Day 60: The Dirt IS the Gold

I’ve completed day 60 of this lifestyle challenge. As I have written about in earlier articles and posts, I feel consistent energy and mental clarity from when I awake until I go to bed, I sleep well, and I feel inspired and excited about life nearly all the time.

One of the things I have discovered, or perhaps understood more deeply, is that when something is challenging, it’s a sign that I will benefit massively from doing it. I see this thread woven throughout my daily practices. I see how challenges shape me, and how ultimately I am one who revels in challenges. I understand how slowing down and enjoying the process makes me more “effective” at whatever the practice is. I get better much more quickly when I practice without trying. I see this, for example, in the game called Flame Dodge in the Peak brain training app. I see it in CrossFit as I have finally learned how to do double-under rope jumps. Most significantly and prototypically, I see it in my Vipassana meditation practice.

Paññā (a Pali word, pronounced “pan-ya”), part of Vipassana meditation, is a practice where you develop insight into the nature of reality and the self by observing the distinct subtle sensations (called vedanā in Pali) inside the body from moment to moment. This is the practice that Gautama Buddha often reminded his monks to practice. It’s considered in much of buddhism to be the principal route to attaining nibbāna. By the way, I’m not buddhist; I’m not even spiritual or religious.

Paññā is extremely challenging. It literally brings up all of your blockages to be looked at, from the deep recesses of your unconscious mind. Practice can include extremely challenging experiences. For example, in her last 10-day retreat, my wife Cindy experienced what is called a fire bhanga-ñana (dissolution) in which she experienced the sensation of being dissolved in a raging fire. She sat still, dripping in sweat (Cindy never normally sweats), wondering why the other people in the meditation hall were not screaming and running out. She became much more aware of, and self-accepting of, her anger after this experience.

Most of what happens from moment-to-moment in paññā practice is comparatively mundane. I might scan my attention over a 2-inch-square region in my lower back and notice that it’s “blind,” which means that I can’t feel any kind of distinct sensation there. There is sensation there, but my mind is not sharp enough to feel it. You may be able to feel a distinct buzzing in one or more of your fingertips right now. This kind of sensation, or an even more refined version of this kind of sensation, is happening all the time everywhere inside your body. We can’t feel it because our minds have become dull and distracted. This is why we get confused about reality and we struggle to live adaptive lives. It’s why our relationships so often don’t work, for example. We’re asleep to this felt-reality. All living wisdom is hidden in the deep conscious knowledge of these body sensations.

So I wait for a few moments, attempting to gently place my attention on that 2-inch-square region on my lower back, attempting to focus my mind on it. But not trying too hard, not struggling, but practicing being equanimous not only with the sensation I might feel there, but also with the “blindness” when I can’t feel any sensation. I don’t feel anything there and, after a few moments, I move on. After carefully and thoroughly surveying the whole surface of my body systematically, including the inside of my armpits and my butt crack (for example), I find myself back at that same 2-inch-square spot. By the way, more advanced practice of paññā involves three-dimensional scanning of the entire body and spinal cord, not just the surface.

So here I am again at that same spot and there’s still no sensation. So I wait patiently, and I notice a tiny little itchy feeling like someone poked me with a tiny little needle. I practice being equanimous with that, and move back to scanning the rest of the body. At some point, I might begin to feel the subtle buzzing sensations in that area, and they might become more and more distinct, until that area is vibrantly alive with what feels like billions of tiny things (called kalapas). Even then, even though this buzzing sensation is extremely pleasant, paññā practice involves staying as equanimous as possible with it; it’s just another sensation.

The process of walking the path of dhamma involves this cycle of increasing awareness of, and increasing equanimity with, whatever happens to be present in the actual sensations (vedanā) inside the body from moment to moment. In any given moment, in any given location on or inside the body, there may be blind spots, or perhaps gross, solid, stuck, unpleasant sensations, or even pleasant, buzzing, flowing sensations. The trick is to stay calm, patient, equanimous, curious, and attentive.

Because it’s our unawakened nature, what we habitually do throughout life is to struggle towards goals. Even people who don’t think they are goal oriented have goals, even if it’s just to eat another Oreo cookie. It’s no different in paññā practice. We tend to think that we’re getting there and getting rid of the blind areas and the solid, unpleasant sensations, so that we can get to the buzzy, flowing sensation, or to get to the next stage on the path; perhaps some kind of bhanga-ñana or some other experience or realization.

What we miss is now. We can’t move forward at all without being aware of, and equanimous with, whatever is happening in this present moment, and the only thing we can really be fully aware of is what is there (or not there). The purpose of the path is to bring us into the present moment, fully and permanently, to purify our unconscious minds of deeply ingrained reactivity so that we can actually be here fully and finally fully enjoy life. We’re slaves to reality, whether we like it or not, so we may as well like it. We may as well learn to accept it fully. In fact, it’s wonderful to do this.

To wrap up this bit on paññā, what I’m realizing more and more deeply is that the only achievement is to increase awareness and equanimity. It’s the valuable by-product of struggling to not struggle. It’s like we’re digging through the dirt to find the gold, only to find that the dirt is what is adding all the value. The blindness (lack of awareness) and the pleasant and unpleasant sensations are the dirt that we’re digging through, looking for freedom. We’re getting better at digging, and it’s the dirt that’s making us better at digging. And ultimately we realize that the dirt is the gold, and our purpose is to dig. Because we love digging in the dirt. We love playing in the dirt. And then you’re just a child sitting in a muddy puddle, with a big smile on your face, and nobody is asking the question: “What is the meaning of life?”