Many years ago, after several years of experiencing a long chronic illness, I attended a six-week Vipassana meditation retreat. Given my struggles with sickness, I looked forward to this time entirely dedicated to sitting and walking meditation.
I was out of my body and into my mind: “Whoa … I still really feel sick.” The first few days went smoothly. Yet, towards the end of the week, I started having stomach aches and felt so exhausted I could barely motivate myself to walk to the meditation hall. At this point it was a matter of making peace with discomfort. “Okay,” I figured a bit grudgingly, “I’m here to work with … unpleasant sensations.”
For the next twenty-four hours I noted the heat and cramping in my stomach, the leaden feeling in my limbs, and tried with some success to experience them with an accepting attention. But in the days that followed, when the symptoms didn’t go away, I found myself caught in habitual stories and sinking into a funk of fear, shame and depression. “Something’s wrong with me … with the way I’m living my life. I’ll never get better.” And under that, the deep fear: “I’ll never be happy.” The familiar trance threatened to take over, and I took that as a signal to deepen my attention.
On a clear and brisk afternoon at the beginning of the second week of retreat, I took off into the woods and walked until I found a patch of sun. Wrapping myself in a warm blanket, I sat down and propped myself against a tree. The ground, covered with leaves, offered a firm, gentle cushion. I suddenly felt at home in the simplicity of earth, trees, wind, sky, and was resolved to attend to my own nature—to the changing stream of sensations living through my body.
After taking some moments to release any obvious tension, I did a quick body scan, and noticed aches and soreness, a sinking feeling of tiredness. In an instant again I watched my mind contract with the idea that something really was wrong.
Taking a deep breath, I let go of these thoughts about sickness and just experienced the sheer grip of fear, which felt like thick hard braids of rope, tightening around my throat and chest. I decided that no matter what experience arose, I was going to meet it with the attitude of “this too.” I was going to accept everything.
As the minutes passed, I found I was feeling sensations without wishing them away. I was simply feeling the weight pressing on my throat and chest, feeling the tight ache in my stomach. The discomfort didn’t disappear, but something gradually began to shift. My mind no longer felt tight or dull but clearer, focused and absolutely open. As my attention deepened, I began to perceive the sensations throughout my body as moving energy—tingling, pulsing, vibrations. Pleasant or not, it was all the same energy playing through me.
As I noticed feelings and thoughts appear and disappear, it became increasingly clear that they were just coming and going on their own. Sensations were appearing out of nowhere and vanishing back into the void. There was no sense of a self owning them: no “me” feeling the vibrating, pulsing, tingling; no “me” being oppressed by unpleasant sensations; no “me” generating thoughts or trying to meditate. Life was just happening, a magical display of appearances.
As every passing experience was accepted with the openness of “this too,” any sense of boundary or solidity in my body and mind dissolved. Like the weather, sensations, emotions and thoughts were just moving through the open, empty sky of awareness.
When I opened my eyes I was stunned by the beauty of the New England fall, the trees rising tall out of the earth, yellows and reds set against a bright blue sky. The colors felt like a vibrant sensational part of the life playing through my body. The sound of the wind appeared and vanished, leaves fluttered towards the ground, a bird took flight from a nearby branch. The whole world was moving—like the life within me, nothing was fixed, solid, confined. I knew without a doubt that I was part of the world.
When I next felt a cramping in my stomach, I could recognize it as simply another part of the natural world. As I continued paying attention I could feel the arising and passing aches and pressures inside me as no different from the firmness of earth, the falling leaves. There was just pain … and it was the earth’s pain.
Each moment we wakefully “let be,” we are home. When we meet life through our bodies with Radical Acceptance, we are the Buddha—the awakened one—beholding the changing steam of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Everything is alive, the whole world lives inside us. As we let life live through us, we experience the boundless openness of our true nature.