I’ve heard that Buddhism often appeals to autistics, I’ve even heard it suggested that Buddha was autistic too, but conjectures aside, I fit that stereotype.
Whilst I’d been using a wide array of (mostly arcane) tools to dig myself out of the emotional chaos of my younger years (growing up an undiagnosed autistic, transgender migrant), learning to meditate in the Vipassana tradition when I was twenty-five has been one of the foundations that I built my personal development on.
Vipassana is the most boring meditation technique imaginable – no transcendental beings, no seeing lights, no ominous murmuring of Sanskrit syllables. After reading about it in a research paper during my neuroscience studies and being, somehow, intrigued, I decided to take a ten-day retreat.
We were instructed to spend eight to ten hours per day sitting and observing our physical sensations; the breath, clothing on the skin, our posture, aches and itches, whether we’re hot, cold, hungry, scanning down and up the body systematically, from head to toes and back, checking whether we can feel our toes individually. Towards the end of the retreat, we were probing for sensations arising under the skin, within the body as well.
I probably wouldn’t advise highly sensitive people and those holding trauma histories to start with such a hard-core immersive approach. I did have my portion of panic attacks and “dreams and visions” (and flashbacks) during the retreat, and looking back, it could have gone awry, but given the mental health challenges I had enjoyed in my youth, I was used to worse than that.
I don’t remember gaining any special insights or enlightenments (maybe one – for some reason, I had a vision of war and subsequently got rid of my fear of low-pitched vibrations, seemingly forever) but seeking “special” experiences isn’t the point of Vipassana; we were instructed to ignore them if they happened.
For me the point was that I had been alone with my body and mind for about a hundred hours (ten hours a day for ten days) and I had survived it. I had started to break down the wall of fear that I’d unknowingly related to it; to what’s lurking in the depths, what is inside me, what I hold in my own mind and body if I only stopped and looked.
It was the beginning of the end of my perpetual running away, and it was my first baby steps towards finding solid ground within, years later.
After the retreat, I tried to keep up a regular meditation practice, a daily hour on the cushion, but failed as it caused me anxiety, irritation and boredom. What I did instead was use the technique to kill time whenever I was stuck somewhere; eight hours on a train, in a queue, stuck bored in a waiting room (note to younger readers: there was a time before smartphones). It was good to have something ‘productive’ I could do in those moments.
It was only later and gradually that I saw the power of this process I had started developing, the capacity to get interoceptive and proprioceptive snapshots of my state, and to stay ‘in myself’.
Growing up as I did – trans, bicultural and autistic – without knowing how different and sensitive I was, I had accumulated layers of emotional debris that would randomly explode, wrecking life projects and relationships.
Vipassana wasn’t enough to disarm this minefield, but it was a prerequisite. I had become capable of just sensing, feeling what was going on in my body in these moments and – I’m not sure if this is part of the Buddhist technique, or if I just made it up – I put my pattern-recognition to work on decoding these sensations. What was I actually feeling? When did this sensation usually come up? What did it usually lead to? Was I sensing something present here and now, or was I re-living a vivid body-memory?
I can still remember some dramatic moments in my life when I put this to work in the middle of an emotional storm, and the insight carried out of the eye of the storm allowed me to build new bridges across my daily abysses.
To switch metaphors; I had a raft.
That was the era of storms, five to ten years ago. I don’t use any formal meditation anymore to become present in my body and emotions, or to disarm minefields (extinguish samskaras). I’ve found many other ways to deepen mind-body integration, and paying attention to what I sense and feel – not only what I think – has become a daily way of being and a continual, deepening, often joyful exploration.
Waking up to all layers of myself gradually, allowed me to relate to myself, the world and other beings in much richer ways.
Sasha is an avid student of human (and other) nature through neuroscience, philosophy, shamanism and art.
Gender non-binary multicultural polyglot, writer, thinker, feeler, walker, sometimes musical and artistic and life improviser.
Tweet me on @SensIsStrength