Last week, I described the Vipassana Silent Retreat I attended this year. Today, I finish describing my experience, beginning with my experiences with meditation.
SITTING. Jeeze Louise, sitting. What a task. We do it all the time right, it’s a rest pose for goodness sake! Fortunately meditation doesn’t require you to sit perfectly still in lotus position, it’s not about inflicting pain on yourself…supposedly(?!). Until you get accustomed though, it kind of feels that way. The back pain, the knee pain, the numb bum, the neck pain, the shoulder pain, the dead legs. I didn’t realise my arms were so heavy! You can adjust yourself, but remember you don’t want to disturb the other students, so you have to try and keep It to a minimum. One of the purposes of the yoga asanas is to make the body physically fit to be able to sit for prolonged periods of time. I now see why!! Eventually though it does get easier and a few days in you are asked to try and sit still for few one hour sits a day, and it is definitely achievable.
The aim of this meditation is to quiet the mind so that we can purify it and liberate ourselves from the suffering we bestow upon ourselves. It works to undo the conditioning of our mind which has been built up through our reactions to experiences in our lives. If we become less reactive to these triggers and more accepting of what is, then we can move back to our natural state of love and positivity. Ultimately Vipassana attempts to teach you to enter into a state of equanimity. Equanimity (a new word for me) means having objective observation and acceptance for every moment AS IT IS, so as not to lose the balance of the mind.
Ok I’m obviously summarising here, I’m not a teacher and I can’t possibly preach the teachings of the Buddha after one course. But here’s the basics.
It is said that human beings generate misery upon ourselves for two reasons we either crave a positive feeling and become attached to it and want it to last forever or we create fear and aversion to a negative feeling; the root of anxiety and worry. Doing this however is fruitless, why? Well as we all know, nothing is permanent. Gotema the Buddha (Buddha is a title given to an enlightened person, so there’s not just one, but it was Gotema who developed the Vipassana technique) says the the law of nature is that ‘everything changes.’ Think about it…. we know this. Every second, every nanosecond, everything in the world, even in the make up of our body things are constantly changing. So why get attached to these feelings of aversion and craving, when ultimately they will pass?
So this is all well and good intellectualising all this. Just be present and content in the now cause nothing else exsists….. umm yea HOW?! It’s putting it into practice that is the tricky part. This is how the Vipassana meditation technique works… through an experiential method. You observe subtle and gross sensations on your skin and this starts to put the theory into practice. Now I would consider myself very open minded,…I’ll take someones word up to a certain point but I for sure won’t believe something just cause someone says it true, I need evidence or logic. So to help you get on board I’ll give you a logical example. Think about when something really moves you emotionally…. you can get goosebumps right? An emotion creating a sensation on out skin. This to me supports the idea of the neurological link between the skin and emotions.
I never studied pyschology and the only neuroscience I learnt relates to eyeballs but according to the research I did on Google (seemingly legitimate scientific journal articles) there is what is known as a visceral link between the sensations on our skin and perception, cognition, emotion and behaviour. How we react, and thus behave, is in response to emotions we feel. So if we can change and control how we react, then reverse this, we can then change our emotions. When we do this then we can reach the goal….a state of equanimity By repeated practice of this meditation we become more and more aware of subtle sensations on our skin, this in turn heightens the awareness of our mind.We also face painful sensations (see above re sitting for hours on end!) we deal with that by appericiating that nothing is permanent. Eventually the aches ease.
With heightened awareness we can become more present and aware, rather than reacting blindly and out of ignorance and habit. For example, there may be certain situations you react, and then after some time passes, you’re like, yikes maybe I overreacted a wee bit there. When awareness increases, it’s creates a mental ‘pit stop’, a pause to analyse and choose our action, this allows our conditioned reactions to decrease. The more we do this, the easier it becomes.
So, after all of that crash course in the theory of Vipassana meditation, now I’m going to tell you what happened me. Have you ever seen a computer crash? It throws up a pile of old files on it’s screen at random. That is my best analogy to describe what happens in a Vipassana. Some memories flashed up to me, things that I don’t ever remember giving a second thought to since the day it happened. Some seemingly irrelevant and others, wow, well pretty significant. And I’m talking olllldddd files. My brain really dug deep in there. It was fascinating. At times, I’m not going to lie they were overwhelming. I feel that is the purpose of the silence, to really quiet the top surface of the mind so we can dive deep down inside. The course teacher actually describes it as brain surgery! This allows us to get to the root of our Sankaras (this is the sanskrit term for triggers I guess). By shining awareness on the root of it, and reminding ourselves that nothing is permanent, we can start to change our reaction to it. Please note I said START, there wasn’t actually a surgeon going in and rewiring the brain circuit here. But in my experience it’s definitely a start.
Some days during the Vipassana are harder that others, Interestingly the teacher actually said at the beginning which days people generally find the most difficult, mine was true for one but suprisingly the last few days were the hardest for me. There were times I felt like I was trapped in a black hole: did life other than sitting on this cushion actually ever exist? Other times, I became so fully present, I felt I had reached a state of pure bliss. I felt ecstatic about brushing my teeth and feeling my face on my pillow, feeling water running over my skin,, everything felt like the best feeling ever. When I ‘lost’ that feeling though, boy, talk about a come down, that was the toughest day. I was craving and clinging to that sensation…exactly what we were not supposed to be doing! You can imagine the internal dialog that ensued…. “you’ve been sitting here quiet for 8 days and still you’re craving, if you can’t do it after all this time are you ever going to be able to drop these attachments? And look now the course ends in 2 days, get your act together quickly or the whole thing was a waste of time…bla bla bla, mind chattering away in circles. Eventually though, as is the law of nature, everything changes and I caught myself. Everything is as it is, accept every moment as if it has been chosen.
SO. After all of this. Did anything change? HELL YEA! Ok I’m not levitating….yet. Maybe one day who knows, but it’s the first step. For sure though I notice a difference in myself. Not all the time. When I do trip up though, I can catch myself much quicker. I’m like duuhh that was craving or aversion and sure what, nothing lasts for ever this moment will pass. The memories still flash up randomly, my mind feels sharper and I would say I feel a lot less agitated and less reactive to things. I am not inert, the conditioning is not undone, but if I do react, like I say it won’t take long for me to go ohhhh look at you. SLEEP! Oh how the quaity of my sleeping has improved.
It’s recommended once you’ve completed a Vipassana course you should mediate for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening every day. Sometimes I do it sometimes I don’t make time, but hey, what can I say…. it is what it is.