Updated: Sep 5, 2019
I just returned from my first 10-day vipassana and I have to say it was not what I was expecting it to be. I went into the vipassana thinking I would be starved, sleeping on concrete, trying to keep my mind quiet in meditation for 10+ hours a day all while sitting cross legged with what I was sure would be intense back and knee pain. I am typically always on the go. I like to move around, talk to people and I almost always have some music playing. I don’t typically feel like I’m functioning unless I’m multitasking. Vipassana seemed like it would be extremely challenging for my personality and that’s exactly why I felt I needed to do it.
I went to Dhamma Kancana, which was about a 6-hour bus ride from Bangkok. A friend had recently gone there and I could see such a big change in her so I figured it would be a good place for me to check out. The day it started, we all met in the morning at a restaurant and got on a bus. You could tell people were unsure if they were even supposed to talk then. As we arrived they gave us our items for our rooms and our basic necessities. You get your blankets and towels but you also get a metal plate, utensils, and a coffee cup. They go over basic rules and give you a little tour. You lock up all forms of communication. That’s your laptop and cellphone but also your kindle, books, journal or any other way you could have outside influence. After we are all settled in, we are told to meet in the meditation hall for our first hour long meditation, which is also when we stop talking.
The average day goes like this. They wake you up at 0400 and you meet at 0430 in the meditation hall. The entire vipassana is run from recordings from a man named Goenka who was tasked at spreading the message of vipassana to the rest of the world. He does some chanting at the beginning of your meditations and also at the end. Other than that it’s just silence. You will do an hour to two of meditation and get a little break before doing it again for an hour or two. There are meals at 0630 and also at 1100. If you want you can have some bread and jam at 1700 but they don’t recommend it. On your breaks you can lie down in your room or walk the grounds. Men and women are segregated except for group meditation and even then they are on separate sides. There is also an hour and a half long discourse video at the end of the day where Goenka teaches you other principles and lessons from vipassana. This is your every day for 10 days.
The meditation is a bit different than I had done before. The first few days are simply focusing on the movement of your breath on a smaller and smaller location. It is at first your whole nose and later just your upper lip. You are training to sharpen your mind. You flinch around and adjust your body as your feet go numb or your back starts to ache. Your mind wanders and you question if I’m just going to feel the air in my nose for 10 days and how this could have any benefit. The way I have always meditated before was to do whatever I could to try and quiet down the chatter in my head with the least amount of thought. The ultimate goal was to be silent but it felt successful if you just got to a point where you are in control of the thoughts you have. You can chant, count your breath, simply say in and out or visualize a river flowing in front of you and when a thought comes up you put it on a raft and watch it go away. It worked for me and I felt calmer afterwards. Purpose was served. In vipassana you don’t want to distract your mind at all, you want to learn to control it. To truly understand why it reacts the way it does so you can make a conscious decision of how it reacts.
As the days go on and your mind sharpens you expand its reach. You try to bring awareness to every sensation as you move across your scalp, down your face, across each shoulder, arm and hand to feel what sensation is going through it. At first all you can focus on is the pain in your lower back and knees. Then you catch a breeze across parts of your body or the brush of your clothing. You start becoming more aware of the more subtle feelings. You are taught to not focus too long on any sensation just notice it and keep moving. Don’t label it as enjoyable or painful or itching or tingling. It’s not good or bad, just a sensation that will pass. They call this constant changing anicca, or impermanence. This meditation gives you a direct personal experience of the changing of ones own mind, feelings and body. Don’t dwell on the negative and don’t get attached to the positive. They are just sensations and none of them last. Accept things for as they truly are.
Towards the end of the week your focus gets sharper to the point of being able to feel the sensations constantly across your body at the same time. You pass your awareness throughout your body and can quickly feel whatever sensation is there at that time. By the time you pass through your whole body you come back to that same spot and realize the feeling that was there has changed. You begin to take feeling pain or discomfort as a challenge. You know it won’t last so you try and see who will last the longest, you or this sensation. With this mindset you are able to sit without movement for over an hour straight. The little aches or numbness don’t seem as intense as you remembered.
I won’t go too deep into all the experiences and practice because it will be different for everyone. Everyone goes into vipassana with different life experiences so each person will have their own challenges and sensations with the meditation. There are a lot of people I met who had never tried meditation before the vipassana. Doing these scans throughout your body is supposed to get you more connected to yourself. They believe the blind spots where you can’t feel anything are caused by previous traumas that you haven’t dealt with. By staying calm and bringing them to the surface you are able to recognize and give attention to something from your past and release it. This is the practice going forward as well. When something upsets you, you bring your awareness to your body and see what has changed. Are you breathing faster? Has your heart rate increased? Are you beginning to sweat? Does your face feel flush? Do you have aches in your lower back? By taking note of these sensations and not becoming attached to them, neither wishing for them to stay or leave, you are bringing awareness to this change in your body. If you focus on the thing that actually upset you like your boss being a dick or a friend saying something rude then you will just get more upset. You will play this indiscretion over and over again in your mind and make it stronger. Those things are hard to release but noting the sensations they give you does not cause you to get attached. You are able to see the reaction you have without being affected by it and then allow it to go away.
Vipassana doesn’t have super powers though. It’s not like you meditate for 100 hours and then magically you are always calm and happy and non reactive. It’s awareness and work. You first have to understand what you are feeling, why it is there, and then you decide what you want to do with it, all while understanding that it will go away. By becoming aware of the reaction you become aware of the damage you are doing to yourself by harboring anger, guilt, jealousy or any other negative emotion. You realize you are choosing to have those feelings and react that way. You understand the control you truly have and how you have a responsibility to yourself to have control over your reactions. I hear all the time you shouldn’t react or stay positive or let things go but I was never explained how to do it. When I would try to let things go before I would just think about them and get more upset. So I would try to distract my mind from it until I didn’t think about it as much. Sometimes I would even focus on something else negative to take my attention off the first negative thing I was trying to leave behind. With this awareness of how I respond I realized I was creating an addiction to being unhappy. My mind searches for things to be upset about or for things to crave. I make a to do list and stress about getting it done and as soon as I’m done I’m searching for a new to do list. I feel I can’t rest until this list is complete. I look for distractions from the pain I’m feeling that I believe is caused by someone else when it is actually me who is keeping myself feeling this way.
This I believe is the true lesson of vipassana and the key to real happiness. We must take responsibility for how we are feeling. If something negative going on outside of us causes us to be unhappy then we have no control over the happiness in our life. It is simply a game of chance and whoever has the least amount of negative things that happen to them will be the happiest. This is of course not true. Some of the happiest people I know have had the worst things happen to them and the inverse is true too. Just because someone hasn’t been through a lot of pain doesn’t mean they will be happy. It is a combination of both hard work and accepting things for as they are. You understand that things will not always be easy. You expect there to be challenges, you expect there to be difficult people and you expect for plans to fail. This isn’t being negative this is simply being aware and honest. We have to first change the way we view the world before we focus on individual issues. Our perception of what is really going on affects our reactions, emotions, our desires and our suffering. As you feel the release of all the negativity you’ve been holding on to and your mind becomes clearer you see that people are just doing the best they can. Those who hurt us, even if it is intentional, are doing just as much damage to themselves by harboring anger, jealousy or resentment. We should look at them with love and care instead of anger and resentment. The saying “hurt people hurt people” comes to mind. With that in mind whoever has done the most wrong by you is the person you should feel the most love for. You should never take things personally and you shouldn’t let the judgment of others affect you. You see clearly that their negativity or resentment is not based on you but on their own unhappiness. With this clarity you can live your life without pain.
Imagine you are going grocery shopping and you haven’t eaten all day. Everything you see in the store looks delicious and you end up with twice as many groceries as you expected to get, and probably some junk food. This is because you allowed the feeling of hunger to cloud your judgment of what you needed to get. If you went to get groceries with a full belly you get just what you need and aren’t as tempted to go off your list. This is an example of what happens when we allow our emotions to take control of our reactions. With vipassana you are able to see that this hunger will pass and that you don’t need all this extra food and the junk food will only make you feel worse. You become aware of the urges in your body and can make a decision based on reason instead of reaction. Take care of your mental clutter first, release old resentments and beliefs that don’t serve you anymore, and look at life and all it’s challenges with love and compassion and you will live a peaceful, happy life. Before we can change the things we see we have to change the way we see. With this awareness, a clear mind, and positive thinking we are able to overcome any adversity. It isn’t immediate and it isn’t everlasting. You have to constantly work on it. It is worthy of all the effort needed to get to that point of peace. If you think, oh but you haven’t heard what has happened to me! I promise you aren’t special.
I make the decision to let go of resentments and anger. I have plenty of reasons to be unhappy or angry. With cancer alone I could say look at what’s happened to me! Look at what I’ve lost. Look at the pain I have to endure. Look at how different my life is. Or I can say look at what I’ve been able to overcome! Look at the challenges I’ve made it through! I let go of the old plans I had and look at the new opportunities in front of me. I choose to not be calloused by this. This disease will not define me. My failures will not define me. My losses will not define me. I will take them all as lessons and continue my pursuit of love, happiness and peace because I am the only one truly capable of finding it for myself. I am in control.