The first time I ever tried meditation was with my college sweetheart, Brandon, who coerced me into going to a workshop. It was led by a man who coached college athletes on how to mentally focus for competitions. I can’t even remember his name, however, the experience was unforgettable. For the first time, I felt actively in control of my mind and how/where I directed it. This was truly the beginning of my yoga practice.
While Yoga encompasses the physical practices of postures, breath work, etc., the classical definition found in the sutras of Patanjali is that yoga is “the ability to direct the mind without distraction or interruption”. Taking the meditation workshop was my first deep sense of what Yoga was all about. Before that, postures were easy. It was the breath work (and associated mind chatter) that was the hardest to penetrate.
Six years later in 1998, I found myself sitting in Nepal, outside Kathmandu, ready to embark on a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, yet the anticipation was exciting and daunting. Having researched which program would be best, I chose the Vipassana course as taught by S. N. Goenka, who transitioned on September 29, 2013. For almost eleven hours a day, I’d sit and watch subtle movements of breath, observing the arising and passing qualities…..over and over again. Pretty soon thoughts entered, thoughts of all kinds, and lots of them. The idea was to watch and observe objectively. Eventually they’d pass. And pass and pass again until the (mental) dust settled and a true Presence arose. Simple practice, hard to do.
Truly this is what life is……the arising and passing of breath, shared experiences, even life itself. This is called anicca. The essential ingredient is Presence, a Presence to what is truly happening from moment to moment. Yet how often do we hang on to something that no longer exists (raga) or are unwilling to accept what, in this moment, does exist (dvesa)? It’s these habits that lie at the crux of our suffering.
Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the known and enter into the unknown. That quality of spaciousness would rather be filled with what is seemingly safe, certain and secure, but there is no such thing. We are the designers in this vast space of consciousness. We shape what is in our lives based on our habits (samskaras). And our habits start on the subtlest level of thought.
From the Upanishads comes:
Watch your thoughts, they become words.
Watch your words, they become actions.
Watch your actions, they become habits.
Watch your habits, they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
Positive thinking is great, but it becomes a trap if you aren’t prepared to accept when life doesn’t perhaps go your way or when you can’t see beauty in everything. Learning to accept the whole of life and practicing gratitude moves us towards expansion-into Consciousness, life experience, contentment. Doors open, opportunities present themselves.
After that initial experience in Nepal (and several courses later), the beauty of life continues to present itself in the simplest and most profound ways. It’s less about learning new ideas to cultivate wisdom and more about the practice of refinement. Everything still arises and passes. People and life experience still come and go. I still find myself holding on or feeling averse to things. But less so. It’s as if with more mindfulness (or rather recognition) and acceptance and surrender, comes the deep emerging and unfolding of wisdom. Things do seem to just fall into place. Yes, life does get easier!
The teachings of S. N. Goenka changed my life dramatically. I am forever grateful to the man who insisted that “meditation is not a business”, and only accepted donations. In fact, he said the best way to give is of our time rather than money. Doing service is key. He also started meditation programs in prisons to a much forgotten population. He made the journey towards liberation accessible to all. A truly great man whose dharma has transformed the world and anyone who has been fortunate enough to take his course.
Goenkaji sums up life in a nutshell when he ends with, “Anicca, anicca, anicca.” Impermanence, impermanence, impermanence.
For more information on Vipassana courses in the Goenka tradition, please go to: www.dhamma.org