In my recent blog, Going Off the Grid, I explored technology and the benefits of developing a healthy relationship with our personal electronic devices. Well, even without electronics, we can still find many ways to distract ourselves and to avoid whatever it is we are feeling or thinking, what I like to call deflecting or distracting.
I went to a ten day silent meditation retreat at the Vipassana Meditation Center (dhamma.org). We participate in noble silence, which consists of no communication whatsoever: physical, verbal or mental (no talking, gesturing, reading, writing, etc.). We hand over our cell phones to be locked away for the duration of the course, as well as any books, journals, and pens. The point is to eliminate all possible distractions. The restrictions also include no exercising and no yoga. It’s in a beautiful setting where you’re allowed to walk the grounds, but they encourage slow, mindful steps, as even a fast paced walk can be a distraction.
Vipassana means “insight” and the course teaches how to go within. We are constantly looking outward, beyond ourselves to the world around us, for answers, direction, and fulfillment. But the truth lies within…and with the distractions of the world, we can never know the truth.
Our minds and bodies are so interrelated, so much so that we are not even conscious of the intricate communication, and the moment to moment events that are happening. What it comes down to is our innate feelings of something being pleasant or unpleasant, and we form habits of craving the pleasant sensations and having an aversion to the unpleasant. We chase after pleasure and run from pain.
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka, by William Hart, details the method and gives an understanding of the Buddha’s teachings that underlie this technique. To know oneself, one must understand human nature. And the Buddha came to understand that we are comprised of five processes – one physical and four mental.
Our physical reality is made of matter. The atom was once thought to be the smallest unit, that it couldn’t be divided, and that it was solid and stable. But then scientists discovered subatomic particles and with it, the nature of these particles, and that they are in constant motion. There is the phenomenon that particles appear and disappear. The Buddha discovered 2,500 years ago that all matter is made of “kalapas”, or material units. And much like the subatomic particles, these units are in a constant state of arising and passing away. It’s hard to imagine, considering our physical universe appears to be solid, but the speed at which these particles are coming in and out of existence is so rapid…trillions of times per second! And while a lot of quantum mechanics can’t actually be proven (there’s a lot of theory debunking), suffice it to say, matter is always in motion.
There are sensory receptors throughout our entire bodies. Exteroceptors sense stimuli originating outside the body (our five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight and sound); and interoceptors receive stimuli within the body to provide information about the internal state, such as blood pressure, glucose level, digestion and elimination. And with all of these processes, which happen automatically, there are constant biochemical and electromagnetic reactions happening all the time in every single cell. Yet, we are only tuned into the sensations in our bodies that are intense or solidified. We are mostly unaware of the majority of sensations throughout our bodies and not attuned to the subtle happenings.
Besides the physical process, there are four processes of the mind. They are as follows: consciousness, perception, sensation and reaction.
Consciousness is the receiving of raw data, whether it’s physical or mental, internal or external. It takes in any changes in our environment without judgment. Perception, then, is the act of recognition, when we identify the data that has been received by the consciousness. We label, categorize, judge and evaluate it…then deem it as positive or negative.
All input that is received creates a sensation, signaling that something is happening. The sensations will remain neutral until some value is placed on it, then it becomes either pleasant or unpleasant. Our reaction is to like or dislike. If it’s a pleasant sensation, our desire is to prolong and intensify the experience, and if it’s unpleasant, our desire is to stop it or push it away.
Our mental processes work to help us stay safe and survive, and so for efficiency purposes, they alert us to changes that will serve that purpose. The body tells us when we’re hungry, alerts us to imminent danger, lets us know when it’s time to rest, and pleasant sensations give us a sense of nourishment, vitality, and a sense of community and belonging. But these sensations are judged as pleasant or unpleasant and we fall into a habit of craving and aversion, perhaps without understanding the nature of the sensations.
During the first three days of the ten day meditation, we practice Anapana, which is a meditation focused only on your natural breathing. By focusing on the area around the nose, and just breathing naturally (no forced breathing, no counting, no thinking “in” and “out”)…just simply placing your attention on the area around the nostrils, you will begin to train the mind to feel the various sensations of the breath…tingly, pulsing, warm, cool. On the fourth day, we are then ready to practice Vipassana, which is to move the attention through the body, part by part, starting at the top of the head and moving in order to the bottom of the feet. It’s important to maintain the order and to flow…not to get stuck on a particular body part and not to skip over other parts.
Besides strengthening your attention and becoming attuned to the sensations, you are also learning “anicca”, or impermanence. The sensations are constantly changing and will pass away, they are not eternal. You will begin to observe all your sensations objectively, without reacting, and you will gain equanimity. When you grow your understanding that nothing is permanent, you will be able to loosen your hold on attachment.
The beauty of being silent, and eliminating distractions, is that you have an opportunity to observe the sensations in your body from a point of non-judgment. We habitually react…we feel some discomfort or feel some reaction in our bodies and without even investigating, we will distract or deflect. We will go eat something, drink something, grab our phones, or behave in a certain manner that will temporarily quell the situation. But whatever it is will most likely rear its head again, which will lead to more distractions. The beauty of Vipassana meditation and becoming familiar with the sensations in your body is that you then become the master, instead of the slave. There is a constant craving and aversion happening in the body…like, dislike, like, dislike, want, don’t want. You start to look at the sensations for what they are…just sensations in the body. They are not permanent.
When we are in pain, it’s as if the whole world stops. All we can think about is the pain and nothing else matters except getting rid of it. We are stuck in a notion that we will always be in pain. Not that I’m discrediting pain (been there, felt that!) but our focus on it, and our thoughts about it, can intensify it.
Have you ever seen a small child run and then fall? They get up and they are fine…until they look at their mother, who has a horrified look on her face, and is basically signaling to the child her fear and that something bad has happened…then the child lets out a big wail and starts bawling.
Sometimes when I’m rushing, I end up banging into things (the corner of the bathroom vanity is a popular one). I let out a big “OWWW!”, then I get mad at the object I banged into, and start cursing at it. The sting of it reverberates and it leaves a big sore bruise that makes me mad every time I look at it or think about it. Then there are times I’ve noticed a big bruise on my leg and have no idea where I got it. I can be somewhat clumsy and distracted, so it’s easy for me to imagine that I absentmindedly bumped into something…but why didn’t that hurt? Theoretically, I should have been in as much pain as when I was in a rush, right? Well, I didn’t judge the pain like I did when I was in a rush. I’m sure I felt the impact, but I felt it and let it go. I didn’t dwell on it. I didn’t put a story on it.
We are creatures of habit, and based on our reactions of liking or disliking our sensations, we fall into behavior patterns. We are habitually reacting to the sensations in our bodies without further exploration. Through silence, cutting out distractions, and focusing our attention on the multitude of bodily sensations, we can develop our faculty of observation and move away from our reactive behavior.
By being silent, and I don’t just mean no talking, I mean cutting out distractions and going within, we can retrain the mind how to perceive the reality of the body.
Challenge for the week: Take a moment of silence!
I’ve lived so much of my life in my head, in my thoughts, that I was shocked when I started focusing my attention in my body. My biggest deflective behavior has always been to escape the unpleasant by living in my imagination. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Take time to be silent, cut out distractions, and just go within. Before you start to do something, whether it’s eating, drinking, grabbing your phone, or even having a conversation…take a moment of silence. Sometimes all you need is a beat…just a pause to contemplate and sense.
You don’t have to attend a ten day retreat, just devote some time to feeling what’s going on in your body. Awareness is the first step!
Have a golden week! Please feel free to leave any comments or questions below.