Have you lost your mind?
On the outside, nothing changes. Your heart beats your lungs breathe and – to the outside world, at least – you appear to be a normal, functioning member of society but underneath it all your mind has gone stark-raving mad.
I'm not sure why I went mad. But I sure as hell know how.
And to be honest, it shocked me. As a writer I've always expected a combination of scotch, explosives and handguns to do me in.
Surprisingly, it was the absence of such things which pushed me over the brink.
Here's the funny thing, though. Going mad was – without qualification – the best thing that ever happened to me.
At this point I'm already disgusted with this post. Here I've been, rambling on for 133 words without telling you where this whole affair went down and why it changed my life.
It happened in India.
My friend – a madman by all accounts ventured to this ill-begotten Himalayan land years before.
A genius-lunatic fueled by whiskey and unleashed on an unsuspecting public. A man who once scratched a butcher's knife along his sleeping roommate's door, asking him to “Come out and play.”
Yes, he was a madman. But after that stint in India well he found peace. He went from Lewiss Carroll to Mahatmi Gandhi seemingly overnight.
It was incredible.
And when he cited a ten-day meditation course as the reason why, I decided to find out for myself.
The Life-or-Death Struggle
I arrived in McLeod Ganj, India.
The meditation center perched high above the town itself. Here I was to spend the next ten days of my life. Ten days without speaking, sex, booze, meat, TV, notebooks, computers or (gasp!) Internet access.
Like many positive, life-changing experiences, I was afraid.
Someone once said “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” If true, that is a terrifying statement. Because once you start fearing fear itself you plunge headfirst into a never-ending downward spiral of horror.
These were the thoughts going through my mind as I entered my new home, for ten days of meditation in complete, utter silence.
Picture yourself in prison. Solitary confinement.
You start contemplating strange, mind-smashing concepts. Questions like What song would you commit suicide to? and How many ravens would it take to pull Earth from orbit? fly through your mind with reckless abandon. Time loses all meaning.
You sit there, focused on your breathing. Time passes. Your legs ache. Your back aches. Your mind wanders. You bring it back. It wanders again. You realize, slowly at first, that you've gone completely mad.
Then something gives. Your mind travels across space and, suddenly, the thoughts STOP. Or rather, you stop. Suddenly, it's just you, your body and your mind. And all those crazy thoughts – every single last one of them – rush past you like a New York City subway train.
Things get quiet after that. The sensation is similar to scuba diving: you float along, focused intently on what is immediately in front of you, with nothing more than the sound of your breathing.
That's it, really.
Craving and Aversion
The Buddha taught that all suffering stems from craving and aversion. When we crave something (e.g. more money, a new car, a guest post on Zen Habits) we place our happiness on an external object.
Same goes for aversion. When we avoid something (work, washing the car, writing that post) it places our happiness on the avoidance of an external object.
Both these emotions, according to the Buddha, cause needless suffering.
The only remedy, he explained, is to develop a natural resistance to craving and aversion through focus. You must train your mind to be aware of these stimuli, but remain strong enough to not give into them.
The Buddha's form of meditation is called Vipassana lets you accomplish both. For hours at a time, you sit, quietly, focusing on each body part, piece by piece. You start at the tip of your head, noting each sensation, and work down to your toes.
That improves your focus. And believe me, all those aches and pains from sitting cross-legged help you develop your natural resistance to aversion. Yes, it hurts but you learn to get past that.
Craving comes later. After six days of meditation I had a breakthrough. Instead of focusing on each body part, piece by piece, I could focus on my entire body at once. It was faster, more efficient (?) and best of all it felt damn good.
This is quite common. And it's where many practitioners get stuck. They begin to crave this state, and end up in a different form of suffering: always chasing the next high.
Meditation is not a high. It's a method for improving for your life through awareness. Every single decision you make today may be directed by craving and/or aversion. Through meditation you train yourself to remove these limitations and, yes, find inner peace.
Ten days passed. On the final day we were allowed to speak. And let me tell you, those were some of the most important, thoughtful conversations I have ever had. You'd think that after ten days of silence we'd babble on about something, anything like people bursting to the surface after too much time underwater.
But we didn't.
Because through meditation the madness had bubbled up, reached the surface of our consciousness and popped. All that remained were focused and peaceful minds. All that remained was us stripped bare of needless suffering. No cravings, no aversions. Just pure being.
Like most life-changing experiences, I was terrified. Going crazy, even for just a few days, is not my idea of a good time.
But I realized something. I realized that madness was a byproduct of filtering all the noise in my mind. Once I powered through it, there was nothing but clarity on the other side. Clarity of mind. Clarity of purpose.
And there's nothing crazy about that.
About the Author: Adam Costa is Editor in Chief of Trekity.com, an “insanely” useful travel site. He also runs the Travel Blogger Academy, which shows how bloggers can grow their travel blogs traffic. Follow Adam on Twitter here.