Before Vipassana - departure from helplessness.
I awoke on 7 October 2007 full of familiar despair and suffering, but also fully aware of the selfish contradiction of this condition. After all, my suffering was relative and hardly anything substantial when compared to the suffering of others. Yet the suffering was real. I could feel its presence. It was physical, persistent, ephemeral. I decided to read a book on Tibetan Buddhism and meditation, The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche. This book had found its way into my book collection by chance and like a geological feature, a diamond, or a fossil, it had worked its way through the strata of my collection to finally sit on the surface, to be noticed and dug out, dusted off and put to use. I found it very moving in its description of the fragility of life and the need to prepare for death. I also found it partly obscure and tentative in its analysis of what it was to explore these things. However, it did make clear this was not an intellectual exercise. Action was needed if anything at all was to be gained from its pages. I decided at once to follow the description given in the book of a method for open-eyed meditation. At one o’clock in the afternoon I sat down on a cushion on a mat on the floor of the spare bedroom of my flat and lit a stick of incense, ready and resolved to sit as long as it took for the incense to burn away. There it was. With such a simple gesture my meditation practice had begun, or so it seemed.
I relaxed my breath, adjusted my body in this unfamiliar posture and tried to concentrate without effort on whatever I could see before me. At first I began to gaze through the incense smoke twirling and drifting around me. I then began to focus on the triangle-shaped roof-line of the house across the street. I had never noticed this roof before. Its shape fascinated me. Inside the triangle at the apex there was another smaller triangle covered in rectangular slate tiles tinted here and there with greenish-gray lichen. Some of the tiles were cut in odd shapes to fit the triangle. At the top of the triangle, set on four horizontal rows of tiles were four diamond shaped ones with scalloped, indented edges, set together making a larger diamond shape.
As I gazed at the tiles, I began to also notice a surprising number of birds in the sky. Pigeons, magpies, wrens, honey eaters and others were all coming and going, flying this way and that, appearing as rapidly moving dots on the horizon, or sweeping down from the roof of my building and across to the neighboring roofs or into nearby trees. I was surprised at first by how active they seemed, full of resolve and purpose, knowing exactly where they were and where they were going. This simple observation had consumed a surprisingly large amount of time. Clouds in the sky that had been woolly and bulky when I began my meditation had become smeared and stretched in streaks along the horizon. As my gaze dropped to the incense stick, I was amazed to see that it had already burned half way down, leaving a long curl of ash quivering in suspension, held up by threads of burned stick above the red glow of the burning tip. At this point my attention became taken by the smoke swirling and curling across the room. Small flurries, ripples, eddies, long strings, tight curls, looping indefinable streams and flows, were all pulsing with the turbulence of the warming and cooling air in the room, making tiny patterns of localised weather as imprecise and varied as the clouds streaming across the far horizon.
I became aware at this moment of the thoughts running alongside the observations I was making. At one level of thought I was creating a sound track to go along with what I was seeing. A considered set of phrases, something like a review of options for different music and themes went by, passing through my mind in fragments, drawn on the inner landscape as if on a transparent screen. Above this, as if checking the first set of thoughts, was a more singular set of thoughts, as if being made from a more fixed and vigilant viewpoint. I did not know it, but the first tentative stage of observing power had arisen in me. I felt a surge of strength. Somehow I had decided I was no longer helpless. Surely now my meditation had begun. See part 2.