Taking a Step Back from Taking a Step Back
It was two weeks into the Israeli blitz against Lebanon. Was it about to escalate to include Syria, where most of my family, and my wife’s people, live? My wife’s best friend, Randa, had already lost 22 members of her extended family under the rubble of their southern Lebanese village. The kind of epic tragedy, like Iraq and Palestine, that I follow on the internet for several hours a day, and get emotional about. But on this occasion, I couldn’t do so. I was booked in for 10 days of meditation at a retreat in Herefordshire. Fate decreed withdrawal from the war. No internet. No TV. No newspapers. No contact with the outside at all.
And no contact with the other meditators. We had to agree to maintain ‘noble silence’ for the duration: no talking, no physical contact, no eye contact.
Ten days of silence at the end of a hectic summer. I’d travelled in Iran from the migrainous Tehran traffic to the desert peace of Yazd, experienced a spiritual moment in Shiraz’s Nizam ul-Mulk mosque, and another by a spring in a mountain village, spliff in hand, taking a step back from my chattering voice, and observing it. I’d seen Kandinsky’s revelations in London and the Kirov ballet in Petersburg. I’d been racially profiled by a Finnish border guard, and felt how much more uncomfortable it’s become to be an Arab and Muslim in Britain. After all these environments, all these preoccupations, it was time to detach myself.
Why? I do a lot of thinking about spiritual and philosophical matters. Being a human being, I naturally want to know the truth. Is there a God? Do I have an eternal soul? Why am I here? And the rest. And practically; what do I do with my fear of death? How do I better control my mind and emotions? Intellectually, cerebrally, I’ve already met my limit. I’m equally able to construct arguments for and against the existence of God, which doesn’t help much. What I need, I decided, is another tool. I need experiential knowledge, subjective knowledge. I need to know better what happens inside myself, to know what it is I believe rather than what I want to believe. I thought that meditation might give me this ability. I wanted the opportunity, and the imposed discipline, to make progress in meditation.
I arrived in the late afternoon, and called home before the silence started. I missed my beautiful boy and beautiful girl. Most of all I missed my beautiful wife. I’d seen them for only one day in the last five weeks. “I’m scared,” I told my wife, “I want to come home. But I’m excited too. This will be a challenge.”
The meditators promised to follow the rules. We pledged not to kill (easier in cockroach-free Herefordshire than in the Middle East), not to steal, not to engage in sexual activity. Men and women were separated. At eight pm we stopped talking.
Not communicating is also easier in Herefordshire than in the Middle East. The Anglo-Saxon lack of communication is one of the reasons I wanted to go home. I had a non-contact barber experience in Clapham the day before I travelled to the meditation centre. It involved a series of worried pokes towards my beard. Some strands of hair floated to the ground. The barber avoided my eyes in the mirror. And then I paid. But here, alright, there was a point to the silence. It was meant to focus you on the inside. Yet the miserable faces, and most of them were very miserable, demanded more of my mental attention than talking would have done. Likewise, a few words with my room-mate every so often to check he was happy, that we weren’t stepping on each other’s toes, would have allowed for more peaceful introspection than the strained silence and the pain on his face.
At least I interpreted it as pain. It was interesting watching myself make assumptions like this. Without exchanging words or direct looks, I built up characters to fit my fellow meditators. The one with an illness wallowing in his misery. The black geezer who wasn’t taking it too seriously. The Jew who was taking it much too seriously. The arrogant Indian. The philosophic Pakistani. The people I liked and the people I didn’t like, based on almost no evidence at all.
Day One was hard. The gong sounded at four. I didn’t like the smell of the eating area. I wanted to smoke. I missed my family. When I tried to meditate, for hour after hour in the hall, my thoughts wandered uncontrollably. My back ached. I kept slipping towards sleep, and jerking unpleasantly out of it. In the breaks I did circuits of the walking area, in the humid English air, swimming in melancholy. The walking area was certainly beautiful, half meadow and half forest. The animals seemed to know about the pledge not to kill. Rabbits continued nibbling even as you stood close enough to kick them. Like tellytubby land. In the forest I heard a snuffling, and stopped to look. For the first time in my life I saw a mole, its pink nose and hands and its black fur. I picked cherries from the trees.
On Day Two my concentration was greatly improved. I was able to focus on my breath for extended periods, and the interruption of thoughts – more precisely, of words – was no more distracting than a light breeze. I recognised their noise, and turned away from them. When the sessions ended I would walk in the forest, and happily, with awareness, inhabiting the present moment. The setting of one foot in front of the other, the temperature of the air, the quality of the light: it all felt more real than it usually does.
Words. After a piece of fruit for the evening meal and another hour of meditation, we watched Mr Goenka speak on video. Goenka is the virtual teacher, by video and audio cassette. He is an Indian in late middle age, formerly a businessman, who claims to have rescued the Vipassana technique from Burmese obscurity. His courses run around the world. In India they’ve been run in state prisons, with great success. Sri Lankan schoolchildren have improved their exam results and behaviour after attending.
His discourses lasted for about an hour and a half each evening. His words were the only ones we heard, except our own, inside our heads. Goenka is plump and expressive. He has a rich voice and a good sense of humour. There was plenty of wisdom in what he said. Like this: All spiritual traditions teach the same three things. Don’t harm others. Do good. Purify the mind. These are three things that count. What you believe is conditioned by your environment, and ultimately doesn’t matter.
The focus of concentration was narrowed down, from the breath to the point where breath enters the nostrils, and then away from breath to the triangular area between the nostrils and the upper lip. I’d never realised this area was so large, nor that so much happened there. As I concentrated I became confused about context. Who was breathing over the area? Whose upper lip was it? I noticed myself attaching faces to the breath and the lip, identities, which didn’t belong to me. And at times I thought I was observing not a lip but a pillow, or a book. I noticed myself thinking, making assumptions, but all the time continued concentrating. By now I felt constant stripes of sensation and burning dots.
On Day Three the amount of time I was able to sit without moving extended from 20 mins to an hour. I knew the time was coming (it came the following day) when we would be ordered not to move. Dealing with the pain of my thighs and knees and back was like the familiar meditation of climbing a mountain, when you are sure you can go no further, that your lungs will burst, and then without stopping you burst through the pain and walk freely again until you meet more pain, and burst through, and so on.
On Day Four we were instructed to start vipassana meditation. Mr Goenka on tape talked us through it. We were to observe sensations at the top of the head, any sensation that was there. Vipassana means ‘things as they are,’ so only that. As soon as a sensation was observed the attention was to be moved across the scalp, over the parts of the face, the neck, the shoulders, and down, by degrees, to the toes. “From head to toes,” Goenka intoned. “From toes to head.”
As I concentrated I noticed again the flickering background of thought. Focussing on my left arm made part of me think of my mother. Examining my chest I found myself examining a pair of breasts which I sadly do not possess. At the top of my head I saw hands covering the area up, not letting me see.
Now not only during meditation sessions but also while I was walking I had a distanced awareness of my mind’s behaviour. I heard the voices compete in my dialogic imagination. I was always dramatising conversations, playing out sketches. I (or not really ‘I’ any more, but a variety of voices identified with ‘me’) argued and joked with my wife, my friends Giles and Jed, my mother, Tony Blair. These dialogues are always rattling inside me, and usually I don’t even notice them.
The weather changed from British heatwave to more traditional gusts of rain. On Day Four I felt physical and political winds blowing. Something bad was happening out in the world. Children were being killed. I circled the exercise area under ropes of cloud.
I had questions, more and more questions, and nobody to pose them to except myself. We could ask the Burmese assistant teacher practical questions about the technique, but nothing philosophical.
Some of the questions: When I start examining myself I immediately split into at least two pieces, subject and object. What then is the observing self as opposed to the observed? In Islam there are two words for soul. Firstly, nafs, which means identity or self or psyche (the Quran says that every nafs will taste death), and rooh, which means something like eternal soul, and also wind. The rooh is mysterious. The Quran says the rooh is from God, or of God. Could I map the observer and the observed onto these concepts? I’d heard the terms ‘big self’ and ‘little self’ from Zen Buddhism. Would these help? Mr Goenka only talked about observing mind and matter. But what does the observing? This seemed so important to me I felt I couldn’t continue without working it out. Nevertheless, I continued.
Another question. Goenka told us we are reborn not only after the death of the body, but every moment. Science seems to support him here. The cells of the body are constantly being replaced, consciousness shifts and changes, and quantuum physics suggests a continual coming-into-being of particles from which everything else, including us, is built. But Goenka said rebirth is caused by the operations of consciousness, by craving and aversion, and that rebirth could be halted by ending this desire. Why, then, didn’t Gotama dissolve on attaining Buddhahood? Why did he continue to be reborn until he reached 80 years of age? How for that matter did the cycle of rebirth start? When Gotama achieved enlightenment he addressed the Creator, who he called ‘the builder of the house’, triumphantly. ‘You won’t build me any more houses,’ he said. ‘I have smashed the bricks. I have destroyed the tools.’ But who is the builder of the house? Why did It build in the first place?
But these are questions that shouldn’t be asked on a Goenka course. These are questions, if I have understood correctly, that Buddhism doesn’t even seek to answer. When somebody asked Gotama such questions, he was answered with the parable of a man pierced by an arrow. This man wouldn’t allow the doctor to remove the arrow before he found out who had shot the arrow, from what caste he was, what his occupation was, the names of his wife and sons. So don’t ask questions. Receive the treatment. But me, I want to know. I ask the questions even if I suspect I will find no answers. I must look for the answers. More than that, I enjoy looking for the answers.
Which brings us to misery. According to Goenka (and Gotama), death and age and disease are misery. Love and security and beauty are misery too, because we know even as we enjoy them that they must end. I agree, and yet… I remember my grandfather in his last days, his heart failing, breathless, having seen his first child die, and his sister, his parents, his wife, his friends, having seen his daughter disabled by disease, and going open-eyed to death without the consolation of firm religious belief. “What a miracle,” he would say, looking through his window. And: “What a stupendous experience it’s been. If there’s a God,” (with a chuckle), “I’ll thank Him.” In my better moments I feel like that. I haven’t yet put up with the loss that will come, but for the moment I can say I agree with my grandfather. Even in misery it’s wonderful. Or perhaps more to the point, it’s fascinating. I don’t know if I want to be ‘liberated’ from it.
And selflessness. Goenka said that ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no self, no soul, only the flicker of consciousness. But do we not construct a self through memory, and give it narrative coherence? This may not be a permanent essential self, not something you can measure or prove empirically, but it may be the best we can do, and in its own way ‘real’ enough. More mystically, I’m not sure I agree with the notion that all we have is the present moment. In my childhood I had three strange experiences which suggest the past and the future are also accessible. And this has huge ramifications. If we are not trapped by time, then the coherence of the self through time may be something we can realistically hope for. By not taking these possibilities on board Buddhism can only counsel detachment. It seems that Buddhism recasts death not as our central dilemma, but as the principal aim.
These are some of the philosophical problems I have with Buddhism. They wouldn’t have mattered on the course if Buddhism weren’t being whispered in my ear as I meditated. I couldn’t respond, so I tried to shut it out.
On Day Five I was a mess of emotion. At the end of meditation sessions I was variously elated, depressed, restless, serene. On one circuit through the forest I was near tears, on another I was giggling. I knew this was part of the process. Stuff was coming up. All very interesting.
But by Day Six I was experiencing a fixed aversion to what I thought was the intellectual dishonesty of the course. No talking, no philosophical questioning, no writing: this was justified by emphasis on the experiential, non-intellectual nature of the technique, yet every evening we were subjected to Goenkaji’s linguistic philosophy. Even while we were meditating, Goenka’s voice interpreted what was happening through its Buddhist prism. Like any proper political prisoner I had my illicit writing materials. I found a pen and a scrap of paper in the bottom of my bag, and scribbled the odd note when nobody could see me. Breaking the rules thus made me feel a little better, but still I was in an unequal power relationship with this place. It was becoming ‘this place.’ I was counting the hours.
And the Pali chanting was increasing. At the beginning it was a verse or two. By Day Six it went on for a quarter of an hour three times a day. The true believers thought it set up good vibrations. Perhaps true, but I hadn’t experienced that, and the only way I could accept this theory was by religious belief. I hadn’t gone to Herefordshire to practise religious belief. I already have a religion. There are mosques for that. I have a prayer mat. I have some prayer beads.
So I decided to leave. I had an hour-long interview with the Burmese assistant teacher. “Let me decide what my experience means,” I told him. “I’m being guided too much. It’s time for me to take a step back from…er…taking a step back.”
He said nothing to change my mind. I packed up my bedding. But then one of the meditators I’d talked to on arrival, Simon Vatcher, broke his vows by gesturing to the forest. It was like smoking cigarettes at school. We scurried off together and whispered guiltily. “The Buddhism is bollocks,” Simon said. “The chanting is bollocks. Ignore it. But stay to the end. Your mind is in a laboratory here. You may as well stay to see what happens to it.” It was good advice. I stayed.
By Day Seven, however, it was clear that I had a mental block. Goenkaji’s voice was annoying me immensely. I hated the way he said aneechaa (it means impermanence, transience) – with a jumpy opening, a stressed middle syllable and a growl at the end. I resented being told what to think. It can’t be a good idea, I decided, to put yourself in an altered state while someone you can’t agree with is whispering in your ear. So I couldn’t meditate anymore. You have to be comfortable to do something so profound. I wasn’t.
The management were friendly and understanding. They helped me with bus and train times. As I left I wondered if I would feel that I had failed. But what I felt was a surge of freedom, and that I had done the right thing. I ate raspberries at the side of the country lane. And on the bus I met a Ukrainian girl who picked berries at Brook Farm, Malden. Voda, pajalsta, she said. I passed her my water bottle. She couldn’t speak English. I used my phrasebook Russian from Petersburg, and wrote some English sentences for her. She was very pleased. She was very lonely she said, reading from a dictionary. She hadn’t talked to anybody for weeks.
I read the papers on the train. Another Qana massacre. 62 civilians killed, 42 of them children. It had happened on Day Five. On the 18th April 1996, 106 civilians had been killed in the same way in the same place. I remembered watching my future wife weeping over it on the first year anniversary.
In London I phoned home. Randa’s family death toll now stood at 27. I smoked a spliff, and immediately felt a flow of impermanent particles from head to toes, from toes to head. I recognise that this is cheating on an enormous scale. Despite the spliff, I felt strengthened physically and mentally. I felt tuned up. I was happy I had done it. I still am.
A couple of nights later, walking back from visiting friends, I saw a fox not 10 metres away, slipping from the mouth of Manchuria Road onto Clapham Common. It turned its snout to look at my eyes, and padded on.