I mentioned in an earlier blog post about my experience with Vipassana meditation. For details on this particular technique, you can visit the primary Vipassana website. When you first experience Vipassana, you do so by attending a 10-day training which in reality is more like 11 ½ days. To achieve the full benefits of the system, you surrender your cell phones and bring no reading or writing materials. It’s just you and your own mind for the duration of the course.
In the evening of the first day, you enter what is called “noble silence.” For the next nine full days you are living and meditating with many other people, but you are not speaking or communicating in any way – no speech, no eye contact, no physical contact. It definitely seems quite odd at first, this concept of being physically present with others but diligently avoiding any kind of contact. Strangely, after a day or so (at least for me) it began to feel normal. When you finally break silence towards the end of the training, it can be a strangely awkward experience to begin actually speaking and making eye contact with other people.
I have attended three of these 10-day trainings over the past few years and can truthfully say that it is one of the most difficult yet rewarding things I have ever experienced. Why else would I go back again and again?
One pattern that played out consistently each time I attended was the way my mind tried to sabotage me. Each training, it took about three days for the random mental chatter to quiet down. At that point, even though the system trains you to focus on very specific physical sensations in your body, the mind certainly never becomes entirely inactive. I found something quite fascinating about my own mental processes. When my mind wanders, it almost never wanders into the past. I rarely beat myself up over the past, nor do I wallow in guilt or regret.
Oh, I often think back on things but rarely do I allow that to become painful rumination. No, my default avoidance system is to project into the future – into the world of “what if.”
It’s not uncommon for most of us to spend time fantasizing about potential conversations or interactions, or dreaming of things we might like. It’s equally common for everyone to have moments of projecting into negative futures, imagining worst case scenarios.
This current situation – the enforced isolation and lack of human interaction – creates moments for me that make me feel very much like some of my experiences with Vipassana meditation. I have large tracts of time to just sit and focus. Sometimes I do have the mental strength to practice actual meditation. Most of the time, however, my moments of silence lead me into flights of fantasy – sometimes quite nice.
Sometimes, though, I get sucked into the vortex of “what if – worst case scenario.” I have been assiduously avoiding this, but every once in a while I just have to give up and let my brain go there.
Today, I had the first edges of finally facing some potential “what if” scenarios. I haven’t yet allowed myself to get into any emotional funk or become negative or fearful – that is likely going to happen soon. Today, my projections into the future have been almost entirely intellectual and focused not on anything personal, but on my professional life.
If you don’t know what I do for a living, I am the director of the performing arts center at a college. My primary job is to book professional performances and to create a multi-disciplinary season that also includes educational outreach and all sorts of activities surrounding the visit of artists to the campus.
The performing arts field took an immediate and abrupt halt a few weeks ago. Theaters closed, artists were out of work, and agents/managers were faced with months worth of cancellations. I watched my entire industry implode in a matter of days. The shock took a while to process, then like any grieving process there were other emotions and issues. Finally, at least for me, has come the assessment stage of “Where do we go from here?”
So in my isolation today, for the first time, I had to sit down and begin to logically begin to map out different scenarios for running a theater that involves people coming to a show, standing in lines, buying concessions, sitting in a room with hundreds of other people, mingling in a lobby, etc.
The “what ifs” were depressing. I don’t want to dive into negativity, and perhaps the worst-case scenarios that ran around in my brain are never going to happen. But for today, I can only say that my sparkling isolation today has been fraught with fear and anxiety – not the least of which is wondering if the college will decide that the arts are just no longer important and I will be out of a job at a time when there are going to be no other jobs in my industry.
It’s days like this when I’m glad I have a well-stocked wine cellar and an impressive liquor cabinet.
Hopefully a good night’s sleep will help bring some equanimity.
But, what if?
It’s only Quarantine if it comes from the Quarante province of France. Otherwise, it’s just Sparkling Isolation.