How to Die Smiling

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March 20th 2012
Published: March 22nd 2012
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A Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful Mind

Since I didn't take any pictures during the Vipassana course, I'll post these from the Jaipur Elephant Festival. An elephant became the metaphor for my mind during those 10 days, so I think the images are appropriate.
Take a Vipassana course. It will be the best thing you ever do for yourself – and for those around you. Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique that means to see things as they really are. By becoming a neutral witness to the changing nature of your body, you experience first-hand the universal truths of impermanence and suffering. Nothing lasts forever and everyone – no matter what size, shape or color – feels pain and sorrow. As humans, we’re programmed to react to information from our environment with feelings of pleasure or distaste. When something feels nice, we want more. When something is unpleasant, we start to hate it. These cravings and aversions feed into an endless cycle of misery. We all understand that in order to be happy we must break out of this pattern of negativity, but intellectual knowledge can’t get us there. You can read every book in the world on swimming technique, marine sciences, and navigation, but when the ship sinks, you better know how to swim. No one can swim for you. No one can walk down the path to liberation for you either. It’s not an easy path. In fact, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But, just like childbirth, the hours of work and excruciating pain produce beautiful results that are well worth the trouble.

The first three days of a Vipassana course are dedicated to the simple observation of breath. All you do is make yourself aware of your breath coming in and going out. No breathing techniques, no verbalizations, no visualizations. Just natural breath. It’s harder than it sounds. In the first session, after only two breaths, my mind started wandering down a beach in Costa Rica. The guru’s voice came from a speaker in the front of the room, “Your mind will wander. Do not be upset by this. Allow it to happily wander. Then, smiling, bring it back to your respiration.” Following his words, I let my mind happily wander a few more steps; then I smiling brought it back to my breath. I was on the beach within another two breaths. Just as a wave washed over my feet I heard, “Soon your mind will start to wander again. Do not get angry. Do not get upset. Accept that this is the reality of the moment. Then bring your mind back to your breath.” As I brought my attention back to my breath, the reality of the moment struck me as something so beautiful and so true that it brought tears to my eyes. I’m prone to such sentimentalities.

I expected my concentration to improve the following day, but I struggled even more. In a full day of meditation, from 4:30 in the morning to 9:30 at night, I observed about 50 breaths total. The rest of the time I spent wandering through the past and the future. At one point, I found myself sari-clad and bindi-dotted, giving a presentation on Indian culture to the captivated eyes and ears of my nephew’s fifth grade class. My nephew is four years old. Although my mind wandered and my body fidgeted, I’d managed enough concentration to be able to feel the subtle sensation of my breath on the small area between my nostrils and upper lip by the next day.

Then, I started craving. I wanted a pen. I needed a pen. I cursed myself for being a good girl and turning in all my reading and writing materials, as the rules dictated. I had a feeling that another meditator hadn’t been so good, but I couldn’t ask her. We were all bound to the Noble Silence – no talking, no body gestures, no eye contact. I considered my alternatives. Toothpaste? Dirt? Blood? No. Too messy. Besides, what would I write on? There wasn’t even tissue paper to wipe your nose, or your bum. I was going to have to learn to free myself from cravings, or go crazy. No sooner had I let go of needing a pen than a new craving rushed in to fill its place. As I crawled into bed, I remembered all of the stuff that I had in storage somewhere – stuff that I shouldn’t have any attachment to, but my stuff. And I wanted it. I wanted to be surrounded by it, to see it, to touch it. I tossed and turned for hours, decorating a house that doesn’t exist. I built bookshelves and filled them. I framed photographs and hung them. I felt sick. I thought of a sign hanging in dhamma hall. The deeper the craving, the deeper the aversion. The deeper the aversion, the deeper the affliction. Uh oh. I must be one deeply afflicted individual.

In addition to my addiction to craving, I also had my fair share of aversions to overcome. In fact, an aversion towards my roommate had started on the very first day. There was something about her beige sweater that really rubbed me the wrong way. I had no reason other than I didn’t like its sequins and, therefore, didn’t like its wearer. What really bothered me, though, was her disregard for the rules. As a returning student, she wasn’t supposed to eat after noon, but she had snuck in all sorts of food. At night, she’d pop handfuls of grapes into her mouth, grating their skins (and my nerves) between her teeth and smacking the juice between her lips. I knew that if I didn’t get over my negativity, I’d never get anywhere in the course, or in this life. I searched for a spade and planted a seed of love for her. It sprouted the next day when I was taking a shower, or rather, when I was pouring a bucket of water over myself. She walked in on me, wet and naked, and, instead of crying out and slamming the door, she silently held eye contact. My aversion washed away.

On the fourth day, the actual Vipassana meditation began. We were instructed to sit in perfect stillness and scan the body for any sensations it felt. Whether the feeling was positive or negative, gross or subtle, we couldn’t react. A reaction would reaffirm the cycles of craving or aversion. The only way to eradicate these cycles is to remain equanimous, to watch neutrally as sensations come and go and, like this, finally understand that nothing lasts forever. There is no reason to crave something pleasant, or to feel aversion to something unpleasant, if everything eventually passes. So I sat still as a stone Buddha. The only way I could react to pain without moving was to swallow. Near the end of a session, I swallowed every 20 to 30 seconds. I wondered if I would pee spit.

Eventually, I achieved equanimity and pain became enjoyable, to a certain degree. I’m not masochistic – I didn't desire it for pleasure (that wouldn’t be equanimous) – it was just interesting to try to qualify the type of pain and quantify its degree. In this manner, pain became a tool to sharpen the mind, allowing it to see all of the body’s blind spots. Our teacher told us that our minds are like wild elephants that do not want to be tamed. My mind was a very clever wild elephant that did not want to be tamed. As soon as she realized that I could sit for two hours without reacting to pain, she broke out of the feeble barrier I’d built around her. If she’d had individual digits, I’m sure she would have given me the middle finger as she strode triumphantly past. I felt the corners of my mouth turning up. I had to admire her spirit. “Alright,” I conceded, “You win this round, but the battle’s not over.” For the next hour, I watched as she danced across California.

The rest of the day I felt defeated. I questioned if I was doing the right thing. People always tell me how brave I am to go out in the big, bad world all by myself, but really, I’m just too much of a coward to face the truth inside of me. The sphere of the unknown is a lot less scary, and it offers wonderful distractions. I wasn’t ready to deal with my repressed emotions. I wanted to run away screaming, “I give up! I’m not strong enough!” But it was time to stop running and face the music.

I gave myself a pep talk and returned to my 4’x6’ cell to meditate. Inch by inch, as I came closer to conquering my remaining blind spots – in front of my ears, the backs of my arms, to the right of my left Achilles tendon – my body waged a war against me. It would not be found out. It launched missiles at my hip and shot burning arrows through my ribs. I tried reminding myself to remain neutral, but I couldn’t even remember the word the guru used for it. Ambivalence? No, that’s not it... Omniscience? No. Not even close. It’s something with an E… Empathy? No… C’mon, you’re good with words. It means neutral...E… Em… Eq… Equanimous! That’s it. Be equanimous! This too will pass! But, equanimity was an unattainable goal. My body lurched forward as bombs exploded in my heart. I cried out in pain and went in search of my elephant.

I found her standing docilely in a field. From a safe distance, I said, “Hey. I’m gonna need your help on this one. I really can’t do it alone.” She didn’t move. I inched closer. “Whaddya say? Are we in this together?” I reached out and stroked her trunk; she flapped her freckled ears. “Wow," I told her, "You are so beautiful. So strong.” Then I realized that the elephant was me. I am the elephant. I am so beautiful. I am so strong. The tears ran hot down my cheeks. I let them fall as I climbed onto her back, ready to charge into battle. But something was missing. I looked down and saw a three-year me. I picked her up and put her in front of me. I held her close and played with her long, blonde hair. Then I leaned over and whispered in her ear, “You are so beautiful. You are so strong. I love you so much.” I really started crying then. My double-heaved gasps ricocheted off the narrow walls and echoed throughout the pagoda. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t even move from my cross-legged pose. I could only cry. When I finally opened my eyes, a foot-long string of snot hung down from my nose, stopping only an inch away from my hands. I started to laugh. You see, everything comes to an end. The bad, and the good. Nothing lasts forever.

The next day, I dissolved. I watched passively as my entire body turned into a single vibrating mass of energy. It’s a feeling not unlike the tingling sensation you get right before you fall asleep. It was cool, but scanning the body after dissolving was even cooler. I geeked out in a way only a biology nerd can. Like an episode of the Magic School Bus, I went deep inside my body to see all of my tissues. I squished through gelatinous lumps of fat, weaved through sinewy muscle fiber, and slid down smooth bones. I couldn’t see down to the cellular, or atomic, level, but that’s motivation to keep meditating. Who needs to see into their past lives when they can witness their body produce electrons?

Besides its calming effects, dissolving has the added benefit of connecting the conscious mind with the unconscious mind – the place where our deepest cravings and aversions lie. It shakes them free and allows them to come to the surface. So I knew that the session following my dissolution would be a doozie. Like the Buddha, who vowed to sit motionless under the bodhi tree until he reached Enlightenment, I vowed to sit still until I’d reached the root of my problems. I sat, and immediately felt my heart gripped by a vice. Fire burned along my back and rage bubbled up from my stomach. I felt nauseas, but, even spewing, I wasn’t going to move. Second by agonizing second, I willed my mind to scan my body, starting with my left big toe. When I had made it to my right armpit, a question came out of nowhere, “Can you let him love you?” The gong rang as I cried out, “Yes!” I climbed into my daddy’s lap and cried. He stroked my hair and told me, “You are beautiful. You are strong. I love you so much.”

I grew up in a broken family whose ability to express love was also broken. We loved each other, but we didn’t say it very often. Even if the words were there, I never let the love reach my heart. Letting my family love me gave them the power to hurt me. Yet, I was filled with love. Towards my friends (even those I had just met), love flowed freely, but when it came to my family, I was at a lost. And I blamed them. What was wrong with them, I wondered. When will they change? When will they grow up? When will they forgive the past and move forward? Now I realize that I was the problem. I needed to change. I needed to grow up. I needed to forgive the past and move forward. I have. To my father, to my mother, to my brother: I love you. You’re going to be hearing that a lot more often from me. To my nephew: You are beautiful. You are strong. I love you so much.

I left my cell feeling like I had been run over by a transport truck. I was limping, but I was smiling from the depth of my being. I knew there was a lot of work left before I could fully heal, but I knew the work was necessary. I’ll keep working until I’m fully liberated. And now that I truly understand that everything always changes, I’ll always be smiling – even in the face of misery. This is the way to live; this is the way to die. Smiling.

NOTE: Although I highly recommend that everyone who reads this take a Vipassana course, I also recommend that, when you do take your first step to liberation, you forget everything you read here. Go without any expectations – or else you will only multiply your misery by generating new cravings (I want to dissolve!) and new aversions (Why don’t I feel any tingling?). I wish you all true peace, true harmony, true happiness.

Additional photos below
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22nd March 2012

I totally LOVE your post!!!!! I wish I could write about my vipassanas the way you do... Metta to you!
23rd March 2012

Chantel where do I begin I think that was absolutely amazing, thank you for sending that to me first for my approval, but you need not have I'm glad you did not change any words, I am so glad and happy that I had the opportunity to be a parent to both you and Blake it was rough at times doing it along,but all was accomplished and here you are now in a real nice spot in your life, you make me think back when you were in day care Valentine day I tied your hair back in a pony tail split the pony tail in two braided each one and pinned it to your head in a heart shape, or sat there and braided what seemed to be a 100 braids but I do think the most we ever put in was 32 and all the time you would be saying owee,owee owee like it hurt but I think you were only making noise, wanting to be heard in your own way. Maybe someday you will experience the other side of being parenting and be part of watching your children grow up, each year walking down the isle to the stage and as they walk by you sit there trying to hold back tears of happiness, excitement and saddness that some day your children will be grown and off on their own. there honestly is not a day that goes by when I wish that I could hold and hug you, I would like to go back and have you sit on my lap and you would be rubbing my ear lobe like you always did, Chantel as I sit here writing this little note with tears in my eyes, I can;t tell you how proud you make me feel and maybe thru you this is a good thing for our whole family to take part in and start to comunicate a little better, there is a lot of love out there never forget it I could go on,I know you'll be alright, remember when I told you and Blake even though you come from a broken family you will always have each other as a constant, make sure you love him your Loving Father
14th May 2012

I was thinking about doing a vipassana course... Sure sounds like you had an enlightening experience. Thanks for sharing. Love your stories :) xoxo

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