American Pilgrimage #30

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Last Sunday I finished a 10 day vipassana course at Dhamma Suttama, outside Montreal. The week after a course is always strange. You haven’t spoken for nine days, have been up at four every morning, meditating ten hours a day. And you have experienced your mind in its totality, doing nothing but watching and watching and watching, an extraordinarily simple yet devastating experience.

By the time you leave, you have succeeded, at least to an extent, in reprogramming yourself, undoing habit patterns you’ve clung to since birth, patterns that have intensified the older you’ve become. And now you re-encounter the world and it feels less familiar. The things you used to do habitually become difficul, sometimes; you feel happy or sad or hurt when you used to feel nothing; and in this instance, I was exhausted.

This was one of my better courses. I was very focused, very equanimous, but it left me drained and weary. For ten days I had been swimming upstream, going against everything I’d every known. This is vipassana. It teaches you the opposite of everything society and even your peers tell you. Instead of trying to meet as many of your wants as possible, you learn to let go of those wants, realising it’s the wants that make you unhappy rather than the fact of their being unmet.

But first you have to know you are unhappy. It’s something I’ve experienced over and over, arriving at a vipassana centre straight from the world with all my defences and routines intact, sending final emails, making phone calls, thinking about all the things I haven’t done, and then I switch off my phone and the course begins and by the end of Day 1 I’m wondering what the point of living is, seeing misery everywhere I look, experiencing states of mind I’ve protected myself from in the preceding months, using distraction or repression or simple denial so that I could function. That’s what society tells us to do. And we do it all the time. And the more success we have, the more money, the more status, the more ego, the less willing we are to admit to our own unhappiness. But it’s there nonetheless, even if we never acknowledge it for the whole of our lives.

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As the course progressed, it became clear to me that unhappiness is unavoidable for human beings. At any moment we want a near infinite quantity of things, some large and significant, some tiny and trivial, but whatever they are, not having those things, craving them, make us unhappy. We may have a toothache or a headache and wish it would go away; we may be lonely and longing for love; we may hate our jobs; we may wish we were rock stars or millionaires; or we may want a hamburger, or to go bed, or to go home. It doesn’t matter all that much. In fact, I would say we all crave roughly the same things. We all want to be loved; we all want not to be hurt or abused; we all want material comfort; we all want to be respected; we all want the people we love to be well and happy; we all want to be healthy; we all want to avoid old age, sickness and death.

Society teaches us to try to meet these wants, to avoid or prevent those things we’re afraid of from touching us, and American society does this more than any other in history. American society is based on the avoidance of pain, on the will to power, the desire to live forever, on perpetual consumption, on ambition, lust, and the pursuit of success. In America everyone is a millionaire in the making. In America everyone has a dream. And the worst thing one can be is a loser.

Vipassana teaches us that this mentality is the cause of our unhappiness — that we, rather than our external circumstances, are the cause of our unhappiness — and in this lies a way out, because if we are the cause then we can be the solution; if the problem lies in the mind, then the solution lies in the mind too.  If we learn to control our minds, then we can learn to let go of those cravings, to accept our reality peacefully and harmoniously. It’s a universal truth, and the Buddha isn’t the only one to have realised it. Americans have come to this conclusion too, like Reinhold Neibuhr, the early twentieth century theologian from Missouri who authored the serenity prayer which is used by Alcoholics Anonymous today. 

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By the end of those ten days in Dhamma Suttama, I was left in no doubt that my mind was quite wild and untamed, pulling itself apart in pursuit of cravings of every kind, running frantically from everything it dislikes or fears or hates. Yesterday, however, I was hiking in a forest of giant redwoods, the tallest trees in the world, some of them older than the Buddha’s teachings. I saw how unmoved they were, unaffected by any weather or by the chaos going on beneath them in the world. I met a man who told us he drove his car into a giant redwood at 100 miles an hour, was in a wheel chair for five months, but the redwood, of course, was unscathed.

This is how I would like my mind to be. It’s my aspiration, my goal. I do not know of any other way to come out of suffering, and though the process is hard and painful and most of all long, it’s all I’ve got.

Being calm like a redwood does not mean being uncaring or inhuman. I do not believe there is such a thing as a neutral, impassive mind. I think indifference is the opposite of love, another aspect of hatred, a colder self-denying form of anger or fear. Being calm like a redwood means transcending the negative so that love and compassion can flood in by default. One of the few things that I know for certain is that no fear or rage or craving is permanent. If we watch these feelings, patiently, calmly, trying our best, they will subside and love and peace will prevail. It’s hard, hard work, but it’s easier than we think it is.

As I sat in that Dhamma Hall I was shocked to realise that over the last nine years, I have spent a whole year in meditation. But on the last day of the course, as I listened to the teacher, S.N. Goenka’s, final discourse, I found myself in tears. I felt so much gratitude for having encountered vipassana, so much love, barely able to believe my good fortune. Even though I have so far to go, with every course I sit, with every hour I sit, I am becoming less angry, less fearful, less anxious and, as a matter of course, more peaceful, more loving, more kind.  The goal is so far away, but what else is there to do but walk towards it?

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