I grew up as a child among six others in Ireland, my mother was a very hard and heavy ‘Catholic’ and the reason that I put that in inverted commas is because she no more lived by the Ten Commandments than any other Joe Blow who painted their lives with a colorful array of potent vices. Though, as the world knows that in today’s world, often times being part of a religion is more of a blind identity label passed down from generation to generation than it is an actual practice. As we can see how many people kill in the name of religion, yet every single religion has a clear code against killing. Pretty counter understanding if you me.
So growing up with all of the bad parts of Catholicism (including shame of sexuality, ignorance of the concept of mental health, never ending enforcement of guilt and shame for committing ‘sins’ and not being allowed to whistle as a girl ‘because it makes the Mother Mary cry’) and virtually none of the good things like ‘love thy neighbor’, it was really a little bit confusing. I went to a Catholic parish school where we were lead on like dogs chasing a dog treat to be all overwhelmed with blind excitement for the ‘Big Events’ like making our First Communion. Which raveled out to be nothing more than lining up in the dreary, dusty, guilt inducing church that was playing the most, ritual Armageddon organ music to eat some cardboard ‘Holy bread’ and tell our sins to Father John in a dark sweaty box, to then have his reply in his monotonous voice ‘Three hail Mary’s and an Our Father for your penance’. I was made dress up, as an eight year old in something that can only be described as an overpriced children’s wedding dress and go around from door to door in my housing estate collecting cards and money from the neighbor’s that ‘wished very much’ to congratulate me on my ‘Big day’. In retrospect I really feel bad for the poor neighbors that had to dish out card after card and bill after bill to all the eight year olds in their wedding outfits year after year, and the community goes crazy for this. It would be a shameful act not to give money to the matrimonial looking kids on their communion, a sinister gift from ‘God’ for families under financial pressure, a very forceful ‘love thy neighbour’
There are pictures of me on my communion day in my incandescent, blaring white, wedding dress with a tiara on my head and a sore scowl on my face. I guess looking back that I must have felt kind of cheated. All of the hype and all I got was some money that I had no use for (which my parents took anyway) and being forced to wear a dress which, as a tomboy through and through, I really hated. All the talk of the Holy spirit and the woody, circular, awful to consume ‘Holy bread’ and the supposed ‘becoming one with Christ’ and I really didn’t feel any different, in fact I think I felt much worse than usual on that day.
So time went by and my thoughts of God had developed and I began wondering how it was that I could really start to bring God into my life, as a child I had a lot of pain and a whole lot of problems that I wanted fixing and according to everyone around me God was the person for it. So I started praying a lot, which basically consisted of me lying in my bed at night listing out all of the problems I wanted fixing and talking to myself about various things like family issues (which I had a fat dishing of), the suffering in the world, the things that I was sorry for and the things that I wanted to change in myself. I was a very strange and contemplative young one with a lot of inherited mental illness and anxiety. For example I was anorexic and bulimic which I believe was inherited through genetic neurological patterns passed down by my mother, who had had it passed down from her mother (as a type of cursed neurological Heirloom) who was all of 4 stone when she died. I used to frequently have anxiety attacks which neither I nor my parents understood at the time; I barely slept and started smoking at the age of eight, not too long after my First Communion as it turns out. So I had all of this pain and I searched and searched for the answer, over the years I kept on praying and I’ll admit that it definitely served as a great form of therapy for my frustrated, wayward little self but no real solutions came to me at all.
So in becoming older and more educated about the biological nature of the body I tried exercising a lot, I began eating better because I had heard that being malnutrition (which I definitely was) can cause depression. I went to boarding school and so when I had the free time I’d take up the opportunity to run around the track for a couple of laps, for sure my health improved, my body felt a lot better and I would always feel very happy after exercising like this. But this was only due to the natural release of endorphins into the bloodstream and it was always just a temporary solution. The depression would creep back up and cover up my mind with the darkest most grotesque images, as if my mind was a room of pure blackness and on the walls there were these foul hateful paintings of paranoia, self-loathing, and cruel apathy. I knew that this wasn’t something that exercise alone mends; it was far too deep and far too intense for the solution to be as simple as running around a field for a few minutes to release some happy chemicals into the bloods. The only thing that that achieved was temporarily masking the true state of my mind. It allowed the chemicals to lead the way for a short and sweet time.
So in realizing that my mind was in a state and that no God could help me and that no amount of running around a field could help me, I looked to the science of psychology to seek a greater understanding of what might be happening and what the true nature of my existence was. Of course, these endeavors were a lonely one because my parents didn’t understand the concept of mental health at the time, and if I were to say that I was depressed I would have been made feel an unyielding shame and be accused of ‘being weak’ or something along those lines. My mother was suffering so much from depression at the time too, though she had no idea what it was, she would lie in bed for days and just cry and cry and on her bedside table sat the Holy Bible and various books of prayers.
When looking into the science of the mind I stumbled across various pieces of writing about the subconscious mind, which is an idea that only really got any recognition in the late 1800’s after being popularized by Sigmund Freud. He said that ‘The conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun and falling back into the great subterranean pool of subconscious from which is rises’. He created the ‘Ice berg theory’, which portrayed the conscious mind as just the very tip of an ice berg that pokes itself up above the water, and the subconscious mind (that is far, far larger than the conscious part) was all of the rest of the ice berg that resided below the water’s surface, unseen, unmeasured and extraordinarily underestimated. I found this to be very interesting, it explained why the thoughts that occurred in my head were so unlike the person that I was ‘consciously’ trying to be and why the dreams I had were of things that I had never once in my life thought of in anyway aware.
Consequently at the same time I was looking into all of this I had begun doing some meditation. I can remember very clearly the first time I had made the intention to sit down and do a long meditation. I had played around with it before, finding a book about it at the age of twelve and finding a game in puzzling myself with the concept of emptying my head, and sometimes after having ground shaking panic attacks I went into a natural state of bliss and meditation, I guess the state could also have been described as catatonia and I’m not sure whether or not these are two ways of saying the same state or if there is a significant psychological difference there.
It was a warm, eastern summer evening and I was in Hong Kong for my summer holiday, I was about 15 years old and the smothering humidity was weighing down on me and my head was, as ever, full of blockage and darkness. There was nobody around, I didn’t know exactly where my family had all gone and I didn’t have a phone so I couldn’t contact anybody. I found myself at a loss for things to do and I started aimlessly meandering around until I found myself on the roof of an old village house. It seemed stable enough and it didn’t seem like I would be bothering anybody, there was a big majestic stone wall tree that for some reason caught my eye for a very long time. After about ten minutes of pure observation on this beautiful, old, wise tree, I realized that I hadn’t been thinking any thoughts the whole time that I was looking at it. I was beginning to feel very light and quite fantastically peculiar. Out of all of the times that I had tried meditating before it had never been so easy and natural. It had always felt as though I were forcing thoughts out of my head with ferocious effort but just then I felt as though it were the other way around, that gravity was in fact, pulling me toward an empty head and that there simply were no thoughts to think. So I decided to sit it out and see how far this would go, I made the intention that all I was going to focus on was this tree and nothing else. I decided I would sit indefinitely until there was a definite sign for me to stop.
Just tree, tree, tree, no mind, just tree, no thoughts, emptiness and tree only. And that was it at first, until everything began to merge into one and the concept of the tree being separate from the things around it, being separate from me, started to dissipate slowly and smoothly enough that I barely noticed it happening. I could hear some distant flute music playing in the background and as it played away I went on looking at the tree. There was no separation between the sound of the flute and the sight of the tree, as though the flute were somehow singing through the shape and form of the tree and the tree was existing through the melodic sweet sounds of woodwind. My perception was warping in a way that it never had before and every so often after being tangled up in tree and zoning in to it so deeply I would noticed that I hadn’t breathed in some time. Then I would take a few conscious breaths and started again. It didn’t feel as though I had to put in any effort whatsoever to be taken away on this strange, perception warping, abstract journey into the dissipation of my own thoughts. It had been as easy as being awake.
The cells that made up my body felt as though they were losing all of their weight and were merging into the particles in the air around me, there were no thoughts in my head and therefor none of the usual weight that came with being sober. As the majestic tree stood still and wise in the street lamp glow, all became neutral, mellowed and slow.
I sat like that for hour upon hour, it must have been four or five hours later when the thought occurred to me that it must be past midnight and that people might be wondering where I was. So I took a few deep breaths to wake myself up out of the trance, regain awareness of my body, time and space and gave myself a few moments to say goodbye to the tree. Then I made my way back to the house, sedated, soft eyed and feeling more peace than I ever had before then. It was not that I felt the that the tree had any special character or powerful energy particularly, just that it had aesthetically caught my eye and been the object of my single pointed concentration, it was not the tree itself, but the focus that it had induced that had lead me into this trance. Nevertheless, I feel a grand attachment to that beautiful stone wall tree in the old village, even to this day I think of it in fond terms. Unlike the endorphins being released from exercising being a temporary, biological solution to my suffering, I really felt as though an abstract type of weight had been lifted from my proverbial shoulders. And not only that, but I had found a way to escape thought, a place inside myself that existed in pure peace, silence and neutrality. It was no drug that brought me to euphoria, no God that led me to the gates of heaven, but me and my mind and my meditation.
So after that I made a strong deliberation to myself that I would practice meditation regularly and get to know the mechanics of my own mind through means of focus and observation. And so I did, and when I got back to school in September one of the teachers had begun conducting yoga classes which I attended as often as they were on. The yoga and the meditation went extremely well together and soon my practice became my whole life. Every single night before sleeping I would do my one hour routine of exercises which was always followed by meditation and usually I would meditate then, until I fell asleep.
And from this, something profound really began to take place, My depression and anxiety had lifted almost completely, every day I would wake feeling even better than the day before, my concentration improved, my critical thinking improved, I began mentally maturing at a much faster rate and I felt as though I was really beginning to understand the world on much better and much deeper terms than before. My mind which had once been a prison had begun to undergo an abstract construction, transforming itself into a beautiful playground. No God or chemical in sight.
Here’s the strange thing, although my overall health and mental health was undergoing a true positive metamorphosis, my sleep had become extremely disrupted. I kept in the habit of meditating myself to sleep and I started to get the most vivid, potent, horrifying and truly intriguing night terrors. I would often wake to the sight of a very tall man standing somewhere in the room and be rendered completely paralyzed and petrified inside my immobile body. I also used to drift into lucid dreams which turned very, very dark more often than not. Some of the images and story lines that would go on in my head were really something that I couldn’t even imagine Stephen King writing about. I would wake to the touch of a freezing cold finger slowly making its way down my face and be petrified in my bed, hearing whispers and voices at all angles. I developed a little bit of insomnia though it never went passed me just being a little bit tired during the day, I was still on the novelty high of my general mood being lifted so much so I didn’t really min, nor did I pay much heed to it until it got about a year in. I started worrying a little bit and had developed a fear of sleeping. I really didn’t understand what was going on with the whole thing whatsoever and I had made friends with a guy called Ben. Ben was a very friendly Christian singer song writer. Not that you would know to look at him but after you got to know him you realized that he had very deep moral values. He suggested that I might be being haunted by dark spirits and suggested that I should pray. The thought had in fact occurred to me due to the haunting nature of the terrors but hearing somebody else say that only proved to increase my fear levels 100%.
Meanwhile my yoga and meditation practice got deeper and deeper and I began reading a lot about the theory behind meditation from all yogic, Hindu and Buddhist sources. Even in the early days, the effects that my practice was beginning to have on me was so profound, my body was opening up and releasing mounds of the psychosomatic tensions I had built up over the years and it was like the world had suddenly come to life. Colors seemed brighter than before, scents were more fragrant, people seemed more real and to have more depth. The entire landscape of life had turned from barren grey to including all shades in the entire spectrum of light and color. I was undoubtedly healing. I went to India then to learn yoga in an ashram which consisted of waking before the sun rose and practicing yoga and meditation until after the sun was down. The course went on for thirty something days. I remember asking one of my teachers about the strange dreams and hallucinations that happened as I meditated and slept. He was a man who dedicated his whole life to deep meditation and rigorous Iyengar practice and seemed to have a great deal of knowledge in him. He told me that the hallucinations were manifestations of my subconscious mind and they represented some deep routed complexes. He said that it was very normal to happen to people who begin to clean out there brain through persistent meditation and that I should be happy that they are all coming to the surface.
He said that in Buddhism these complexes are called Sankharas and he proceeded to tell me about Vipassana meditation. Vipassana meditation is a technique of meditation that originates from Buddhism, it is the technique that Guatoma Buddha practiced when he became enlightened under the Boddhi Tree I ——. He told me that there are centres all over the world who teach the Vipassana, that the Vipassana organization holds free courses where you go for ten days and live in complete noble silence, without phones, books, music or any other sensual stimulation. Over the ten days they teach you the technique properly, from start to finish and you spends long hours every day practicing.
Well, I knew that I had to try it. It was so far, the only explanation that made any sense and Buddhist and Vedic schools of thought were beginning to look a lot more attractive to me. The absolute depth of knowledge that they have regarding the subconscious mind, regardless of how ancient their knowledge is, it has far more in depth analyzations of the subconscious mind than we do in the modern day. It is a relatively new concept for us, one that we know very little about, and one that is such a huge part of our existence as we know it. One thing that enlightened me to the connection between science and ancient eastern knowledge was a metaphor that they used for the subconscious mind in the yoga sutras of Patanjali. They described thoughts as waves on the surface of the mind, which is as vast as the ocean, similar to Freud’s iceberg theory and consequently both illustrated by water in both scenarios.
So I bit the bullet and bopped a long then to go and do one of these Vipasana’s that even more people who I had met since were raving about. The first thing I found was that it was very, very difficult. Sitting in silence with nothing to do whatsoever, concentrating on respiration and trying to veer away from the habits of your natural stream of thought, controlling your mind at virtually every second of every day really revealed to me how unsettled and anxious I still was, how small my attention span was and how there was an innate restlessness that kind coated over my nature. The technique is simple in theory, you practice concentrating your mind by watching your breath for three days to improve your muscle of awareness, then you begin to observe the sensations that are happening all over your body, then you try your best not to move when a your seated stature becomes uncomfortable and painful. You begin to train you mind to cope with sensations that are physically (and therefor also mentally) undesirable. No rites, no rituals. You begin to see that all negativity stems from the relationship between mind and body. You begin to see how the technique is scientific, following a predetermined strategy and getting the same outcome. If you consider that a scientific theory is so because it has been thoroughly experimented and tested and follows a course to produce a unanimous result, then the Vipassana technique is surely scientific, meaning that the results will be the same for everyone. You meditate and train your mind, deep routed sankharas surface, your mind begins to clean and you feel happier and healthier as the conclusive result.
For me this has been the most perfect interaction between that of religious tradition and also scientific method. Although it has it’s Buddhist routes, I believe it is more of a science as it follows a specific method and practice.