It has taken all of this time for us to start this blog.
For a very long time, for years actually, I thought a lot on what I would like this blog space to be about. I did not want it to be like the typical corporate brand blog. Nothing against corporations, it is just not what Tiossan nor I are about.
Then I thought about using it to share events with you, but it did not feel right. Besides, our Facebook page and newsletter would be better for that.
In the end, what I really want for this space is to go in depth about Wellbeing and the Art of Living Well, the soul of the Tiossan Culture. I wanted this to become the place where we share and explore the Tiosssan Culture, one in which accomplishing Good Skin is as important as Feeling Good in your own skin. But how to do that? For quite some time, many people suggested I write about my journey crafting and living in this Culture.
For the longest time, I refused to do so. But slowly, I grew convinced that it is the right, simple thing to do. Just write away about my experiences, fun, not so fun, when I gain wisdom, when I doubt, when I laugh, when I cry… After all, at Tiossan we believe that Beauty is about Health & Wellness, first and foremost, which is as much about Good Skin as it is about Feeling Good in your own skin. Furthermore, it is my deepest belief that in order to feel good in one's own skin, one has to accept and cultivate one’s originality, embrace it all, the good, the bad and the ugly, and lovingly work from there to walk the path from Darkness to Brightness. This is a big teaching from the wise Sufis of Senegal.
So today, I start. I write the first post for this blog. And there was no better moment to start it than now. Because something happened recently you see. What did?!? Well, I just returned from a 10 day silent meditation Vipassana retreat. From May 27th to June 7th, I was away somewhere in a rural part of the Dallas area, at a place even GPS cannot locate.
When we arrived and after registration, I posted a Facebook status letting my friends know I was in and to wish me luck. Then, I called my husband to tell him I loved him one last time and say goodbye, then I turned my phone off and surrendered it away to the management staff. I saw others turning in their laptops, tablets, books and anything that could keep them connected to the outside world.
I remembered feeling super sad. Sad that it had come to this, I mean having to turn your phone away. Really? Right there, I remember “witnessing” our misery, the human misery, mine included. This was the executive course, which means people who ran businesses/teams and such, whatever that means. I just suddenly felt very sad when I suddenly realized how we had all become the puppets of “business”, as in “busy-ness”. And all the sudden it went through my mind that although we all thought we had so much to do and so much would not go round without us, that if we happen to die tomorrow, we would all be replaced in no time at our jobs. Because life must go on. So then why? Why do this to ourselves? I remember all of us looking at each other. For some reason there were something like 27 men for 8 women. I found it strange because, for some reason because, I expected it to be the other way around. Some thought that perhaps it was because it was the “executive” course. I did not even want to think about the reasons of that thinking.
In any case, we were all looking at each other, not knowing what to expect, especially us, the new students. But what struck me was the hope I could see in everyone’s eyes. I saw the reflection of mine in theirs. That made me very happy because hope is a magical feeling. At that exact moment, I also clearly felt my ego deflating. It was wonderful.
After registration, we went to the dining hall, the men in one building, and us women in another building. It felt as if I was back in high school, at the dining hall. At that time, we were still allowed contact with one another. So quickly we started asking each other all types of questions. But I could not hear a thing. It was only a few of us around the table at the time, maybe 4-5 of us. I could not hear them because I was overwhelmed with fear and anxiety about what was to come. I do remember speaking quite a bit in answer to some questions I was asked, discussing Rwanda, it's President Paul Kagame, regulations, the Doing Business Index ranking of the World Bank and the future of Africa (I now have the proof I can do this in my sleep 😍). But my mind was not there. My mind was with M (those of you new to my writing will now know that I always refer to my husband, Michael, as “M” or my “Beloved” 😍), and I was scared of what the next 10 days would be about. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, except the fact men and women would be separated, some kind of "Noble" silence meaning no contact of any kind with my fellow students (visual, verbal, physical, written, etc…) and meditation. Lots of meditation. And waking up super early, at 4AM each morning. Ouch! I started regretting having come. What is this? But at the same time I made it all the way there; it seemed intriguing, and everyone I know who has ever done it, including M (who has done it before) swears by it, saying it transformed their lives.
Shortly after dinner, we went to settle in our rooms and then convened in the Dhamma Hall, the meditation hall, for our first group meditation session. This is a beautiful, big room, void of any adornment or clutter. There was a stage/altar in the front and a carpeted floor facing it, with assigned little cushions on the floor, one for each of us, the men on the left, and the ladies on the right. Women and men each have their entrance side. The whole thing felt very solemn and noble to me. By that time, the Noble silence rule had gotten into effect. I went to the meditation cushion I was assigned to. It took me forever to find a comfortable sitting position. After a while, the teachers arrived, one man and one woman, each from their own entrance. The man sat facing the men, and the woman facing us, the ladies. They got themselves into meditation pose with crossed legs. They both looked beautiful in a way only Dignity and Serenity provides. At that moment an enormous sense of Peace and Hope came upon me. I saw the man hit a button on the digital system to his right, and then a Voice rose from nowhere it seemed. The Voice of Oz, it seemed. It was the Voice of an Elder man with a thick Indian accent. It sounded full of wisdom and comfort. The Voice us instructed to close our eyes and proceed to start observing the breath, and just focus on that tiny area between the entrance of the nostrils and the line above the upper lip. All we had to do was sit there quietly and observe our natural breath as it came in and out. We did that for an hour. Then a few minutes of rest to go stretch our feet with a little walk or anything that we pleased.
Then we went back for the evening’s discourse. This is when we came back to the Dhamma Hall, sat in, and watched a video of the Voice, which happens to have been Goenka Chi's, the man who reintroduced this meditation technique to India and the rest of the world. It made me so happy to discover his face. It had the energy of a beloved grandpa, full of love, compassion, goodwill and wisdom. This moment definitely became the best part of each day for me, and one of the moments that motivated me the most. Thank you, Goenka Chi.
During discourse, Goenka Chi proceeded to welcome us and explained what this is was about and how this non-sectarian technique is truly about the health of the mind. We all know what to do to have a healthy body, but the same is definitely not true when it comes to the mind. Despite our enormous medical and technological advancements, the depths of the mind and how it works remain a huge mystery. Something so abstract, most of us would not even dare to think possible you can do something about it. In general, I have been frustrated that most mind-related healing practices work mainly at the surface level, usually by merely suppressing our feelings and problems. To me, most of the existing methods are about cover-up. Just like you put make-up on to cover up the look of bad skin, at the mind level, that is what most of us do under the guidance of often so-called gurus. So when Goenka Chi expressed in such eloquent ways my feelings (and frankly the reasons why I never gave much patience to mind-healing practice of any kind), he got my attention.
I absolutely loved and respected the fact that Goenka Chi was talking about how something as universal as human misery needed a universal solution, indiscriminate of race, color, religion or anything like that. I liked that and the non-sectarian aspect of the technique. I also like that this technique relies on the experiential knowledge. I have grown to be very suspicious of anything relying on my blind faith or even just even having to accept something because it makes sense at the intellectual level. I am very much about "I have to experience it to make it my truth". And this technique is all about that. Actually, strictly about that. I liked how Goenka Chi did not convey any sense of “Do this or else.” I had heard that this Vipassana course was very clean that way. But still, I had my guards up in case someone was going to try to push any kind of dogma through my mind. Instead, I experienced nothing but “see for yourself and decide what is right for you at this moment of your life.”
And I agreed with Goenka Chi that “nothing can hurt us more than our wild mind” and "nothing can help us more than our trained mind.” That being said, I was still wondering what the whole thing had to do with observing the breath, and how that simple exercise would help me get a wild beast like this mind of mine under control. How exactly does one retrain and tame such a mind? But hearing him talk, the manner in which he talked and the content of his words, all of that made me overcome my fears, worries and missing M. So I went to bed that night still confused about the how, but with enough faith to wait it out.
We spent Day 1 observing our breath, the incoming one and the outgoing one. By the end of the day, I was starting to feel really bored and not sure where this was going to lead at all. But I figured it was just Day 1, and to be patient.
That mindset did not last long, and the next day, Day 2, was actually hell for me. I was seriously figuring out an escape plan. It was hell, because by that time, I was getting tired of observing my natural breath, no talk. Every minute seemed like an hour. I spend my life chasing after time. This was such a weird change, one I did not know what to do with. Never have I felt so powerless, bored and lonely. We had a very limited designated area to walk (0.2 mi); the food was delicious, but not being able to partake in it with others made it so ceremonious. In any case, when you can’t read, write or do anything related to the outside world or even make eye contact with your neighbor in the room across the hall, things can turn quite gloomy. And I was missing M, terribly. My life is punctuated by my interactions with him. And not having that was the hardest part of this all. On top of that I was thinking about all the projects I had going, my business, and all the things I needed to do and could not get to for 10 days. So by the afternoon of Day 2, I was done and lost it. I did not care that we added a slight variation to the practicing: now we were observing which nostril (or both) the air was coming in, and which one (or both) it was coming out from. I started looking for a noble reason to escape. But I could not find any. In addition, my ego kept me in the game. I am not a quitter. People have gone through this and successfully it seems. And so will I. Grandma always told me anything other humans can do, I too can, and even better. So no way, I would not be the one quitting. Nope! I am going to stick it out. Those were the thoughts that made me stay. I knew staying out of ego was probably not the right thing. But I could care less. At this point, whatever it took would do. And it did. Initially.
And I say initially, because at first it was the ego that allowed me to stay, but I was so miserable and bored that eventually I “gave” into the practice. It came to the point where going and meditating in the Dhamma Hall was the most exciting moment of the Day besides listening to S.N Goenka during the evening discourse. And that is when the magic happened. As I started to take it seriously, I started to respect the Practice for itself.
On Day 3, we were still strictly observing our natural breath, this time observing where the air touched the body while entering and where it touched the body while coming still, still through that very limited area between the entrance of the nostrils and the above the upper lip. I continued to not understand where we were going with all of this, except I could understand how this could calm one’s mind at the very least, by training it to concentrate. And God knows I need a quiet and concentrated mind. I will take it for now. And also the jokes told by S.N. Goenka during the evening discourses made me laugh in a heartfelt manner every evening. Later, on the morning of the 10th day, after we were allowed to now speak to one another, the other women told me that my laughs during those sessions made them quite happy and definitely brightened their horizons. I have always been told that my laugh is contagious. I think it is because my laugh comes from my heart, not just from my belly 😍.
In any case, on the evening of Day 3, Goenka Chi, like he always did then, told us what we would be practicing next. That is when he told us that we were now going to practice Vipassana, after having practiced Anapana this whole time. He explained we were now ready to move onto observing our sankharas (sensations) because we had now trained our mind to be concentrated enough to observe them.
And WOW!!!! What a world of sensations goes inside these bodies of ours! Basically it goes as follows: there are 4 kinds of minds. Signals enters our inside from 6 senses: touch, smell, sound, vision, taste and thought. THOUGHT!!!! We rarely think of that one. I don’t know for you, but it is not one I usually remember to account for.
Anyways, when a signal come in, the first mind perceives it, then the next one recognizes what it is exactly, the next one evaluates whether “I like” or “I don’t like it” or "I don't care." Then the last mind, the one we call "unconscious" mind in the West decides how to react to it. Those reactions are exactly what we observe during the Practice. In the Dhamma Hall, it is a very controlled environment so most of the signals are canceled for the time being except for the thought-related ones. So the job is with a very clear, attentive mind to scan each part of the body from head to toe and toe to head and simply observe the sankharas. In doing so, one quickly realizes how whether pleasant or unpleasant, subtle or not, they all have this in common -they eventually all pass. And THAT is the secret of the technique. Not only knowing this at the intellectual level, but being able to feel it at the experiential level. This was the revelation for me. I went through all kinds of crazy twists of the body and emotions. I remember my left leg “jumping” a few inches off the ground under a very strong, very piercing sensation, sending a strong vibration all the way to the back of my neck. Other times it felt as if a colony of ants was traveling under the skin of my forehead, as if going down a set of stairs. Other times the rims of my nostrils would become super itchy. Often the lower part of my legs would have this super pleasant sensation of what I can describe as what electrical star dust would feel like. Countless sensations were going through my whole body, all the time. And regardless of their nature, my job was to observe them in perfect equanimity, that is with a sense of “let it be”, and not wishing they stay or go away, no matter how tempting, depending how pleasant or unpleasant they were. The job of the mind was to observe them with the mindset of “Interesting. Let me see how long this one lasts.” And not develop any craving or aversion to any of them. Because that is the problem: we live our whole lives creating cravings and aversions, the exact root of all our miseries. So here, and while you observe all these sankharas coming up to the surface and invariably dying off at one moment of another, one starts to experience at the experiential level one of the truest Truth of Nature: Changing and Impermanence. Everything is in perpetual change. Good and Bad. And if that is so, then why create attachment to them? That very attachment to invariably changing things is exactly the source of human suffering. I have known this for quite some time. Both my spiritual Sufi guide and M (my other Guide) keep telling me this. I can understand it at an intellectual level, but I often forget about it, and most importantly, I never felt it so viscerally inside of me. Of course, most of us are able to see the physical changes on ourselves, usually after days or months, but how often does one get to go inside of themselves and introspect and at the granular level of such a moment-to-moment experience??
It was amazing!!! It got to the point I actually could not wait to go sit and look inward.
And I will not never forget how on the afternoon of Day 7, I just sat there, weeping during one of the mediation sessions. That day, I was able to travel all the way back to my infant days, and started “watching” the ways in which my mind had trained to react. All of the sudden it hit me. Actually I saw it: it was between me and me. I was seeing how I had mistreated myself all those years. Full of ignorance, it seems like what I have done over the years was pile on the misery, not knowing that reaction breeds more misery, which breeds more misery and so on and so forth. And here I am now, an adult with multiplied seeds of misery all over the place.
No wonder my chest has become so heavy over the years… So the adult I am sat there, watching what she had done to that infant child. And all the gates to my heart broke open. I just sat there full of sadness, yet compassion for what I had put myself through. It all became so clear. At that precise moment, I felt a Universe-size sense of compassion for the rest of Humanity, knowing too well that this is our common ploy. Then the visions went to M and how much "radio-activity" I have been exposing him to. Because as S.N Goenka says, we are very good at spreading our misery. Negativity is radioactive. And I wept some more. And as if it was possible, my heart filled up with even more love and compassion for M. That is when I made the decision, at that depth of my mind, that I believed in this technique and committed to mastering it so that I could become the Masteress of my own mind. It is my deepest wish to keep sowing more selfless love, compassion and goodwill inside myself and around me. Now I felt strongly that I had finally come in touch with a technique that works.
From then on, I could not wait to go meditate, knowing the environment created here was so unique, because soon enough I would return to the outside world. So I took advantage of the secluded, controlled environment to make the most progress. As it turns out the more you are able to observe your sankharas with equanimity, letting them rise and die, naturally, not only you do not form new ones, but the old ones are then doomed to come to the surface and eventually pass, as well. Each one that passes takes a misery with it. This is how one takes out misery from ones mind and life. This is how one purifies one’s mind. WOW!!!!
I already know what to do to have a healthy body, but now I also know how to nurture a healthy mind.
At a level I can't explain, I feel this has probably saved my life for the time being. I had become so wound up in what I do, my dreams and hopes for an entire continent (Africa), and a class of people (the Global Poor). I grew to such unhealthy levels of impatience of short temper, feeling the work at task was so vast that nothing could possibly be moving fast enough. I think my mind had started working against me, and it was starting to affect me at the physical level, as well. I felt that I was on the path of developing one of those physical diseases, that are often the manifestation of an unhealthy mind. In any case, I got called for relief. And I am just fortunate that lovingly and firmly encouraged by M, I decided to finally make the decision to go (I have been thinking about it for years now).
Since my return, I am most happy and humbled to report that I have been meditating for 2 hours each day. One hour in the morning, and one hour in the evening. Most like everything else that is a ritual in my life (like my daily body care ritual), this feels good and right. So much that I know it is here to stay.
To each of you, I say give this technique a try. If you can find 10 days, I strongly encourage you to go. And you can't even say that you can't pay for it, because it is free. Later, if you want and can, you then can donate what you wish and can afford. That simple. Of course, I can try to answer any question you want, but in the end you have to go and see it for yourself.
May all beings be happy!!!
With Love & Gratitude,