For a few moments on the 6th day of my first 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat I got a glimpse of what it is to be the Buddha. I think that is what Samadhi is… it was an exhilarating experience and I said to myself, ‘this works and that is it!’ It was almost like having found the key to life!
This is my first blog and I can’t think of a better experience to write about! I had been wanting to do the Vipassana retreat for many years now. In fact I had registered and made all travel plans twice and had to cancel in the last minute due to personal exigencies. But this time I resolved that come what may I will make it and I did! The most intriguing part for me from the time I heard of Vipassana was that one has to be silent for 10 days. Whoever heard of that said, how is it possible… it’s very difficult. But at the end of the retreat I realised that being silent was the easiest part of the whole process.
As I entered Dhamma Setu, Chennai, on the 19th of December 2012 I had no clue what I was setting myself upto. The registration process went off smoothly and I went to my quarter. I was happy I did not have to share the room with another student. But that joy was shortlived as another student walked in within a few minutes. However, he was so understanding and nonintrusive, I had no problem sharing the quarter with him. The best part was he did not snore! Unfortunately he left on the 5th day due to health reasons and so I had the quarter all to myself the rest of the programme. At the end I realised it did not make much difference though! It’s all in the mind!
The course involved sitting in meditation for 10 ½ hours a day. First three and half days was ‘ana-pana’, which literally means ‘breath in-breath out’, where all that we had to do was to sit and just observe our breath flowing in and out. On day two were asked to observe not just the breath but also the sensations caused in and around the nostrils. On day three the focus was just in the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. Imagine doing just that for full 10 ½ hours a day!! My first thought to run away came on day two. And it was not the last… throughout the course the thought kept coming, ‘why am I subjecting myself to this ordeal?’ I told myself one must be real crazy to voluntarily torture oneself like this. But I resolved to stay put and i got the answer on the 6th day.
On the afternoon of day four Vipassana was taught. The process was simple, the rationale behind it was simple, yet as we all know the simplest are the toughest. Vipassana involved observing the sensations that constantly arise on each part of the body from a position of equanimity. That means not being carried away or wanting more of the pleasant sensations or wanting to run away or get rid of the painful sensations. ‘Awareness’ and ‘equanimity’ are the two cardinal principles or goals of Vipassana, as I understood it. It is akin to ‘sakshi bhava’ and ‘smatva bhava’ as propounded by the Gita. While the Gita extols the significance of and the need for these, Vipassana gives a practical technique to practice them.
The first three days watching the breath and sensation on that small triangular area below the nostrils and above the upper lip was to sharpen the mind to be able to focus on each and every small part of our body so that we could be aware of the minutest sensations, gross and subtle, mild and intense. On day four I was glad at last I was able to know what Vipassana was, that gave me a sense of certainty and clear direction and felt at ease. But then I did not know the toughest part was yet to come.
On day five we were told to follow ‘strong determination’ called ‘adhittana’ hence forth. It meant sitting without moving or changing our posture for one hour three times a day during the group sessions. That was the toughest of the whole process. I just could not do it on day five. On day 6 second session of ‘adhittana’ I told myself I am going to just hold steadfast and see what my limits of tolerance are. I sat with crossed legs and ‘started again’ the Vipassana. Very soon, as usual, my legs went to sleep, quickly went numb, became heavy by the minute and after a while the excruciating pain started all over the legs and my back. I sat with gritted teeth focusing on the sensations telling myself ‘let me see what worst that could happen’. That is when the crazy magic happened all of a sudden. As I was sitting there fully immersed in and aware of the intense pain I was at the same time not feeling that pain at a different plane. I started wondering if it was some sort of trick played by the teachers or something else… it was so uncanny that I started giggling within myself. It felt so unreal that here was my body feeling that terrible pain with my legs and back so heavy like lead yet I was not in pain. While I was sitting there wondering this was not real, something crazier happened – the pain just vanished!! I just could not stop giggling and telling myself ‘this cannot be real’…. that is when it occurred to me what ‘sakshi bhava’ and ‘samatva bhava’ was. Knowing them conceptually was different and experiencing them in our flesh and bones was totally different. That is ‘believing’. That moment I was a Buddha! That was the point I started believing in Vipassana.
Of course that halo around my head did not last for ever… am not sure how long it lasted, but it did last for a while sufficient enough for me get these insights so vividly and when the mind started making all these connections and started craving for this to last, all of a sudden the equanimity was lost and I started experiencing the pains again. I knew it was not going to happen again as long as I wanted to have that experience. But that one experience was enough to deepen and strengthen my resolve to practice Vipassana. It is a blessing to have that experience! It gives me first hand evidence that whatever our scriptures preach, like karma yoga with detached attachment, is possible. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
Rest of the course went off well… with no respite from the pain though, but the big difference was I was able to sit in ‘adhittana’ on three more occasions before day 10. It is a testimony to the fact how much I underestimate the capacity of my mind and body. If there is a resolve and the environment is conducive, we can do it!
The evening discourses by Sri Goenka were quite refreshing and throwing light on the theory behind the practice. On the fifth day I had started to realise how what was going on was just a mega reframing process, as we do in NLP. It was also a technique to close all unfinished businesses as we do in Gestalt. The process was so scientific. Sri Goenka’s discourses reinforced that. He said how Buddha emphasised on the importance of body sensations as it was the immediate starting point available for us to work with all our samskaras, from past and present lives. Even if one does not believe in rebirth and past lives, it is still true that most of our experiences, specially the preverbal and deep fixations are stored in our body and under similar circumstances they surface as sensations. If only one is aware of these sensations and is able to see them from a point of equanimity, they do not create any more fixations, or samskaras, and the gestalt is closed. More and more we just sit and observe the sensations that arise (not knowing what they mean), be they pleasant or painful and let them pass by with equanimity without craving for the pleasant or aversion towards the painful, they all pass over and more from the deep unconscious surface to be processed. Thus it is a lifelong cleansing process where we do not add more samskaras which helps the old accumulated ones to surface and be resolved. Reminding ourselves that be it pain or pleasure both have the same common quality that is to arise and pass away – aniccha – and hence both are equally source of misery in life helped me to develop the sense of awareness and equanimity.
Emphasis on ‘right conduct’ (shila), ‘right practice’ (samadhi) and ‘right wisdom’ (panna) and how the three are interconnected and is essential for the success of this technique to work brings a moral and value base to the whole process. People may have differences with the specifics of the theory. For example I do not agree with the notion that one’s goal has to be to burn out all samskaras so that one need not be born again. I think it’s such a beautiful process to be born again even when one attains samadhi so that the whole of humanity could evolve to a higher state of consciousness. But none could have qualms with the relevance of the practice. It is so personal and puts us in charge of our destiny!
What a wonderful scientific process it is…. my biggest wonder is one man found this secret of life enhancement 25 centuries ago without access to any tool or lab or any other resources. He was the researcher and his body and mind were his tools and he came up with this amazing fact of life… a very realistic and practical technique for all, totally egalitarian and absolutely nondogmatic and non-sectarian. Hats off to him… and maybe that’s why he was called the Buddha – the enlightened one. The beauty is he made this universal and did not patent it or cry for copyright. The very fact it stayed intact in its pristine pure form over the centuries stand testimony to its relevance for even the modern times.
I cherish those few moments of Samadhi still and hoping one day I will experience it again, of course without any craving for it… let me see what is in store for me…. who knows! After all this will also pass. Aniccha… aniccha… aniccha…