My Vipassana 10-Day Experience: No Solidified Gross Sensations, No Gain

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It’s 4:45 in the morning and I’ve been sitting on my cushion at the Dhamma Setu Vipassana Meditation Center in Chennai, India for a quarter-hour. It’s day one, and I’m observing my breath as it comes in and out through my nostrils—at least for seconds to minutes at a time before I have to coral my mind back from some random tangent. This breath exercise (ānāpāna-sati), I will soon learn, is a preparatory exercise used to reign in the mind enough so that actual Vipassana meditation can be introduced on the middle of the fourth day. In eleven days, I’ll be in the closing session of the course.

 

There are several approaches to Vipassana meditation taught throughout the balance of the course, but the gist is the same for all of them. One rotates one’s awareness throughout the body systematically observing sensations. As one does this, one works toward equanimity, a calm and quiet state of mind in which one neither covets pleasurable sensations nor shuns unpleasant sensations. The idea is to train the deepest level of the mind to not habitually lunge one toward pleasure or away from displeasure.  (FYI: displeasure = pain.  At least for a novice, such as myself, there is a fair amount of pain involved in sitting still for such long periods. It’s generally referred to a solidified gross sensation to differentiate it from the uniform and subtle sensations that one may feel in the parts of the body that aren’t in agony. I joke about it here, but there’s good reason to train oneself to not think in terms of pain, and the negative connotation the word evokes.)

 

At that course’s beginning, I knew a little about Vipassana from research, including reading the book “Equanimous Mind,” one man’s account of his experience in the course. For example, I knew that most people who quit, leave either on day two or day six. At the time, I didn’t know why, but would learn soon enough. It’s nothing about those two days, but rather the days that precede them. Day 1 seems to last forever, and it’s easy enough to discern why it might give students trouble. When one gets through day 1, an optimist says “yeah, I can do this because I’m through the first day” but a pessimist says, “I just barely made it, I can’t do this.” Day 5 is when the strong commitment (adhiţţhāna) is added, which means that one has three one hour sessions during which one is to commit to not changing one’s posture for the whole session. No opening eyes, but—more challengingly—no unfolding /refolding one’s legs.  This commitment to not changing posture steps up the difficulty of the course to another level.

 

It should be noted that one can opt to sit in a chair. However, that introduces an entirely new challenge—drowsiness. During the long sessions, when I’d get up to walk the lymphatic fluid out of my legs, there were usually two people in a straight-spined meditative position and six to eight who looked to be sound asleep.  (Drowsiness was one reason that I didn’t sit in a chair. I’m prone to get sleepy enough during meditation, especially in a complete absence of caffeine. The other reason was that I’ve not found chairs to be more comfortable for long-sits of meditation. Once your bony parts start pressing into the chair, one begins to wish one was cross-legged on a cushion. One can make the chair more comfortable by placing padding wherever it’s uncomfortable, but eventually one has a virtual La-Z-boy and the drowsiness factor becomes all the more problematic.)

 

With respect to these strong commitment (adhiţţhāna) sessions, I didn’t make it the full hour without moving on the fifth day–or any day until day 10, in fact. However, I don’t count this as a failure, because I did give it my all. I say that based on the endorphin-induced euphoria, simple hallucinations, and a proprioceptive form of Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome that I experienced from toughing it out past mere discomfort. I’ll get to what that all means, but for now suffice it to say these happenings were symptomatic of sitting still through the period in which the pain came, grew, and then started to numb out.

 

In fact, these trippy experiences may, sadly, have been one reason why it never occurred to me to want to leave around day six. While I tried not to get caught up in them, these experiences were fascinating. I could see why day 2 presents a challenge to so many, but day 6 was a hoot, relatively speaking. The second most challenging day for me was day 8, because I’d reached a plateau but I didn’t yet feel myself in the homestretch. But by day 8, who’s going to leave? You’ve gutted it out that long, and are almost done. For those concerned about whether they can make it to the end, I can honestly say that I never seriously considered quitting. It’s not that hard to get through the 10 days, as long as one isn’t too addicted to comfort and communication.  That said, I wouldn’t offer a wholesale recommendation of the course as many do, but rather recommend it on a case-by-case basis. If you’ve done no meditation whatsoever, this is the meditative equivalent of going from couch-sitting to training for an ultra-marathon overnight. If you think you can’t get through nine days of silence–without no phones or books, maybe you can’t, and you should probably reevaluate your life.

 

I mentioned some of the unusual experiences that I witnessed during the course, and I’ll get into that a bit more. I should preface this by saying that one shouldn’t get caught up in these trippy happenings for reasons I’ll elaborate upon below, but they may happen so it’s worth being ready for them. Here’s a list of the unusual events I experienced:

 

-Extreme relaxation / lethargy: a little off topic, but between sessions on day 1, I noticed that I couldn’t be bothered to shoo away a fly that kept buzzing around my head with random touch downs. I don’t know how long I walked with the fly buzzing over me before it struck me that this was unusual. This was before Vipassana proper had been introduced, so it didn’t yet seem apropos.

 

-Olfactory hallucination / vivid scents: on day 2 I witnessed a distinct smell from my elementary school days (i.e. a mix of cleaning solution and milk cartons?) that theoretically could have originated at the Dhamma Setu, but which was quite probably an olfactory hallucination. It was short-lived and I never smelt it again. I did later experience an intense smell of flowers inside the meditation hall. This may well have been an actual scent as there were many blooming flowers there. These vivid scents were also short-lived.

 

-Endorphin-Induced Euphoria: on days 4 and 5, I experienced this as an almost intoxicated feeling. [Endorphins are the body’s indigenous pain-killers.] As drunks find unfunny things funny, so did I—including the pain in my legs and back. I wondered if anyone would be distracted by my occasional giggle-fits, but I think they were much more subdued than I suspected from my vantage point. Just like I’ve thought I was talking in my sleep in the past, only to be told that it sounded more like faint and indistinct whimpering. On day 6, I experienced a more sophisticated (not drunk-like) form of euphoria that expressed itself as a feeling of “oneness.” I’ve read about feelings of oneness being attributed to a form of transient hypo-frontality—i.e. a shutting down of the parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that track the self / other distinction. There may have been more happening than endorphins (and other neurotransmitters) involved in that happening.

 

-Lifting sensation: This was the single most awe-inspiring experience that I was party to. For those unfamiliar with seated meditation, one of one’s chief enemies in long meditation sessions is a proclivity to slump. Slumping translates into agonizing back pain and labored breathing. So whenever one catches oneself slumping, one has to straighten one’s back. [If you wonder why a meditator would pretzel up his or her legs in full lotus (padmasana), the alignment of one’s legs helps one maintain a straight spine.] At any rate, on day 6 I experienced the feeling that I was being lifted up straight and it became effortless to maintain a straight back for the rest of that session—as if an outside force were doing the work. This lifting sensation wasn’t like being lifted by a person, but rather like the action of a “tractor beam” from the world of sci-fi. While I have some inkling of the causes of much of what I experienced based on the science of the human body, explanation of this “lift” is harder to come by. I did read an account in Oliver Sacks’ “Hallucinations” by a woman who suffered from migraine-induced hallucinations and Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome that was a spot-on description of what I experienced as well.

 

-“Visual” [closed-eye] simple hallucinations: I didn’t experience anything even close to the what people usually think of as a hallucination—that is, there was nothing that could be confused with reality. I wouldn’t have even known to call these images hallucinations if I hadn’t been reading the aforementioned Oliver Sacks’ book. Mine were quite close to what are described as hypnogogic (falling asleep) hallucinations in the Sacks’ book. This makes sense. While I wasn’t drowsy at the time, my brain was probably in a pretty similar state of relaxation. Mostly, these were moving shapes that formed and dissipated in a field of black-fringed purple.  On day 7, there were more complete visuals—mostly of partial faces, usually with mouths wide open. I took this as my subconscious mind’s comment on the noble silence. (On the noble silence: from about 6pm on day 0 [orientation afternoon] until the morning of day 10, one isn’t allowed to talk or in any way interact with / acknowledge anyone except to direct questions to the teacher or staff. Whether one has questions or not, one will speak at least a few words to the teacher every day or two when he / she reviews one’s progress. For some, this may be the single biggest challenge of the course, but I’m a hardcore introvert and could do ten days of silence standing on my head.)

 

-Tactile Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome: Alice in Wonderland Syndrome usually refers to a visual form of hallucination in which things appear a great deal taller, smaller, closer, or farther than they actually are. What I experienced was a great deal less whacky and traumatic than that. With eyes closed, I felt a distortion of the size and shape of my arms. Sometimes my arms felt like they were six-foot long from deltoid to fingertips, and sometimes the same points seemed to lie a foot and a half apart. Needless to say, those are both distortions of the actual length of my arms.

 

-Inexplicable Beatles’ Music: On day 8 my mind bombarded me with music from the Beatles for a little while. In particular I heard “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, and “All You Need is Love,” or parts thereof, in high fidelity. Now, while this is fine music, it’s not music that I’ve listened to recently nor have I listened to that album a great deal. When I was growing up, there was a copy of “Sgt Pepper’s…” at home, but I’ve only periodically heard these songs on the radio since. The experience was monotonous because only the parts that I knew the words to (i.e. the choruses) replayed on a loop, but the music and voices were crystal clear as if I were listening to the album.  Given the lack of personal relevance, I can only imagine that my subconscious thought this is the kind of music a person meditating would like to hear.

 

As I said, by about day 8 I’d hit a plateau. The aforementioned odd experiences were petering out, particularly when I did as I was supposed to do and gently returned my mind to the task at hand. Yet, the practice wasn’t getting any easier or smoother. I still had the same dead spots—areas that I could observe for extended periods without even the subtlest of sensations—and I still had growing pain zones in my back and legs—i.e. starting from isolated pains, the pain would become increasingly diffuse and of ill-defined boundaries—but often no less painful.

 

Now I’ll explain my comment about not allowing oneself to become captivated by the trippy experiences. If one seeks after these experiences, not only is one missing out on the value of the practice, one is actually moving in the wrong direction by coveting an experience while impulsive craving is what one is training oneself away from through Vipassana meditation. Beyond this, seeking out such experiences is likely to be frustrating because they are products of the subconscious mind and physiological processes that are beyond conscious control. They happen when they happen, on your body’s schedule. (Note: Some people think of these as spiritual phenomena. I don’t, but—for those who do—they still won’t happen on your schedule. Ostensibly, they’ll happen on some deity’s—presumably rather tight–schedule. And—divine as they may be—they are still a distraction from the objective of the practice—and that’s not my opinion, but according to the teachers of the tradition, starting with Gautama Buddha and through to S.N. Goenka.)

 

So when one experiences such phenomena, one should do the same as one always does in meditation, quietly and non-judgementally return one’s mind to the object of awareness—in this case, systematically witnessing the sensations on one’s body. I won’t say that this isn’t a challenge. It is, because your mind is presenting you with something fascinating and new, and you’re asking it to return to a task that has become rather mundane over hours and days of practice. It should be noted, I would broadly categorize the phenomena that I experienced into two slots, one of which is things the brain does to cope with a lack of external stimulation. (The other being, things the body does to cope with unrelenting pain.) So it takes some discipline, but one should remind oneself—as one is frequently reminded during the discourses—that you are there to give the Vipassana approach a fair trial, and as fascinating as these sideshows are they are a distraction from the practice.

 

That said, these things will happen and their unusual nature may make them points of concern or confusion, and so I’ll discuss them a bit more. I have a theory about the cause of the euphoric experiences, but it requires a little clarification and background. What makes Vipassana challenging for a new practitioner—at least for me— is that in systematically rotating one’s awareness to observe sensations, one has to ignore areas that are screaming with pain while carefully running one’s attention through areas that seem completely devoid of sensation. This requires quieting the mind and especially not feeding the anxiety about one’s pain and discomfort—hence, developing equanimity (steadiness of mind.) Sitting still for an hour at a time, lymphatic fluid piles up in your lower extremities (no pump in the lymphatic system but the one of movement), over time blood circulation may be inhibited, and this lack of circulation has ramifications for the cells not being adequately nourished. So your body notices this fluid build-up (a relatively minor concern, easily rectifiable, and which will take a while to be a serious problem for most people) and sends you some pain sensations to spur you to get up and move about. When you don’t get up and walk, it turns up the discomfort disproportionate to what’s happening with your body. You still ignore it. Eventually, your body starts to think maybe a boulder fell on your legs and you’re in shock (the conscious and unconscious minds don’t talk as much as you might think, and—even if they do—let’s face it, at least the conscious mind is a big, fat liar.) It’s at this point that your body starts to emit some feel-good chemicals. (I refer to “endorphin-induced euphoria,” but it’s more extensive than natural painkillers. In reading up on the subject, I noted references to serotonin and even melatonin (yes, the skin color chemical) in addition to beta-endorphins. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some dopamine—a reward / feel good chemical—in the mix as well. Hence, the euphoria.

 

I don’t think it’s necessary to get into the hallucinations and other effects that the mind creates in order to cope with the lack of sensory input. This is a well-studied area, and there’s been a lot written on how the mind hates the dark and the quiet over extended periods. I would recommend the aforementioned book by Oliver Sacks on hallucinations as a case in point.

 

Saving the most crucial question for last, was it worth it? In his discourses, S.N. Goenka offers three criteria by which one might evaluate whether Vipassana is worth practicing. While all three are sound criteria, I’ll focus on just one of these, which is really the bottom-line, and that’s whether it makes an improvement in one’s life. That is, does one start to be less prone to impulsively react to craving and aversion and become more equanimous of mind?

 

On this, I’ll have to say that the jury is still out. Many come out of the 10-day course calling it life-changing. I’d say that it was beneficial because I learned a meditative technique that has a sound internal logic (even if one doesn’t believe every aspect of the mechanism by which it is said to work by Buddhists—which I don’t), an established track record of benefit for many, and the feel that it’s benefiting one. However, I’m still evaluating the approach. I’ve been doing Vipassana meditation twice a day with morning and evening affirmations. Let’s face it, 10-days isn’t a long time to overhaul one’s deeply ingrained modes of operation—even sitting in meditation for 10 hours a day. I’m optimistic, and the practice sure doesn’t hurt—except for those solidified gross sensations, they hurt.

 

Even imaginary monsters get bigger if you feed them

Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia

Public domain image of Epictetus, sourced from Wikipedia

There’s a story about Epictetus infuriating a member of the Roman gentry by asking, “Are you free?”

 

(Background for those not into Greek and Roman philosophy. Epictetus was a Roman slave who gained his freedom to become one of the preeminent teachers of stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy that tells us that it’s worthless to get tied up in emotional knots over what will, won’t, or has happened in life. For Stoics, there are two kinds of events. Those one can do something about and those that one can’t. If an event is of the former variety, one should put all of one’s energy into doing what one can to achieve a preferable (and virtuous) outcome. If an event is of the latter variety, it’s still a waste of energy to get caught up in emotional turbulence. Take what comes and accept the fact that you had no ability to make events happen otherwise.)

 

To the man insulted by Epictetus, his freedom was self-evident. He owned land. He could cast a vote. He gave orders to slaves and laborers, and not the other way around. What more could one offer as proof of one’s freedom? Of course, he missed Epictetus’s point. The question wasn’t whether the man was free from external oppressors, but whether he was free from his own fears? Was he locked into behavior because he didn’t have the courage to do otherwise?

 

I recently picked up a book on dream yoga by a Tibetan Lama, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Lucid dreaming has been one of my goals as of late. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about practices to facilitate lucid dreaming because I’ve been reading quite a bit about the science, recently. I just thought that it would be interesting to see how the Tibetan approach to lucid dreaming maps to that of modern-day psychology. Tibetan Buddhists are–after all–the acknowledged masters of dream yoga, and have a long history of it. Furthermore, I’ve been doing research about the science behind “old school” approaches to mind-body development, lately. At any rate, it turns out that there were several new preparatory practices that I picked up and have begun to experiment with, and one of them is relevant to this discussion.

 

This will sound a little new-agey at first, but when you think it out it makes sense. The exercise is to acknowledge the dream-like quality of one’s emotionally charged thoughts during waking life. Consider an example: You’re driving to an important meeting. You hit a couple long red lights. You begin to think about how, if you keep hitting only red lights, you’re going to be late and it’s going to look bad to your boss or client. As you think about this you begin to get anxious.  But there is no more reality in the source of your fear than there is when you see a monster in your dreams. There’s a potentiality, not a reality. Both the inevitability of being late and the monster are projections of your mind, and yet tangible physiological responses are triggered (i.e. heart rate up, digestion interfered with, etc.) It should be noted the anxiety isn’t without purpose. It’s designed to kick you into planning mode, to plan for the worst-case scenario. Cumulatively, one can get caught up in a web of stress that has a negative impact on one’s health and quality of life.  For most people, when they arrive on time, they forget all about their anxiety and their bodily systems will return to the status quo, until the next time (which might be almost immediately.) Some few will obsess about the “close call” and how they should have planned better, going full-tilt into a stress spiral.

 

Mind states have consequences, whether or not they’re based in reality. I’ve always been befuddled by something I read about Ernest Hemingway. He’d won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was universally regarded as one of the masters of American literature, but he committed suicide because he feared he’d never be able to produce works on the level that he’d written as a younger man. There seems to be more to it than that. Many others managed to comfortably rest on their laurels when writing became hard[er]–including writers with much less distinguished careers.  The monster may be imaginary, but if you feed it, it still gets bigger.

 

As you go about your day, try to notice your day-dreams, mental wanderings, and the emotional states they suggest. You might be surprised to find how many of them have little basis in reality. They are waking dreams.

What RYT300 Taught Me About Fear

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I recently completed the RYT300 course at Amrutha Bindu Yoga to obtain my RYT500 yoga teacher certification. (i.e. The 200 hour course–which I completed a couple years ago–plus the 300 hour course are the primary requirements for the 500 hour certification.) The essay below is about one of the key lessons I learned in this phase of training.

 

I walked through the streets of Bengaluru barefoot and with not so much as a 5 rupee coin in my pocket. [If your response to that is “big whoop,” you probably live somewhere like Singapore, Helsinki, Kobe, or Calgary where the streets are immaculate and the rats aren’t so bold. If you’re familiar with what goes on in and near the streets in India, you may be wondering what the hell is wrong with me.]  It was an unconventional teaching tactic to be sure, but it ranks among the most valuable lessons of the training—surpassing no small revelations about postural alignment, pranayama methods, bandha technique, physiology, and yogic philosophy. It was even up there with the experience of advanced shatkarma (cleansing practices) that were completely new to me.

 

What’s the lesson?  If you’re going to teach yoga–particularly at the intermediate / advanced level that RYT500 is intended to prepare you for–you need to work on not being ruled by fear. That isn’t to say one must be fearless. We imagine fearlessness to equate to courageousness, but courage is action under fear. Neuroscience tells us what a fearless person is like. We know from individuals who’ve had the parts of their brains damaged that are responsible for the emotion—they are paralyzed by indecision. Our emotions provide a basis for choosing–at least as a tie-breaker when no clearly superior path exists. We need our fear, just like our other emotions, but if you can’t move forward because of it you may have a hard time keeping learning.

 

Not being ruled by fear isn’t just—or primarily—about being able to keep practicing advanced techniques until you can get a grasp on them.  Yes, mastering a handstand requires a fair amount of falling down (hopefully, in a controlled fashion), and that’s a lot of potential for anxiety, but there’s more at stake.  What precisely? One might start, as many do, with what Patanjali has to say on the subject, and one can start from square one. “Chitta Vrtta Nirodhah.” (Quieting the fluctuations of the mind.) Many of the fluctuations of the mind result from anxieties and our obsession with solving them. Our brains are wired to try to anticipate worst case scenarios so we can develop ready-made solutions for them. This can result in excessive pessimism, extended stress, and all the problems that go along with that stress.

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There’s a popular saying that goes, “money is the root of all evil.” But, I think it’s wrong. Fear is at the heart of all evil—not to mention a fair amount of run-of-the-mill pettiness.

 

So what is the path to anxiety management? Start small, and dispassionately observe your discomfort. Don’t try to squelch the emotion, just watch it while trying to avoid putting good or bad labels on it. Of course, sources of anxiety are personal. As far as prescriptive yoga practices, that depends upon one’s personal anxieties. For some inversions might do the trick, for others extreme back bends, for some external breath retention, for others it may be balancing. Then, of course, there are the advanced shatkarma practices I mentioned earlier–such as vaman dhauti (cleansing by vomiting) or poorna shankhaprakshalana (i.e. clearing out one’s digestive tract via massive ingestion of salt water.)

 

I recently finished teaching a Kid’s Camp (a post about that to come.) At the beginning of the camp, I was telling someone that the kids were fearless, but what I came to discover was that kids just allow their enthusiasm to swamp their anxieties. I had seven-year-olds doing pinchamayurasana (forearm stand) and vrschikasana (scorpion) within the first few days. That would be a hard sell for adults. [I don’t think I’ve ever taught those postures to adults.]  It’s not just that kids are bendy, they’re also ready to get up after they fall down. (And since they’re not stressed about the possibility of falling they don’t tense up and get badly injured.) Someone posted a great meme on Facebook recently. It said, “A child who falls down 50 times learning to walk, doesn’t go, ‘I don’t think this is for me.’”

Blinders (Literal and Figurative) in the Martial Arts

IMG_2553Many years ago I was training at a dōjō that had a practitioner who was a teacher for the blind. He requested that we put together a self-defense workshop for his students.  (If you’re wondering what kind of evil jackass would attack a blind person, rest assured that—sadly–such a level of jackassitude exists in the world.) The request presented an intriguing challenge. How does one adapt techniques that are premised on being able to see what the opponent is doing? Or maybe one shouldn’t adapt existing techniques but rather start from square one?

 

In preparation for working up a lesson plan, the person that asked for the workshop briefed the black belts. We learned that very few of the blind students lived in complete darkness. Instead, they displayed a wide range of different visual impairments. He even brought a large bag of goggles that simulated various impairments so that we could train in them to better understand what would or wouldn’t work with different types of impairment.

 

There were goggles that had funnels over the eyes such that one could see two little circles clearly while the rest of the world was black. There were others that had a complete field of view, but had translucent tape over the lenses so that everything was reduced to fuzzy blobs—as if one were looking through Vaseline. There were lenses that had a crackle effect such that one could only see veins of area clearly. There were goggles with no peripheral vision, and ones with only peripheral vision. He also had some goggles that blacked out the world entirely. Completely blind individuals may not be as common as one would think, but they certainly exist. Putting on any of the goggles was disorienting at first. A couple of the black belts even got vertigo or nausea when they moved around too quickly.

 

Now imagine what it would be like if one had always had the goggles on, that it was the only worldview one had ever known. Furthermore, imagine that everyone you interacted with on a daily basis all wore the same variety of goggles. You wouldn’t see it as an affliction or a limitation. To you, your view of the world would be full and complete. You would engage in behaviors that might seem odd to an outsider with unobstructed vision (e.g. sweeping your hands around in big arcs, turning your head at unusual angles, or calling out into the “darkness”), but these behaviors wouldn’t seem odd to you because you’d know it as natural behavior for someone who experienced the world as you did.  Because everyone you dealt with would see the world in the same way, it wouldn’t occur to you to think about whether there was another way to behave.

 

The preceding paragraph serves as an analogy for culture. One’s own culture is often invisible, especially if you don’t get outside of it much. All the people around you confirm your belief that you’re seeing the world as it is and behaving in the only natural and normal way imaginable. Sure, you may notice other people’s cultures—their skewed worldviews and the anomalous behaviors that result– but that’s because they do “strange things.” Still, some individuals will maintain that their culture doesn’t display any of the “odd” ways of behaving that more “exotic” cultures do.

 

But it does. Every culture is a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly of how a people goes about living in the world given their cultural blind spots and skews. It includes collective coping mechanism for dealing with fears of uncertainty, and those are often the ugly side of culture. They encourage ingroup / outgroup separation, as well as primitive and superstitious approaches to dealing with those events, people, and behaviors that are out of the ordinary.

 

It’s easy to display double standards when one is blind to culture. I will give an example from my own life. It’s only been since I’ve been living in India (and traveling in Asia) that I’ve become aware of how many people are upset by Westerner’s secularization of Eastern religious / spiritual symbols and imagery. That’s a mouthful; so let me explain what I mean by “secularization of Eastern symbols and imagery.” I’m talking about “OM” T-shirts / pendants, bronze Buddhas, Tibetan thanka paintings, mandalas  (on T-shirts or posters), miniature shrines, or tattoos that are purchased because they are trendy, aesthetically pleasing, or vaguely conceptually pleasing without any real understanding of the tradition from which they came or intention of honoring it.

 

Granted it’s easy to miss the above issue if you’re a tourist because: a.) Many of said Eastern traditions practice a live-and-let-live lifestyle that make their practitioners unlikely to be confrontational about such things (in contrast to  practitioners of Abrahamic traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.)) b.) There are merchants in every country who are willing to sell anything to anybody for a buck, and so there are vast markets for tourists that offer up these symbols and images in droves.

 

It still intrigues me that it once caught me off guard that there were Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. who were dismayed by the secularization of their traditions. I’m agnostic, but I was raised in a Christian household. Therefore, I can imagine the animosity aroused by the following conversation.

 

A: [Wearing a simple crucifix [or Star of David or crescent & star] pendant on a chain.]

B: Hey, A, I didn’t know you were Christian [or Jewish or Muslim]?

A: Because I’m not.

B: But you’re wearing a crucifix [or other Abrahamic symbol] pendant?

A: Oh, yeah, that. That doesn’t mean anything. It just looks cool. It’s kind of like the Nike swoosh.

B: [Jaw slackens.]

 

Now replace the crucifix with an “OM” shirt, and an inquiry about whether “A” is Hindu. Does it feel the same? If it doesn’t, why shouldn’t it?

 

Every martial art represents a subculture embedded in the culture of the place from which it came.  [Sometimes this becomes a mélange, as when a Japanese martial art is practiced in America. In such cases the dōjō usually reflects elements of Japanese culture (e.g. ritualized and formal practice), elements of American culture (e.g. 40+ belt ranks so that students can get a new rank at least once a year so they don’t quit), and elements of the martial art’s culture (e.g. harder or softer approaches to engaging the opponent.)]

 

The way that culture plays into a country’s martial arts may not become clear until one has practiced the martial arts of different countries—particularly in their nation of origin. While my own experience is limited, I have practiced Japanese kobudō in America (and extremely briefly in Japan), Muaythai in Thailand, and Kalaripayattu in India. I’ll leave Muaythai out of the discussion for the time being because I can most easily make my point by contrasting Japanese and Indian martial arts.  The Japanese and Indian martial arts I’ve practiced each reflects the nature of its respective culture, and they couldn’t be more different.

 

IMG_4525What are the differences between the Japanese and Indian martial arts I’ve studied? I’ve been known to answer that by saying that the Japanese martial art rarely uses kicks above waist level, while in Kalaripayattu if you’re only kicking at the height of your opponent’s head you’ll be urged to get your kick up a couple of feet higher.  What does that mean? The Japanese are expert at stripping out the needless and they work by paring away excess rather than building difficulty. The impulse of the Japanese is to avoid being showy. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) appeals to the Japanese mind. (Except for the “Stupid” part, which would be considered needlessly confrontational and gratuitously mean-spirited.) There’s a reason why Japanese martial arts don’t feature prominently in global martial arts cinema. They don’t wow with their physicality; efficiency is at the fore.

 

IMG_2246On the other hand, Indians are a vastly more flamboyant bunch, and Kalaripayattu is extremely impressive to watch and in terms of the physicality required to perform the techniques.  The Indian art isn’t about simplifying or cutting away the unnecessary. One has to get in progressively better shape as one advances to be able to perform techniques that require one leap higher, move faster, and be stronger. The Indian art isn’t about paring away excess, it’s about making such an impressive physical display that the opponent wonders whether one is just a man, or whether one might not be part bird or lion.

 

It might sound like I’m saying that the Japanese martial art is more realistic than the Indian one. Not really. Each of them is unrealistic in its own way. It’s often pointed out that the Japanese trained left-handedness out of their swordsmen, but that’s only one way in which Japanese martial arts counter individuation.  Given what we see in terms of how “southpaws” are often more successful in boxing, MMA, and street fighting, eliminating left-handedness seems like an unsound tactic at the individual level. There are undoubtedly many practitioners of traditional Japanese martial arts who can dominate most opponents who fight in an orthodox manner, but who would be thrown into complete disarray by an attacker who used chaotic heathen tactics. Consider that the only thing that kept the Japanese from being routed (and ruled) by the Mongolians was two fortuitous monsoons. The samurai were tremendously skilled as individual combatants, but the Mongolians could—literally—ride circles around them in warfare between armies. Perhaps, a more relevant question is whether Miyamoto Musashi would have defeated Sasaki Kojirō if the former had followed all the formal protocols of Japanese dueling instead of showing up late, carving his bokken from a boat oar, and generally presenting a f*@# you attitude. Who knows? But as the story is generally told, Musashi’s disrespectful and unorthodox behavior threw Sasaki off his game, and it was by no means a given that Musashi would win. Some believed Sasaki to be the more technically proficient swordsman.

 

All martial arts are models of combative activity apropos to the needs of a particular time, place, culture, and use.  And—as I used to frequently hear in academia—all models are wrong, though many are useful. (Sometimes, it’s written: “All models are lies, but many are useful.”)

 

[FYI: to the readers who say, “The martial art I practice is completely realistic.” My reply: “You must go through a lot of body-bags. Good for you? I guess?”]

A Third Roti: A Story with an Elephantine Moral

IMG_0047I went to a talk at the Rangoli Metro Arts Center last night entitled, Foresters’ Elephants. The talk was hosted by a group called “Friends of Elephants,” and the panel of speakers were all Conservation Officers in South India who were responsible for public lands home to Elephants.

The discussion offered some intriguing insight into state and local politics in India. But the best explanation of the night came from the Chief Conservator of Forests for Kodagu in a story that could be titled “A Third Roti.”

The Conservator explained that, as a junior forest officer, he’d been assigned to a remote station. His housing took the form of an old decrepit colonial era building. This house had a vermin infestation, and the hungry rodents would get bold as he and his wife slept and would nibble at their fingers and toes. Of course, this made for sleepless nights. To solve this disconcerting problem, the Conservator took to getting a third roti with his meals. [For my India-inexperienced readers, a roti is a circular flat bread that’s a common element of meals in many parts of India.] Putting the third roti out for the rodents negated the rat’s need to engage in the mutually terrifying act of nibbling on the forest officer or his wife.

I don’t know if the story is true, and–if it is–whether it’s truly the Conservator’s story. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that it’s a great use of story to make a point. The point in this case is that a solution often needs to take into account the fundamental needs of the “adversary.” In other words, regulation and punishment can’t always provide the solution–especially when basic needs are not being met. One could try to scare the rodents away or one could set traps (potentially at risk to oneself), but if the rats are driven  by hunger they might find the risk worth taking. The problem that he was addressing was the need for wood for fires, fence posts, and other needs. This caused people to enter public forests, putting themselves at risk of running into wild elephants.

The idea of trying to find a third roti for problems really resonated as an approach to creative solutions.

Training the Mind

 

IMG_0520Left to its own devices, the mind is like Indian traffic: chaotic, noisy, slow-moving, relentless, and brimming with latent rage. Meditation is a tool to help unsnarl the traffic jams so that one can observe the mind as something other than indecipherable chaos.

 

Meditation isn’t the end game. If one goes to the gym daily to lift weights, but one has no interest in–or use for–putting one’s muscles to practical use, one is engaging in an act of vanity more than one of personal development. In the same way, if one builds one’s awareness of the mind, and doesn’t use it for betterment in one’s daily life, what is the point? What do I mean by betterment? I mean defeating the petty elements of one’s nature that cause oneself and others suffering and that keep one living in a world of delusion.

 

Meditation trains one to take note of the daydreams and obsessive thoughts that run through one’s mind, and to do so progressively sooner—before they can coalesce into a full-blown avalanche of negativity and delusion. In meditation, we observe these errant thoughts and then let them float on down the river. As one lives one’s waking life, however, one may take time to consider what these thoughts and daydreams are doing for one. Often one can remain ignorant of the purposes these thoughts serve, realizing only that they make one feel better temporarily.

 

A few of the purposes that these errant thoughts may serve are:

martyrdom (i.e. thinking the world is against one so whatever goes wrong is the result of outside forces)

-ego-boosting (imaging one has the confidence to do something one doesn’t in reality)

-empowerment (fantasizing one has power in the face of feelings of powerlessness)

-wishful thinking (imagining a perfect life just a PowerBall ticket away)

 

So, if these thoughts make one feel better, why shouldn’t one let them fly? For one thing, they keep one from seeing the situation as it is. The fantasy or obsessive thought becomes one’s reality and one remains ignorant of what is real. The problem is that if one wants to fix the problem, one must know what it is (i.e. have a true view of it.) If one imagines that one has no role in the problem, then how can one fix the problem? If the problem is one’s unhappiness, one can always do something—even if one can’t change the external situation.  One’s unhappiness is a function of one’s mind, and is, therefore, under one’s control.

 

Second, by giving into obsessive thoughts and fantasies, one becomes dependent upon them as crutches, and becomes stuck in a cycle of helplessness.

 

Third, when one removes oneself from the problem, one denies one’s power to change the situation—or the emotional result. One makes oneself vulnerable to manipulation. If one doesn’t recognize the ability of another person to “make one mad,” one denies them that power. (But this requires accepting that one has a responsibility for one’s emotional state, a sometimes uncomfortable proposition.)

 

I have a theory that the steadfast pursuit of an enlightened mind will either result in enlightenment or insanity. Why should it result in insanity? Because, the process involves stripping away the coping mechanisms that got one through each day. If one has the internal confidence (i.e. fudōshin, or immovable spirit) to stare in the mirror and see one’s flaws and weaknesses, one may achieve an enlightened state. If one lacks such confidence, seeing those flaws and weaknesses may be depressing. Of course, fudōshin  is just one side of the coin, it also matters whether one has the relative freedom from stress to lead an introspective life or whether one feels the constant pressure that propels most people back into old habits. It’s easier to make positive changes when one’s life radically changes, then the power of routine and habit lose hold.

 

The challenge is that the pursuit of an enlightened state of mind is a constant job. Some branches of Buddhism and other mystic religions suggest that enlightenment is a tipping point, and that once one achieves that state one is forever enlightened. I’m not in a position to refute such beliefs, but it seems that it’s more like being a sober AA member–there is an ever-present potential to revert to old habits of the mind. So, one must be ever vigilant. There’s no rest until one is dead… as far as I know.

BOOK CHAT: Walking by H.D. Thoreau

WalkingWalking by Henry David Thoreau

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Thoreau paints a portrait of walking in such grandiose terms that one will cease to think of putting one foot in front of the other as one of life’s mundane tasks. He’s not talking about just any walking, however. He’s not talking about the mall walkers who briskly exercise in temples of consumerism. He’s not talking about those who walk through the park with top 40 hits blaring from their iPod ear buds.

Thoreau is talking about those individuals he calls saunterers. To saunter, as to stroll, is to walk in a leisurely and aimless fashion. Thoreau’s walking is that which:
-takes place in nature.
-leaves worldly worries behind.
-is not a trivial time commitment.
-is more an exercise of the mind and spirit than of the body.

To the mall walker, Thoreau would point out the error of a missed opportunity to get away from mankind’s chaos and enjoy nature. As he puts it, “The most alive is the wildest.” and “…all good things are wild and free.” He’s also clear in that walking for exercise misses the point by injecting hurriedness into a time that should be about slowing down.

On those with iPods, cellphones, or other contrivances that distract one from the environs, Thoreau is equally clear, “What business have I in the woods if I am thinking of something outside the woods?”

Thoreau’s essay broadens as it progresses. From a commentary on the virtues of sauntering, the essay turns to the glories of nature, the character of America, and the state of thought in his contemporary society. These may seem like unrelated concepts, but there is a string of logic that connects them.

The connection to nature and the virtue of wildness should be clear. It’s nature that is the optimal backdrop of sauntering. It’s in nature that one can be set free from the troubles of the world of man and obtain a glimpse of god. It’s in nature where creativity breeds with chaos turned down and native brilliance turned up.

Thoreau’s discussion of America is tied to the theme of walking in a couple of ways. The first is as a land made for walkers. For example, he points out that a man could pitch a tent almost anywhere in North America without great risk of becoming a meal. The same couldn’t be said of India or Africa or Siberia, where man isn’t the sole predatory creature. The second is America as a place with room to venture out into uncharted territory. Thoreau points out that we may look to the East for the lessons of our predecessors, but a person should look West for opportunities to grow in one’s own right. Of course, Thoreau’s America was different from today’s America.

The end of the essay broadens out even further. Thoreau comments upon mankind and the state of ideas and thought. He echoes Socrates when he talks about that age-old question of whether it’s better to be ignorant (to know one knows little) or deluded (to think one knows a lot, but be drowning in false knowledge.) A reader may suggest that this is a false dichotomy. Why can’t one know most everything and not have a one’s body of knowledge rife with false knowledge? I can’t say, but all of the evidence suggests that if such a state exists, it’s the domain of God or gods (if such entities exist.)

Thoreau also bemoans what he sees as the decline of thinking man. What does this have to do with walking? I think Thoreau answers in the following quote:
“So it would seem few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste—sold to feed unnecessary fires of ambition, or sent to mill—and there is scarcely a twig left for them to perch on.”

I think that everyone should read this thin book–really an essay and not a full-scale book. The problems Thoreau notes have only gotten worse in our modern age. Far too few take the time to walk, and to acquire the benefits of sauntering.

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9 Nights at an Ashram

Taken October 20, 2013 at Fireflies Ashram.

Taken October 20, 2013 at Fireflies Ashram.

Indian cities don’t whisper. They are often lovely, always lively, but offer little relief from bombardment of the senses. Horns are relentless. Bus and truck air-horns can make a person jump from one’s skin. The smells may be pleasing or putrid, but they’re never faint. There is sign pollution, wherein it’s often impossible to find what one is looking for in the sea of signage–even when it lies right in front of one’s face. Colors pop and glow, not smooth pastels, but oranges and purples that you can practically taste.

It shouldn’t have surprised me when I got to the southern edge of the city to find one of the major land uses was Ashrams. Ashrams in all shapes and sizes, from the small but authentic Narayana Gurukula (mentioned a few DAILY PHOTO installments back) to the massive Art of Living International Center–headed by Bangalore’s most famous guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Out Kanakapura Road, where monkeys sling through trees and fields of corn remind me of my own Hoosier upbringing, lies a diverse collection of houses of spirituality and reflection. They offer a much-needed island of tranquility amid a sea of chaos.

I stayed for nine nights at one of the most singular of these ashrams, Fireflies. One way in which it’s unique is that it’s a “guruless” ashram. That may seem oxymoronic. The terms “guru” and “ashram” seem to go hand in hand. Guru means teacher. My dictionary defines ashram as, “the home of a small community of Hindus.” [I think this definition could be challenged both on the necessity of “smallness” and “Hindu-ness.” As indicated, there are some pretty massive ashrams and there are ones that are associated with non-aligned spiritual groups.] It’s true that the typical ashram has a spiritual leader or yogi as its head. At Fireflies the gurus come and go with the groups that visit. While I was there, besides our group of Thai Yoga Bodywork practitioners, there was a group of psychotherapists and an organization of past life regressionists. Rather than housing a single unified set of beliefs, at this ashram a diverse and sometimes conflicting set of beliefs are harmoniously housed.

As I have little experience with ashrams, I can’t speak authoritatively about other differences. However, it’s my understanding that one other difference between Fireflies and many–more typical–ashrams is that the latter often have limited or non-existent staff. This means that the visitors may do much, if not the bulk, of the work. Fireflies has a staff that does the cooking and takes care of many needs of the visitors. This isn’t to suggest that it’s like a hotel stay. There’s somewhat of an expectation that visitors will take care of the things that they can do for themselves, and the accommodations are basic.

I found the experience of my stay to be beneficial, if not always stress-free. The main source of my stress had little to do with the Ashram. I received my phone sim card right before I left. After a couple of days I got my phone working for a day or two only to have the phone company turn it off because no one was home when they randomly dropped by to verify my address. [Showing up unannounced in the middle of the day and then treating you as non-existent if no one is home is one of the annoying little hallmarks of Indian institutions (corporate and government) that I’ve experienced on more than one occasion.] I will admit that it is a mark of both society’s and my own wussification that we can’t go a few days without being in contact with home and news of the world. Twenty years ago no one would have expected to have such constant verification that all was well in the world. People could go days back then without worrying that the sky was falling. While it wasn’t pleasant to be cut off, it was an eye-opening experience. [I will note that the Ashram property is on a slope and at the low end I got no reception at all, but on the high end I’d get a bar or two–enough to do the job if the phone company wasn’t screwing me over.]

It was also useful to go without brain candy for a while–that is without television and related entertainment. Part of what I hoped to learn from my stay was whether I was prepared to take the 10-day Vipassana meditation course in the spring. The Vipassana course is considerably more spartan level of existence than that of Fireflies.

On some levels, I proved ready, and on others I have yet to do so. I did just fine eating two vegetarian meals and a snack for dinner each day. (I could have had three full meals per day, but I wanted to make sure I was ready to cut my intake adequately. Therefore, I stuck with a snack in the evening and ate reasonable portions for breakfast and lunch.) I found the meals at Fireflies to be quite good, and I had no complaints in that regard. It should be noted that the ashram is not an easy walk to any restaurants or substantial stores (there are a couple small shops up on the corner, but they’re geared toward locals and don’t necessarily have what a traveler needs) so it’s not easy to go out for something–though I did see one auto-rickshaw around the premises at times.

The true test of preparation for the Vipassana course is that there are no books or notebooks allowed. This will be my greatest challenge. I finished two novels and two nonfiction books on Kindle during my stay, plus probably another 100 pages of other books, and I filled 2/3rds of a journal–mostly with notes from the TYB workshop.

Also, at the Vipassana meditation course one is not allowed to speak to anyone but the instructor at a specific time when they take questions about the course. I wasn’t nearly so cut off from humanity at Fireflies. The workshop participants and teachers were around all day and I had occasional conversations in the evening with others at the ashram. Furthermore, I’m a fairly solitary creature.

It was interesting that during the weekends there were so many people around, but during the middle of the week there were few. For a while I thought I was the only non-staff member person at the ashram—though I later found that to be incorrect.

So my time at the ashram was Spartan, but that’s part of the beauty of it.

I should point out that there are some impressive stone carvings located throughout the property. The artists are international in scope. Each of these carvings or sculptures offers its own story. I’ll attach a few pics for your edification.

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BOOK REVIEW: Know Your Mind by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Know Your MindKnow Your Mind by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is an Indian guru headquartered in Bangalore, India. In addition to his work as a spiritual leader, he heads up an organization called the “The Art of Living,” which has both a philanthropic mission and a role in spreading knowledge of yoga. Among his most important accomplishments is the development of a breathing technique for helping to attain greater emotional well-being. However, he may be most broadly known for occasional appearances on television programs such as those of CNN International.

The slim volume K(no)w Your Mind contains a series of short chapters, many of which are partly in Q&A form–coming from talks he has given internationally. The common theme of these discourses are how one can understand one’s mind and learn to live in a way that maximizes happiness.

Sri Sri’s approach is quite mainstream when compared to more controversial gurus such as the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (i.e. Osho.) There is little that would raise hackles of most people. It proposes nothing magical–though Shankar supports belief in some, broadly defined and mystical, deity. His approach doesn’t rely on said deity. The book is essentially just about training the mind to look at the world in a different way.

One example that the author uses in various permutations is that people dwell on the negative. As he says, “When you are healthy, you never ask the question, ‘Why am I healthy?’When you are sick you say, ‘Oh, why am I sick?'” Similarly he mentions that, if someone tells us they like us we don’t question it, but if they tell us they hate us, then we do.

When asked how to avoid stress, he states flatly that one shouldn’t avoid it, but rather learn hope to cope with it more effectively.

On the positive side, the book conveys a lot of good information in a highly readable format. Shankar explains the mind with humor and occasionally with a parable or narrative to help make the lessons more memorable.

However, if one is looking for a systematic approach, one won’t so much find that here. It’s clear that this is a series of snippets from talks combined together. If that’s what you’re expecting, then it shouldn’t be a problem. However, if one is expecting a step-by-step guide, this book may not suit one. Occasionally it’s helpful if on has some yoga terminology in one’s head like samadhi or pranayama, but context should make the meaning clear.

I’d recommend it for someone looking for food-for-thought on bite-sized pieces on issues like memory, emotion, and mindfulness.

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Picture Your Unhappiness in its Underwear

I was writing some six-words on Smith Magazine the other day. I do this now and again as an exercise to get the creative juices flowing. There are a series of themes, and I try to write in as many of them as I can in less than 20 minutes, writing in a free form, stream of consciousness style.

When I got to the category HAPPINESS the first six-word to jump to mind was: “Picture your unhappiness in its underwear.” This one drew a nice response, which began me thinking about whether this advice might have actual merit–as opposed to being a non-nonsensical statement that might at best function as a Zen koan.

As I thought about it, three legs of the stool came to mind.

1.) Have a sense of humor. Anger and sadness have a hard time taking hold if one can manage a good laugh. I’ve found that being able to dance personal tragedy into comedy has been a great coping mechanism. One does have to be conscientious about not becoming a snarky person. One risks beginning to see the world through a crap-colored lens just as a means to comic fodder (or from a martyrdom complex.)

Perhaps even if one can’t formulate humor, one can still use laughter. There’s a system called laughter yoga that is based on the belief that you can create the same range of physiological responses from “forced” laughter as one does from spontaneous laughter. It’s a sort of chuckle pranayama (breathing exercises.)  While I don’t know much about the system, I can believe that it has merit based on what I’ve read about human emotions.

2.) Lay the source of your unhappiness bare. This sounds simple enough. One must know what is making one unhappy in order to turn that frown up-side-down.

That being said, human beings have an astounding ability to attribute all negative happenings in their lives to external factors. Like politicians, we like to take responsibility for what is going right (regardless of whether we are responsible or not), and we love to place the blame for failure firmly elsewhere (even it it’s mostly our fault.) This may be an evolutionarily-hardwired coping mechanism, but it can keep one in the doldrums.  If one continually says, “He makes me so mad” or even, “His actions make me so mad,” then you’re forfeiting control over your emotional state. Jerks and bitches might be an intermediary cause of unhappiness, but ultimately one’s own perceptions and responses lead to the negative emotional state.

This is where the hard work of mind training comes into play. Instead of being swamped by negative thoughts, one has to recognize them early, find the root cause, and recognize that our desire to for things to be a certain way is ultimately what makes us unhappy. We may want people to think we are smart or beautiful, and intimations to the contrary (whether intended or not) make us fume.

Don't be an angry monkey!

Don’t be an angry monkey!

One of the few things I remember explicitly learning in high school was about what our psychology teacher called a “gestalt of expectations.” Like most ideas one remembers though only taught once, I remember it because it had a memorable story attached to it. The story goes like this: “A man is driving through the desert in the American southwest. Now, out in the southwest, gas stations can be few and far between. So the man runs out of gas, and realizes that the station he passed 20 miles back is his safest bet because–contrary to what he had thought– the next one going forward might be another 50 miles.  So he starts walking. It’s hot. He’s hungry. He’s thirsty, and only has some lukewarm water that’s getting hotter by the minute. The backs of his hands and his face are getting sunburned. He starts thinking about how the little two-pump gas station is going to gouge him. He realizes he’s desperate, and so he figures the attendant is probably going to sell him gas at $6 a gallon, a bottle of cold water for $8, and don’t forget the jerrycan at $20.  These thoughts and the heat keep making him madder and madder. Finally, he gets to the station, and the attendant comes out and say, ‘Oh my, Mister, you must have had a horrible time.’ And so the man on the verge of heat-stroke punches out the attendant, a kid who only wanted to help him out.” Once one starts attributing one’s unhappiness to external sources, one can easily mis-attribute unhappiness because one thinks one knows what is in the minds of others, when really one doesn’t.

3.) Unhappiness, like standing around in one’s underwear, is–at most–a temporary state. As Taoists have been known to suggest, one’s darkest hour is a time to rejoice, for surely it will  get better from there. The only way one can remain in a perpetually unhappy state is to carry it with one long past its time. Just like the only way that can always be rained on is if one carries around a complicated mechanism with a showerhead and tank and keeps refilling that tank so that the shower never runs out. Otherwise, the dry season will come eventually.