Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Atomic Cloud Chambers and Meditation

When I was a kid, probably about 5th or 6th grade, a science teacher brought an atomic cloud chamber to class. It was basically a round tray with a cork glued in the middle of it, with a clear plastic dome that fit snuggly onto the base. Along with the chamber, came a needle, the tip of which was made slightly radioactive. The needle was stuck into the cork, and then a piece of dry ice was placed in the bottom of the tray, and finally a small amount of water was poured into the tray. as well. When the dry ice and water met, clouds of steam were produced. The clear dome was placed on the tray, and then the fun began.

In a few moments, we could see a little vapor trail shooting through the clouds beneath the dome. It was a piece of an atom being discharged from the end the needle! It looked like the contrail coming from a jet high in the sky, and the sight was met with lots of "oohs" and "ahhs" from the class.

Vipassana meditation can be a lot like this cloud chamber. While we are sitting, we may experience very strong emotional sensations moving through the body. These emotions are most likely the result of a thought about something. We may not be aware of what the thought was, but we can see the effects of it in the cloud chamber that is our body.

We find that emotions arise, abide, and subside with a fair amount of regularity, and that even the strongest emotions don't last very long. We also discover that these are physical sensations resulting from the appearance of chemicals in the bloodstream, such as adrenalin. As in the atomic cloud chamber experiment, we may not be able to see the atom of thought that produced the feeling, but we know it is there. We may be able to turn toward the mind and see clearly the thought that brought about the feeling, and then practice disengaging from this thought by turning toward a present moment sensory reality, such as the feeling of the breath, or even the emotional sensation itself.

The body is how we know the universe. We often feel an emotion before we are aware of the thought that brought it about. By sensitizing the body to these feelings, it can lead us to alter habitual tendencies of the mind by seeing and then disengaging from these thoughts, which are as insubstantial as the steam from the dry ice of the cloud chamber. The reality component of the thought is the physical sensation that arises because of the thought, just like the vapor trail is the telltale sign that an atomic particle has been spun off from the needle of the cloud chamber.



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