On the first day of my Vipassana Meditation course, while we were still allowed to speak to our fellow meditators, I met two students who had already completed the course and were returning to refresh and deepen their practice. They were not the types you might expect to find on a meditation course – a computer scientist working on artificial intelligence and a combustion expert from Lawrence Livermore. I asked them if they had any advice for me as a first time student. One of them replied, “Don’t freak out.”
The other guy grinned, “Yeah, freak in.”
Though some of you might have been amused to see me freak out or move to Lhasa to herd goats, you must have known I would choose the boring, pious-sounding middle option and begin, if slowly, to recognize what Buddhists call Dhamma – the law of nature and the way to liberation. The ten days of silence and meditation never got any easier after the difficult third day but my experience grew richer as I began to understand some of the teaching and to meditate.
The fourth day, Vipassana day, was indeed a significant day. We were finally taught the Vipassana technique of meditation. I hesitate to describe it to you here because it may sound deceptively simple. Vipassana teaches that there are three types of wisdom: wisdom gained by listening to others; intellectual, analytical understanding; and wisdom based on direct personal experience. This third type of wisdom, that which can only be gained by direct personal experience, is the essence of Vipassana meditation. Any understanding you could gain from my description or by reading about the technique would fall far short of the reality of direct experience.
I’m not supposed to teach the Vipassana technique but I am allowed to describe it. Although my description won’t do it justice I think it’s worth trying so you can get a sense of what the practice involves.
I don’t think I would have been able to begin to practice Vipassana without the preceding three days of focusing on my nose, in complete silence and stillness with no interruption or distractions from the outside world. In retrospect, I recognize that the technique we practiced for the first three days – Anapana meditation, focusing on the breath and sensations around the nose – and all the rules and restrictions about leading a moral life and eliminating distractions, were imposed as a means to an end, to condition our minds and bodies for the work ahead. This is where I cue the inspirational music and roll the Rocky-style meditation training montage. Or perhaps not. There is a reason you’ve never seen an action movie about meditation.
In it’s simplest form Vipassana meditation, as taught by Goenka-ji, asks that you:
“Move your attention systematically from head to feet and from feet to head, observing in order each and every part of the body by feeling all of the sensations that you come across. Observe objectively; that is, remain equanimous with all the sensations that you experience, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, by appreciating their impermanent nature. Keep your attention moving…”
We started out slowly that first day, trying to feel sensations, actual physical sensations, at the top of our heads. After a minute or so, I felt a prickling sensation, like the individual hairs on my head moving or ants crawling across my scalp. We were then directed to move our attention through our faces, which for me at least was easy. Things got much harder when we were asked to focus in turn on each part of our arms, chest, stomach, back and legs. Some areas I could feel, but vast swathes of my body seemed unreachable, blank. I would focus for minutes at a time on an area before some small nerve would twitch and I could move on. They call this type of meditation “work” and it is.
Over the course of those first hours and in the days ahead I gradually built up my sensitivity to the point where I could survey from my head to my feet and from my feet to my head, feeling sensations in most every part of my body in about 10-15 minutes per scan. It was gratifying to at last feel like I was making progress, although, of course, I wasn’t supposed to feel gratification. I wasn’t supposed to feel anything at all about it, as I was constantly reminded by Goenka-ji to remain objective and equanimous, that each sensation was impermanent.
The idea of focusing on actual sensations in your body is to hone in on something that is real and then, critically, not react to it. The underlying philosophy or belief, taken from Buddhist thought, is that our reactions to our cravings and our aversions are the source of all our misery. By mastering our own minds we build the strength and agility to observe but not to react to the cravings and aversions that fill our lives.
By day seven, although I felt I was continuing to make progress, the boredom of the empty hours was settling on me like the moss on the trees I passed dozens of times each day on my circuits through the woods. I was simultaneously so bored and so exhausted by the hours of meditation that I stopped meditating during the optional hours, only attending the compulsory sessions for one hour, three times each day. The other hours I filled with more walking and lying in my bed. There was nothing else to do.
On the seventh day Goenka-ji asked us to go deeper and I balked. With a new sternness and discipline in his voice he asked us to commit more fully, both physically and philosophically. First, physically, he asked that we take our surveying a step further. By now we were “sweeping” our bodies for sensations, our minds honed to the point where we could sweep our attention over the surface of our bodies, feeling sensations throughout. Goenka-ji asked that we begin penetrating our bodies during our surveying, choosing a point on the front side of our body and exploring inside to exit out the back.
This was too much for me. I had reached my limit of faith, belief or whatever it was that had sustained me thus far. Even if it was possible to feel sensations inside my body, which I doubted, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. During that session I gave up for the first time. I didn’t try to meditate but sat there, feeling frustrated with myself and angry at Goenka-ji for asking too much.
I thought about it a lot that night. I still had plenty of time to think, after all. I decided that I wasn’t reacting so much against the request to begin surveying inside my body as I was beginning to object to the underlying philosophy.
At the same time that Goenka-ji asked us to begin surveying inside, he warned us, more sternly than ever before, that this was a powerful practice we were learning and that it was not intended for us to “play games with sensations.” While the body-surveying was important, the real goal was not reacting to the sensation we felt – whether pleasant or unpleasant. This was something I was still struggling with – not only at the level of pure sensation, but at the deeper philosophical level of how it applies to my life. Did I want a life without the things I craved? Without the things that cause aversion? I was beginning to wonder if this was possible. How can one live the life of a “householder” in the modern world – be engaged in work, art and politics, have a wife and children – without desire and sacrifice? How or where can one draw the line between these essential desires and sacrifices and the forbidden cravings and aversions Goenka-ji insisted we not react to. This life might be possible, but only for a monk or a nun. Not for me.
There is an hour set aside each day to ask the teachers questions. I had gone once before to ask how Vipassana could fit with my yoga practice (no problem), and I went again to ask how it was possible to achieve the kind of non-attachment Vipassana requires while still remaining engaged in life.
I wasn’t expecting a perfect answer but the answer I got was both more and less than I had hoped for. “Work on your sitting practice, twice a day for an hour each time and the rest will work itself out,” the assistant teacher told me.
Thank you very little, I thought to myself, though with a smile of appreciation.
As I sat down for my first session on the eighth day I was very conscious that there were three days to go and at least nine hours of meditation for me to slog through.
So, as Goenka-ji gently urged at the beginning of many sessions, I started again. I started slowly by focusing on my breath and my nose. Then I felt the usual tingling at the top of my head, sensations down my arms, my chest, my back, my legs and returning up through each part of my body. My mind grew sharper. My forehead tingling in a lovely way, my twisted legs throbbing in pain: no reaction. As I was surveying across the surface of my chest, I turned my attention inside. At first I felt the outlines of a lump as it throbbed with a dull, heavy pain. It was only after a minute, as my mind wrapped its subtle eyes and hands around the dull throbbing lump, that I realized it was my heart I could feel, beating inside my chest.