Thursday 14 August 2014

Silent Insight and Subtle Sensations

As both a person with Asperger's Syndrome and one who practices mindfulness techniques, though I find myself operating outside my comfort zone on a regular basis when trying to make sense of the social world or when taking up different postures in mindfulness-related exercises, at the same time I feel that both my Asperger traits and mindfulness practice can create a comfort zone 'within'. To help notice what I felt was creating a comfort zone within me, I undertook a ten-day Vipassana retreat at the Dhama Dipa Centre in Herefordshire.

Dormitories, Dhama Dipa
In the Pali language spoken in ancient India, Vipassana means insight into the true nature of reality, put simply how it is, including ever changing. Based on the methods of SN Goenka (1924-2013), a Vipassana retreat is taken in noble silence and no non-verbal communication such as facial gesture/expression or eye contact is permitted either. The purpose of noble silence is to free one of distractions, enabling one to gain insight into and to help purify the mind, being able to experience who you are as you are. Most of the time, our mirror neurons, the parts of our brain which according to neuro-scientists observe the actions of others for us to replicate are focusing on what is happening around us, so we miss much of occurs within us, including in the mind and body. In the absence of communication, except for logistical questions and interviews with the teacher, our mirror neurons that are normally focused on how others are communicating, are turned towards us are turned towards us.

In relation to the confusion that I experience with non-verbal communication, I found this arrangement conducive to my experience of the retreat, as I felt it freed me from such confusion which can sometimes lead to anxiety, and thus a distraction. What is also just as confusing for me and for many other people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome is the effect that our own body language is having on others around us when we are often least aware. Where this becomes a source of anxiety is that one can't often be sure of how others feel about them, and can be a bit of a shock is something thinks that we are 'not paying attention' through lack of eye contact or are being intrusive through prolonged eye contact.

Initially, I had set out to do this retreat to make a fresh start with meditation practice. Though I have practised meditation for almost ten years, and though one of the purposes of meditation and mindfulness practice is to come out of your comfort zone, what I had been finding of late was that the approach to routine that I had built up around my personal practice was having the reverse effect of creating a comfort zone, as well as building up anxiety over not having practised yet or should I or should I not meditate today. Courtesy of these effects I had been experiencing, I felt that a 10-day Vipassana retreat with continual practice sessions and experience of meditation not necessary would enable me to start from a beginners approach and would give me the continuity to grow into the practice, allowing any effects, including physical sensations, to unfold as they naturally occurred.

Meditation Hall, Dhama Dipa
After focusing on an area around the upper lip and the tip of the nose for the first four days, participants on Vipassana retreat are the instructed to expand awareness throughout the body starting with the top of the head. While noticing sensations at the physical level, participants are also instructed to use the breath as an anchor of awareness on which to refocus awareness each time the mind wanders. When gradually expanding awareness throughout the body after the first four days, I began to notice so many more physical sensations, including many very subtle ones that I rarely notice normally. From this, I gained an appreciation of how though the body takes up a limited physical space, there is so much various in the elements that it is made up of, including the four elements traditionally associated with Buddhism; Earth, Water, Fire and Air. Such variation in the texture of these elements allow for a huge degree of variation in sensations experienced at the physical level to arise and pass. Down to the atomic level, with there being no real such solidity, including within the body, sensations are passing through us all the time, but we can rarely notice them when our attention is directed to what goes on outside of us in normal life. Sensations that I felt I noticed particularly that are present in normal life but I am oblivious to include the sensation of blood flow and vibrations from the beating heart.

Walking area at sunrise, Dhama Dipa
Noticing physical sensations on a deeper level I also felt gave me insight into the type of attention that I have a tendency to give certain sensations and what I felt was creating a 'comfort zone' within my practice - avoidance. Whereas normally I have a tendency to avoid or resist sensations I find irritating or situations where I may likely experience such physical sensations, during the retreat I found that opening to different sensations during the three sittings of determination where participants are encouraged to to make any major changes to their posture for an hour allowed me to observe them, however awkward they felt. I felt I learned from this aspect of the retreat that avoidance can create comfort zones which can shield us from how we truly are, which can in turn lead to anxiety when one has to step outside this.

With awareness developed from continual patience and practice, one can eventually exert more control over the mind, enabling a person with Asperger's Syndrome to make their Asperger characteristics work for them rather than being controlled by them, including helping to notice and change the type of attention that they give to different bodily sensations, thoughts and avoidance tendencies.