This April, I was introduced to Vipassana meditation through a 10 day course taught by the late S.N Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin.
Vipassana meditation was originally taught 2500 years ago in India by the Buddha Gautama as a means to purify the spirit. It was seen as a tried and tested method for the eventual realization of enlightenment. It was said that enlightenment is nothing magical, just the understanding by experience that the universe is vibrations, harmony being love and compassion. You don’t have to be prophets to be enlightened, just wise and great through practice. The enlightened has limitless compassion.
Vipassna meditation was eventually spread throughout Southeastern Asia and was eventually adopted by religion as tradition. Mystic sects adopted the practice taking and leaving portions of it alongside their own philosophies. This is why many westerners associate meditation with Buddhism, the religion adopted the practice as a core tool to self discovery. Throughout the centuries the actual technique was customized to fit the customs and traditions of native religions and sects but remained pure only in Burma (currently Myanmar). It’s original birthplace of India had entirely lost the pure practice.
Vipassana meditation, over the last 50 years has re-surged not only in India but across the entire world thanks in large part to the non sectarian teaching lead by S.N Goenka. The practice can now be practiced universally without any religious commitment. The idea is to teach the meditation practice without preaching a philosophy allowing for self discovery without a narrative. These teachings have been replicated in a decentralized manner all across the world. Through the teachings of Vipassana meditation, you don’t need to be religious to be spiritual or develop your self awareness. The tools of life, love and compassion are being taught across the world with no strings attached because all you need is your breath. We are commonly tough to think, Vipassana teaches you how to feel with greater and greater sensitivity.
My first experience with Vipassna was my first in depth experience with meditation. I initially thought that I was decently experienced, I had done a lot of guided meditation, put many hours into practicing Monroes Hemi Sync programs and was fairly practiced in visualization but I had never sat postured and meditated for an extended period of time. I didn’t understand why it was important to meditate postured or the difference between visualization and meditation. This was my first kick at the can sort of speak and I didn’t know what to expect.
The first day that I arrived at the facility in Montebello, Quebec, I was greeted by volunteers. Just regular people as it turns out who were also there to practice. The introductory 10 day program is actually 12 days, 0 and 11 being the arrival and departure days where you can talk with other people. It was interesting to meet such a diverse crowd. It was about 40% men and 60% woman ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s from all sorts of social backgrounds. I met some interesting people during these two days (where you can speak). Almost everyone I met was deeply interested in bettering themselves. Generally an inspirational crowd committed to becoming better human beings.
My first thought upon arrival to my dorm was, “Wow, I am voluntarily institutionalizing myself”. My dorm had a dull feel, almost like a hospital or something. Comforts and extras were most definitely spared, as I later discovered all on purpose. The idea is to reduce sensory stimulation to promote internal reflection. Basically, everything is so boring that you might as well get lost in your thoughts. As you’re checking in, they ask to check all electronics, pen, paper, any books and really anything that can be the least bit interesting. They want you to be alone with yourself.
I wandered quite a bit that first day. They block off where you can and can’t go so it really takes any excitement out of it. They also had all the rules on a board in the hall so you really can’t go wrong. It’s pretty simple; here’s your schedule, do as it says, mind your own business. Here’s the schedule;
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
You may have noticed that there is only 2 meals. A strictly vegetarian diet is served during the pilgrimage and you are encouraged to remain on a low caloric diet. Fasting is not encouraged (I’d assume for liability purposes) but many believe that low food intake encourages depth of meditation. When in Rome! I was 10 pounds lighter when I got home so I guess I had it to lose. I must have been 10 pounds more than I should have been. The vegetarian diet on the other hand was a change for me, I have quite a few food allergies and intolerance so my skin was pretty irritated. More grain than I’m used to. I swear, I’m not fussy though.
The first 4 days of meditation were physically painful for me. I couldn’t sit still for more than 5 minute. Entire 2 hour meditation session were spent moving around while maybe getting 5 minutes of good focus. I was just having pains everywhere, though I was reminded to observe my breath. That’s it! breath in, breath out, breath in, breath out for 4 days. By day 3, my body was freaking out. It was embarrassing because everyone else seemed so composed. The 20 year old kid in front of me hadn’t even flinched. I begun to realize that my pain tolerance was only equivalent to my focus. The more I focused, the more I could tolerate the pain. At one point I thought it a good idea to dissect my pain and came to the realization that it was there for a reason. I’ve been abusive to my body, I thought. I eventually concluded that the physical, like all other scars lay dormant and because of the fact that I had nothing to distract me, I needed to confront them. The more I thought of the physical pain the more I related it to emotional and even spiritual ailment. You have to first confront the physical scars before all else. I was told that sometimes your spiritual and emotional pains even manifest physically when allowed.
Prior to arriving I had the habit of stockpiling shit in my mind. These were little things that I knew needed untangling and needed to be confronted before clearing my mind. Mundane garbage that shouldn’t stress you out but does. It’s like death by a thousand cuts. That’s our world and it’s an important reason why people die prematurely. Stress kills. It took me 2 to 3 days to flush this shit out and most of it centered around me forgiving myself and letting go. Developing a little bit of compassion for my fuck ups and stop stockpiling. We beat ourselves up and why? We stockpile in every sense of the word and what does it serve?
They kept using a term “Anicca” that means to acknowledge, accept and move on in a universal sense and it was relevant to not only my physical pain but also my mental afflictions. I need to acknowledge my faults, accept to work on them but also to move on. Same with the physical pain that I was feeling. It’s all the same. There was almost an homage to the physical pain that I painted for myself that reminded me of stopping to smoke cigarettes. I had this masochistic approach when I had recently quit where I would indulge the craving pains as a sort of acceptance of the lesson. Almost inviting a punishment or correction in hopes of progress. This pain was the lesson, I should almost celebrate it. Anicca was by no means used as a mantra but more philosophically as to soften the Vipassna. Vipassna is a purative technique and healing is not always comfortable. It wasn’t comfortable and that was the point. It was painful on many different levels.
Throughout the first 4 days it was explained that the technique that we had been practicing was called Anapana and it was meant to sharpen our focus enough to be able to effectively practice Vipassna. Anapana is the simple observation of your breath working your way to a single point of focus, right below your nostrils. By the completion of the Anapana portion of the course I didn’t feel at all better physically. I felt worse. I was frantic but did manage to get a few disciplined blocks of 20-30 minutes. It was in day 4 when they introduce the concept of strong determination where hour long blocks of group meditation were to be done without a change in posture. I couldn’t do it till day 9 but that didn’t ruin the meditation. I progressed in determination every day.
On day 5 we actually started to practice Vipassna which started with the conscious observation of sensations across your body. What does every single spot on your scalp feel like? Is that moisture behind your right knee? How do between your fingers feel? The process was clearly sharpening my sense of feeling because the deeper I got the more feeling I could feel on my body till eventually I could feel or hear the hum of the room. That hum could have been anything and it doesn’t matter because I started to use it as a sort beacon to direct my focus toward depth. I felt my body vibrate, along with the room and a sort of lightness came over me where it felt like my torso had disappeared. That’s about about as weird as it got. I’m told that those sensations are common if not an indicators to evolving Vipassna practice. It’s an eventuality that you lose your body. The goal is to merge with the universal vibrational field and become it. We are God, we are the universe just like a cell is to our body. It is us along with billions of other cells. Vipassna meditation leads the conscious realization of that however far you explore. We are it and everything within it. One love…
By day 10 I was finally starting to feel optimistic because I was gaining the realization that the exploration of misery would help expand my relationship to it. Misery is just another feeling however I associate to it. The course was also ending. Let’s be honest, the entire experience was far from comfortable. On day 10 we started practicing a session closing technique and there was this sort of bliss that entered the room. It was a more gentle technique that I was a little more accustomed to called metta. The idea was to visualize your compassion filling the room and your spirit filling with love and compassion while sharing in the energy. This technique truly makes you happy but usually only works with a clear mind. Having tried the technique without first meditating for an extended period of time did not yield the same results. The sort of feeling of bliss was contagious and other participants shared their experience with it when we finally started communicating again.
This first Vipassna experience was an eye opener for me because it was a glimpse into what is possible. I had this kind of glow that followed me around for about 3 weeks after even though I have kept meditating almost every day. The course suggested two blocks of one hour every day but I’m just not there yet. I see the value and will continue a practice leveraging more course when necessary. The experience was rewarding but not as rewarding as the introduction to a new skill and maybe one of the most important ones you could possess. Meditation is the self discovery of what makes you, you. That’s pretty powerful.