The Ten Day Silent Storm, Pt. 2: Equanimity & Impermanence

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

The following is a paraphrase of a story I heard during the 10-day silent meditation:

One day in a mountain village, the news of a sage visiting from afar was slowly spreading among the community. He was holding discussions and leading meditations as his teachings grew in popularity. He was known as the Buddha. Among the village folk, there were many questions addressed and many skeptics of his teachings. One such man eagerly joined the meditation sessions. He visited from a smaller neighboring village deep in the mountains and made it a point to trek to the session consistently. After listening to the sessions intently, he agreed on some teachings, but had one strong reservation which prevented him from continuing the practice.

He approached the sage one day, and said, ” I am beginning to understand the teachings, but one thing I do not understand is that if you really are the Enlightened One, why can you not just immediately bless or save us and bring us to enlightenment?”
The Buddha quickly answered and said to the man, “You’re the man who has been traversing the mountains from your village to join the meditations, correct?”
“Well, yes”, said the man.
“I hear it’s a fairly arduous walk and that you often give directions to many of the village people if they wish to safely travel there.”
“Yes, I do”, as the man wondered if his question was being dodged.
“Well, tell me sir. Since you are the expert on this path through the mountains, could the people just avoid the walk and you could help them appear at the destination?”
“No! That’s foolish. The terrain is difficult, so the people must walk the path to arrive at the destination.”
The Buddha smilingly replied, “I believe you have answered your own question. Ultimately, no one can walk the path to enlightenment for you. We must walk the path ourselves.”

Day 4 of my silent path had begun, and I became close to comfortable with the first technique of breathing, and examining my breathe.  Unfortunately, things were quickly changing. During the first 3 days I was allowed to make movements, on a somewhat limited basis, while sitting in meditation. If I had an itch, I was free to scratch.  If I needed to readjust my seat position, I could move to regain my comfort. Going forward after day 3, that was no longer allowed (ie, strictly prohibited).

The next adjustment was spreading our focus.  As a means of sharpening our “scalpel,” we initially focused on our breathe and specifically the sensation in a local area – our nose. This action helped tune the mind to subtle and fine changes or stimuli while starting to ignore the large gross changes, such as tension, pressure, or even memories.  We were to now take that sharpened “scalpel” the to the rest of our body.

While it was difficult to sit in one place on Day 1, uneasy memories were the most difficult to ignore on Day 2 & 3. But, once we were asked to spread our focus beyond the local breathe, become aware of all sensations, and stay as still as possible, my mind returned to its agitation of being uncomfortable.

That state of mind kept arising throughout the day as I tried the new practice.  My doubts were growing, but just like everyday, that doubt was quelled by the evening video lecture by the teacher – S.N Goenka.

This was the teacher who barely introduced himself. He had glasses as thick as a magnifying glass, an intense but sometimes sneering look, and always seated with his silent wife. And, yet when he spoke, there was a calm and jovial serenity to him that was difficult to ignore. And he accomplished this purely by the modesty and succinctness of his words.

Each evening, after sitting through the day’s storm, Goenka would always pinpoint the exact thoughts I had during that day’s practice. His next lesson was something I vaguely learned before, and hardly practiced.

It was similar to the idea of detachment.  Every moment as I sat there in my state of benign angst, I was experiencing a range of emotions, all of which could be simplified into two varieties – craving and aversion.

While waking in the morning before the sun rose, I was averted to getting ready and meditating as early as 4:30am. Simultaneously, I was craving going back to sleep. Later on, I craved food when I was hungry, and again developed an aversion to sitting in meditation. Memories arose, and again the emotion associated with that memory started to consume my mind and cause an aversion.  The loud sound of a Tokay Gecko reverberated the roof over us. Even that caused an aversion.

Throughout the day while my focus wandered, the wave of emotions going from craving and aversion continued on.  Goenka mentioned this was typical behavior for everyone and would be further heightened while sitting still in silence and observing our breathe & sensations.  But, how were we supposed to deal with this disposition? And in what way did sharpening our mind to subtle stimuli help us? I was becoming frustrated.

The answers were slowly  being unraveled.  As we were becoming more and more attuned to our observed sensations while being forced to sit still in silence, our composure was being tested.  We were striving for psychological stability, ie equanimity.  As we learned, equanimity was a necessary state of being, and a sort of filter for thought and emotion.  With a mind in equanimity, we were developing a composure which was undisturbed from the waves of cravings and aversions.  It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from the Bhagavad Gita:

“A person who is not disturbed by the incessant flow of desires — that enter like rivers into the ocean, which is ever being filled, but is always still — can alone achieve peace, and not the man who strives to satisfy such desires.” – BG 2.70

So with that sharpened “scalpel” to observe every tiny sensation of craving and aversion, our reaction was to not react at all, to be utterly objective, and in complete equanimity.

In conjunction with equanimity, we were taught the idea of Anicca, which is the Pali word for Impermanence. Anicca is the principle that everything in this universe is endlessly changing and perpetually in a state of transience; even the universe within our minds & bodies.

The idea of impermanence helped to realize that every sense of craving and aversion was also transient. As quickly as the emotions arose, they could linger for some time, but would eventually dissipate away. And so the challenge became – why would I not treat any of these transitory conditions with equanimity?

As easy it was to pose that question, I quickly realized how difficult it would be to fully practice it  each and every moment.  My perspectives were slowly being altered, and it would continue to do so in the last few days.

Stay tuned for Part 3….

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