Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Vipassana Meditation II

In my last post, I explained a little bit about what Vipassana meditation is, as well as what some of the day-to-day experience is like when you take a 10-day course. Today I'll go into more depth and share some of the benefits I received (and continue to receive) from this experience.

First, I'll start out by stating that I don't consider myself to be a mystic by any stretch of the imagination. Skeptic, sure :-) But, I have an open mind, and I rely a great deal on personal references. If my friend Jerry said this would be a worthwhile endeavour, well, that was good enough for me.

The course began innocuously enough. After a light vegetarian evening meal (the only supper of the whole course), we (all 50 of us) trooped up the stairs to the meditation hall to our assigned square cushions on our respective side (males on left, females on right). After hearing some chanting in a foreign language (Pali), we were given our instructions: direct our attention to the triangular area bounded by our nasal passages and the top of our upper lip, and simply observe our breathing. If we felt our mind drift, gently bring our attention back to observing our breath through our nose. We did this for about 45 minutes, then off to bed. 4 a.m. comes early you know.

Before I knew it, I was hearing the wakeup chime at a little after four. We all made our way back to the meditation hall to begin our first meditation sitting of the day — for two hours. What were we to do? Observe our breath through our nose, and refocus anytime we noticed our mind drift. We practiced this for 10 hours on Day 1. On Day two, we were to be making sure that our minds were drifting for a max of 5 minutes, preferably much less. We were to do this for another 10 hours. I remember thinking in the late afternoon of day two, "gee, I hope I didn't waste 10 days of my life here. This is kind of silly." I wasn't thinking that by day 4.

After 3½ days of observing our nasal breathing (called Anapana meditation), we were now ready to begin learning Vipassana meditation. I did notice that my mind was quite a bit sharper and more aware, and I could catch myself drifting within about 10-15 seconds. I would need every bit of that concentration and awareness in the coming days.

Vipassana meditation consists of observing sensations on the body. At first, we were to direct our conscious awareness to a small patch of skin, say, 2-3 inches square, and simply observe the sensations there. It could be the atmosphere, itching, tingling, throbbing, electricity, clothing, any sensation at all. We just needed to focus our attention on this sensation, whatever it was. We were to observe it objectively, with equanimity, and understand the impermanence (Pali: anicca) of what we were experiencing. After several seconds of sensing whatever was in this area, we were to shift our "square of focus" over a few inches and sense what was there. We were to continue doing this, from head to toe, until we had covered our entire body. Once that was done, we were to start over, from head to toe. For 10 hours.

Oh, and starting on Day 4, there were 3 hour-long sessions of "Strong Determination" in which we were not to change our posture. No major movement, which meant no opening of our eyes, no moving our arms, hands, legs, or feet. I decided to make every session one of strong determination, so this caused me some additional discomfort, which turned slowly into pain. It can be quite painful to sit still for hours on end every day.

On day 6, we were to move back up the body once we reached our toes instead of starting over again at the head. I was kind of cheating a bit on day 6, splitting my focus between what I was sensing, and working through a bunch of planning I had for various projects I was working on. My clarity of mind was incredible, and I was quickly solving numerous issues which had previously stumped me. I remember walking around outside on one of our short breaks with a huge smile on my face, thinking "this was so worth coming here!" In two days, I had done about 6 months of work in my head.

By day 8, we were now alternating our body sensing from the piecemeal approach to one of full body sweeps, and back to piecemeal. I was also in quite a bit of physical pain from sitting still for over a week. What I observed, though, is that each pain seemed to be tied somehow to various thoughts and issues I carried around with me. If I stayed focused on any one painful area long enough, a particular memory from my past would surface, and I could observe it objectively and let it go. And that pain would change as well, sometimes disappearing entirely.

Day 8 was also when I was in so much physical pain that at one point I thought I would throw up. My right knee and calf was in agony. Nobody held a gun to my head telling me I couldn't move, yet I felt compelled to continue sitting still and to work with the pain, not try to avoid it. I dealt with many memories of Deb's illness and death on day 8, and by the end of the day, the sharp pain had dulled to a strong ache, and I felt so much better about Deb's death. It was like I was finally able to see things completely objectively, like it happened to someone else.

Day 8 also marked the end of any breaks. From the moment we were awake until the moment we drifted off to sleep, we were to be focusing on our body sensations and aware of what we were experiencing there. Day 9, we were now to be sensing inside our bodies as well as outside. Lots more past events to deal with using this technique, but I felt very comfortable with the whole process. It actually felt very good to finally have a structured way to deal with all my past experiences.

Day 10 was a "shock absorber" day. The vow of silence was lifted at about 10 am, and the meditation schedule was cut in half. We could now mingle with the women on the course, and we could share our experiences with each other. It was nice to finally get to know some of these people I had been furtively observing while the course was going on. They actually had personalities :-) They weren't just shuffling zombies after all.

By 06:30 a.m. on day 11, the course was over. We stayed on a bit more for breakfast and cleanup of the facility, and then we were driving back home. So much to think about and reflect on during that drive. It was a fitting end to be physically journeying back home after such a long, tough, and rewarding mental journey.

Next post, I'll finish up this short series with my thoughts and observations about the course and what made the most impression on me.


Elizabeth J. Neal said...

Skeptic, sure :-) But, I have an open mind, and I rely a great deal on personal references. If my friend Jerry said this would be a worthwhile endeavour, well, that was good enough for me. John Nolan

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