Vipassana meditation - 10-day journey to the depth of our minds
After 9 months of traveling the world around us we took a 10-day detour to the depth of our own minds. At the marvelous facility of Dhamma Kamala in Prachinburi, Thailand, we took a 10-day course of Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is a meditation technique discovered by Gotama Buddha (the Buddha) and currently taught around the world in the donation-based centres founded by Mr S.N. Goenka from Myanmar. When staying at a “Goenka” Vipassana centre for 10 days you follow a very intensive meditation schedule (about 10 hours a day), you also do not talk to anybody, there is complete segregation of men and women, you do not eat after noon and starting from Day 3 you are asked not to change your posture during the 1-hour long group meditation sittings, but all these rules are meant only to help you give a fair chance to the technique and progress in it.
Here is what the daily schedule looks like:
It might look tough but you would be amazed to discover how many people, of how many different ages, of what diverse physical and mental fitness take the course and reach the last day with a smile. Ok, great, it’s doable, but WHY DO THEY DO IT?
Have you ever wondered what Buddha really discovered over 2.5 thousand years ago, and what exactly he was getting free from in his determined search of “Liberation”? … With Buddhism having turned long-long ago into yet another organized religion or a spiritual hype, probably not many people could answer these questions.
The thing is, long before Freud with his psychoanalysis, and Maxwell with his electromagnetic field, and string theory scientists of modern times, and the Wachowski brothers with the Matrix, Prince Siddhartha Gotama was doing the most profound scientific research involving all of the above concepts – all within the framework of his body. And his discovery was correspondingly very scientific and very rational, free of any spiritual musings or interpretations or sectarianism – based on pure and objective observation, just like any scientific research, with the only peculiarity about it being that his lab was his own body and his study objects were his own bodily sensations. And what he discovered and was very eager to share with the world was the technique of Vipassana meditation.
You might have quite some emotional anchors or associations with the word “meditation”, especially if it starts with some picturesque Pali name, but if you look through words, names and emotional “blankets” you will see pure reason and logic in what it accomplishes and how it works. Vipassana, translated from Pali, means “seeing deeply/clearly” and is a practice of self-transformation through objective observation of bodily sensations. It is simply a training of the mind in how it interacts with the body, and being nothing but a training (I couldn’t stress this enough) is free from any mysticism, spiritualism, sectarianism, blind beliefs, rituals etc. etc. Just like any training, it is meant simply to strengthen (and consequently purify) the object of your training – and in case of Vipassana it’s the whole of your mind, starting with the conscious (surface) level of it and reaching all the way through to the deepest level – the hidden iceberg of the mighty Unconscious. And just like in case of physical or brain training, the benefits of training your mind to the deepest level of it are beyond questioning.
Check out how this technique progresses:
1) You start by observing your breath, just natural soft breath as it comes in and out of your nostrils. Such a seemingly simple task, but try it for about a minute and see how you do. Where you able to stay focused on just your breath for a mere 60 seconds? If yes – congratulations, you can go directly to Day 3 of a 10-day Vipassana course. If you are normal, then it would take you about 20 hours of almost continuous meditation to train your conscious mind to be able to do it.
2) Ok, now that you’ve tamed the wild horse of your mind to a reasonable degree and it doesn’t jump around from breath to thoughts or sensations the way it wants to, you can proceed to the next stage – observing the bodily sensations. So on Day 3 in the Vipassana course, along with the breath you are asked to observe any sensations that you might have in the small triangular area around your nostrils, just this – breath and sensations.
First breath, now sensations… looks too simple, right? But this is precisely what Buddha’s discovery was about! What he found was that anything we “encounter” from the external world with one of the physical senses, or any thought we have inside our own minds, in short – anything we experience – results in a bodily sensation! The normal – untrained, untamed – mind is too weak and unfocused to be able to feel all those sensations, so normally it will only discern the very gross ones (like hot/cold, itchy, pleasant/awful smell, feels good/feels bad etc.) but a properly concentrated mind, a mind trained to stay aware will discern many more, and much subtler sensations.
3) Ok, now that you have a much better awareness of your bodily sensations (actually, when very aware you would discover that even the tiniest areas of your body have sensations at any given time) you can start doing the actual practice: training your mind to be able to observe all of these sensations with absolute equanimity. That’s the last block. Like the above two, it might look easy, but try stay in the same cross-legged posture for about an hour and check how equanimous you will remain about the excruciating pain you get after the first half hour in your knees, or hips, or back, or all of those. If you pull all your will together and manage to get into an indifferent state of mind, somewhere amid all this pain during the next few days of your Vipassana course you would get your first and most important revelation about the body-mind phenomenon: that any painful sensation that arises on the body if observed “indifferently”, as if your body was just a lab and you were a scientist, does not really “hurt” you, and it’s only when you “get involved” when you mind kind of “amplifies” that painful sensation. Somewhere amid this pain you learn that physical pain is quite easy to tolerate when you don’t grow it exponentially by making it a mental pain. This might sound a bit far-fetched and very difficult to believe, but when you discover it through your own experience, trust me – at least momentarily you will feel “liberated”.
So yes, as to this term “Liberation”, what exactly does it mean? In modern language I would define it as freeing yourself from the huge load of accumulated behavioural patterns, all of which have the root in one simple flaw of our unconscious mind – it reacts to any sensation immediately, including the ones so subtle that our conscious mind is totally unaware of it, without leaving our conscious mind any choice as to whether we want to react. Simple example: someone says something annoying to you personally – next thing you know is that you feel irritated or angry feeling very justified in your indignation. But when you look at it deeper, what really happened was: you came in contact with an external object (someone’s words), you heard them – your conscious mind was aware of that part. But what also happened but is not accessible to an untrained conscious mind is that at the same time you heard the words, your unconscious mind felt a specific unpleasant sensation arising somewhere on your body – and reacted immediately with aversion (“It’s so unpleasant, I never want to feel this sensation again”), following the usual habit pattern for the painful sensations. Such unconscious reaction in its turn will produce some irreversible bio-chemical reactions which exhibit themselves on your body as faster breath, higher adrenaline and all the other usual stuff that makes you feel the way you feel, point, deal with it. On the other pole we have exactly the same mechanism running for the pleasant sensations – our unconscious mind reacts with craving long before our conscious mind can control it (in cases, such mental patterns of craving for a specific pleasant sensation manifest in daily life as addictions).
The important realization of the Buddha (and one that makes Freud’s psychoanalysis look like a pale shadow of it, the realization which if taught to people at schools would make all the shrinks around the world jobless) is that the true reality of who we are unfolds itself at the depth of our mind – on its unconscious level. By training the concentration skills of our conscious mind and in such a way making it aware of the deeper sensations felt by the unconscious mind as a result of coming in contact with any external object or thought, we can - and here comes the real conclusion – break the habit of the unconscious mind to react with craving or aversion to these extremely short-lived sensations, and in such a way – get free from the continuous agitation of the mind (“I want this”, “I hate this”, “This hurts”, “This is nice – I want more of it” etc.) and enjoy a true peace of mind, true happiness…
When you think about it this way, we are all just slaves of our own bio-chemical reactions. On the surface level people have more or less money, fulfilling or unfulfilling jobs, big or no house, better or worse relationship, supportive or difficult family etc etc, but deep at the core this is not at all what defines how happy or unhappy we are. Take Mr S.N. Goenka, the founder of the centres: born in Mandalay in a family of Indian origin he became one of Myanmar's leading businessmen managing an international company with offices all around the world. At the age of 30 he became president of the Yangon Chamber of Commerce. With all the external signs of success according to himself he was a very miserable short-tempered and egoistic person. Stress brought on crippling migraine headaches, which the world's best doctors were helpless to cure and he had to turn to morphine for temporary relief. And then he found Vipassana (or Vipassana found him) and finally experienced the true inner peace (in a world free of migraines).
We all know what true happiness feels like – you feel so good, peaceful, undemanding, that you become totally oblivious of space and time, there are no thoughts of the past or anticipation of the future, you are truly in the now and unlike in many other situations, where your mind keeps sweeping the time-line in search of pleasant sensations resulting from pleasant thoughts, you could linger in this one forever… Vipassana, also called the Art of Living, helps you achieve such happiness by making you quit the autopilot of unawareness and getting true control over your mind, turning it into a diligent loyal partner instead of a whimsical unreliable acquaintance.
… But yeah, all this said, on a profound level, the sensations are what the Game of Life is about. If you think about it, we are all about sensations: we feel, we experience, we like and dislike some, we develop habits, get attached, we have an image of WHO WE ARE based on what our memories and character (= established MENTAL PATTERNS) are about… Vipassana can free you from all that, but the choice of whether you want to savour every sensation or be beyond their reach is the same like choosing the colour of the pill in “The Matrix”.
If you choose for the “red pill” of Vipassana, the practice brings along many amazing discoveries about the true nature of reality, of who we truly are and the physical phenomena behind our mind and body. As your awareness grows, through your own experience you discover things that were outside the scope of your universe before. It’s like if you were born with your eyes closed and through some practice you managed to open your eyes, and then imagine your vision were weak in the beginning so you keep making it stronger through the same practice: the reality that will keep unfolding after you start with the practice will seem like a totally new world, you will acquire a new dimension. As you practice, you believe only what you EXPERIENCE, not what you heard, not what you read, not what you think – only what you yourself EXPERIENCE, within the framework of your own body, going to bigger and bigger depth of your own mind. There is no purer way to understand and know than this one...
Both me and Jordi really enjoyed the course and we will try to maintain the practice. Feel free to contact us with any questions and comments regarding this post. For those who might be interested in a course, there are centres all over Europe, USA and Asia. Check the Vipassana website http://www.dhamma.org for more information and the course schedule.
And… Be Happy :-) !
And here are some photos of the Dhamma Kamala centre that we took on the last day of the course after the noble silence was lifted and it was possible to use a camera.
All Goenka centres are located in quiet places with a lot of nature but easily reachable from cities:
There are ponds with lotus flowers, and palm trees, and birds all around the centre premises:
The pond just in front of my dormitory:
The view from the Meditation Hall:
The dormitory buildings - mine and Jordi's:
Inside the dormitories you have two rows of small single rooms:
Our rooms (guess whose is the untidy one :-) ):
Plenty of sinks to wash the dishes and showers - with so many people at the course there was never a single queue:
The food is 100-percent vegetarian and really really good (fresh, tasty and healthy). You eat breakfast at 6:30 and lunch at 11:00 and somehow with the whole schedule there are no pangs of hunger in between the meals:
The canteen and extra tables in the common area. With almost 80% of people in the course being women, the canteen was only available on the female side of the centre premises:
Noble silence turned into noble chatting on the last day:
Signs are in English (the official language of all the centres) and Thai:
Entrance to the Meditation Hall, like the rest of the areas, is separated into two paths for men and women, but it was possible for me and Jordi to see each other now and then while walking to the Hall:
The view at the meditation hall from Jordi's side:
Left - our Teacher's place. Right - Jordi's pillow: