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Surrendering self-cherishing

A little while ago I had the striking realization that all of my suffering—all of my hopes, cares, and tears—are private only to me.

I guess it made me feel like… why do I care so much about myself? If all of my desires to have a nice life are only going to affect me… why strive for it?

It made me want to change my endeavors from improving my life to improving the lives of others. The Dalai Lama speaks to this:

“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

But trying to change course to selflessness is difficult. It’s like jumping into a marathon fat with ego. So I’m starting with some exercises that are within my selfishness level:

The first exercise is to give up my vices. I figure, if I am going to help others, I should at least have myself in order. That whole “put your oxygen mask on first” bit.

The second exercise is to start to become conscious of self-cherishing. I’ve been trying to witness myself when I define myself as bad or good, when I become defensive or vain. I don’t try to change anything, just notice it without judgment.

The third exercise is to reorient my thoughts of others. When I think of someone, I try to redirect my thoughts to appreciating them and envisioning them happy.

It’s not a lot, and nothing that affects anyone but me. But it’s what I can do for now, and hopefully the beginning of a sea change.

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Is this moment over yet? Reflections on a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat

Meditation was always something reserved for my ideal self, the self that was ten pounds slimmer and religiously followed a budget. So I was intrigued when my friend said he never could meditate before the retreat, but after it, he regularly meditated an hour or more. I wanted to try it. But finding a spare ten days with no internet connection? That took me five years.

Leading up to the retreat, I figured I should meditate to prepare. So I set an alarm for ten minutes. No problem, just ten minutes.

Hmm it’s been a while. Maybe my alarm isn’t working. I should check.

Do I really need to che–

Oh look, it’s been four minutes. I have six minutes left.

Hmmm maybe this is good enough.

Yup, my meditation practice was like that. So it came as no surprise that the first three days were incredibly difficult. I felt like I was breaking my mind, forcing it to PAY ATTENTION. Just focus on the breath. There’s the breath, there’s the– HEY! STOP SINGING TAYLOR SWIFT SONGS.

“The mind is in the past or the future. It’s never in the present,” said S. N. Goenka, the teacher. Or something like that. I’m not sure, they wouldn’t let us take notes. Or write anything. Or read. Or run. Or do yoga. Or speak.

But I was rarely bored. Struggling with my mind was immensely entertaining. It wasn’t pleasurable by any means, but it did a great job occupying my attention.

I expected I would spend the whole week in some great peace. And there were moments of that. There were moments walking through the forest where I would watch each tree coming closer and closer and then passing behind me. And there was nothing else but that experience.

There was a moment watching the late afternoon sun through the leaves when I realized that all I needed to be fulfilled was to be present. All my yearning for money or possessions or status or love was just a misguided substitute for just. being. here. Totally aware.

From that experience, I felt myself change. My goals were different. I saw myself in a garden being present. The ego and greed and desire melted away. Or at least some of it did.

But getting to that stillness took hours. Hours of suffering, hours of commanding myself to not move, hours of guilt when I’d let my mind scamper hungrily out of the present.

Halfway through the retreat, I felt I could access any childhood memory. All the random moments I assumed I would never remember came flooding back. My mind loved presenting me with memories because I would drop the meditation to pay attention to them.

I came to distrust my mind. You know the super weird, random stuff you get in dreams? Well it turns out you also get that stuff when you’re meditating for hours on end. Images of pandas came out of nowhere. What’s with the pandas, mind? (No answer.) Then there were lots of images of cats. Not any cat I knew. Just randomly generated cat images. Striped cats. Cute cats. Cats gazing at me, wondering what I was doing.

My favorite mental image was of me as a child, drawing with a crayon over the meditation hall walls. Drawing a line portraying the hills and valleys of my breath rising, falling, rising, falling.

I’m glad no one told me how hard it was. It was so. hard. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I kept expecting someone to jump up and run out of the meditation hall, screaming, “I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!!”

But no one did.

I was impressed by my fellow meditators. They were into it. They were committed. They were inspiring.

Then there was the weird shit that happened.

One day I got out of the meditation hall and couldn’t find my shoes. Did someone take them by accident? Then where were the shoes they had? I couldn’t figure it out. I searched and searched. Eventually, I decided to walk barefoot back to my tent for my other shoes. All over the stones and the pine cones. Ow ow ow ow. Later that day I discovered my shoes  right where I had parked them earlier that morning to use the bathroom before going to meditate. This would mean that either: I would have had to walk really far barefoot on stones and pine cones without noticing, OR some magical thing had magically transported my shoes from the meditation hall back to the bathroom.

I still can’t decide what happened.

One day we were watching the video instruction of the teacher (the majority of the instruction is by video recording of Goenka filmed in the early 90s. Surprisingly, it works). Suddenly the entire room changed to look like a palace in a spirit world. I saw the image of Goenka floating above me, still the video but suddenly as if he were coming through space and time to speak to me directly. He was talking about karma. He was talking to my soul about karma.

And then there was the night that I was completely sure I was going insane. I started getting paranoid. Who is this organization? What kind of organization takes all these random people and houses and feeds them and teaches them torturous meditation techniques for ten days without payment up front? Everyone is silent! I can’t talk to anyone! I can’t trust any of these people. The fear and anxiety mounted. I felt like I was about to break. I need to leave tomorrow. As soon as it’s light, I’m going to leave.

But the next morning I felt fine. Okay, maybe I’ll stick with it. Only six days left. By the sixth day, I was stable enough in the silence of myself that I let the material come up. I cried and released. It was hard, but I felt free.

Several weeks after the retreat, while I’m not enlightened, I do feel a change. I’m more able to sit with situations that make me uncomfortable. I was driving through traffic and I just hated it. It was dark and an unfamiliar highway and traffic and I was late and it just felt so uncomfortable and overwhelming.

And my mind said, “This will pass.”

And I breathed and felt the sensations of my discomfort and just was present. And it passed.

This whole life is uncomfortable and uncontrollable and an infinite loop of desire and aversion. And I don’t know the answer or the meaning to it all, but breathing and feeling sensation is like finding a home in the quiet eye of an inescapable storm.

Interested in having this type of experience yourself? See dhamma.org for information on Vipassana meditation retreats. There are tons of locations around the world and all retreats are by donation.