I spend most of my time thinking about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow. I sometimes catch myself spending hours replaying conversations that have already happened, but adding the addendum of what I should have said. When something good happens to me, I feel GREAT…for maybe an hour, and then it’s back to the banalities of everyday life. When something bad happens to me, I stew and stew about it, asking myself questions like, “Why did this happen to me? Did I deserve this? What will people think of me? Things like this never happen to ____ .”
The result is that, no matter how ardently I pursue the things that make me happy, no matter how carefully I plan against the things that make me suffer, I will always be in a state of dissatisfaction. Always looking forward to/worrying about the future, or pining for/painfully reliving the past. I might construct a scenario in my head of how I will become perfectly happy: when I get this dress, this body, this car, this house, this spouse, this job, these children (well, eventually). But yet I will continue to suffer, either overtly or deeper inside, because I will never, ever have everything I want and avoid everything I don’t want.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, congratulations: you’re human.
But don’t despair just yet. There are people out there who sincerely believe that this problem of being human can be overcome. One of them is S.N. Goenka, who is the head of a network of hundreds of meditation centers all over the world that teach vipassana meditation. These centers are run on donations only and are open to anyone willing to give ten days of their life to learn the practice.
Vipassana meditation teaches us to understand our addiction to craving and aversion. The true reason, says Goenka, that I want that promotion, is so that I can feel the pleasant sensation that comes with praise. The reason I want to avoid losing my job is so that I may avoid the unpleasant sensation that results from disappointment and uncertainty about the future. When something good happens to me, I crave more of where it came from. (This is great! How can I keep this feeling going? What do I need to acquire next?) When something bad happens to me, I am averse to the feeling and vow to do everything I can to avoid it in the future.
But feeling constantly good and avoiding all misery is neither possible nor sustainable. Goenka teaches a technique of observing the bodily sensations, including the sensations that come with emotion (yes, when we talk about “emotion,” we’re actually talking about particular sensations in the body) from a perspective of equanimity and objectivity. Instead of craving or resisting the sensation, we experience pure awareness, without judgment that names the sensation as “good” or “bad.” We stop desiring anything more than what is in this moment, and thus we eradicate the root of our deepest sufferings.
And while an intellectual understanding of this concept is necessary, nothing could replace actual meditation; getting my butt on a cushion and really looking at what goes on in that mind of mine. What I found, during ten days of meditating in silence for ten hours each day, is this: when I experienced something pleasant, and then added craving for that sensation, it was bound to pass away, to be replaced with a miserable yearning for its return. When I felt something unpleasant, like anger or fear, and I tried to deny its existence, the feeling became stronger, and the unpleasantness got turned inward. But if I simply observed, even embraced, whatever it is I was experiencing in the present moment, without reacting to it with craving or aversion, I began to move from one moment to the next without clinging to the good and regretting the bad. I began to understand that the present moment is the only thing we can be sure of. I began to observe and let go of deep-seated thought patterns that I was unaware of before my meditation. I began to see life as “now,” not as a story line that I must follow. This is the magic of equanimity.
So for ten days I sat, experiencing some extreme highs and extreme lows (though I have to say I got more practice with the lows), looking at each feeling as though I were watching a bird out the window, and then observing it as it floated away. What Goenka left me with was an understanding of the true impermanence of all things. Nothing lasts. Not my present state of mind, nor my happiness, nor my suffering. Not my relationships, nor my social status. And most important of all, not the lives of my loved ones, nor my own precious life. I am here but briefly, and I must use this time to live consciously, to live with awareness, and to live with understanding and compassion for all of my fellow humans with whom I must share this earth.
Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what has it done for you? If you don’t meditate, would you consider trying it? Why/why not?
For more information about vipassana courses, go to www.dhamma.org.