Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Start Again

Start Again, S.N. Goenka encouraged us.  I was sitting in a darkened room with 28 other people in a forest retreat center north of Hobart Tasmania. My eyes closed in concentration, breathing deeply, my brain highly engaged in scanning my body for any sensations. I was frustrated and distracted by the shooting pains that radiated from my inner thigh to the to the tips of my toes, which escalated in earnest on Day 4. It was  Vipassna Day, when we moved from concentrating on the area below our noses to the whole body. We were encouraged to sit motionless for two hours, under constant instruction for this pivotal moment in the practice.  This was the beginning of the practice of "Sittings of Strong Determination."
The Wheel of Life, part of the Universal
Law of Dhamma. An image often
associated with the
Vipassana practice. 

On the 5th day, I talked with the teacher about the pains and some of the thoughts that now passed through my mind.   "The sensations are your Sankara Ellen." She reassured me. "Like everything, it will pass."  Miraculously, on the second of 4 meditation sessions each day, it disappeared. It was always an unknown when it would come and go.

On the 8th day, I felt myself breathing through my pelvis and the sensation of my heart beating through my eardrums. I had those glimpses of the miraculous dissolving body, my entire torso vibrating in minuscule rhythms.    I was aligned with a universe that Buddhists have known for centuries. For for Westerners the rigor of a pre-dawn wake-up to the gong, not speaking for 10 days and absolving from food after 5pm is suggested to access the benefits of Vipassana meditation.  I left the retreat center pounds lighter: not worried about the future, lean and disciplined, physically and mentally cleansed.

Not to say that my thoughts stopped. They were not the usual circling tidbits of worry or conjecture that often populate my brain. Instead I was visited by people that I hadn't remembered for a while. Those who died, people I used to know well and now can't find (I tried again through Facebook when I came out) and the characters I have met all along the way.  "This meditation is a really good life skill." I thought to myself, "Something that could be used in prisons very effectively."
The course schedule was rigorous, but grounding. I found it
much easier to make it to the meditation hall at 0530, in the hour
before I would meditate in  my warm sleeping bag
 with my eyes closed
Food was excellent. 

In Tasmania, the country was populated by convict women.  In a ost-course field trip to the Cascades Female Factory, I learned that the convicts, often young women sentenced for petty crimes, were forced to remain silent during their terms.  Higher performing prisoners were parceled out to British leaders' homes as cooks and cleaners.  If, as a result of performing other duties, they became pregnant, they were deemed sinners and forced to return to the prison to give birth. The babies were raised in silence. The 10% who survived their first 5 years of life were completely mute, condemned to a life of asylums.  They never got to really start again.  If the mothers survived their imprisonment, they were often married out to seamen and began populating the country.  Now in Tasmania, 70% of all residents are related to the convicts.

There were times that the Vipassana meditation course felt like a silent prison. I was determined to serve my sentence, finish the course. Partly because I had no where else to go, but also because I wanted to finish and accomplish something tangible.  I was a little sad to break my silence on the 10th day.  I waited until the laughter of my fellow mediators faded and went to the forest.  There, a small group stood in the sunshine and compared notes.  I learned that the creatures I saw hopping around the Center were wallabies, not baby kangaroos.  I found that the the words coming from my mouth felt trite, meaningless. The mental process I had experienced was so deeply personal and individual-- yet also universal-- it was hard to know how to move into the new world.
S.N. Goenka, the teacher who moved the Vipassna meditation
technique from a temple in Burma to international practice.
The course is taught with videos and recordings of his teachings.
A special guy. 

I am now truly starting again. This isn't unfamiliar-- my transitions have typically lept from a stable environment into unknowns.  I think of myself as a bird-like pollinator, moving from place to place.

After I returned from the course, I prepared for my hiking trip along the coast of the Tasman Sea. On the hike, the views stretched out far beyond. The horizon faded to sky. There is an uncharted ocean of new experiences and relationships ahead.  The tool of meditation will be a great salve to cope with the uncertainties of my future: new job, new friends, hopefully new ways of coping with stress and the precarious financial future.

I know, after some experience, that things will always work out.  I am now reassured that there will always be people with whom I share the commitment to sit, with eyes closed, ardently and passionately pursuing the awareness of breath and body. Or a knitting group to join, or writers's workshops and classes.   One always has to be committed to starting again.