Doi Suthep- Part II: The Meditation Game

Trip Start Dec 29, 2007
1
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Trip End Mar 10, 2008


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Flag of Thailand  ,
Friday, January 25, 2008

During my first two weeks at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, I spend somewhere between six and seven hours a day practicing meditation.  Teacher starts me off with fifteen-minute intervals of both walking and sitting.  I do these sessions back to back, take breaks as needed, and then repeat until it's time to go to bed.  Every other day, he increases my time by five minutes until eventually I'm walking for fifty minutes and then sitting for fifty minutes.

The myth of meditation is that it's relaxing.  Those brochures that show people smiling serenely while sitting in the lotus position are pure propaganda.  From all outward appearances, sure, it  certainly seems tranquil- the upright yet relaxed position, the trance-like state, the upward-facing palms.  And while there are certainly peaceful moments, they are the exception in the beginning of meditation practice, not the norm.

Because meditation isn't a way to relax or to escape.  The purpose is to retrain your mind to focus its awareness on the present moment as it is currently unfolding instead of drawing on the past or future to determine its bearing.  That means opening up to everything you are experiencing, whether it be pleasurable or painful.  So in meditating, you focus on something simple and natural, like breathing or mindful movement, and then when the mind naturally wanders into thoughts, feelings, images, or sensations, you gently nudge it back toward mindfulness.

The problem is that your mind wants absolutely nothing to do with this nonsense.  It's been doing just fine without mindfulness, thank you very much, and it's quite content thinking about what you're having for lunch, delving into sexual fantasy, or replaying scenes from "The Mummy", which you've probably watched at least 100 times on TNT.

So the mind declares war on meditation  And trust me...it does not fight fair.

It will throw everything and the kitchen sink at you.  It will bite, scratch, claw, poke, and prod you.  It will give you wet willies, kick your shins, step on your toes, and do anything else it needs to maintain the status quo.  It will play possum and cry uncle to let you think you've won, until you turn around and walk away, and then it gets up and slaps you upside the back of your head.

It starts with a few warning shots, just to let you know it's serious, giving you praise for breathing correctly ("Good job!  Oh, wait....that's thinking.") or chastising you for your lower back pain ("You know, if we were in better shape, this wouldn't be so painful.").  If you continue on, it starts firing pellets, targeting your ears and making you aware of every sound bombarding your body, from the fly that buzzes by to the annoying nose whistle of your neighboring meditator.

Keep going, and your mind gets serious, reaching back into its bottomless archive and bringing up long-forgotten images.  You thought you had forgotten when, in the 5th grade, you were playing Spin the Bottle behind Bryant Woods Elementary School, and when it was Lisa Hepburn's turn and the bottle pointed to you, she refused to kiss you, but had NO problem kissing Blake Sibley.  Oh yeah....that's fair game now.

If you try to keep focused and move forward, the mind breaks out the heavy artillery.  Fear.  And not the little stuff, like fear of spiders.  The fears you've had since childhood.  The really primal stuff.  Like that recurring dream you had when you were a kid when you got this feeling in your gut of complete helplessness and vulnerability that you couldn't get away from.  Or your fear that your life is just not playing out the way it's supposed to.

And just to make sure the last shred of meditative intent has been obliterated, your mind lays on you the biggest possible pile-driver imaginable.  The mother of all nuclear mindfuck warfare that leaves you sweating, shaking, and paralyzed.

YOU ARE GOING TO FAIL!  YOU WILL NEVER, EVER GET THIS.  BECAUSE YOU'RE JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH AND THERE IS SOMETHING FUNDAMENTALLY WRONG WITH YOU.

Whew....

So, how do you win a war like this when, as a novice meditator, all you have is a slingshot and a couple of pebbles.  That may have worked for David, but this Goliath thinks you're giving him a nice hot stone massage.  Well, friends, the only way to win is by doing one thing.

Stop fighting and make it a game.

Because you can't win the fight.  Your mind is just goading you.  It wants you to fight back.  It gets off on generating that internal battle between focus and distraction.

So you throw down your arms, stop taking it so seriously, and start embracing your whole self in a compassionate state of complete acceptance.  Every flaw, every stumble, every distraction is now just a sign of your imperfect self, and you just have to smile.  You stop judging yourself and stop expecting "something" to happen and realize that something IS happening.  By opening your heart and mind, by setting aside your attachment to a certain outcome, you're discovering who you really are.  You're human.  As Teacher says, "Anger...worry...sadness....it's OK!"

So you play the game, almost like a mental "Hide and Seek".  And when Fear comes around again and tries to hide behind the tree, you say softly, "I see you!"  You can even lean into that fear a little bit, knowing that it's just a feeling, just a thought, and not the truth.

Even after Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bo Tree, he still received regular visits from Mara, The Evil One, bringer of Anger, Greed, and Delusion.  So what did He do?  Buddha invited Mara to come in, sit down, and have tea with him.  He acknowledged fear as a constant state of human existence, as a natural part of our cycle of suffering, but he refused to be touched by it.  Which is what made him fearless.

Meditation is different now.  Sometimes it's pleasurable and sometimes it's painful.  It can be scary or amusing, exhausting or exhilarating, frustrating or liberating.  But then I remember that it's my game.  And if I want, I can make it fun.

Coming Soon: Part III- Being Hungry
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Comments

londonwanderer
londonwanderer on

Steve, congratulations on such an evocative and, IMHO, accurate description of vipassana meditation at the IBC. So much in fact that we're going to add a summary and a link to it on the IBC website (that is of course if you sanction it)... btw I'm the volunteer web dev for the IBC after completing the 21 day course there a couple of months ago.

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