From Monasteries to Community Acupuncture: The Journey to BAP (Part 1)
Meet Vignesh Swaminathan, one of our fantastic acupuncturists. Vignesh has been at BAP for years and we are so happy he stuck with us through the pandemic. Like many of us, the road to becoming an acupuncturist was a winding one for Vignesh. Read about how he weaves the many lessons of his journey into his acupuncture and healing style.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, long before I studied Traditional Chinese Medicine and became an acupuncturist, I worked in the film industry. For several years I lived between Los Angeles and New York City, and during that time, I wrote screenplays in my free time and worked as an editor to pay the bills. An editor takes the raw footage of a film shoot, digitizes it into a computer, organizes the footage, and then puts it together in a way that tells a story. Most people outside the industry don’t know this, but the job of an editor is one of the most stressful jobs in the field. They work in small, dark, cramped rooms for 14 to 16 hour a day, sometimes without a day off for months on end. The job requires intense concentration and attention, and most people are unable to live this way for long periods without compromising their health.
During this time, one of my friends was working as an editor for a documentary film called Fierce Grace, a biography of Ram Dass, the 1960s counterculture psychedelic guru. My friend asked me if I could help him with the project. For about three weeks, I went through hundreds of hours of footage on old tapes, and documented what was on them, so that my friend could then take the footage he wanted and edit the film.
What I saw on those tapes deeply inspired me. There was obscure footage of psychedelic parties in San Francisco, Vermont and in upstate New York. There were tapes on esoteric mediation practices, yoga, and communes. There were adventures in India and meetings with mysterious saints. There were interviews of artists, writers, revolutionaries, musicians and other cultural innovators. Most of this footage never ended up in the final film, and I doubt that the public will ever see what was on those tapes. But I was fated to be immersed in that world for those few weeks, and I came out of that experience deeply inspired.
Before I had become involved in film, I had studied literature and religion in college, and was very much into the Beat writers. The Beats, in the 1950s, had woven into their work themes from Eastern religions. Having come from an Indian family deeply connected to meditation, Ayurveda and mysticism, I found the Beats had made those traditions relevant and appealing to the modern mind. And now, having immersed myself in the world of Ram Dass and the psychedelic counter culture of the mid to late 60s, I decided to leave the film world and explore something closer to my heart. I reached out to an acquaintance from college, whom I knew had spent some time at a Buddhist monastery. He told me that it was one of the best decisions he had ever made, and that it had changed his life for the better. So, I contacted the monastery and enrolled in a two month retreat which started in February of 2000.
The monastery is located in Marin, just adjacent to Muir Beach. It is called Green Gulch Farm and is both a Zen Buddhist monastery and an organic farm. When you do a retreat there, you inevitably end up spending some time working on the farm. The retreat I signed up for is called a Practice Period, or Ango in Japanese. It is very structured and disciplined, and there is almost no free time. The wake up bell rings around 4am. There is meditation for a couple hours before dawn. Then a silent breakfast. Followed by some chores (sweeping, cleaning, etc), and then followed by study hall in which you read from contemplative texts. Then there is more meditation followed by lunch, followed by a couple hours of work. The work consists of assistance in the preparation of meals, or helping out on the farm, or doing some light maintenance work to keep the buildings functional. This period is called work practice, and is considered its own form of meditation. Then there might be an hour of rest, when one can take a nap or walk to the ocean, on a gorgeous trail past the horses and tall grasses. After this rest period, one again dives deep into more meditation, followed by a light dinner, and again more meditation. Lights out around 9pm.
This is repeated for seven weeks. The eighth week is special week of intensive called sesshin. It is seven days of just meditation, all day long, with short bathroom and stretching breaks. Even the meals are eaten in the zendo, or meditation hall, during this period. For a whole week, one does not talk, and just follows the strict schedule, and something beautiful blossoms. A kind of subtle but deep joy. It is different for each participant. Some experience fireworks. Others touch a peace lighter than a flower petal. Most find sesshin to be both exquisitely beautiful and extremely challenging. Sitting and watching the light change in the zendo, with only our breath to keep us company, silent and still, is an expression of a rare form of beauty, and deep truths of the mystery of existence are unpacked. But these truths remain in the silence, and once retreat is over, it is almost impossible to express to others what one witnessed during that week. However, one carries around this feeling with them for life. Sesshin wakes us up to things we can never fall asleep to again.
Previous to this two month practice period, I had no meditation experience. This was a crash course not only in sitting still on a cushion, but also in living with over a 100 other participants in an intentional community. Within those two months, there was immense growth for me. But this was just the beginning of my meditation journey. During the following couple decades, I lived in over a dozen meditation centers, practiced in various spiritual traditions and learned a wide range of techniques to still the mind and go inward. I started a daily practice of meditating two to three hours a day, and I was able to touch into some very beautiful, profound places inside myself. These treasures I brought back with me from deep meditation still serve me to this day. Although I no longer live in a meditation center, I find that the perennial wisdom found deep within can help us live a life with greater clarity, joy and passion. But it must be emphasized that meditation doesn’t take away suffering. Life is difficult, and often very much so. Meditation can help us understand our suffering, and with that understanding, there is some ease.
Over the course of the next several weeks, I will write about my journeys in meditation, living at various retreat centers and monasteries, and discuss some of the teachings that I found in these traditional practices.
Through meditation, I discovered Traditional Chinese Medicine and various other healing arts, and I will highlight how through acupuncture one can also access the deep and profound waters of our inner life. Traditional Chinese Medicine has its roots in the mystical traditions of Asia, and there are many powerful ways that acupuncture can help with the easing of emotional, psychological and spiritual suffering. It can also elevate one’s energy and consciousness, enabling one to touch expansive states beyond our normative ways of thinking and being.
Please join me on this journey as we wander through the labyrinths of the contemplative traditions and bring to light ways in which one can use those wisdom practices to thrive in the modern world.