15 February 2010


a travelogue through inner space 

Vipassana is to see things as they really are.  What we focused on in the 10 day course was a new understanding of the body's physical sensations, and the way that those sensations trigger behavior, and later habits.

The retreat is set at in the countryside between Portland and Seattle.  There are a few buildings, all works-in-progress, and trails leading between them.  One of my favorite things about the place was a herd of deer that wandered through more than half the days.  They crumpled around on the grass and leaves completely unconcerned by our passing in silence.

We moved into the dorms the afternoon before the class and spoke a few words to our roommates before the first meditation meeting that evening.  At that point we took a vow of silence for the next 10 days, as well as a surrender to the rules and practices of the camp. We took on the 5 precepts of morality for the course, we would not kill, lie, steal, take any intoxicant, or commit sexual misconduct.  With the exception of proximity in the hall during group meditations we were segregated by sex for 10 days as well.  I found myself, especially lonely from the quiet as the course went on, admiring the women from afar.  They looked as though they were the World's Cuddliest Slumber Party™ in pajamas and slippers, wearing scarves and blankets.  The men, on the other hand, looked to be the Washington State Prison middle security work camp.  One of the rules, in order to preserve the sense of isolation, was to avoid even simple eye contact or gestures.  None of us shaved, and we had darting eyes and wild hair.

Permit me a brief summary as I remember it of the days as they progressed.  The teaching of the technique was very incremental, with consistant reinforcement and increasing of depth in practice.  Every day something new was introduced.  We had guided or individual meditation 5 or 6 times a day that began with recordings of chanting and instruction.  In the evening we would watch a discourse from the head teacher, S.N. Goenka.

Day 1  -  The course started with observation of natural breath, and specifically where the breath flowed into our nostrils and up our nose.  Everyone struggled to build their own personal throne from all sizes and shapes of cushions, kneeling benches, and blankets.

Day 2  -  The emphasis changed from simply experiencing the breath to feeling the subtle physical sensations that naturally occur due to the breath around the nose, upper lip, and nostrils.

Day 3  -  Further refinement to just the sensations in the small triangular area beneath the nostrils and above the upper lip

These first three days were a prelude to Vipassana meditation, referred to as anapana, or awareness of the breath.  They were a way to train the focus of the brain on the subtle physical sensations of the body.

Day 4  -  Vipassana day, this attention was turned to a systematic purview of the entire body and the reactions it has.  Aditthana was also introduced, which means strong determination.  This meant that we were to try as hard as we could not to move through the 1 hour group sittings.  Through aditthana we practiced equanimity to sensations, at first calm detatchment from and observation of pain, but also detachment from positive, pleasurable feelings that also occurred.  My first sitting of this type I had a breakthrough of willpower.  By the end of the sitting white light of pain was shooting up my lumbar muscles in my back but I pulled through better for the struggle
Day 5  -  Mexican food day at lunch.  When I walked into the dining room I was so excited I did the Tiger Woods fist pump.  We continued working on systematically examining our bodies part by part.

Day 6  -  For the first time I felt a flow of perspective over the surface of my body, as if someone was shining a flashlight quickly up and down it.

Day 7  -  I had a total space-out day.  I ended up trying to form Rasengan and Kamehameha.  I think I got close.

Day 8  and Day 9   -  We gradually increased the area of focus, working up towards a quick free flow throughout the body.  We were also asked to start trying to be aware at this level outside of meditation, in our daily walking and eating.

At the end of day 9 I had the most helpful and memorable experience of the entire course.  We had just completed last meditation of the night, and were standing outside the hall putting our shoes and jackets on.  My roommate approached someone else and said, "So I think we can talk now."  Several times it had been said that silence would be broken the next morning after meditation.  I remember looking at his goofy smiling face and feeling a wash of trembling and heat run through my body, as though someone had taken a bucket of the stuff and thrown it in my face.  I said, "No!" as someone else said, "Tomorrow." and then quickly walked away.  The perspective that I gained in that one moment of how anger stimulates my body, and my quick acknowledgment of the silliness of my anger, the uselessness of it let me release it 10 seconds after the event happened.  Of course, it was a small thing to become angry about in the first place, but the practice it provided, especially in a safe easy environment was overwhelming in potential.  Of course the goal is to eventually feel the sensations throughout the body and not react with anger, but realizing the reactions and changing behavior after the fact is the slow gradual path to this release from self-inflicted misery.

Day 10  -  After morning meditation we walked out of the hall and began speaking to each other.  Giddiness does not begin to describe the feeling.  Everyone was just so overjoyed to share their experiences with their fellow travelers.  There was a moment when I was laughing, talking to people on the porch outside, and all the good energy and pleasurable sensations of sharing with people made me feel lightheaded and a little dizzy. 

Day 11  -  We meditated one last time, ate breakfast, helped clean up and pack out, and then left.

Let me conclude with a few final impressions.  As a complete neophyte my criticisms don't carry that much weight, but there were a couple sticking points.  I felt as though the technique was a religious one, albeit practicable by followers of other religions.  Its history and inspiration are through the Buddha, and a number of the deeper level explanations of why things work border on mysticism from a traditional Buddhist view.  Certainly it is not a conversion to Buddhism, but continued practice leads down that path.  Part of my opinion likely lies in the difference between western and eastern thought, and the difference of philosophy and religion.  Far, far greater minds will be much more able to discuss and debate these topics than I could hope to.

However, the vast majority of the information and practice presented seemed totally logical and experiential.  I'm somewhat of an empiricist so this made the course continuously encouraging and gratifying.  Who could argue with an encouragement to know oneself better?

1 comment:

  1. Good Article Creighton
    I know how it feels after 10 days .