I just returned from a 10-day Vipassana retreat in the Yarra Valley outside Melbourne. It was my first experience of Buddhist practice and thought, and virtually my first experience of meditation.
The practice of Vipassana is a very particular type of meditation originating in India over 2,500 years ago based on the teachings of the Buddha, and then lost to India for many centuries. It survived in the original language, Pali (a language, like Latin or Sanskrit, existing now only in written form) in the neighbouring country of Burma until one man, S N Goenka, trained in the technique, travelled to India in 1969 to teach the technique to his ailing mother.
On arriving at customs, the story goes, he announced to the clerk he was carrying a “gem”, the gem of Dhamma (the universal law of life), which he was returning to its homeland. A few weeks later, Goenka held the first 10-day retreat in India for his mother and father and some of their friends. Those friends invited others, and soon, Goenka was instructing hundreds and then thousands of people in the technique. Goenka’s short trip to India has now lasted decades.
There are 50 of us, 30 women and 20 men. We consent to live by a vow of silence – Noble Silence – for the 10 days, meaning we will not speak to another person, nor touch them or glance at them or make eye contact with them. We are to consider ourselves alone in this place. There is no mixing of the sexes. The men live and eat and meditate in one area; the women in another. The gong rings at 4am and first meditation begins at 4:30am. Last meditation ends at 9pm and it’s lights out at 9:30pm. In between, there are meal breaks, a nightly discourse featuring a DVD of the master storyteller, Goenka, and 12 solid hours of sitting on a cushion meditating.
Breakfast and lunch are highlights, especially for the comfort they provide in the first few days when heavy rain adds to the midwinter gloom. Dinner is consistently shocking: a piece of fruit and a cup of tea.
Not speaking is easier than it sounds. After the initial strangeness, it’s very relaxing. As Day 4 – Vipassana Day – comes and goes, and the whole exercise becomes seriously hardcore, Noble Silence is the only thing that stands between the course and the possibility of everyone running away. Because without being able to speak, there is also no way to complain or gossip or compare experiences. There is an Assistant Teacher for the men and another for the women, and a Manager for each, and one can speak to these people, but the vow of silence elsewhere has the effect of keeping these exchanges to a bare minimum too. So when one wonders “what set me up for this?” or the term “concentration camp” crosses one’s mind, or the pain of sitting becomes immense and blots out the world, there is no one to complain to, and so one doesn’t.
Now about this pain …
I wasn’t expecting the pain, am still shocked by it. From Vipassana Day onwards, we are requested to adopt the attitude of “strong determination” in three of the one-hour meditation sessions. This means meditating without moving, without opening one’s eyes, one’s hands or one’s legs. One will sit like a stone, impassive, perfectly “equanimous”, to use Goenka’s favourite term.
This may not sound like a big deal and yet it is the hardest thing I have ever done. The pain can start as early as 5 or 10 minutes in, and then an endless 50 minutes of purgatory stretches out ahead. By 45 minutes in, the pain is so vast that in the first session of “strong determination” I felt my whole body from the waist down solidify into a block. And then the shaking starts. Out of fear, out of pain, I don’t know. When the 60 minutes is up and Goenka sings the first note of his chant signifying the beginning of the end, I cannot describe the relief, the utter gratitude I felt. As Goenka, steeped over decades in people’s stories of the pain and the relief, puts it:
Ah, that first note, so melodious! The freedom, the liberation, after the bondage …
From Day 4 to the last meditation session on the morning of Day 11 the pain was constant. I felt someone was cutting off my leg with a hacksaw, very slowly, and in my back, a sadist twisted a knife. The pain was a creature with its own life and it was battling me for dominion. And yet it is not merely the pain one is contending with; the real killer, and whole point of the exercise – after days of wondering to myself, “what is the purpose of this pain?” – is to confront one’s aversion to it, one’s fear of it. Early on, I felt the fear of the pain like a succubus on my face, on my being, in my nostrils, suffocating me.
Direct experience of the mind and its effects
At some point the penny finally drops it’s the fear which is increasing the pain. This is where it gets pretty trippy, as Hansi would say. There are several premises to Vipassana including:
- every experience of craving or aversion we’ve ever had – liking or disliking, pleasure or pain — gets stored as a sensation in our bodies, in our cells
- when we stop producing new cravings or aversions, the old cravings or aversions, collectively known as sånkhāras (mental conditioning), start to surface and dissipate
- the universal law of nature is that everything is changing, arising and passing, arising and passing, and that pain and pleasure are arising and passing like everything else.
So the pain I was feeling was not the fact of sitting but literally my past – the fear, the aversions, all the negative reactions I’ve ever experienced – coming to the surface to be experienced and released.
This is still hard to take in: that it’s not about sitting but about aversion. Yet one gets directly observable evidence of the mechanism, because each time my mind became preoccupied with the fear of the pain and I started creating stories – “Oh, I can’t last this time, this pain is doing something bad to me”, “This time will be hard because the last time wasn’t so bad”, or “Sing, damn you, Goenka! I’ve got to move or I’ll die or something!” – the pain would increase.
In contrast, each time my mind took a break from reacting to the pain and creating stories, the pain would decrease.
The lesson one learns through the experience of deep meditation is this: attaching a judgement to an experience – like/dislike, love/hate, right/wrong – results in misery. The answer is to give up judgement, to just observe the experience without judgement. And by Day 5 or 6, this is what I was learning to do. I used to try to find the edges of the pain with my mind, and then I’d think I found an edge only to have it disappear. So while the pain didn’t go away by Day 10, the fear and disablement did.
There are many stories of people leaving a Vipassana retreat partway through and there’s good reason for this. Goenka himself describes the process as
like doing surgery on yourself, and without anaesthetic.
I’m glad I lasted though. It’s intense and shocking, peaceful and fascinating in all kinds of ways. And it allowed me the opportunity to discover what I’m capable of bearing with equanimity, which is a very great thing to discover.
One of the beautiful side effects of the retreat is the reawakening of one’s senses. Exploring the inside of one’s nose with the mind for a day and a half, and other such exercises, will do that. As the mind becomes increasingly fine, the world around becomes increasingly vivid. These are some random observations from my stay:
- little brown finch darting across my way
- light green lichen on a curl of bark from a birch tree
- two magpies in a tree outside meditation hall singing their electric gargle
- lone daffodil bowed down by rain
- male meditator of Indian heritage, small and neat with the leading midriff of many subcontinental men, skipping up the path on day 7
- small plane droning overhead during morning meditation
- crimson sunset in the vee of the nearby hills
- two magnolia flowers
- scent of tea tree oil
- Sīla in her pink jacket with her pink ruby ring
- the gong in my dreams
- meditation hall at 4:15, warm and dim, with blue blanket nests
- steam from the shower rising into the corrugated iron roof cavity
- sitting on the wooden boards of the verandah at lunchtime
- a green hill giving up its frost to the sun.
Anicca, Anicca, Anicca*
May all beings be happy.
* Change, change, change.
For more information about Vipassana, go to the global website.