Lola Bites Back: And Other Inspirational Tidbits

Location: Bissingen an der Teck, Baden Wuerttemberg, Germany

Laughing all the way...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Happens in Delhi, Stays in Delhi

Next time I come here I have got to make a photo essay of the madness here in Pahar Ganj. You really just have to see it to believe it. It is one of the filthiest places I have ever known, a manic carnival with freaks of every shape and size. I came here just four days ago and I conclude that four days is my limit.

Yesterday I got food poisoning for the second time in two months. I spent twelve delirious hours with pain throughout my body, standing up every hour to either vomit or go to the toilet. This morning I dragged myself to the railway station and booked myself a train back home.

I'm here primarily to see two friends to the airport, including Daniel - master musician, kindred spirit and summer partner in crime - but I also just needed a short break from the Kesh. The period of transition that began in December has not stopped, and in fact has only just gotten more profound. Indeed, there is much more work to be done, and tomorrow will be time to start again.

finally facing the music,

Thursday, January 14, 2010

One more thing I can cross off the list of "Things to Do At Least Once"

2010: Starting Again

At this moment there are no less than fifteen files saved on my desktop, each one another unsuccessful attempt to express something for this blague. I apologize for not writing, but assure you it's not because I haven't tried.

I was released from my twelve-day commitment at the vipassana meditation centre in Dehradun about one week ago. Vipassana - a.k.a. "Meditation for Masochists" - is something akin to a rite of passage here in India; just as everyone has a "bus ride from hell" story, most everyone has a memorable vipassana experience to share...or two, or three, or 17.

The program is simple enough; sitting begins at 4:30am and finishes at 9pm, for a total of 10 hours of meditation each day. There is a strict code of "noble silence" - no speaking, eye contact, reading or writing - intended to set the stage for mental silence. The vipassana technique is derived from the teachings of Lord Buddha (though the program itself is non-denominational) and the instruction is simple. Students are told to focus their awareness on the breath and later the physical sensations that arise in the body. Whether one experiences acute pain or pleasure, the goal is non-reaction, or equanimity in all circumstances.

In yoga philosophy, every time we crave something or feel aversion to something, we are creating sanskaras, seeds of karma that fuel the cravings and aversions and are the cause of our perpetual misery. Lord Buddha teaches that the origin of suffering is in cravings (the second noble truth), and in both teachings, the method for burning up these seeds is to observe the cravings and aversions as they arise without reacting to them. This can be done in the practice of meditation.

Whether it's an intense craving for bananas and nutella or a sudden sharp pain in the back, my task is to observe the sensations objectively until they pass. Non-reaction is a critical skill in yoga practice; a method through which we can free ourselves from misery.

My first experience with vipassana nearly seven years ago was a hellish ordeal. At that time I had never practiced yoga, had no idea what meditation was and had never sat on the floor in my life. Unsurprisingly, I suffered extreme amounts of physical and mental pain and on the seventh day I finally broke down. Unable to escape, I resorted to desperate measures, counting my breaths for the remaining three days.

Obviously, it was an inappropriate experience for me at that time. Under no circumstances should a complete beginner be admitted into a vipassana course. Nevertheless, I did learn one critical lesson: after three days of excrutiating pain in one knee, it would suddenly vanish and a stabbing pain in my back would take its place. Ten days of this pattern convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pain is Temporary. This hard-earned bit of information has served me well over the years.

There was one other thing I learned: I was definitely not a meditator. I ran out of the center on the 12th day and proceeded to consume more drugs in the following two weeks than I have ever consumed in my life. Looking back, I'm not sure how I survived, either the course or the drug binge that followed it.

. . . . .

On the first day of my retreat (on December 26th), I manifested explosive diarrhea, making it impossible to meditate and sparking a fierce debate inside my head about whether to quit the program and seek medical attention or to self-medicate with dodgy-looking antibiotics. Loathe to choose either option, I crossed my fingers, swallowed the antibiotics and hoped for the best. On the bright side, taking antibiotics meant I could also have dinner, which is generally not offered to returning students.

But uncertainty about the wisdom of my choice raged on until the fourth day, when I finally made the decision to stay regardless of my physical condition. And I'm happy to report that this decision turned out to be an excellent one.

Over the last two years I've been blessed with two teachers who have trained me well in the art of meditation. On the eighth day I was both shocked and pleased to discover that not only could I sit for two hours without a single movement and without significant discomfort, but I was enjoying it.. I can honestly say I never believed this day would come.

How is it that I can sleep for ten hours, talk for ten hours, walk for ten hours...but sitting still for ten hours is a monumental task of self-discipline and willpower?

. . . . .

Vipassana is an epic physical, mental and emotional trial by fire; a fascinating experiment in which every external stimulus is removed and you are left with nothing but your reeling monkey mind. Each day feels like three and the ups and downs are intense. Many want to run away (that's why they take away your passport), and for those of you who are wondering whether it's not some kind of cultish brainwash, let me assure you that it is.

Continuous silence punctuated only by the gong (the signal for us to shuffle back and forth from the meditation hall to our cells) and Mr. Goenka's endless repetitions of "anicha, anicha, anichaaaaaa..." (a reminder of the impermanence of all things) left me considering the brainwash factor in depth. And I became quite sure that it was, in fact, brainwash. What I was not sure about was whether this was necessarily a bad thing.

When the course concluded, we gathered outside the centre and prepared for the bus ride back to town. Ten days of silence left us all a bit disoriented by the madness of an Indian environment, and when someone remarked on the overwhelming barrage of advertisements and billboards, it finally occurred to me why the vipassana brainwash was somehow acceptable.

The first thirty years of my life were spent being brainwashed by television, newspapers and advertisements in the US. So if I want to spend ten days being reprogrammed to accept the impermanence of all things, to react with equanimity in all circumstances, this is at least brainwash that I choose. When I finally got rid of my television in 2002, it was my subconscious way of rejecting the cultural brainwash around me. Participating in vipassana today is a conscious way to reprogram myself in a new way. Let's face it, it's all brainwash.

Bathing With 20-90 Million of Your Favorite Hindu Monks: It's Kumbha Mela!

Need I say more? Today is Makarasankranti and
marks the most important day of the most important holy gathering in the world, centered less than 30km from Rishikesh and taking place once in every twelve years. Estimates of between 20 and 90 million babas will congregate here to bathe in Mother Ganga. Something about the surface of the sun that is presently facing the world producing a certain quality of radiation that is infusing the Ganga with prana energy (radiation) means those who bathe in its frigid waters today will reap great benefits, perhaps instant enlightenment or instant death, which is possibly the same thing. I am preparing mentally for my own bath approximately one hour from now.

Tomorrow, the 15th of January, is another auspicious occasion requiring Ganga bath. It's a solar eclipse as well as the new moon. And for what it's worth, the 19th is yet another holy day for those orthodox Christians who continue to populate my life, requiring - that's right - another Ganga bath.

"Didiksha," the practice of bearing extreme heat or cold, is another masochistic spiritual practice that I've been engaged in for the last eight months. After three Ganga baths in the throes of winter, don't be surprised if I book a train for the lovely beaches of Karnataka in the near future...

Whether death awaits me this year or fifty years from now, the epitaph is already written: "It was never boring."

Sending my love and best wishes for a peaceful year.
Hari Om,

Postscript: For my fellow masochists or those who are just curious, there are several vipassana centers in the US, including one in Northfork, California, about five hours from Los Angeles.

Late Update:

Wow...from the reaction I've received, it's quite clear that I completely failed to express myself...guess that's what I get for forcing myself to write when the words just don't come.

First, I apologise for alarming everyone, but I assure you that I am not dead. Quite the opposite in fact. And no, I haven't stopped laughing! I have removed the offending passages so they will not cause any further, unnecessary concern. If it is at all possible, I will try to re-write them for clarity in the near future.

How is it that when I am desperately struggling, my pleas for help go unanswered. But when I am in fact doing quite well, moving forward and (finally!) building strength from the inside, people are suddenly sad and concerned? What have I missed?