My Vipassana Experience
by Hiro (Unsui)
1o days of awareness and equanimity with Swami S N Goenka
S.N. Goenka’s Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana Meditation is one of the oldest forms of meditation. Vipassana means “clear seeing” or “seeing things as they really are” in Pali language. The purpose of Vipassana Meditation is to experience the Truth within a framework of the body with the reality that manifests from moment to moment. As you can imagine this can be a powerful experience as you directly realize the universal truth at experiential level. Although Vipassana is a technique rediscovered and developed by the Buddha, it is completely non-sectarian, non-religious, and universal. Anyone can utilize the practical application of the technique, and anyone can expect to obtain the same universal benefits.
Zen vs Vipassana
I have been sitting in Zen style for a few years. I am not going to compare the two as to which one is better than the other because the essence of both practice is the same: Seeing things as they really are. There are obvious differences in their approaches however.
In Zen, there is no clear guidance other than posture and breathing. Actually, there is no technique in Zen. During Zazen(sitting meditation), you must abandon everything you have been engaged with, abandon thinking about right and wrong, and of thinking itself, along with thoughts of enlightenment. You don’t sit for the purpose of enlightenment. You sit to just sit. This is called Shikantaza. This is why I love Zen. It is so simple yet so deep.
In Goenka school of Vipassana, you are given very specific guidance to follow. It is essential that you follow exactly what you are told to do. Goenka teaches that our body is always reacting to the mind as we have moment-to-moment experience. If you feel sad your chest feels contracted. If you are angry your body heats up. Sustained emotions occur when the chain-reaction begins between the mind and the body. The mind reacts to the external world or your own thoughts. Then your body reacts to your mind. Then your body reaction feeds more negative energy to your mind that reacted in the first place. This is a dreadful emotional state to be in. Sadness, stress, anger, anxiety and all those negative emotions are sustained by the link between the mind and the body.
Basically, you can stop your reactions by cutting this chain between the mind and the body. What you can do is to simply observe the body sensations and not identify yourself with those sensations. By practicing this over and over with the equanimous mind, you are training your mind to be non-reactive.
Developing the faculty
An important element of the basic technique is to learn how to develop the faculty to feel subtle sensations. As the mind becomes more sensitive, you will start feeling subtle sensations on your body that you never noticed before – ichiness, tingling sensation, prickling sensation, electric-like feeling, pain, pressure, heat, coolness, aspirations, etc. According to Goenka, all these subtle sensations are the experience of “Anitcher” which means changing or impermanence. Everything in this world is constantly changing. Nothing is permanent. This law of nature also applies to our bodies. At a microcosmic level, particles that make out of the body is repeating birth and death. As Eckhart says, your body is a universe. The purpose of Vipassana meditation is to experience this reality within a framework of the body from moment to moment.
My Experience with Vipassana
Once you get a hang of it, by focusing on the body sensations, it gets easier to keep your concentration. In the first three days you learn the basic technique. It also takes 2-3 days for the most people to quiet the mind. The real Vipassana meditation beings on the 4th day.
The hardest part of the course begins on this day. From this day on you are required to sit without moving at all for an hour three times a day. This is called “Sittings with Strong Determination.” You have to be completely still for an entire hour. It seemed impossible task for many students but most of us were able to do it in a couple of days. This is an important part of his teaching. You are to teach your mind to not identify yourself with discomfort during the sitting. You learn how to observe them as if a doctor diagnosing a patient. It was difficult for me too in the beginning. It takes practice but by doing it repeatedly your body will start feeling like a rock that never moves and your mind gets very alert and quiet.
First time I did this “Sitting with Strong Determinations”, the intensity I felt was far greater than I ever felt in Zen. I was totally in the zone. I completely lost the sense of time.
From 6th or 7th day I started feeling more and more subtle sensations. The strongest sensation came on the 9th day. I started feeling a pulsing sensation all over my body. Wherever I pay attention to, let’s say, back side of my right knee, I could feel the pulse. Then I moved my attention to my toes. Again I felt the pulse. This sensation became more intense especially around my head as time went by and eventually became too overwhelming. I started feeling nauseous and had to stop focusing on the sensation.
Other times I felt very subtle sensation of tingling vibrating sensation all around my body. It was very very subtle but it was certainly there. I felt flawless to “sweep” the entire mass of body with this sensation outlined my body. Another thing to note, I was badly infected by poison-ivy a day before I went to the retreat. After a couple of days the poison started to kick in, causing unbearable itchiness. Funny thing is when I was meditating, I didn’t feel any itchiness at all. I was scratching them only out of meditation when I was unconscious.
Everyone have different experiences in this meditation. Some people have a blissful sensations. Some experience painful one when the old pain-body arises. Some people broke down on the last day when we practiced “Metta Sutta” meditation. Metta Sutta is a practice for cultivating love and compassion. After the final session ended, everyone was smiling, including those who were crying.
In the discourse Goenka emphasizes that the true liberation is possible only when you get to the root of misery. The deepest level of the mind – unconsciousness” is constantly in contact with body sensations and reacting to all kinds of sensations.
If you are fairly non-reactive person you may not even react to a mosquito during a meditation. You may as well give it some blood out of compassion. However, when you are asleep, your consciousness is gone, and your unconsciousness would react to the mosquito. You wouldn’t even know that you are reacting to it and the itchiness. This is what’s happening in our everyday life even when we are awake.
Vipassana meditation is to restructure this old habitual patterns of the unconsciousness. If you practice long enough you won’t be even reacting to a mosquito bite while asleep. This sounds impossible but the teacher assured me that it is possible.
Goenka’s Vipassana Retreat is completely donation and volunteer base. No one gets paid. Not even teachers. (except for traveling expenses.) Goenka’s philosophy behind this is that you become a monk or nun for 10 days. If he charges attendees, there is a possible danger of egos on both side – the organization and attendees who are entitled to complain because they pay the fees. If you are a monk, you would accept whatever offered with kindness. If you pay for what you want, you may start complaining about meals, schedule, roommates, facilities, etc, etc. (meals in this retreat were fantastic though) This will also give volunteers the opportunity to experience the joy of giving without expecting anything in return.
Once you complete the course, you become an “old student.” Old students are allowed to drop in any course in the world at any time to volunteer or/and to practice. If you feel a sense of gratitude after the course and would like to contribute so that someone else can participate – then I would encourage you to donate something commensurate with your means.
Like everyone else was saying after the course, one of the most experiential benefits I received from this retreat is a deep, deep sense of gratitude. As days went by, my sense of gratitude became more and more intense. Every time I sat at table and looked at the meal right in front of me, my deep sense of gratitude was felt for the volunteers of the course, farmers, truck drivers, factory workers and all others who were involved in the process, and of course, the mother Earth who produces these foods.
The course is taught with a series of audio and video (CD/DVD) of S.N. Goenka, the primary teacher of the materials. Along with Goenka, there is one male and one female teacher assigned to the course. They are there to clarify any confusion students may have, and to guide the progress of the course. You can ask your teacher questions about the meditation technique after the final session of the day, or at a private one-on-one interview. I asked him many questions during the course not only about the technique but also philosophy, life situations and such.
After the course ended I volunteered to give him a ride to a local airport since it was on my way home from the camp. He was flying to California for teaching another 10-day course. For an hour ride, we had an interesting conversations, mostly myself asking him questions about his life story and his thoughts about religions and philosophy.
He was indeed equanimous the whole time but his passion was evident in his quiet manner. Because teachers are scarce in the organization, he is always traveling to teach all over the country throughout the year. He has no home, no car, no insurance and not much money. Yes, he is at peace and enjoying helping others as well as experiencing growth himself.
Before arriving at the retreat I wasn’t sure what to expect…if there will be a group of cult-like people or what. Then when I arrived I saw a bunch of normal looking people just like myself. There were many different kinds of people at the retreat. From young to elder, Christians, Buddists, Hindus, atheists, whites, blacks, Asians, Indians, Middle-Easterns, etc. Most people I talked to were very open-minded people and friendly. There were quite a few adventurous types among men. In my retreat there were about 15 men and 30 women. I was really impressed with how serious many women were taking this course.
Teaching of Dhamma
Not only did I learn a wonderful meditation technique over the course of 10 days but I also learned teachings of Dhamma (Dharma), the Art of Living, as taught by the Gautama Buddha. I already knew most of it thanks to Eckhart and Zen. Desire, craving, clinging, attachment, judgment, impermanence, suffering, presence, love, compassion etc… those words were music to my ear.
With a vast knowledge of spirituality and a sense of humor, Goenka’s discourse was never tiring to listen to. Just like A New Earth by Eckhart, Goeka loves to cite parables to explain things. His discourse was scheduled every evening. I could tell everyone was looking forward to watching the video after a long day of meditation practice.
4.00 Wake up bell
4.30-6.30 Meditation in the hall or in your room.
6.30-8.00 Breakfast break.
8.00-9.00 GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL.
9.00-11.00 Meditation in the hall or in your room as instructed by the Teacher.
11.00-12.00 Lunch break.
12.00-13.00 Rest period.
13.00-14.30 Meditation in the hall or in your room.
14.30-15.30 GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL.
15.30-17.00 Meditation in the hall or in your room as instructed by the Teacher.
17.00-18.00 Tea break.
18.00-19.00 GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL.
19.00-20.00 Teacher’s lecture in the hall.
20.15-21.00 GROUP MEDITATION IN THE HALL.
21.00-21.30 Time for questions in the hall.
21.30 Lights out.
Yes, I know, this is pretty strict regimen. Even if you like to meditate, I bet you have never meditated for 10 hours a day. This schedule is more strict than a normal prison. Actually many prisons around the world use this Vipassana 10-day retreat (“retreat” in prison!) to transform inmates and a couple of movies were made out of it. One is called “Doing time, Doing Vipassana” and another is called “Dhamma Brothers.” Those are quite extraordinary stories as they show how the retreat helped some vicious killers transform to compassionate beings.
Here is the trailer of “Dhamma Brothers”
Once the course beings, in order to eliminate as much distractions to the mind as possible, you are not allowed to contact outside the camp or speak with fellow students. Men and women are separated throughout the course. You must follow so-called “Noble Silence.” You aren’t allowed to communicate with others by any means. This includes writing, reading, and body gestures. You cannot even make an eye contact. Basically you are proceeding the course as if you are alone. This one took me a couple of days to get used to. But soon I realized why this is so important.
After a couple of days I noticed how the mind was reacting to every little experience. Since you aren’t communicating with anyone and there aren’t many things to do other than meditating, it becomes easier to notice your thoughts and psychological reactions. I start seeing more and more clearly how my mind was reacting to everything I was sensing with my six sense perceptions – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thoughts.
My retreat took place in a summer camp in Blue Ridge, VA(USA), near the Appalachian mountains. It was a perfect location for a silent retreat. I shared a cabin with 10 other guys. All cabins had beds and a shared bath room. I thought I was going to sleep on the floor with others so this was better than I expected. Ear plugs are must-have if you are a light sleeper. All facilities were clean in this camp. Since this retreat is donation base I was not expecting a 5-star hotel but everything was better than I originally anticipated. Since this summer has been unusually hotter than average, the meditation hall was a bit hot during the day. They had 2 mobile air conditioners working full time but they weren’t enough to keep the room cool. So it added even more a challenge to the meditation but it turned out to be beneficial experience as well.
The quality of food was so much better than I expected. Prepared by volunteers, all meals were homemade, healthy, hearty whole-food vegetarian. Most of meals were even vegan. (non-dairy) Everyday menu changed. Pasta, Indian, Japanese, etc. I can eat those foods everyday. They were so healthy, yet satisfying. Of course, we were told to always keep 1/4 of your stomach empty for meditation. For this reason, there is no dinner. Instead of dinner, there is a “Tea Break” in which you can have a cup of tea and fruits. You will notice that the mind works best when the stomach is nearly empty. Many guys were saying that they feel so much better after this course because of the course’s diet plan.
Overall I had an incredible experience at the retreat. Like I said everyone gets different experiences in this course, so my best advise is go ahead and try it out yourself. You will get something out of it.
These are some of benefits I got out of this retreat.
- Awareness and Equanimity. Understanding the wisdom and actually experiencing it at physical level, the awareness of my own thoughts and events seems to has expanded its depth after this course. As I have been practicing Eckhart’s teaching, being aware of things isn’t new but I feel like I now have a new powerful tool that takes my awareness to the next level.
- The discipline to follow through with any task I wish to accomplish
- The ability to apply intense focus on any task I wish to accomplish.
- Sense of gratitude. This retreat was not possible if there weren’t those volunteers working hard to run everything smoothly. I could not thank enough to those people. In the near future I am going to volunteer at least for a weekend to give back.
- Sense of accomplishment and confidence boost. Completing this course wasn’t easy. At times I felt burned out from lack of sleep due to the infections of poison-ivy and the long hours of sitting still. There were a few students dropped out during the course. So, completing this course for me is really walking-the-walk.
- Making new friends. This was not something I expected before the course. After going through this rigorous regimen, all the students especially the ones shared the cabin with, felt strong bondage. We instantly became friends. We shared so much laughing and positive attitude after the silence ended. We exchanged emails and phone numbers to stay in touch.