In 1993, I underwent a holistic lifestyle shift which included organic foods, vegetarian diet, and massage therapy, among other changes. In that year, I also walked into a hatha yoga class for the first time. In truth, I rode my bike to class after an intense interval training workout. I participated in class in my cycling shorts and made it half way through before a proliferation of sweat and breathing difficulties forced me leave early. A few days later with a touch more humility, I returned. Besides the sweat, I remember the compassion and gentleness of the teacher, Shanti-a Sanskrit name which means: PEACE.
At first, all the competitive energies I channeled through bike racing and training were transferred to my yoga practice. Even though the seeking and striving continued, slowly inexorably, hatha yoga began to shift my perspective from outer to inner. The yogic breath-work (pranayama) and postures are meant to release energetic blockages and keep the mind one-pointed. This allows one to focus on the life force or living presence of God within and, as they say in the East, ‘realize the Self’-an often misunderstood phrase that might translate to: Emptiness of mind in Buddhism, surrendered in Christ for those of a Christian orientation or simply purified mind.
Like most people practicing hatha yoga in the West, however, the deeper purpose of Yoga was veiled. My primary focus was leveled upon attaining advanced postures, pretending to know and making the body more limber and lovely. Yet, slowly glimpses of peace, at first only one or two minutes in duration, presented themselves. These tiny windows of absorption in the Current of Reality thrilled me. A foretaste of bliss, the natural state, always, already present invigorated my practice.
For another few years, most of my energy was focused on perfecting pranayama and the carrot of some advanced posture I had yet to attain. Right from the start, I began to practice a hatha yoga form known as ashtanga vinyasa, which included a dynamic series of postures (asanas). Each posture was designed to prepare you for the next. I immersed myself in this yoga style, 6-days a week, for 2-hours a day. With rapid development in the postural forms, after only two years of practice, I was asked to substitute for a small group of teachers at a local center in Park City, Utah. Teaching yoga so quickly allowed a spiritualized-ego to develop, an insidious obstacle on the path. Through teaching, however, I was able to spend more time around practitioners who understood the limitations of hatha yoga, for it is traditionally a practice that prepares one for the deeper aspects of Yoga, such as: meditation. Through my interactions with these other yoga teachers , I was invited to attend my first meditation retreat in the mountains of Southern Utah.
Like many people, I first had to exhaust the superficial aspects of hatha yoga practice, all the mirror gazing and assorted accoutrements before I was ready to immerse myself in meditation. Of course I knew about meditation but the allure factor was low which relegated it to side show attraction. And like many who first begin taking regular hatha yoga classes, my early years of practice were filled with futile attempts at self-betterment via perfecting lotus pose or assuming the king dancer posture. Very slowly, the seeking energy began to dissipate. I was less and less interested in bettering myself, for individuality itself was dropping away.
My introduction to meditation was gentle with weekend sessions that were simple and not rigorous, using Paramahansa Yogananda’s Kriya Yoga technique, where one watches the life force move up and down the spine. Later while studying Chinese Healing, I realized that Yogananda’s Kriya Yoga is much like the microcosmic orbit discussed by Mantak Chia and other Eastern-oriented healing arts practitioners. Besides using the Kriya techniques, I simply returned to the breath whenever I noticed the mind engaged in thinking and thought.
Eventually, I was drawn to a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat lead by teachers of the Burmese-Indian Buddhist meditation teacher, S. N. Goenka. Mr. Goenka was following the altruistic path of his teacher (Guru) Suyagyi U Ba Khin and offering classes via Dana (or donation) with no money accepted until you had experienced the fruits of the practice at the end of 10 days. This made the retreat even more authentic and enticing to me.
As Mr Goenka said: “…An important principle of this tradition is that no price can be put on the Dhamma (truth teachings) because in fact they are priceless. To earn money by teaching the Dhamma is unethical and completely forbidden…. a teacher of the Dhamma must never amass wealth by charging fees for the teaching. Instead, this tradition strictly follows the Buddha‘s injunction, Dhammena na vaniṃ care— Do not make a business of Dhamma….” Today, with rampant teachings happening wherein the monies are not going back into the organization to help others but to amass wealth for individuals or small groups of people.
The schedule was demanding. We were given simple instructions to watch sensations by scanning the body, inside and outside, and coming to the breath as soon as we found ourselves immersed in thought.
Each day started at 4 am- for a 2 hour meditation, followed by a short breakfast. On the first two days, I saw all of us as inmates walking slowly from the meditation hall to the kitchen. During breakfast and lunch (there was no formal dinner, only fruit for first timers and old students were not allowed to eat anything after lunch), I found myself staring into a bowl of either prune-infused oatmeal or some kind of slurry-curry rice dish while planning an elaborate escape from this contemplative dungeon! In fact each day required 10 hours of meditation and the meals were a tiny respite from the near constant barrage of thoughts which raced inside my head like ants to a picnic. I felt as if I was going mad.
In truth, I was seeing the madness of the mind, the repressed anger of a lifetime and the greed and lust that drove me to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Deep sleep was rare, for we had from 10 pm to 4 am to sleep, much of which was filled with nocturnal dreams full of frightening things and daring prison escapes. Even my nocturnal dreams felt like a torture chamber.
Very slowly as the retreat progressed, the relentless watching, the meditative witnessing, created distance between the thoughts. I was able to see, ever so slightly, that ‘I” was not the mind, not the thoughts.
As day 3 arrived, a special gift was added, two 1-hour sittings a day called adhitthana or ‘sittings of strong determination’, requiring one to assume the meditative posture and not move at all during the entire session. These were grueling sessions the first two days, full of emotional and physical pain, snot, drool, and tears. Yet my earnestness and sincerity, what had brought me to retreat, was ready to meet whatever came up, come what will.
Those sittings, during the first few days, were the longest 50 minutes of my life. I was praying, mantra-like, for God to ring the meditation bell, signaling the end of the sitting period. During the last 10 minutes of each sitting of strong determination, the catharsis-infused purging left me looking like a bereaved soul.
After several days of pure self-inflicted hell, I began to look forward to these sittings of strong determination, for they were taking me deeper, to a place beyond pleasure and pain. Witnessing the sensations at a micro-level, through scanning the body head to toe, kept the mind one-pointed. It was the first glimpse of Witnessing Consciousness, seeing our Eternal Nature, that still presence filled with nothing but LOVE.