Wednesday, November 3, 2010

meditation: round 1, Danny

(for those more interested in photos than reflections, please skip to them: )

Before I left America, I ran into a friend from high school and told her that I'd be coming to India for the year to explore meditation and yoga. "So you gonna go to an ashram or something?" Yea, something like that. "That's neat." Hmmm. neat.

For all those who think I've taken off on an extended vacation, to languish in exotic, remote destinations in India, I invite you to do a 10-day vipassana retreat like the one I finished last Tuesday. Indeed, I think it was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. 10 hours a day of sitting meditation for 1, 1.5, or 2 hours at a time, usually with 5 minute breaks in between, trying not to change posture in spite of whatever arises. The goal is neither torture nor masochism- on the contrary, it is liberation and peace, deliverance from abiding unconscious mental habit patterns which bind us to a kind of suffering, misery, or lack of peace which are ongoing. Allow me to explain.

The basic idea behind this technique- the essential psychological insight of the Buddha, preserved in Burma for generations without the distortions or extra baggage that Buddhism developed in India, is that we have a very deep and unconscious (which I'll use here interchangeably with subconcious) habit of aversion to unpleasant sensation and craving for pleasant sensation. These un/pleasant sensations include the feelings that arise from hearing certain words or ideas- eg you are such a kind person/you're uniquely ugly, or the ones that arise from thinking about things, eg when I find a partner I'll be happy/if x would just stop happening/bothering me/keeping me hungry, then I'd be happy. all I want is x. So this is our deep orientation, the hidden agenda which we're ultimately pursuing. If this doesn't resonate with you, try this exercise. Stop reading (At the end of the paragraph). Close your eyes (not yet). and observe your breath, meaning focus on the sensations of your breath coming in and out of your nose. Do this for 3 minutes and focus only on your respiration. Do not control it, just observe it in whatever rhythm it comes.


Welcome back. I expect that the results were thus. You focused for a few breaths and then started thinking, and off you went thinking. maybe you came back. then it happened again. your thoughts were either about the future or the past. They were either desiring something to be or wishing something to have been, or reacting to an unpleasant experience, or perhaps even imagining one occurring in the future. So it goes. We get embedded in the stories and experiences of the past and lost in desires and dreams for the future. Meanwhile, the present is the only thing that actually exists and offers an infinite depth of peace and joy and spaciousness, if only we can inhabit it. As long as we are stuck, or enslaved, to this deep unconscious mental habit, however, we will not be free in the most important way. So the task is mastery of the mind.

There is a strong adversary in this endeavor however, which we can call the ego. The ego is the projection of this unconscious orientation, the sense of self that does its bidding, averting the unpleasant, pursuing the pleasant, in the Sisyphean pursuit of happiness, doomed from the very start. How long after getting something we want or relief from something unpleasant until a new want or aversion arises to spoil our peace? All is transient. but hope is not lost. before getting to the solution, let's continue with the illusion that is the ego. The trickiest part of this whole enterprise is that the adversary doesn't present itself as such, but rather masks itself slyly as you. What chutzpah the ego has to use my own voice! Let me explain a bit further in order to clarify.

Normally, we experience our sensate self as a gross body, that is, strong, solid sensations that feel permanent, like pressure, pain, the touch of clothing, of another person. When we develop strong concentration (as was the task of the first 3 days of the retreat), however, we tune in to something of which normally we are aware, that there are constant sensations, vibrations and the like all over the body, even inside the body, and it is to these that the unconscious is constantly reacting, trying to 'get comfortable.' Picture someone (eg yourself) lying on the couch. How often do you shift position without even thinking about it (as I just did sitting in this chair)? This is the subconscious awareness to which we are constantly reacting. Then, of course, we build entire identities and ideas about why we did something in order to preserve some sense of internal order and identity. The technique of vipassana, which means to see things as they really are (Rather than through the lens in which the ego illusion casts them, is to observe all the sensations in one's body with a sense of equanimity, building a balance in the mind which is indifferent to whether what's happening to you is pleasant or unpleasant, ultimately based on the experientially-derived insight that everything is impermanent, transient, fleeting, so nothing solid can be used as the foundation for one's identity/happiness. Note that this does not render one apathetic or indifferent to life. On the contrary, one becomes peaceful in all his ways, and able to pursue goals out of genuine generosity, kindness, love, and compassion, rather than out of some subconscious ulterior motive to feel good/better. Here's how it plays out.
The scene: Danny sits down for a two-hour meditation session.
First hour goes ok, hear the clock chiming one hour.
Into the second hour, the pain in the knee is really strong
The ego/illusion (in my voice): "Geez, this reaalllly hurts. Why not just readjust? one little movement? is this really what's important in life? to sit still? come on. to be happy? what do I need all this for? maybe this whole india/meditation thing wasn't such a good idea. maybe I don't really need it. why not just go back to Israel, go to yeshiva, learn stuff, teach? why sit here? i'm not even doing any exercise. i think i might be permanently damaging my ankle. after all, i know people experience pain, it's part of the process, but I have a chronic ankle injury, remember? and I came into the week with a sore knee. I think I might be giving myself tendinitis. am I gonna wanna walk around like a cripple for the rest of my life, just so I can say I sat still for 2 hours? maybe i should be doing this on a chair. after all, like one yoga teacher explained, indians grow up sitting on the floor, but we westerners don't, so that sounds like a good reason to me, good sense, no ego there. hmmmm. ok. i wonder how i'm gonna write about this experience on my blog after this retreat is over. i should probably sit still so that i can say that i sat still for 2 hours. and then i'll explain this whole technique and how it leads to peace. i wonder if i will have gotten an email from x. maybe i should spend a couple years doing meditation so i can be enlightened. that would be good. i hear 10,000 hours is the amount of time to become expert in something. let's think. 100 this week. 1%. 10hours a day for a year, two years. hmm. maybe 15 hours a day, that could do it. 15 hours a day for two years full time. but what would it be like to go away for two years? maybe one at a time? maybe three though, i mean, might as well really solidify while i'm at it. but with which teacher? why isn't there a jewish retreat center to do this at...."
and so it goes. on and on and on.
with some practice, some improvement comes and i can catch myself quicker and come back to the focus. or i can identify the voice as the ego masquerading as my desire. then sometimes I do a 'noting' practice, and say
"ah, the illusion says it would be better to move."
"the illusion is thinking about x again"
this practice of recognizing the voice as such, as a voice and not my ultimate reality, is tremendously helpful, during meditation and generally in life. realizing that we are not our thoughts. then sometimes it's possible to see, to experience beyond the horizon of the ego, the place of real peace, of real light. then sometimes it's possible, even while there is an intense feeling in my leg (usually identified with as pain), to experience a real sense of peace at the same time. this is the spark of realization which we must grow into the real flame of life. then we can stop spending all our energies trying to get comfortable by reordering the external world to be 'just so' and experience the underlying wonder and peace which is always there, which is who we really are. then we can stop identifying ourselves and experiencing life as what happens to us. we can be liberated from conditional happiness and love (along with the corollary of assured disappointment), and enter into unconditioned happiness, unconditional love. our relationships can stop being about being with someone who makes us feel a certain way, and trying to get them to behave in such a way or treat us in a way so we can feel pleased, and start being able to really be with a person, with people, to really give to them and really listen to them. Eckhart Tolle's book, The Power of Now, is a very clear, nonsectarian exposition of this reality/possibility. Chapter 2 discusses the problem of identifying with 'the pain body' emotional and physical, and Chapter 8 offers an alternative way of doing relationships.

Let me note, amidst my reflections, that it is far, far easier to think, talk, write, and conclude about all this than it is to internalize on a deep level. Doing so means getting rid of old habit patterns. which means enduring a lot of pain as old knots are slowly undone and let go. the image that I kept thinking of during my meditation to share with all of you is that of a carbonated drink, where the carbonation stands for agitation. If you open the bottle and let it sit, the carbonation gradually rises and goes away. all you have to do is not interfere. just allow whatever thoughts and sensations to arise and pass on. this is their nature. if however, you interact, interfere, get caught up in, react, and the like, it's like shaking a carbonated bottle, you just increase the agitation and stir it all up, all over again.
So, in ten days, ten grueling days of ups and downs and lots of intensity, I did make some progress. It's a start, a good start. I feel well equipped with a technique that can take me a long way, perhaps all the way if ardently adhered to. the knowledge and practice of always cultivating equanimity, of being wary of cravings and aversions, or learning to sit through pain, learning to examine it and getting better acquainted with the illusion of ego, the illusion which for most of us, most of the time is our entire sense of self. with practice comes insight and knowledge, greater familiarity with the ruses which the ego uses to maintain itself, to perpetuate the deep, unconscious mental habit which is responsible for our lack of real peace and happiness.

With the caveat that practice is what matters, what really matters, let me turn to some Jewish framing for this, ideally as a way of driving home the importance of this kind of work and showing how it's really at the root of an authentic and genuine religious life.
I have always been struck by a discrepancy between what people profess to 'believe' and the way they actually live out their lives, treat people, deport themselves, and manifest their priorities. I think I first noticed this growing up around some people who professed a very convicted faith in Jesus and went to church on Sundays, 'religiously', but then I didn't really see how that was playing out from Monday to Saturday. (please note this is not a comment about Christianity or applicable to the many deeply inspired, inspiring, and faithful Christians I know, and the same could be said about people of any 'faith'). So began my hesitations about belief, and what that really means, why 'salvation' could depend on how neurons interact in your head, or how/whether one could 'decide' to believe, and what that would actually accomplish, or if that could actually address or resolve doubts in a meaningful way. in short, what's the connection between belief and transformation, which feels like a more compelling goal to me. In a talk on Vedanta that I went to this morning, I noted something that I am getting used to here- a characterization of a spiritual approach as 'scientific'. What is meant by this is that it can and should be verified by personal experience, rather than just subscribed to as a 'belief system'. To me it feels like the difference between reading a guidebook, even memorizing it, and actually going somewhere. (I gave away my India guidebook because it was too heavy to carry around, and I wasn't reading it. India, however, is quite fascinating.) Going on, let's put it this way.

In Bereishit, the book of Genesis, we have the eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. after this, the verse reads "v'tifkechena einei shnei'hem" and the eyes of both of them were opened. Rambam, aka Maimonides, interprets this as the beginning of ego-consciousness, where people begin to see and relate to everything in the world as either desirable or repugnant, ie it either makes me feel good or displeases me. This act is also related to Haman and understood as the kind of consciousness or orientation which leads to alienation, condescension, evil, dissatisfaction, ego, and all the trappings of such. This is the great contraction of human consciousness into a very gross state. My understanding is that Bereishit, and the Garden of Eden, are not one-time historic occurrences, but rather constantly recurring states of consciousness and creation which are likewise constantly refractured, so conditioned are we to this consciousness and unable to simply abide in presence, to fully inhabit each moment rather than our thoughts running us away into the past or future. Redemption then, is the ability to return to this unadulterated state of being, the one in the spirit of 'erumim v'lo hitobesheshu' (naked/vulnerable and unashamed) of Eden, of opening to the vastness and infinity within, that is Us, that is our Divine nature, that is the kodesh ha'kodeshim (the holy of holies/inner sanctum), the mishkan. HaMakom (The Place), we call it, haMakom yerachem, compassion will come from haMakom, a place in us, beyond our usual sense of self, but always there, and we can learn to access it, to touch it, even to be it. The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century spiritual revolutionary and founder of Hasidism, tells of a dream he had where he met the Moshiach (Messiah). When will you come? he asked. When all have what you have, when your wellspring spreads forth, came the reply. What did he have? Da'at. Knowledge, or mindfulness. the unfading experiential consciousness of nondualism, of interconnectedness, of the unity of all energy and its flowing from the Ultimate, Ein Sof, the ineffable Infinitude. For a better and slightly lengthier elucidation of this, please see a recent article by my cousin and teacher, R' James, here. I highly recommend reading that. highly. likewise jay michaelson's book, Everything is God. So this is one framework. We live in a world of deep alienation, from others but most importantly from our essential selves, and we expend tremendous energy, time, and money trying to distract ourselves from the deep (and usually subconscious) unease that comes from that. To really address that means inner work, not reordering what's outside. (though outer alignment should be the next and natural step).

One of the reasons that I embarked on this journey and am interested in meditation, breathwork, yoga, hitbodedut, song, and serious spiritual work in general is because of the ability to reorient our unconscious attitudes and orientation to life. The alter from slobodka, Rabbi Nosson Tvi Finkel, who lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, dispelled the idea that there could be such a thing as belief in God and unethical action. He attested that knowing God meant understanding God as the source of goodness, and in line with the commandment to know God, knowing Him would mean living out a reflection of that Goodness, not just signing onto the 'belief'. Which is to say, belief, used in a meaningful way, is like an X-ray to see the inner workings of what your body's doing. Likewise, what you really believe, whether we're conscious of it or not, is that which underlies our behavior (both how we behave and how we experience).

This post seems to be dragging on, and if I'm weary from writing, I'll be lucky if you're still with me. so i'll wrap up and save more for another time. more to come includes a wonderful spontaneous chevruta with a German Jewish girl exploring sefer yona, the book of Jonah, and its commentaries on heeding/neglecting the Divine call, and the effect of ego in social activism.
Also, some reflections on the ups and downs, twists and turns of life/the spiritual path, in the pilgrimage model (beautifully elaborated in Chapter 9 of the Spirituality of Imperfection, thanks Dan for the rec), being white in India, the Golden Temple, and training (ie traveling via train).
and finally a shoutout of appreciation and wonder to my dearest mother, who carved the below pumpkins for each of her children with each of our designs. (mine is the map of India, yoga belongs to Jack, tango to Max, pumpkin is Benj, woman/model(?) is Judes')
missing you all, loving you, appreciating your support, and very glad and appreciative to be here and on this unfolding journey of life.

Note the blessing I learned yesterday "May you live like a pumpkin" (meaning, like pumpkins who naturally separate from their root when they're ripe, may you die when you have lived fully)


  1. What a beautiful post. I've made a book and article list accordingly. And your mother's talent is insane!