"the persistent rhythm of the senses"
November 2002 — text by Austin Pick
My first semester here is quickly drawing to a close. College life can be pretty breezy here, but Australian universities still use the traditional semester system, so most assignments and assessments fall at Midterm and Finals. Things get particularly tight around Finals, and I ended up writing five papers and giving two presentations in a little under two weeks, on the following: zen monastic life; the psychobiological aspects of meditation; the views of various religions on homosexuality; my research on trapdoor spiders; and the phenomenological commonalities between shamanic & meditative altered states of consciousness. Much of this turned out to be an incredibly relevant prelude for what was to follow, but only a prelude, afterall, a scratching of the surface...
I powered thru all this work in order to free up Revision Week, a study week after classes end and before exams start. Having taken care of all my obligations well ahead of schedule, I caught a train and headed north to Dhamma Rasmi, a vipassana meditation centre quietly hidden away amongst the Glasshouse Mountains in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast.
Dhamma Rasmi is one of dozens of centres found throughout the world and established expressly for facilitating the instruction and practice of vipassana, Buddhist insight meditation. Vipassana is the primary meditative technique taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, and is thus the center of traditional Buddhist practice. Vipassana is simple in theory and requires no more than a basic familiarity with Buddhist philosophy or psychology, as explained during the course. No previous experience with meditation is necessary, although it might help. Vipassana is not expressly 'Buddhist' in nature, and is rooted rather in an understanding of the workings of mind. It is for everyone.
Dhamma Rasmi is minimally gorgeous and distinctly Australian, nestled on a gentle hill in the eucalyptus bush, a conservatively gardened lawn of flowering tropical plants framed by jacarandas and palms, presided over by an impressive and inspiring mountain. At dawn and dusk the meditation hall resonates with the hypnotic vibrations of seas of insects and tropical birds. Some of the food is grown at the centre or grown locally, water is collected from the rain, and waste is composted. There are few clocks; time is indicated by the sounding of a gong. There are no decorations, no icons, no tapestries or paintings. There is only what is needed, nothing more and nothing less.
I stayed at Dhamma Rasmi for twelve days in all, participating in a ten-day intensive meditation course. All courses at vipassana centres like Dhamma Rasmi are absolutely free, including all food and accommodation. As they should be, these centres are sustained entirely by the charity of students, according to the belief that there should never be a price-tag on teachings of healing and liberation.
For ten days I lived the strict monastic lifestyle with about forty others, some old students and some new, of all ages and from many different walks of life; for instance, I was given a ride from the train station to the centre by a finance broker from Brisbane. For ten days we lived as monks and nuns have for thousands of years, not speaking, making eye contact or communicating in any way; taking only two vegetarian meals a day, with tea and some fruit at dinnertime; and refraining from substances and sexual activity of any kind. We woke at 4:30 every morning and went to bed around 9pm. This code of conduct exists to cultivate self-discipline, minimize distraction and sustain the meditative concentration necessary for practice. We meditated for at least seven hours each day, sitting motionless for one-hour intervals, with breaks only for meals, walking, resting, and instructive discourses each night. This retreat was perhaps the single most difficult and, well, profoundly insightful experience I have ever undergone. I feel that all my previous intellectual and experiential knowledge was little more than enough to prepare me for what transpired—a thorough blurring of the boundaries between the conscious and the unconscious, a deep submersion into the workings of mind...
The practice of vipassana begins with concentration meditation, anapana-sati, Mindfulness of Breathing, which we practiced exclusively for the first three days. With this practice one focuses all attention on the physical act and sensations of breathing, and in this way the mind is concentrated, quieted and sharpened. Awareness, sensitivity, and memory increase dramatically. In my own experience, projections, fantasties, and vivid emotionally-charged memories surfaced with seeming randomness, and I occasionally found myself submerged in moments of my early life that have probably not been remembered since their first occurrence. This practice also seemed to activate sensory and emotional centers of the brain that go largely unused; sometimes I became entirely submersed in vivid eyelid movies of psychedelic streaming consciousness.
As provocative and tantalizing as these events may be, the practice of anapana is to focus the entire attention on the breath, and, when the mind wanders, to simply observe any physical or mental events that arise without reaction or judgment, and return attention to the breath. As anyone who has attempted such a practice will tell you, this is extremely difficult, and it quickly becomes disconcertingly apparent that the mind is continually distracting itself from present-moment awareness, distracting itself with memories, day dreams and fantasies of past & future. The reason for this continual distraction also becomes clear. And as sustained practice continues, the mind does gradually become increasingly concentrated, quieted and sharpened. This makes possible the practice of vipassana.
With the practice of vipassana one moves this concentrated, sharpened attention methodically throughout the body, observing all the sensations that compose the entirety of our experience. Again, the practice is to remain fully non-reactive and equanimous to all sensations, be they painful or pleasant. As awareness develops, the observational capacity becomes increasingly subtle, allowing one to understand the constituent components of our physical and mental being from moment to moment. Vipassana is thus a technique for the facilitation of direct experiential knowledge about the totality of one's self and the intimate relationship between mind and body.
Long-held tensions and tightness in the body quickly become apparent. Mind and body often behave forcefully in the sensory and reactive deprivation of meditation, demanding stimuli. In this light one becomes aware of the nature and extent of the habitual attachments, desires, cravings and aversions that dictate our day-to-day and moment-to-moment behavior. The experience of physical pain manifested in hour-long motionless sittings is often unbelievable and nearly unbearable. Conversely, the pleasant sensations that periodically arise are also intensely striking. One's habitual patterns of thinking, and, more deeply, habitual patterns of reaction, are revealed in the light of conscious awareness. In my experience, emotionally charged reactive patterns also came screaming to the surface, particularly those of anger, violence, loathing and hatred. One's own mind and body can be a frightening place indeed.
Again, the practice of vipassana is to simply observe all of these physical and mental events with full equanimity, without reaction, judgment or self-identification of any kind. I have never faced a greater challenge. But in this way, the habitual patterns of the mind are broken and transformed, shaken out and given space to evaporate. In this way, given time and consistent practice, the mind is freed of all conditioning. Vipassana is thus to jump directly into the fire, or rather to accept that one is already in the fire, and to grow comfortable there. To experience peace with oneself, with everything.
I hope that all this doesn't sound either pretentious or sterile. This practice is deeply and completely personal, yet somehow also universally human. The experience of such complete submersion, and furthermore the experience of returning to the workaday world, is rather overwhelming, and I'm still reeling from all I've seen and felt, from so much IN-sight. My self doesn't quite know what to do with itself now. Amazing. Anyways here are some excerpts on insight meditation from an article by Roger Walsh:
At the end of the ten days noble silence was lifted and we were finally able to meet all those with whom we had shared this experience, and we all seemed to feel as if we knew eachother in some strange way. I won't be at all surprised if I end up having further adventures with some of these characters down the road. On the morning of the twelfth day several of us ventured out and climbed the mountain that had graced our horizon for so many days. Tomo, an englishman who's been traveling Australia for a year, returned to Brisbane and crashed at college with me because he needed a place to stay for the night. And then, well, here I am again, a stranger in a strange land that has become my home.
Upon my return I was graced with heaps of amazing letters, all from so many of you whom I've haven't heard from in so long, all very full of love and blessings. The timing couldn't have been better, and it was almost enough to make me really miss home. Almost.
Thank you all.
It's been an amazing four months, and so much has gone untold. The semester ends in about a week now, and I've got a few more assignments to finish up before the script scrolls on again in new dimensions. It's summertime now, and the livin' looks easy.
In good natural time, my summer plans have all settled into place, New Zealand for Christmas, Sydney for New Year's and Western Australia around my birthday. For so long now I've wanted to I've had an almost primal urge for so many years to just go Go GO! - to pack a slim backpack and go glad gliding across the wide earth. I have more interest now in simply sitting quietly but anyways I'm going going, on about a shoestring budget. Dhamma bum. The plot has begun to unravel. Going to see all of the Movie.
And first to New Zealand. I also have some movie-making to do in Middle Earth.
You might not hear from me with any regularity for a while, although I'll do my best. Anyways I love and miss all of you, and think of you often. Stay stay In Touch.
"...and then I learned just yesterday
And so it goes, so I go. Script scrolls...
With Love, A
At no time are we ever in such complete possession of a journey, down to its last nook and cranny, as when we are busy with preparations for it. After that, there remains only the journey itself, which is nothing but the process through which we lose our ownership of it. —Yukio Mishima