly stay with the single-pointed focus and honor the movement of consciousness the vibrational energy continues to escalate in intensity. I hadn’t moved a muscle for about an hour and all of the sudden my entire body seemed to completely dissolve into a ball of vibratory light. I directly experienced my physical self as a unified pulsation of energy. I could feel each molecule of my existence gyrating and dancing through space. The crown of my head was agape and both exuding and absorbing a steady stream of cosmic phosphorescence. I felt like a fire hose of energy had been turned on inside of me and was baptizing me in divine liquid. I could pass back and forth through and along my spinal cord and my skull was no longer solid but vastly expansive piercing into the material world encircling me. I could consciously travel down to the atomic level and surf through my bones and organs. I felt elevated off my cushion as my conscious mind was dumbstruck by ecstasy that can’t be likened to any drug experience of my life. All the while I was trying to remember that it was crucially important to greet the overwhelming euphoria as I would debilitating pain in my knee or back, with equanimity.
I spent what seemed like a half an hour in this space of dissolution before the experience did just as it is supposed to and churned a powerful subconscious reaction. While navigating ecstasy, a thought manifested in bright clarity in my mind. ‘What if something terrible has happened to my girlfriend while I’ve been here and people have been trying to get a hold of me without being able to do so?’ For no reason and with no substantiation this thought echoed through my head space with gravity that ripped me from ecstasy. The highest jubilation I have ever experienced was immediately transplanted by intensely crippling fear. I recoiled. My heart started pounding and I started sweating. By body was still vibrating and the crown of my head still appeared to be wide open but this now left me in a state of vulnerability never before touched. I watched a full-fledged reptilian flight or flight response grab me. I knew that opening my eyes and running from the cushion was the last thing the technique would have me do so I stayed. I stopped cycling awareness through my body and returned to a simple awareness of breath. On an intellectual level I knew that the point was to not be averted to the diametrically opposed sensations and thoughts I was experiencing. At the time however, the nature of impermanence was far from my thought stream.
I truly thought that I had experienced a clairvoyant moment in dissolution and that I, on a sensory level, witnessed something happen far away from me. I was in a rut of panic. I heard footsteps in the room behind me and immediately assumed it was someone coming to inform me of the news. I had to open my eyes. I gazed upon a seemingly buzzing room and moved to a chair. I immediately realized that I was seeking physical comfort in an attempt to find emotional comfort. Slowly the sensation of fear began to subside. I sat in the chair eyes open trying to absorb what had just happened. After doing so for some time I decided to go for a short walk. My body was slowly beginning to return to an ordinary state and I was starting to actualize the experience. It wasn’t until after much thought that I realized what had happened was exactly what I had been told would happen for the previous several days. The immensity of the dissolution experience, essentially a strong agitation of the cauldron of self, had unearthed my deep seeded subconscious aversion to the experience of loss. In doing so it manifested in the sensation of fear. I was immediately averted to the sensation and congruently experienced misery.
In the hours that followed I slowly realized that in all actuality my girlfriend was probably fine and there was nothing to worry about. Regardlessly, the entire event stayed with me for the rest of the week. I timidly meditated for the remainder of that evening and consciously tried to avoid dissolution. I took refuge in a cup of tea and a scalding hot shower during the evening break and continued to slowly piece the afternoon together.
In hindsight, I was too scared at the time to face the demon of what was stirred up. I succumbed to the reaction to run and in no way found an equanimous state. I know, however, that the next time a deep seeded experience arises out of Vipassana meditation I will be more equipped to deal with it. This is the point of the practice. You allow long held ruts of routine reaction to emerge in crystal clarity and then slowly dissect and disempower them with equanimous awareness. The mind is a technology, the most organic technology we have at our disposal. It affords us the opportunity to stop throwing fuel onto the fire which burns as ignorance of our own infinitude. We can use our unique awareness of awareness to understand our condition unlike any other creature on Earth. We can use the technology of mind to undo karmic residue of cause and effect and mold the present moment into an artwork of our choice. For the first time I really experienced a substantial piece of the concepts I have been trying to intellectually absorb for years. The whole retreat felt like the culmination of countless hours of searching for the truth.
The mind is the only tool we have to understand things for ourselves, to frame conceptions of what it means to be alive not based upon the words of others but on the languageless dimension of the inner infinity which makes up each and every one of us. We have this immense gift of awareness. We have this shining jewel of technological brilliance in Vipassana meditation. It is a tool of visceral realism. No new-agey euphemisms, no dogma, no rites or rituals, simply a scientific and step by step method to eradicate the impurities of the mind. It is a tool which exudes the message that we are all our own best teachers, that we all contain everything we need to be happy. When it is the mind itself that does the mind blowing, there exists a unique opportunity to walk away with already integrated results. We must stop the explosive search for necessity and implode into self awareness. We must acknowledge our demons, stare them in the face and grant them the permission they need to fade into nothingness one by one.
Noble silence ended mid way through day ten. A yelp of accomplishment echoed through the dining hall and boisterous repartee filled the day as we slowly re-acclimated ourselves with vocal cords, eye contact and the external world. Although we had no communication for the previous ten days, it was astonishingly clear that we had all energetically connected on deep levels. No social foreplay was necessary. The afternoon was full of deeply felt conversation and an unbelievable lightness. One more night of vivid dreaming was enjoyed before packing up the next day and rejoining the world. I got in my car, put on the one song I had been pining to hear for almost two weeks and started bawling golf ball sized tears of relief, fulfillment and excitement for the never ending horizon of the future.
My experience at the retreat was the most intensely amazing and desperately challenging roller coaster ride of my life. People have been asking me, ‘how was your trip?’ I find myself wishing that I had some superlatives in my tank yet to be used because any attempt to boil the ten plus days down to one sentence of commonly used adjectives is fruitless. I suppose it was the deepest of darkness and the highest of elation followed by a sense of accomplishment so great that it makes my college diploma seem like a grocery list. I underwent years of therapy in those long ten days and will undoubtedly be integrating what I learned for a long time to come. The path of Vipassana is the path of the art of living. It is the cleansing of the palate of subconscious conditioning so that we may take the helm in the kitchen of individual and collective evolution. I stood over the toilet and re-read the instructing words of flushing procedure one last time and it struck me: I had just passionately plunged my own toilet and then held down the handle for a long count of four.
Vipassana courses are offered worldwide on a strict donation only basis. Information can be found at dhamma.org
mindful meditation and its use on cognitive therapy. this is a talk that outlines what may seem self-evident in meditation, but taken through the lens of psychology and helping others into the process. pretty amazing stuff, and its funny that the cutting edge of psychology is taken from 3,000 year old traditions. east meets west.
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“WE HUMANS have let loose something extraordinary on our planet – a third replicator – the consequences of which are unpredictable and possibly dangerous.
What do I mean by “third replicator”? The first replicator was the gene – the basis of biological evolution. The second was memes – the basis of cultural evolution. I believe that what we are now seeing, in a vast technological explosion, is the birth of a third evolutionary process. We are Earth’s Pandoran species, yet we are blissfully oblivious to what we have let out of the box…..
Putting it that way makes the answer easier to see. Memes are a new kind of information – behaviours rather than DNA – copied by a new kind of machinery – brains rather than chemicals inside cells. This is a new evolutionary process because all of the three critical stages – copying, varying and selection – are done by those brains. So does the same apply to new technology?
There is a new kind of information: electronically processed binary information rather than memes. There is also a new kind of copying machinery: computers and servers rather than brains. But are all three critical stages carried out by that machinery?….”
full article via newscientist
um this burner dude…bruce damer….wants to virtually simulate the creation of life by hooking up a million computers….i guess he thinks if we can simulate digitially life forms emerging, from an asteroid? we could transmit these to a nano-fiber creating machine on a rocket which i guess can turn the digital data about the life form into a material creation….something to think aboout this monday….;)
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Via Current via The Daily Galaxy
Open sourcing robotics clears the way for all kinds of incredible innovations. Some developments might not have the security or stability of commercial releases, but you don’t have to wait for a million people to want something before it becomes profitable. The internet has already shown that sheer love and hard work can create the most amazing things, and now that same creative energy can be directed into things that can then get up and walk.