Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Vipassana - see things as they really are

Imagine being in a prison compound with a 10 hour working days, for 10 days, 2 meals a day, no speaking, no contact, no smiling and still it was one of the best experiences of your life and you would return again voluntarily. Well that’s exactly what I did for my Christmas and new years break.
I just returned from a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat from 26 December 2013 to 6 January 2014, ending one era and beginning another.

Vipassana means "to see things as they really are". It is a pre-Buddhist meditation technique that was revitalized and popularized by Gautama Buddha 2,500 years ago.Vipassana is not a religion. It’s not a cult. It’s a practice. 

On the Vipassana retreat you have 10 days of training in the purest form of meditation that was taught by the Buddha, maintained by a small number of monks in Burma over the past 2500 years. It’s not sectarian – Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Baptists, Muslims and Atheists can practice Vipassana meditation. It holds no conflicting beliefs with any religion, and it’s actually very scientific, which is interesting since it was created a few thousand years before the dawn of modern science. Vipassana teaches you to objectively observe your experience of reality, without judgment or reaction. You experience reality through your body. You THINK about reality through your mind, but you can actually only EXPERIENCE reality through the senses of your body.

During 10 days of silence – no conversations with anyone else, no eye contact, no input from books or TV or the internet, no cell phones, no nothing – you really get to know yourself. The clarity is incredible. You get to observe the insane workings of your own mind. And that’s the funny thing – we’re all insane. One definition of insane is “in a state of mind that prevents normal perception.” We don’t actually perceive reality, we perceive what our minds think about reality.

One of the things that appeals to me most about Vipassana is that it’s a practice for daily life. It is a tool which, if used, will actually change you, and make your life better. It teaches you to observe, question, experience, and come to your own conclusions. This appeals to me in a way that no religion ever has, since most religions rely on dogma, ideology, blind faith, rites and rituals; not actual work towards making yourself a better person.

One of the primary concepts that Vipassana is built on is that of impermanence. Throughout the course we are reminded to understand, to watch and see, that everything is temporary. All situations, people, pleasures, pains, and sensations rise and fall from our experience of them. Nothing is forever. We are meant to witness this universal truth within meditation in every moment, so that we may realize experientially the wisdom of the concept.

Goenka, the teacher of the technique, introduces us to the ancient sanskrit word anicca (pronounced “an-itch-ah”), which means impermanence.  We often fall back on this word during practice to remember that everything within our meditation arises and passes. This understanding liberates the mind from conditioned suffering so that we may make a new choice, from a new state of mind, a balanced state of mind.

During the meditations, with the understanding of anicca, the understanding of impermanence, I calmed the mind into an extremely peaceful and content state of awareness. From this perspective, all aversion and craving stops. The pain of the body is nullified by the pure understanding of the way things are in this moment. Additionally, all cravings for pleasurable sensations, like peace, bliss, or ecstasy (which occur naturally in this state of meditation) do not arise to cause misery producing attachment.

During the few times that I reached a deep equanimus state of mind, I lost most of the feeling of my body, and became very light. It was an unshakable peace of mind where true freedom is felt. No words can describe the feeling of peaceful contentedness that occurred.
The instructions, played out over the speakers, are straightforward: observe your breath for three days, then observe your body for seven.
Sitting still and silent on my cushion, I learn that observing my breath at the point where it exits the nostrils focuses the brain. That by observing my breath, I am learning to observe myself. Anger and peace at the subtlest level are all in my breath. For breath, I learn, is spirit itself.
As the practice deepens, my chaotic thoughts and emotions, memories fond and painful, yield all manner of sensations: pain in my joints, leaps in my chest, tingling behind my neck. I am told not to suppress them, but not to chase after them either. I am simply to observe them on their journey through me. When emotions are observed, not suppressed or amplified, they filter through quicker, leaving a smaller residue behind. Sensations rise and pass. Just observe, they say. Don't react. This is unbelievably difficult.
The journey deepens. Heavier sensations dissolve from the body and awareness sharpens. Meditating for hours is throwing myself wide open: I am part of a rush of energy far bigger than myself.
Two of the main causes of suffering are cravings and aversions. Addictions/desire and fear/hatred. But there is a greater truth than this, and that is that all things are impermanent. All cravings and aversions are impermanent. Your body is impermanent. Every experience you have, every thought you have, is impermanent. You experience the truth of impermanence through experiencing the impermanence of the sensations of your body, and during Vipassana meditation you practice not reacting to these sensations; they’re impermanent anyways. Over time, this leads to equanimity. Peace. That one thing that every single human wants, deep down. Peace.
The goal of daily Vipassana practice is to bring forth this equanimity of mind into daily life, where it can be extremely valuable in any situation.  We all face tough problems, difficult conversations, and unexpected crises, but from this state of mind, anyone can triumph.
There is a truth to this world that can be experienced by any individual. To be in alignment with that truth is to automatically live in perfect happiness, balanced harmony, and true success. No suffering. Zero. It is possible within each of us.
Vipassana resonates as being the truest path to freedom and happiness of anything I’ve found. I think it’s because it’s so simple, so personal, so direct. It’s just you. Within you is everything you need. So simple, and so true.

“Liberation can only be gained by practice, never by mere discussion.” –Goenka

1 comment:

  1. Plato was about 60 years after Buddha in Greece, he said you cannot know reality directly… only through reason (he spoke about the allegory of the cave, where we can’t tell real from false projection fooling our senses.

    Aristotle, a few years after him thought you could only know reality through the senses… so in that way … he agreed with Buddha.

    The clarity IS incredible. It’s like super-charging your higher-brain.

    There’s a Taringa Vipassana centre, they have sits, and once a month - 1 day courses (6 hours, approx.) Very nice facility and grounds. I went a few times.
    I’d be happy to join you for a sit there or elsewhere.

    Religions were processes to become better people too, from around 3000 BCE, and the development of an Axial Age, but they did it through story telling traditions, and sacred works, devotional prayer, etc, and in a sense it wasn’t separate from their daily lives… because it incorporated communal life and roles, belief system, family ties, agriculture, language, trade and transmission through the generations in a coherent system.

    In the world since, we have other spiritual paths, and then modern thinking like psychology and analysis… but they’re all to help people grow, to knit community to preserve our values (like survival, progeny, love, culture, endurance). Yes, they can have a down-side to them… it depends on what you’re focusing on.

    Changing experience is a ‘constant’ phenomenon. Meditation senses the present moment… joining left (past) and right(future) hemispheres in synchronic activation. Everything does change, but luckily it stays stable enough for us to durably live our lives through… thankfully. Between being rigidly static… and being chaotically overwhelmed by a changing environment… there is a pace of change that we can adapt to, one that supports life.

    Mindfulness is interesting. It relates to the higher brain, which is dispassionate, detached, conscious... and a major integrative area of the brain.

    It doesn’t address the emotional/social brain so much, for which there are more direct techniques, like Tonglen, and even modern practices of compassionate exchange and psychotherapy. In later developments in Buddhism the focus shifts from personal practice to compassionate practice (from Hinayana, to Mahayana)… and later developments still incorporated passionate practice (Vajrayana, Tantra, incorporating sexuality as the highest yoga tantra or ultimate union on their path)... things get very visceral at that end.

    Very beautifully written piece, Melinda.