Oh, the places you'll go

Oh, the places you'll go
Crete

Jamminnnn'

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Vipassana: Purifying the Mind Through Observation

"It would be entertaining to see a competition where people try to launch their turds as far as they can."

This was a legit thought that arose in my head on my first day during a 10-day Vipassana retreat. I chuckled silently to myself. What's wrong with my mind?

Back to focusing on the breath...

What is Vipassana meditation? -

Vipassana is a scientific practice and an ancient secular technique that is intended to purify the mind through observation. It originated in India and quickly spread to Thailand and throughout the world. The ultimate goal is to notice the body as it is at every moment in order to reach enlightenment. Although it is not a religious technique, it is most closely associated with the Buddhist religion, but they do not require you be Buddhist to practice the technique. You need not convert to Buddhism and become a monk to experience a few of the many benefits of Vipassana meditation.

Random fact: Buddha is a term used to describe anyone who is enlightened.

Benefits of Vipassana -

The ultimate goal of spiritual, mental, and emotional enlightenment is the main benefit. Enlightenment is a term used by Buddhists to describe those who see things as they are when they are in order to eliminate the misery and suffering of this life and completely transcend this physical life for the awareness of something indescribable to your average being. This is very simplified but the idea is to notice all of your body's sensations as they are happening and passing away. Enlightenment is an incredibly difficult stage to reach and could "take many lifetimes" to accomplish. Benefits other than enlightenment:

*Reduce stress, tension, anxiety, depression, addiction, overthinking, indecisiveness, cravings, tiredness, lethargy, migraines, misery, hatred, negativity
*Increase moods, energy, happiness, health, wellbeing, compassion, love, understanding, self-awareness

You also get to take a moment out of your busy life and focus on examination of yourself.

Once you begin down the path of Vipassana meditation, you begin to see things for how they are, instead of how you want them to be. You reduce your cravings towards changing sensations and thus, decrease your self-imposed cyclical misery that you are confined in.

How do I practice? -

I have a lot of respect for the practice so unfortunately I cannot teach you the formal practice of Vipassana. I would highly recommend a 10-day retreat if possible, it will be more beneficial than a beach vacation, but it is hard work. What I can tell you is the technique involves focusing on your breath and bodily sensations as they arise without breaking concentration for thoughts and sounds. Continuity of practice is the key to success.

Where can I do a retreat? -

Retreats are all over the world. Check out Dhamma.org. I recommend India because it originated there but doing it in your home country is just as awesome and good for you!

How much does it cost? -

Best part, it's FREE! Yes, absolutely free. Not like a $1000 yoga retreat somewhere. You simply donate at the end if you feel like it. All centers run on donations of past retreat members.

With the retreat you get breakfast/lunch and a snack/tea for dinner. You receive a place to stay and basic living accommodation. You also get the opportunity to begin learning a practice that could change your life and how you view the world.

My personal experience -

I had no idea what to expect before going into this experience. All I knew was that I was going to be incredibly uncomfortable for the next 10 days and I would teach myself to live comfortably within that discomfort. Little did I know how difficult that would be.

Each day itinerary:
4am: Morning wake up bell
4:30-6:30am: Meditation session in hall
6:30-7am: Breakfast
7-8am: Break
8-9am: Intense focus meditation session
9-11am: Meditate in cells or in hall
11-11:30: Lunch
11:30-1pm: Break
1-2pm: Meditate in hall
2-3pm: Intense focus meditation session
3-3:15pm: Break
3:15-5pm: Meditate in cell or hall
5-5:30pm: Tea and snack break
5:30-6pm: Break
6-7pm: Intense focus meditation session
7-830pm: Discourse video by S.N. Goenka
8:30-9pm: Last meditation
9pm: Lights out

It didn't stop when we took breaks, we were supposed to continue practicing during our breaks as much as possible.

Here is how it went for me.

Day 1 - This day was the suck. Delhi belly started. My entire being was agitated for being stripped of my daily routine comforts of food, sleep, phone, talking, visual and audible sensations, seeing friends/family, and doing enjoyable things. I was very anxious as I tried to force my mind to rest on my breath for 10 hours this day, I found it very difficult. I would forget about it time and again but I would always bring my attention back to breath without getting upset. I also quickly realized how limited my sitting stamina was. The entire day was spent uncomfortably switching positions trying to find a good position to sit without aching like an old man. I never found a good position that lasted but my stubbornness prevailed. I hated this day as I laid down to sleep that night but I quickly drifted off to sleep due to exhaustion.

Day 2 - 4am comes so early when you are so tired from the previous day. I slept very hard, which is surprising due to the lack of padding on the bench beds. I felt better this day, but my knees and back were very sore from day 1. I was very determined to simply stay cross legged for the first 2 hour session but I leaned back many times, I almost forgot to focus on my breath entirely because the pain was immense. I made it the 2 hours but I would be sore the entire day. My day was not bad as I drifted from breath focus to thoughts and back to breath, always remembering to not be upset with myself but always staying focused. My mind was all over the place this day. I ended the day with high anxiety and a rapid resting heart rate (double normal). That night I dreamt I was sitting in a clouded barren wasteland attempting to meditate as an angry megaphone loudly demanded I concentrate. I peaked my eyes open to see a wall of ocean water that headed my way. I opened my eyes wide and stared as it slammed into me. I awoke sweating and freezing. I just broke a fever. Sleep was seldom for the rest of the night.

Day 3 - I had the worst night of sleep in a long time. My Delhi belly was the worst this day and I had a sporadic fever throughout the day. My anxiety had me believing I was bit by a dirty mosquito that would need medical assistance soon. (Could have been likely but there was no leaving this place). I started believing I was an idiot for trying to put myself through this, even if I was dying then they wouldn't let me leave here (ha ha). It wasn't funny at the time, I was extremely low with sickness and mentality by lunch. I barely ate anything, just rice. As I lay down for break, I had an epiphany- I'm not leaving here so I need to find out what I'm made of. The rest of my day was spent digging very deep to overcome anxieties as I focused each moment I could muster on my breathing. My mind fought me but I fought back and I realized I was slowly taking a wild bull that was incredibly pissed at me for thinking I could do such a thing. The end of the day came and I passed out from exhaustion. I won the day but it came at a huge price. Could I go on?

Day 4 - I woke up with new determination. I popped an anti-poop pill and got back in the seat of focusing. I would not let my mind get the best of me. We learned Panya this day and we went back and forth between Samati (breath) and Panya (sensations). I discovered my legs were very strong now. I suppose that's what 4 days of being forced to sit Indian style sitting will do to a person. This day was slightly better.

Day 5 - I was getting used to the Panya technique, but it was even more difficult than the Samati. It was damn near impossible at first actually. It took every ounce of focus to keep trying to sense my bodies sensations. I also did not understand if I was doing it properly. I got a little frustrated but I stayed the course.

Day 6 - This day was a breakthrough. We had started doing "strong determination" sessions 3 hours per day where we would will ourselves to not move for an entire hour of Panya meditation. Now, when you do this properly, you can imagine sensations arise all over the body because of the pain you experience in your back and legs. The pain generates heat, chills, tension (uncomfortable sensations) and every now and then you get a nice breeze (comfortable sensation). The entire goal is to notice these sensations, good or bad, and not react to them internally. Meaning, do not think to yourself "ah I like that breeze", or "oh gosh that hurts so bad" (and then you move). You are to remain stoic and notice the pain or pleasure without making adjustments and simply continuing to scan the body. I accomplished this on the first session, but it was very difficult. I was still having many thoughts come and go throughout this day and the next 2 days. But when I accomplished this the first time, I was in so much pain trying to stay still. It felt awful, right until the end. Then, for a few minutes, nothing. No pain. All feeling had left my body and I was simply a mind in a physical body. I could not sense my own body because I was simply a thought. It was weird. After that session I realized there was something here but I had no idea what. I walked around and felt a rush of every emotion and a tear ran down my face but I wasn't sure if it was a happy or sad tear, maybe a mix of both.

Day 7/8 - I was entirely focused on making sure I didn't break my determination sessions. I wanted to notice my body sensations closely. These 2 days were spent getting better at being comfortable examining my discomfort in mind and body. They were very difficult days because as I got better at the technique, it got harder to learn because I was better. It was a constant cycle of improvement.

Day 9 - This was by far my best and most accomplished day. I knew this was the last real serious day to practice so I wanted to focus and not just coast by. It paid off in the last meditation hour of the day. I sat down to meditate and told myself "no moving no matter what, and always stay vigilant of sensations". I was doing the routine scans and at about 20 minutes to go, my body started vibrating with electrical currents. I could feel my entire body in its natural state as I continued to scan. I was neither pleased nor displeased, I simply was. The entire practice is to simply notice things how they are, and I was. If I happen to break focus because I thought I was doing well, my mind would take me away from the current state and I would have to cycle back around again- essentially I would lose momentum because my mind would usually want to chase toward the good feelings and chase away the bad ones. But I was determined. In the last 5 minutes, the vibrating became very distinguished and I could no longer tell I was in a room with other people. I was a plethora of sensations lifting off of the tangible ground towards a different dimension. Then, for a few seconds, I was outside of myself peering down at myself as I meditated. This broke my concentration because I was so stunned as to the indescribable sensation I was experiencing. "What is going on?" I questioned to myself. Then it was gone, I was back in my head and the moment passed. A friend would later tell me this might have been me astro-projecting, which I would normally call people crazy if they told me it was a thing but instead I did it temporarily so I must be one of the crazies. This momentary experience gave me a glimpse into the potential of what this practice can bring. It gave me answers to questions I was not asking. It changed the way I view life.

Day 10 - We got to talk this day after morning meditation. Many of the natives were very intrigued by me so I was bombarded with questions (and the eventual selfies). It was nice to have human interaction again but I remember appreciating the silence and stillness my mind experienced throughout the past 9 days.

Conclusion:

Overall this experience was the most challenging and simultaneously the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life. It gave me the perspective that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to, as long as I want to, I can. My confidence, compassion, serenity, and happiness all took a boost as my tensions and anxieties plummeted. I've started to realize things the way they are, instead of constantly always trying to change them. Happiness is in the moment, it is not in a nostalgic thought, and it may be in the future but the future is uncertain, all I have is this moment and as I focus on it more, my happiness will be streamlined in each passing moment. Does this mean I will just go with the flow and not make plans? Of course not. This means that I will make plans, but if those plans change then I will adjust, take things as they are, and carry on because I will view each situation As It Is.

Thank you for reading!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Critical Change

As most friends know, I am currently in India and backpacking parts of Asia. I have recently saved enough money to afford this opportunity and I am very glad to say I did. For lack of better words, this opportunity has been more than incredible. As incredible it has been, it has also been very eye-opening. I wish everyone could come and see for themselves the equally amazing and unfortunate scenarios taking place within this country- but, if you can't, that is okay, I am here to shed some light on my experience and help you get some insight into another world and a necessary change that needs to happen within the international mindset.

Let's begin.

On my train from Vrindavan, the city of 5000 temples, to Agra, I made a group of Indian friends. These young men stopped in their tracks when they saw me reading a book on the floor of a passenger train. Their eyes fixed on me as I looked up from my book and waved. They immediately surrounded me and squatted next to me. Only 2 could speak decent English and all of them kept asking them to ask me questions. "Where are you from?", "What is your name?", "How old are you?" "Are you married?", "Do you know Robert Downey Jr.?" The last one made me laugh out loud. For 30 minutes I was being interviewed like a celebrity by this group of 18 year old school kids who had probably never seen or talked to a white person before. I was happy to make their day. In turn, they were unknowingly making mine as well. They asked many questions about myself and America. Then one asked, "Do you ever feel lonely traveling alone as a foreigner?"

I had not thought about it up until that moment. Of course I miss home at times, but I won't be away forever, so the feeling of the momentous experience is more powerful than loneliness.

Volunteering in Vrindavan opened my eyes to many things. For one, my life is very good, and I do not mean this to brag, but more as a means to reflect how self-centered I can be. How much we can all be. Especially living in western societies, closed off from this world entirely, forgetting it exists. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the moment of discomfort when we feel it that complaints start to come, and they do not stop as easy as they come. Being conscious of complaints is the first step to ceasing them and heading to India will prove how minuscule your "relative" problems are. The streets are lined with trash. The rivers are incredibly polluted. The water is loaded with parasites. Animals are dying everywhere. The malnourished "untouchables" starve to death because no one will touch them or feed them for fear of having to be purified by their religion. The traffic appears to be one of the most dangerous activities to partake in, but it is also kind of entertaining and fun as well. All of this is happening while the government builds billion dollar religious monuments that give the people a false sense of hope and security, "Pray to me and your soul will be wealthy, just don't ask me for food, clean water, or a place to sleep." Although I hate the idea of comparing myself to others, if it is going to happen, comparing down, to more unfortunate situations, is one way to instantly feel a sense of gratitude. While this sense of gratitude may fade eventually, the memory is sure to keep one humbled in the future.
The school we were helping volunteer at. The school is made of trash covered in mud/clay.
I've always believed in sustainability within our planet, but being here and spending time in Vrindavan, and India in general, has blown the door open on why it not only makes sense, but is absolutely critical. For any type of world or system we live in, we need to ensure our consumption habits are in line with the advent of tomorrow's world. Do we want our children to grow up with less than us or just about the same (there is no way they can have more, we already have enough)? If we want our children to have less, we should continue along our current path. If not then we should question the source of products we hold dear to us. Where does it come from? Who made it? What material was it made from? What was the cost of labor and who is the labor? Does it regrow? How long does it take to replenish? When I have used it up, do I throw it away and buy more/another? What does it cost in terms of worldly consumption? I know older generations will tell us not to worry about the importance of this, and that everything is okay and our lifestyles are normal and "civilized", but they are not the ones who have to deal with the repercussions. We are. They are wrong and I do not mind telling any who disagree with that statement the same thing: you are wrong.

I am not turning into an Eco-warrior, but I see the fight and why it is necessary for all of humanity. Mankind has always been comfortable in using as much as possible until the resource is depleted and then moving onto the next, sort of like a virus. We are the only being on the planet to place a higher value price on maximizing profits on resources instead of the sustainability of discovering ways to use those resources indefinitely. Many will say, "Because we are conscious beings who need money to survive in our societies." To which I would reply, "Are we? Do we?" We have a dependency on plastic and using, on materialism, and our comfortable ways of life, especially in the west. The majority of the entire world uses in an unsustainable manner as if we are all afraid everyone else is going to use it up if we don't first. But what happens when we all use it all? When all of the trees are chopped down, all of the rivers depleted, all of the gas guzzled, all of the planet is barren, where do we go? Back to dust and nothingness.

This brings me to spirituality. While the outlook above is somewhat gloomy, and we will simply ignore it because it hits too close to home and our fragile minds can't grasp such a real scenario in which we have nothing of which we have always had. I do not feel anxious about it. The materialistic lifestyle causes us to care about this physical world to point of worrying about death and nothingness. Relax, the body is not what you should be worried about. Death comes to us all but how is your soul doing? Being in Vrindavan allowed me to see firsthand how people with "nothing" are seemingly happier than us in the western world. They do not worship the demigods of technology, fame, social media, clothes, cars, sex, etc., but instead they are sold on "Hare Krishna", which basically means glory to God. They repeat mantras, chanting to Krishna, and live completely for their deity. While I am not completely sold on the religious aspect of it, I respect the movement of using less and putting yourself aside for the sake of compassion towards a cleaner planet and taking care of fellow man. One might be wondering, but isn't India trashed? Yes it is, but many people are not following a guideline of how to live here. Also, their infrastructure is maddeningly nonexistent.

Participating in a Hindi Yamuna River ceremony that represented love and devotion to the planet.


So I began to wonder, is ignorance bliss or do they actually have a powerful and uplifting spiritual movement? I came to realize the ladder is true. I say this because many of the people I saw practicing were former westerners. I talked to many of these intelligent people who have strong convictions on philosophy and life. They were people who lived the material rat race life and decided to choose a life lived with less stuff and more compassion. Entirely less consumption. They focus on sustainability and putting others before themselves. They went from "me me me", to "if I give, I get", to "giving is the getting". Honestly, it's intriguing to me and I would consider such a life but I am still hooked on western culture and the religious aspect can be overbearing and in your face.

I know I am no better than anyone else and not everyone is a self-centered asshole, but in many ways, we kind of are. I am not asking anyone to quit consuming (lol), but just begin questioning and being aware of habits and ask yourself more about the products you consume. You'd be surprised.

Monday starts a 10-day Vipassana retreat meaning no technology or talking. Wish me luck, I'll see you on the other side. Off to Thailand after the retreat :)






Friday, February 16, 2018

Why We Travel

For those of us bit by the travel bug that becomes ever more infectious as life goes on, we will not completely understand how to answer the question of, "Why do you like to travel so much?"

The pretentious side of me wants to simply respond, "If you have to ask, then you would probably never understand." But the compassionate side of me sees that as too easy and could be applied with any concept. Travel addiction is no exception. Maybe we can shed some light on this simple concept that is a conundrum to the home-bodies and comfortable alike. For the record, there is absolutely nothing wrong with not traveling in my opinion, if that is where you get your inspiration and growth, that is your choice and I completely respect it, but this post is about why people do travel :)

So for those of us who can't get enough and love to travel, why do we do it? Ask yourself. What is it?

I have come to find, this question is not so easily answered when considered deeply, but is actually incredibly easy on the surface. On the surface, we simply love to travel for a change of pace and change of scenery. We want to see somewhere new and beautiful. We want to relax. We love to get away from our usual lives. We need a break from the repetition that is our life. We weren't allowed to choose the body we were born into, but we are allowed to choose what we do with it. More specifically, where we go.

On a less superficial level, travel provides a plethora of challenges and benefits that are hard to describe with words. Many of us just want to feel completely alive, and we wish to duplicate that feeling of ecstasy that comes when dopamine is released during great moods. We wish to get that hit of adrenaline that a new unknown adventure provides us. We want the thrill and excitement that comes with abandoning our mundane work life in order to explore something new and potentially life-changing. The paradigm shift happens when one realizes the incredibly apparent benefits of traveling somewhere unknown. For American's, I don't mean heading a few hours to the lake, but really putting yourself in a situation that makes you incredibly uncomfortable and feel empathetic to your surroundings. The feeling of "Wow, my life is fucking amazing compared to the way these people live." The feeling that where you are is exactly where you should be at that certain time. The feeling that the infinite moment that is now will never end and bliss will be unlimited. The feeling of "Man, I really miss my bed, drinkable tap water, and toilet paper. Toilet paper is nice." The gratefulness that comes along with getting out of your routine to challenge your perspective on life in a way that will provide you with lifelong memories that will constantly remind you how amazing your life is.

So why do you travel? It's different for everyone.

All the foods! All the feels. The new smells. The new sights. The new challenges. The culture shock. The chance to learn some of a new language. The stories we gather along the journey. The discomfort that brings along appreciation of comfort. The people we meet. THE PEOPLE WE MEET! The deep hostel conversations lasting for hours with people you may, unfortunately, never see again. The times our eyebrows raise in fascination to a new experience. The times you realize you're being ripped off; The times you realize you'll never get ripped off like that again. The history upon the ground you are walking. The memories of this moment. The opportunity to branch out and connect with a vast world many of us will only ever experience a fraction of. The escape of the societal concept of "reality". The attempt to experience a more nomadic lifestyle. The search for meaning. The need to understand. The will to learn. Growth. The ability to look back and say "I wanted to do that, and I'm glad I did."

This is why we travel. Happy traveling my fellow addicts, keep it up!