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The Paradoxical Quest for Bliss - Insights from my recent vipassana course (Part 2)

Updated: May 31

2. This wisdom of "anicca"/impermanence is crucial to develop on and off the meditation cushion. Because there has been a tendency for sadness and fear in my life, when I was experiencing happiness, I would try to make it last forever. I would clutch at it in hopes that I could protect it and make it stay with me longer. On the flip side of this coin, when we experience sadness, we tend to see it as never ending.

I've understood this very clearly in theory, but during the course, experienced it more intensely. Goenka repeated, a number of times, how crucial it is to remember anicca and mentioned the way we end up needing situations to be pleasant in order to feel happy. Unless there is a blue sky, we feel sad.

This was mirrored starkly while at the retreat when one of the days, the weather was crisp and the sky was the perfect blue. The golden, red, and green leaves against that blue created a breathtakingly inspiring view. I felt I could handle the 10 hrs of meditation and the pain I might experience during the sits that day because of this inspiration from nature. The next day, the weather was incredibly cold and wet. The perfect blue turned into an ominous grey and almost every sit that day felt like I was not going to make it through the hour.

It made me hyperaware of how it was crucial that I started to discover a more reliable internal source of motivation. That I needed to remind myself of the impermanent nature of the most beautiful moments in my life. Not so that I become an emotionless robot, but so that I stop having such intense crashes from my highs.

Of course, I was reminded of the book, "Dopamine Nation" and how it mentions that the moment we experience something pleasurable, we are tipping our pleasure pain scale into the side of pain. We might as well help ourselves by remembering the impermanent nature of pain, as well as pleasure, so we don't always feel knocked around by highs and lows.

Science teaches us that every pleasure exacts a price, and the pain that follows is longer lasting and more intense than the pleasure that gave rise to it. With prolonged and repeated exposure to pleasurable stimuli, our capacity to tolerate pain decreases, and our threshold for experiencing pleasure increases. - Anna Lembke, MD.

An extreme example of too many intense moments of pleasure decreasing our overall happiness is substance abuse, but are there more subtle addictions that don't have as much stigma and are diminishing your chances of joy? Social media, coffee, snacks,

The wisdom of anicca/impermanence is something we can remind ourselves of during our highs & lows on and off our meditation cushion, but it is very strongly supported while on our cushion and less distracted.

For example, the more we pay attention to sensations, and sharpen our ability to witness the most subtle sensations from our inner landscape, the more clearly we witness anicca and the misleading notion of self. Sensations that felt dense and unbelievably painful would create a feeling that "I" am broken, something is wrong with "me," "my" pain is more debilitating than everyone else's, and worst of all, that it would feel like this FOREVER! But the few moments when you can remove the sense of "I" and instead notice all the sensations composing this experience, the pain would disappear and you're suddenly immersed in bliss. In those moments of bliss/pain, vipassana meditation helps us create the muscle memory, in our mind, to remember anicca.

Because it is an autopilot and generally mindless reaction to crave more of the pleasant and have aversion toward the unpleasant, the more regularly we do the mental pushup of reminding ourselves of impermanence, the more it begins to generalize to other areas of our lives, off of the meditation cushion.

During the last discourse, Goenka mentioned that he would wake up and fall asleep mentally repeating "anicca" a few times as he turned toward his internal experience of sensations. I've been trying this more regularly since leaving the course, looking at the different sensations within the body during the moments of happiness as I gently remind myself, "anicca," this too will pass. This removes weight off of my shoulders from the need to always be happy.

Reminding myself of this during moments of happiness, has supported me in remembering that my moments of sadness will NOT last forever. It has been liberating to sense my challenging emotions without the intense aversion that generally comes with it. No longer compounding challenging emotions with the energy consuming reactivity that attempts to reject discomfort is a breath of fresh air - the paradoxical realization that there can be a moment of serenity and bliss amidst our heaviest emotions.

Likes and dislikes will never go away, we do not have to deny ourselves a joyful life, but we can start to catch ourselves when we identify and define ourselves with our challenging emotions or thoughts and allow the insight of impermanence to arise.

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