Hi guys, Michelle called last night. Trend seems to be continuing in the same direction. She sounds terrific, exceptionally so. April is re-coloring the landscape daily, "magical" by Michelle's description.
The good news is that Michelle’s sleeping well – averaging 5 hours a night, deep sleep, and all she needs by her account. She’s stopped eating dinner, which apparently has made all the difference to her practice, and, she suspects, to her ability to sleep. At the Goenka center we’ve gone to a few times, which operates by traditional Theravadan code, returning students don’t eat anything after noon. Goenka’s explanation for this rule is that, over the centuries, it has been found to be helpful to the practice. It's no coincidence, I suspect, that many religious traditions associate fasting with a period of introspection. Interestingly, Michelle has come to the same conclusion by her own experience. One more note on this: when Michelle and I were in Cambodia, we found that many Cambodians only ate one or two meals a day (including those in the city, who were employed and well educated). I suspect that "three meals a day" is relatively new to our species, ushered in by the era of the super-rich West.
An interesting anecdote: a yoga instructor noticed that Michelle was collapsing on one side during a particular move, and recommended that she see the massage therapist, to get rid of the tightness on one side of her lower back. The therapist not only succeeded, he noticed that one of her ribs was caught under her diaphragm, and he popped it out. It was a revelation for Michelle. As long as she can remember, she’s had a constricted feeling on deep breaths that she thought was normal. She says she feels like she’s doubled her lung capacity.
The good news is that Alan has counseled people to cherish these days as an precious opportunity to practice – not read. Michelle has taken this to heart, and doesn’t sound concerned with playing academic catch-up anymore. Michelle and I are used to the Goenka retreats, which operates by monastic rules: no speaking, no passing notes, no eye contact, no mixing of men of women. People are there to practice, and you see intensity of purpose grow during a 10-day, as people's movement slows down, becomes more balanced, and their mind turns deeper and deeper inward. When I went into Rigden Lodge a few times (for testing) a few weeks ago, I was struck by how casual things seemed, relative to Goenka. Don't get me wrong - it was pretty quiet. But people didn't seem to carry themselves with the same sense of solitary focus. Their stride was more casual, somehow. If they passed you, they'd nod, smile. Now, it sounds like things are starting to trend more towards Goenka-like focus - people are really hooked into the practice, and are letting go of the talking, the note-passing.
Michelle's spending most of her time in the third of the three key practices, which is called “Shamatha without a Sign.” There are 10 clearly delineated stages along the path of Shamatha (each successive stage entails a higher degree of relaxation and attentional stability and vividness). In the first three stages, where your ability to focus is weak, Wallace recommends the first of the three practices, called “Mindfulness of Breathing”. Mindfulness of breathing is probably the most popular technique in the West, and entails trying to keep your focus on (you guessed it) your breath. The second key practice is the one I described in my last update, called “Settling the Mind in its Natural State.” Here, sharpened awareness and a higher degree of relaxation allow you to turn to the subtler game of focusing on “Mental Objects” – thoughts, feelings, inner voices and images, etc. This second practice is supposed to be a fast lane to the tenth stage (acheiving Shamatha). The third practice, “Shamatha without a Sign,” entails an even subtler object of focus: your awareness itself. Awareness of being aware. One way to think of it: imagine that you’ve just had a few espressos, and you go into a perfect sensory deprivation chamber: no sense of touch, smell, sight, sound, taste. You’re lying there, and you’re paying attention to your thoughts (that’s “Settling the Mind in its Natural State”). Now imagine that your thoughts calm down. What are you left with? Awareness itself. This is the object of your attention. If this idea sounds trippy, it is. I wrote those words (adapted from Wallace), but I’m not sure I completely understand what they mean. The key point: it’s a breathtakingly subtle practice. And if “Settling the Mind in Its Natural State” is supposed to be the fast road to Shamatha, then this practice is supposed to be the turbo speedway. So Michelle is cruising.
Another note: those nyam I referred to in the last post - it sounds like they're descending on the retreatants in full force now. The scientists have shuttled a few people to the health clinic, concerned about the physiological effects they're seeing, like high blood pressure. Things are getting pretty crazy in Rigden Lodge.
That’s all I know for now. Michelle sends her love, as always.