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Mind Surgery: Changing the Habit of a Lifetime

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We have been dubbed "Generation Me": the entitled generation, the indulged generation, and perhaps worst of all, the wasted generation.

Our predecessors handed out these terms as though they had no role to play in our development, or rather our demise. We were conditioned to lust for material wealth without warning that the consequence would be spiritual poverty. We consumed all that we were fed, and now we continue to consume all that we create, living in a constant state of insatiable craving with the implicit belief that our consumption will fill our emptiness. Our search for "love," "happiness" and "satisfaction" in the things outside of ourselves renders these human jewels perpetual cultural myths. Our mental health systems pathologise and treat the individual when the sickness more worryingly resides in the collective psyche.

Intellectually, I know my own miseries only too well. I hold incredibly high expectations of the people around me, and even higher ones of myself, that I am in a incessant state of "not good enough". This perfectionism (at times a virtue, and so it rages on...) means that I am always living in the "what could be" not "what is." Desperate to overcome this feeling, I become more and more controlling of my environment and other people, convinced that I have the power to make my life perfect.

Antithetical to the namesake of our generation, Buddhism calls for surrender, egolessness and hard work as a means to transcend suffering. The psychological mechanisms of craving and aversion are regarded as the root of all misery. In a world where all everything is transient, holding onto pleasant experiences and attempting to avoid bad ones is fundamentally both futile and devastating to our quest for happiness. In order to be happy then, we must "accept reality as it is, not as we want it to be". A rational conclusion; but to rewire the brain to experientially grasp this truth is nothing short of mind surgery.

Last week I completed a ten day course in Vipassana meditation, regarded by many as the method Buddha himself used to attain enlightenment. On arrival at the Dhamma-Dipa centre in Herefordshire students leave all reading, writing, entertainment and communication items at the door and enter only with their clothes, bedding and wash bag. They vow total silence for the duration of the course (bar essential questions to managers and the teacher) and commit to a 4am start, a program of more than 100 hours of meditation and a diet of two vegetarian meals a day that end at noon.

In truth I was both excited by this prospect but also very nervous. In my daily life I rarely have a moment to myself, and when I do, as though on autopilot, I immediately pick up my phone to browse Gmail, Facebook, BBC News, Rdio, Wikipedia, Google, Yelp, TED... So prominent in my daily existence, this interface even appeared to me as a lucid dream a meditation sitting on day two. So yes, the rules appear strict, but without the eradication of all of these distractions, we wouldn't give our minds a chance to calm down.

We begun using a meditation method called Anapana which helps you to sharpen your faculty of attention by focusing on your breath and the sensations below the nostrils and above the upper lip. These first days were difficult and did not resemble the "bliss" one associates with meditation. My mind was wild with thoughts that repeatedly tempted my attention away from my breath to entertain, distract and distress me. However, slowly the thoughts became less frequent and I learned to direct my attention back to my breath more quickly.

After three days of Anapana we were told we were ready to sit Vipassana. Vipassana meditation is a two pronged technique: (1) you move your attention across every inch of your body, slowly training it until sensations are felt all over; (2) you remain equanimous towards the sensations without attaching to the pleasant feelings or reacting against the painful ones. The perpetual emergence and disappearance of these felt bodily sensations is a metaphor for the Buddhist Law of Impermanence ("Anicha"). An equanimous response towards these transient sensations is the practice of transcending craving and aversion at the deepest, so called "unconscious" level.

Sitting for eleven hours a day practicing Vipassana was painful. My back hurt. My legs were in agony. My buttocks went numb. My mind was filled with aversion, distraction and frustration. I willed for the sessions to be over. I underestimated the time remaining. I couldn't imagine how I'd get through the hour, let alone the next five days. But slowly, slowly, I persisted and my attention increased and sharpened so that eventually I became totally subsumed in the present moment and I surrendered to "reality as it was, not as I wanted it to be". And the pain... It evaporated. Having taken baby steps to train my mind, I found that my senses became elevated and my environment radiated with beauty. I found myself in a state of peace and I felt compassion towards the people around me and a gentleness towards myself I've always lacked.

I believe I learned more about the nature of the mind and the art of living in these ten days than three years studying psychology and philosophy at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. How funny, I thought, that the most renowned Western philosophers contemplate consciousness by dreaming up alternate possible worlds sitting in their armchairs while their counterparts in India experience the actual world sitting cross legged on the ground.

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