I was between jobs and wanted to get initiated into meditation to quiet my overactive mind, and also wanted to understand the nature of thoughts and their role in shaping our everyday lives. I visited Northern California Vipassana Association’s (NCVA) website, www.dhamma.org, and came across information about a 10-day vipassana retreat. Vipassana, as practiced by the Buddha, offers a practical way out of the cycle of huma misery. I was placed on a waitlist as others had signed up months in advance. A day before the retreat, I received an email confirming a spot for me. I packed my bags brushing aside thoughts of the rules that needed to be adhered to during the retreat including absolute silence.
The orientation was followed by a light dinner, and then a talk that emphasized that students who felt unprepared were welcome to leave, rather than during the retreat. The rest of the evening was spent in settling down into our shared wooden cabins or individual tents. Men and women were separated at all times except in the meditation hall where men occupied half of the space. After settling down, the evening proceeded with the first meditation session during which we took five vows—to abstain from killing any living creature, stealing, sexual activity, telling lies, and from using intoxicants. The vows, referred to as Sila in Pali, are one of the three steps to vipassana. The vows were administered by S.N. Goenka, founder of NCVA, by audio tape in the presence of two assistant teachers, John and Cindy Pinch. The assistant teachers sat at the head of the hall on raised benches, in clear view of all. The lights in the hall were dimmed, and we sat on the provided mats and cushions enveloped by the ambience of meditation and stillness.
Having taken the vows, we proceeded to samdhi, the practice of concentrating the mind. We focused our attention on the membranous area in our nostrils starting from the outer rings, and covering the entire triangular area along the inside of the nose. We were to pay attention to every sensation that we experienced in this area without mentally reacting to any. I experienced dryness mostly, and being in the habit of getting easily annoyed by discomfort, I took a while to ignore it and waited for it to pass. “Everything that arises must pass. It is the law of nature,” Goenka’s taped voice reminded in the background.
As days passed, we were firmly grounded in the principle of anichya, meaning impermanence. “Why react to something that is so ephemeral,” Goenka reasoned. True. Even the most irresistible itches did pass in the end.
The secret was patient non-reaction. This practice of sharpening our minds by concentrating it on the small triangular area of the inside of our nostrils lasted for the first two days.
Days at the retreat started with the wakeup gong at 4 a.m. We retired for the night at 10 p.m. The time in between was spent in meditation including three formal group sessions when everybody gathered in the hall to practice. I looked forward to the taped evening discourses by S.N. Goenka who elaborated upon the ways in which the technique worked to cleanse one’s mind to bring equanimity in everyday life. Goenka’s discourses were filled with anecdotes drawn from his life as a meditator and teacher, and that made the talks personal and entertaining.
The third step towards liberation according to the Buddha is panna, meaning wisdom in Pali. We learnt that panna is of three types: Suttamaya panna(wisdom through reading and information), chintamaya panna (wisdom through intellectual thought), and bhavanamaya panna (wisdom through experience).
The third type of wisdom is the most desirable form because it involves practice on self. It is wisdom at the “experiential level.” When Buddha sat to meditate, he was intensely aware of the internal and external sensations that he felt. He sat in full awareness without indulging in reaction, which he classified into two fundamental forms: craving and aversion. Our subconscious mind reacts with aversion to an ache, and craving towards a pleasant sensation. These reactions referred to as sankharas create an endless cycle of suffering.
Our lives are inundated with instances in which our mind responds to situations with these very sankharas.
The way out of human misery is to stop generating new sankharas. As the Buddha sat observing his body, he found that at the deepest level it was nothing but an aggregate of waves, and at the smallest level these waves known as kapalas, were made of eight individual constituents that could not be further resolved into anything smaller.
Waveform nature of all solid entities has been well established by quantum physics, and as for the smallest sub-atomic constituent of all matter, string theory came instantly to my mind. I was amazed that 2,500 years ago, Buddha knew the important elements of modern quantum physics at the level of his body. And his goal of banishing suffering was different from the goal of scientists whose aim was to understand the laws governing the universe. What the Buddha found through bhavanamaya panna, (wisdom through experience),scientists and thinkers arrived through chintamaya panna (wisdom through intellectual thought).
Into the third day of the retreat, we started practicing the core of Vipassana meditation. Living with a strict code of conduct and sharpening the mind by concentrating it on a very small part of the body, was the foundation to examining our whole body. We scanned our entire framework piecemeal, without reaction, and as days progressed we increased the scope of our observation until we could scan the whole body as one unit. Head to toe; toe to head. Over and over this internal observation lasted. In the most observant mind-state, it was possible to feel wavelike vibrations throughout the body. At this stage there was also the possibility of meeting an enemy that could make the effort futile. Attachment to these pleasant sensations of bhanga—total dissolution—is a powerful sankhara of craving. As one becomes comfortable with the practice of not generating new reactions, the subconscious mind responds by bringing to surface the old stock of sankharas. These can be experienced as bodily sensations or an emergence of thoughts perhaps from the deepest recesses of the mind. When one repeatedly responds by keen observation combined with equanimity, these can be permanently eradicated from the psyche. In practice it is possible to cleanse one’s mind at the deepest level.
During the meditation period, my mind raced like a hummingbird, unable to stay put for more than a few moments at a time. My back and legs hurt and it was very difficult to maintain the same posture for an extended period. The fast pace of my mind remained a challenge that was harder to face; towards the end of the retreat I kept wondering how vipassana could help regular people like me whose goal was not renunciation, but rather a desire to find stability and peace within the boundaries of our lives.
The answer began revealing itself step-by-step in a neatly bulleted format that my scientifically trained mind appreciated the most.
I constantly generated sankharas to negative situations in the form of anger and resentment. During these times, my body was most at stress. I could view these situations as transitory and choose not to punish myself by reacting. I could choose to settle it with others by having an earnest conversation from which the desire to prove a point was eliminated
I could be mindful while going about my everyday life. Often I found myself so caught up in the tasks at hand that I performed like a robot without pausing to feel the experience.
I could work towards putting an end to the endless cycle of reliving past pleasures and hurts, and dreams and worries about the future. Instead I could concentrate my energies in being acutely mindful of the present, yathbhutha. When past experiences surfaced, I could simply observe them, not feed them with reactions, until weary of surfacing, they took my leave.
After much thought about the question of equanimity in the face of pleasure, I concluded that it was hardest to put into practice. But with consistent discipline when I stopped reacting with aversion to unpleasantness, I could slowly eliminate the feeling of pain against whose backdrop feelings of pleasure take shape. On the opposite ends of the spectrum, both pain and pleasure are after all relative!
Sheetal Rawal is a clinical laboratory scientist interested in exploring meditation practices from around the world.