To me, the essence of spirituality is truth. It is to see the totality and inherent beauty of things with complete clarity. This requires the arduous task of chipping away the ego, so that the clarity of vision is not clouded by ignorance, attachments, desires, and fears. Truth gives way to wisdom, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. For Gandhi, truth was synonymous with love, and Khalil Gibran's beautiful words come to mind: "Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself."
The essence of spirituality remains elusive to me as I have taken one or two very small steps on the path of truth. What moves me on this path is meditation. It has been so helpful in freeing me from the tyranny of conditionings, and in illuminating what I need to do to move forward on this very long path as there is still so much work ahead.
A few weeks ago I took part in a 10-day silent meditation course. It was the second course of this type that I have received in my life; an annual pilgrimage of sorts, to the truth within. Many things arose during this simple, elegant practice of awareness and equanimity. I would like to share this personal story that illustrates my attempts towards the essence of spirituality.
The first time that I took this course, in 2011, my mind was very noisy and I did not fully give in to learning the practice of meditation as I kept myself occupied with thoughts. This second time around I went in with the intention of complete surrender. This meant keeping an open mind, soft heart, and relaxed and gentle body as I took refuge in the practice.
For the first four days of the course I was very anxious because of my dad's health. I found it difficult to stay balanced. As the days went on, I realized that my anxiety is self-imposed, egotistical, and that it is even physically harmful to myself. For example, I often think that I am the only one capable of helping my dad with his health issues since I have a background in health sciences, a university degree, and the ability to drive him to the hospital and medical appointments. Even though my mom did not go to university, did not study science, and does not know how to drive, she has been married to my dad for nearly 40-years and has consistently been a selfless caregiver and partner to him. I learned that I need to have faith in my dad and mom to take care of each other and let go of the false notion that only I know how to do things right. On the eight day of the meditation course, the anxiety that had been building up over the past few months had manifested in severe stomach cramps and a full afternoon in the bathroom. It was a difficult day physically and it really challenged my equanimity. But, I felt like a brand new person the next day, as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders simply from seeing this mind-body interaction.
I have a very bad habit of comparing myself to others, and this course allowed me to observe jealousy. From watching the ever-changing sensations in my body, I recognized that all things are transient, including the things that I am often jealous of in other people's lives. It suddenly made no sense for me to be attached and to be jealous of things that are continuously arising and passing. I think that I engaged in this more intellectually than experientially, as jealousy reared its head a few days after the course was over. But the intensity of the jealousy was less, and the negative feeling passed quicker than it did before I took the course. So, this jealousy is still present in me, but I am more aware of it than I was earlier and I have made a small dent in the hard wall of this negativity.
For the first time I saw the suffering of my best friend, a beautiful woman that I have shared a close friendship with since I was 14 years old. I had always idealized her life and thought that she "had it all." In failing to see her hardships, I failed to see her as a complete person. There was a moment during the course when this all changed, when I acknowledged that she does not have it all, and that she is hurting inside. I really felt for her, and tears of compassion flowed. When I shared this with her yesterday and asked her what I can do to help her, our friendship instantly strengthened and we gifted each other with so much love. It felt like such a pure offering/receiving, I cannot tell the difference.
As much as I tried to keep to myself (as part of the practice), occasionally I observed the group of women that we meditating alongside me. They were diverse, representing all different age groups, ethic backgrounds, and physical abilities. One common thread, though, was the fact that we are suffering. It was apparent in the way that my dorm-mates would slam the bathroom doors in the residence, push and shove their way through the dining hall when the food was served, and sigh and move their body positions heavily while meditating together in the hall. One of the evening discourses during those 10 days mentioned that all of us have the qualities of compassion, peace, and goodness. I took a mental look around at the women in the course, and instead of seeing them as people who are suffering, I saw them as people who are, at their essence, full of these positive qualities and who are taking steps towards realizing these traits. From then on I treated them as my sisters in service, and I was filled with love for them.
The importance of equanimity came up repeatedly. For example, one day I was eating lunch in the dining hall when I started to shed a few tears. I thought about all of the unexpected things that have arisen in my life. I realized that I was a surprise to my parents, since they did not know that they were having twins when my mom was giving birth. I was born 13 minutes after my twin sister and my parents were completely shocked. Yet, they raised both of us as best as they could and with such grace. Likewise, the ups and downs that I have experienced with them have been a surprise to me. I could have never expected our family to take the trajectory that we have. All of these moments, even the most difficult ones, now appeared to me as gifts. I was overcome with gratitude for all that my parents have given to me as I made stronger efforts to remain balanced during the course, as practice for equanimity beyond the course.
In a silent meditation course, it is easy to not lie and speak slander when you're not allowed to speak, read, write, and make bodily gestures and eye contact. In the "real" world, however, this "noble silence" is much more difficult to practice. In the course I took note of how much I had spoken lies, gossip, and slander over the past year, and why I did this (usually, to fit in with people who were speaking lies, gossip, and slander, for fear of being left out). From this point forward, I resolved to myself to speak truth and to speak good things as a way to practice "noble speech" in the "real" world, be authentic, courageous, and to share the company of like-hearted individuals.
I have always found it difficult to give a meditation of loving-kindness since my ego often gets in the way. This time around, it was a little bit easier than it was last year. I found myself giving loving-kindness to those who I previously associated with hurt and negativity, as I gave them sincere wishes for well-being and happiness. That felt so good! :)
I left the course feeling energized, calm, composed, and more aware than when I began those 10 days of meditation. I had expected back and leg pain from sitting so many hours each day for 10 days straight, but instead, I felt like I received a deep massage as there was no pain in my body. Most importantly, though, I was overflowing with gratitude for this wonderful practice, the 10 precious days to dedicate myself to learning it, and the awe-inspiring group of servers that made the practice possible for me and the many, many others who are also walking the path of truth. I emerged with a stronger conviction for meditation as perhaps the single-most important way to serve myself and others.