Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Too Long in Exile

I started meditating on a regular basis seven or eight years ago and I can unhesitatingly say that it has made my life better. I've experienced and am experiencing all of the advertised benefits of a regular meditation practice. Increased joy, peace, intimacy, awareness, gratitude, acceptance...decreased stress, worry, depression, fear.

I still struggle at times with day to day living but its not as difficult. I still take medications to keep my chloresterol and blood pressure down and my arthritis symptoms at bay. My hair is still thinning and neck waddles are wiggling. I have some very difficult days at work and often come home and get lost in mindless TV channel and computer surfing. But for me, in many ways, meditation has bee a life saver. I feel more awake and alive now than I ever have. I say that with some bitterness because there is a part of me that feels I wasted many years on automatic pilot.

I unsuccessfully attempted to establish a regular practice for a while but it didn't take until I started yoga classes. Yoga seemed to unbind something in me. It's difficult to explain but it gave me a glimpse of a calm mind. It helped me have the patience to sit still and not feel like I was going crazy. I resist theory. I know this stuff is good for me because it makes my life better not because it fits some theory I or someone else may have. Experiential not theoretical.

My practice has led me to go on a series of retreats. Most have been at IMS. The last retreat I went to was at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne, MA. This is one of the more tha 120 centers worldwide offering courses in Vipassana Meditation, as taught by S.N.Goenka and his assistant teachers in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. IMS is also based on the Vipassana tradition but the meditation technique taught by Goenka is strikingly different especially in his use of body scanning.

These silent retreats usually last from 7 to 10 days and can be extremely intense and rewarding. I strongly recommend them for anyone interested in deepening their practice.

IMS has a three tier charge system with the minimum for an extended retreat usually being about $500. You're also asked to provide a donation to the teachers. There is no charge for the Goenka retreat but you are asked to make a donation and the daily schedule is more demanding. You must follow a strict monastic routine that includes minimal food after mid day and meditation sessions from 4:30 AM until 9 PM. At IMS no one checks if you're in a session. At Shelburne a moderator comes looking for you. At IMS there are usually three teachers who give Dharma talks and who you can meet with individually. At Shelburne teachings are via videos made by S.N. Goenka about fifteen years ago. You do have the opportunity to talk face to face with assistant teachers. At IMS participants are asked to volunteer to do a job i.e., wash dishes. At Shelburne "old students" volunteer to serve during retreats. Both places strongly discourage people from leaving early. At Shelburne, Goenka referred to an early exit as comparable to a patient getting off of the operating table during brain surgery. If that's not enough to scare you into staying they also ask you to turn over your car keys at the beginning of the ten day session. For some reason I wasn't asked for my keys and if I was I'm not sure I would have stayed. (I was told no one would force you to stay they just want a chance to talk to you before you leave)

While on retreat at both places you are not to read, talk, use a phone or look at others. You sit across from other while eating but don't make eye contact. The only person you're supposed to communicate with are brief sessions with teachers. You also agree to no stealing, killing (including insects) and sex. Men and women are separated at Goenka facilities but mixed at IMS. I found the separation of sexes helpful. By the third of fourth day at IMS the lack of other stimulation seemed to heighten sexual awareness and this could get distracting.

The Shelburne retreat was very different and for me a more powerful experience. It was in many ways so personal that I'm not sure how much I want to share in this blog. But it was very important to where I am now in my life. In fact when I retire, part of my evolving plan, is to spend time at that center doing volunteer service. I have some reservations about this as well which I may share in a future blog.

One of the first books I read on meditatioon was How to Meditate - A Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence LeShan. On the opening page he writes "We meditate to find, to recover, to come back to something of ouselves we once dimly and unknowingly had and have lost without knowing what it was or where or when we lost it." These were originally just words for me. Now, they are the truth.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Letting things go

Friday night dream... Dorothy and I are standing on a hill next to our dark blue 2008 Nissan Sentra. The car starts rolling down the hill towards a highway full of traffic. I try to chase after the car but Dorothy holds me back smiling and laughing. I'm furious. I want to save the car and she won't let me go. The car reaches the road and makes a right hand turn by itself and disappears.