I’m not sure how old I was when I first realized that not all salads contained leafy greens. For much of my childhood, with the exception of egg salad which is not really a salad at all under any definition, salad consisted of iceberg lettuce, shaved carrots, sliced cucumber rounds, and tomatoes, which were at first cut into thin wedges and later sliced once my father unearthed his “famous” egg and tomato slicer with a larger than necessary rectangular slicing section and curiously short, teal handle that tapered near the end. Occasionally, my mother would throw in garbanzo beans (or chick peas as they were known in my house) and kidney beans for protein, a key concern for a household of vegetarians, and top things off with store bought dressing. Even though we had immigrated to this country and had a different cuisine from which the daily menu was primarily drawn, I don’t think our initial salad ventures were that different from those prepared in the homes of my “born and raised” American friends. As I grew older and began experimenting more with cooking, I entered the world of romaine and sunflower seeds and various other goodies I’d glimpsed at the salad bars that were starting to crop up in different restaurants. But I was an adult or at least in college when I first was conscious that salad didn’t need to contain lettuce. It was a revelation that was nurtured by the discovery of tabouleh, salads with grains (rice salad and the quinoa salad I mentioned last month would apply here), three/five-bean salads, salads with fruit components – the list goes on. All of these things I recognized as salad – unlike the time when my friends and I, tired from yet another day of driving during our Western US road trip, stopped into a family style restaurant in Elko, Nevada where the “salad” placed in a large, clear, plastic bowl in the middle of the table contained exactly 2 ingrediencts: hastily torn leaves of iceberg and romaine that looked aged past its prime drenched to the point of suffocation in what appeared to be slightly watered-down mayonnaise.
Like lettuce-free salads, silence came as a revelation to me when I participated in my first Vipassana meditation course. How, I wondered, does one live as a human being in silence – that is, free from all forms of communication, the very essence of living a human life? But this is what I did for nearly a fortnight in the summer of 2007: essentially, volunteering to live like a monk for ten days while learning to practice this most ancient of meditation techniques. In that first instance, I went running toward this course following a tense, work-related exchange that had occurred a few month earlier. My emotional stores were low and my proclivity for taking things personally and giving into the worst possible interpretation of a situation – a trait that concerns me in others and frustrates me when I recognize it in myself – was becoming higher. Something wasn’t quite right and thankfully I followed my instinct to pursue participation in this course about which I had extremely little prior knowledge save a very brief description shared with me by a childhood friend in a passing exchange and Elizabeth Gilbert’s reference to Vipassana as “the Extreme Sports version of transcendence” in her best-selling memoir. I’m not sure I transcended anything, but for ten days during that summer over four years ago, I sat quietly and gave myself over to the experience of observing myself more closely and deeply than I had done before. (This is actually not as narcissistic as it probably sounds.)
When I returned a couple of weeks ago to the bucolic setting where the meditation center is located, nestled in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, I arrived there a much different person. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I had a different relationship to my place of work, the source of the tension that pushed me to this endeavor in the first place had dissipated and evolved, and my practices of communication and expression had undergone a sort of awakening following a long, unwitting slumber. Four years ago, I found myself stuck in a myth I had created about what and who I needed to be in order to successfully meet the requirements of tenure – that ever-looming and gripping force – and the mind, with all of its amazing affordances to transform, illuminate, and nurture, can also be guilty of deforming reality and endless wallowing. The undoing of what was a state of perpetually shrugged shoulders, teeth grinding, and unfinished manuscripts came in a few different forms starting with an initial acceptance that I was the one not letting me be me. So I accepted the invitation to participate in a faculty seminar, even when I thought had not a second to spare; I resumed my practice of taking aimless walks; I allowed myself to get lost in the kitchen, where many of my most blissful moments take place; I pursued publication in a relatively new online journal and included a few animations as part of the piece; I took a painting course; I taught a video course; I remembered that I loved to read, fiction, and fell back in love with words.
This renewed, perambulatory self was the one that showed up at the meditation center last month. And as the course began, a strange set of emotions and reactions swept over me as I encountered and experienced my second, 10-day Vipassana meditation course. It may important at this juncture to note that prior to the first course, I had never before meditated. And in between course 1 and 2, my success rate was about the same. Still, something drew me back.
Vipassana is not for the faint of heart. In brief, it is a practice of meditation premised on the belief that our reactions to the world around us originate as physiological sensations on the body and if we are able to remain equanimous in light of any and all such sensations, then we will be able to live better and free from misery, of both the large and small variety. At the heart of this technique is the concept of impermanence (anicca – a Pali word, I think, that is pronounced “anicha”) and during a ten day course, participants are eased into the practice of sitting completely still and at first simply observing their breath as it touches the area on the upper lip. From there, meditators are guided through the practice of observing the range of sensations that arise and pass throughout the surface and later inside their bodies (including vibrations and tickles as well as extreme cramps and the spiky tingles that emanate from limbs that have fallen asleep) and to engaged in this practice of deep and focused observation without a reaction of craving or aversion. There are no mantras to chant or icons to visualize. It is by practicing and personally experiencing this meditation during controlled sittings, the theory goes, that one can train the subconscious mind from unthinkingly overreacting when, in our everyday lives, someone calls us an ugly name or something doesn’t go our way – situations that, once again, start as barely perceptible sensations on the body and have already begun to produce a reaction based on previous reactions long before we can compose ourselves to respond appropriately. The teaching, based in the non-sectarian teachings of Gautama Buddha, is delivered in the form of audiotaped guided instructions each day and videotaped discourses each evening featuring S.N. Goenka who is credited with returning the practice to India from his homeland of Burma, whereupon it spread like it once again as it had centuries before. There are assistant teachers present at this and the other centers around the world who can answer questions about technique and one’s experience; this is, incidentally, the one speaking that is allowed during the 10-day period. Stillness, silence, and solitude – these are of great importance as one learns, and later if one chooses to more deeply cultivate, this practice. Those who fully embrace Vipassana’s invitation, which may seem extreme to most, pursue a life free from attachments – not only to sensations, but also to material goods, ideologies, any sense of i/me/my/mine, and people – because when we have fewer attachments, we are better able to maintain that sense of peace when something happens to those things in the large net of “my”: losing a favorite pen, damaging my grandmother’s ring, the transformation of a beloved café for the worse, a change in institutional policy that is no longer favorable to what i/we do, a rejected publication, and on. Even if most are able to see the silliness of attachment to these aforementioned things, the practice of detachment becomes more difficult to conceptualize when we think about some of our deeper attachments: chief among them, family/loved ones and institutions (marriage, citizenship, religion), although the cynic in me suspects that humans are far more attached to their institutions; how else to explain the parent who can cast aside a child because of who she marries?
With that said, Vipassana and the promise of equanimity and peace can be for everyone. I’m still questioning…and while I continue to contemplate how this practice might fit into in my daily life, I’ll share the following musings that took shape as I watched and listened and tried hard to not think and just observe:
Contentment is not complacency. As I sat on my cushion on the ground in the large group meditation hall, cross-legged and trying to remain completely still by maintaining my equanimity in the face of cramps that were ripping through my left thigh and sharp pain that was piercing my right knee, I began to think about possible jeers that might be hurled toward this meditation. For instance, the accusation that to observe and resist any and all threats to one’s sense of peace is to become, essentially, a doormat. It was at this moment, near the middle of the week, that my mind transgressed yet another time and instead of observing sensations allowed in the following wondering: what is role of contentment in the pursuit of innovation? Actually, the exact question I asked myself on Tuesday or Wednesday of last week was: “If everyone became a Vipassana meditator, would the iPad have come into existence?” Because of our temporary monastic existence, I did not know at the time of Steve Jobs death, but far from being some sort of cosmic happening, that my mind conflated the entirety of the cosmos into the creation of the iPad is further evidence of Apple’s ubiquity in our conscious and unconscious minds. That point aside, with the help of some time to sit and observe and experience I arrived at the conclusion that people much wiser than I have realized long ago: that to be content need not diminish the active pursuit of innovation and design and creativity; rather, the intentions for the innovation and creativity shifts, away from purely financial or material gains and toward the larger benefit of one’s creative endeavors for the social well being of others as well as self.
Don’t hate or inflate. We tend to do both of these things: denigrate or, perhaps in a less volatile sense, minimize the victories of those we perceive as our competitors and sometimes even those whom we consider to be our friends. And, in direct contrast to a pursuit of equanimity is also our tendency to heap praise on ourselves, perhaps out of fear that others may not? While watching a discussion with Robert Gates earlier this evening, I heard him echo this thought in another and possibly more elegant way. He said [paraphrasing]: We hear an excess of talk about our rights as citizens of this country and yet disappointingly little about our responsibility as citizens and members of our [local/global] societies. I wish those who have assumed positions of leadership in this and other countries would resist the fear of being called some ridiculous label (e.g., “Socialist”) and earn that moniker of leader by asking more of us to contribute. This is not a call for increased governmental involvement in private lives, as the “anti” rhetoric always spins, but rather a recognition of the potential for what small changes across a mass populous can achieve…
Look. Closely. Again. Sometimes, during an activity or while attempting to introduce a concept in one of my courses, I will literally interrupt myself and ask the students to engage with me in an exercise of close description. For instance, I’ll take something out of my pocket (on an unplanned day) or, if I’ve thought about it ahead of time, I’ll bring in an object – past objects have included a disposable camera, a keychain with keys, and an orange – and initiate rounds of description. That is, each person in the room (and we are most likely arranged in a crude circle shape) has to describe the object before passing it to the next person. And on and on we go, sometimes for 4 rounds. This can be painful when there are over 20 students in a class and the object is, for instance, a tennis ball. What else can you say other than that it’s fuzzy, used for the game of tennis, often comes in a neon-green-yellow color, and bounces. But then someone will smell it, and someone else will describe what it feels like to squeeze the ball as different from merely petting it, and by the 3rd round someone may decide to look at just one part of it and describe the texture of the number imprinted on the ball’s surface. Our loquacious tendencies, it seems, have given way to a default setting of instant and often knee-jerk, split-second evaluations of situations – good in the operating room, not so great in various other places – a trait if left unchecked can have detrimental consequences. We never seem to have time for anything anymore.
Ah, I can hear it – even I know I’m rambling, so I’ll turn your attention to the rich legacy of Patricia Carini and Margaret Himley, two educators who have spent a considerable number of years emphasizing the need for teachers to look, really look, at children’s work and to resist evaluation as the first response, which is no response at all and is, instead, squarely in the realm of reaction. While they document and have developed this approach within a process they call the Descriptive Review, the ethos is more wide reaching and as I strolled in the wooded walking area around the center during breaks, my mind continued to wander in the direction of an imagined curriculum grounded in the “art of living” and “being present” that each us might pursue…
In his essay “Circles,” Emerson wrote “Everything looks permanent until its secret is known.” I wonder if the secret to some of our social ills might be found lifting the veil of speech that is saturated with staid meanings, unyielding concepts that don’t merely maintain the status quo but instead strip even the status quo of any traces of luster. Vipassana is a practice of meditation committed to making the secret – to equanimity and sense of peace within oneself – known. If, knowing this, we continue to play the game, the least we can do for ourselves and each other is to acknowledge that we could stand to have a bit of quiet, stillness, and that we need not always consume the limp lettuce placed before us; we can add fruit, nuts, grains, roots, flowers and even eliminate the leaves altogether.