My Vipassana Experience
This post does not fall into the agricultural theme, but then life is seamless, right? One thing leads to another… This is one example of what some of us farmers do in the off season.
I completed a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Northern Illinois Jan 14-25, 09.
Why did I go?
- for about 10 years now, I’ve had friends do these. Everyone indicated they had a good experience and it was well worth it (it’s free!).
- I have a lot of negativity in me – most of the time I repress it – but it’s wearisome. I realize that the real victim of the negativity is me. I’ve tried a variety of methods to root it out/come to terms with it; many helped – but it’s still there. I’d love to get rid of it. So – I’ll try this!
For more info:
See the Vipassana website: http://www.dhamma.org
My fellow communard, Laird, did the same course 2 weeks before me and blogged about it (Jan 8-15) – access it via: www.sandhillfarm.org
The cast: 40 students, 20 men, 20 women, an on site teacher, a liaison person for women, another for men, and several folx who prepare the meals – 2 for women, 2 for men.
The course is taught by Goenka (India), who claims that the method originated with Gautama, the Buddha, 2500 years ago and that the key is the technique – it is experiential (rather than intellectual knowledge).
Format: each meditation session is introduced and ended by Goenka (on audio tape); in between, there is silence – to practice the meditation. Every evening there is a 75 minute “discourse” by Goenka on video tape (taped in 1991 – he was in his 70s?). The on site teacher (American) controls the tapes and is available for questions.
Hours for Meditating: 4:30 am – 9 pm. 10-12 hours total. Breaks for meal times.
For 3 – 1 hour periods, we all meditate in the Meditation Hall (MH). We have assigned positions – we sit on a 2’ x 3’ mat in the same place every time. The discourses are also in the MH. Various other times we are given instructions by Goenka and then free to meditate in the MH or in our rooms.
Strict separation of sexes: in the MH, women are on one side, men on the other. In the dining hall, a curtain divides the space in half. Walking paths from dormitory to MH and dining hall for men and women are totally separate.
We have no reading or writing materials and no phones.
Days 1-3 Sharpening the Mind – prelude to Vipassana
Days 4-10 Vipassana Meditation
Days 1-9 Noble silence – not supposed to look at each other or communicate in any way.
Midmorning of day 10, the silence ends (except in the MH).
SO – HOW WAS IT????
I had no idea that the first 3 days were not really Vipassana – did I miss that in the description or did they not want me to know? Anyway, the first 2 days, Goenka intones: “focus all your attention on the breath – in the nose-trils and the upper lip”(in an endearing Indian accent). Those words still ring in my ears.
Day 1. I get off on focusing my attention on my breath – of course, every few seconds, my mind wanders….. but Goenka is understanding “ah yes, that is what the mind likes to do, wander; in fact, the mind always dwells in the past or in the future, it has no idea of how to live in the present moment – which is, after all, all we have – the past is gone and the future is yet to come – but since the mind does not know how to handle the present, it does not want any other part of you to be there – so it is constantly taking you elsewhere….” so true. One of my constant distractions: I plan to write about this experience…. how can I possibly remember 10 days of mental trips?
In his first discourse tonight, Goenka was inspiring – YES! I too can overcome all odds & become enlightened!
Day 2. By the end of the day, I’m bored with the “breath in my nose-trils”. But I am getting better at focusing my attention/mind. Then I realize that I can double- track: sometimes my mind can focus on my breath and be wandering at the same time. (Is that cheating?)
The discourse tonight was a downer: he told us of all the precepts/moral values we need to embrace – including no drugs, alcohol, immorality, etc. Dang! I can’t possibly do that (at least, I don’t want to).
Day 3. Whoopee! Something new in our meditation technique: “now focus all your attention on the triangle between your nostrils and your upper lip.” Yikes! I was feeling circumscribed before – now, it’s getting even smaller. After a day of this, my mind rebels THIS IS NOT HELPFUL! I CAME HERE TO GET RID OF NEGATIVITY – I AM SO FRIGGIN TIRED OF THIS SMALL TRIANGLE ON MY UPPER LIP!! (Remember, I had no idea the first 3 days were introductory; I just figgered this is IT).
By the end of the day, I am very discouraged – this is really not what I want to be doing. I find myself fasting (it is officially discouraged) – I am simply not interested in food. At dusk, I go walking – this time not on the prescribed paths. I walk among the trees – wow, they are mostly hard maples, big beautiful trees, some more than 4’ in diameter, many more than a 100 years old. Slowly, I get grounded – the pristine snow (about 1’ deep), the trees, dusk, stars, I come back to my center – my joy. Hey! I’m canadian – I’ve always loved playing in the snow. I recall the 5 point star that I loved to draw on paper as a kid. I figger out how to do it by making a path in the snow – big ones – 30’ in diameter. THIS IS FUN! I want to share my joy – so I make several beside the main path we men walk between the dormitory and the MH/dining hall. Ding! I realize it is also a pentagram, a pagan symbol. Aha, it is welcoming the nature spirits/devas to this place – way cool!
Day 4. I am walking to MH at 4:30 am and beside my pentagrams in the snow, someone spelled out in big letters: “ME” and “I” (last nite’s discourse was all about how I and me are illusory). I chuckle/smile for quite awhile.
I’m BORED with meditating on my upper lip – I was hoping for something new from Goenka this morning – NOTHING! I try to make the best of it, but feel I’m actually losing concentration. TOO SLOW. To make things worse, when I meditate now, it feels as if there is a clamp on my right ear (about the size of a clothes pin & about as strong). When I quit meditating, it goes away. What’s that about??
(In the meantime, there were notices on the bulletin board that there is a Special Session at 2 pm today, introducing Vipassana Meditation by Goenka – how did I miss that? Maybe cuz I was fasting, or just in a pissy mood??) Fortunately, I am in the MH at 2 pm when I hear a bell – what’s that? Not the usual time. I look around at faces – no clues. I go in to meditate and Goenka tells us that focusing on the breath was sharpening the mind – leading up to Vipassana. Now we’re gonna do the real thing! AWRIGHT!
Now we are to focus our attention on feeling physical sensations in our body: start at “de top of de head and go down to de tip of de toes, passing over every part of the body”. (He outlines a specific procedure to follow). According to Goenka, every part of our body has sensations in it – our job is to feel/tune in to them.
Day 5. And that’s what we do for the rest of the course (of course, I don’t know that – I assume that other techniques will be introduced later.)
I get into it: gradually, I feel sensations over various parts of my body – mostly, they are tingling sensations – like, hello, yes, I am alive and functioning. Until now I mostly associated sensations with pain – when I hurt myself or feel achy. I never considered that these sensations were there all the time. I am quite entertained by mapping these sensations: some areas “tingle”, others feel opaque – I can’t feel anything there. Some areas are “clear & sunny”(tingling), others are cloudy – their density is intriguing: some are light (I can maneuver around & thru them), some more dense (my mind can’t penetrate them but feel the outer edges), others are like lightening – sharp & pointed – feels like a dagger, or a deeply rooted tree. When my consciousness probes it, I feel the pain acutely – often, it’s welcome pain – like a massage on sore muscles; other times, it’s overpowering – I can’t focus on anything else.
Anyway, this is new and exciting; however, after 2 days of the same sequence, I’m getting bored again. At dusk, I feel feisty – what to do? Ah, snow angels! I make several and then decide to share my joy – I make a couple beside the path to the Dining hall. FUN! I am also enjoying eating again.
Day 6. Yeah! Something new: Goenka instructs us to also go “from de tip of de toes to de top of de head”. Now we are to go in both directions. That keeps my attention for a day or so.
I look forward to the evening discourses: Goenka is a good speaker – he sits in a chair and talks for 75 minutes, no notes. He is entertaining, thot provoking and generally inspiring about the Vipassana technique.
WHAT’S THIS??? Under my snow angel, someone wrote (in the snow): “Snow Angel or Devil – Diablo”. I am dumbfounded – I’ve never heard of a snow devil. Then, under it all, someone wrote: “Equanimity”. That’s right – no judgment. Goodness, this stuff in the snow is becoming DRAMA.
Day 7. I remember that I am here because of those negative tapes I keep playing – how am I doing there? UFFDA! Not so well, here is a short snippet: I am in the dining hall and note that the person who arrived after me, did not pull the door completely shut. My reaction is immediate: WHAT THE HECK? YOU’VE BEEN HERE 7 DAYS AND NOT NOTICED YOU HAVE TO PULL THE DOOR TO CLOSE IT?? Whoa! Why is my reaction so strong? This person is not bombing kids in Iraq – he simply did not pull the door shut. Next: I am standing in the food line – “why is that person taking so long to decide what they want for breakfast? We have the same stuff every day – has he not figgered that out??? And then the other guy – why is he taking so much food? He does not need all that food. And why is he taking so much time with tea?? (Wait – am I in a hurry? Where am I going? To do what?)
I am constantly making judgments (negative) about people – why?
I have no answer – that’s why I’m here….
Day 8. I notice that I am eating mindfully. I eat very slowly, chewing a lot, taking the time to thank every person who has contributed to the food that I am eating. Just for fun, I count my chews – 199 on one stewed prune; 25 minutes to eat a bowl of granola. YUM!
BUT – I’m getting bored again with the meditation technique – OK, Goenka, I’m ready for the final installment of the technique. BUT instead of talking about meditation, he outlines the next 2 days – no new technique! Did I miss something?? Any hints I didn’t catch? It gradually seeps into my bones – THIS IS IT! How can it be? Feeling sensations in various parts of my body will lead to enlightenment?? I keep reviewing the technique & everything he has said – this is it.
OK, I go over it for the umpteenth time: it’s all about the mind-body connection and cravings & aversions. According to Goenka, when we experience physical sensations, eg a sound, we classify it as giving pleasure or the opposite; if pleasure, we want to duplicate it and so develop a craving for it; if it’s unpleasant, we have an aversion toward it and seek to avoid it. These cravings/aversions are biochemical reactions and are etched into our “hard drive”. Goenka calls these sankharas – it’s like tying an emotional knot. Then – when we experience new sensations, they trigger related cravings/aversions – already in our hard drive. This explains why sometimes our reactions are out of all proportion, eg, my experience in the dining hall I described in day 7 above. Both cravings & aversions create misery in our lives – the way out is to not have either. That’s easier said than done. The big question: how to get rid of sankharas and not generate new ones? The answer: equanimity! Or the state of being equanimous: from equal – no good/bad or right/wrong. IT JUST IS.
The whole technique is about sensing/feeling things as they are – not how we want them to be. If we have no judgment as to whether our experiences are right/wrong, then we will not have cravings or aversions… and thus no more sankharas! According to Goenka, when no more sankharas are generated, then the backlog of them get discharged during meditation. Those tingling sensations? they are light sankharas – like waves in the water; and then there are the DEEP ones – the knots – they are old/deep sankharas – they are etched in rock. But – if you meditate enough, all those old sankharas flow thru you and your load is lightened –until finally – you reach ENLIGHTENMENT!! According to Goenka, it will probably take several life times of meditating to get there….
DAY 9. I’m still getting used to the fact that this is all there is to it. I was looking for something more glamorous; altho I have to admit – achieving equanimousness is very challenging. When feeling sensations in my body, I constantly think of them as pleasure/pain: the tingling is pleasure, the hard knots are pain – I want to get rid of them. BUT in this paradigm, they are considered tools – a vehicle for moving stuff through the system – discharging sankharas.
In the morning meditation, Goenka intones: “as you continue this practice, you may get to the place where you don’t have any major knots and you are feeling sensations on every part of your body. In that case, you can go inside your body and feel sensations thru out the inside of your body, and then after that ….” He goes on to list various phases we may experience. I tune him out – it’ll take me years to get to that place (if EVER).
That afternoon, I’m meditating in my room, and suddenly, I’m there – the place Goenka talked about this morning! I can’t believe it! I thot it would take years to get there – now what?? I follow the instructions – I go inside my body – feeling sensations there – I’m totally HIGH. And I don’t encounter any dark spots or resistance – really? I check again and can’t find any resistance. I feel totally exhilarated and very light. Wait – it’s time for the afternoon session in the MH. I walk thru the maple grove – I feel so light – like half of normal gravity. My mind & body are buzzing. I’m very excited – this is the new ME – light & airy!
I’m wondering – should I ask the teacher about the phases Goenka talked about this morning because I might be there! Miraculously, Goenka repeats the same explanation in the next session. OH OH! I forgot something. He warns that if you get to the light body feeling, it is a precarious place – you think it’s gonna last – but remember – everything passes, nothing is permanent. Stay equanimous – OOPS – I think I blew it – within minutes, I feel myself crashing. I have massive pain: the clamp on my right ear extends through my head to the other side and then down my back. I am immobilized by this cramp/pain and can’t focus on any other sensations. This feels like instant karma. It was such chutzpah to think I had advanced so far – now, I’m paying for it (am I trapped in my old xian cosmology – you gotta pay for your sins?). By the end of the hour, I’m back to a more balanced and equanimous place. This too will pass – sooner than later, I’m praying – dang! I did it again! Not supposed to hope/pray something will pass – it’s another sankhara! I’m back in the dumps – will I ever make any progress? I lose my equanimity so easily.
Day 10. I’m feeling sad that it’s about over. Maybe becuz last nite I realized that to continue this process is gonna be a lot work – I have a huge backlog. But – what else is there? What other program can I think of to ease my negativity? I may as well try this – my stuff is definitely stirred up. I decide to continue this practice (Goenka’s suggestion is to meditate an hour in the morning and an hour at night every day for a year). I decide to give it 3 months.
At 10 am, Noble Silence ends. I’m thinking – we’ve become so used to this silence, people will probably not talk right away or only in hushed tones if they do. WRONG! I go to my room to meditate and the dormitory is BUZZING – maybe there are only a few people talking, but in contrast to the previous silence, the sounds seem to reverberate. I take refuge in the MH and note that there are about 5-10 others there (mostly older folx). Later, we talk about it, the transition was too sudden for us – we preferred to less noise. At lunch, we are all talking – I make sure I get to know a few guys that I find particularly interesting. That nite the dorm is buzzing with conversations.
During the evening meditation and next morning, Goenka gives us one last meditation exercise – for world peace, “let all beings be happy.” I’ve heard it before – from friends who have done Vipassana. I like it. But Goenka draws out the chanting and the words v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y – it’s excruciating & painful to listen to – a total turn off. I can’t wait for it to be over. I wonder: does this work in India? – certainly not here. Later, I check my reaction with another student – he had the same response – whew! at least, I’m not the only one.
Day 11. After a last Goenka discourse at 4:45 am and then breakfast at 6:30, it’s over. We clean our bedrooms & bathrooms, and volunteers clean all the common areas. The mood is effervescent. I don’t linger too long because I’ve scheduled an organic inspection on my way back home.
I’ve brought a bucket of sorghum for a donation to the kitchen at the Center. On impulse, I hand out small jars of sorghum to everyone I meet as I am leaving the dormitory and dining hall. Goenka had talked of service – to give for the joy of it – expecting nothing in return. We all experience that joy: giving/receiving.
BACK HOME. I’ve been home 2 weeks now and am continuing to meditate for an hour twice a day. Morning sessions feel more productive than evening ones (I’ve missed and/or cut short several evening ones). I feel a diminishing enthusiasm for the whole thing – but for now, I’m continuing.
- I feel lighter – like my karmic baggage is lessening…
- I am more aware of the mind-body connection – the interplay of energies between my mental and physical states.
- I am more aware of my body – how it feels, especially when I wake up, but also thru out the day. I am still amazed at the different sensations in various parts of my body and how they change: by the hour and day. (Also, I had assumed it would be easier to feel sensations in the more sensitive parts of my body – eg lips, nipples, penis, scrotum, anus. NOT SO! Exactly the opposite; in fact, I did not feel sensations there until after the course, when I meditated at home.)
- I fear that the edge of my mental sharpness is dulling: when I meditate now, I frequently double track – checking my physical sensations is on “auto pilot”, allowing my mind to wander…
- It seems that at least ¾ of the blockages/pain (sankharas?) I feel are on the right side of my body – the right ear no longer has a clamp on it, but that side of my head is often numb during meditation.
* I think I am less reactive – I check my automatic responses more quickly.
- I feel (hope?) I am less judgmental – I still notice the little things that people do that annoy me – but they don’t have the same weight – I can see more easily why folx do what they do & why they do them.
- I am aware of spending a lot of time/energy running scenarios thru my mind; in fact, I appear to be addicted to playing out future scenes in my head before they ever happen. I want to get it “right” – so I won’t feel embarrassed later. When I catch myself in this cycle, I try to STOP it – “don’t worry, I’ll get there…”
- Have I changed/am I a new person? Don’t worry – you’ll recognize me….
- central contradiction: Goenka claims this method leads to ego dissolution; yet the whole process is one of self absorption: IT’S ALL ABOUT ME.
- Cosmology: the cultural cradle of Vipassana is India (Eastern), Hindu/Buddhism; I find myself comparing/translating it into the paradigm I grew up with – Western, Christian; eg, sankhara = sin; nirvana = heaven; pleasure/pain = good/evil, etc.