(An article written in 2010 after a 10 day Vipassana course)
There’s something a little bit back to front and upside down about going to bed when it’s still light on New Years Eve, then waking up at 4 in the morning to the sound of a gong – and walking (silently) alongside 20 other women in the dark to a meditation hall. I was having conversations with everyone in my head. I’m not sure if everyone else was doing this, and I have a feeling it may have been a tad counterproductive, but on the morning of the first I was silently shouting ‘Happy New Year everyone!'
No one mentioned new year until day 10 when we were allowed to talk – and to be honest it might have been a little odd if our teachers had opened their eyes after 2 hours of meditating and reminded us it was new year, out there in the real world.
A Vipassana 10 day course is hard work.
Friends warned me about this and I figured ‘how hard could it be??’. I was most concerned about the idea of not talking for 10 days. I was afraid that I’d disappear into the dark un-visited parts of my brain and silently lose my mind…but I quickly realised; thinking that silence is the hardest part of Vipassana is kind of like thinking that the hardest part about getting your PHD is that you can’t do handstands in the lecture hall. Talking would have made the course 100 times more difficult – and the amount of chattering that goes on in your own brain without you realising it is insane; it was never really quiet.
So basically the point of the course is to teach you a way of meditating
– but this isn’t the kind of meditating where you picture yourself walking through a forest or flying through the clouds… you don’t concentrate on a glowing light or on any religious symbols, you don’t talk to God.
Vipassana is all about being aware of the your own personal truth at any specific moment. To do this you have to unlock your unconscious mind so that you can feel the sensation of sub atomic particles being born and dying all over your body from moment to moment (yes, this sounds a little odd, and I reckon that’s why it takes 10 days to learn how and why you’re doing it). It would be impossible for me to explain it just by writing this note – but here’s the basic theory about why you’re doing this:
From the moment you’re born, your mind has reacted to things. A lot of the time you react with either craving or aversion. According to the teachings around Vipassana these cravings and aversions are the source of all misery (having an aversion to someone being nasty to you, or craving something you really want but can’t have are two very basic examples). They also make scars in your mind that you carry with you forever. What Vipassana does (but not all in the 10 day course, its something you have to keep on doing) is rewire your brain a little so that you don’t develop these cravings or aversions and therefore live without misery! (I think I can hear a few people laughing, but as I said, this isn’t an overnight thing, it takes a really long time to work 100%, but in the mean time you notice yourself gradually getting less and less miserable).
They teach you that craving and aversion are merely sensations – and in meditation you learn that at an actual level – I can now feel a craving or an aversion as it comes up (sometimes… I’m getting better at it) and once I’ve felt it I have a small window where I can decide whether I’ll react to it or not – without getting attached to it and thinking its and actual and valid emotion. This part took a while for me to understand and feel but makes complete sense now.
So to do the rewiring you have to meditate. You spend 3 days training to focus your brain on very small areas of your body – starting with the area between your nose and your top lip...for 3 days – once you’ve done that for 10 and a half hours a day for 3 days you can clearly and distinctly feel sensations in this area that you didn’t know existed – everything from pressure, to tingling, to heat, to itching – anything.
Once you’ve learned that (and its hard… your brain flies in a billion directions at once) you start to move this focus to every area of your body in about 5cm patches – over and over again. The point of doing this is so that you can feel the sensations in your body and NOT react with craving or aversion (some sensations are really pleasant and some are ghastly – like the feeling the your legs are going to fall off from losing all circulation after sitting crossed legged for hours on end). You need to be aware of the sensations and aware of the fact that they are constantly changing. By doing this your mind slowly stops reacting with craving and aversion. I wont go into all the stuff you can feel in meditation - it's different for everyone, and sometimes different each time and if you expect to feel certain things and then don’t feel them you get sad (you develop a craving for them).
What also happens is that once you stop reacting then old stuff starts coming up. It comes up in different ways for different people (pains, memories) and you feel them bubble up to the surface and just wash away. It’s amazing. Its not like the therapy that we’re used to where you look at a problem and analyse it and work out where it comes from and talk about it for days and try to feel it again – it just comes up, and goes away. For me, this is the beauty of Vipassana. It deals with things you didn’t even realise were messing with your head for years – and when they come up and disappear you literally feel lighter.
The trick is to do this for a really long time until all your baggage has gone, and you’re capable of not creating new baggage for yourself and you’re just swimming in compassion and love.
It's now eight years since I wrote that article (as a Facebook note to my friends). Reading it today made me realise just how much the 10 day retreat helped me deal with my emotions from that moment on. I'm not a regular meditator, although I know it would be the best thing for me - but the objectiveness of watching my emotions pass is one of the most valuable skills I've ever learned.
Breathe in, breathe out, Joy-Seekers.
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