The following post contains a summary of a recent experience I had at a Vipassanā retreat.
To clarify; Vipassanā is a meditation technique that was used and prescribed by Gautama Buddha over 2500 years ago. The technique consists of deep and prolonged examination of one’s mind and body, with the end goal of liberation. Before you jump to conclusions, the practice is neither religious nor dogmatic. It is simply a technique that greatly benefits the practitioner.
This post will be lengthy so feel free to skip to different subheadings.
- Schedule and conduct
- History of the technique
- The technique
- My experience
Schedule and Conduct
All Participants must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by speech, gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited.
All who attend a Vipassana course must also conscientiously undertake the following five precepts for the duration of the course:
- To abstain from killing any being;
- To abstain from stealing;
- To abstain from all sexual activity;
- To abstain from telling lies;
- To abstain from all intoxicants.
You are not able to bring any electronics, books or writing material. Rest periods are spent eating, sitting or walking around the 200 or so meter bush walk. You are limited to 2 vegetarian meals a day and some fruit in the evening.
Males and females remain fully segregated for the entirety of the course.
Meditations sessions range from 1 – 2 hours. They are held in a hall where all participants are seated on floor matts with access to sitting cushions.
Daily meditation duration: 11 hours.
Course duration: 10 days.
Total meditation duration: 110 hours.
History of the technique
I don’t deem the techniques history of relevance to your personal development, however I appreciate some may be interested. If so, visit the link below for a brief overview of the techniques history.
The technique is taught progressively over 10 days. I will try my best to explain the technique in full depth. However, I will be condensing 10 days worth of learning into a few paragraphs. Naturally, some of the essence may be lost.
Although this post will give you an insight into the vipassana technique. To fully understanding the technique you must learn it on an experiential level. Intellectualising and philosophising will only take you so far.
I haven’t done much research on the topic outside of what I learnt during the retreat. This prompts me to state that the following information isn’t necessarily scientifically correct. However, don’t let skepticism discourage you from use of the technique. Regardless of the mechanisms used, it has liberated a countless number of people who have committed themselves to the practice.
Human beings have 6 sensory gates. Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell and thoughts. Each one of these gates is constantly processing information. Together, they make up your unique experience of reality. Each time a sensory gate receives a stimuli, it creates a sensation within the body.
For example: If I was to yell at you. Your eyes would register the angry expression on my face and your ears would register the loud aggressive noises. As a result, you would experience a few sensations in your body depending on your past experiences with people yelling at you. If it triggered an angry response, you would undoubtedly feel a hot, agitative sensation manifesting. If you were to respond with fear, you would feel an anxious hollow feeling in your stomach.
Our unconscious mind is programmed to react to bodily sensations in 1 of 2 ways.
- Craving – A powerful desire for something.
- Aversion- A strong dislike or disinclination.
If the sensation is a pleasant one, you react with craving. If the sensation is unpleasant, you react with aversion. From the previous example. If you were to feel that hollow anxious feeling in your stomach, you would react with aversion. Trying your hardest to escape the unpleasant situation.
The problem with craving and aversion is that they are a result of dissatisfaction towards the present moment. When we crave or avoid, we double our pain. The pain is felt once in the body as a sensation, then a second time by the mind in the form of craving or aversion.
It looks like this ↓
Consciousness( being alive) ⇒ Perception (stimuli enters 6 sense gates) ⇒ Sensation( Physical feeling manifests)⇒ Reaction( Craving or aversion) ⇒ Misery( not satisfied with the present moment)
You going about your day ⇒ I start yelling at you ⇒ you experience an anxious sensation in your body ⇒ you experience aversion ⇒ An experience of aversion is miserable.
The Vipassanā meditation technique works by developing 2 things.
Firstly, you must develop an awareness of the sensations that are occurring in the body from moment to moment. Secondly you must remain equanimous to every sensation, good or bad.
By remaining equanimous to the sensations that arise during your meditation, whether they are painful or pleasurable. You are reprogramming your unconscious mind not to react with craving or aversion. Without craving or aversion, misery cannot exist.
The Buddhists use a term ‘anicha’. It describes the impermanence of our world, the law of change. In other words, what arises will pass. Everything is always in flux, nothing will remain constant. Once you start to appreciate anicha, you will begin to see that craving and aversion is unnecessary misery. Every sensation is only temporary. Everything that arises will pass.
Even if you don’t resonate with this meditative technique for establishing this philosophy in your life. I urge you to live with anicha constantly at the forefront of your thoughts. The average person swings from aversion to craving constantly throughout the day without even realising. Next time you catch yourself doing so, simply remind yourself of anicha. Your misery is an unnecessary burden because it’s catalyst is impermanent… temporary… In flux… rising ,passing away… or whatever appeals most.
Like I mentioned earlier, the technique is taught progressively. The first day at the retreat is spent observing your respiration. Breathing through your nose, observe where the breath touches as it travels up your nasal passage. Which nostril does it travel up? which nostril does it travel down? left? right? both? Can you feel the change in temperature on the exhale from the heating of your body temperature? The breath should be natural and not controlled. If however you find your mind is wandering too often, you may incorporate a few minutes of harder controlled breaths to bring you mind back to focus.
This step is practiced for roughly 11 hours before the next step is introduced. Next, you must move your attention from your respiration, to the triangle area made up by your nose and the area above your top lip. Observe the sensations you feel in this area.
A sensation is literally any feeling. Hot, cold, numb, vibrating, tickling, itching, pulsing, stinging, pressure, tension etc.
The key is to observe objectively; that is, remain equanimous with all the sensations that you experience, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, by appreciating their impermanent nature (anicha).
After roughly another 11 hours of meditation. The next step is move your attention to the area above the top lip but below the nostrils. Again, observing the area objectively.
The purpose of these first steps is to sharpen the mind and begin developing your equanimity. The smaller the area of focus, the sharper the mind becomes. The sharper the mind becomes, the subtler the sensations it can detect. This is in preparation for the teaching of the vipassana technique. If at any time the mind begins to feel dull or agitated, return to observing your respiration.
On the fourth day, vipassana is taught. The technique asks that you move your attention systematically from head to feet and from feet to head, observing in order, each and every part of the body by feeling all the sensations that you come across. Observe objectively; that is, remain equanimous with all the sensations that you experience, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, by appreciating their impermanent nature. Keep your attention moving. Never stay for more than a few minutes at any one place.
Do not allow the practice to become mechanical. Work in different ways according to the type of sensations you experience. Areas of the body having strong sensations like pain, itching, tickling etc. Should be observed separately by moving your attention body part by body part. Symmetrical parts, such as both arms or both legs, having similar subtle sensations like pulsing or vibrating etc, may be observed together simultaneously. If you experience subtle sensations throughout the physical structure, you may at times sweep the entire body without stopping and then again work part by part.(1)
During each vipassana sitting you will experience both immense pain and deep pleasure. You must remain equanimous no matter how good or bad you feel or the practice will bring no benefit.
Equanimity is something I regularly aim to maintain in alignment with the development of my emotional intelligence. Up until my experience with Vipassana, I had done so by journalling on my strongest emotional reaction at the end of each day. Overtime, this practice has grown my emotional awareness to some extent. However, it is still far from where I would like it to be.
Vipassana also aims to develop emotional awareness but on an experiential level, rather than just intellectually. Upon enrolling in the course and even during the course I was very skeptical about the approach it takes to achieve this. I found myself regularly questioning the effectiveness of objectively observing the sensations in the body as a means to liberate oneself from the control that emotions have over us.
I have been home for roughly a week now and I am incredibly shocked with the results from only 10 days of the practice. They were 10 very long, very difficult days, but none the less, still only 10 days. I still don’t know if the mechanisms they hold accountable for the transformation are accurate, but what I can tell you is my awareness of my reactiveness (craving and aversion) has become acute.
The strangest part is the manner in which this awareness presents itself. Every time I catch myself craving or avoiding, it isn’t an intellectual discovery. In the past, I have prevented myself from reacting to strong emotional triggers through a very cognitive process. However post-retreat, the process has evolved from a thought to a feeling. Vipassana is said to reprogram the deep habit pattern of your mind(craving and aversion). As reluctant as I was, this is exactly what it feels like.
Aside from the benefits I have received post-experience. There is something else I experienced worth discussing. Prior to the retreat, I found great pleasure in surfing the endless void of my own mind. However a few days into the retreat, I began to hate it. The more time I spent in silence, the louder my thoughts became. On top of that, I began to notice a peculiar repetitiveness to my thoughts, one that was normally masked from my awareness. At first, all my thoughts seemed very unique and diverse. However, as I began to observe the nature of each thought, rather than the content. I soon discovered that there were only about 4 types of thoughts I was having.
- A past negative experience
- A past positive experience
- Something I was worried about in the future
- Something I desired in the future
Out of all those thoughts, only number 4 has the potential to be beneficial to a happy lifestyle. In other words, approximately 75% of my thoughts are destructive by nature. Yes, even the positive past experiences are destructive as they made me long for something that no longer was. I say 75% but in reality I definitely experienced a bias towards negative thoughts even in the realm of my fantasies of the future. Especially on the later days of the course.
Over the duration of the course I managed to relive, what I perceive to be almost my entire life. Everyday, memories would resurface that I had long forgotten about, good and bad. The pivotal points in my existence replayed in my head over and over. Each time I would gain a new perspective, for better or worse. I see this as predominantly positive as I was able to make peace with some of them. While gaining a deeper understanding of the greater effect some of the experiences have had on my life in the long term.
Vipassana is seen as a lifelong practice that grows in strength from continuity of practice. It is recommended that outside the retreat, one should practice for 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour at night. I would suggest aiming for a duration that is maintainable, it’s better to do 5 minutes a day and do it every day. Than doing 2 hours a day for a month and then stopping.
As for the retreat itself. It was one of the most challenging experiences I’ve had the pleasure of undertaking. I consider it to be the most time efficient steps forward on my journey of self development. I would love to sit here and ramble on about the vast number of insights and understandings I developed in those 10 days but due to the length of the post, along with the fact that much of what I discovered was individually beneficial, I cannot. What I will say is if you are seeking deep, deep introspection, or simply a method for liberation. Which we all should be. Sign up to the course. I Guarantee you, a life changing experience.
you can do so here → https://www.dhamma.org/en/schedules/schmedini