It’s Been 4 Years Since My Last Drink

It’s Been 4 Years Since My Last Drink

I didn’t know it would be my last drink at the time.

It was a fun night, a spontaneous party at our rooftop apartment in the middle of Tel Aviv. It started with hamentashen – traditional cookies for the festival of Purim – and whiskey sours. Because all social events revolved around alcohol for me those days. Not that weird for a 30-year-old single woman, living and working in a grungy, beach-side city perhaps, but I think for me the two were a little too closely linked. Like the socializing was an excuse for the drinking and not the other way around.

The party started when it was still light, with a few good friends sitting around chatting. It ended with a purple wig, lots of tears and an empty bottle of Glenlivit – and I don’t remember doing much sharing. Well to be honest, I don’t remember that much at all. Things started light and fun, got really fun, and then got messy – this was often the case when I partied. A deep conversation with a good friend from out-of-town had me a blubbering mess, I have a vague memory of arguing with my boyfriend about cleaning up, lots of vomiting (let’s not forget that I was pounding a cocktail made up mainly of single malt and raw eggs)… and that’s about all I can remember.

Whiskey sours and hamentashen: the beginning of the end
I have much more vivid memories of waking the next morning, feeling like death warmed up. I spent the entire day trying to keep fluids down and running back and forth from the toilet to bed. And with the physical hangover came the emotional fallout. The sick feeling in my stomach as snippets of ridiculous things I’d said and done the previous night came back to me. The cringing regret. The long, nagging black holes in my memory.

It was 7pm before I managed to keep down some juice. I don’t know if I managed to eat. I didn’t care. I just felt so wretched and sorry for myself.

And it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. Not by far.

This sort of thing had been going on for a long time, around 15 years. Every party, holiday, meal and meetup was an excuse to get drunk. I drank when I was happy and when I was sad, to celebrate and to commiserate. Part of it was about dutch courage, part was about enjoying the physical sensations of getting wasted, part of it was just pure fun. I fancied myself as a connoisseur of whiskey, wine and beer – but at the end of the day it was all about getting drunk. There were a bunch of other party drugs involved too at different points, along with I can’t even begin to imagine how many cigarettes and joints.

And yet despite how trashy that must all sound, my life was ostensibly in pretty decent shape at that time.

Until a few months earlier I’d been living by myself – a life-long goal – in a cute apartment three minutes from the beach. I had a high-energy journalism job that I loved and lots of friends living in walking distance from me. I ran 5km a few times a week, practiced yoga regularly and meditated every day. And I’d just met a man who was different from anyone I’d ever dated, and things were going very well.

I guess this is why people squirm when I use the word alcoholic. It doesn’t quite fit. But it’s true. It’s just that I was a very high-functioning abuser.

No smile like a Bloody Mary smile
The day after that horrible hangover was the day I headed off for my first long Vipassana course – a 12-day silent meditation retreat. It sounds like a cliché but there’s no other way to say it – those 12 days totally changed my life.

In order to take part in the course, students agree to take on the Five Precepts, or training rules, for the duration of the course. And so without thinking too much of it, I undertook to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and using intoxicants. The Buddhist tradition has it that accepting these rules gives the mind the moral freedom to properly engage in contemplative practice. Simple enough really, and it made sense to me. And then just kept on making more and more sense.

Somewhere in among the grueling hour-upon-hour meditation schedule, I found some clarity about these substances that had become such an integral part of my life. Sitting on a cushion, painstakingly bringing my mind back to the present moment over and over again, the cycle of craving that I’d gotten myself into finally started to make sense. I understood on a physical, visceral level that I was completely addicted to how these substances were making me feel, and I realized – it was time to take drugs and alcohol out of the picture completely. At least for now.

I’d known it for years, I think, but I hadn’t been ready to admit it. I’d played around with drinking “moderately,” with only smoking pot on the weekends. I’d stopped smoking cigarettes for a few years, then started again during a breakup and been so furious with myself that I’d been unable to stop again. It just wasn’t working.

And on top of that, I simply didn’t want to taint the purity of mind that I was just starting to cultivate with the mindfulness practice. I was finally working through so much of my shit – psychological, spiritual and existential, alike – and felt ready to fully apply myself to the task.

I also knew I would have the support of that promising new boyfriend once I got back home to the real world, because he’d already raised “my substance issue” a few months earlier (at which juncture I’d basically told him to get fucked, naturally).

And so I just did it. I came back home, reintegrated into most of my life, but just not the alcohol, drugs and cigarettes bit. It’s been over four years and I’m proud to say that I haven’t had another sip, drag, snort or pill since.

I thought the cravings would be the hard part, but actually once I stepped off the wheel, it was kind of like I closed a door and that was that. There are still moments when a beer would go down well, or a cigarette on a particularly bad day, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

The social bit was much tougher. While I did have real, close friends – not just drinking buddies – the substance abuse was an integral part of my very active social life. So I had to find social activities that didn’t revolve around drinking, and also to admit that without alcohol I actually didn’t want such an active social life. Time alone became far more tolerable, and sometimes even preferable. It was a shift that I didn’t expect, but ultimately it was quite welcome, and fit well with my meditation practice and an increasingly serious relationship, too.

So it’s been four years, and I feel like a completely different person now. That supportive boyfriend is now my dear husband and we have two young children. We bought a place in the suburbs. Meditation is still a cornerstone of my sanity but I definitely don’t fit in the hour in the morning and hour in the evening that I was doing in the months after that course. Life is good. Calm and happy and fulfilling.

A recent smiley moment
But recently I’ve been thinking that it might be even better with a glass of wine in my hand at the end of the day, once the kids are in bed. And that maybe I’ve changed enough that I’d be able to handle it differently this time.

I talked it out last week, chatting with my mother and stepfather over a couple of glasses of San Pellegrino. They were drinking wine and beer, respectively. And to be honest I had half a mind that the conversation might end with me deciding to have a drink myself, but it didn’t – and here’s why.

I know that if I had a drink then – or right now – I wouldn’t end up drunk on a street corner somewhere. Of course not. I’d be able to have one drink, maybe two, and call it a night.

But I wouldn’t want to.

From that first sip I’d be thinking about the next one, and the one after that. About when and whether I could pour myself another. Even just writing about it now I can feel the craving starting to build. The metallic taste in my mouth, salivating at the thought of something I haven’t even tasted in so long. And at some point I’d start thinking about smoking too – because drinking and smoking really are such a beautiful match. I wouldn’t actually do it, but the mental suffering I’d cause myself in going over and over it just doesn’t seem worth it. 

There are other reasons, too. Empty calories and all the crap I used to eat when I was drinking, drunk or hungover for one. Pizza after pizza, delicious of course but basically just clogging my arteries and making me miserable about my body. Clarity of mind is another. It’s bad enough that I can count the amount of full nights’ sleep I’ve had in the past three years on one hand – why add insult to injury? I’m about to go back to work full time – I need every brain cell I can get. And then there’s the emotional stability. Sure, I have my ups and downs, but they’re nothing compared to the serotonin crashes I used to experience even after a couple of glasses of wine.

But the cycle of craving is the main reason that I’m not having another drink. At least not for now. I’m making a conscious choice to live without a well-earned beer – so that I can also be free of that world of inner turmoil.

So, was I an alcoholic? Am I still?

It doesn’t matter. All I know is that for now – right now – I still feel good about that decision I made four years ago, and kept making every day since. And I’m eternally grateful for the conditions that helped me to come to it and to stick with it – the gift of meditation, my rock of a husband, and a significant amount of dark chocolate along the way. Gotta keep a vice or two hanging around just for fun, right?

How Meditation Got Me through another Pregnancy Loss

How Meditation Got Me through another Pregnancy Loss

This wasn’t the blog post I wanted to write.

The blog post I wanted to write was about early pregnancy – particularly early pregnancy right after a miscarriage. It was about overcoming my anxieties, exhaustion and nausea, about gradually feeling more and more confident that everything would be okay.

But I never got around to writing it. This is a different post.

This post about how the skills I’ve learnt from meditation over the past 10 years seem to have equipped me to deal with a second pregnancy loss.

The week before last I was 15 weeks pregnant. My husband and I went in for a scheduled ultrasound excited to find out if we were having a boy or a girl. Instead, we found out that the fetus had a serious defect in the skull, and were advised to terminate the pregnancy.

That was two weeks ago now, and somehow here I am on the other side of it all. The shock of the diagnosis. The weight of telling friends and family (on my birthday, no less). Through three horrible days of feeling fetal movement and knowing what was to come. The procedure itself. Hours of sobbing.

And somehow, I’m ok. We’re ok. Our little family is stronger than ever. And the sky is still up there. Somehow.

I’ve been going back and forth about how to write this post. How to word it so I’m best understood. And today I realized – everything that got me through this experience, I gained through meditation. Through dozens of Vipassana retreats and Dharma books. From the wisdom of teachers who brought Buddhist contemplative practices to the West. And from the simplicity of meditation practice itself.

Through meditation I learned the power of being present. I’ve learned how to center myself in the moment and to find out if everything is ok – and I’m yet to find a moment where it’s not. Once I filter out all the bullshit, all the noise in my head, everything is always ok. Even in that terrible moment, when the ultrasound technician shook his head, looked up sadly and said “the head hasn’t formed properly, I’m sorry.” Even then, somehow, everything was ok.

Through the practice of Vipassana I’m learning to come to terms with the reality of my human body. That it will get old, it will decay. Just like everyone else’s. That shit will go wrong. And rather than being sad and horrifying, that knowledge can be a comfort. Liberating, even. The knowledge that my body is just like every other body. That things that happen to other people – random, horrible, unwanted things – can happen to us, too.

But it’s more than just accepting my body. Through this  practice I’m learning the art of accepting reality as it is. Even when I don’t like it, and I wish it was otherwise. I’ve learned how to identify when the pain I feel is stemming from my refusal to accept the facts of my situation – from wishing something was different than it is. Something out of my control. And conversely, I’ve experienced the release and freedom that comes from surrender. From giving up the fight that doesn’t really exist to begin with.

Through meditation I’ve been exposed to the art of gratitude. To focusing on the “what is” rather than the “what isn’t.” I’ve been constantly surprised by just how much gratitude has naturally come up in my heart and my head during this whole experience.

I’m grateful to live in this age of medical science that can detect defects (relatively) early on in a pregnancy, and provide safe options for termination. Thirty years ago, this pregnancy would have continued to full term and the defect would only have been discovered at birth. The baby would not have survived. Thirty years ago, I don’t think my meditation practice would have done shit to make me feel better.

I’m thankful for my beautiful little family. For my eternally supportive, patient, rock of a husband and our beautiful son. We want another baby and I’m sure we’ll have one very soon, but even if we never do – that’ll be okay too. It’s not a tragedy. The three of us are healthy and happy – so happy – and that’s more than enough.

Through meditation I’ve learned that nothing is solid. I’ve practiced looking deeper and deeper into sensations – physical and emotional, alike – only to discover that everything is always flickering. Even in the midst of despair there are moments of happiness. With this understanding, I’ve learned to feel sadness when it arises, to be with it and acknowledge it and let it run its course, and then to leave it and move on with the next sensation that comes up. To be with my pain when it arises, and then to equally be with the pure joy of our 2-year-old son whenever he bounces in the room. I’ve learned that while I don’t have the power to control what emotions arise, I can take responsibility for my reactions to them.

To be clear: this diatribe on the glory of meditation is not to say that this situation doesn’t suck – it does. It sucks big-time. There have been many moments and minutes and hours of sadness and disappointment. Tears and sobs that come from deep within, seemingly out of nowhere. That sinking feeling of “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” The unfairness of it all. To have to terminate a pregnancy right after a miscarriage. I mean come on. But when these moments pass, they pass. I take a deep breath, wipe my face, and then move on (usually to a block of dark chocolate).

Sometimes, I feel like I’m kidding myself. Like I haven’t cried enough. Like maybe the worst is yet to come. Like this whole line of thinking is all bullshit rationalization and bravado and that actually I’m so broken inside that I can’t even see it.

And that might be so, I suppose. Only time will tell. But right now, in this moment – this long, eternal moment – everything is ok. For once, it seems like my mind is on my side.

My Baby is a Guru

My Baby is a Guru

My baby is a little Buddha. A tiny, super cute & portable meditation teacher.

In simple mindfulness meditation, we learn to bring our attention back to the breath, over and over again. “Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, start preparing dinner, do I have any onion in the house? Oh, I have to write that email, ah – breathe in, out, in, out, in, out – hey what’s that pain in my knee, oo my ear itches – wait – breathe in, breathe out.” And so on. Each time we remember what we’re meant to be doing, mindfulness comes back and we return to the meditation. The longer we’re able to keep our attention on the breath, the more subtleties of sensation reveal themselves to us, and the deeper our concentration and insight grows.

So too with caring for a baby – the more we keep our attention on what’s happening in the here and now, the quicker and more accurately we’re able to respond, and the deeper our connection grows. Even from the very first day, it’s so easy to lose sight of what’s actually happening – especially through the exhaustion, confusion and emotional roller-coaster that comes with a new baby. It’s natural for our minds to wander to all the things we want to get done once the baby finally goes to sleep, to get obsessed with schedules and milk quantities and not waking the neighbors.

But babies don’t care about this stuff, their minds aren’t running around like ours – I presume that doesn’t happen until the development of language. Instead, babies are right there in the moment, always. Just trying to get their needs met, and to work out what the hell is going on out in this strange, dry, new world. And so each and every peep they make, each groan, each cry can be a lesson in stopping the mind babble and coming back to the present moment to see what’s really happening. To investigate it with the patience and curiosity of the deepest, most silent meditation.

Here’s an example – not one I’m proud of, but a good one nonetheless: earlier today I spent almost an hour trying to help a crying Gadi relax and get to sleep. Definitely out of character for a daytime nap, but okay. I tried everything – from singing, patting, humming and “shh”-ing, leaving him for a couple of minutes to try work it out himself, even the dummy he’s never liked – everything. He was not hungry and definitely tired, but here’s the truth – I was starving. Somewhere between noticing that he was tired and putting him down in his bed, my mind had raced ahead to the quinoa and vegetables awaiting me in the kitchen, and I wasn’t really paying attention. I was ignoring the mindfulness alarm screaming at me, loud and clear and flashing red.

When I realized, I felt like a complete moron: He was hot. I took his pants off and the screaming stopped instantly, and a smile spread across his tired little face. And then the next moment was something different again – he was thirsty (not surprising since he’d just spent 40 minutes trying to get his point across!) And so he drank, and he’s still passed out in the middle of our bed now, over 2 hours later.

This new level of mindfulness that he’s teaching reminds me to examine the reality of this very moment – not what came before or what I want to come after – and to deal with just that. To accept the present moment rather than trying in vain to resist or to manipulate, or to take anything for granted. Just because the baby went to sleep easily at 6:45pm last night after a bath, massage, story and feed DOES NOT guarantee that he’s going to do it again tonight, or in fact ever again. He might – but taking the assumption for granted is a surefire recipe for disaster, and for missing signs and igniting a battle of wills between the two of us. Instead, my little mindfulness teacher guides me with his signals – helping me avoid hours of him crying and me feeling like a failure. And every time I slip out of focus, start senselessly expending energy on changing the present moment – he beckons me back with his tiny fingers and his not-so-tiny cry.

All I have to do to learn is watch and listen, now.

Nursing and meditating (or, nipple meditation)

Nursing and meditating (or, nipple meditation)

So I’m pretty sure I’ve invented a new type of meditation. I’ve googled it and everything – no one has thought of it before; I’m truly a trailblazer. Combining my sparkling new motherhood experience and my only slightly more established mindfulness meditation practice, I present: nursing meditation (or, nipple meditation – if you prefer).

Essentially a modification on anapana sati, the Buddhist meditation of mindfulness on breathing, it goes a little something like this:

  1. Do whatever you usually do to start feeding – get comfortable, have water nearby, get baby latched on and settled in.
  2. Let your eyes close gently, sit up straight, and take a few deep breaths to settle in yourself – into your body, the experience and sensations of right now.
  3. When you feel calm and present, bring your full attention to the nipple of the breast from which your child is eating. At first you might just notice the sucking, tugging sensation of nursing – and that’s fine. When your mind wanders – and it always will – your only job is to gently bring it back to your nipple. As you deepen your concentration the subtleties of sensation – perhaps temperature, speed, texture – will reveal themselves. Without judging or analyzing, simply observe – sit back and watch the sensations, the experience of each moment come and go.
  4. For bonus points (not really), cultivate an appreciation for the truly amazing process of growing this tiny, beautiful creation – which started as a few cells inside you however many months ago and now continues to be nurtured by your body.
  5. When your nursling is finished his/her meal, open your eyes and take a moment – and really be there – before rushing off to continue the ongoing cycle of diaper changes, baths, tummy time and naps.
  6. Repeat as often as possible.

Now, I’m pretty sure this isn’t gonna give me a free ticket to nirvana or anything, but it does seem to be keeping my fledgling meditation practice at bay while riding the early months of parenthood. Just breaking it down, getting out of my head and into my body for a few minutes, a few times a day brings a centered quality to my consciousness that I’ve only ever been able to achieve through meditation.

Babies live in the moment. The least we can do is try to meet them there every now and then.

My Billy Joel earworm

My Billy Joel earworm

For the last month or so, Billy Joel has come to visit me every time I sit down to meditate.

It goes like this: First I fidget around a little bit, then my mind starts psychotically going over pretty much everything that I’ve said or done in the past few hours; every email I’ve read, everything I’ve seen. Some days it takes longer than others, but sooner or later the mini life-flashing-before-my-eyes fit dissipates and fades, and then the piano starts…  “she can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes…”

Billy never stays for long, doesn’t even really bug me that much, to that point that it was only last week that I realised this had been going on for quite some time. A couple of days ago I thought to mention it to a fellow meditator, and when I went to tell him what song had been stuck in my head all this time, I could only remember the word “woman,” and thought that maybe it was Bob Dylan’s “Just like a woman” which had been plaguing me, though I knew it sounded wrong.

Yesterday I put my finger on it, and this morning I listened to “Always a woman” all the way through, in an attempt to purify my meditation.

A word to the wise: It doesn’t work. Billy has now been yelling in my ear for almost 12 hours straight.

So a few hours ago I did what I do: I googled it. It being “song stuck in my head.” Turns out, the phenomenon has a name: I have an “earworm.” And for anyone who was wondering, the site doesn’t work either. In fact, by its own admission, it’s really only making things worse, by playing “equally catchy songs” to replace the musical culprit.

The experience reminded me of one of the many anecdotes I had wanted to include in my initial Vipassana run-down blog (read: babbling Dhamma-high manifesto), but forgot due to the prohibition of writing materials on retreat. I had wanted to share the variety of songs that had played over and over in my head – earworms, that is – during the 10-day retreat, when I’d had absolutely no recourse but to let them wiggle their own way out. From Sinead O’Connor’s “No man’s woman,” courtesy of a decidedly man-like woman on the course wearing a t-shirt with those words across the front almost every day, to a certain song we used to sing on youth movement camp, the name of which would probably bring the level of this blog down significantly (the Netzer kinky perverts among you will know what I’m talking about). Happy Hardcore tunes I swear I haven’t heard for a decade came pumping up again too, along with Hebrew songs to which I only know half the words. My mind was happy to fill in the blanks to anyone who’d listen (which in this case was no one, myself included).

I’m pretty sure “Always a woman” never made an appearance on Vipassana though, and all the songs that did are long gone.

In any case, almost an hour online and I’m none the smarter. No one seems to be able to give me a definitive explanation as to what Billy is doing in my brain, or how to get him out. Some pundits seem to think my brain is just trying to keep busy while its idling, which seems unlikely (trust me: it’s got plenty of other material to ponder). The more Freudian among the lot reckon the song that’s stuck is rebelling against its own suppression.

I was, however, reassured to find out that my “earworm” is not a cause for alarm and does not indicate any mental disorder. Phew. Here’s the best I got: In a list of tips for eradicating said worm, one blog suggested sharing it with a friend. So, I pick you guys:

Stay tuned to find out whether it worked.

Not-so-secret Samadhi: Part II

Not-so-secret Samadhi: Part II

My first 10-day Vipassana retreat (full run-down here) was by far the most intense meditation experience of my life thus far, so I’ve decided on a separate post for the nitty-gritty, nerdy details. While the main motivation for me in writing this is to sum it all up for myself, I’m also interested to hear if other Vipassana meditators have had similar experiences, any tips, etc. I’d love for everyone to read it but a disclaimer for those not into meditation: There’s a lot of jargon in this post.

Some background on my practice up until the retreat before I launch into the gory details: I’d been practicing a Mahasi noting technique for about two years, at first self-taught using the fantastic book, Progress of Insight. In the following years I attended a few relatively chilled weekend retreats, taught by the likes of Shinzen Young and Stephen Fulder as well as some day retreats and a bunch of group sittings at Miles Kessler’s Integral Dojo in Tel Aviv. Somehow I’d managed to navigate my way into a fairly serious practice (apart from the past few months when I slipped a bit due to various lifestyle factors), and seemed to be cultivating a keen understanding of physical and mental sensations, the interactions between them and the three universal characteristics of existence (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self).

Being on a longer, stricter retreat than I’d ever attended was a bit of a shock to the system at first, but on top of that learning a different anapana technique (with focus on the nostril and upper lip) and then panña technique (body scan) from what I was used to led to a fair bit of confusion and resistance. If I hadn’t previously learnt about the Five Hindrances to meditation (craving, aversion, tiredness, restlessness, doubt), I’m pretty sure I would have “packed up my bags and run away” (in Goenka’s words), cursing both his name and his teachings.

Apart from general resistance in the mind (“this makes no sense,” “who is this weird guy on tapes/video, tuning in from Planet Nibbana to preach to us poor prisoners,” “I’ve chosen a bad time for this retreat,” etc, etc), I suffered some pretty bad eye strain at a few different points in the course. It started on the first night (Day Zero) and continued throughout Day One, and eventually I realised it was caused by me literally going cross-eyed with my eyes closed by “looking” at my nose. I found that whenever I tried to consciously relax my eyes, my attention would slip down from my nostrils to my stomach, the area via which I was used to focusing on my breath. Eventually, after talking to the teacher and basically just reminding myself over and over to stop it, I managed to relax my eyes, and almost instantly dropped into what I believe to be a concentration state that I’ve experienced before but never really known how to deal with.

I’m pretty sure I used to experience this particular state as a child lying in bed at night, and it used to scare me then. As a result, when I’ve encountered it in recent years it still carries with it a certain fear, which I’d never quite been able to shake. Strange as it may sound, when I was young I was convinced that unlike “normal” people, I actually didn’t breathe. When I found out that actually I did respire, just like everyone else, I was sometimes gripped by an irrational fear that if I didn’t pay attention, I would stop. So sometimes I would lie in bed at night “checking” that I was still breathing, essentially practising my own little infant anapana meditation. During this practice, I’d suddenly get this odd sense that I was either really big or really small, though I’d open my eyes and find that everything looked completely in order. It still felt strange though, eerie but still very clear. This is exactly the same feeling I had on Day Two of the retreat, in one of the morning sessions right after I worked out how to relax my eyes.

I remember encountering this state before on a few day retreats last year and the year before, and every time I would become filled with that same fear from my childhood, get myself all freaked out that I’d “broken” my brain, and had to open my eyes and basically break my concentration completely. The same thing happened on Day Two, and – surprise, surprise – I found myself “falling” back into various aches, pains and doubts for the next few days.

By Day Four when we were taught the body scan technique my attention was pretty sharp, having spent so many days focusing on my nose, but again I felt resistance to the new technique, which I thought completely ignored a whole range of sensory experience (sounds, thoughts etc.) I spoke to the teacher about this and he gave a decent explanation, saying that with any sensation other than those on the body what we’re actually observing is the reaction to it (or the crude mental image), so it’s not as pure. Some combination of trusting him on this and wanting to give the technique a fair trial pushed me to keep going.

On Day Five I ended up in the creepy place again, but this time I had cultivated enough equanimity to push through the fear, to keep striving to observe sensations on the body despite the strange feeling. I discovered that I could actually feel things at a far more subtle level than ever before, and also properly understood that the weird feeling would pass as soon as I opened my eyes, that it was just another object coming and going (anicca – impermanence). I don’t know how else to describe it but to say that this drive propelled my practice to another level, and from here on in my attention was almost unbreakable (except for a coughing, crying and sneezing attack from the girl behind me on the night of Day Six, but that’s a story for another time).

On Day Six I found I could feel sensations all through my body, not just on the surface, and started exploring that, quickly getting to the point where everything dissolved into fine vibrations. I naturally started adding in an observation run up and down my spine, and it didn’t take long until I was experiencing what I think was the “Bhanga Nyana” that Goenka described in the Dhamma Discourse one of the following evenings.

I felt like I was making definite progress and tried as best I could not to let my (substantial) ego get in the way and ruin everything (most likely decide that I was the World’s Best Meditator, cling to this experience for dear life and then get annoyed every time it failed to arise in subsequent sessions). From then on my mind seemed razor sharp every time I sat down to meditate, quickly got to this state and then navigated it “with a calm and equanimous mind.” Straight after that, things got very gross and chunky and haven’t really changed since.

From about Day Two onwards, I thought a lot about was Daniel Ingram’s book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. I went back and forth between wishing I’d never read the stupid thing (thought it is definitely one of my favourite books of all time), and trying to work out whether it would be worth making up a story to get the course manager to give me my phone back so I could google the section where he describes the samahdi states and the stages of insight, to try to work out where the hell I was. Of course in the end I didn’t, thought it was the first thing I looked up after I turned my phone on and called my boyfriend and my parents.

At the time I thought the experience of the body dissolving was something of a “Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away” (A&P) event, though I’ve since found that it is the 5th Stage of Insight, “Knowledge of the Dissolution of Formations.” After that (when everything goes gross again), it seems that I’m bouncing around up and down somewhere there in the “Dark Night.” I’m pretty sure I’ve not reached Equanimity (stage 11). I should note at this point that I feel completely ambiguous as to whether or not reading such maps and descriptions of other people’s experiences is more of a hindrance or a help, but either way I intend to keep up my practice and push through to see what’s next.

Alongside all of this on-cushion fun, from about Day Five onwards I found that had heightened understanding of the theory which goes along with all of this practice, which I detailed in my last post on the topic. Concepts of craving and aversion of sensations chrystallised like never before, as well as acceptance of the impermanence of my own body and the benefit of non-reactivity (to objects such as self-degrading thoughts, for example).

Since coming home I’m finding the usual resistance to long sits, with the mind conjuring up all sorts of excuses as to why I should sit for half an hour rather than an hour, why it’s better to wait a few hours rather than sitting as soon as I get up (not having a full-time job at the moment probably isn’t helping here) and why today should be an exception to the rule. However for the most part, I seem to be keeping up with long sessions morning and night, as well as a few minutes here and there throughout the day. I’ve also found that quite a few of my usual vices have all but slipped away, with no cravings whatsoever, I’m more than happy to go to sleep at a regular hour (which has always been a problem for me), and I’m very comfortable with long periods alone (also an issue in the past as something of a die-hard extrovert).

To sum up, I think that despite my early discomfort with the new technique, body scanning helps me keep the “me” out of my practice, and to see the Three Characteristics of each object clearly (specifically impermanence). While there was a certain intrigue to the noting technique for me, I think I was often getting caught up in the content, using it as a type of self-therapy to understand how my thought patterns and physical sensations interrelated rather than as the tool to see true nature of things that it’s meant to be. For now I plan to continue with the technique, until such a time as I might be able to attend a long Mahasi-style retreat (presumably in Asia rather than here in Israel) and get the thorough basic training in that technique that I got from Goenka this time around.

In other news, meanwhile, I’m running at 10km race in the morning and my primary training over the past couple of weeks was pacing up and down the small walking track on retreat (wearing Crocs no less!) Wish me luck!

Not-so-secret Samadhi: Part I

Not-so-secret Samadhi: Part I

I recently returned from my first 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, which among many other inspirations and insights spurned the starting of this new blog. In the first few days of the course, after my initial shock cleared and before the more serious meditation drive set in, hours upon hours were spent planning out blog posts, writing and re-writing headlines and subheadlines (once an editor, always an editor), and generally trying to keep myself sane.

It seemed to me at the time that I would somehow store these posts in my brain, arrive home, sit in front of the computer, and type it all out (no writing is allowed on these retreats, so as to help cultivate quiet in the mind). Unfortunately – though not surprisingly – not all of the inspired, Pulitzer Prize-worthy material I dreamed up has remained intact in my mind. Now as I sit to write bits and pieces are coming back to me, though I’m pretty sure I left some stellar paragraphs and anecdotes floating around the greenery of Kibbutz Beit Zera. Ultimately, my purpose was served; I’m pretty sure I did not go insane and I hope that on top of that there will be some entertainment or interest in here somewhere.

The morning of the course my nerves were palpable. I’ve practised meditation for years and had been trying to find the right time to sit the retreat for just as long, but nonetheless was filled with doubt and anxiety. Would I be able to deal with it? Would the technique be right for me? Would I get hungry without a proper dinner? Would I go crazy without being able to talk? And yet, somehow as soon as I bid my boyfriend farewell and entered the grounds of the course, all the tension dissipated; I knew I’d be fine, though I still anticipated some tough times and hard work in the coming days.

Day One was fine; settling in, starting to learn a new concentration (Samadhi) technique which was similar enough to ones I’ve practised in the past to make me feel confident (read: arrogant), yet different enough to both challenge me and frustrate me at the same time. The food was good, accommodations simple but totally liveable and the meditation hall seemed vaguely conducive to meditation. To my surprise, falling asleep at 9:30pm and getting up at 4am wasn’t even that hard, and I didn’t miss home anywhere near as much as I’d anticipated.

Day Two was harder. I had a notable meditation experience in the morning and then grew edgier and edgier as I failed to replicate it and instead fell back into the usual aches, pains and distractions typical of the early stages of meditation (more on that in my next post). By the afternoon, I had two voices in my head (not to worry, they were both me) yelling back and forth at each other over a bowl of popcorn and a plate of thinly sliced fruit. While I didn’t actually consider packing up and leaving, I certainly didn’t have the peace of mind to see the experience for what it was – simply a bad mood.

A little background on the course is probably in order at this point: Vipassana Meditation, as taught by India’s S.N. Goenka, is taught in strict 10-day intensive residential courses, during which students are required to undertake a moral code (no intoxicants, no killing, lying or stealing, no sexual activity) in order to purify their minds enough to learn the technique. They also commit to a Noble Silence, meaning no communication whatsoever with other students (talking to the teacher about meditation and course staff about logistics is permitted). Men and women are separated, no religious or spiritual practice is allowed, reading and writing is also out, and dinner is just a light meal of popcorn and fruit (experienced students skip the meal altogether). It sounds strict, and it is, but it all serves a very important purpose. These factors combined help the head and the heart calm down enough to get the most of the training, and establish a solid base in meditation practice.

In terms the meditation itself, Vipassana (Pali for “insight into the true nature of reality”), involves observing physical and sometimes mental sensations in order break down and cleanse defilements of the mind and ultimately lead to liberation from suffering, enlightenment, Nirvana, call it what you will. The process involves understanding the true nature of what we call “I” and “mine,” by clearly seeing the factors that make up our physical and mental structures. It’s constantly stressed that this is a life-long endeavour (or potentially many lifetimes, depending on views on reincarnation and rebirth), and that learning the meditation technique is just a starter. That is to say, it’s not a 10-day course to fix everything and achieve enlightenment in one fell swoop.

I should note that I feel a tension here, a dichotomy, between the urge to share my experiences with friends and strangers, relatives and potential meditators alike, and the shift over the duration of the course in terms of my own identity and ego. In the first few days of the course, as I played around with posts in my head, with many “relative” insights on family, relationships, myself, etc. all of the details seemed terribly interesting. To myself and to others. The small idiosyncrasies of my brain, the little jokes I made to myself, etc. I don’t know whether I was actually just going a little nuts having no one to play with but myself, or that I’m taking the “I” in that sentence a little less seriously now, but either way, I hope the overall wisdom gained can shine though, over the playful voice that followed me around those few days, thinking of ways to share all this. Ultimately I’m only aiming to entertain and explain, though who knows, maybe there are a few seeds of inspiration in here somewhere too.

And so on Day Three, this blog was born in my head. Incidentally, this was the same day I discovered I am not a camel. That is to say, I properly understood that eating two plates of food at lunch because I was worried about being hungry in the evening wouldn’t actually keep me full for longer, and instead would only result in me feeling uncomfortable for a few hours in the afternoon. I also stopped piling a plate full of salad, bread and cheese every morning as though I was at a hotel breakfast buffet, and instead was satisfied with a bowl of porridge and stewed fruits, eaten at a normal pace. To me this is an example of one of many “relative,” (ie they’re relevant to my life now but not to my “ultimate” understanding of the world and the way things work) experiential understandings that I gained on the course. Things that I already understood on an intellectual level but had not yet quite sunk into my gut.

On Day Four I decided that the Meaning of Life is tehina, and discovered meditating on my bed in the hours we were allowed to practice outside of the hall (so soft! why was I torturing myself sitting on the floor??). It was also around this time that the chatter in my head started to die down, further supporting my meditation practice. By this, I don’t mean that my thoughts disappeared altogether, but rather that they faded into the background unless “thinking” was actually what I was doing at the time. Something like a radio turned down, that I could tune into at will, rather than me standing on the tip of my brain yelling at myself non-stop, demanding all of my own attention.

From the first night of the retreat onwards my night-time dreams were incredibly lucid, symbolic and basically text-book, and as a result occupied my thoughts during a substantial amount of non-meditation hours. Freud would have had a field day. It was as though each night my subconscious would pick a topic, say family or relationships or career, and then pick the most obvious symbol possible (knives for anger for example, or job interviews for career deliberations, I mean come on!) and weave profound tales for me to figure out the next day. I came to some solid realisations about myself with the help of these dreams, which I believe were able to come out due to the calmness of my mind and the effect of meditation on subconscious.

From Day Five onwards my concentration and balance of mind (“equanimity” as the jargon goes) reached such a point that my meditation experiences really took over. I was able to stay focused for long periods of time, my insights got deeper and deeper and all of the teachings started to come together. While I already had some understanding of the teachings of the Buddha, (again, primarily on an intellectual level) the concepts really chrystallised for me around the middle of the retreat and I was able to see them clearly both during and outside of meditation.

Specifically, I gained clear insights into the nature of craving and aversion. I’d always thought of these forces as being related purely to outside stimulus, substances or people or food or whatever, but instead I saw that it’s all about the sensations we feel on our bodies. To put it simply, that the alcoholic is not actually addicted to alcohol, but rather to how alcohol makes him feel. While I didn’t have any single malt whiskey on me at the time to test out that exact theory, my mind was clear enough to experience it during other situations. I felt subtle, pleasant tingles on my body when, say, I thought about something cute my boyfriend had said to me the previous week, as well as the way my left shoulder clenched up and strain started to spread up my neck as anger gripped me when the girl behind me coughed directly on my back for what seemed like the tenth time in a one-hour session.

But that was only the beginning. If the nice thought had come to my head, I felt the pleasant tingles, and then kept doing whatever I was doing, that would have been fine, but that’s not generally the way things went. Instead, my mind would crave the nice feeling again, so it kept clinging, trying to replay the thought, trying to get the tingles back. Similarly, long after the coughing behind me had subsided, every time I thought about it or anticipated the next cough, the pain in my shoulder would start to build again, without the initial stimulus. The problem wasn’t the good feelings or the bad feelings in and of themselves, but rather my reaction to them.

Of course, I’m just reinventing the wheel here. These have been the teachings of various enlightened beings through the course of history, from Buddha to Jesus to the spiritual leaders of modern times – I was just understanding them via observing sensations on the body without identifying with them. Watching reality unfold. And through this I started to realise the value of “reprogramming” my mind – to choose how to respond to real stimulus rather than reacting, reacting, reacting on autopilot. And this is exactly what I was learning via the meditation – how to watch the pain in my knee as it came and went (and it always did), rather than wriggling around trying to find the perfect position to make it go away. That suffering comes from struggling to make things other than they are, whether that be by craving something that isn’t or hating something that is.

Back to the day-to-day of the course. For the first half of the retreat, I had been convinced that once I got past Day Five and onto Day Six I’d start to feel like I was on the downhill, like it would all be over soon. That I’d soon be home applying all this wisdom to my real life, rather than living on this weird camp with all of these restrictive conditions. Of course, it didn’t go this way at all. In fact the numbers game I was playing in my head – how many more nights, hours, this time next week etc – just got harder once Day Six came around. Suddenly it was like, “Oh my god, I have to do ALL of that AGAIN?” As a result, it was somewhere around this point that I resolved to stop counting, to stop thinking forwards and back all the time, and to just be. Easier said than done, of course, but my understanding of the nature of craving and aversion seemed to help. Until about Day Eight, that is, when fantasies of talking again and getting home were inevitable. Still, I tried to keep them to a minimum so as not to waste the last few days of the retreat.

Days Six to Nine are kind of a blur at this point, to be honest, filled with leaps and bounds in my meditation practice, more insanely vivid dreams and lots of lentils. Somehow I settled into the routine and grueling schedule, giggled to myself as jokes came into my head without spending too much time lamenting the fact that I couldn’t share them with anyone, and put my inner coffee snob aside enough to actually look forward to instant coffee at breakfast every day.

One specific event that stands out from the last few days was on Day Eight, as I was flossing my teeth after the nightly popcorn break. I felt a seed stuck in one of my teeth and so was checking out the situation in the mirror, and I found a massive hole in one of my back teeth, which I decided was starting to rot. My mind, which had been relatively clear for days, whirred back into action. Thoughts of poison going into my bloodstream, painful root canal therapy and bad breath bounced and ricocheted around the inside of my skull, and I was sure I’d never be able to meditate again what with all this noise. While realistically I understood that we were only talking about 48 hours until I could get to a dentist – hardly the end of the world – my mind reacted to this stark reminder of my immortality, of the inevitable decay of my physical structure, and it didn’t like it. At one point I even considered taking the issue to the teacher, though technically we were only meant to discuss details of the meditation technique with him.

This all took place over the course of a few minutes, as I walked back to my room and sat down despondently on my bed, thoroughly depressed by ghoulish images of a dentist’s chair. Absent-mindedly, I began folding some clothes I’d washed earlier, and found a hole in the toe of a sock I really like. I threw the pair in the bin, giggling to myself as I imitated Goenka’s voice in my head saying “aniche, aniche” (Pali for “impermanent”). And then, instantaneously, I stopped worrying about my tooth, as another part of the teachings I’d been hearing about for days sunk in; it’s our attachment to the solidity and permanence of our physical and mental structure which causes human suffering. I’m 30 years old – of course my teeth were never going to remain in pristine condition forever! The gong sounded, I went back to the meditation hall and sat a compelling one-hour session, watching with wonder and heightened understanding as sensations arose and passed away, as they always do.

And then somehow it was Day Ten, the day that we moved from Noble Silence to Noble Speech (ie we were allowed to talk to other meditators while taking care not to lie or harm others). This was a serious shock to the system. Suddenly all the solemn faces I’d gotten used to around me turned into talking, laughing, expressive creatures, all wanting to share their experiences and gossip and ask questions and generally make noise. I found that at first I could only take it in short bursts, that I was far less interested in small talk and details than I had been in the past, and retired to my room for a nap after about an hour of talking, my head reeling from all the stimulation. While I do have some doubts about the structure of these courses, this “buffer zone” is definitely a stroke of genius. I can only imagine how it would have been to feel like this straight after leaving the retreat – I doubt it would have been pretty.

For the remaining 24 hours of the course we kept to a slightly altered schedule of meditation and talks, while chatting away in our rooms, common areas and the dining hall in between. I kept expecting the focus and concentration I’d built up to disappear what with all the extra noise both inside and outside my head, but in actuality it only took me an extra few minutes to get into the groove. Either way, when it was time to leave the following morning I was more than ready, and excited to share my experiences with the people closest to me rather than the perfect strangers I’d been wordlessly passing in the halls for 12 days.

My landing back in the real world was softer as a result of this buffer zone, and though the sharpness of mind I cultivated on the course has somewhat blunted since, definite benefits have remained. Things that used to get my blood boiling have left me feeling only slightly ruffled, and cravings for various things other than present reality, from food to whiskey to people saying what I want them to say have dwindled or seem to be almost non-existent. There’s still serious work to be done, don’t get me wrong, but the retreat certainly seemed to get the ball rolling.

To anyone thinking about going on such a retreat, don’t kid yourself that it’s going to be easy but I’d definitely say give it a go. To me, both Vipassana meditation and the clarity gained by taking a few days away from the countless stimuli of our modern lives teach lessons which are universal and can be applied to all sorts of situations. I feel like I’ve benefited tremendously and would highly recommend it.

For those meditation nerds, would-be medtiators, and general spiritual enthusiasts out there, stay tuned for my next post, on the actual nitty gritty of my practice on the retreat.

Oh – and a visit to the dentist since I returned home revealed that in fact my teeth are in fantastic condition and it seems the only decay is in my mind. Very glad I didn’t waste two days worrying about that one.

A flower (read: weed) with heart-shaped leaves which caught my attention during the retreat.
Note: Photo was taken after the retreat.