Vipassana Meditation: “Emancipate Yourself From Mental Slavery”

My dear friend Bandana believes in sharing whatever she finds good (If it wasn’t for her I may have never met Ramuji!) so it is in the spirit of Bandana that I send you all this email.

After first being introduced to non-conceptual meditation in the Fall of 2004 and a few mini-retreats and courses here and there I finally completed a 10 day Vipassana course during my Spring vacation at a retreat center in the S.N. Goenka tradition a few hours outside of Delhi (courses are held world wide and for more information about how you can take a course go to: http://www.dhamma.org/). My retreat was very intense, incredibly fruitful and probably one of the most important, transformative experiences of my life thus far. Most importantly, it provided me with experiential proof serving only to bolster my unwavering faith and trust in the teachings of the Buddha.

While Bob Marley probably didn’t practice Vipassana, the line “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery” from Redemption song is exactly what Vipassana and the practice of non-conceptual meditation means to me, it is a tool to help me gain mastery over my mind and experience real peace and equanimity. But it isn’t easy and you have to work very hard and very seriously and a mere ten-day course is a very, very tiny step on an incredibly long and arduous path. Most days I felt like a warrior preparing for battle (with my mind) as I walked to my meditation cell. Even though the Buddha left beliefs aside and investigated the mind and matter like a scientist in my heart I still sincerely prayed for grace to give me strength, bravery and courage before I sat down to meditate.

What follows are some of my experiences from my retreat. We are all different and bound to have different experiences but like anything what you put into it is what you get out of it and if you are sincere I don’t see how you could not benefit (even if it is just a little) from this technique which is why I want to share it with all of you.

In Pali (the language of ancient Buddhism, very similar to Sanskirt) Vipassana (Vipasyana in Sanskrit) literally means to see things as they really are. You see things as they really are by understanding “experientially” the impermanent nature of body and mind. Vipassana is a non-sectarian technique and it is extremely practical, scientific, rational and I have found it to be one of the most beneficial practices I have ever come across. Before discovering non-conceptual meditation I very sincerely dedicated myself to practicing various meditation techniques that focused on the repetition of mantras, visualizations and various pranayamas and kriyas but for me instead of just calming the mind and making you feel good and trance-ing out (merely covering up the wound like a band aid) Vipassana aims to go to the root of the problem by allowing us to work with the deepest levels of the mind. I still love devotional singing and chanting and couldn’t wait to be able to chant after the retreat ended but now I clearly see how mantras are created, natural vibrations and while they are good they are still limiting. They are like a shield, a barrier that have often prevented me from feeling at the depth of my mind and as a result I missed deeper, more subtle levels of reality that before this retreat I only felt a taste of in my yoga practice. The essence of Vipassana are awareness and equanimity and by strengthening one’s awareness and remaining equanimous with whatever arises in your practice you can train the mind. By using the natural breath you can restrain your mind from generating negative thought patterns.

I always felt benefits from non-conceptual meditation but only now after a 10 day all out explosion of meditating for at least ten hours a day while maintaining silence have I really gained a sense of verified, abiding faith. Goenka-ji calls verified faith “enlightened devotion” and I really love that term. In fact, you can sense the “enlightened devotion” in his voice as he chants in Pali. The grandfather of my mentor Ramuji, Rajaji gives the introduction to M.S. Subbulakshmi’s rendition of Sri Adi Sankaracarya’s beautiful hymn containing the essence of Vedanta “Bhaja Govindam”. In the introduction he says that jnana and bakti, knowledge and devotion are one in the same. I think this is what “enlightened devotion” is all about but only with experiential proof (which comes from sincere, dedicated practice) can you really get there. I’ve gone to so many teachings and have gotten caught up in intellectual entertainment (especially in Delhi) but Vipassana is applied Vedanta and the benefits and understanding only come with practice and once you really, truly practice the difference between Atman and Anatman really doesn’t matter.

Course Schedule and Guidelines
To participate in a course you must agree to some very strict guidelines. Absolutely no talking, no writing, no reading, no exercise, no yoga, no solid food after 12pm (a light vegetarian breakfast and tea are offered at 6:30 and a light sattvic lunch at 11am, tea is provided for new students at 5pm but old students can only have lemon water). You must give up all other practices for the duration of 10 days (no mantra chanting, pranayama, yoga, kriyas etc.) and have to turn in your phones and any pens, written material and all valuables when you arrive. Not being able to read or write was very important for me because it gave me time to really get to know my mind and dissect it and I really enjoyed the silence. Actually, the hardest thing for me was not being able to do pranayama and yoga and when you are sitting cross-legged with a straight back for so many hours it initially takes a toll on your body but after the first two days the pain subsided or I just “got over it.” The schedule is rigorous for those who are not accustomed to ashram life. The day begins at 4am and you must be in the meditation hall by 4:30. You meditate from 4:30 to 6:30 with a break for a sattvic meal at 6:30 and then you have time to shower and wash your clothes and you must be back in the meditation hall at 8am and you meditate until 11am. At 11am you have lunch (of course you wash your own dishes) and have a break until 1pm to clean your room (accommodation at my retreat center consisted of a tiny room with an attached basic bathroom) or rest and then you meditate again from 1-5pm. Tea is served at 5pm for new students and then you meditate from 6-7. From 7-8:30 there is a teaching given by S.N. Goenka (his daily teachings are geared towards making sure that theory and practice coincide…he also looks like my grandpa!) and you meditate again from 8:30 to 9pm and lights are out by 9:30. Experienced students are given meditation cells for their meditation and new students are given cells on the seventh day. You are required to try your best to not move or change your posture when you practice and while initially it was challenging for me after one hour because of my injured knee after a few days it was possible to sit for a few hours at a stretch. In the beginning I used my knee pain as a way of practicing equanimity and trying to break my old habit patterns of conditioning.

The Technique and Some of My Experiences
Being omni-interested means I always have a lot going on in my life but I was determined to put all my effort into my Vipassana experience and I worked sincerely. Just before lunch on the second day, after only 15 hours of meditation (we actually had not even started practicing Vipassana yet, we were doing an “Anna Panna” meditation where you completely focus your attention on the most subtle aspects of your natural breath and the area above your upper lip and nostrils and this prepared us to receive the Vipassana instruction) I had my first instance of absolutely no mental chatter for an extended period of time and it was the most beautiful, blissful experience. These instances would get longer and longer throughout the day and the entire course and since the course ended when I meditate at home I am still able to access this space of no thought. I have even been trying it out when I am not actively meditating and have great success with no mental chatter when I am swimming laps. But breath is still the gross form of the mind. Still, here was more proof that it is possible to control the mind and use it as an instrument. If I (girl that has a gazillion things always going on in her life) can experience this then anyone can. On the second night after the teaching I was so excited about my periods of no thoughts that I climbed onto the roof of the female latrines and looked up at the sky, tears of joy filled my eyes and I just felt so grateful. Even if I had no further insights for the remaining 8 days it didn’t matter because I had experienced this. Still, I remind myself that breath control is an aid for rendering the mind quiescent but it will not destroy the mind and Ramana Maharshi says that other than inquiry there are no adequate means to make the mind quiescent.

The Buddha experienced two types of Truth: apparent truth and ultimate truth. Apparent truth refers to the realities we experience on the mundane level and ultimate truth is the actual truth that not only our physical structure but all animate and inanimate things In the universe are comprised of tiny subatomic particles which he called kalapas. Kalapas arise and pass away so rapidly that they give the illusion that they are solid. Our mind too when engrossed in gross emotions or thoughts seems solid but if you watch the mind you notice that there is no solidity but rather ever changing vibrations at the mental level. Throughout the course of the ten days I was able to notice subtler levels of reality through various sensations. Sensations varied and they would come and go and I tried not to attach any feelings of craving or aversion to the sensations. Sometimes it felt like ants were crawling over my body and face, at times there was tingling but the sensations were always changing and impermanent (anicca). Similarly, through watching and examining the mind I noticed it also was ever changing and it is entirely possible to control one’s thought patterns and not give in to craving and aversion. With every thought sensations arise in our body and the Buddha discovered that human suffering occurs in the blind reaction to these sensations. So the key is to be very, very aware and approach everything with equanimity so you don’t create new samkaras. If you approach all aspects of your life with equanimity and awareness think about how easeful everything would be!

Goeka-ji’s teacher Sayagi U Ba Khin, independent Myanmar’s first Accountant General was clear that Vipassana has nothing to do with converting anyone into a Buddhist. He said that Vipassana teaches sila (morality), samadhi (mastery of the mind) and panna (pronounced “panya” meaning wisdom). After all, becoming really enlightened has nothing to do with conversion rather it has everything to do with sila, samadhi and panna. But the panna (wisdom) Vipassana seeks to teach is bhavana maya panna whichh literally means “embodied, lived wisdom” which one can only attain experientially not from books. Through the practice of Vipassana you develop the ten paramis (perfections) of dana (generosity), sila (virtue), nekkhamma (renunciation), viriya (energy/vigor), khanti (patience), sacca (truthfullness), adhitthana (resolve), metta (loving kindness), and upekkha (equanimity). These ten paramis are qualities I think we all would love to cultivate! Developing the dhamma (pali word for dharma) in yourself is a way to embody these paramis.

On the last day of the course we are instructed in the practice of Metta Bhavana. I had learned Metta Bhavana a few years ago but only after 9 days of practice do I feel like I really understand it. Metta Bhavana is a meditation of loving kindness to share the merits of your practice and doing Metta Bhavana is probably one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.

Sometimes people think Buddhism is pessimistic with “life is suffering” but what drew me to this path is all of the optimism! The Buddha says that it is possible to get out of samsara and he provides you with the tools to do so, what a blessing! Upon my arrival in India I have been trying to make sense of what it means to be an “enlightened activist.” In November of 2006 I had an amazing opportunity to go on a retreat with Satish Kumar on Gandhian philosophy and he told me that enlightened activism is a natural expression of your being. When you serve others with no expectations just for the sake of serving this is dharma. When your ego dissolves you help others naturally and the practice of Vipassana can help you get to this place.

A dear teacher I studied with a few years back told me, “The practices will really change you so just don’t ask questions, have faith, be disciplined.” I can say with full confidence that dedicated practice really does change you but there are no miracles and you must work very hard on a very long path. Some of my meditation sessions were quite challenging but in these moments I just tried to remember what a dear teacher once said to me: “We are trying to be Buddhists, we are not the Buddha so don’t be so hard on yourself and try to persevere.”

If serious meditation interests you I would definitely recommend taking ten days out of your life to at least give Vipassana a shot. In the words of Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery…None but ourselves can free our minds.”

With Metta and Maitri,

Meena

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