Since the start of my journey, Vipassana has always been the end game. I sat my first 10-day Vipassana Meditation course when I was 22. At the time, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. There was something pulling me towards it and so I rolled with it and signed up. All was silky smooth initially and then day 7 came. On this day, a dormant mental volcano erupted with a ferocious intensity. Deep, unconscious impurities were splattered into the conscious layer. Feeling them directly, I remember describing it to the teacher as ‘mentally vomiting’. Vipassana had evoked a highly unpleasant purge. With a lingering fear, I just knew I had to revisit this powerful technique. And so, 4 years on here we are to conclude some unfinished business.
Vipassana was the precise technique used by the Buddha when he attained Nirvana. Yes it is real and yes you can practice it too! The word itself means insight into reality. This means experiencing the direct truth as it is and not warped by how you want to perceive it. There are 3 main levels of teaching:
1. Sila (Morality) — No lying, sexual misconduct, stealing, killing and intoxicants. This ensures a clean conscious foundation to work with. Only once these precepts have been taken can one go further.
2. Samadhi (Concentration) — Observing the breath. As the breath is both conscious and sub conscious, the mind creates a bridge while also learning to focus on a singular point. Bit like creating a sharply pointed drill for the next stage.
3. Vipassana (Wisdom) — Observing sensations. The meditator scans the body from head to toe, toe to head, continuously. In doing so, becoming aware of the sensations (Heat, pressure, itching, contact, coldness, pain, pleasant, unpleasant). Here, the mind sheds light on the unconscious.
I will not teach the precise method as that should be done under the guidance of a teacher. I would love to talk about the theory too but I want to spend more time on the write up so will put the theory in the written series. It really is fascinating! Instead, I’ll talk about what I’ve learn from giving service.
Firstly, I learnt that the 10-day course should be treated with great respect. Like a marathon, the more you prepare, the more you’ll enjoy the experience. Believe it or not, sitting on the floor for 10 hours a day gives rise to discomfort and so preparing in advance is highly beneficial.
As a volunteer, I got a glimpse behind the institution itself. SN Goenka set up the organisation and is a highly educated man that most westerners can connect with. In my opinion he’s a genius. The institution has hundreds of centres around the world that run solely by donation. Goenka actually revived the technique in Burma as it was lost in land of its creation, India. To make sure this never happened again, he set up videos and instructions for meditators to follow. He knew that we were not in the times of the Buddha and should utilise technology to teach the masses in a consistent manner. A student is able to do a 10, 20, 30, 45 and even 60 day course under his instruction. His fore teacher, Ledi Sayadaw was an arahat, so you know the technique is sound.
I managed to get a lot of contact time with the teacher. Past 10pm we’d have the entire hall to ourselves. Not only did I learnt more about the technique but I managed to get many of my burning questions cleared up. The teacher mentioned, in passing, that he had done 5, 60-day courses. Yes that’s 600 hours of meditation a pop. Someone who has meditated so much on themselves is bound to hold pearls of wisdom. Fortunately for me, they fell out easily.
Towards the end of my volunteering experience, I understood that I actually wasn’t carrying out the technique in my first course 4 years ago. To provide some background, during the course there are 3x1 hour daily sittings called Adhittana. These are sittings of strong determination where the meditator is advised not to move for 1 hour. If there is an itch-observe, if there is discomfort-observe, if there is pain-observe, absolute stillness is taught. I was on a mission to remain still in Adhittana. By day 7, the pain in my knees was excruciating, borderline self-torture. However, I was so focused on the mission that I had forgot about the two most important aspects of the technique. These are awareness and equanimity; both are needed in equal proportions, like two wings of a bird as Goenka puts it. I was definitely aware of the pain however I completely ignored the teaching of equanimity. My mind was angry, repulsive and definitely not equanimous. I was putting up a mental fortress trying to block out the physical pain. Eventually the fortress failed and that was the bottled up mental eruption, I experienced.
This time, I’ve come to learn the meaning of equanimous. Previously, I misunderstood the term as remains calm. It actually means indifference. Instead of me trying to pick and choose what enters my mind, it’s advisable to let all of it in with awareness, good and bad. As a teacher once told me, leave the front door open, leave the back door open, let the thoughts come in, but don’t serve them tea. It is counter intuitive but when put into practice it works wonders. This time round, I once again had unpleasant experiences. Instead of fighting them, I allowed them to be there and shone a light of awareness on them. They soon dissolved into nothingness as no value was attached to them.
Learning and experiencing the true meaning of equanimity was profound. I’m no longer scared of the technique and fully back the teachings of Goenka. So much so that I signed up for the next available student course. With the help of the teacher, I’ve rekindled the desire to pursue deep meditation. Only this time, I know how to actually practice the technique.