In case anybody's noticed, I haven't blogged in several months. This is due mainly to writer's block combined with the effects of a 1-week virus, a month of post nasal drip and a chronic case of Bangkok blahs.
Last Saturday (the 15th) I attended an all-day meditation lead by Jeff Oliver at the Piyadhamma Mediation Centre on Sukhumvit 81. After discovering my blog, Pandit Bhikkhu (the monk who organized the event) asked if I'd blog about my experiences. His request immediately triggered all the writing anxieties that've had me in knots since August.
I'm not sure which is harder, the thought of letting down a monk or attempting yet again to deal with my writing demons. While I'm super grateful for his nudge, I'm still trepidatious about my ability to fulfill the stringent blogging requirements I've imposed on myself. The posts should pour forth from my fingers with no hesitation or editing. They should be funny, informative and unique. Deep down I want to be a world famous blogger like Arianna Huffington with an equally huge and dedicated following in the blogosphere. Talk about daunting goals!
With all those caveats, here goes the blog entry for the 15th.......
My motivation for doing something is usually inversely proportional to the number of people saying how many benefits I'll get from doing it. For years many friends--and three psychics--have touted meditation as a way of de-stressing, feeling physically and mentally better and generally creating more balance in my daily life. Those psychics all "saw" that I'm extremely psychic myself and recommended meditating as the best way to connect with my own inner seer.
With so many documented benefits achievable from just sitting still and observing breath, thoughts, aching back or whatever, you'd think a goal-oriented over achiever like me would want to plonk herself down, cross her legs and embark on a salubrious spiritual journey. Instead, I've opted to remain in the self-destructive but comfortably familiar state of rushing around madly so I can live in every other moment except the present one.
The only serious meditating I ever did was on a 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat in 1990 at Wat Kow Tahm in Koh Phangan. Apart from the occasional private meeting with the teachers, strict silence was maintained throughout. When participants were finally allowed to talk amongst ourselves on day 10, I discovered that all the thoughts I'd secretly nurtured during the previous nine days were mental drivel created by my own hyperactive mind.The guy I just knew was secretly attracted to me wasn't; the one who didn't want to sit near me hadn't even noticed me, the woman who hated me didn't and on and on in a boring self-generated fantasy land.
Since then I've attended several short retreats in Bangkok and plenty of lectures and half-day mini meditations. None have compared in seriousness to the Wat Kow Tahm experience. Every now and then through the years I've embarked on a regimen of regular morning meditation practice, but have never maintained it for long.
From 2003 to 2007, I excused myself from even trying to meditate because both hips were arthritic and increasingly painful. Many caring friends and healers swore that meditation could significantly ease the physical discomfort, or at least my reactions to it. I skillfully managed to ignore all their well-intentioned advice throughout the pain and frustration of two botched hip replacement surgeries in Thailand (2005, 2006) and the two successful hip revisions in Belgium (2007).
During those years I did try less interactive palliatives like acupuncture and Chinese herbs. I also took private Tai Chi lessons and in typical Jennifer fashion managed to transform a potentially mind-quieting activity into a mind-consuming quest for perfection. The acupuncturist/Tai Chi teacher introduced me to Jeff in 2004 and I participated in a couple of afternoon meditations he lead at a temple in Thonburi. From the get go, I appreciated his jargon- and ritual-free approach to Vipassana.
I only heard about Jeff's one-day Saturday meditation on Friday and took it as a karmic sign that a couple of places were still available. Jeff had lived as a Buddhist monk in Burma for eight years and though he's now a layperson, he obviously knows a lot about the complex underpinnings of Vipassana (also called Insight Meditation). He travels regularly to Turkey where he holds secular meditation classes and retreats. Unlike a lot of meditation gurus, he doesn't spend time enumerating the academic aspects of Buddhist philosophy--the causes of suffering, the paths leading to cessation of suffering, defilements, etc.--which I find daunting and ultimately offputting.
Jeff transmits complicated concepts in a nonthreatening manner that encourages me into meditation once again to battle my myriad mental enemies. (Actually I do realize that Vipassana is not about conquering mental obstacles. It's about noticing them, acknowledging them, and watching them disappear in a puff of impermanence....until the next ones turn up a millisecond later.)
The schedule for Saturday posted on www.littlebang.wordpress.com promised equal amounts of theory and practice with a large chunk of time reserved for personal interviews with the participants. The day didn't turn out that way at all--call it the impermanence of schedules--but I had some great "aha" moments nonetheless. (I'm trying hard not to glom onto them because of course they're just as impermanent as everything else.)
At 9 am some 30 people, ranging from meditation newbies to old hands, sat expectantly on mats (or a few of us in chairs) in the nicely appointed and hyper airconditioned meditation hall. Jeff sat in lotus position on the bottom step of the dais and explained that keeping the hips slightly higher than the lower body helps minimize back stress and assorted meditation-related aches and pains.I knew from our previous sessions that Jeff isn't one of those no-pain-no-gain meditation instructors who believe overcoming shooting physical pains is integral to the experience. Pandit Bhikkhu was seated near him on a narrow raised platform that ran along one side of the room.
Jeff talked about focusing on one object, in this case the breath, by numbering each in and out breath from 1 to 5 and then back to 1 again. Then you stop numbering the out breaths, and finally you stop counting altogether. He lead us through a short 5- or 7-minute guided meditation to practice the technique. I know that serious meditators transcend the one-object technique, but I rarely quiet my mind enough to move beyond it.
From there, Jeff moved on to the next stage of insight meditation which involves noticing whatever sensations and thoughts come up while you're trying not to focus on anything except that particular moment. To keep things straight, it helps to label the sensation: "itching, itching, itching," or "aching, aching, aching," or "hearing, hearing, hearing." Once outed, the sensations generally dissipate. Jeff said that labeling an emotion as "frustration" when actually it's "anger" won't fool your watchful consciousness (or was it unconsciousness--I forget) into letting it go. (I thought spending so much mental energy distinguishing "anger" from "frustration" would create more of both, but was too embarrassed to pose the question.)
Next, Jeff guided us through a short meditation to put these theories into practice. I was OK with the naming sensations part, but labeling abstract mental states ("thinking, thinking, thinking," "judging, judging, judging," or "sadness, sadness, sadness,") made me totally "frenetic, frenetic, frenetic." Can an already blocked writer choose the word that best describes her emotional state while simultaneously trying to remain serene and calm?
Jeff finished off each session with a Metta meditation. Metta means sending loving thoughts first to yourself (where all thoughts originate anyhow), then to your family, your friends, enemies, and ultimately to every creature on the planet. There are many versions of Metta and this one is similar to the one he used: "May I be filled with loving-kindness, May I be well, May I be peaceful and at ease, May I be happy." I find it so much easier to think loving thoughts when someone else is reciting them for me.
As the talk-intensive morning wore on, we natives were getting restive. Pandit Bhikkhu left for lunch at 11:30 but Jeff said we'd eat at 12:30. I was looking forward to the lunch break as a relaxing social event, but instead Jeff announced we'd be observing lunch in silence. He described in detail how we'd all walk slowly and mindfully downstairs, serve ourselves small portions of food while deciding the order in which we'd eat the various items. We could start eating only after everyone was served and seated. We should also try to set down our utensils between bites, focus on the food instead of our tablemates and eat each mouthful with mindfulness.
I rarely think about the Wat Kow Tahm retreat, yet suddenly I was transported back 18 years to the island temple where our two morning meals and late afternoon snack assumed paramount importance in my daily routine. I recalled trying not look as gluttonous or excited as I felt while I filled my plate with appropriately genteel portions of the delicious Thai vegetarian fare. Eyes cast downward, I'd try to walk not run to my preferred dining spot on a big rock overlooking the sea. Raising fork to mouth, I'd begin "chewing, chewing," "tasting, tasting," "swallowing, swallowing," "enjoying, enjoying." My internal good little girl voice exerted considerable control over my actions; nonetheless I'd sometimes descend into an unmindful orgy of shoving-chewing-tasting-swallowing.
Every mid afternoon my mind would leap ahead to the copious fruit platters garnished with shredded fresh coconut meat which would be served in a couple of hours. However, on the afternoon of the 7th day, the platters held one small wholewheat bun for each participant. I was horrified and hugely disappointed ("frustration, frustration, frustration"). Of course the snack was purposely orchestrated to illustrate how a dry bun eaten mindfully and with awareness can be as delicious and satisfying as a slice of juicy mango. The bun saga encapsulates many crucial Buddhist concepts--letting go of expectations, living in the moment, acceptance, impermanence.
So here I was last Saturday, once again salivating at the platters of sauteed vegetables, raw salad greens, fresh fruit. I hoped nobody noticed how I heaped too many servings on the small plastic plate. (I learned this skill from years of eating at all-you-can-eat-on-one-plate salad bars). I obsessed about which of the three round tables to sit at and why people I vaguely knew didn't choose to sit with me. Once seated, I kept peeking surreptitiously at my tablemates and endlessly compared our eating speeds, utensil posing skills and supposed oneness with our food. Clearly, I still expend far too much time and mental energy on comparisons and fantasies. Well, at least I'm more aware of my hyperactive mental processes than I was 18 years ago, which hopefully counts as progress. I seek instant karma, whereas the quest for inner peace and serenity demands constant vigilance.
Back in the meditation hall, Jeff guided us through a lying meditation exercise which helped focus our attention on our bodies and his words instead of succumbing to the natural post-prandial desire for a little snooze. He then demonstrated the nuances of walking meditation: how to mindfully lift the foot, move it forward, place it on the ground, shift the weight to the other foot and repeat the process, all the while mentally labeling each movement. We found our various walking "paths" throughout the meditation hall and the adjoining large rooms and began.
The last time I tried walking meditation was at the Thonburi temple with Jeff in 2004. Back then I could barely focus on labeling movements because my right hip hurt so much. This time I could hardly focus on labeling movements because walking felt so fabulous and waves of happiness kept washing over me. Jeff had mentioned that if we found ourselves mechanically chanting "lifting, moving, placing" like a background mantra while a bunch of "thinking, thinking, thinking" was happening in the mental foreground, we should stop moving and refocus. I spent half of the 30 or so minutes standing in one spot and being "joyful, joyful, joyful," "grateful, grateful, grateful" and feeling an overpowering sense of openness, fearlessness and positivity.
After performing those two hip revision surgeries in 2007, the Belgian doctor assured me I could safely sit in lotus position. Nonetheless, I've continued sitting on a chair, terrified that something will screw up again. Now, glowing with positivity after the walking meditation, I returned to the main hall, built myself a raised cushion with several folded mats and followed Jeff's earlier instructions to keep the hips higher than the legs. To my immense surprise and joy, I was able to sit fairly comfortably in that position for the remainder of the afternoon.
I wish Jeff had finished off the day with more meditating and less talking but probably I was too blissed out to have devoted serious attention to either activity anyhow. Without being too "impatient, impatient," or "anticipatory, anticipatory," I await with interest whatever the meditation future holds.