Slouching Towards Nirvana

Start agaaaiin. Start agaaaiin with a caaaalm and quiet miiind. A caaalm and quiet miiind.

Meditation hall
The bass voice on the tape counsels us to take up our meditation posture. Some students, sitting cross-legged on cushions, blue for men on one side of the hall, beige for women on the other, have aligned their vertebrae like upright bolts. Others sit more naturally and let their heads hang. My vertebrae form a giant question mark that has slumped sadly on its side, summoning the thought I can't seem to shake loose: WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING HERE?

Alert and attentive. An alert and attentive miiind.

My mind is alert and attentive, due to the PIERCING PAIN ON MY RIGHT SHOULDER BLADE! I don't know how the others do it. Are they numb? Is our physiology different? Can they somehow dissolve pain with their minds?

Keep your mind focused on the breath, with a caaalm and attentive miiind.

This is only Day 2 of a ten day Vipassana meditation course. One hundred hours of self-induced torture. You may reach the spiritual promised land. But its a long road to travel. And as the joke has it, it may take several lifetimes.

Vipassana is the method used by Gotama 2500 years ago, who after gaining enlightenment beneath a Bodhi tree, went down in history as the founder of Buddhism and the noblest pitchman for incense. In the language of the Buddha, the word „vipassana“ means „to observe“ and this is what we are learning to do to ourselves, detached and objectively. With a caaalm and attentive miiind.


Shri Goenka's voice intones instructions for the course as we take our first breaths on the path to nirvana. About 40 years ago, he set out to revive this form of meditation that had become forgotten in its birthplace, India. Today, the Vipassana organization has established over 50 centers world-wide. The resident courses, run by volunteers, are free of charge, funded solely by donations.


Goenka seems intent on telling us how miserable our lives are. Before coming here I thought my life was going pretty good. Sure, a few ups and downs, Delhi belly, a missed train, but overall I felt that Time and I were as savory together as a samosa in mint sauce. „Misery“ was a Stephen King novel, not a mantra describing life. Not mine, anyway.

But now, on Day 2, misery is too mild a term. Not only is my shoulder blade throbbing excruciatingly, my crossed legs are quickly growing numb. Soon that numbness will morph into an inferno of carnal anguish. And I am only eight minutes into the two hour session.

Meditation teacher in front of the cells

Physical pain, however, is only the beginning of the misery Goenka is talking about.

In this teaching, all misery is caused by our cravings and aversions that remain unfulfilled. The daily vicissitudes of life leave us with desires unmet that cause our emotional self to become unmoored, to flounder, and quite possibly to shipwreck.

And the SV TJONTHEROAD is about to lose its rudder on a reef in the Sea of Agony.

I can't last much longer. I focus my attention on the epicenter of the pain. I know this sensation very well. Standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes as a small boy, I experienced the same discomfort.

But what does the pain actually consist of? I try to dissect it with my mind. Pulsations, throbbings, heat. And, tingling. Sharp pricks, widely spaced. They flare, subside, then flare anew, covering an area the size of a half dollar. I survey the outskirts of the pain. I sense a fainter tingling, like soft pin pricks. But the pain is not diminishing. In fact, it is not only preventing me from reaching nirvana, it is sending me straight to hell!

But I'm not supposed to focus on the pain now. Instead, during these first 30 hours of meditation we sharpen our minds by concentrating on the touch of our breath, entering and leaving our bodies through the nose, on the skin above the upper lip. No words or images, just the touch of the breath. This part of the technique is called anapana.

Of course, I can't control my thoughts completely. My mind wanders. I feel the air cool the inside of my left nostril. The air travels up, then disappears at some unidentifiable point. I feel the warmer exhalation trickle through my nostril and flicker across my upper lip. A second breath takes a similar path, then a third...and in slow-mo I soar sky high, hanging in the rafters, amid retired jerseys, right hand palming a basketball, preparing myself for a tomahawk thunder jam that would put MJ to shame....sweat drips from my chin, a crossover dribble a la AI, my opponent backsteps, stumbles, and I glide through the key for an easy two. The crowd thunders....Back to the breath. I inhale and feel the tickle of air on my skin. A couple more breaths and my mind is off, chattering away. Thoughts on traveling, relationships, food. Like words on a Scrabble board, all linking, intersecting The tomahawk jam is definitely a BINGO.

Little by little I can stay focused a bit longer. Maybe not much longer, but it doesn't matter. Because soon the magic happens: From out of nowhere above the upper lip a tingling sensation arises. With the touch of the breath or focused attention, the buzzing intensifies. This is nothing less than amazing!

How is this possible? Where does this sensation come from? Is the sensation originating on the skin or in my mind? And, does it matter?

But wait! There's more! On Day 4 it gets even curiouser. Instead of focusing our attention on the triangle formed by the upper lip and nostrils, Goenka tells us to observe sensations on the whole body, beginning with a nickel-sized circle at the top of the head.

It may feel like ants craaawling. Ants craaawling.

I am stunned. About 30 minutes beforehand this nickel-sized circle at the top of my head started to buzz like crazy! A tingling beam seemed to cut through my head from the area above my upper lip straight to this circle. If I can figure out how to enhance the visuals, it would be one helluva party trick.

It may not explain the sensation of ants crawling, but this location is, in tantric yogic belief, one of the seven chakras of the body. At birth, no skull bone is present here. And, it is the source of cosmic consciousness.

Cosmic consciousness? I know what you're thinking: No wonder the course is free. Who would pay for this malarkey!

My cell
But wait! There's more! Ever hear the phrase, The universe is talking to you? Before participating in the meditation course, I had experienced a series of events that seemed connected, as if the universal consciousness was speaking to me, informing me of what to do.

A week ago I had met a man by chance who had given me the book, The Power, which supports the idea of a universal consciousness. Then, in the library, lying on the table waiting for me, I found a Deepak Chopra book, which does the same. Finally, at a bus stop, a man walked up to me and asked - hold on to your cosmic hats - Do you know where the Vipassana meditation center is?

If the universe wasn't talking to me, it sure was nudging me in the ribs. I took the hint and signed up for the course.

Whether or not there is a universal consciousness, on Day 4 my seventh chakra was a formicary of ants craaawling, ants craaawling.

From the top of the head down to our toes we proceed to focus our attention, part by part, on the surface of our bodies. What do you feel? Heat? Coolness? Itchiness? In this fashion we continue for the next 6 days. This is the vipassana, or observation, portion of the course.

Observing, with a caaalm and quiet miiind. No matter what sensations you feel, remain perfectly equanimous, perfectly equaaanimous.

By the afternoon of Day 7, the ants have escaped the formicary of the seventh chakra are crawling all over my head and limbs. I focus my attention on my right shoulder. It is tingling pleasantly. I let my attention slide down to my elbow, then to my forearm. Ants crawling all the way. And my hand? Ants stampeding.

But how to explain this tingling? Hang on to your theoretical hats. The sensations I experience on my body - ready for this? - are the manifestations of defilements of the mind, known in Buddhism as sankaras. Sankaras are cravings and aversions we all harbour. We each have a warehouse full of them. They continually rise to the surface of the skin. The habit of the mind is to react to them, to feed them through our actions, multiplying our inventory. Oh, that feeling is so good! I want more! Oh, that sensation is horrible, go away! In this manner, we increase our stock.

But the problem in life is that we cannot control the outside world very well. We cannot always have more of the good, and less of the bad. We are left to weather the emotional storm, our sails filled with the winds of misery.

My chair
Vipassana meditation offers a heading to calmer seas. The main aim of this meditation technique is to teach one to remain equanimous. When the sankaras rise to the surface, through perfect equanimity of mind, by not reacting to them, they will automatically disappear. The winds of misery will shift to breezes of bliss, until nirvana, or „no wind“ prevails. Your emotional self will come to rest motionless on a placid sea.

Or so the theory. But this technique emphasizes the practical side. Don't take any leaps of faith, accept only what you have experienced. One thing is clear: by Day 7 I have experienced enough pain to trade in my meditation cushion for a chair. Still, the chair does not rid me of all the physical pain and I am having trouble concentrating.

Always aware of the principle of impermanence: anichur, anichuuur. 

Along with the principle of equanimity comes that of impermanence. An ancient truism: the only constant is change. The river of today is not the river of tomorrow. New water flows between its banks. Even our bodies change from moment to moment. And the sensations we feel on our skin will eventually and pass away.

I grasp the concept of anichur. I understand that this course is impermanent, that I have only a couple more days until I am released. But I am ready to go home. Now.

But equanimous? Not me. If I were equanimous, I wouldn't mind staying here until the tenth day and beyond. But I'm not. The pain in my right shoulder blade comes and goes, but other pains take its place. Like the one on my tailbone. And my left shoulder. And where the chair back hits my spine.

Sweep with a free flow. From the top of the head to the toe, from the toe to the top of the head, feel the subtle sensations on the skin. Sweep with a free flow.

But for the pains on my back, my torso is numb. Absolutely no sensation on my chest and stomach. I can't even feel my shirt.

My limbs, though, are still chock-full of ants crawling. And if I ignore my torso, I can sweep my limbs, from head to toe and back up. I focus my attention beginning at the top of my head and bring it down to my neck, shoulders and arms. I bypass my torso and I'm on to my legs. I reverse the order and arrive back on the top of my head. I do a cycle in one breath. This is fun. The tingling is relaxing, pleasant. It makes me crave more. But as we have been told, such cravings, indeed any kind of cravings, are a no-no.

From Day 8 onward we have a new task. We are instructed to shift our attention from the surface of the skin and to pierce our bodies with our minds. Front to back, side to side. Every which way, to see if there is any blockage, sensation, or sankara that has arisen and is calling out for our equanimity. For those who can manage it, this stage of the meditation sounds exciting.

But for me, maybe in another lifetime.

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe you made so much progress on the cushion but didn't want to pursue the experience. Surely your motivations for going on the course were somewhat fulfilled the phenomena that you were so lucky to achieve... not everyone reaches the stage you did within ten days!