Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Search for Peace – a Personal Journey by Amal Karunaratna

A Search for Peace – a Personal Journey

I had reached crisis point.  A broken marriage about two years ago and another relationship that was fast going south, and trying to function in a university department that was dysfunctional: colleagues were busily stabbing each other in the back – or to save time – the front!  My health was also in bit of a mess, I was getting pounding migraines, and at the gym, during a routine workout, I tore my supra-spinatus ligament in my shoulder when I was doing a simple bench press with weights that were well within my capabilities. The treatment for this was an operation which required the insertion of four titanium alloy pins into my shoulder to hold the sutured ligaments in place and I was walking around with my right arm in a sling, and for about six weeks I was in extreme pain. To add insult to injury, I had to explain to everyone I met, what had happened to me, and after the 500th enquiry, I started to talk about being the victim of a shark attack! “You should have seen what I did to the shark”.

I had just applied for a sabbatical with which I had intended to regain the momentum I had lost in my academic career and heard that I had been turned down, despite getting some of the best publications within the department at the time in a journal with a 93% rejection rate. While all this was happening, my father was in the middle of chemotherapy for prostate cancer and facing problems with crazy patients (he was a GP specializing in psychiatry) making vexatious accusations against him

I had moved out my own house temporarily to my parents’ house until things settled down. Despite being stoic, I could see that the strain was telling on dad, and this upset me to the core. Each night I would come home and see him either channel surfing with the remote in his hand or staring at the wall.

At this point, I could tick most of the boxes on the Stress Pandemic list, any one of which would have overloaded one person and here I was with a full basket of madness!

Three years before this crisis, I traveled to Sri Lanka to a monastery to visit a wonderful teacher and spent a few days at his meditation Centre, and tasted a small part of what was to come.  Through all these troubles, my parents provided me with solace and shelter. My mother always made sure there was a nice meal on the table and dad was always available for me to spill my troubles on the table and listen patiently to my endless mad ramblings about relationships, career problems and aches and pains and, being a medical doctor, he was able to provide me with medical treatments and as a practicing meditator and his knowledge of psychiatry, guide me to find ways of calming my swirling mind which was casting around to find something concrete to hang on to in a collapsing world which was ordered, tidy and organized before this. It was not all one way: he shared his troubles with me too.

On a cold and wet night in Melbourne I watched a DVD sent to me by my friend David who lived in Canada with a series of video clips which he later turned into a movie called “In Search of Nirvana” where he interviewed many meditation teachers. One in particular caught my attention, a Ven. Sumedha, who was a Swiss Artist who appeared to have strong meditational experiences. Listening to him describing elements of meditative experiences, it seemed to me as though he really had experienced the things he was talking about: jhanas (states of pure concentration) and Samadhi (tranquility) seemed to be real. He really had experienced these things. It was a revelation. It was as though a door had opened, all I had to do was step through it.

It was October 2006. I was a almost two-thirds of the way through the last semester of the year, and I was in a terrible state. I had run out of enthusiasm for a career, relationships and life in general. I could foresee a life ahead consisting of repeatedly doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result. This was the definition of plain stupidity – something had to change, I was looking at a bleak future of endless Ground Hog days.

My dad’s health was clearly in a dangerous state, despite his enthusiasm for wanting to keep working – he was 81 about to turn 82. He had a list of health problems starting with congestive cardiac failure that was as long as my arm and arthritic knees which made it hard for him to get in and out of his car, and by now he was limping quite badly, and even having trouble walking with a walking stick.  By now, there was only one compelling reason for me to continue with work, and that was to be available for mum and dad, and there was no way I could care for them if we were separated.  Mum and dad had access to their family home in Kandy, Sri Lanka which was fully staffed and empty.

Within three months, I had packed what I needed, my laptop computer, some simple clothes, mostly jeans and t-shirts, on a flight to Colombo with my parents.  Following a short stay with my parents in the family home, I made my way to the meditation Centre where a new life was about to start. I had no easy way of leaving the place once I had entered it as I had no personal transport and really nowhere to go except back to my parents who, at that time were in reasonable health, and had settled into their home quite well and well cared for by staff.

When I first entered the monastery, I had hoped that the trauma and the turmoil that I had experienced over the last year would stop troubling me and with meditative practices I would eventually reach a state of peace and tranquility and some sense of well being. I had no idea how long this would take – I expected a miracle. For months nothing changed but it was like training for a marathon. I hadn’t  run one but have run 15 km and I had to train for it, this was a much longer run with no training and I was expecting to do the big one instantly – I was so wrong!

After several years of practice, reading and study, I now realize that this is a long and arduous journey and there are no short cuts.  This is a process of slow and patient training and practice and with an experienced and competent teacher, reaching some sense of peace is certainly within reach of anyone.

One of the first things my teacher told me when I talked to him about my mental state which he instantly recognized was not to try and practice any meditation at all. Instead, he asked me to rest, read and if I really wanted to, try walking meditation. This turned out to be great advice; though even walking meditation practice was a slippery task as my mind would revert to past conversations, arguments and things I had said and wished I had said and endless worries about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. The process of letting go was proving to be very hard.

Gradually, over several weeks, my sense of agitation settled down. Dad called it a state of hyper-vigilance, and leading up to this point, it was also clear that I was suffering from Post – Traumatic Stress Disorder, a clinically recognized condition.  Such a condition is not a good place from which to practice meditation.  In such as state, meditative practices can sometimes exacerbate underlying traumas as the mind calms down, mental states that were created by the traumas can surface in the absence of the mind dealing with day to day matters and explode into the present consciousness and take over the mind and create more traumas than before. It is as though you release the valve in a pressure cooker rather suddenly and the steam blows the top off the cooker.  It is better to ease ones-self slowly and gently into meditative practice and let the pressure out slowly by releasing the valve gradually. My teacher asked me to read, chat with my new friends at the monastery, and just relax. This was the best piece of advice any one had given me. After few weeks of doing exactly that, I started to sit in the traditional cross-legged position and concentrate my attention on whatever object my teacher decided to give me for the day. The mind thus relieved of the detritus that flies around in an internal tornado, started to clear and it was like a clear sky after a storm, for this is what happens when the mind experiences trauma on this scale.

Reading popular media meditation has now become the thing one does to relieve stress, improve relationships and become more efficient at work and achieve greater success, and there are now more meditation teachers hanging from trees than fruits! But, in reality, there are probably only a handful of real teachers who know the mind of the student well enough to be able to provide true guidance, and remove the blocks that one inevitably faces, and real teachers take the student well beyond a mere state of Samadhi (tranquiity), that is, if they even achieve that.

The point is, meditation is not about fun and profit, nor having a personal trip without an airline ticket or drugs, it’s about understanding the “natural state” of the mind which is to be unaware of its tendency to grasp and hold on to things that can, at best, create a temporary state of happiness or at worst, much unhappiness when we lose it. This loss is inevitable, but we somehow operate on the belief that such loses will not happen and to lose it is something pathological but to retain is normal and desirable.  But without exception – nothing lasts: everything is temporary and subject to decay.  So the mind continues to create the conditions or more unhappiness in its deluded state. This is the state in which most beings exist.

By the skillful training of the mind, we can develop awareness of the natural state of the mind which is its tendency to cling to things as a prelude to the next – the temporary nature of whatever it clings to.

The finely trained mind sees this from moment to moment – this is liberating. Pessimists see this as living in a state of negativity. This is another ignorant mind talking, one who likes the idea of endless unhappiness, but thinks that there is permanence in these states. My father once told about a Sufi teacher who was sitting with a bag of chillies and eating on at a time. When one of his students nervously approached him and asked him what he was doing , he replied that he was eating chillies in the hope of finding the sweet one!

The mind that clings to nothing is like a bird on a wing, floating free and high, liberated, light and happy, unburdened – it is free!

Gradually my mind cleared of the fog, the baggage of the  “she said – I said, I should have said” conversations gave way to a clearer vision of sensations, thoughts, ideas and intentions. This was no liberated state, merely one that was a little bit quieter than the one that inhabited my being earlier in the year.

It was like a storm ending and the sun started to shine and all I could hear was the sound of the streams full of water and the joyous sounds of the frogs and the crickets I had never taken the trouble to hear before. But I had no interest in carrying them with me. The training had started. A long journey lay ahead.

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