Susan has been accepted into a Vipassana course, and now she is contemplating what she has gotten into. She keeps trying to imagine what it will be like.
I keep telling her it is impossible to imagine. The first time I went, in 1997, everything I anticipated was irrelevant to what actually happened. It didn’t even occur to me to imagine what turned out to be most important.
But strangely, what is most important in the experience seems impossible to remember.
I know this only because, registering for my second course, I tried again to anticipate what it would be like, this time with the benefit of experience, but, once again was shocked at how different the reality was from the anticipation, and additionally shocked at my inability to anticipate. The third time, I tried to factor the shock into my anticipation, and that also failed. It was the same with all subsequent courses.
The actual experience of Vipassana is never anything like even the most informed anticipations of it.
Perhaps our memories record only certain aspects of experience.
Another strange thing about Vipassana concerns time. Time behaves extremely strangely when you are deeply absorbed and have no visual and few auditory reference points. The passing of fifteen minutes is difficult to discern from an hour. The impulse to look at a clock and to get reoriented within time can become very distracting.
My Jewish view on this is that eternity can be very uncomfortable before you get used to it.
The strangest part of Vipassana is the question of agency. I sit down determined to observe my breath for a full hour, to keep my attention focused solely and entirely on the sensation of in-breath, out-breath. I’m observing it, observing it, observing it – then I’m not. And not only am I not now, I haven’t been observing for some time. Who stopped observing? Where was I? I was not there.
This insight hit me hard at my first course, and it arrived with a depression. I’d wasted ten days of my life, doing everything wrong. It took a day of intense meditation, observing the physical sensations of depression, for it to break apart and dissipate.
Eventually, I adjusted to the insight that our own being is intermittent. We pop into and out of existence all the time.
This is easily explained away if you need to. Our default objectivist orientation is amply-equipped to subdue every trace of the profound strangeness of existence with materialist just-so stories. But I know what it’s like to be dead.
Susan asked me: Do you suppose you got more from Vipassana than you know?
I think I did. But what I gained was not primarily information. It was something quite different.
What I got was an inclination to notice things about our own subjectivity that doesn’t play nice with how we normally think.
For instance, I was able to observe that when we are around some other people, aspects of our subjectivity dissociate from ourselves, and connect up with corresponding aspects of another other, so that there is more subjective cohesion between two people than within either person. We notice this most in love, but it happens all the time.
When we become jealous, we can feel the cohesion we have someone else – someone with whom we are someone – being strained by an interfering coherence they are forming with a stranger. We can feel in our hearts an existential threat, because this other with whom we are ourselves, is becoming estranged from us as they become someone different with this stranger. Part of the ground of our very self quakes and shifts, and we feel jealous.
Viewing this situation from an objectivist perspective, we must explain away jealousy as an attempt to possess another person. But when we understand subjectively, we can see better that we are only trying to maintain our own conditions of belonging.
Subjects are not what we think they are. We are not what we think we are.
Before I went to Vipassana, I had a lot of ideas about what might I might undergo, what it might be like, and what might happen to me.
After going several times, I let go of many of these things, but I had nothing to replace it with. I still found it impossible to conceptualize what might happen, and so I could only participate and try to remain receptive.
It took many years to see that this concept-suspending participation was itself a mode of understanding – an alternative to objective comprehension.
Constantly translating the uncanny experiences of Vipassana back into the terms of the objectivist philosophy I held at the time, in order to make them comprehensible and compatible with conventional thought would have filtered out precisely the strangest and most consequential insights.
I could have said “Yeah, I keep forgetting how hard this is.”
I could have said “Yeah, you really lose your sense of time sitting there.”
I could have said “Yeah, we are just so absent-minded and so distractible.”
I could have said “Yeah, love makes us lose our minds.”
But I didn’t. I did my best to do full justice to what I experienced.
I reformed how I conceived truth to accommodate my experiences, rather than forcing my experiences to fit inside my existing conceptions. Rather than taming my strange experiences with conventional scientistic or spiritual explanations, I gave them a new environment.
At dawn, my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the
Glimpse into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden