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The veil through which we experience everything

I went to India for 6 months when I was in my early twenties. I purposefully went alone, and decided that I was going to take myself out of my comfort zone at every possible turn. Jeepers did India deliver! That place is intense, particularly when you’re traveling on a tight budget. I had R35k to live off for 6 months, which I knew would force me to avoid the tourist hotspots, and integrate as much as I could with the local cultures.

With that in mind, when I saw a 12 day meditation retreat that was totally free, including food, accommodation and meditation instruction, I jumped at it. I had NO idea what I was getting into.

The food was almost non-existent: Tea for breakfast, a little rice with some veg for lunch, and some fruit for dinner. The accommodation was modest to say the least - long drop toilets, a bed with something that looked like a mattress but was more like a wooden plank, and “oh by the way, you can’t talk to anyone or look anyone in the eyes while you’re here, and you’ll be meditating for 12 hours per day, starting at 4am.”

One trait I have is that I’m stubborn as an ox, so even though this seemed like it would be hectic, I decided I would see it through to the end no matter what.

As part of the meditation practice, which is called Vipassana, they give you the tools to experience something called Anitcha. Anitcha is the ancient Pali word for Equanimity, which in essence means that as sensations come in through your five senses, you don’t label them as good or bad, they are just sensations and should be allowed to rise and fall without labelling or attachment. What happens in everyday life is that as we experience certain sensations, we crave more of the “good” sensations, and try to avoid the “bad” sensations. This leads to the endless cycle of craving and aversion in our lives, and this is the basis of most buddhist teachings.

As a very tangible example for you from the meditation retreat:

When you sit with your legs crossed for 12 hours a day (generally in 2 - 3 hour sittings, with breaks in between) just about every part of your body hurts. We had cushions, but trust me when I say that by day 3 you are already in major pain for the majority of the day. The practice teaches you to use this physical sensation, which our mind labels as pain in our body, as a key part of the practice. It was absolutely brutal, but on day 8, the most amazing thing happened to me - the sensation that I had been labelling as pain, and therefore was desperately imagining how I might get out of this pain (aversion) and desiring more pleasant sensations and experience (craving), just completely melted away. There were still sensations being delivered to my brain, but in that moment I was able to release the labelling, and the resulting suffering that I had been creating for myself over the last 8 days.

If this sounds woo woo, I can assure you that it was anything but. It was very tangible, and has incredibly practical application in our everyday experience of life. Whilst the practice had taught me to use physical sensations as the source of my learning, the practice applies to every sensory input in our lives, and the resultant thoughts that follow.

It’s so tempting to believe that the way we experience the world is objectively true, and therefore we are fully justified in feeling whatever we feel in response to the inputs in our lives. The truth is far more nuanced, and places most of the responsibility for how we experience the world squarely at our feet. We experience absolutely everything in this world through the veil of our minds, and we don’t take nearly enough responsibility for learning how to use our minds.

One of the challenges in our modern culture is that we are so busy, and we get so wrapped up in our own thoughts and feelings, that we aren’t able to distance ourselves from our minds. We believe that the endless stream of thoughts running through our heads is us, and the feelings we experience are indeed us.

What’s incredible about meditation and mindfulness practices is that it puts some distance between the “observing self” and the endless stream of thoughts and sensations in our monkey minds. This distance allows you to start seeing your thought stream objectively, almost as though you were talking to a friend who is going through a hard time and needs an external perspective on how to improve their situation… except it’s your own thought stream, and you’re giving yourself the love and advice.

I’m a massive fan of meditation, and strongly encourage all of you to experiment with it. Meditation has come a long way over the last few decades, and the essence of most mindfulness practices has been separated from their religious and cultural origins to make it readily available for anyone. This means that, no matter what your faith or lack thereof, meditation can be used as a profound tool to better understand yourself and the world around you.


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