So often in life we are faced with trials and tribulations that leave us wondering what the point of it all really is. Invariably we will meet people who give us such advise as, you have to learn to be positive!, or life is what you make of it!
For the average person with a good ol' life-long accumulated stock of negativity training, this seems not only impossible, but also feels a bit insensitive and frankly infuriating. Of course the advice is true and a bit obvious to most people; however achieving this elusive mindset is another story. When on the receiving end of this advice, it kind of feels like you are lost on a remote island somewhere in the pacific complaining about hunger and someone simply suggests with a grand smile, what you need is food, my friend!
A few years back, I was pretty much at my wits end. I was caught up in the deepest depression of my life and essentially stuck in a spiral of self hatred. I was 40 years old and had decided that my life was over. I was simply waiting to die slowly. I knew deep down that this was quite an extreme way to see things and that perhaps I was exaggerating my situation. I mean, after all, there are so many people much worse off than I. What right do I have to complain? Some people are struggling to eat, while I sit here with my first world problems complaining that my life has no meaning.
The fact of the matter is this. It does not matter how rich, poor, successful or struggling at life you are. I doesn't matter where you were born, how you grew up or who parents are. Our fundamental experience is the same. If we cannot be happy right now, we will never be happy when we potentially have x, y or z.
This is getting to the absolute root of the human conundrum. We as a species have done something terrible to ourselves. I don't know when it began or how long it has been going on, but we have planted a seed deeply in our psyche that has caused us immeasurable pain for countless generations. This bug in our programming is caused by our obsession with time.
Not so much the concept of time itself, but our constant grasping at the past and the future. This is our Achilles heel as a civilization. Yet somewhat ironically it is the reason that we are as technologically advanced as we are. Without knowledge of the past, we wouldn't be able to carry progress. Without planning for the future, we could not continue to develop the amazing technologies that we have already achieved.
So time itself is useful, but it is nothing more than a tool; albeit a very useful and powerful one. The issue arises when time distracts us from the the only thing that really ever exists, which is right now. This moment is ultimately inescapable. It is the only thing that is real. The past is gone and the future is merely hypothetical.
We have become caught up in a constant cycle of blind reaction. We avoid things that make us uncomfortable based on past experiences. We desire for things to happen in our future and even after they manifest we are ultimately left unsatisfied. Once we look deeply at ourselves, we realize that this suffering is caused by our inability to fully experience life as it unfolds. After all, how can one see what is right in front of them when one is agonizing about what was or what may or not be?
The way that I came to this life changing understanding was not by reading books or blog posts. In fact, I have heard things very similar my entire life. Either from Christian leaders, wise elders that I looked up to as a child, religious gurus, Buddhist practitioners and many other philosophers. They were all right, of course. But what good is knowledge without experience?
Say, perhaps, a child is told: Don't stick your hand in the fire, you'll get burnt!
If the child is smart, they may never stick their hand in a fire. They will go on with that knowledge and it will serve them well. Now let's say the child ignores the wise teacher and sticks their hand in the fire anyway. Of course, I am not suggesting that this is a good course of action, but the result is obvious.
This is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is necessary! Wisdom is experiential. Wisdom is real knowing.
We have to learn to look at ourselves objectively. The only way to free ourselves from the bonds of blind reaction and misery is to recognize that we are in fact, reacting blindly. What is it exactly that we are reacting blindly to? Well, to put it as simply as possible, we are reacting to our own physical sensations.
It is quite easy to prove this point on a level of pure experience. Take the following example.
Imagine that you are walking down the street one day and you see a person that you remember from school. You remember that when you were kids you spent 3 weeks working up the courage to ask them out on a date. Finally you approach them and manage to get the words. Shortly afterward, the person looks at you, at first with disgust, then laughs and walks away.
Here on the street, years later you see this person and are immediately filled with a sensation somewhere on your body. The first thing that occurs is that you have a thought about how terrible this sensation feels. This is invariably followed by a negative reaction. This creates a feedback loop which multiplies your misery. What you have done is to reinforce and fortify a negative attribution to a sensation that in reality has no inherent negativeness or positiveness. You have given a formless, selfless, impermanent sensation a personality, that is now ready to assist you any time that you are in a similar situation, and well, you need to feel awful again.
As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, I was at a very dark point in my life a few years ago. I said to my wife, I wish that there was some sort of meditation type thing that I could get involved with that was not ridiculously expensive. If only there were somewhere that I could go where I could learn about all of this stuff and really see if there is any substance to it. I had practiced meditation before, but it all felt a little forced and I never really felt like I had penetrated very deeply or gotten any true lasting benefit from it. That was until a friend on Facebook suggested that we check out a Vipassana retreat: A 10 day silent intensive meditation retreat that is donation based with no pressure tactics to get money. The retreats are run completely by old students and volunteers.
We were dubious about the whole thing but signed up anyway at dhamma.org. In case you were wondering, that is where all of the photos in this post were taken.
I will not get into the details of the 10 days in this post as there are two many to list while keeping this article of reasonable length. I will say that if you are truly serious about getting to the root of your unhappiness and misery, then you really owe it to your self to start looking at the root causes as mentioned above in this post. the word Vipassana roughly means Seeing things as they really are (Not as you'd like them to be). This course is about giving you the tools to look at yourself objectively and act accordingly. What you get out of it will be up to you, and how seriously you take the teachings. I won't lie, these 10 days are not easy. You are on a cushion for 10 hours a day in silence doing a sort of mental surgery on your psyche. You have to be really serious about working through your stuff before even thinking about attempting it.
If you haven't figured it out yet, these techniques of self reflection are based on the teachings of the Buddha. The core teachings of the Buddha have nothing to do with religious dogma, but have everything to do with getting to the root of our suffering. I mention this because many people can be easily turned off by the implied religious implications of meditative practice. I can assure you, it doesn't matter what you believe in; meditation is about looking deeply at yourself and coming to understand what you really are, not about worshiping gods or performing religious rites and rituals.
This is not a religion, or even a belief system for that matter. It is an exploration of reality as you experience it. I hope that someone will find this post useful and will seek to understand themselves and break free from the bonds of blind reaction. May all beings have peace and happiness!