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Erect spines & noble silence - Day 4

A brief story about mindfulness: Who injures himself on a meditation retreat, where you are supposed to be mindful about every step, every move, every thought from morning till night – yes where you even try to sleep mindfully? That´s right, me! I hit my small toe on a stonewall, because I somehow missed a step and ripped quite a few skin layers off until bare flesh was visible and blood dropped on the ground. Very mindful of me.

Meditation is supposed to be a tool to release you from any kind of suffering, or suffering at all, absolutely speaking. The sitting meditation yesterday afternoon was actually causing me suffering. Physically and mentally. The outer side of my right knee seems to be slightly inflamed, due to sitting in the lotus position for hours on end. Also my neck seems to be a bit stiff from sitting upright all the time, I assume. Worse than the physical pain, however, is the mental exhaustion. Not always. Some sessions are better, some are worse. You might be wondering how meditation can possibly be exhausting. For the first two days we were strictly practicing Samatha meditation, that is one of the two original meditation techniques practiced and taught by Buddha himself aiming at enhancing concentration. You focus strictly on your breath. You observe your rhythm of breathing in and out and you take notice of the breaks in between until you eventually grasp the miracle that the act of breathing is. Indeed it allows you to connect the outside world with your inner self if you manage to isolate all sensations around you like sounds, smells and most importantly thoughts. So yesterday we moved on to Vipassana meditation, the second meditation technique practiced and taught by Buddha. Vipassana has gained a lot of popularity over the past years, which can generally be translated as Insight meditation, which is supposed to enable you to see things as they actually are rather than through the filter of your own perception and judgment. If practiced successfully then you become a spectator of your own movie, watching random thoughts coming and going without clinging to them or creating your own story out of them, all while you are consciously breathing. Maybe that gives a clue why meditation can be quite exhausting as a beginner. So I´m sitting there fully concentrated on my breathing and starting to observe my thoughts. This goes well for a while, until after around 20 minutes my mind wants to switch to sleeping mode. From then on it´s a constant battle between me and my mind. Losing focus of my breath, drifting off with my thoughts, starting to daydream and eventually noticing my head falling down, which is usually a wake-up moment after which I shift my focus back to my breath. And the cycle begins anew, until, after 60 minutes, I´m saved by the bell. Today I actually opened my eyes once to check if others are struggling as much as I do. To my content I saw a few heads whipping up and down.

However, there is an important distinction to make between the experience of pain and the feeling of suffering. While it is unavoidable to eliminate all sorts of pain in one´s life, it is in my power to decide whether I am suffering from this pain or not. Or with other words: I choose to suffer or not to suffer. I am never the victim of external circumstances. Nobody can take away my ability to control my thoughts and hence my emotions. This revelation is tremendously empowering.

But I also made progress yesterday. Whenever it got difficult, I had a conversation with the voice in my head. I call it brainfucker, a beautiful word borrowed from Lars Amend. Realizing that the voice is not me, but merely a petty little guy eager for attention, who is fucking with your brain, you may also call it Ego, makes meditating a lot easier – and more fun, too! It´s actually quite amusing to watch the creativity of this little brainfucker. It comes up with all kinds of thoughts and spins the weirdest stories out of them. Being aware of that and experiencing it, is literally mind-blowing as you can use this understanding whenever your little brainfucker is once again trying to convince you that your perception of a situation is the absolute truth. We all have this little guy in our head. With this awareness shouldn´t it be much easier to deal with everyday challenges and disagreements with other people? At least in theory it should.

Every day after the last sitting meditation, there is a Q&A session, the only time you´re allowed to break noble silence, as they call it. Our teacher happened to be a German guy, probably around 60 years old, called Thomas, and he is as German as it gets. No judgment (we´re on a Buddhist meditation retreat after all), but his accent is so strong and harsh when he talks English that sometimes you think he´s actually talking German. We all understand what he´s saying though. What troubles me much more is his lack of understanding and empathy towards our questions. He´s interrupting us, he´s making fun of our questions and he doesn´t seem to take our questions seriously. So here I am on a meditation retreat talking to my highly skeptical brainfucker. Is he walking the talk? After all, listening, understanding and empathy represent core values in Buddhism and he passionately teaches us about the ‘right speech’ and ‘Mhetta’, loving friendliness. Is it just me? Am I judging right now? Am I biased because he´s German? Is it culture? Is it the language? And then, is empathy actually something you can develop or are you born with a certain level of empathy? You might argue that empathy is not really one of the top qualities of Germans, but I won´t let that count as an excuse. How empathetic, how compassionate am I? Is his lack of empathy that I am perceiving just a mirror of a characteristic that is actually a part of myself, or at least was a part of me once? Am I granting the same empathy to everyone?

Noticing that I was dozing off and unable and unwilling to listen to our teacher any longer, I left the Q&A session early that night and went to bed.

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