In this third installment of this series on the Vipassana 10-day Mediation course, I will describe the first several days of the course along with the first two meditation techniques learned in the course. View the previous post on this series.
3 Entire days of focusing on the breath, really?
The initial 3 days of the course were spent on the first of three mediation technique to be learned in this course. This technique is called Anapana (pronounced ānāpāna) and it focuses on feeling the sensations in the body caused by the movements of the breath. It has three primary goals in mind. The first is to sharpen the attention to sensations in the body. The second is to notice the distracting thoughts in the mind without giving them any attention. The third is to let the monkey mind run through its stockpile of chatter material, while minimizing the sources of new chatter material and allow it to start to quiet down.
Believe it or not, the entire body is constantly feeling sensations. We have learned to tune those sensations out. This technique helps you to tap into the ability to feel those sensations.
Ten hours a day feeling the sensation of the breath as it comes in and out of the nostrils. Sounds maddening doesn’t it? Actually it was relaxing at first, but this course is not about relaxation. The goal of many other meditation techniques is focused on getting the meditator into a relaxed state. Vipassana is about ridding the participant of suffering. Relaxation, as lovely as it would be, is not the path to removing suffering. Relaxation is actually just another way to push the cause of the suffering to the side or back under the surface.
Slowly, the initial relaxation felt at the beginning starts to fade as the other companions of this technique start to creep in. These are boredom, negative emotions, and the building pain from the body sitting in one position for hours at a time.
The mind and body literally fight to get out of the meditation position. The mind starts to bring up all of the reasons why it is more important to be somewhere else besides on the mediation mat. The body starts to send messages to the brain to quickly get out of this ridiculous posture. I can remember feeling a sensation shoot through my body as if I was about to be crushed by a giant piece of furniture that was about to fall on me. I literally felt a sensation of needing to jump up instantly.
Emotions started to swirl again about how I had left my family and the mental recording of the anxiety filled room as I left on Sunday played over and over in my mind like an old scratched record. “We need to go home”, my mind kept telling me.
These are all tricks the mind and body bring up in order to thwart the change that is coming with this mediation technique. They want things to remain the same and this perceived change to what was previously known as normalcy is seen as a threat.
An interesting side effect started to happen while spending these three days focused on the breath. Since there was a sharpened awareness of the chatter going on in the brain and a depleting stockpile of monkey chatter, I started to become aware of thoughts that I had never really given attention to in the past.
I started to realize how critical I was of others. My wife had told me numerous times in the past that I was a critical person.
“I am not that kind of person and I don’t go around criticizing people. “ I would assure her.
“You don’t speak critically to others, but you are constantly criticizing other people, situations, and circumstances to yourself. You may not say it, but you think it.” She would respond.
“That’s ridiculous”, was my typical answer.
I was slowly realizing how “not ridiculous” her statement was. I had been unaware of how I walked around thinking all sorts of negative and mean thoughts about what people were wearing, what they were doing or not doing, or how they were doing things.
I realized how these thoughts, even though I normally did not speak them aloud, contributed to my own anger, discontent, feelings of self-pity, and general negativity. I had been walking around generating anger and negativity without even being aware of it for who knows how long. Now I was aware of it.
The strange thing was that I was noticing those thoughts and by noticing them, they were no longer generating the anger and negativity. I could notice them, realize how ridiculous the thoughts were and let them go. Not only that, but I also realized that by doing this I was starting to find less and less reasons to have such critical thoughts. I was being less critical just through this recognition of how critical I had been.
This was the first of several big epiphanies that I would have at this course. I wondered what more was to come. After all, we hadn’t even started the main technique of the course yet and I had already made a shift that would have huge impacts on my life.
Day Four – Vipassana Day
Day four is called Vipassana day. This means that you have mastered the Anapana technique and are ready to move into the main technique of the course.
The Vipassana technique involves slowly scanning your body and noticing the sensations that arise. In the Anapana technique, the focus is on feeling sensations in the area around and inside the nose. With the Vipassana technique, the attention is moved around the body scanning each area before moving to the next.
The key with this technique is that you learn not to react to the sensations. You notice the sensation and regardless if it is a good sensation or a bad sensation, you let it be. There is no attempting to hold onto a pleasurable feeling or trying to remove an unpleasant feeling. To put in a term used throughout the course, the goal is to keep the mind in an equanimous state, judging all things as equal.
As blissful as that sounds, I was struggling with getting into that state. The mental and physical exhaustion of the last few days was wearing me down and I wasn’t even half way through the course. By the end of day four, I was done. I was homesick. I was in pain. The thought of having to go back into the meditation hall for another day was horrifying. This would prove to be a pivotal moment.
The program had not given any direction around attempting to stay in a posture nor any instructions on how to sit. It was left up to everyone to decide on their own. There was constant movement in the room as people jostled about attempting to find a comfortable position or leaving the room to walk off the pain.
Now things were changing. The course now asked that you attempt to stay in the position for each entire hour session. Up to this point, I had not been able to hold my position for more than 15 minutes before I had to change positions or get up and move around. I didn’t think that it was ever going to be possible for me to sit in one posture for an entire hour.
The next day, I decided to meet with the teacher over lunch. Even though talking to other participants was not permitted, talking with the teacher and staff members was allowed. There was scheduled time every day over the lunch break that participants could meet with the teachers to ask questions, discuss problems or get feedback on the techniques.
My fight or flight response was again screaming to get the heck out of here. I was ready to ask for my keys, wallet and phone and walk out of this place for good. I described my dilemma to the teacher. I told him about how much pain I was in and how I just could not hold the position no matter which one I used.
Here comes epiphany number two. His answer to my whining was like a bolt of lightning that resonated through my body and soul. He described how maintaining the posture and sitting through the pain was a metaphor for life. In the real world when problems arise, you cannot back away, run away, or give up. You must instead push through without reacting to the pains of life.
“Are you kidding me?” I thought. “Is this guy seeing through me? Does he know that he has just described my typical reaction to life’s problems?” I was always the one who wanted to crawl into a ball and hide when life came knocking at the door. I was always the one who wanted to give up when things got tuff. I was always the one who wanted to run away when things were painful or didn’t seem to make sense.
“Well not anymore! “ I declared in my mind. “I didn’t come here and put my family through this just to give up. I came here to make life changes and this was one that needed to be made in a big way. “
The term that kept being used in the course was “strong determination” and that is exactly what I now had. The next meditation session I sat for the entire hour without moving. What once seemed impossible was suddenly possible. Not only did I sit for that entire hour, but also for almost all of the hour sessions that followed. In fact, on the last day, I sat for an hour and a half without moving. Strong determination was now mine.
In the next installment of this series, I will describe the remainder of serious meditation time along with one of the key concepts learned in the course; the law of Anicca.