July 2020

10 Days Within: Uprooting Suffering in Silent Meditation

Author: Michele Roldán-Shaw

Since childhood, I was fascinated with the idea of sensory deprivation in a cave. Imagine if I couldn’t see or hear anything, and I just sat there for several days in the pitch-black, not eating or moving—what would happen to my mind? I felt I must either have a breakthrough or go mad, and the prospect called to me. Not like I actually intended to do it; I was just very interested in the potential of the human mind. So, when I met a stranger on the train who told of meditating 10 hours a day for 10 days straight on silent retreat, I signed myself up immediately.

What does happen to the mind in such a scenario? The answer is as varied as the universe itself. Sitting in a cool, quiet, dimly lit room doing absolutely nothing, as much can transpire as on a journey to the sun. Intense highs and lows, long stretches of tedium, elaborate delusions that sucked me in like a movie, even lapses of disconcerting oblivion from which I would “wake up” and wonder where I went. Meanwhile, every other participant sitting silently and motionlessly around me was taking their own trip too, within the little self-contained universe of their mind and body. The implication of this was profound: if we can go through so much when nothing is even happening, maybe all our other drama is self-created too.

4 A.M. A gong breaks the stillness of a country morning outside Jesup, Georgia, one of hundreds of sites worldwide where free Vipassana courses are given. I linger reluctantly in bed until another gong rings at 4:20, summoning us to the meditation hall for a two-hour session before breakfast. This is like the boot camp of spiritual retreats with seemingly endless hours of cushion-time broken up only by spartan meals, showers, and little ambles around the walking paths. No other distractions are permitted. They don’t serve dinner, and we can’t talk. Watching carp in the lotus pond suddenly seems like a luxurious diversion. Otherwise, it’s an all-out confrontation with our inner selves, and by the end of each day I’m exhausted.

Why go through all this? Let’s hearken back to the origins.

Two thousand five hundred years ago in Northern India, a prince got a real bad wakeup call. After living a sweet life in the palace with every indulgence at his command, one day he ventured out and was shocked to witness a sick man, an old man, and a corpse. The story goes, this was his first awakening to the inevitability of human suffering, and it utterly horrified him. All the pleasures of the palace—the fine food and dancing girls, the golden jewelry and decorated elephants—turned to dust for him in an instant. The next sight he encountered was a monk meditating serenely under a tree, and the possibility of real answers opened up. That night, the prince abandoned his wife, son, parents, home and everything he held dear to take up the quest. His mission was nothing less than to find out why we suffer, and how to put a stop to it. It would take him another six years of pursuing every available spiritual practice in India at the time—homeless wandering, moral purity and celibacy, deep trance-like meditations, fasting and other forms of austerity—before he finally discarded all that and started a fresh investigation. Sitting beneath the fabled Bodhi tree with a vow not to move until either he became enlightened or his bones crumbled, this prince, known today as the Buddha, made a landmark discovery. Using his own mind as the ultimate scientific instrument, he dug down to the very bottom of the mind-matter experience and realized where it all went wrong. He struck at the root of suffering … and then he liberated himself from it.

Hard to believe, but the way he learned to meditate that night is the same method they teach in Jesup, Georgia. It’s a powerful technique of mental purification that progressively uproots the destructive tendencies of the mind—anger, depression, anxiety, greed, fear, egotism etc.—until all that’s left is wisdom, peace and love. When the mind has reached this unshakeable state, suffering no longer exists; the game has been won, the quest over.

The teaching was carefully handed down through many successive generations of monks, nuns, and laypeople who have reached the highest spiritual heights by practicing it. Or, if they’re like me, they’ve just lived a little better, little happier life, thanks to Vipassana. Since my first 10-day course, I have returned many times, keeping up my daily practice at home in between, and each time I dig a little deeper into the mass of suffering inside myself. I pick it apart and examine its true nature, try to make peace with it and slowly smooth it out. The path of Vipassana is very serious and long, but the benefits are vast and immediate—qualities like patience, humility, kindness, generosity, clear-mindedness, strength, purpose, composure and equanimity. And happiness—most of all, happiness.

We can never solve all the problems of the world much less the essential human condition of old age and death. But we can rectify our minds so that these sorrows never touch us. This is what the Buddha meant when he said that enlightened beings are “in the world but not of it, like a lotus rising above the water, growing in it yet unsullied by it.” This possibility of true liberation from suffering—upheld by faith, tasted incrementally through practice—was vital in ancient India with its hunger, poverty, deprivation and disease. It’s vital now in our era of senseless killing, horrible viruses, industrial-scale greed, environmental destruction, and a rising tide of mental illness. It will be vital in a future of unknown particulars, which most certainly will entail misery in one form or another. That’s the beauty of it—what’s going on outside doesn’t matter so much as how we handle it within. This would have been the breakthrough in the cave: facing down one’s own self-created suffering, then mastering it at the depths of the mind. Herein lies the promise of real peace.

For more information on Vipassana visit dhamma.org.

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