Friday, May 30, 2008

$4.00 a gallon for gas--a blessing in disguise?

It's been a while since I posted because Marty and I took a cruise/landtour to Alaska--more about that later. By the title of this post, I'm not meaning to offend anyone. There are many people in America who are experiencing real hardship because of the sudden rise in gas prices at the pump, not to mention the effect on the overall economy including my former employer (who I would really like to do well so my pension keeps coming....). There have also been numerous articles and blogcasts about the profit increases of the big oil companies even with the price of crude rising. But the more I observe how people's behavior, including my own, is changing, the more I think that longer term, this development is actually positive.

The first inkling I got personally was about two months back, when the price was "only" $3.60 or so a gallon. I was thinking to go out to Whole Foods Market, which is located more than 10 miles from my house. That is a round trip of 20 miles, and we only had one car then, a Taurus that gets less than 20 miles per gallon in the city. So I started to think--that's nearly $4 just to drive out there...maybe I'll find someplace closer to home. Since then, I've really gotten conscious of this, and so has Marty. I've seen this on the part of others as well--my Sunday night book club meeting out in one of the more distant suburbs has people in my part of town emailing about car pooling--when before everyone probably would have just driven alone. A recent article in
The New York Times talks about the increase in bus ridership in cities that to date have been heavily car-dependent. Of course, gas prices have been at this level and much higher for a long time in Europe and other parts of the world, so we really don't have that much to complain about even with prices reaching their current levels.

What I'm hoping is that the change in behavior continues and also drives more sensible energy policies, an renewed emphasis on mass transit, alternative fuels, and--better automobiles. However, I think an unintended, positive consequence will also be to bring people closer together. When you carpool, you get to talk to your neighbors and really get to know them. When you ride mass transit, you can chill out, read a book (if it doesn't make you car-sick), listen to music or a podcast, or talk to your fellow passengers (and of course read your email, another scourge in my opinion). In addition to the obvious environmental impact, I'm sure there are other social impacts I haven't even thought of. Since so many people in America are so stressed and rushed all the time, maybe it will even have positive health effects.....

Thursday, May 8, 2008

My Vipassana Experience

The 10 day Vipassana meditation course, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is an extraordinary experience. I had first heard about Vipassana more than 20 years ago--probably more like 25 years--from my friend Laurie from Ottawa, who I'd met while we were both living in Japan. For years Laurie urged me to do the course. But I never had eleven or twelve days vacation (including travel time) that I wanted to spend sitting still, talking to no one, and cut off from the rest of the world. There are many Vipassana centers in India, where Goenka first began to revive the ancient technique back in the 1970s. But then, too, if I had that kind of time, I wanted to spend it seeing India--not sitting in a meditation hall. Also, since the course is virtually the same no matter where you take it in the world, it didn't seem particularly significant to do it in India.

But doing the course never quite left my mind. Finally, when I retired, I had no more excuses. Suddenly, my time was my own, to fill as I liked. Before leaving India, I signed up for a course near Toronto that began at the end of January. But the day before I was to leave, my dad had a small stroke, and I felt uneasy being out of touch that long. A few days after I cancelled, I came down with a virulent stomach flu--perhaps another confirmation from the universe that the time was not quite right.

Finally, things with my dad seemed to settle down, and more important, I reached some peace of mind about continuing to go on with life even as I knew my dad is on his final journey. So I found an opening in a course in Shelburne, Massachusetts, which is not far from our place in Keene, N.H. Two days after the second Passover seder, I drove east to Dhamma Dhara for the course that began on the evening of April 23.

Dhamma Dhara is in the countryside outside a small Massachusetts town. It is an old farmhouse that has been converted and added to many times and now houses two dormitories, dining rooms, a meditation hall, and a pagoda with individual meditation cells. The grounds contain walking trails, the perimeters gently marked with signs that say, "Course boundary--please do not cross this point."

When you go to a Vipassana course--which is run by donation only, and there is absolutely no pressure to give even a suggested amount-- you agree to abide by five precepts for the time you are there--not to harm any living creature (a small beetle promptly took up residence in my room, as if defying me to squash him--after a day or so, he disappeared into a register, not to be seen again), not to steal, lie, or have sexual relations, or use intoxicants. Old students--those who have completed a course before and who comprised about 25% of our class--also agree to a few other rules, the most important of which is not to eat after noon. Finally, all students accept a vow of "noble silence"--not to communicate verbally or non-verbally with other meditators. (You are free to talk to the teachers and management about any course-related or material issue, as the need arises.) Before starting the course, you also surrender your cell phone, PDA, car keys, any reading materials, and other electronic devices, which are securely locked away for the duration. You also agree not to engage in any religious or other spiritual practices during the ten days, including yoga, tai-chi, prayer or poojas, or alternate forms of meditation. Men and women are housed and dine separately, and although they share the same meditation hall--men on one side and women on the other--for the first nine days of the course there is effectively no contact or communication between the sexes, even married couples.

All of this creates a very quiet (obviously) environment free of distraction, and in retrospect I would say it is desirable and even necessary given the intensity and nature of the experience. On the morning of the tenth day, noble silence ends, and people are free to talk and share with each other their experience of the course--to process and debrief before entering the "real world" again.

The daily schedule begins with a wake-up gong at 4 a.m., and the day ends at 9 p.m. Approximately 10 hours per day are scheduled for meditation, though not all of them are mandatory. In the evening, there are video discourses by S.N. Goenka, a Burmese of Indian origin who brought the technique back to India about 40 years ago from Burma, the only location in Southeast Asia (according to him) where it had continuously been practiced and handed down in its pure form. These discourses are lively and entertaining and include a mix of philosophy and theory, practical application, and humor. Three times a day, everyone, including the kitchen staff and servers who volunteer their time, join in the meditation hall for a group meditation. From the fourth day, when the actual Vipassana technique begins to be taught, these periods are called "Adhitthana"--sittings of strong determination. During these periods, students sit for a continuous hour without moving their hands, legs, or opening their eyes. If this sounds difficult, it certainly is at first, but by the end of the course I found myself looking forward to these sittings the most. Now, I find this the preferred way to meditate--almost like putting myself in a trance.
There are two main meals during the day--breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and lunch at 11. New students have fruit and tea at 5 p.m.---as noted above, old students have only tea. The food is mostly vegan, with some dairy. Surprisingly, though I ate a lot less and had to forgo my usual tendency to "graze", I was never really hungry. Most of the women shared this experience, though a few of the men who had been used to heavy protein diets had some difficulty. The one night that I overdid it and ate two pieces of fruit, I regretted it--the fruit felt like a bomb on my stomach. After that, I cut back to no more than one piece--one evening, a half banana, sprinkled with honey and psyllium husks, lasted me 20 minutes.

Vipassana meditation (Vipassana means to see things as they are) is an ancient technique developed in India before the time of Gautama Siddhartha (otherwise known as the Buddha). It had fallen out of use, and he is credited with reviving the technique and teaching it to the masses as the Dhamma, or path to enlightenment. The theory is that all human suffering arises from craving, aversion, and ignorance--and that following the law of nature, all things are impermanent, continually rising and passing away. Craving and aversion both manifest themselves as actual sensations on the body, which the unconscious mind is constantly reacting to --and the conscious mind can be trained to observe. If one observes, but remains equanimous to these sensations understanding their true nature (their impermanence), gradually the whole mind is "rewired" to be more peaceful, calm, and equanimous. Craving and aversion are weakened or eliminated. In Buddhist philosophy, this purification of the mind is necessary to escape the need to continually reincarnate into a human body. But, as the Vipassana teaching makes clear, you are under absolutely no obligation to change your own religion or amend any existing beliefs or constructs about afterlife--this is merely explained to you as part of the philosophy. In fact, the attendees at the course were very diverse--from all walks of life, religion, and ages (though it seemed like a lot of young people of college age, especially on the women's side). This group was about 60:40 female to male; in the summer, the staff said the group is more evenly split between men and women.

To train the mind to observe sensation, for the first three days you are limited to a small area around the nose and upper lip, beginning with a whole day of merely observing your respiration. During these days the mind wanders a lot, and you are instructed that, when you notice this, to gently and calmly bring it back to observation of your breathing. By the fourth day, most people find their mind wandering significantly less.

On the first evening, everyone was assigned a place to sit for the duration of the course. A few people were allowed to sit in chairs, and some who had requested were assigned to the places against the wall. The rest of us sat in the main area, on the floor. Over the next couple of days, it was amusing to watch people trying to get comfortable--even those in chairs and against the wall. Outside the meditation hall there was a small anteroom with an array of cushions in several sizes, and some small stools. You could easily spot the "old students"--they were the ones who weren't constantly switching cushions and moving around during the meditation periods in the hall. By the second day, the anteroom was mostly bare--people hoarded an assortment of cushions to try out alternate positions (one rule seemed to be that the more elaborate the "construction" of cushions/supports, the more people moved and adjusted--simple was better). I had brought a small meditation chair that folded up and sat on the main cushion. After a day or so I abandoned it, realizing that it was much better to keep my back erect and in a strong position. After some experimentation I wound up with one of the small stools, under which I folded my legs, and used one cushion to support my knees as well as a smaller one under my ankles. As mysteriously as all the cushions disappeared from the anteroom, by the sixth or seventh day they started reappearing again as people finally got comfortable with their stations and began "releasing" their extra cushions.

Once you begin the actual Vipassana meditation from the fourth day, you are scanning your entire body for sensations. At some point before the course ends, most people have trained their mind to experience a "free flow"--where, when you scan your body, you feel sensation everywhere. Although sitting still for an hour is quite uncomfortable, especially at first, it is amazing to watch back or other pain change over a period of a few minutes. One night, I think it was the fifth, I had a particularly difficult time with the sitting of strong determination. I just didn't think I was going to make it--I had to talk myself into staying in the position a number of times. But when I did, I found that I had broken the back of something--some resistance in my mind. From then on, though I still had some sittings that were difficult, it grew easier to get through the hour. I definitely understand why some progressive physicians prescribe meditation for chronic pain--the mind contributes well more than 50% to most pain, and once you simply observe, rather than react to it, it is simply amazing how it subsides.

I found that there were certain times of day that were better than others, when I could concentrate. I was pretty much useless between 4:30 and 6:30 in the morning. Although I was generally up by the second gong at 4:20, when I showered and dressed, I usually could only meditate about 30 to 40 minutes before getting really drowsy. I would fall back asleep, but during this time I frequently had very vivid dreams, which often illuminated some of the meditation experiences I was having. The morning, from 8-11, I was usually best able to concentrate, followed by the evening meditation from 6-7 p.m. Early afternoon after lunch was neutral, but the period after the group meditation from 2:30 to 3:30 I found it virtually impossible to concentrate--by this point in the day I was definitely "overmeditated." Often, I would get up midway and just go take a walk--I usually got about an hour to an hour and half of exercise a day on the walking trail. But some people toughed out the whole schedule and meditated continuously. I also missed reading--I confess that I was not able to break the habit of reading on the toilet, though I was forced to be very creative--in addition to practically memorizing the one page room guide including cleaning instructions, I read the label on the Bon Ami cleanser container in the bathroom at least half a dozen times. I also learned that you really don't want to know what is in toothpaste...

Sometimes, especially after the first few days of Vipassana meditation, my mind would want to wander again. I grew bored with the constant scanning. I finally got to the point where I would schedule "mind breaks." I would pick an "assignment" for my mind, such as remembering my grandparents, parents, or other relative's houses, going from room to room and trying to recall as many details as possible. I found that the concentration of meditating had sharpened my memory considerably. As I went from room to room, I would see scenes in my mind's eye, such as the Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmother's house when I was about 7 or 8 when I got sick, or my aunt and uncle and my parents playing Euchre on New Year's Eve. People really came to life in these scenes--I could actually recall conversations. Though not part of the course, it was a kind of bonus--a virtual trip to the past.

As I grew more proficient in the technique, I could feel sensations all over, with particularly strong streams of energy at the so-called "chakra" points--top of the head, over the eyebrows, throat, etc. At points, it felt like layers and layers of "gunk" was being released. Most people I talked to reported a similar experience--that you leave the course much "lighter" and with more equanimity. A week or so later, I am still meditating daily--though not for the two hours a day recommended--and feel much calmer and more equanimous. Though Vipassana is not for everyone, it is a great technique- I do recommend it heartily.