I’ve been wanting to start my blog for a long time now but it hasn’t happened. But now maybe this is a good time to start. Just a note of warning though, if you are seriously thinkig of doing Vipassana in the near future, please don’t read this. I feel it could give you expectations and I think it’s best to go in with a totally open mind. Also, some of the things I am going to talk about are a bit personal, maybe more journal material, but I’m going to be brave. Proceed at your own risk. Safety glasses and ear protection might be helpful.
As some of you know, I just did a 10 day Vipassana meditation course. It’s been something I thought about doing for awhile and I almost backed out of it, but my friend, who is a bit of a Vipassana veteran convinced me to stay and do it. Especially since I am in a little town in India called Bodhgaya, which is where Buddha attained enlightenment under the Boddhi tree. What better place to meditate? My friend just completed a 30 day course and said it was an amazing center. So first a little explanation. Vipassana, literally translated means insight and in a course, you spend 10 hours a day meditating and simply observing your body. Unlike other forms of meditation, there are no visualizations, no mantras or prayers you repeat and they warn very sternly of mixing other practices or techniques while doing a course. You arrive in the afternoon and check in, which mostly just involves reading the rules and agreeing to them. You agree to abide by the Five Precepts for the duration of the course which are: No killing, no, stealing, no lying, no intoxicants, and no sexual misconduct. And yes, killing includes ALL living beings, even the pesky mosquito that won’t stop bothering you. You also agree that no matter what happens, you won’t leave during the middle of the course comparing the experience to brain surgery. You agree to not talk or communicate in any way for the duration of the course. No talking, no reading, no writing, no phones or listening to music. You aren’t even allowed to make eye contact with anyone. You can go to the teacher if you have questions related to practicing the technique but that is it. No long philosophical discussions. There are also a few male and female volunteers who are there if you need anything practical such as a clogged toilet or cough syrup. Men and women are separated, again to cut down on any distractions, and there are separate lving quarters and dining areas for both genders. We meditate in the same hall but there are two entrances and the men stay on one side and the women on the other. The beauty of Vipassana is that it doesn’t require a belief in God, yet at the same time, it doesn’t contradict or confict with anybody who does believe in God. People from all walks of life and religions are able to practice. It is essentially taking what the Buddha did and taught and putting into a technique that is simple enough to understand and making it available to anybody.
The wake up bell goes off at 4am every morning and from there the fun begins! Meditation starts at 4:30 until 6:30 when you break for breakfast. Back again at 8:00 and meditation until 11:00 with 2 ten minute breaks and then you eat lunch. Back again at 1:00 and meditation until 5:00 with a few short breaks to stretch. Then a light snack and back again at 6:00. There is a discourse every night at 7:00 which is a video of Goenka, the man who brought the technique and made it popular in India. He talks about what you did that day and addresses some of the common questions that arise from that day’s practice. This was always the best part of the day because you know it’s almost time for bed and after being stuck with your mind since 4am, any distraction is welcome. One more meditation from 8:30 to 9:00 and then I would collapse in my bed. Exhausted mentally and physically. The first 4 days are spent focusing on your breath. Yes, that’s it. 10 hours a day, breathing and becoming aware of any sensations in the triangle that is your nose and above your mouth. The point of this is to sharpen the mind and make you aware of more subtle sensations in the body which eventually happens. In the beginning, I could only feel my breath if I breathed more heavily and you feel the air on your upper lip but after awhile you pick up more. Like you can notice that the air that enters your nostrils is colder than the air that leaves your nostrils. I found this to be really amazing, though so obvious when you think about it. Eventually, you narrow your focus to just the mustache area or the area above your upper lip and below your nose. At first, I didn’t feel anything, but eventually you can feel very subtle sensations. When your mind wanders, as mine did all the time, you are taught to cheerfully acknowledge that this has happened by stating to yourself, “Ah, my mind has wandered” and gently bring it back to the area you were focusing on. Sometimes, I would think of my mind as a small child, that really loved to play in mud puddles aka wander and needed constant reminders to come back. You are taught to not ever get upset or angry with yourself when the mind wanders as this is counterproductive. The idea is that as people, we are ignorant. And from this ignorance come craving and aversion which are the root of all our suffering and misery. Without being aware of it, we are constantly letting ourselves be tossed back and forth between the two like a worn football. The ideal is not to react to situations, but to act with compassionate wisdom. In this way, we can start to break the cycle and lead a happier, peaceful, and more productive life. If we get upset when our mind wanders and react with aversion, we are just generating more suffering for ourselves. Likewise, when pleasant sensations arise, we immediately become attached and crave this sensation, again, generating more suffering for ourselves in the future. The idea of Vipassana is that by sitting for 10 days, there are going to be pleasant and unpleasant sensations that arise in our body all the time. You start to see that by simply observing them objectively with equanimity, they pass. They all pass eventually. EVERYTHING passes eventually. The good and the bad, though it’s best to not label them. One of my favorite lines is, “What arises passes and with it’s passing is peace.”
I woke up on the first morning and I had a sore throat. I was thinking I wished I had something to take and then at breakfast, I noticed something that looked very much like tumeric powder. I put some on my plate and smelled it and sure enough it was. I didn’t think snorting it in the dining hall would be a good idea so I had the genious idea of smuggling it back to my room in my orange peel. Mission accomplished. I had a bit of a cough for the entire 10 days but nothing too bad. In India, it seems, loud burping is much more socially acceptable but something that I’ve always fount to be quite annoying. There was an older gentleman who would burp all the time and at first I got quite annoyed, which of course took my focus off of mediation. After a little while, I tried a trick I learned in one of my books on neural plasticity which is to take something that you usually react to in an unpleasant way and rewire your brain to think of something you like whenever the unpleasnt thing occurs. My Aunt Barbara popped into mind, because she loves to burp and she is someone I love very much. Now every time the Indian gentleman burped, a mental image of my Aunt Barbara laughing would come to mind. It was a stretch in the beginning, but by the end of the course, it was automatic and I would almost look forward to the burps.
At first, it was hard sitting for so long. I was constantly experimenting with different ways of sitting and different ways of arranging my cushions. I finally came up with a sort of kneeling position that seemed to be bearable, though no matter how I sat, I was often in unbearable pain after an hour. They know that it will be hard to sit for an hour but the point is to push yourself and really see that it’s possible. One day after sitting, I hadn’t quite figured out the optimal position for my cushions yet and what started out pleasantly at the beginning of the hour turned into a very very sore butt. I remember going outside and thinking that this was a bit much. I kept thinking I would be so sore and stiff by the end that I wouldn’t be able to walk or sit. Instead, I survivied and even learned something about myself. I had this pain in my back that I got towards the end and I found that as the course went on, I had much more sensation and control of my body. I could feel the pain in my back and even mentally sort of push it. I tried as much as possible to see it as a sensation and after some time, it would move somewhere else in my body, sometimes even dissolving.
On day 5, they teach you the actual technique of Vipassana, which in a nutshell is to start at the top of your head and try to mentally feel your entire body and observe any sensations you can as objectively as possible. Not labeling them as good or bad and of course trying to keep the mind totally focused on the sensations you are experiencing. I remember being angry after this session because, I thought we were just going to be breathing and focusing on the area below the nose as we had been doing. I had gotten pretty good at it and now having to scan the entire body was quite frustrating. So many areas where I just couldn’t feel anything plus it was just mentally taxing to do this over and over and over again. Also, up until that point, we were allowed to change positons when we were sitting but now in three of the sessions each day, we were not allowed to move at all. It was such an internal battle, especially in the last 15 minutes or so of each hour. There was always this voice inside my head that would say, “It’s ok, just scratch your cheek” or sometimes the pain would be so intenese, I didn’t think I could take it any longer. Then about 5 minutes before the end of each hour, there was a recorded chant that would come on and you know the pain is almost over. Then you start to see how much the mind plays in what we think is pain. It’s like the difference between you dropping a stone on your toe and if somebody else does. If you do, you can’t get that upset and you get over it, but if somebody else does, you get angry and it hurts more. Pain is real, but it can vary greatly depending on your state of mind.
On the morning of day six, I was just observing my body and all of a sudden it felt like everything fell into place. A sort of euphoric feeling filled my entire body. It almost felt like I was floating and sitting was effortless. I could feel this sort of energy flowing through my body. They refer to this as the free flow of energy. Our body is made up of tiny subatomic particles. We aren’t actually solid, which is what we generally think of ourselves as and it’s actually possible to experience the true reality of the body through Vipassana. I of course got very excited and didn’t quite know what to do but enjoyed it for the little bit that it lasted. Of course, when it went away, I wished it would come back and assumed that I had reached a sort of new level in my meditation. It doesn’t exactly work like this and sensations vary greatly from person to person and from sitting to sitting. The more I craved it, the less like it was to happen again. Also, after that I had to remember that as pleasant an experience as it was, they stress over and over that this is not the point of Vipassana. The point is to develop equanimity. To realize that everything passes. To observe pain and pleasure as sensations and with objectivity. Easier said than done, but that is the goal.
It did get somewhat easier to sit towards the end and I got slightly more equanimous. On day 6, we all got assigned our own meditation cells in the pagoda. The pagoda is a round building full of meditation cells. I felt like I had graduated or something, like they trusted me to meditate on my own. I got assigned number 38, which I thought was pretty amazing because 3 and 8 are two of my favorite numbers. Not that I’m superstitious or anything. The first time I went in the cell, it felt a bit like locking myself in prison. I also missed the hall somewhat becasue I felt that by having the other people around, it kept me more disciplined plus I missed the good vibes I felt like I was getting from the 7 monks who sat very close to me.
We were allowed to start talking again on the tenth day after the meditation at 10:00. It was a bit anticlimactic for me. In a way, I had not been talking for so long, I didn’t really want to talk. I wasn’t disapppointed exactly but I thought I would feel differently somehow. I was hoping that I might access some of my memories from early childhood and I also was hoping to have been more emotional during the course. I know that sounds silly but I was hoping for at least one good cry and it never really came. My mind mostly just wandered the entire time when I wasn’t focused. No deep insights or inspirations for my life going forward. I went to my room instead of talking to anybody and layed on my bed. Then I went out and this guy from Italy started talking to me and asking me how my experience was. I tried to be polite but I really didn’t want to talk. I could feel the tears starting to come and I went inside the meditation hall and started to cry. I had been wrestling with the concept of God in the last few weeks and I thought about it a lot during Vipassana. I grew up with this sort of Sunday school version of God which I’ve hung onto all these years, but it just isn’t cutting it anymore. As I’ve traveled and met more and more people and been exposed to more religions, I was beginning to wonder what the truth actually is. Is there or is there not a God? I want it to be that simple, but obviously it’s more complicated than that. When I was growing up and I was feeling lost, I would sometimes go into church late at night and pray and seeing the statues and knowing there was something there was comforting. When I went in the meditation hall and started to cry, I subconsiously was thinking that I was going into church for comfort. I was crying and then looked up and it hit me square in the face that there was nothing there. I started crying even more. A loud angry cry.No statues or pictures or anything. Just a blue curtain. It had bothered me a bit during Vipassana that something with such potential and the ability to bring so much peace and joy could be possible without a God or gods or a belief in anything higher or supernatural. It’s just science. Eventually I calmed down and went to see the meditation teacher who was there during the course if we had questions. I went in crying and basically asked him if God existed or not. Between my crying and him being Indian, he couldn’t understand what I was saying, but he was comforting nonetheless. He advised me to talk to some of the other guys and try to just relax.
I went out and startred talking to people a bit, one of them being one of the monks. He turned out to be a really great guy to talk to. He was born in China and then moved to Vietnam but eventually moved to Manhattan and was an architect for six years before becoming a monk at the age of 40. It’s interesting how we immediately put people in a sort of box when first meeting them. Especially monks or nuns. It’s like I think they are all the same or something forgetting that like everyone else, they are an individual. Just because they wear the same clothes means nothing. They all have hopes and dreams and families and aspirations and difficulties just like us “normal people” No, I know nobody is normal and me least of all. We exchanged emails and I may visit him in Burma someday. There was also a guy in our group from Bhutan who I became friends with. He was really friendly and is going to find out what I have to do to visit Bhutan without it being so expensive. Bhutan is probably the number one country I want to visit.
We checked out and left on the morning of the 11th day. The beauty of Vipassana is that is totally donation based. They don’t pressure you or make sure you leave some donation. It’s totally up to you. I of course did make a donation and then headed out with a few others to see if I could survive in the real world again. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. I was feeling much better and relatively calm. I went back to the place I was staying and it was great to see all my friends who I’d made in the 10 days I was staying there before the course. Of course, I do feel somewhat diffetent now, but it’s not magic. Like anything else in life worth having, you have to work at it. They recommend that you meditate for 2 hours each day to maintain your practice. Before Vipassana, I would have thought this to be madness but after mediatiting for 10 hours a day, 2 hours seems doable. The test of course will be to see if I can maintain it over time. I am definitely more patient that I was and feel generally more at peace. I notice my mind more and when I do react negatively, I feel like I catch myself quicker. I saw I tend to eat too much and too fast in general and I’ve started to slow down when I eat and appreciate my food. I think smaller bites are the secret. Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness. Sometimes I notice my breathing even when I’m not meditating. They say our breath is the key to our mental state. When we are angry or scared, our breath becomes more shallow and quicker. I feel like I am more patient with people and though it’s easy as a foreigner in India to just look at people and think it’s just one more Indian, I now try to look at people and see the individual inside. They have hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears, etc just like me. Even if it seems like somebody is trying to do harm to me, I try to have compassion and not react. They are simply ignorant and need the most compassion. I was doing some yoga and realized I have much more awareness of my body. I know the experience will fade but if I am able to maintain my daily practice and go back for another course in a year, my life really can change. When you change your percecption, it’s like the entire world around you changes. People seem friendlier and I am more aware of nature. I used to struggle so much over decisions and though I haven’t had to make that many, I feel like it is slightly easier. You realize that it’s less about what you do and more about your attitude and mindset that makes something good or bad. Less of trying to find things externally that will make me happy and more about developing discipline of the mind so no matter what situations I find myself in, I can act with compassionate wisdom. No matter how much energy I put into arranging the world around me, there will always be challenges.
In closing, I would say that this is simply my experience. Please don’t try Vipassana at home or take my advice about anything. If you do end up doing a course, please go in with an open mind and no expectations. I believe if you follow the instructions exactly, you will get results but they may not be what you had in mind. I’m glad I went in without a lot of knowledge because it allowed me to have an open mind.
May all beings be happy
P.S. I hope to do at least another entry to sum up a bit more about what else I’ve been up to in India since I got here on August 14th, but then again, don’t hold your breath.
What arises passes. And with it’s passing is peace.
Below is the post Vipassana picture.