Seeing, Focus, Clarity, and Vision

Seeing.

Focus.

Clarity.

Vision.

All these terms can pertain to both thought and the act of witnessing with one’s eyes. The metaphors between the two processes are endless.  It’s no accident that the optic nerve is the most direct pathway to the brain.  It’s also no accident that the word “Vipassana” is translated into both “Insight” and “Mindfulness” Meditation.

The word “Recognition” is often a potent reminder of how the root words provide keys to origins of words and their concepts. In today’s world, to ‘recognize’ something means to see something and know what it is, with the emphasis being on the seeing part.  More poignantly, to recognize something means to re-think it or re-“cognize” it.  To see it something, know what it is, and reflect on what you know about it.  In so doing we reprocess and reinforce the ideas about what we know about it in our minds.  Whether what we are reinforcing is true or not, is a different story.

As a child and adolescent I remember staring at myself in the mirror, focusing at looking into my own eyes and repeating the sentence “I am a human being” and dwelling on the idea of my own existence.  I’m not sure how I came up with that, but the net effect was to take me out of the whirlwind of thought and experiences surrounding my life at the moment and have a moment or two of rather deep, self-awareness.  I felt like the exercise verified and connected me to every other human being. It allowed me to, however briefly, see myself as thought I were looking at a different person other than myself, perhaps providing a glimpse into what others were seeing when they looked at me.

I find that when my mind wanders during Vipassana meditation and I find tensions arising the act of putting my attention on what I’m seeing behind my closed yelids helps awaken my mind to the reality of the moment – as opposed to whatever I had been thinking about when I noticed my attention was not on sensation.  This may be a slight deviation from the technique of focusing solely on body sensations, but I find it is instantaneously grounding.

Similarly, focusing on other sensations beyond feeling the surface of the skin:  Smell, taste, hearing could likewise may prove helpful in bringing one back to center and closer to the objective of feeling sensations on the surface of the body objectively.  The only downside is it seems to pull me out of what seem like deeper states of meditation, which may in fact be just rolling in thought and not meditation at all.

Developing Acceptance

Interesting quote attributed to the Buddha:

I have love for the footless,
for the bipeds too I have love;
I have love for those with four feet,
for the many-footed I have love.

 

It appears to me to mean we should carry on with love and compassion for all beings regardless of their predicaments, attributes, or handicaps.

Our neighbor’s dog recently began to grow up from a puppy into a dog.  As a result, he has begun barking more.  This affects me with mild annoyance, even though I like the dog, and my neighbor.  It’s an alerting bark, one of attentiveness or perhaps apprehensiveness for not getting enough attention, but not one of fear or hostility like some other dog’s barks.

Finding compassion and love for the beings that do things that affect us negatively and that we can’t always avoid is a challenge to be sure.  Especially when it affects my ability to meditate — the very weapon I have against giving in to my own intolerance.

Talking to the neighbor may help, but I instead resorted to invoking the power of technology in the form of an ultrasonic device that chirps a high-frequency pitch when the dog’s number of barks and volume threshold surpass the parameters I set.  I love this device.  It keeps noise to a minimum, but I wonder how much better a mediator or person I would be if I could simply learn to accept the annoyance and not let it affect me.  Have I missed out on achieving a new level of skill by using simple Pavlovian tricks to cure the symptom instead of my own problem of intolerance?

I’ll be interested in hearing your comments and opinions on this.


Gratitude Toward our Enemies

Nobody likes to feel they have enemies, and maybe you do not. If so, you probably haven’t made many mistakes in life, or, more likely, you haven’t been trying very hard at anything! For most of us, there are people we’ve offended in the past, intentionally or unintentionally. Maybe they were once even our friends.  A few of these people may even hate us or maybe we sometimes feel we hate them.

Haters are My Motivators

Obviously hate is destructive and counterproductive, so most of us tend to avoid it. Holding a grudge is proven to cause all sorts of damage to the body, mind and spirit.  While this often happens unintentionally, there are people who gravitate toward it as a means of getting the attention of others and gaining a sense of self-worth, however. “Haters are my motivators.” is a great phrase I’ve seen around the web of late. It’s a good reminder that there are indeed evil, sadistic, misdirected and self-centered people in this world with literally no conscience.  In some cases they intentionally cause harm for the fun of it. To cause and witness this suffering in others demonstrates their power over others, at least in their mind.  They exist, it’s a fact and we must be sufficiently motivated to overcome our resistance to that in order to accept the truth.

These kinds of pitiful people are clinically defined as sociopaths, which means they themselves literally can not feel empathy.  I don’t mean to say all people who wind up becoming our enemies are sociopathic, but a recent statistic says that 1 in 25 people are, in fact, without a conscience.  You can’t hurt them, because they don’t feel emotional pain, so they don’t know how other people feel it.  One warning sign of a sociopath is when they wrong us, yet can make us believe we were the ones doing harm to them. This paradox give us perspective into the wide array of moral interpretations such people can conjure up to their advantage, and how meaningless all such philosophies are. Being kind to others, or at least not harming them, is the only morality that exists. Even in self-defense, we can disarm and disable without harming in most cases, as the practice of aikido teaches us so deftly.

Mental Defilements Cause Pain

Seeing the unconscionable actions of others can bring about dark, angry feelings of injustice – causing us to want to do harm to others and drawing us closer to the selfish tendencies of our own minds, causing us pain and suffering while we plot to take revenge!  If we do manage to generate enough hatred to retaliate, the cycle perpetuates and we remain in perpetual misery. These are what Goinkaji calls ‘mental defilements’ in ourselves – those which poison our psyche and body if left unchecked. These mental defilement occur naturally and are what we strive to purify through meditation. By allowing such thoughts to come to the surface, fully recognizing and accepting the pain they cause, how they are affecting us physiologically as well as psychologically, and staying with them quietly while keeping the mind objective and focused, they eventually fade and disappear. Much like allowing a fire to burn itself out or with the help of a steady, constant, stream of water. If we instead try to work with the negative thoughts, justify them, compound them, and roll in them, it will stir them up worse – like trying to extinguish a fire by putting on more wood or, in some cases, gasoline!

Pain Helps Us to Be Aware

Yes, pain or discomfort teaches us – just as a child touching a hot stove learns what not to do.  However, experiencing pain during vipassana mediation works on a deeper and more sophisticated level. By staying with the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle aches and pains in meditation and facing them objectively we learn to face not only our pain, but our fear of pain.  Through this we have the opportunity to conquer and ultimately be free from it.  Physical pain makes life difficult, but not unbearable, unless we make it so by giving in to it mentally.  Likewise, whatever pain we feel from verbal or emotional difficulties through our interactions with others does not require a knee-jerk, fight or flight response from us all the time.  Only our habitual behaviors make us feel that way, and following through with those primal feelings is simply running from the problem which will catch up to us again sooner or later.

Through the ally of meditation, our enemies allow us to experience things that cause us pain, over and over again if need be, until we learn both not to hurt others nor to feel arbitrarily hurt by them.  In so doing they can teach us vast amounts about ourselves if we choose to see it for what it is, rather than get angry about their actions and perpetuate the cycle.  For that they deserve our sincere compassion, thoughts of loving kindness and yes, our gratitude.

In metta.

Sensory-Based Meditation for Anxiety vs. Drug-based Treatments

An article in “Wired” from March 2012 entitled “The Forgetting Pill erases Painful Memories Forever”. describes an experimental therapy for eliminating negative memories to help patients struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as less severe conditions. The treatment involves giving patients the equivalent of blood pressure medication which only lasts 3 hours vs. full strength version of the medication which may last all day. Once the medication, which has a calming effect, kicks in, the patients are then asked to recall the traumatic or negative memory in as much detail as possible.

According to the article, every time we remember or relive an event, we rewrite it to our memory along with the emotional state we are in at the time we recant it.  Because the blood pressure medication lessens general excitement, the memory is re-experienced and “rewritten” to the mind from a more objective perspective with less emotional attachment to the memory of the event.

What I found intriguing about this article was that the treatment is in many ways similar to the technique of Vipassana meditation I study, where practitioners are asked to sit motionless with eyes closed and methodically pay close attention to sensations on the body. While doing so, they are instructed to stay focused and not to react with craving or aversion to these sensations on the body (no matter how pleasant or unpleasant) and to simply observe them with compassion and equanimity.  The sensations on the body are, according to the teaching, tied directly with emotions and memories in the subconscious.  By acknowledging the sensations we are tapping into subconscious memories and re-experiencing them in a direct way.  The word ‘recognize’ literally means to re-think. By remaining equanimous, or accepting the truth about how we feel about our experiences at the deepest level, we become free of them.

If they are not accepted by the mind and integrated in to the life-experience, over time and through repetition, these layers of emotions associated with the initial experience intensify, as do the physiological and biochemical reactions to the memory. If negative, these emotions can cause mental and physical stress and tension in the form of a fight or flight response.  If positive, the emotions can result in clinging or craving, resulting in an addiction to the experience.  More specifically an addiction to the biochemicals is produced by the emotions associated with the memory of the experience.

The danger is that the biochemicals, regardless of whether or not the subject sees the memory as good or bad, create a craving for more of the chemical, which is why anger or depression can sometimes spiral out of control.  The angrier we get, the more we tend to generate even greater anger, feeding back on itself into an upward spiral of fury.  Similarly downward spirals of depression create an inescapable feedback loop of angst and misery.

In either situation there is a physiological response to the emotion reaction: the secretion of biochemicals resulting in things such as an increase of adrenaline, vascular and muscle constrictions, and/or an increase in blood pressure, to name a few. This can manifest in the form of back pain, stomach problems, migraines, insomnia, heart disease, and even cancer.  Over time the increasing physical and biochemical changes in the body can and do make us sick, yet they originate in the mind.  In this way, meditation for anxiety has similar benefits to the drug-based therapy.

Whether under the influence of a calming drug, as described in the Wired article, or under the influence of a disciplined mind through meditation, there is a lessened reaction to the experience by not reinforcing the story in an environment of strong emotions.  Through repeated exposure to the memories under “safe” environments, the self-generated and self-perpetuated emotional level is diminished, as well as the physiological and biochemical responses.

The main difference between this new therapy and sensory-based meditation is that with Vipassana meditation at least, concentrating on the conscious memories and reliving experiences during meditation are discouraged.  One in instructed to only pay attention to sensations directly on the body and keep focused on that activity, since sensations are tied to the more important memories and emotions residing in the subconscious.

While the application of drugs in conjunction with talking about the memories could perhaps tap in to the subconscious to some degree, results of the therapy described in the Wired article are inconclusive. My sense is it will have limited success with victims of PTSD or other forms of anxiety, since the issues are only being dealt with closer to the conscious level.

In certain cases, there is certainly no substitute for modern medicine, especially where symptoms need to be diminished in order for the person to heal.  Ultimately though, we are our own masters and need to take control of how our mind reacts to the past, present and future for our own health and benefit and those around us.

Deconstructing Misery through Vipassana

I recently attended a 10-day course on Vipassana meditation in Colorado. Although it sounds luxurious and relaxing way to spend some time “away from it all”, it was without question the most extreme, demanding and personally rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I got interested in the idea of doing this from my friend Angela who said a friend of hers had done it and was raving about the experience and how positively life-changing and powerful it was for her.

This wasn’t a retreat in the context of a “business retreat” or a social retreat in any way. It was kind of like what I’d imagine boot camp would be like without all the physical work and psychological manipulation I’ve heard goes on there. The retreat was extremely challenging for me and others, yet only one person out of 55 left mid-way through the course.

A Vipassana retreat experience means different things to different people, but the technique is very simple. What I like about it is the fact that it is simple in concept, and does not require belief in any particular religion or deity. S.N. Goenka revived and refined the technique of teaching Vipassana in the 1970s and continues as the head teacher of the Vipassana Research Institute as of today. Since so much has already been written about the practice of Vipassana Meditation is and how it works (see http://dhamma.org) this article will focus on my personal experience.

At its core, the meditation technique is to stay focused on observing changes in the body as you scan through the different body parts. Any tactile sensation or change in sensation that is perceived is taken note of during the body scans. Any unpleasant sensations are observed with compassion, without aversion, anger, or negative reaction. They are simply observed without moving or changing posture in response to them. The same is true with any positive sensations experienced during meditation. They should be observed, but not sought after or reacted to with craving or clinging.

In a way, it reminded me of giving up cigarettes. The way I was able to do it was to acknowledge what I was feeling whenever I felt a craving to smoke, then let the feeling pass. Easy to do in theory, but when the addiction is strong the mind has powerful and persuasive tricks to keep one locked in the addiction. In Vipassana the goal is to disrupt the behavior pattern of the mind to respond with craving or aversion to experiences.

Leg and back pain are common complaints during most meditation practices. For myself I’ve had an on-going mild back pain that was the result of a car accident that occurred soon after I graduated from college. The accident was my fault – a car in front of me changed lanes suddenly without signaling, and I rear-ended a stopped vehicle it had passed abruptly while doing about 35 mph. Luckily the people in the car that got hit only had minor injuries, but I was in the hospital for several days for a chest contusion as the result of the impact. My back got extremely tight in response in order to protect my chest and I was unable to sleep on it for weeks, needing to sleep only on my side. The tightness in my back came and went throughout the years and was rarely debilitating, but lingered. Some said it was “psychological” pain, which made sense intellectually, but it was never enough pain consistently enough to bother about. It did keep me from doing certain activities, like Aikido, a martial art which involves a lot of rolling around and taking falls as part of the practice.

Sitting in meditation for 10 hours a day, was a different from most activity I had done before. While first learning the technique, after about 30 minutes, the perceived pain in my back, and then legs, was excruciating. After 45 minutes I wanted to scream out in pain on several occasions, but our vow of noble silence prohibited talking or making unnecessary noise, so as not to disturb other meditators. Thankfully, before too long, the technique of observing these sensations without reacting to them either physically or emotionally is explained quite clearly in the daily audio lectures of S.N. Goenka. As I observed the sensation in my back and detached my emotional reaction from it, I was able to see it was not as horrible as it initially felt. I learned how to deconstruct the sensation from what felt initially like “raging pain that was going to kill me if it lasted another second” to something more like “a cold, tight, throbbing sensation just under my shoulder blades that was causing my stomach to tighten”. This wasn’t rationalization, but rather clear observation. I remained connected to my body still, but was able to see more clearly by not reacting to my initial emotional response.

Over time and with regular meditation practice I’ve eliminated the pain response, though a sensation of tightness is still noticeable to me at times throughout the day and during meditation. The main difference is I no longer worry about the pain causing my back to go out. What I’ve determined is the fear was actually more powerful than the “pain” sensation, which no longer has control over me or my activities. Had someone told me this prior to learning meditation, I’m fairly certain it would have made no difference in my ability to control it. Only through meditation and directly experiencing the sensation without reacting to it with fear, anger or negativity was I able to help it to subside.

Seeing all sensations as transitory with the full awareness and acceptance that, as the old proverb about King Solomon says, “This too shall pass,” is what Vipassana is all about. This concept is key to this technique of meditation practice and to Buddhism in general. Also key to both is the idea that misery and suffering are caused by reacting to feelings of blind passion, clinging, attachment, anger, and aversion. The more we react to these feelings, no matter how subtle the emotional sensation may be, the more that reactive behavior is reinforced and made habitual. Even if we don’t act on our emotions, the negative thoughts are still there and are, in fact, a reaction, and the beginnings of misery since misery is all in the mind. Even if we’re suffering from a physical ailment that causes real physical pain, our mind has the incredible power to make the pain far worse, causing us to limit our potential activities and enjoyment of life more than we might if we had a better mental outlook. The technique provides such a better mental outlook for the practitioner, giving our lives more richness and potential.

The reason this technique of meditation works is sensation can be experienced on both the conscious and subconscious equally well. We know this is true since we respond to sensation even when we sleep: A mosquito, for example, which we swat at, or the mosquito bite which we scratch even when in deep sleep. In Vipassana we use the body as a framework to create an environment to demonstrate how emotional sensations are no different from physical ones in that we can choose to respond or not to respond to them (when conscious). It is within our power, and although there is nothing wrong with reacting to physical sensations in real life, there are negative consequences in reacting to emotional sensations – both on the subtle level as well as in the extreme.

Here’s an example: One thing I noticed after the course was that during meditation I had been attempting to sit very straight, thinking that would minimize the stress on my back and make it easier to sit longer and avoid the extremely unpleasant sensation I was still feeling in my back to some degree. When I realized I was forcing my posture to be too upright in response to the fear that I’d experience unpleasantness, I realized I was actually bringing the unpleasant experience on myself. So I began starting the practice by slumping over a little, as I was used to doing. I had actually been preemptively reacting: The very thing we were instructed time and again not to do if we wished to experience success with Vipassana! Since this revelation I’ve experienced much more pleasant sensations while meditating and the perception of the pain in my back has all but gone away completely.

I think the most difficult thing about the course, about practicing meditation, and about life in general, is resisting temptation to expend energy thinking about the past or worrying about the future. In my case, my mind is constantly distracted from focusing on the present sensations by thinking about what I will do the minute I’m done meditating or in the next week, month, year, etc. Thinking about past offenses others have committed against me or that I’ve committed against others is also a sticking point. The difficulty comes in realizing these are all illusions, however, illusions that generate real emotions that result in a mental as well as physiological effect. Thinking about the past and generating anger, fear, excitement, and hundreds of other feelings where there is nothing really happening and there is nothing to address causes unnecessary agitation in the mind and tension in the body. We think about past and future events and generate emotions about things that do not exist in the here and now, while meditating and while proceeding through daily life. Dispelling these incarnations of past and future experiences and the associated emotions allows us to see reality clearly in terms of what’s really happening now, this moment, in our presence, and not just what is in our heads. Again, easy to understand, but to really know this lesson and benefit from it requires meditation practice to avoid sliding back to reacting to the illusions, which is the animal nature of humankind at work and what Goenka calls the “wild, untrained, monkey mind”. We’re all born with it, but we can come out of it, according to the teaching and according to my personal experience.

Although the religion is not explicitly preached about during the meditation course there is a lot of chanting in the ancient Pail language of India by Goenka during the audio lectures to mark the end of meditation practice or discourses. The phrasing of the language and chanting with long, drawn out vibrations of his voice were weird at first, but I grew fond of hearing them by the end…especially since it meant I could soon get up and stretch out, get fresh blood to my back and limbs, and go pee.

Would I take the course again? Absolutely. Although it’s not going to be useful for everyone, especially those who don’t surrender fully to the training experience, I strongly believe anyone would benefit greatly from it. It was a gift to be able to go. If you can see the necessity for positive change in your life, and can make the time, be prepared to work very hard for long hours every single day. It is definitely no vacation. You will not be spoon-fed, or hand-held, though the environment provides everything you need to live, learn, and work. You’re very much on your own, which, if you’re like me, can be exciting until you realize there is nothing external to distract you away from your goal when things get difficult. No TV, internet, music, writing, reading, talking or interacting with others. There are, however, many things internal: negative thoughts, doubts, fears, body pain, emotional pain, learned behaviors, and skepticism to distract you, if you let them. The reward is having the opportunity to face yourself and your own personal demons, undistracted for ten days, and learning a very well-developed and ancient technique for deconstructing and eradicating your own personal misery and suffering.