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Mind what you think

I was detained at Dromedary, and then set free on the path to Nirvana. That’s one way of summarising my recent sojourn at the Vipassana Meditation Centre on a secluded and wooded hillside on the slopes of Mount Dromedary, near Hobart. I was there to learn how to use a meditation technique first taught by Gautama the Buddha twenty five centuries ago in northern India – a technique nurtured by monks in Burma and only reintroduced to India and thence to the western world less than forty years ago. It’s not a religion, sect or cult, and instead is based on so-called universal truths and hence free for adoption by people of any - or no - faith. Mastering the technique is said to open up the possibility of progressing towards liberation and total enlightenment, while spreading love and compassion amongst our fellow human beings (surely the aim of most religions). My objectives were a little less ambitious. I hoped to achieve a way of coping with the stresses and strains I was experiencing in the balancing act between work, family and time-out which is typical of life in twenty-first century suburban Australia. I wanted to find ways of countering the typical day’s multi-tasking by learning how to mono-task or zero-task in my time off. I wanted to re-learn how to get a good night’s sleep.

With the approval of a stress counsellor, my G.P. and my long-suffering wife, I was granted enough leave from work to embark on the ten day course. Other than time, I had little to lose: there is no charge for the course; instead one is encouraged to make a donation before departure, proportional to the benefit one feels one got from the course. So it was that one cold evening in April, I found myself eating pumpkin and lentil soup in a makeshift polythene tunnel dining room with a dozen other ‘students’ and the volunteer teachers and support staff who would be my only companions for the next ten days.

It soon became clear that I had bitten off rather more than I could had dreamed of chewing. We students were simultaneous travellers on a journey of discovery, but one on which we were to make strenuous efforts to imagine we were entirely alone. ‘Noble Silence’ was the golden rule: no talking, no touching, no glancing, no signalling. Men and women to eat, sleep, walk and meditate in separate areas. No reading, no writing, no radios, no phones. No meat to be eaten, no alcohol to be consumed, no drugs to be taken. No running, no jogging; not even any yoga. No lying, no sex (pretty easy, those last two, in the circumstances). No killing, not even of time. Focus one hundred percent on meditating. For ten days.

A typical day began with a four o’clock wake-up gong, followed by meditation until breakfast at six thirty. More meditation from eight to eleven. Lunch break until one thirty, then more meditation until five. An hour off for tea (in the guise of two pieces of fruit), then meditate for another hour. Then the day’s highlight: The Discourse. We would listen to a videoed presentation on the technique by the inimitable and inspirational Mr S.N. Goenka. He’s the Burmese-Indian founder of the Dhamma Foundation that has established similar meditation centres worldwide (as a quick Google search will confirm). Then one final hour of meditation before collapsing into bed at nine. Mr Goenka said we were fortunate indeed to have been given this wonderful opportunity to live like monks and nuns for ten days. There were times during the course when I pondered whether there should have been a 'just' before the words 'ten days', but then just sometimes it even felt as though he might be right.

Meditation comes in a multitude of forms. For these ten days, it involved us donning our meditation blankets and sitting as still as possible, on cushions arranged in rows on the floor of the darkened mediation hall – men to the left, women to the right. At the start of each session, a taped message from Mr Goenka would tell us what to do. To emphasise the seriousness of the task at hand, he would conclude with some chanting of Gautama the Buddha’s words in the ancient Pali tongue. Two teachers would always be sitting facing us at the front of the hall, as still as statues, eyes closed and with serene facial expressions, to show us what we should be aiming for. Then we’d close our eyes and be left to our own thoughts for the rest of the hour. And what thoughts. Ten days isn’t long when you’ve a lifetime of mental clutter to clear away. In theory, our chattering minds would gradually quieten down so that we could focus on detecting the subtlest physical sensations on each and every part of our bodies – though for the first three days, our job was to start picking up on these on a much more limited area comprising the triangle of face between one’s nostrils and upper lip. This is Anapanameditation, a prerequisite to Vipassana but a useful technique to master in its own right. In this triangular area, faint eddies of air would be constantly wafting in and out of the nose; our job was to observe them impartially. Not imagine, not induce, just observe. No internal reciting of words (‘breathe in, breathe out’); no imagining icons to help one focus. These sensations are there all the time, but mostly our minds and bodies are too busy with other tasks to even notice them. By experiencing these sensations – pleasant and unpleasant, strong and weak, long-lasting and short-lived – one is meant to develop a deep understanding of one of the fundamental laws of nature (Dhamma): how everything is ephemeral, including our own lives and everything we experience. By retraining one’s mind to show nothing but equanimity towards these sensations, one is meant to develop a powerful tool for dealing with life’s ups and downs since these also manifest themselves in bodily sensations of which we mostly normally remain unaware. It is our automatic responses to these sensations – which the teachings of Vipassana characterise as either cravings or aversions (but which may manifest themselves as anger, jealousy, egotism or any other ‘defilement’) – that are said to be the ultimate source of deep-rooted human misery. Stop the cravings (towards chocolate, neighbours' wives etc), stop the aversions (towards insomnia, US presidents, etc), and you cut off the roots of misery and enable personal happiness, love and compassion to come to the fore. In business speak, perform a root-and-branch overhaul of your entire mind-body complex. In essence, mind what you think, and don’t think about what you might mind about.

So much for the theory. Initially, my practice fell somewhat short of this ideal. I couldn’t concentrate on my nostrils for one minute, let alone a whole hour. My nose, when I could sense it at all, seemed, in my mind’s eye, to be located not between my eyes and my mouth, but detached and on its side, hovering about forty centimetres in front of my left eye. There it bobbed gently up and down, morphing continually as though made of modelling clay. Strange things happened to it. It sprouted a thick coat of fat pastel-coloured tentacles like those on a sea anemone, the sort in which Nemo would have been at home. It developed scales and bristles. The nostrils appeared to open up to the diameter of mouseholes. And it resolutely refused to budge from its incongruous position in mid-space. So much for not imagining icons and focusing entirely on the sensations. At first I blamed those around me. I thought we were meant to be doing this in complete silence? But Ms Snivel, Ms Adenoid Problem, Mr Whistlenose, Mr Clickijoints, Mr Fartipants, Ms Constant-Stream-of-Tiny-Little-Burps, and all the other students (for most of whom I created names not fit for publishing here) seem to have other ideas. Equanimity to these sensations? A high moral ideal, but impractical in the circumstances. But then rather defensively I began to wonder what my fellow meditators would call me. Mr Gurgleguts sprung to mind. Recalling the delicious but Spartan and lentil-oriented vegetarian diet on which we were all subsisting, I began to sympathise with Mr Fartipants, and suddenly equanimity was within my grasp. Except towards The Charlatan: what’s noble about hiding behind a tree every lunchbreak and secretively yakking on the mobile phone that he had neglected to relinquish at the start of the course?

If I were to write an essay about full-blown Vipassana meditation, it wouldn’t really be a very long essay. It would explain that, once one had mastered the facial triangle thing, one would gradually experience more and more subtle sensations across and throughout one’s entire body, eventually to the point where one’s whole physical structure would appear to melt away entirely in a buzz of gentle vibrations. I imagine it would feel rather like being beamed up to the SS Enterprise on one of those frequent occasions when Scotty was having technical problems with the teleporter. Occasional deep-rooted miseries would rise to the surface and cause little islands of more solid sensations (such as pain) to appear. The meditator is mean to remain equanimous to these sensations, causing them to dissolve away: one more source of misery rooted out, one step closer to total enlightenment. (I do like Mr Goenka's adjectivisation of equanimity, even if my spellchecker is far from equanimous about it). But this is an essay about my own experiences. I certainly took my first steps down the path, and hope to take a few more in what’s left of my life. But they were tentative steps indeed. I didn’t fail – there’s no room for such thinking in Vipassana. I just didn’t discover much worth craving about in the first place.

But I did discover a whole lot else. Mr Goenka warned us that our first few days would be spent trying to calm our chattering minds. Chattering? Mental diarrhoea might be a better expression (or maybe Delhi mind?). An explosive but vaguely satisfying expelling from the mind of loosely-formed, fluid and partly digested thoughts, mostly a re-capping of apparently random events from at least the past 38 of my 41 years of existence. Initially the thoughts were mundane and based on recent events. Did I pay that credit card bill before I left home? (Come on, Gurgleguts, you know you did). Did I unbook that work vehicle? (No, you forgot to book it in the first place). Did I divert my phone calls to reception? (No). Did I set up my email auto-reply feature correctly? (No: the message I wanted it to reply with was ‘Thank you for emailing me. I am currently taking a sicky while I try and get my shit together but I will be sure to trash your message on my return’). Imagine a few hundred more such thoughts (many of them repeated a dozen times over) and you get the picture of what the first day or two was like.

By day three, though, my meditation had begun to feel a bit more like medication: kaolin and morphine for the bowels of my mind. My thoughts solidified and sometimes took some time to pass. A deeper melancholy began to take hold – mostly at the recalling of happy times now past rather than the sudden appearance of cupboard-lurking skeletons. I recalled the shriek of delight of our first son (then one, now six) as we arrived to pick him up from crèche. The call of yellow-spotted honeyeaters in the Daintree rainforests where I was working six years ago. The gloriously pungent smell of durian in the streets and gutters of the town in Indonesia where we lived eight years ago. The fantastic lightning show viewable in the night skies as the wet season approached the part of Uganda where we lived two years previously. Making a nocturnal love-nest with fellow student (now wife) Chris in a hay-meadow by the River Isis at Oxford. Sleeping (happily drunk on scrumpy) in a bivvy-bag on Dartmoor as a student in the early eighties, oblivious to the slug supping from the brew I was saving for later in my beard. The smell of Old Spice aftershave, of which I was a heavy user during the first (and last) few weeks of my first date in the late seventies. Queuing for second and third helpings of roast beef and gravy in the secondary school dinner hall. Chasing butterflies in the French Alps while on a school holiday exchange in the mid-seventies. Making daisy chains in the primary school yard while watching ants carting spilt crumbs off to their underground nests. Mum doing the vacuuming while I mimed the animals signified by Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals playing on the gramophone (I was three at the time). All this interspersed with more salacious thoughts involving girls once known or (more usually) imagined. And periodically, my mind tuned into the incessant contact calls of yellow-throated honeyeaters in the trees outside – a reminder that life goes on beyond the confines of the meditation hall, oblivious to our mental struggles within. Henceforth, hearing these birds will always take me straight back to Dromedary.

You may recall how Joe Simpson, the ice-climber in Touching the Void, as he faced death by starvation, thirst and frostbite, was driven nearly insane by a particularly annoying and banal tune going round and round in his head at full volume. I think it was Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring. My own struggle with sanity was similarly tested by Motorhead’s Bomber playing dangerously loudly – a track I had probably last heard towards the close of my Heavy Metal Period (about 1981). What would the Buddha have made of Motorhead, and what would he have made of the state of my mind? If anyone needed a little compassion, I felt it was me in those first few days of meditation.

And then during one session late on the third day, my hovering nose gradually righted itself and re-docked with the rest of my face. I realised that I really could feel the air wafting over that triangle – at least on its left half. In fact, other than an awareness of the thought that I was aware of feeling this air, it was the only thing of which I was aware. It was the first indication that yes, this meditation thing might actually be within my grasp after all. By the absence of coughs, sighs, wheezes, clicks and burps, I judged, too, that my fellow students had reached a similar stage. At times the hall became so quiet you would have been able to hear a pin drop, or a honeyeater pass wind in the bluegums outside.

Day four and Vipassana begins in earnest. Having mastered the detection of wafting respiration, we were asked to observe not just the air, but any other sensations in the same area. Other sensations? What other sensations could there be? But that Mr Goenka (and the Buddha twenty-five centuries before him) was right: slowly but surely, one became aware that this small part of one’s face was bristling with subtle sensations. It could feel cold, it could feel warm; it could feel wet (as I imagine Ms Snivel was discovering before the rest of us), it could feel dry. But more than this, it could wobble and vibrate as though being gently worked over with a battery operated massager (or similar device of your own choosing). And it no longer sat in a sensual void: though not meant to be the focus of my observations, it became apparent that my lips were tingling richly as though I had recently bitten into orange skin, while ants were apparently crawling over the tip of my nose and investigating the insides of my nostrils. But the more one started to enjoy the pleasant sensations, the less distinct they became, while showing any aversion towards the unpleasant ones merely served to increase their intensity. Through experiencing this, I was beginning to understand why retraining one’s mind to remain equanimous in the face of these sensations might not be such a bad idea.

After nearly four days, we were considered proficient enough in the observation of subtle sub-nasal sensations to begin working on the rest of the body. Starting with the scalp, the idea was to scan the whole body from head to toe, in discrete pieces of perhaps a few square centimetres at a time, observing, observing, observing. As soon as one complete scan was over, time to begin another one. Then another one. Then another. For the next six days. At first, just finding my scalp was challenge enough after all this focus on the area below my nose. But within a few minutes I felt a tickle, and suddenly the entire patch of scalp erupted in a sensory feast. It was as though it was being gently prodded by a thousand acupuncture needles, each triggering tingles sweeping through the matrix of underlying skin. I wanted more of this, and tried to concentrate harder. The sensation vanished, replaced at first with that crawling-ant sensation, and then with a complete mental blank. It took another half hour to recapture the feeling and to remember only to observe it, not to crave it or try and change it. Then, by shifting the focus of my attention to adjacent areas of scalp, the centre of sensations shifted accordingly. In my mind’s eye, I was looking down on a forested hilltop from a plane. Like TV footage of the High Country bushfires at dusk, I saw the glow of the flames fanning out through the undergrowth in the direction of every gust of wind, and as it did so, so I felt its touch.

I appreciate that this is going to seem very weird to those who haven’t tried. But from which direction should your mind’s eye examine the body? From its position in the brain? In which case, you see your eyes from the retina looking out towards the cornea, but at least left is left and right is right. Or should your mind’s eye hover in front of your face instead? In which case you look more familiar (because you’ve seen yourself in the mirror every day), but then if you’re visualising your left ear or eye on the right, you have to match it up with where it actually sits on the left. It was all very confusing, and may have accounted for the difficulties I experienced in relating what I was sensing to the usual mental image of my body that I had lived with and grown into for the past four decades. Try as I might, I just couldn’t imagine any of my bodily parts as resembling anything remotely humanoid. They took on different characteristics at different times, but at least a dozen animal phyla were represented by various parts of my external anatomy over the following few days. And I was a Lego Bionicle android for a while too. It wasn’t until day eight that I could scan my body and judge it to be something recognisably human, or even not feel the need to try and imagine it at all.

This describes a typical body scan. As I cast the focus of my mind down from the bushfires on my scalp to my reverse-image face, the bridge of my nose was the first object to stand out. And how it did so: it formed a ridge as sharp and siliceous as the Western Arthurs. Extending the concentration onwards and downwards was like lighting a fuse that sent a fizzling wave of sensation accelerating towards the tip of my nose. But whereas I judged that it should have arrived at the tip within two seconds, it kept going and going for a dozen more, as if my nose had been stretched out like Pinocchio’s during a particularly untruthful monologue. And instead of extinguishing itself when it reached the end, the fuse kept fizzling at ever-increasing intensity until it felt as though my whole nose might explode at any moment. I found it very difficult to move on from such a strong sensation, and even when I did it left me with the niggling feeling that perhaps something physical and uncomfortably animate lay behind it, perhaps an emerging filarial worm that had been lurking beneath the surface since my days in the tropics. Nevertheless, moving on down and out, my cheeks puffed up as though I had been concealing a tiny gas cylinder in each one. My jowls wobbled uncontrollably in a manner that a cartoonist would portray on a boxer dog operating a jackhammer. My lips expanded to fill the entire width of my head. My throat pulsed rhythmically like that of a basking lizard. My belly appeared as taut, folded and bulging as a Buddha’s (or maybe it was Michelin Man). But below that, to the parts that really mean a lot to a man, I was dismayed to realise that there was less observable sensation down there than in either of my little toes. An affront to one’s masculinity and yet another reason to feel the need for a little compassion.

Meanwhile, casting the blue laser scanner (as it had now become) over my arms and legs, I felt as though they were overcooked chicken limbs. I could see the bones and sinew as the meat fell off in chunks. But my knees and elbows remained uncooked, as though tightly wrapped in cold white latex (yes, it was definitely white). On the ends of my limbs, where the sensations were more discernible, I could see gecko’s feet one minute, eagle’s claws the next, and beetle’s tarsi the next. Once my hands became the claws of a tyrannosaurus, protruding more or less directly from my thorax. Sometimes there were only three digits, other times up to ten. Most of the time they looked as though someone had cut the extensor muscles or maybe the tendons in the wrist or ankle, so that the digits curled back in on themselves. And my back sprouted crocodile scales, ape-man hairs, occasionally feathers. Sometimes it felt as though the skin on my back was infused with gravel. Once I became a rock on the seashore, my back encrusted with gaping, strangely grinning mussel shells. For one particularly unpleasant hour I felt I had Alien clinging resolutely to my back, and an x-ray perspective showed its vertebrae to be on the brink of fusing with my own. And then one of the teachers would invite us to 'take rest' (with just the hint of an Indian accent, I thought), signalling the end of another hour's session. It may sound strange that rest was needed after sitting motionless for so long, but meditation can be exhausting as well as exhilarating. I often felt as though I had been given a complete body workout or head-to-toe massage by the time that invitation was voiced.

Occasionally, towards the end of the day when all I wanted to do was sleep, I would find myself in a half-way state between meditation and dreaming. On one such evening, I became aware of a crowd of people standing around me in a semicircle. I vaguely recognised most of them from work. There were about forty of them, all in larger-than-life three dimensions and in full colour, the shorter ones towards the back straining to get a glimpse of me between the taller ones in the front row. They all looked so perplexed, as though wondering what on earth I thought I was doing sitting there on the floor examining my navel when I should be working – though none of them uttered a word. I knew they weren’t really there, yet couldn’t keep my eyes off them. Another time, a succession of beasts rudely intruded on my meditation. First a thylacine rushed towards me, jaws agape. It was closely followed by a tyrannosaurus in similar pose. Neither these beasts nor the many others that followed appeared remotely threatening, despite being close enough for me to sense their breath. Some people pay good money to score mind-altering drugs to have experiences like this.

Real sleep at night didn’t always bring respite. One night I was chased by a bipedal elephant whose most frightening feature (apart from the fact that I knew it was one of those carnivorous elephants) was that it was making noises that sounded (on later reflection) remarkably like my rumbling stomach. This was a three o'clock dream, sixteen hours after my last decent meal. On another morning I awoke with the deepest feeling of sadness, having just witnessed my dad collapsing with a heart attack. I could see sweat glistening on his eyelids and watched the colour drain from his skin.

It was only in the last two days of the course that I really felt I had developed some deep meditation skills. By then, I could scan the sensations of my body from top to toe in two minutes flat without thinking about alien life-forms. Though I never reached the stage of total bodily dissolution, I nevertheless took satisfaction from being able to pick up sensations in most areas and to view these with complete equanimity. I could sit for two hours without moving and with minimal pain, and I no longer imagined that I was anything other than human. My mind still wandered, but was amenable to being pulled back with little resistance.

One of the Buddha’s teachings demonstrated through Vipassana is that all things must pass. And so it was that on the eleventh day we were liberated. Not in the Buddhist sense of the word, but in the sense that our time at Dromedary had come to an end. Despite not a single day having passed in which I hadn’t felt like leaving, I now felt strangely sad that it was all over. I dreaded having to talk again. Having to face crowded streets and traffic. Watching the news. Checking my email. But life goes on, and could only be easier from now on since I judged these past ten days amongst the hardest of my adult life. At the very least, I sensed a certain satisfaction that I'd seen the course through to the end and not bailed out half way through. I began to articulate my experiences to the other students as we had our final breakfast (the course ends at a little unconventional seven o'clock in the morning), and quickly learnt that many had been through something similar. Except The Charlatan, who loudly asserted that he had successfully maintained Noble Silence for the duration of the course. Well, there’s always one, isn’t there?

How appropriate it felt that I was liberated on my forty-second birthday. As any galactic hitchhiker will appreciate, forty-two is the very number signifying the meaning of life, the universe and everything. I feel more serene, I feel younger. I’m three kilos lighter. My ego may even be slightly smaller (‘hey everybody, come and see. I bet my ego’s smaller than yours!’). I feel an elevated tendency to feel compassion where once I felt nothing but anger (though there are limits to a novice meditator’s compassion, as watching George Bush on the news quickly revealed).

But do I now experience a good night’s sleep? As Mr Goenka would have said, in his perfect Indian English, 'nothing doing'. Yet even though I’ve been writing this at five in the morning, I'm not getting stressed about it. It's just how things are. As for Nirvana, well, I used to listen to them a lot but these days I find that their albums, steeped in human misery, no longer have the same appeal: I’d rather be meditating. Vipassana can do that to you – and a lot more besides.