My teacher Dipa Ma came to meditation practice out of great suffering. Dipa Ma went through so much suffering in her life. In accordance with the Indian custom of that time, she was put into an arranged marriage when she was twelve years old. She left her parents and joined her husband in Rangoon, where he was working, when she was 14. She said she was extremely lonely and cried a lot. Her husband was very gentle, though and they grew close and fell in love. That happiness was tested by their inability to have a child, and his family's urging him to put her aside and take another wife, which he refused to do.
After waiting 20 years for their first child, a daughter died three months after birth. Four years later she had her daughter Dipa. The next year she became pregnant again, but a son died at birth whom she never saw. As Dipa Ma mourned the death of her children, her health deteriorated badly.
Just as she was making some peace with her losses, she was discovered to be suffering from a serious heart condition, and her doctors feared she might die at any moment. She was 41 at the time. As she faced her frailty and possible immanent death, her husband, who had been in fine health, came home one day from the office feeling ill and feverish, and shockingly died later that day. Her daughter Dipa was five years old.
Dipa Ma said, "I had been suffering so much, and then this terrible blow." Broken-hearted, Dipa Ma felt as if she was dying herself of grief. She couldn't sleep, and on the other hand, she couldn't get out of bed. She was absolutely dysfunctional, yet she still had a child to raise. One day a doctor said to her, "You're going to die unless you do something about the state of your mind. You should learn how to meditate."
Dipa Ma considered this advice carefully, and decided to try. She sought out a monastery where she could practice meditation, but she was so weak that she had to crawl up the temple stairs in order to get into the meditation room.
This is how she describes her initial experience:
When I started doing the meditation, I was crying all the time because I wanted to follow the instructions with full regard, but I couldn't because of sleepiness. Even standing and walking I needed to sleep. So I was crying that for five years I could not sleep, due to sorrow, due to lamentation, due to weakness, due to other suffering. But as soon as I started meditation, I could only sleep.
Of course, generally speaking, we don't really want to sleep a lot in meditation. Though we work to develop tranquility, calm, and peace, we also work to develop energy, interest, and investigation. It is the balance of all these states that we generally seek.
But this is what her teacher, Angarika Munindra, said to her, "It is a very good sign, because for the last five years you were suffering so badly you could not sleep, now you are getting sleepy. So, go mindfully. Do the meditation as instructed."
In other words, "Take rest. Let the process of your practice unfold all by itself. Let your healing have its own rhythm. Keep paying attention to your experience, but don't make an enemy out of anything, including sleepiness. "
And sure enough it did unfold. Dipa Ma continued to sit, and sleep. "But then one day," she related, "all of a sudden, I came to a state where my old sleepiness disappeared and none came to me even when I sat for some hours."
Right Effort in Dipa Ma's case meant simply not giving up, while not deriding or disliking her experience. Sleeping, and sleeping, and sleeping more, and then one day waking up. Believing in her own capacity to be free, she was steadfast, and the fruits of her practice were extraordinary. In meditation practice, Dipa Ma transformed her grief into love for all. She understood so deeply the fragility of life, the times of loss and pain, and the fact that no one is exempt from these. I never saw her meet anybody with anything other than luminous love and compassion, no matter who they were. There seemed no such thing as exclusion from her heart, because there is no such thing as exclusion from vulnerability in life. Her own suffering taught her that.
Follow Sharon Salzberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sharonsalzberg