My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. III [Meditation]

This is the third installment in a series of posts on my study of altered states of consciousness. The January and February posts described my experiences with psilocybin mushroom tea and a sensory deprivation float tank, respectively.

This month (March) I’ve stepped up my meditation practice to at least an hour per day, every day of the week. (As opposed to a couple of one hour sessions as well as a couple of shorter sessions per week.) Meditation might seem tame in comparison to the previous practices (and some to come.) However, if one can quiet the mind, one experiences some of the same phenomena as are had during more dramatic practices, as well as other events that are too subtle to notice in other states. It’s easy to get more excited about practices that dial an experience up to eleven than ones that require one to listen carefully and patiently, but that’s a mistake.

Immediately after I completed the Vipassana ten-day course, I maintained a practice of this intensity for a brief period of time (as is the recommendation) before it became a bit cumbersome.  (My discussion of the Vipassana course can be found here.) For readers unfamiliar with the practice, Vipassana practice uses bodily sensations as an anchor for the mind. One repeatedly scans the body, observing any sensations that one feels along the way without judgement. It’s technically a Theravadan Buddhist practice, but is taught in a secular way. By “anchor” I mean some “object” that the awareness can be directed toward so as to make it more readily apparent when one’s mind wanders and easier to bring it back because there is something to direct the attention. Besides bodily sensation, some of the common anchors include: breath, mantra, visualizations, or external objects.

This doesn’t mean that every meditative practice requires an anchor, and the practice I’ve been using this month (by-and-large) did not.  I use an anchor (most often breath awareness) to achieve stillness of mind, but then switch to observation of what thoughts or imagery pop to mind. One might call this an anchorless meta-cognitive meditation. One just watches the mind, becoming witness to whatever arises, noting it, letting it move on, and resuming the watch. For yoga practitioners, this equates to the early stages of antar mouna, through and including chidakasha (watching subconscious imagery pop up.)

One notices many things about how the mind operates during meditation. The coarsest way of differentiating what I find arises in meditation is the distinction between conscious thoughts versus the subconscious imagery. Typically, I don’t observe the latter until the former have subsided. Conscious thoughts are often verbal as well as visual, but the subconscious matter is virtually all imagery.

One also realizes the crucial role played by memory. Often what I see is a memory residue of an image that arose. I’ve become very aware of essential memory is in our human style of consciousness. While in meditation one wants to reduce or eliminate the mental activities that come in tow with memory (i.e. analysis, making connections, elaboration, etc.,) one can’t help but notice how central such activities are to language and other learning that make us uniquely human.  Then there is recognition of the limits of memory. Just as one sometimes has an inkling of the substance of a dream, but can’t pull front and center in one’s mind, there is often the inkling of an image — gone before it registers.

If one is wondering why pick a one hour practice, it’s in part about the maximum my body is capable without needing a break to move lymph about and restore blood circulation to normal. During the Vipassana course, one has about ten hours a day of scheduled meditation, but I still needed a walk at least every hour or so. As for why not do smaller time chunks, I’ve found that I experience some phenomena past a half hour that I don’t recall experiencing in shorter practices. It takes some time to relax to a point at which one’s conscious mind stops trying to make plans or otherwise go off on tangents. Feelings of euphoria, oneness, and ease of mental quietness tend to come beyond a half of an hour for me — when they come.

I was disabused of any notions that a daily meditative practice over such a short period would lead to heightened mental clarity and emotional control. I’ve done 26 days out of 31 as of this writing, and have been as wild-minded as ever, and certainly more than the preceding months. I can’t say that this has anything to do with meditation one way or another. Perhaps, I’d have been even worse, given the nature of life’s ups and downs, if I hadn’t been practicing as such — but, of course, I can’t make such a claim — not meaningfully.

That said, I think I’ve made some interesting observations about how my mind works and what its limits are. I can’t say I experienced any wild mental phenomena, not of the nature I experienced during the long meditative days of the Vipassana course. However, I have been able to observe some fine detail about the sensation of shifting into a hypnogogic state, and other curious experiences that interest me. Subtle shifts of mind states have been a major point of curiosity for me. 

Next month, I’ll be attending a workshop on hypnosis, and the next post will be on hypnotic trance states.

2019: A Year Finding Out How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt I [The Mushroom]

For the past five years, since I moved to India, I’ve been studying what my mind is and what it’s capable of. I’ve used tried and true methods, including: yogic dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) techniques, Vipassana meditation,  dream yoga/ lucid dreaming [albeit, with limited success,] and the practice of self-hypnosis.

In 2019, while continuing the trend, I’m going to get into the weeds and see how strange the mind gets. I was originally going to entitle this “My Year of Exploring Varieties of Conscious Experience,” but that sounded punishingly boring. The current title may come off as frivolous, but I hope is more intriguing as well.

The year has begun, and so has my year of exploration. January was the month in which I first experienced psilocybe cubensis — what the kids call “magic mushroom” or “shrooms.” I should point out that — besides alcohol and caffeine — this was my first experience with any mind or mood altering substance. [With the exception of one afternoon thirty years ago when I was prescribed Tylenol with Codeine after having all four wisdom teeth pulled — an event that probably remains the most bizarre mental experience of my life.]

I’d like to be able to say that I’m the type who boldly tries out new things with derring-do, but those who know me know I’m the kind who reads hundreds of pages of research and commentary and then cautiously dips a toe into the waters. Among the extensive pre-experience reading I did was Michael Pollan’s excellent book, How to Change Your Mind and a study finding psilocybin mushrooms to be the safest of the mind and mood altering substances. (Yes, that includes being much safer than alcohol — a finding, the veracity of which, I have not a doubt. Those curious about this topic are encouraged to see Drugs without the Hot Air by David Nutt, which delves into how society’s approach to such substances can be absurd and without merit in logic. Nutt was famously fired from a government position in Britain for openly stating that alcohol and nicotine are both considerably more dangerous /damaging than a number of prohibited substances)

What was my experience like? Strange and fascinating. However, even at the time, I found myself wondering whether I was cursed with knowledge. How much did all that reading and research influence my experience for the good, the bad, or the indifferent? I don’t know, perhaps a lot, but maybe not at all. I’ll give some examples. One of the early and persistent effects was seeing the world overwritten in prismatic geometric forms. The closest I could describe this is to imagine the shapes seen in jaali — the latticed windows seen in Indo-Islamic architecture — but with a repeating “echo” of lines and a kind of rainbow prismatic effect.

Jaali

I suspect this is a neuro-chemical effect of the substance on one’s brain, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether my experience was trained by having read Aldous Huxley’s descriptions of “sacred geometries” during his own experience. (Of course, it also makes me wonder what Indo-Islamic craftsmen and architects might have been taking.)

As I mentioned, I could see where prior knowledge could have both positive and negative influences on the experience. I’ll start with an example of a possible positive effect of prior knowledge. One thing the reader needs to understand is that the physicist’s conception that things at rest will stay at rest and things in motion will stay in motion doesn’t hold in the mental world of psilocybin — everything goes into motion. It could be the breathing letters of a word on the page or the gentle writhing of a house plant, but not much just sits there. As I stared up at the ceiling, the staples that held the cable to the ceiling fan in place became blocky ants on the march, and soon any dot anywhere became an ant on the move. Now, I can imagine how this might stir in some people a “bad trip,” freaking out about the infestation. However, my mind always somehow recognized that the animation of those still objects was in my brain and not in the room. I was trained to think of these experiences as the effect of a serotonin mimic going hog-wild inside my brain, and I never thought that maybe I’d kicked open Huxley’s famed “Doors of Perception” and something real was now on display to me that I couldn’t ordinarily see. [Though I can’t eliminate that possibility.]

However, I also must wonder whether I might have had a grand breakthrough or experience of enlightenment (probably little-e) — as many claim to have had — if my experience wasn’t so grounded. I scribbled about seven and a half pages while I was “tripping,” and I was very curious about whether it would be gibberish or pure illumination. It was neither. About half my sentences broke off about 2/3rds of the way through, but those that I could make out were not wide the mark of my day-to-day philosophy. It reflected the diminished self and euphoria of the experience (which I’ve  also experienced in meditation), but wasn’t otherworldly. I will say, my psilocybin self was a wee bit bolder, realizing that — like a dog chasing its tail — if I ever captured the understanding I seek, the fun would be blanched from life. The closest thing to a revelation was that I needed to embrace my ignorance — a conclusion my sober self had already come to acceptance of in its bolder moments.

What are my recommendations if you plan to partake of a cup of mushroom tea? Make sure your environment is not overstimulating. Make sure there is nothing fear or anxiety inducing in the area (perhaps including knowing the legal status where you are.) Have a calm state of mind. Realize that for about 30 for 45 minutes you will think the tea had no effect upon you and the strangeness will come on gradually. Some people say you should have someone around. I don’t know that I’d say it’s necessary, (unless you have anxiety issues and then you might not want to partake without seeking medical advice)  but if you do make sure it’s not someone who gets on your nerves.

So what is next? February will be the month in which I try out a sensory deprivation float tank. In yoga, one of the legs of practice is pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses.) I’m fascinated to see what effect the body temperature Epsom salt water has — if any — over and above closed-eye meditation in a dim room.

My tentative schedule is:

January  —  Mushroom — check

February — Sensory Deprivation Float Tank

March — 30 days of hour-long meditations

April — Hypnosis (attending an intensive workshop)

May — EEG feedback meditation

June — Tummo / Wim Hof Method / Holotropic Breathwork

July — extensive Yogic dharana  and dhyana practice

August —  resumption of dream yoga / lucid dreaming practices

September — periodic fasting (and, maybe, controlled sleep deprivation)

October — Biofeedback pranayama (breathing exercises)

November — Poetry of the Subconscious Mind

December  — mixed practices, putting it all together

I plan to keep up documentation of my practice, and hope you’ll follow along when I post something. I’m also interested to hear about the experiences of others regarding these and other consciousness related practices. I don’t know how strange it’ll get, but things might get pretty weird.

BOOK REVIEW: The Discourse Summaries by S.N. Goenka

Discourse SummariesDiscourse Summaries by S.N. Goenka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

I began reading the summaries before I attended the Vipassana meditation 10-day course. While most of one’s days are spent in meditation, each evening they play video-taped discourses by S.N. Goenka, with each running for an hour to an hour-and-a-half. As the title suggests, this book consists of edited transcripts of those talks. As the course is known for being challenging (approximately 10 hours/day in meditation, noble silence [no talking–or even acknowledging–anyone but the teacher and staff], and no distractions [no phones, no books, no journals, no i-Pods, etc.]), reading the discourses was a way to mentally prepare for the course. (Though I’d already read a book call “Equanimous Mind” by an individual who’d completed the course.)

Let me provide background for those unfamiliar with Vipassana meditation. It’s nominally a Theravadan Buddhist practice, but its religiosity is stripped to a minimum and it’s presented in a largely secular manner. That doesn’t mean that a scientifically-minded skeptic such as myself isn’t occasionally left scratching his head and thinking “that’s not right.” However, it’s repeatedly emphasized that one should take what is of value to oneself and leave the rest behind, and so while there are a few notions mentioned during the discourses that aren’t supported by evidence, one needn’t believe anything controversial to benefit from the practice. (e.g. Karma and reincarnation are mentioned, but if one doesn’t believe those are likely realities, it doesn’t change the effectiveness of the meditation.)

Moving on, Theravadan Buddhism is the branch that is most commonly practiced in Southeast Asia. (It’s sometimes called Hinayana, but—as I learned during a discourse—that’s considered a derogatory term by many Theravadans. “Hinayana” means “lesser vehicle” in contrast to Mahayana’s “greater vehicle,” and the implication is that it’s a path by which only a more select group can achieve enlightenment. One can readily see why this would be objectionable to Vipassana practitioners as they emphasize that the practice is available to everybody [one need not even identify as Buddhist] and that the practice is the heart of the path to enlightenment.) Vipassana meditation involves systematically scanning one’s body for sensations and acknowledging them without attaching positive or negative thoughts and labels to them. The idea is to train oneself to not mindlessly react to sensations, nor to mindlessly attach values to them.

There are eleven discourses, corresponding to the days over which one is at meditation center. However, the new information is mostly in the discourses from days one through nine. The last two discourses consist of a review and a discussion of to how to keep one’s practice going—should one choose to do so.

The discourses present two types of information. On one hand, they provide a primer on Buddhist philosophy regarding the path to enlightenment. For example, Goenka explains the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. The Four Noble Truths describe human suffering, its causes, and the path to moving beyond this suffering. That path brings one to the Eight-fold Path which describes eight areas in which one must properly align one’s approach in order to eliminate said suffering.

On the other hand, the discourses provide information about the meditational practices and the logic that informs them. During the first few days of the course, one focuses on respiration and related sensations over a progressively smaller area around and on the nose. Then, on the fourth day, one gets into the Vipassana practice as mentioned above (scanning the body for sensation), but one practices several variations of this over the last few days of the course. It seems that one practices these different ways both because one becomes capable of more challenging approaches and because not everybody experiences the same types of sensations, and so some methods work better for some types of sensations than others. To give an example, on day one might scan one arm at a time, but then one shifts to scanning both arms simultaneously.

There are no graphics and the only ancillary matter consists of a list of Pali quotations as well as a Pali term glossary. (Pali is the language in which the Buddhist scriptures were originally written.) However, there was really no need for either graphics or notations.

I found these summaries were worth reading even having gone through the course and heard the discourses at the center. For one thing, there’s a good amount of information packed into the lectures. While it’s not hard to understand, there’s a high density of information content. For another, Goenka was a charming and humorous individual, so it’s not boring to watch the taped discourses even if one has previously read them.

I would definitely recommend reading the Discourse Summaries if one is considering taking the Vipassana course.

View all my reviews

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

woman-pointing-at-herself6

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.

 

Out for Meditation

IMG_2445

 

I’m doing the Vipassana Meditation 10-day course starting tomorrow. I’ll be out of contact (and thus not posting) until September 11, 2016.

For those unfamiliar with the course: no phones, no books, no notebooks, no interaction with anyone but the staff and teacher, and no exercise.  If it’s not meditation, it’s probably not allowed.

Wish me luck.

BOOK REVIEW: The Equanimous Mind by Manish Chopra

The Equanimous MindThe Equanimous Mind by Manish Chopra

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Imagine going to a meditation center and living by the following rules:

1. You may not have access to any reading materials.

2. You may not have access to any writing materials.

3. You must leave behind cell phones, tablets, laptops, watches, radios, and other portable electronic devices.

4. While there will be other people around, you are only allowed to talk to your instructor/mentor, and mustn’t acknowledge or interact with others. You will scarcely hear a voice unless you are in meeting with your teacher or listening to the taped lessons in the evening.

5. You will be segregated from the other sex. They will have separate living and meditation spaces.

6. You will eat only the vegetarian meals provided by the center.

7. You will spend your days mostly in meditation—meditation of a rigorously prescribed nature.

8. You have to live by these rules for ten straight days. You are strongly discouraged from attending if you don’t believe yourself capable completing of all ten days.

Could you do it? If your response is, “Sure I can, piece of cake,” you are either an exceptional person or a little deluded. And it’s probably more likely you are like the person who imagines they will be a hero in a bank robbery or mugging, but who ends up catatonically cowering in a puddle of their own piddle. Maybe it shouldn’t be a tough proposition, but it is.

The ten days described are the basic course offered at Vipassana meditation centers around the globe. Except your travel costs, there’s no cost to attend, and you aren’t even allowed to tip the staff–though you can make a donation at the end of the course to assist others. If you happen to be near a center, there’s nothing but will and 10 consecutive days of freedom to keep one from taking the course.

The Equanimous Mind charts Manish Chopra’s personal experience with the course. I bought the book because I intend to attend the course myself, and I craved insight into what the experience is like.

For those who are unfamiliar with Vipassana meditation, it’s nominally a Buddhist method, but practitioners are quick to point out that it’s actually areligious. One need not be Buddhist to attend. One could be a Hindu, a Methodist, or an atheist and get the same value from attendance. Adherents believe that this is the meditation method that Buddha himself taught. For those who thought this sounded awfully cult-like when I described it above, in many ways it’s the antithesis of a cult. There is no central guru to worship. The closest thing to the overarching guru, S.N. Goenka, passed away last year. You don’t have to join a group or swear allegiance. And not only don’t you surrender your life-savings, you don’t have to surrender one, thin dime to have the experience.

Chopra doesn’t write at all about the background of Vipassana, nor much about its philosophy or method. Instead, this book is a retelling of Chopra’s personal experience with the camp. There are many books that deal with those aforementioned topics, and so it’s no loss that this book doesn’t. It does give the reader a first-hand look at what it’s like to live in the camp and what prolonged meditation is like, and thus meets a valuable niche in lending comfort to those who are considering the course–but who are leery of what they will go through.

It’s remarkable that the author had the detailed recollections necessary to construct an entire book. The organization of the book chapters is by day, and so there are ten core chapters. (This is a good way to arrange it as there is apparently some universality to experience day-by-day. Not only are people being taught the same methods, but it seems most people who quit do so on days two or six—indicating many people hit “walls” at the same point.) One will remember that notebooks and writing utensils are prohibited. The last chapter informs the reader that Chopra began frantically outlining the book on his way home. It’s surprising that an entire book sprang from memory. The author does claim that the clarity gained through the course improved his memory.

One can’t help but wonder what the book would have read like if it had been compiled day-by-day as a journal. In other words, how much was the book was framed by the euphoria of just having completed the course? Chopra does mention some low points of the course, but, overall, the picture he paints is rosy. It may be that his experience was just overwhelmingly positive, or he could have been on a high from completing something quite difficult.

Chopra suggests that by the end he had greater mental clarity, decreased vice, increased mental capacity, and was living an idyllic life. I don’t want to sound like I’m treating the account as suspect, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that Chopra is being blatantly dishonest. However, I worry that Chopra might have oversold the course. It almost reads like he’s been imbued with superpowers (mental, not physical–think Professor Xavier, not superman) at the end of the book. (He doesn’t suggest anything magical, but the claims are pretty impressive.) Maybe this is genuinely his experience, but it sounds a little too good to be true.

I’d definitely recommend this book for people who are considering taking the course. I’m not sure it would be of much interest to a more general reader. As I indicated, one isn’t going to learn a lot about the philosophy or history of Vipassana. One does learn a little about the methods from Chopra’s description, but it is fairly cursory. There is a fair amount of mundane information that people interested in the course will love to know (e.g. what kind of food was served and what it’s like to have to sit through one’s body aches), but which will be less than thrilling for someone who has no interest in taking the course.

View all my reviews