Friday, October 20th 2017

When meditation is a pain

A 31-year-old seeker finds peace of mind by bailing on what was advertised as the ultimate self-awareness experience — a 10-day ‘silent meditation’ retreat by a famous guru

GUEST COLUMN BY MICAL AKULLIAN — It was the morning of Day 5 of my ten-day Vipassana retreat in the Sierra Mountains.

In the ancient language, Sanskrit, “vipassana” literally means “seeing deeply.” In 2010 California, it means a group of 20-odd people gathering in a secluded summer-camp setting. Our purpose: to sit in meditation for ten days, specifically not communicating with each other. No talking is allowed – not to the guy sitting beside you at mealtime – or even to yourself. Silent night? Try silent night and day. It’s kind of like the spiritual equivalent of discipline-testing reality shows like, Survivor.

The California challenge I enrolled in was organized by the contemporary Indian guru, S.N. Goenka.  Explained via video at the beginning of the retreat, Goenka relayed to us via a pre-taped lecture that the mind is like an infected wound, and as you cut it open, the puss begins to rise to the surface.  That puss is our chattering monkey-mind, which is a reaction to pain. Through meditation, we learn to train the mind like you would an animal.

This is all fine and good, except that if you kept any animal in a cramped cage for 10 days it’s bound to get a little pissy.  My revolting mind seemed less like puss rising to the surface, and more like a wake up call from my own intuition. It kept asking, “Say what?”

Context: I’m a 31-year-old male with a master’s degree in the field of holistic counseling who has felt a spiritual calling.

But this a.m. of Day 5 of the Goenka silent retreat, all I feel is a headache and sore kneecaps.

I had been dealing with pain for the last few days knowing full well that a big portion of the technique we were engaging was to learn how to give pain another name. I practiced embracing my personal pains as mere sensations within the catacombs of my brain.  And for the first few days I “succeeded.” My meditations were wonderful, a mixture of frustration and surrender, as I truly began allowing the pain to melt into a relatively neutralized sensation.

Yet, something inside me was telling me that this whole process was non-organize, spiritually-speaking.  I began to model all of the other ways that I could inflict pain throughout my day as a form of meditation. Hey, why not make the same point by biting my tongue whenever eating became too mundane?  Or, hell, just stub my toe on purpose.

It seemed counter-intuitive to search for inner peace by putting myself through a form of inner torture.  I don’t believe human bodies are made to sit up straight for eleven hours a day, ten days in a row.  It’s as contrived as army boot-camp.

Then in the midst of these mental meanderings I suddenly realized what was truly behind my dogged determination to see this course through:  I didn’t want to disappoint S.N. Goenka.

While he existed merely as an image on a screen (oddly enough the meditation halls were decked out with two giant flat screen monitors, used solely for our daily Goenka lectures on DVD) I could somehow feel him watching over me, monitoring my progress.  I didn’t want to be a failure.

I had signed up with the noble ambition of upgrading my level of meditation and spiritual awareness. Now I realize that meditation is not something to be achieved or overcome.  It is the process of surrender, of unfolding, of allowing sanity to replace madness  a gift to oneself.

There is no forcing that process.

So although those five days of meditation were a wonderful experience, I bailed on Goenka’s spiritual boot-camp.  And while I did leave a little sheepishly, tail between my legs, it was a life lesson in humility.

For me, spiritual liberation cannot be a goal set for the future, like some form of degree, only to be attained once I pass all my exams and get all my credits.  Spiritual liberation is the subtle and beautiful moments during my day when I choose peace over chaos, acceptance over resistance, love over fear.

Mical Akullian is a holistic counselor in San Francisco who received his Master’s degree from San Francisco State University.

He recently returned to the city after living for a year in a spiritual commune in northern California.

This is his first column for Soul’s Code.

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One Comment on “When meditation is a pain”

  1. Mical, reading this, I sensed some appreciation by you for the meditation process..the focus, concentration and attention which can lead to
    "emptiness" and "enlightenment". But the format sounds atrocious. DVD's and TV monitors instead of a spiritual quide.
    And meditation leading to an expectation is all wrong.I wish you had gone to Spirit Rock,not this phony guru for and introduction to meditation.
    Peace, Clint

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