Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Second day as a monk in Noormarkku. As I wake up, a sunny morning welcomes me back to consciousness. The thought of taking a walk in the woods is tempting, but I am even more excited of visiting my ‘inner garden’ right away. I sit on the soft bed, ready to meditate. For a while, I give a look around. The wallpapers provide an improbable decoration of pink leaves, which makes me feel I am having a retreat in the bedroom of Grandma Duck.

Usually, prior to the practice of Vipassanā, I spend some time with Ānāpānasati: mindfulness of breathing. Mindfulness of breathing is a concentration technique common to many spiritual traditions. Actually, before encountering Vipassanā path I did practice a technique similar to Ānāpānasati: Hong-Sau technique, in the Yoga tradition of Paramahansa Yogananda. As Ānāpānasati prepares the mind to Vipassanā, Hong-Sau precedes the practice of Aum meditation. In both cases, these techniques aim to focus the attention on the breathing and to calm the mind. In both techniques you have to observe your natural breath, without controlling it. There are some differences, though, which made my first approach to Ānāpānasati rather puzzling.

In the Hong-Sau technique, Yogananda invites his students to direct their gaze gently upwards, as if looking at a distant point ahead, through the eyebrows. This particular focus between the eyebrows is meant to facilitate concentration, and is depicted as the centre of divine perception.  Not to mention that this point in the forehead – known as the ‘third eye’ – is correlated to a physical location of brain and gland functions which directly impact on our mental and physical well being.

Therefore, when I heard Ānāpānasati instructions for the first time, I was concerned: the teacher S. N. Goenka taught his students to focus on the small area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. He did not actually specify the position of the eyes.

Yogananda recommended to keep the eyes half closed, or closed. I am not aware of discourses about possible benefits related to the half closed eyes, but this position clearly carries a powerful symbolism. For example, Yogananda describes guru Lahiri Mahasaya – which is portrayed with half closed eyes in his only existing picture – with the following words:

His intense joy of God-communion is slightly revealed in a somewhat enigmatic smile. His eyes, half open to denote a nominal direction on the outer world, are half closed also. Completely oblivious to the poor lures of the earth, he was fully awake at all times to the spiritual problems of seekers who approached for his bounty.

(Authobiography of a Yogi, Chapter I)

Vipassanā path seemed not to care much about these formal details. Goenka only said to keep the eyes closed, in order to avoid distractions from visual stimuli. At least, I was free to orientate my eyes as I liked. But you can imagine my suspicion when I was asked to observe my breathing through that exotic area below my nostrils instead than through the healthy and ‘scientifically supported’ third eye. Goenka explained that the smaller is the area of concentration, the sharper becomes the mind. In Goenka’s experience the area below the nostrils is particularly sensitive to the touch of the breath and to other subtle physical sensations, and allows the meditator to stay alert and focused for a long time.

I could not avoid a mental link, even though improper, with a discourse by Yogananda’s guru: Swami Sri Yukteswar. Yukteswar used to laugh at an ancient misunderstanding of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, precisely on the passage describing the focus of the attention in meditation. Yukteswar said that some Yogis misinterpreted the Sanskrit expression for ‘root of the nose’ – i.e. the ‘third eye’ – and intended it as ‘tip of the nose’: a wrong translation, which gave birth to a habit still in vogue nowadays among some yogis, who eventually find beneficial to stare at their nose and meditate with crossed eyes… No need to say, this was not Goenka’s teaching either.

Coming back to Ānāpānasati, the most relevant difference from Hong Sau technique was that I did not have to mentally verbalize any mantra, nor to practice any form of visualization. While in Hong Sau technique you mentally chant the sound ‘hong’ throughout your inhalation, and the sound ‘so’ throughout your exhalation, Goenka’s teaching did not support this practice. Goenka affirmed that mantras and visualizations have the effect of calming the mind more quickly, but this happens only at the surface level, since the attention is carried by images or sounds which are inducted. Furthermore, the repetition of specific sounds has the power to quiet the stream of thoughts. Even though this temporary change of frequency might feel beneficial, it alters the natural status of the meditator. In the long run, you might miss the chance of observing your own true nature. Whether Goenka’s opinion is true or not, I gradually came to love his approach. The freedom from mental chanting allowed me to better focus on my natural breath. To accept it as it is. I cannot say that it is more difficult to calm the mind without mental verbalization or visualization. For me the simplicity of Ānāpānasati was a relief: I am not good at multi-tasking.

After my first ten-day Vipassanā course, I was curious to investigate what the different Buddhist schools say about the posture of the eyes in meditation. By my surprise, Zen and Tibetan Buddhist meditators prefer to keep their eyes open, in order to avoid daydreaming. A Tibetan Buddhist Lama, furthermore, told me that according to your level of energy, you can change the orientation of your gaze: if you feel tired, better to look upwards in order not to fall asleep; if you are in balance, look straight; if you are overexcited, look downwards for calming down.

The more I researched on this topic, the more I realized that there is such an amazing variety of teachings that it makes no sense to look for the ‘correct’ tradition. Each version of mindfulness of breathing presents unique specificities, which are supported and corroborated by the experience of generations of meditators.

Today I humbly started my morning meditation with Ānāpānasati. The technique is simple; the practice is not easy. It is all about awareness. And considering that I am the one who just a few days ago mindlessly threw a pair of dirty socks into the WC – maybe I believed the washing machine reincarnated into a new form – well… no matter which technique I practice, the texture of my awareness seems to be in need of special maintenance!