Trip Start Sep 05, 2006
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So before I describe what I did, lets get some things clear first about what it means to practice Vipassana meditation.
1) Vipassana is the teaching of Gotema Buddha, it is not the practice of "Buddhism" necessarily, but it is his teaching of an important aspect of a path to personal liberation. This teaching is not inherently religious. No god or icon is worshiped, and he never intendent for the Buddhism or any "ism" to result from his teaching.
2) This is 100% personal, inside yourself, nothing outside is involved.
3) This is not fun, not a "retreat" not enjoyable, not exciting
4) Isolation from the world in an Ashram is absolutely requird. You may not speak, touch, smile or interact with another person or other life forms in any way. You may not read, or write, and the management make sure to take these luxuries away from you. This is called Noble Silence.
5) This involves 11 hours of sitting meditaion every day, no stretching or doing anything but meditation is allowed
At the physical level, its almost impossible to understand what I did unless you go through Vipassana course yourself. This doesn't even scracth the surface, but give this a shot.
Where you are, sit down on the ground in any position you like and try to pay attention to your breath for 15 minutes. Try to do this so that you have no single other thought enter your head for those 15 minutes except for the awareness of your breath. You can do that? Good. Ok, now do that for 15 minutes without moving your body at all. Ok now do this for one hour without breaking for anything. No moving, no thought. Now do this for 11 hours in a day. This is just the a quick example of what kind of thing we were asked to do. As we got further into the course, we were asked to use our awareness in different ways. From reading this description, I know it probably sounds like you just sit there for hours. This is true in the literal sense.
You find out very quickly, that this technique involves all of your physical and mental capacities to there fullest extent...and much further beyond. Most of you know that I am a triathlete, and when I am not travelling the world, I take the training very serously and try to compete at a high level. This of course involves a lot of physical and mental stress. I can say without a strain of doubt, these last 10 days were the most physically and mentally demanding days of my life. This course, and this meditaion technique takes me so much further beyond what I knew was capable of my body and mind. This sounds great, but again remember this process forced me to go through the the most difficult physical and mental stress I have ever gone through. Its not nice, its terribly unpleasant lots of the time. During an hour sitting, in the early parts of your course, you'll find that your body begins to cry out to you mind, stop this stop this. The way I thought of it was I was david, and next to me stood goliath. In his hands, goliath wielded two rocks. He would take these rocks and put my legs and back between them. Somehow goliath was able to peel away the skin an muscle and get straight to the real pain in my bones. He would then bang the rocks on my bare bones for extended periods of time, for the whole day. There were hour sittings and two hour sittings back to back to back. You often got a 5 minute break in a 3 to 4 hour period of which goliath would stop banging his rocks on my bare bones so I could get a glass of water in peace. 5 minutes later, he was right back at it. The natural reaction when this kind of pain comes is to squirm, and yell out a sigh of relief as you give your body rest. SOme did. FOr the first few days this is ok. As the course progresses, the mental work begins. You are asked to sit there for these same hours with the same pain, and not move a muscle. At the same time, you are to examine the pain, focusing on the pain areas at times and instead of reacting with thoughts of anger and 'oh my god this hurts so bad' you are to train yourself not to react at all to the pain. Just observe it, let it hit you, and do absolutely nothing. You are to create no physical or mental reaction to this onslaugh of brutality. Sit there, smile in your mind at the pain, aknowledge that it is there, then move on to examine other parts of the body. This requires focus of your mind beyond what you knew is possible. When you loose focus, it is not possible to observe the pain objectively, and you personalize it, react to it. This is draining for 1 hour, 11 hours seems like craziness. 10 days of this schedule seems like complete madness. Ever day you do this, waking at 4am to begin practice, finishing practice at 9pm. You get time to eat twice a day, and time for an hour nap. No dinner. By the time it is time to sleep, you are completely drained. Your body hurts, your mind needs a rest.
By the second day of this, you want to run away. Run as far away from the ashram as you possible can, never to return. You have to fight that urge as well, for some it is very depressing. You live in very basic accomodations, you get one good meal, one bad meal a day. You see the light of day about 3 hours each day, and much of your meditaion is spent in a "cell" A small 6x6 room with only a cushion in which you sit in isolation for hours to meditate. For some this mental battle is more difficult than the physical battle. For me it was the physical pain that was so intense, mentally I was pretty stable. You must adhere to a strict code of discipline and many times you feel as though you have been imprisoned. It sounds a lot like prison, it is a lot like prison. It is all for you own benefit though, and these benefits come in life. I cant say what if any benefit I have recieved yet, I've only been free for a few hours now. These comming months will be very interesting for me to see what has resulted from this experience. If you want to see what these places are like, see this website which explains something about vipassana. http://www.khetta.dhamma.org/ This was the Ashram in which we leaned Vipassana.
A meditator is supposed to evaluate this experience and try to decide if this method makes sense to you, if the results and the theory makes sense. If you decide it is, you practice is to continue twice a day for 1 hour sittings. I dont know if I will do this or not, I need some time to digest this experience and evalute what if anything it has done for me. What I have described here is only my experience physically, and even this does not begin to capture this physical experience. I could write for days detailing wha physical sensations and mental thoughts and pressures I had, but this will have to do. Words don't do a very good job of explaining this method and that is actually part of the teaching. THis is completely experiential, one has to experience this for themself to understand at all what this teaching and technique is. There is a lot of teaching involved, teaching of the technique as I have described some of it, but also teaching of the theory. The theory and technique are taught as Buddha taught them, and as you move through the course, this teaching and this way of life that Buddha taught becomes very clear, and begins to make a lot of sense. I havent described any of the the teachings of Buddha because they really do need to go along with the expereince. His most basic teaching was that this life is based on things at the expereincial level. One must expereince Vipassana and practice it to know the theory. If you want the theory of Buddha and Buddha practice, you'll have to read that on your own, I wont do it justice trying to tell you what it is. Better yet, find a Vipassana center, go to a course.
On a lighter note.
On day six of meditation, the biggest festival in India errupted. It actually errupted. We have good fireworks shows in the USA on new years, fourth of july. This display of fireworks shames anything I have ever known. I the midst of a Vipassana session, the world around the Ashram exploded for 4 hours in a constrant stream of intense explosions. I wasn't able to see any of it, but I heard it. The sounds were extremely close, and constant. I had no idea this festival was happening, so these sounds frightened me a lot. I stopped meditating and began thinking. I thought this was a war. Im not joking. THe thoughts going through my head were that Pakistan had attacked India, and that the front was here, at the gates of the Ashram. I was thinking that I had to be able to get kristina and myself to our passports, and to an embassy as quickly as possible. Openning my eyes, I discovered that the rest of the room was sitting like good little buddhas and I couldnt understand this. I though maybe the teachers had not told us of this war because they figured that if the fighting came we were either doomed anyway, or that they invaders would not attack the Ashram because this is a place of peace and harmony. That was not much relief for me. After meditation I of course found out that this was all in good fun. One meditation session sacrificed, but oh well, there was no short supply of meditation sessions.
Mother, remember when I would come home from college and you would sometimes worry that I was no longer capable of proper table manors? Well, I wish you could see me now. See in India, to eat like a good polite Indian, just think of everything we do in the west, and then reverse it. To start with, we call them table manors. Doesn't work to well here, because often you dont eat on a table. You sit cross legged on the floor, or stand. This is normal. Silverware...hasnt really hit it big here, almost everybody eats with their hands, rather their hand. You keep you left hand far from you food. It doesn't matter how messy the dish is, usually it a curry so its incredibly messy. You just pick it up with some naan or throw it on some rice. You mash it around in the rice and then pick up what you can grab in a handful and shove it in your face. Eating isn't often a pleasure experience either, you are there to eat, not necessarily socialize and enjoy yourself. Your body requires food, so you give it food. So, you sit there and shovel shovel shovel with your head down until your plate is empty. Mmm, with a full stomach, you are free to sit back, face and had a mess and belch loudly. Good meal.
Please look at Kristinas entry, here experience I know was very different from mine