A Vipasanna Silent Meditation Experience: Thoughts and Observations (Part 1)
March 24, 2016
Writing this reminds me of my attempt to write about the camino. Words are never quite enough to encapsulate experience. Our memories of things distort what we thought we felt or experienced at the time. And thus, I’m suffering the same affliction in my attempt to put into words what I experienced during 10-days of silent meditation. Possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in life.
For those requiring a brief rundown: I recently completed a 10-day vipassana course at the Dhamma Dipa Centre in Herefordshire, England. What that entails is joining a retreat, pledging as a student to follow the precepts of the teachings (which require a noble silence – no conversing, no sensual input (reading, movies, phones etc.,) and then spending 10 days in meditation.
What I found it to actually be was an exercise in spirit and mental fortitude. Yes vipasanna is an ‘educational’ course but it was also, at least for me, a huge test. Being alone with only your mind for company and stimulus, especially when you’re haunted by all myriad of mental falterings and demons, can only be described as torturous and horrific. But entirely necessary if you ever hope to liberate yourself from everything you perceive to be holding you back.
And ultimately, before I dive into further analysis, some kind of liberation is what I got. I recognise that everything I associate with myself (or what I assume to be my ego) is simply an invention and imagination of the mind. Being reminded of this, as you incessantly are during vipassana, can be, I believe, a healthy dose of reality for all people. Especially those striving and suffering to get here or there. Believing the stakes are high and that the outcome matters. That they need this or that. That something, in the future, will ‘complete’ them or deliver them a certain sense of happiness or peace.
The truth is none of it will. And to understand that you can’t intellectualise it. You have to experience it.
So that’s my neat little summary. And it’s one I’m trying to remain unattached to because of the foreboding sense of dissatisfaction I have in not quite being able to formulate what I actually want to say. I’ll breathe now. And continue.
For the sake of formula, what follows are just some of the thoughts and comments I wish to make about my vipassana experience. Hopefully, if you’re thinking about doing it, or don’t know anything about it, these might help you or interest you in some way.
Reality As It Is
One of the fundamental core concepts you learn to observe during vipasanna (as you’re a student of a technique after all) is how to recognise reality.
We all assume reality is what we see, feel, hear and experience. And, to some extent, at the sub-atomic level we’re right. But we’re also unequivocally wrong. The only reality we are actually experiencing are the sensations we feel throughout our body. Those are atoms fusing and breaking. Those are pains coming and going.
Everything else is projection or assumption. We think we have this sensation because of this thought or idea.
As the teacher of vipassana, Goenka says, an alcoholic isn’t addicted to alcohol, they’re only addicted to the sensation that drinking gives them.
When you consciously observe this, as 12-hour days of meditation inevitably will, you see just how much of what you perceive to be you, the world and others, is simply a story you’ve told yourself. That the reality you perceive is an invention of the mind and your reaction to stimulus.
Coming out of vipassana I’ve taken this as the biggest lesson and am trying to use it to help prevent myself falling into the trap of taking things so seriously and heaping importance on the inconsequential.
Craving and Aversion
Being in silent meditation is an almighty shock to the system. The first day felt like an interminable prison sentence (I actually kept repeating ‘interminable’ in my head). You don’t know what to do with yourself.
Inevitably, as I was, you’re then bombarded with all your own negativity. I broke down emotionally on day three thinking about all the time I’d wasted being a scared little boy trapped in a man’s body afraid of people loving him and in turn afraid to love.
The craving to run away, to break out of the silence and shout “please listen to me”, to have things outside of my control, to distract myself with my phone, the internet or a myriad other things, all these continued to come so strongly to me throughout the whole course.
The aversion too. Hating aspects of my own physicality. My hair. My height. The way I’ve acted and treated people. Hating pains in my body. These also afflicted me.
When you’re left alone these are the things that come up. You can’t escape or hide. And therefore you end up processing them on some level, coming to peace with them and accepting them. The ability to recognise yourself, or your perception of yourself, is one of the greatest gifts vipasanna can bring to someone who’s view of themselves is strongly out of balance.
Fragility of Memory
This time a few weeks back I was deep into the course. Now, being out of it, it’s difficult to actually recall what I thought and felt in those moments. But at the time, denied any way of recording anything, you feel your senses so much more acutely. I also had the recurring feeling to write. To just stream my entire conscience and try and capture some of what I was feeling.
Now, looking back, it’s difficult to get back into those moments. I told myself, right after the silence was broken, not to forget how difficult and painful a lot of it was. Right now I struggle to recall those feelings. To actually remember just how much I wanted it to end and swore to myself never to repeat it.
Ask me right now and I’d definitely do it again. Perhaps that’s because I feel I’ve got a lot out of it. Perhaps it’s because of the fragility of my own memory.
Either way reflecting back on things you notice the faltering of your memory to recall things as you experienced them. This is the main thread in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling Upon Happiness and trying to talk about vipasanna in any way, be it writing or conversation, uncovers just how easily we forget how happy or unhappy we were in particular moments of our lives.
That’s why you can’t and shouldn’t trust your memory of things. Only your present experience.
Yours Is Your Only Head in Which to Live
Being surrounded by people, although men and women are segregated, means you do a lot of observing but never with the chance of engaging.
The effect of this is that you begin to project onto other people and read on their faces or expressions enjoyment or pleasure, fear or pain.
Glance over at someone a few metres from you and you’ll think to yourself just how comfortable and relaxed they appear while you suffer. Look at someone else and you’ll think to yourself just how miserable that person looks.
The point of all this is again extrapolation. What we always do in everyday life and why we often read so many people wrongly.
After, when the silence is broken during vipasanna, you can then begin to talk to people about their experiences. Then you’ll find that they weren’t experiencing what you perceived them to be feeling but rather the opposite. Likewise, they’re judgement of your experience also, will also ring out starkly different to how you relay it back to them in your own words.
The fact is we can’t see into each other’s heads. Honest communication is the only thing we have to go on in the hopes of understanding one another.
The Temporality of Pain
A lot of people, who’ve done vipassana, will probably be familiar with just how painful it is, physically, trying to meditate on the floor for hours on end each day.
Even if you meditate before going into a course, don’t assume you’ll be immune to this pain and won’t experience it.
The beauty of vipasanna though is that it gives you tools in which to observe the pain and understand the nature of it. Drawing your attention to the burning sensations in your back and feet and then trying to cultivate a sense of ‘equanimity’ toward them, really helps in illustrating how a lot of what our bodies and minds experience is provoked and agitated by drawing more attention in that direction.
When you’re taught to simply observe pain, by which I mean, at periods, agonising pain, you notice that your attention aggravates it in manifold ways. Switching your focus to another part of your body, it’s pretty interesting how such pain diminishes quite rapidly.
The temporality of all things, the universal law of impermanence, is nowhere more clearer than in paying close attention the experiences of the body and how such things come and go, rise and pass.
In experiencing that, you get a taste of what the objective of vipasanna, liberation from pain and suffering, might feel like.