Monday, 14 July 2014

Caffeine, Toxins, Vipassana and Tim Parks

Tim Parks in"Teach Us To Sit Still" describes the ways in which first relaxation and then meditation brought him relief from very unpleasant symptoms (pelvic pain) and associated anxieties. He manages to avoid drastic surgery, and he eventually does a 15-day course of meditation at a Vipassana centre. I haven't been to such a centre, but he writes in what I guess is a fair-minded as well as an engaging way about the process. He certainly reaches a new understanding of the relationship between mental states and physical symptoms. And he stops hurting.

After "Teach Us To Sit Still, Parks used his experiences to write a novel about young woman at a Vipassana centre. The novel's title is "Sex Is Forbidden." Which it is, along with an awful lot of other things, including an evening meal. (Tea and a piece of fruit only.) No intoxicants, and of course, no coffee, or other "toxins."

Both the central character of the novel, and Parks himself, came to the Vipassana Centre in dire straits. I expect that makes one readier to put up with things that would otherwise seem objectionable, worrying even, and for many people the rigour of the 15 days' isolation from the world no doubt works.

I have a big reservation about a central concept in the experience, as described on a Vipassana Centre's website: "purity." There is much emphasis on purifying the mind, and the body. 

It's not so much the rigour of the code that alienates me; fair enough, they are aiming at eliminating distractions and diversions, hence segregation of the sexes, no reading materials, mobile phones, etcetcetc. 

It's the idea that we can be purified, the emphasis on ridding the mind and the body of impurities, that doesn't work for me. Isn't that the old dualism, mind/body, pure/impure, the idea that a drive towards ridding ourselves of our beastly bits will make us good, holy, enlightened, better members of society.

I can't remember who it was who said that the difference between a medicine and a poison is the size of the dose. Anything can become a toxin if you take too much of it, perhaps even meditation; we can't spend our lives in the lotus posture. (I can't spend five minutes in it.) I don't accept there are pure and impure beings. We are mixed creatures, morally fallible, and I don't trust any kind of moral or physical absolutism.

Still, it worked for Tim Parks. Maybe if I was in a jam, I'd put up with ten days of rigid social and physical control. But it seems to me there are kinder meditation routines and retreats that can also result in awakening, "Insight, " "Seeing things as they truly are" (translations of "Vipassana").

(I should emphasise that "Vipassana" is a broad term for ancient Buddhist and pre-Buddhist techniques, and that the regime Parks describes is simply one interpretation and one methodology for delivering it via an intensive - to put it mildly - silent retreat.)

Monday, 7 July 2014

Caffeine and meditation: any help?

Now I have a clearer understanding of the effect of caffeine on my system, and on the assumption that it affects others similarly, I need to look at the question: is caffeine useful to keep us awake when we meditate?

Because people do nod off when they're meditating. I find that even if I've had a reasonable night's sleep, it can be hard to stay awake, particularly during the body scan stuff. Lying down, eyes can't tell the difference. Until someone starts snoring.

So why not caffeine up and stay awake?

Doesn't work, I think. The pick-up isn't even. Either I'll find it harder to maintain a level sort of presence because the the old bonce is off running scripts, jabbering away, hopping around and has to be hauled back to the present moment even more often than usual. Result = jumpiness, and dissatisfaction with self more likely. Total equanimity burn-off. See pic below.

Or the caffeine has faded, and that's when I'll feel even sleepier. Peaks and troughs of stimulation don't help meditation, I find.

Better to meditate before coffee in the morning, and maybe later in the day, by which time the caffeine level should have subsided. Or cut down on the caffeine and try for more even energy levels throughout the day. Our culture seems addicted to the idea that we need large shots of sugars and coffee to make us function.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Mindful caffeine?

I now have an enhanced respect for the old Java, the cappucino, the..well, you know the bewildering variety of ways you can slurp up caffeiene. (I write not of useless fattening caffeinated fizzy drinks....) 

I have also added to my understanding of caffeine levels in different teas. Did you know that, contrary to propaganda, white tea, lovely though it is, has one of the highest concentrations of caffeine of any tea? And that decaffeinated tea and coffee still retain small quantities of caffeine? You did? OK, on we go.

I've been trying to find out what might be causing a reactive skin rash I've been proudly nourishing for at least 18 months, so I am trying the procedure of leaving out of my diet one at a time the most common suspects for triggering histamine reactions in the skin.  

You may imagine my relief when after an alcohol-free 19 days I discovered that keeping clear of the Merlot the G&T and the foaming pint of Adnams made absolutely no difference. I was still "scratchin' like a hound" (Coasters, 1959, "Poison Ivy.")

So next I tried caffeine. I stopped drinking teas black green or white, and coffee. Stopped abruptly. Big mistake. Headaches, generally feeling well below par (and par isn't what it used to be. Do you find that? You're obviously over 60...) grumpy (-er), mood (-ier) swings.

Stuck it for two days then re-caffeinated gently, with Darjeeling tea. Fizz pop went the day, back up to par. That's just two cups of Darj in a day, no more.

And that was and is my usual daily dose, apart from an espresso in the morning. Clearly, even my moderate caffeine intake makes a big difference to my metabolism, and I have an addiction. I'm so proud to have discovered that, since I've always been too cowardly to contemplate getting addicted to anything else much. Apart obviously from Cotes du Rhone. And music. And being in the countryside. And....h'mmm.

There is a point to all this. Which is: what effects are caffeine levels likely to have on meditation sessions? Should one espresso up in order not to nod off, or shun the stuff because it disturbs equilibrium?

I shall address these crucial issues in my next post. Please try to contain your impatience.