In my last post, I wrote about my struggle to commit to staying at the retreat. Once that settled down, I was able to get to work. So much is still processing and really my story with Vipassana is just beginning but lets review the highlights. When I look back on the course, the two ideas and experiences that jump out at me relate to craving and impermanence.
Cravings, cravings, cravings
Buddha identified craving (and aversion) as the cause of suffering and during the retreat it was easy to see why. As soon as I sat down, I was flooded with all types of cravings from those for food and my loved ones to the freedom to watch Netflix! Aversions to boredom, the physical pain of sitting in meditation posture or the dry air in the meditation hall quickly followed. I could spend all day listing cravings and aversions that came up because most thoughts and sensations fall into one or the other category. This might seem natural but, according to Buddha, this habit is the root of suffering and must be unlearned because one craving typically begets another and not all of our cravings can be satisfied.
As I sat in meditation, it became easy to see that my mind is in the habit of chasing cravings and fleeing aversions. I would distract myself with story after story about what people might be doing at home, what might be offered for dinner, what I was going to do when I was done the retreat and so on. The more I engaged in these stories, the more they took on a life of their own. It became more and more difficult to refocus on the practice. The thing is that being present with myself in the meditation hall with houts ahead of me made me feel so alone. I’ve thought a lot about why this might be.
All the difficult thoughts and emotions that infiltrate one’s daily life will certainly come up during meditation. It seems like meditation might be a great relief…oh, finally, some time to myself you might say…and while that is sometimes my experience, I just as frequently feel anxiety about being apart from my life and the people I love. What is everyone else up to? Maybe they’ll stop needing me? What if something happens to one of them? I felt bored and lonely at retreat because the idea of being engaged and needed by others was more appealing than sitting and facing all my insecurities. I wanted to be out in the world doing, controlling, seeking validation, enjoying distractions and so on. I wanted to be reacting to cravings!
The beauty and (the beast) of sitting in meditation for hours at a time is that you have the opportunity to watch these cravings come and go. Even the most intense thoughts, desires, emotions are not constant and there is so much to be learned by watching their life course as they well up inside and fade away. They come and they inevitably leave. This impermanence is one of the fundamental teachings of Buddha.
Impermanence hurts and helps
Everything is impermanent yet we habitually become attached to those things we like and develop strong aversions to the things that we dislike. If we are not mindful, we can become easily consumed by these cravings and aversions. Essentially, we lose sight of the impermanence of all sensations and experiences and allow ourselves to be consumed by frustration, anger, sadness and all types of negative emotions. Because the impermanence of pleasant experiences is inevitable, if we cling too closely and become too attached to their presence, if we deny their impermanence, then we set ourselves up for suffering. Conversely, we may overreact to experiences if we get caught up feeling like difficult times will never end.
Vipassana meditation involves systematically scanning your body and “observing” sensation in each area. This practice teaches us that every sensation is impermanent and also heightens our awareness of the seeds of our reactivity (i.e. craving or aversion). The leader of Vipassana, S. N. Goenka explains,
“A sensation appears, and liking or disliking begins. This fleeting moment, if we are unaware of it, is repeated and intensified into craving and aversion, becoming a strong emotion that eventually overpowers the conscious mind… But if we are aware at the point where the process of reaction begins–that is, if we are aware of the sensation–we can choose not to allow any reaction to occur or to intensify… in those moments the mind is free.”
Personally, I want to be entertained and distracted from all my sensations but, Buddha teaches us to feel everything and know that it will pass. Yes, everything shall pass and this is both the good news and the bad news. Difficult emotions will lose their intensity and fade away. So will the pleasant ones. But not only are emotions, thoughts and sensations impermanent; so are relationships, money, clothing, the seasons, life and this whole planet.
Difficult thoughts and feelings come up and they are painful, but they are easier to tolerate when I remember that they are impermanent. Sometimes they had so much force and energy that I felt heat radiating from my body. It was difficult to let the heat well up inside but empowering because it felt like my cravings and aversions were literally burning off as I sat without reacting to the sensations. In reflecting on these moments, I am reminded that moods and emotions are like weather systems. I have moments of feeling hot and anxious, cold and sad, happy and warm but it’s all just moving through me like the clouds in the sky. They are impermanent and can feel consuming but they are just passing through.