By Geeta Rao
A pilgrim’s progress from novice to seasoned meditator
I started meditating many years ago and went through all the stages that meditators go through. Often in meditation we replicate the patterns of our life – it is just that the context is a more spiritual one, the seeker’s garb. So if you are a type A personality, then your meditation is often like your worldview and life – intensely competitive, coupled with the need to master every intricacy, and know it better than anyone else. In this way we reproduce life’s patterns on the meditation cushion.
I was no different. Being a successful achiever in whatever then constituted success, I took to meditation with the certain belief that for me enlightenment was close by. After all, management by objectives had taught me that. I had found the Vipassana tradition after a long new age search and was attracted to its more rational side. Vipassana is insight meditation, helping you to reach stages of greater self-awareness and insights into impermanence of all that arises.
In one of my early retreats, I experienced some of the seductions that we see on the path. A wonderful and overwhelming fragrance that wafted past me every time my eyes closed. When I looked around the smell disappeared. There were no flowers, no breeze to waft in any fragrance but it was a beautiful, incredibly different fragrance that uplifted me. Sadly in my next sit, the divine smell had disappeared, but it did leave me thrilled and intrigued. I felt this was a good sign of my growing enlightenment.
The nice thing about meditation is that it is democratic in its seductions as well as its devastation. I use these words judiciously since one of the main teachings of Buddhism is that you do not swing between attraction and repulsion. You accept all that comes with equanimity and you accept it going with equal equanimity because it is impermanent.
Intellectually, this is laughably obvious but experientially when the first storm came, I panicked. I experienced my body splitting in half. One half was like lead and made me feel weighed down and fettered in a very unpleasant and painful way, the other half simply disappeared. I was an amputee. I kept my eyes closed as long as I could, then when the panic became more real than imagined, I had no choice. Each time I closed my eyes, my body performed these tricks.
Finally, the teacher suggested I put my hand on the ground to earth myself in my meditation. A few hours later, my ‘amputated’ condition was whole again. I certainly did not feel closer to enlightenment this time, but I realized ruefully that I had a long way to go before I could even understand what was real, what was imagined and what the mind was up to.
Those were the early days. Many things happened later but it was the slow awareness of my own patterns that I found more fascinating than the golden silence and states of bliss and often inexplicable sorrow. I stayed with the meditation. But it became sporadic and so instead of twice a day it dwindled to thrice a week and then when my conscience kicked in, it went to once a day and then back. I learned to recognize this was part of my pattern in life as well, since I did get bored very easily and hated routine.
But somehow I kept going back to ten-day retreats and to Vipassana. I went to Dharamsala, to Igatpuri, to Bodhgaya, to Sarnath, but eventually found there was no need to go anywhere. Subconsciously till then, I was seeking to fix something and I think many of us approach meditation with the same mindset with which we go to the temple or seek God. To fix something, to ask for favors, to change something, to find answers. I often met people who came to meditation to gain more concentration, to learn to relax, to distress, and to handle depression.
In insight meditation everything is a byproduct. Eventually you are with yourself, stripped of all masks, even the ones you put on to rationalize yourself to yourself. It is both a terrifying experience and a liberating one. When the sankharas or impurities come up, you have to face them with strength and equanimity. ‘Just observe’, the mantra of meditation, is the toughest to follow.
Many years later, I felt I had to meditate in earnest. I quit working, decided to spend time in retreat. Increasingly, I turned to silence for answers, not to books, my favorite solution. Back home, it was in the time of concentrated practice that I was struck with sankharas.
Every night from 2 am to five am, I was attacked by the darkest of fears and panic. I cannot describe in concrete terms what this ‘dark night of the soul” was or what triggered it – it was just a black, overwhelming, existential panic. It was coupled with heightened sound awareness that was almost unbearable – I could hear people talking across the highway, and every sound of the night was magnified. Being a slightly more experienced meditator now, I knew I had to see it through.
For ten nights I struggled while all I remember is hearing the words ‘just observe’. I was determined. On the tenth day, the “worst” day of my panic, I sat it through. Literally felt it physically lift off almost as if it was being ripped from some depth and then I never saw that again. It was the rising of deep-rooted sankharas carried over from many past karmas.
This, for me, was the turning point. There was no going back and there was no expectation. I let go of that need to find something. I had experienced blissful states and seen heightened success, which I attributed to my meditation. None of that mattered. To see pleasure and pain on the same continuum of impermanence is a tough task. I am not much closer to that insight than when I began but I have seen the glimmer of something beyond ordinary experience. My life is no better or worse than it was. I am no better or worse than I was. But a degree of self-awareness has begun, and that for me is why I meditate.
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