Sunday, August 16, 2009

My 10 day vipassana meditation experience

I did the Vipassana meditation retreat between 16th july - 26th july. In short, it was a roller-coaster ride. The ride was ofcourse in the mind . It’s interesting to note that as we go about our daily lives, we look at external objects, people and issue out reactions or responses. But observing your own body, your own mind, can some useful information be gained, can a new perspective be gained, can you actually even go looking for the root cause of misery by looking within? These are some questions that have fascinated me and these 10 days were my time for focused observation of the body and mind to possibly answer these questions or atleast get some perspectives.

I have got a few insights and many experiences to reflect on(those I have reflected on, I have applied the lessons learnt with good benefits so far).

Talking to different people at the end of the retreat, I realized that everyones’ experience is different and unique. If you are interested, you can go ahead and read some details from my experience (it’s long!) .

The Setting

A beautiful field of wild yellow-green grass surrounded by tall trees, in the middle of which lies three buildings(meditation hall, men’s dorms and a dining cum women’s dorms). Located in Onalaska, it’s 2 hrs drive south of Seattle. I was surprised that three-quarters of the people at the retreat were below the age of 35. I then learnt the reason..It's summer!


Boredom

So my first impressions of the meditation routine was that it’s boring. I mean, think about it, 8-10 hrs of meditation everyday. And you are doing the same meditation for atleast 3 days before changing the technique. You get up at 4:30 am and you get to bed at 9:30 pm. There are many meditation sessions in between with some rest periods thrown in, but it's all meditation. You go back from the meditation hall to your residence, and people start walking slowly being aware of each step, oh yeah - The walking meditation. You are having your food, and you are totally focused on what you are eating - No paper in hand or laptop on the lap - So that's mindfulness meditation while eating. Ofcourse, we were to maintain complete silence for 10 days, so no getting distracted by talking to other meditators. So you see it's the ideal environment to meditate and also to get bored with meditation.

It’s like there is only one restaurant in town and you go there to order food:

“Excuse me sir, I would like to order some food”.

‘Sure, we got an ‘All you can eat’ buffet today, and as always, it’s free’.

“Oh wow, what’s on the menu?”

‘We got two delicious items – The group meditation and individual meditation. The group meditation has to be consumed within the premises, but you can ‘take out’ the individual one’.

“Oh ok”.

At the end of my first day, it was refreshing to have a different experience than boredom: As we came out of the meditation hall, we saw a mother deer with her two recently born kids jumping around merrily. It was an awesome sight, complementing the beauty of the place.


Sensations

The vipassana technique is all about observing sensations on your body ‘equanimously’.

The first 3 days, we observe the breath, which is the ana-pana-sati(incoming outgoing breath awareness) technique. We also narrowed down our focus to a triangular region around the nose to observe sensations. The idea is that there are always sensations on every part of the body, but we may not be aware of them because the mind hasn’t been trained to look for them. So, by observing a triangular region around the nose, I was able to observe two different sensations. One was an itching sensation and the other a tingling sensation. These sensations are impermanent, they arise and pass away.

So we get the idea that there are sensations (some perceptible, some subliminal – depending on the mind’s sharpness) all over the body and that these sensations arise and pass away.

Now, what’s observing sensations got to do with peace of mind?

The idea is that when we crave for something, let’s say chocolate, what we are actually craving for is the sensation that we get on the body when we have chocolate. And when one craves for chocolate and can’t have it for some reason, one can get upset or irritated. The idea is that one is upset because one craves for the sensation on the body that arises when you have chocolate.

Similarly, when one hates something, the idea is that one hates the sensation that happens on the body when that object comes into your view.

What if one remains calm or equanimous to these sensations on the body instead of craving for them or having an aversion for them? This idea of equanimity to sensations is the basis behind the Vipassana technique and that’s the core practice we do during the last 5 days of the course.

It’s amazing what sensations can be observed when the mind is trained to look for them.

Personally, I was able to observe tingling sensations all over my head and palms of my hands. And over the rest of the body, I was able to observe a few sensations here and there.

One important idea is that even pain can be viewed as a sensation. And if you can remain equanimous to pain, it can stop having that big of an effect of you. For example, when one has severe pain in the leg, the physical pain one feels is exacerbated by the mental reaction.. ‘Oh pain, oh severe pain. I don’t like this pain.. I want to get rid of it. What do I do?’. The mind in it’s reaction of aversion to this ‘sensation of pain’ increases the suffering one feels when one has this pain. On the other hand, the mind could have been equanimous..’Yes there is severe pain, let’s see how long it lasts. Let me not get affected by it’. This is an easy thing to say, but not easy to act, as I discovered.

The sitting

On day 5, we were introduced to this adhittana sitting or a sitting of strong determination. In this group sitting, you are not supposed to move even a single part of the body for an hour. Days 5 and 6 were pretty much a struggle for everyone. We would all get up limping and groaning. We had three such sittings every day since day 5. On day 5, I could manage two sittings without movement. On day 6, I thought I would be brave and not use any cushion and just sit on the floor. These guys provide you will all sorts of cushion of all sizes,firmness, and shape to make your meditation comfortable and I decided not to use it on that day! Why?? Because I figured that I am anyway going to observe sensations which include pain, how does it matter if the pain is shallow or deep, I am going to be observing it anyway. I managed two sittings with grit and determination, but the third sitting, it was difficult for me to even sit down, let alone not move. My legs were shot that day, and I was careful from day 7 to make myself comfortable with cushions. I figured, I could try out the no-cushions thing another day.

Moving beyond pain

On Day 9 of the course, we were sitting in one of those hour long group meditations where you are not supposed to move any part of the body and maintain your posture. It can seem like torture to an outsider, since the pain in the legs can get intense with 1 hr of sitting with no movement. But to a vipassana meditator, the pain is supposed to be just another sensation!

45 minutes into the 1 hr sitting, my calf muscles in my left leg were becoming more and more painful and I, as a good vipassanameditator was trying to observe the pain ‘objectively’. So I examined the pain… Where is it centered? It’s in the center of the calf muscle. Ok what kind of a pain is it.. It’s a mildly intense pain on the verge of becoming a severely intense pain. Alright, what’s it’s nature? It’s a pulsating/radiating pain that arises and passes away every second.

At this point I also had pains centered in my knees and my thighs. So it was an interesting experience for me in trying to characterize pain in one part of the body, when ‘other pains’ are calling for your attention.

So I surveyed the pain objectively and moved on to other parts of the body to examine sensations there. Suddenly, I felt a warm rush of vibrations in my left leg. I examined what was going and I found that the ‘gross calf pain’ that was intense had faded away to the background and was replaced by these pleasant ‘warm vibrations’ in my leg. This was my first experience of pain – a gross sensation dissolving into subtler sensations through objective equanimous observation of pain.

In Vipassana meditation, it’s a sign of progress to have gross sensations such as pain in the body to be replaced by subtler sensations such as tingling sensations, since that means two things: Your mind is getting sharper in being able to observe subtler sensations and that you have been able to develop equanimity to pain, which is not easy.

Implications

We usually think of pain as something unwanted, something to be gotten rid of. But when you change your perspective on pain and think of it as a sensation that could be observed without aversion, as something that can be observed objectively, waawaveeva, you can have this pain fading away.

I spoke to other meditators to see if they had similar experiences. One guy in his 50’s had sciatic pain in his back that was always present. But during the 10 day course, once he started observing the pain objectively, the pain would pass away and come back. Not having pain, even for a short period was a big relief for him.

Another guy had an amazing story. At the end of every 1 hr group sitting with no change of posture, we would all get up limping and groaning. But this guy would get up and just walk away with big strides and a smile as if he was going for his regular morning walk. When we asked him about it, he said that he felt no pain whatsoever and that he was only experiencing a lot of energetic sensations all over the body. This was his 4th time to the course and on the previous three retreats he wasn’t able to go beyond the pain.


Recurrence of past health symptoms

I had this happen during the vipassana retreat. I had some OCD symptoms and panic attack symptoms come up from the past and I understood that they were coming up for clearing. I just had to be detached to these symptoms and they would pass away. They ofcourse did pass away. But it's interesting how the OCD symptoms just showed up during the meditation when I was done with it years back. I spoke to another guy, he had had Asthma in the past and a similar thing happened to him.

He had asthma symptoms come up on one of the days. His usual thing to do, was to force himself to breath deeper when these attacks began. But since this happened on day 6 or 7, he thought it might be worth a try to just be "ok" with the shortness-of-breath symptom that was a precursor to the Asthma attack. And amazingly, the symptoms passed away after a few minutes and he wasn't doing anything, just observing it as another sensation.


Connecting the dots…

1) Mindfulness meditation vs Vipassana meditation

I started meditating regularly in July, last year. I do the mindfulness meditation, which is basically being aware of and being equanimous to whatever phenomenon is going around you at that time. For example, I often hear buses passing by, someone opening the door, and ofcourse the thoughts whizzing by in the mind. By just being aware and being equanimous, it happens that the thoughts tend to settle down after sometime and you feel more peaceful.

In Vipassana, ‘awareness’ and ‘equanimity’ are again the two big principles, but there is also ‘focus’.In Vipassana, one is focusing the mind to observe subtler sensations all over the body and at the same time being equanimous to them . There is also an order of moving from head to toe or toe to head.

In contrast, the mindfulness doesn’t involve focusing, you are just aware of whatever is going on inside and outside of you.


2) Shavasana (Corpse posture) vs Vipassana meditation

In yoga, there is a posture called Shavasana, where one lies like a corpse on the ground, fully relaxing the body. Usually, one starts at the head and mentally relaxes each part of the body all the way down to the toes. There is some resemblance of Shavasana toVipassana in that even in Vipassana one goes from head to toes, but in Vipassana one is not trying to relax, one is trying to be focused on observing sensations on all parts of the body from head to toe equanimously.

3) Vipassana meditation vs a generic meditation technique

In a generic meditation technique, you have an object for meditation. If the object is a mantra, that is repeated through the meditation, it’s called a mantra meditation technique.If the object is the breath, it’s the ana-pana meditation technique. If the object is some dynamic guided imagery, it’s called guided imagery meditation. The idea is that all of these object-based meditation techniques are focused on the mind and have something to do with thoughts.Vipassana on the other hand is totally focused on the sensations on the body, though the mind can play the role of distracting the meditator from doing that. So it's like this, if there are a lot of dramas going in your life, observing the sensations are going to be difficult when you do the vipassana, since your mind is going to be playing out those dramas/scenarios in the mind. But it's the same thing with a mantra-based meditation, you are not going to be able to focus on the mantra. It's mostly the case that when you begin any form of meditation, you are just not able to calm the mind. That's alright, because when you begin to meditate, you realize that the mind has a mind of it's own. That's a good place to begin and slowly with time, the mind will start behaving well and inner peace that always existed but was clouded by all the dramas of the mind, will start showing up more frequently during meditation and will begin extending to even the periods of the day when one is busy.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my experience. For me though, there were times when I thought of quitting the course, but thankfully they were few. Most of the time, I could perceive the benefits, short-term and long-term of practicing this technique. I am thinking of alternating between mindfulness and vipassana meditation for now. Let's see how it goes.


4 comments:

mitra said...

Hi Karthik, it's nice to see you keeping up with the meditation practice without failure. It's one year now since you started the practice. Congratulations!

As someone in the research field, it'd be appropriate if you could set aside your subjective descriptions and gather some scientific evidences of clear and measurable benefits that meditation can bring about into an article and post it here. I don't mean a detailed article, just a brief account of the scientific evidences so far obtained will do. I wonder if the claims are bogus and hyped!

angel said...

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Thomas Fincher said...

Indeed, meditation can help us in analyzing various aspects of pour lives. I'm glad that you learned a lot during your 10 day vipassana meditation camp. I really liked the extensive discussion that you gave about the day to day experiences in the meditation camp.

Similarly, the ability to analyze our pain, its nature, causes and effects, is useful in wellness practices like Theta healing. The ability to let go of the things that cause us pain can be done through prayer and meditation. It is the act of letting go of all the pent up aggressions that have acted as revolving negativity in our lives.

Thanks for sharing your experience!

mborrero said...

Thanks for going into detail. I am looking forward to my experience and hope many others are seeking out the information too.