Recently, I sat in silence for 8 days at the Southwest Vipassana Meditation Center about an hour’s drive outside of Dallas. This was my second long-term course at this center and the intensity of the experience has had a lasting effect on me.
Having already faced the discomfort yet ultimate benefit of a previous ten-day course last October, my ego struggled in the days leading up to my departure. As an old-student (old students are those that have sat a 10-day retreat) I was now allowed the privilege of sitting for as many days as I wanted – not the full ten, if I so chose. I justified skipping the first 3 days by telling myself that I was stressed from having houseguests for an extended weekend and that I could use a couple of days to accomplish some tasks around the house. Excuses, Excuses! My ego knew it was about to take a gut-punch and it scrambled all its forces to ensure its survival. It was wary of the unconscious elements that had been exposed during the first sitting.
My first 10-day retreat at the center had been both deeply unsettling and confidence building. The rules of the experience were strictly enforced: 10 hours of meditation from 4:30 AM to 9:00 PM with a few hours for meals and rest; no communication with any other participants except the teachers (no speaking, eye contact, writing notes); no outside materials allowed in (phones, books, journals, radios, etc.); and, no exercise or stretching other than walking a short loop trail. All these regulations were intended to let the deep material of the unconscious emerge over the course and to give the participants a fair idea of the benefits of the meditation technique.
The first 7 days were awful; I sat in terror as horrific behemoths emerged from my unconscious. I became aware that these same thoughts were the fabric of the depressive episode I’d had several years back. At that time, I attempted to escape from these thoughts – to reason and bargain with them to prove their falsity. But like quicksand, the more I fought against them the further I sunk. They dominated my head space, casting a dark shadow on everything. At the meditation center I feared I was slipping back into depression and, ultimately, madness.
The Assistant Teacher gave me guidance (once I finally asked for it) and he assured me that this was all perfectly normal material that comes up for students. “Stick to the simple principles of the technique and keep working at it. Nothing is permanent – including these thoughts and feelings,” assured the Assistant Teacher with a deep Texas accent. I cried and I practiced self-compassion while looking at myself in the mirror. I trudged through it all. Somewhere around Day 7, I began to feel confidence in my ability to sit with the discomfort of these contemplations. Yes, they were unpleasant in their nature and I would have preferred to think about milkshakes and cherubs, but they could not actually harm me. There were times when they ceased and I simply experienced the subtle sensations of my body.
The theory of the practice began to make sense; chasing our desire for pleasant thoughts and feelings creates misery. When we pursue ephemeral and transient phenomena we are left wanting more and more. Never satisfied, never complete and deeply discontent. We live our lives with reaction on top of reaction on top of reaction. Creating more and more tension in our lives. Vipassana seeks to gradually unwind the knots with a simple strategy. Sit in silence and without moving, keep your attention moving over the entire surface of the body and aware of the sensations present. Never linger for more than a few minutes in one area. No matter how pleasant or unpleasant the sensations, keep the attention moving. By keeping your attention impartial and balanced, you sew the seeds of non-reaction. This practice should extend into all areas of your life – do not expect miracles, but do expect benefits in your daily life. This isn’t blind faith, it is expected that your own direct experience with unbiased attention will leave you happier and more peaceful. I left the retreat after Day 10 feeling renewed enthusiasm and energy for all the domains of my life: partnership; family; work; and friendship. And I was committed to maintaining the recommended 2-hour practice in my daily life.
So it came as a surprise, when a full 8-months after my second sitting these same black thoughts emerged and were just as unpleasant as the first time I sat. I cried to myself in my room feeling sadness at what my mind had to offer me and that I had seemingly progressed so little. Again, I sought guidance from the teacher. “The mind-body structure is like a gong, when these unpleasant thoughts arise – they strike the gong and resonate throughout your whole body. Continue to use the Vipassana technique and work through these thoughts by turning your attention to the sensations in the body. Do not react with aversion to them and do not crave for your experience to be anything other than what it is. Keep working,” he reassured me. I cynically thought to myself, “That and a nickel will get me a nice cup of jack-squat! I’m suffering here Teach!” No miracle placing of hands, no liberation through a benevolent deity, no secret chants or texts. Just deliberate and endless repetitions of focusing the mind on the reality of the present moment as experienced through the body. Everyone has to fight their own battle for liberation. No one can do it for you.
I realized as I sat through the seemingly endless waterfall of thoughts that I had built much of my life around engaging with my own rambling contemplations rather than with the realities of the actual world. Yes, I had mostly maintained the practice for 8 months, but my meditation had become a ritual - not a practice. My meditation was mechanical and the rest of my life was still full of mindlessness. Constant multi-tasking, shoveling food while watching TV, incessant checking of my smartphone for mundane information and updates, chasing down every thought with a Google search. These were all the minor behaviors that kept me separated from my body’s experience of the moment and had kept me from addressing deeper issues: my irritability and quick temper at those that I most cherish; my frantic need to control my daily schedule (exercise, food, sleep, work); and my absolute terror when facing the thought patterns that led to my depressive episode. The ugly truth sat before me in plain sight and my hope dimmed.
Yet I kept working, I believe all my practice up to this point had, if nothing else, taught me persistence. To just keep at the goddamn thing. I took comfort in the evening discourses in which S.N. Goenka, the modern transmitter of this technique, delivered humorous and compassionate stories about the great miseries of life. The talks normalized the suffering that I was experiencing while inducing hope with the stories of other practitioners’ liberations. I reconnected with some of the wisdom I had acquired through my own life. The best way out is through.
Through these talks, I also gathered new insights about the psychology behind this technique. It is inspiring that this 2500 year-old technique conceptualizes the mind and psychology in a way that Western psychology and neuroscience is only beginning to accept. In essence, Vipassana believes that the roots of our problems are sankaras, which are deep reactions of craving and aversion that are stored in the body and the unconscious mind. By observing the sensations in the body and not reacting, we began to work through our deep store of sankaras and become happier. Like a bonfire of suffering, when we stop piling on more fuel, the flames gradually extinguish. This conceptualization fits nicely with modern trauma therapies (somatic experiencing, EMDR, yoga therapy) that conceptualize trauma be it combat, car accident, childhood neglect, or abuse as stored within the body and unconscious mind. Generally, because of the pain of the associated memories, we live our life in avoidance of certain feeling states and thoughts. Unfortunately, we can’t selectively turn-off emotions or thoughts. When we seek to numb or avoid fear, pain or negative thinking we also avoid joy, connection and love. Through their various modalities, these therapies allow the traumas of old to surface in a controlled and systematic method. By gradually facing the difficult memories and feelings, we widen our tolerance and live more dynamic and joyful lives.
To me, the deep reactions that are labeled sankaras by Vipassana could easily be substituted with the word traumas. The methodology is similar: sit through the unpleasantness without reaction and gradually become stronger and more tolerant.
It made me re-examine my own work as a therapist. Oftentimes, my work with clients is focused on the why? Why did my father treat me like that? Why do I drink so much? Why do I continue to destroy my relationships? Many times, the answer to the why fails to give adequate relief and it can feel as though therapy turns in circles on itself. Using the framework of Vipassana, the importance of the why is diminished. Thoughts, feelings, sensations are impersonal and transient. Chasing down an answer may be intellectually stimulating, but it fails to address the more important question of our lives: how will I be free from suffering? In my limited experience, Vipassana’s philosophy offers a simple and effective technique that may answer the how?
I concluded my second sitting slightly shaken-up, but with important realizations and goals. The solitary nature of the endeavor left me with gratitude and commitment to the people that are closest to me. The length and intensity of the work has given me more patience with myself and with others - the ability to sit through unpleasant emotions and thoughts without fueling them. And it has given me less anxiety in my daily life, instead of engaging in endless pleasure-seeking multi-tasks, I make an effort to do one thing at a time which gives me a greater sense of calmness.
Lastly, the fact that Vipassana centers are taught and run by volunteers, that there is no fee charged for these retreats (donations are accepted but not pushed), and that the attendees are from all walks of life and locations (India, China, Israel, Bhutan, Mexico, to name a few) leaves me feeling especially inspired. It has become evident to me that this technique has spread not because of a savvy-marketing team or a false promise to instantly lift suffering, but because it has genuinely helped people enough for them to want to give it to others.
I am not enlightened and I’ve only just begun to do the work, but I do feel that my experience with Vipassana has shown me a path to healing and happiness.
Psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book ’The Body Keeps the Score’ is an exploration into the mind-body connection of those suffering from the effects of trauma. Van Der Kolk has been working in the field of psychiatry since the Vietnam War and has tried a variety of different methods in helping those afflicted with the symptoms of PTSD. He brings a wealth of experiential knowledge into his writing.
Chapter 16 of the book details his work with yoga as a form of healing. Yoga has now become a mostly accepted form of exercise in the West and is synonymous with wellness and, for some, a form of spirituality. Van Der Kolk approaches the practice as a scientist would – with quantifiable data and research. The premise of his work is that trauma breaks the alarm system of the brain and body, a.k.a. the amygdala and associated limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze response that helps us to escape bodily danger. It assesses threat without reason such as a jump away from a snake-like object or a quick reaction to a loud noise. It usually keeps us safe. However, for individuals with trauma it can lead to misinterpretation of daily situations as potentially life threatening and a constant state of ‘high alert’.
A real trauma has taught those of us with PTSD that the world is a dangerous place. Often, this waking state of extreme caution is unconscious to the day-to-day self, but our bodies are aware. Van Der Kolk asserts, if we are chronically scared or afraid our bodies will respond with chronic pain, headaches, and difficulty sleeping. In fact, many with mysterious physical illnesses may seek out treatment from physicians for issues that stem from a mostly psychological event. To help cope with the uncomfortable physical sensations, we may find ways to numb ourselves: drugs, alcohol, work, exercise, over or under-eating. Van der Kolk sought to better understand the physiology of PTSD and an over-active limbic system.
In order to assess our nervous system’s health, Van Der Kolk utilized heart rate variability (HRV) to evaluate the balance between the two branches of our autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Broadly speaking, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) branch uses adrenaline to thrust our system into action while the parasympathetic system (PNS) activates chemicals to assist with digestion, sleep, and healing.
When we inhale we activate the SNS and our heart rate slightly accelerates. When we exhale, our PNS takes over and our heart rate slightly decreases. The difference between our heart rate on an inhalation and exhalation is our heart rate variability. Healthy individuals show a wide difference in HRV correlated with the breath. Individuals with PTSD show rapid and shallow breaths that have little relationship with the heart rate. In short, individuals with PTSD have a much harder time regulating their nervous systems during both stimulating and relaxing times.
Van Der Kolk studied the effect of yoga on HRV and discovered that as little of eight weeks of regular yoga practice helped improve variability. However, it became clear to Van Der Kolk that the value of yoga was not its effect on HRV, but the bodily awareness it provided to those that practiced. The sequences of postures activating different muscle groups combined with awareness on deep or shallow breathing allowed practitioners to become more aware and comfortable with the relaxation and tension inherent in a yoga class. They understood that sensations came and went and they could tolerate them. This awareness clued them into the tension and relaxation present in their day-to-day lives. Many found themselves listening to their body more, and that it became easier to know what they needed moment-to-moment. Yoga taught many that their fear of certain feelings and sensations (anger, shame, sadness) was usually more detrimental than the feelings themselves. Yoga shows that like postures, feelings will peak then remit. Often the anxiety about the feelings is more de-stabilizing than the feelings themselves. Yoga harnesses the body to teach us these lessons which is an experiential form of learning that cannot be learned through reading, talking, or watching a film. We must experience to learn.
Van Der Kolk ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ is a fascinating and easy read that represents some of the most fascinating integrative work in psychology. His belief (backed up by modern neuroscience) that our psychological sense of self is rooted in our physical selves is a new idea to the West, but one that is fundamental to many Eastern philosophies.
“We don’t truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations; we need to register and act on these sensations to navigate safely through life,” (Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, p. 272)
My ongoing exploration into therapy related topics.