Sunday, 12 January 2014

On Arising and Passing Away - and a lot of (attempted) meditation

Not so long before I started writing this blog, I was coming to the end of my two-year yoga teacher training. We were studying the Shiva Sutras, one of the core texts of Kashmir Shaivism, and had learnt a meditation called Kaalaagni Rudra.  

Essentially, this is a practice (as I understand it) of dissolving.  You sit and dissolve your body in a (cool) fire you envision consuming it. Then whatever else may arise - thoughts, emotions, desires, aversions - also go into the fire. What's left at the end of all this dissolving is your enlightened Self. 

Of course there are no guarantees you'll be getting there any time soon. Kaalaa means both time and death. Rudra is one of the names of Shiva, the transcendental god of yoga and dissolution who carries the trident for which this blog is named. He sat meditating on his mountain for millennia to master the secrets of the universe, so I've a lot of catching up to do.

Within ten days of daily practice of the Kaalaagni Rudra meditation, my partner of six years announced he wanted to be single. That was rather more dissolving than I had bargained for, but I accepted it with (I think) good grace. If I have anything close to religious belief, it's that people shouldn't stay with one another out of habit or gratitude or guilt or fear of change when the core essentials of spirit and connection are gone from a relationship. Part of that deal is that I have to accept it both ways.

Good grace notwithstanding, the timing of this announcement was a kick in the teeth from which I'm not sure I've entirely recovered. My newly-ex expressed no desire to be single when in the grip of the long illness that had taken up most of our relationship, but no sooner was he back on his feet (literally - his illness had put him in a wheelchair for a while) and active in the world once more, than I was surplus to requirement. I don't think it was intended in this way, and of course, there were other factors affecting the relationship, but the timing remains a wound nonetheless.

This particular version of life's kickings pales into insignificance however in the face of the one that came my way last summer, on the occasion of my fortieth birthday. I've not had much luck with life's celebrations, and this summer taught me once and for all that it's time to stop trying to make them what everyone else seems to make of them, and just accept the fact that, for whatever twisted karmas I carry, they are not for me.

They say the gift of pain is that it pushes us to transcend it. This requires some serious work. I sometimes fear the universe has decided that the only way to propel me effectively on my spiritual path is by regular dose of agony.

(Please universe, if I promise not to slack off, might you consider a different tack?)  

I have been hanging on to my meditation practice like the lifeline it is since last June, doing my poor best to deepen and strengthen it. In my current state, there is something essentially comforting in reaching for the very distant reality that this "I" that feels so much - most of it deeply unpleasant - in essence does not exist.

A few months ago, a friend and yoga student mentioned her desire to visit Skanda Vale, which calls itself "the community of the many names of God" but essentially runs like a network of Hindu temples deep in Carmarthenshire woodland (albeit also paying homage to other religious paths and whose patron is the Christian saint, Francis of Assisi). I'd been wanting to visit for some years and decided Navaratri, the Hindu festival of the nine nights of the Goddess, would be a good time to go, in memory of the kalari puja last year. So off we both went, sleeping bags at the ready, last October.

You may have heard of Skanda Vale, as a few years ago it made the national (UK) news with the attempts by the monks and nuns there to save Shambo, the temple's bull. Shambo was suspected of carrying bovine TB. The fact that he was never to enter the food chain was deemed immaterial (Skanda Vale is strictly vegetarian; no one may enter the indoor temples unless s/he has been vegetarian for the preceding three days) and after a long legal battle, poor Shambo was eventually put down.

There's an elephant there too, but I've yet to meet her. It's amazing what goes on in West Wales.

If you stay the night, as we did, you're expected to attend both the 5:00am and 9:00pm pujas, and with another three in between, we were kept very busy. 24 hours of it was plenty, but for those 24 hours, I loved it all.

I was especially drawn to the early evening Mahakali puja, honouring the awesome (in the true, rather than surfer, sense of the word: for the first time I felt both the promise of overwhelming terror and engulfing love as I sat there, mouthing the chants I knew, listening to those I didn't) black goddess with her blood-soaked tongue, the Sanskrit recitations and chanting, the climb up the hill through the woods to get to her… Most of the people attending were Indian, Nepali or British Hindus who had travelled from all over the country, and in between we were offered proper Indian ashram meals, perfectly warming for a Welsh autumn. It assuaged a little my India homesickness.

Unlike the Indian visitors, predictably and endearingly taking pictures at every given opportunity, I stuck to the "no photography, no electronics" rule and so have no pictures to share. But here is an image of Skanda Vale's Kali I found on the web:


A few weeks later, I returned with another yogi friend, a mere daytrip this time, to repeat my prayer to the dark mother. "Please remove this darkness in me. Please transmute this darkness in me into light."

That, after all, is Kali's power and gift: transcendence and love and light through seemingly black horror.

I think she took me seriously. A few days after my second visit, I was meditating in my room, the little card with her image I had bought at the Skanda Vale shop by a burning candle. My meditation over, I left the candle burning in its glass holder and turned my back to start some work at my desk. A few minutes later, there was a loud crack: the candle holder had spontaneously shattered, scattering glass everywhere.

Lesson for Lucy: don't turn your back on Kali.

Last November, I finally got to the Mandala Yoga Ashram, another place I have been wanting to visit for a while. It too is nestled in Carmarthenshire woodland. It is in the lineage of the Bihar School of Yoga, with which I have unfinished business.

The Bihar School of Yoga (which publishes loads of very useful books most yoga students own at least one of) is in Bihar in north India and teaches Tantra and Vedanta, which I was particularly interested in studying when I embarked on my travels in 2009. Unfortunately, the ashram (then, at least) only accepted correspondence by post, and by the time my letter asking to stay and communication of their reply accepting me had reached me, we were well into 2010 and I had almost finished my time in India.

In retrospect, I think this was exactly the right thing, as I had other Indian discoveries to make on that particular journey. But I did feel that something was moving into its right place as I approached the Mandala Yoga Ashram for my meditation course on a dark night last November, half my exhaust hanging off my car.

"Oh, it's starting," I'd thought, as I heard the ominous clunk and inspected the broken machinery by fading torchlight on a damp unknown roadside. And so it continued, with the early onset of my ever-dramatic menses and the hacking of a chest infection. But I felt deeply right at that place, preparing potatoes for lunch or sorting them into sacks (my karma yoga jobs), the early morning sitting, followed by chanting and then asana, my total delight when one of the swamis photocopied the Devanagari (Sanskrit) of the morning chants so I could practise my reading as we chanted, the varied structure of the day, the periods of silence, the periods of shared work, some deeply inspired guidings of our meditation practice.

I came away feeling I had found my joy again and perhaps for the first time fully realised the teaching that our state is dependent only on ourselves and has nothing to do with what is outside of us. The externals remained pretty daunting (I unexpectedly moved house again later that week - something I had not anticipated when I arrived at the ashram - for the second time in as many months). I am not evolved enough for the joy to have stayed long, but the fact that it came at all indicated a significant shift, I felt.

In all the churning of that time, my walking boots were taken off the ashram shoe rack, complete with my custom made insoles. Those boots (and insoles), which have been round the world, have taken me once up the Andes and twice up the Himalayas, had their own adventure to Essex and back, this time without me.

A few days before Christmas, I made a winter solstice journey to the ashram, to which my errant boots had been returned. I meditated in the sadhana hall, walked, talked to those who live there, collected my boots and was fed a very nice lunch. Here is a picture in the nearby woods from my walk:


After meditating a bit more, I headed on to Skanda Vale. I had decided a winter solstice pilgrimage was in order, so I went from yoga ashram to Kali puja, driving through extremely Kali-esque weather (high winds, rain, thunder and lightning) to get there. I was rewarded with a special extended puja (where they wash the goddess in a variety of potions) and humbly made my prayers before her drawn sword for the coming year.

In keeping with my resolve to give up on celebrations, I was off on retreat for new year. I consented to Christmas out of duty but straight afterwards, I was to cut myself off for the best part of two weeks on my second Vipassana meditation course, as taught by Goenka.

Anyone who follows this blog may remember that I did my first (and till then only) Vipassana course in Cambodia in May 2010. After that, I had no desire to repeat the experience. Quite apart from the physical difficulties of it, it's not a meditation style I had particularly warmed to.

Here's what I wrote about it back then, for anyone who would like reminding:
Uncomfortable Bedfellows (or Frogs, Scorpions, Vipassana)

This time, I was off to Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire. Once again, as I settled into my room, I had the rare sense of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. This is perhaps surprising, as I had decidedly mixed views on Vipassana, and whilst I felt compellingly drawn to the ten days of total silence and long, intensive sitting, I can't say I was looking forward to it.

I have decided that the major difference between my ashram experiences this year in the UK and my Asian ashram experiences boils down to the comfort of the beds. I don't think I need do more than show you my Vipassana accommodation in Herefordshire verses my Vipassana accommodation in Battambong:

Vipassana Herefordshire


Vipassana Battambong
The first thing that became clear to me was how much my first Vipassana experience had been defined by the harshness of the physical conditions. In retrospect, it really gave me an insight into what it must have felt like in some of those Southeast Asian Japanese prison camps in World War II. Not that I was in any way ill treated or wanted for food or hygiene, but the grimness of doing something hard in that kind of unrelenting wet heat marked me. When people ask me what the experience did for me, I can only ever answer that it shifted my relationship to discomfort. Or perhaps that was the year of travelling. When I look back on those ten days outside Battambong, what I most recall is the still-vivid sense of dissolving in grease and sweat.

Looking back on it now, I think it laid the foundations for this, most recent course.

There are twelve timetabled hours a day of sitting, between 4:30 in the morning and 9:00 at night. About an hour and a half of this is watching Goenka give his nightly discourse (very engagingly, it must be said) on a large projection in the dhamma hall, but the rest is sitting meditation. This varies in location between the hall and your own room (most of us shared one in Herefordshire). I was also allocated one of the meditation cells to make use of for days 8 and 9. Men and women are segregated and we all promise to observe noble silence (which includes not communicating by gesture or eye contact, as well as by speech) and five precepts (no killing, no lying, no stealing, no sexual activity, no intoxicants) for the duration of the course.

Day 0, December 27th, I arrived, was allocated my room, settled in and ate supper. After supper there was an orientation speech, during which, on several occasions, we were asked if we were prepared to observe the discipline and see out the full ten days. Anyone who felt they couldn't was asked to talk to management (and presumably sent home). After that, noble silence began, we were allocated our spots in the hall (oldest students at the front; I was bang in the middle this time, so no chance of sneaking off to a quiet bit of wall when my back had had enough), and given our first instructions to practise, ready for the morning sit of the next day, day 1. Silence continued until the late morning of day 10. The course actually finished the morning of day 11. Payment is by voluntary donation, which is only accepted from people who have completed a full ten day course. If you leave early, they won't accept a donation from you.

Another big difference in Herefordshire was how much I enjoyed the food. There was plenty of it too and I was intrigued to see how my appetite fluctuated over the ten days. Normally, there is no evening meal on Vipassana courses, though first-time students get a bit of fruit and are allowed milk in their tea. In Cambodia, we had full evening meals, and I wondered at the time whether the country's recent history of genocide, much of it by starvation, made Cambodian organisers hesitate to deprive their meditators of a meal. There was no such hesitation in Herefordshire. Between my lunch (which ended at 11:30) and next morning's breakfast (at 6:30) there was a 19 hour fast, with only my permitted lemon water or herb tea (no milk) at 5:00pm. How difficult I found that varied, I think according to my cycle.

Days 1 and 2, I was catatonic. I seriously began to question whether there is any difference between meditation and semi-sleep. I put that down to the effects of the last year, but I'm not sure.

The meditation itself, to occupy all those hours, is very simple. According to the tradition, it's the technique taught by the Buddha himself.

We spent the first three and a half days on Anapana meditation, essentially breath awareness, focussing on a decreasingly small area. I believe this is to develop focus of the mind. Bar a little Metta Bhavana (sharing the merits / compassion mediation) on the last day, the rest of the course was spent on Vipassana, which essentially is a way of scanning the body for sensation, as taught by Goenka.

As he explains it, everything we experience is experienced by the body as sensation. Our so-called unconscious mind is constantly responding to these sensations with either craving or aversion, which in Buddhist thinking is the root of all misery. By focusing on sensation and scanning the body meticulously for all varieties of it, we bring the conscious mind inline with the unconscious mind. We learn and physically experience that all sensation is transitory, that all pleasure and pain is transitory. With this lived experience of arising and passing away, the mind releases its grip on our cravings and aversions, and the impurities of the mind can rise to the surface to be cleared away. In the long term, this leads to full liberation (enlightenment). In the short term, this should make you deal a bit better with the stresses of life and generally be a more pleasant sort of person to be around.

Goenka is clear that the point of Vipassana is not to quieten the mind. Vipassana is designed to bring up all the muck. The point of it is to retain our equanimity (essentially the quality of experiencing without clinging or aversion) in the face of both muck and bliss.

And that is really, really, really hard.

By day 3, I was violating my promise not to engage in ritual or prayer. I'm pretty sure Kali came with me on that retreat, and by then I was screaming (silently) to any god or goddess kind enough to listen to deliver me from the hell of grief and fury boiling inside me.

Physically this course was a lot easier than my Cambodian experience. It didn't require the same grim determination just to stick it out. Emotionally, it was much, much harder, as though I had to acquire the physical endurance the last one demanded of me in order to face this one's emotional ravaging.

The intensity of it fluctuated but much of it was frankly horrendous. Yes, the muck was rising.

Towards the end of the course, returning women students were called up in groups by the woman assistant teacher, where she checked whether we were mostly working "part by part or with the flow." I wasn't sure if I'd broken my vow and told a lie when she asked "and is your equanimity getting stronger?" and I nodded and whispered "I think so."

Despite my weary attempts to be a sincere Vipassana meditator, at least for the time being, Tantra arose spontaneously for me on more than one occasion, though not in any orthodox form (which, come to think of it, is a characteristic of Tantra). On day 8 or 9 (I know because I was sitting in my cell), the rage with its attendant pain was having its merry way with me and I was totally incapable of focussing my mind on anything else, or retaining any semblance of equanimity. In the same exhaustion and despair that wrenched a prayer from me to be delivered from my discomfort in Cambodia (a prayer that was very entertainingly answered), came a spontaneous pleading upsurge, this time with clear words attached: "Mother, this [rage] is Shakti too. Show me how to use it to heal."

Immediately, it dissolved. Call it grace or call it luck, but I was deeply thankful for the respite. I still have little idea how to use it for healing, but the respite was enough, whether due to an external Kali or just the Kali of my mind (and are they not the same?).

Just to clarify for those who wonder what this has to do with Tantra, there is a text called the Spanda Karika which teaches that all consciousness and matter is the vibration, pulsation, modern physics says makes up the world. The teaching is that all of this vibration is Shakti (the creative power of divine consciousness, which just happens to be feminine and a name of the Goddess). If we relate to anything at all with a proper understanding of its nature as Shakti, it can become a vehicle to enlightenment. This includes how we relate to emotion. This is definitely NOT Vipassana and very definitely Tantra.

Not all the emotion was painful. For the first time in that situation, I spent two solid hours totally consumed by lust. I know how long because each of those hours was an adhittana sitting (sitting of strong determination: you're not supposed to move - at all). The first one was all the more impressive as it was my ninth hour meditating of the day. I checked (because I have no discipline and I am curious) the time when my mind first momentarily loosened its grip on the heat of the fantasy it was pelting along. 48 minutes had gone by without me so much as twitching. I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by the degree of surrender and freedom my mind was enjoying. When silence was lifted, I compared notes with a fellow meditator who also reported some very lustful periods. She said that when it had all passed, she felt like she'd swallowed bleach. I'm happy to report I felt no such thing. My experience of it was intense as all the rage and grief, but blessedly pleasant.

Aaah, the workings of the mind.

But in that much time attempting to meditate, I spent a lot of it wondering whether I was actually doing anything other than sitting there with my eyes closed, my mind off on so many trips, frequently bored rigid with the task at hand. I comforted myself with the thought that even just sitting in silence with my eyes closed for ten days must do some good.

It did.

We weren't given much overt guidance on working with emotion, but I have been trying to keep observing it as arising and passing sensation in the body. When I tune into it as sensation, it passes very quickly, and yes, I am more equanimous, my perspective is better balanced. I don't know how long this will last, but I am hoping to hang on to at least some of it.

Since my return to the world last Tuesday, I have been pining for the silence and the sitting. Considering how painful much of it was, this surprises me. I have a much clearer sense that the technique of Vipassana has benefitted me in a deeper way than simply honing my discipline and endurance. I suspect I will go back for more sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, back in the world, the multiple strands of my life's work and study aligned in 2013 in a way they had not before. My passions for dance and yoga and martial arts and philosophy and meditation are twining together in a way that feels whole and complete and deep with integrity. I don't earn much, but everything I do at present aligns with my values and aspirations. It may have taken the best part of two decades to get there, but it feels well worth the journey.

So now my task is to nurture that seed, that it may continue to grow.

In the early days of this blog, I joked I should get "svatantrya," meaning self-dependent, free, autonomous - a quality of Shiva and of Consciousness - tattooed onto me. At the Mandala Yoga Ashram, one of my fellow meditators and dishwashers turned out to be a tattoo artist from Cardiff. If this last year showed me anything, it was that it was high time this was etched into me. So here is his handiwork:



So I step into 2014 forged in fires, tempered and tattooed.

The solo I made earlier this year feels very much part of that: ritual, martial art, prayer, submission. Here's an image from a performance last October:


So here's to more evenness through another year of arising and passing away.

From Lucy, with love x