Ten Days at Tushita – Part 3 of 4

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I’d been practicing meditating here and there for a month prior to the course and for the morning meditations I had much the same experience. The idea was to follow the breath, labeling the in-breath as “rising” and the out-breath as “falling”. Any time the mind would wander, the thing to do was label wherever my mind went and then go back to breathing. If I was distracted by a sound, I’d say (to myself) “hearing, hearing, hearing”, then go back to my breath “rising, falling, rising, falling…” And if I caught myself daydreaming…”thinking, thinking, thinking…rising, falling, rising, falling…” The technique is to take an observers point of view of the activity in the mind and what happened was slowly I’d start wandering off less and less. I’d follow my breath longer and longer and the thoughts in the background would fade. It was as if my cognitive mind wasn’t getting any attention from my focus or awareness, so it would just give up. After awhile things in my body would start to feel different. There were twisting sensations, which often felt like I was bending my head to the point where my right ear was on my shoulder or my left arm was twisted completely around. Sometimes I couldn’t tell which hand was which and a couple of times I felt like I was being stretched ten feet tall. Once it even felt as if I was completely outside my body.

Things like this sounded absurd to me a couple of months ago. How could someone feel something that wasn’t happening, I’d think? Maybe one’s mind might be so convinced of an imaginary sensation that the person would believe they’re feeling it, but surly the actual physical sensation couldn’t be there. I found this idea to be one of the many I would open my mind to. I had some discussions with my teacher and others after the course and they reported similar experiences. My instructor actually told me that the sensations are due to the nerves in the body firing in peculiar ways since they’re not use to sitting still for so long and with such a level of consciousness. A few times I was completely convinced my head was bent over onto my shoulder, so much so that I would nod my head back and forth to check. Once I even interrupted my meditation by opening my eyes to make sure my arm wasn’t all twisted up.

The morning meditations were not all good. More than half the time I was distracted by sounds. People’s moving, coughing, sneezing, swallowing and breathing kept me from focusing on my breath to points where I started to get frustrated. It often became cyclic. I’d hear a sound, get distracted, get frustrated I got distracted, and then get frustrated that I got frustrated about something so simple. I told my instructor I was getting angry at myself for not being able to ignore the sounds around me. “Great!” she said. We were studying anger that day and she thought it would be good practice. She was right and the entire issue became an object of meditation for me for the whole course. It was a simple example of how I let small things annoy me. By the last day, I’d made great progress at not getting frustrated, but was still getting distracted.

The lotus position (or “Indian style” for the non-pc term), which was strongly recommended we sit in, got pretty painful after long sittings. I’d heard about using imagery to affect pain and after feeling the twisting sensations, I was at least open to possibilities. I tried to visualize the tight burn in my knee as a pulsing red knot and then I imagined white light pouring into it. I think my heart skipped a beat when the pain disappeared. It completely vanished for about five or ten seconds. When I looked for it long enough, it came back. I played with the technique over and over again, in wonder of yet another barely believable experience. For awhile I sat there, like some kind of new age hippy, breathing light into my legs and back.

After getting over my frustration with the sounds around me, I could give more awareness to my perception of those sounds and how my body reacted. I started to feel a sensation of energy pass through my body when each sound occurred around me. A cough to my right would send a wave from the right to left side of my head. I even noticed that a part of my body would physically react when a quick, but loud sound occurred. Often the instructor’s microphone would give off a loud static pop and when it did, there would be a simultaneous twitch at some random place in my body. I’ve got a scientific way of looking at things, so I wasn’t about to accept this was happening with only a few occurrences. I witnessed it over and over again, every single day. The microphone would pop and my thumb would twitch, someone would cough and a muscle in my leg would jump, a sneeze and I’d blink an eye. These things happened fast and I think because my mind was so calm and focused, I was simply able to notice something I normally wouldn’t.

There is a second level to this mindfulness meditation that Buddhists call “single pointed meditation”. If one can develop a strong focus on the breath, so strong that they go hours without the mind wandering, then a kind of focused awareness will arise, where you’re not even following your breath anymore, you’re just “there”. I can’t say I experienced single pointedness, but there were a few instances that I had glimpses of a state that is hard to describe. It felt as if for a moment, everything shut off in my brain, but I was still aware. It’s hard to notice, but normally to think about anything, there is a mental conversation going on. Without this conversation we might expect that we aren’t awake, aren’t even conscious. But from these quick glimpses of “offness”, I gained an insight that there is a way for us to know without telling ourselves that we know. A way to be aware without mental dialogue, without mental language, without mental pictures. As soon as the experience would occur, my mind would jump in and try to describe it to myself and then I’d lose it. But it was real. I was awake, I wasn’t thinking and I knew what was happening. Although short and rare, my search for repeated experiences has become the biggest reason for me to continue meditating.

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