It’s been almost a year now that I have been without any kind of regular spiritual community or classes. And while I feel like my spiritual aspirations are stronger than ever, I have come to miss not meditating with a group of people on a regular basis. There is something about the energy (for lack of a better term and trust me if there were a better term than “energy” I would use it. Frankly, I hate using “energy” in an airy fairy way, but sometimes, well . . .) of a group of people meditating that really helps your own individual meditation. You would think it would be the opposite – all that rustling and sniffling and heavy breathing of others would be a distraction. And trust me, it can be. But, I’ve had some of my best meditation sessions in the company of others.
That’s not the point of this post though. But, it could be . . . Nah, let’s go with the original idea.
As some of you may recall a few weeks back I decided to take a six-week Introduction to Vipassana course out at Spirit Rock. Part of the rationale was that I was that I was coming up blank when called to go beyond focusing on the breath and to open to greater awareness in the meditations I was doing at the Dakini Temple. Greater what? Awareness? Awareness? I don’t do no stinkin’ awareness. Anyway, I sensed that this class seemed was just what I needed.
I came to the class with a relatively open mind, but eager to once again get some meditation instruction. At first I feared this tradition was going to be too touchy-feely, or feel too diluted. Our first meditation exercise in body awareness, which was done laying on the floor made me uneasy. What does this have to do with enlightenment? Where are the glorious concepts of emptiness and bodhicitta? Where are my pink joy swirls? Where is my head in all of this?
Yet, over the course of the six weeks, including a one day retreat, I really came to appreciate my teacher, Will Kabat-Zinn, my classmates, and most of all this style of meditation. Unlike the previous style of meditation I was practicing, where you contemplated an idea and then focused on it single pointedly, this style, also known as Insight Meditation, is deceptively simple. The goal was to simply stay aware of this very moment, adding nothing or taking anything away. Just this moment and whatever this moment brings. It may bring body sensations, emotions, or our constant nattering companion, thoughts. But rather hold to them, create our stories around them, we simply look at them for what they are. What does this pain really feel like? Is it really that bad, or is it the story I tell myself that makes it worse. This feeling in my gut, this slight electrical charge going through my body, what is that? Oh, that’s anxiety. And look there’s a thought . . . and another thought . . . and yet another. Damn, they really are fleeting, aren’t they. And always, keeping you grounded is the breath. Just this one breath in this one moment. For the first time in ages, I felt like the whole of me was invited to my own meditation sessions. My body was actually connected to my head and my own mundane experience was worth looking at. What a concept. I mean, it’s nice and all, but is it really Buddhist?
I think the differences between Vipassana and the type of meditation, in particular Lamrim, that I learned in the in the NKT (though this approach may just be part of the larger Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism) boils down to this:
In Vipassana meditation by being very present to our experience moment by moment, breath by breath and increasing this awareness into our daily lives, Buddha’s teachings will unfold before us, revealing themselves through our own experience.
In Lamrim, Budda’s teachings are revealed to you through the Guru, through study, and with consistent meditation we bring these teachings from mere concept to our heart, where eventually, we may experience them for ourselves.
For right now, I’ve got a good practice going with the Vipassana and I’m combining that with recitation of the Heart Sutra. And in a couple of weeks I’m going to do a couple of days of retreat focusing on the Heart Sutra with Anam Thubten Rimpoche (lucky lucky me to have him in my own backyard!). I’m also considering doing a five day Vipassana retreat out at Spirit Rock at the end of the summer. And in the meantime, I’m going to try and catch one of the on-going Vipassana sitting groups in Berkeley as often as I can. At some point, I’d like to incorporate some Lamrim again, but for now this feels right.