The Current State of Our Society: We Lack Mindfulness
Not much time is set aside in our society for silence or self reflection. Even when we have the opportunity, many of us would rather seek entertainment and distraction rather than looking within our depths.
Our tendencies remain as they are, and the same patterns keep emerging in our lives. We respond in similar ways with each stress that comes up, be it the frustration you may have when talking to your parents, the way you may often play the victim, or even just how angry you get at traffic on your commute. These tendencies and patterns don't have to be automatic. We don't need to be unwilling passengers to a Pavlov's dog-like situation in our own body.
In attending a silent Vipassana retreat, you're able to dive into the depths of yourself, see these patterns for what they are, and slowly begin to correct your response to them.
The Cure For Our Lack of Mindfulness: Vipassana
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Vipassana is, 'insight meditation.' The technique is essentially body scanning with your mind, where you try to feel the sensations in every part of your body. The process starts off slow, but as you practice you learn to scan your body quickly.
The sensations you feel don't start with subtleties. First you mostly feel itches, pains, the feeling of clothing touching you, the ground, etc. But as you continue, you work down to the level of feeling all parts of your body deeply.
The teacher likens the retreat to a, ‘surgery for the mind.’ You cut deep into yourself and begin to remove what causes your mind’s reactionary tendencies to give you a new sense of freedom. The schedule seems brutal, with 10 hours of sitting meditation dispersed through the day, but as the days go by, it gets easier to get into the flow and enjoy the sitting sessions.
Every night, there is a video talk by the meditation instructor who developed the Vipassana method, S.N. Goenka. I was expecting the talks to be dull and just about meditating, but Goenka conveys impactful information through his use of humor and examples to drive points home and to help the listener understand beyond his language. Each talk is about the meditation technique up to that point, experiences you may be having, and insights that the technique reveal.
Goenka mentions towards the beginning that people find some days more difficult than others. I found this true both times I've attended a Vipassana retreat. The first 3 days aren't too bad, but then comes day 4. Day 4 you go from doing Anapana (breath-based) meditation, into the actual Vipassana technique.
The 3 previous days of Anapana allow you to deeply feel bodily sensations. First, all you can feel is your breath, then slowly you start to feel things like micro air currents, ever-so-subtle sensations around your nose and upper lips, even down to the sensation of blood flow. Getting to this level of body awareness in Anapana is key for later Vipassana, which brings that awareness to your entire body.
What does it mean to feel each part of your body so deeply? It’s almost as if you can pinpoint down to a cell on your body and feel sensation within or energy flowing through. Goenka makes the connection that the subconscious isn't just our underlying thoughts and anxieties creeping up into our awareness from time to time, but rather it is all the simultanious processing of the body as well.
Think of your breath. It’s not an entirely conscious or subconscious process, since you continue to take in and expel oxygen even when you’re not aware of it. The technique shows just how connected the mind is to each part of your body and how much even a slight discomfort in one area can really affect us and change the nature of our minds.
The goal is to be able to look at all sensations with an equanimous mind, that is, to feel the sensations without the attachment of liking any sensations, or aversion of any sensations. This can be extremely difficult, especially when facing an itch on your nose that just won't seem to dissipate for a whole sit.
I had a lot of difficulty with this for times at both retreats, as does everyone else who attends. The key is to not judge yourself for not being able to feel sensations as much as you'd like or not have an equanimous mind. Judgement drives a thought-loop that will keep you totally unfocused on meditation and into feelings of frustration and annoyance.
Dealing With ‘Sankaras’
Sometimes these sensations come up in the form of deep pain in parts of your body. In my first retreat, on day five I started experiencing explosive-feeling pain in my left knee no matter how I sat. The pain culminated to a point where I had to ask the teacher for a chair, or that I may have to go home because of how unbearable it felt.
The retreat doesn't preach a dogma or philosophy to follow and therefore is suitable for anyone of any religious or non-religious affiliation. Goenka says you don't have to, nor should you, agree with or believe anything that you haven't experienced for yourself and know from experience to be true. That said, as you begin to experience what he speaks of, then you can reconsider what he said as having merit.
The teacher told me that as you do these meditation techniques, you find 'sankaras' in your body. These are sensations of all varieties, from pain, to pleasure, to itching, that are held in your body through your life from not internally dealing with issues, or any kind of clinging or aversion to sensations in the mind.
So, as you recoil from stresses or attach yourself to pleasures instead of just allowing the sensation to run its course and dissipate, these build up in your body. The Vipassana technique allows these sensations to come to the surface, make a sensation on your body, and eventually dissipate. By keeping an equanimous mind while scanning these sensations, the cycle of sankara-creation is ended and allows old ones to dissipate.
So, to deal with my knee pain, the teacher told me to make it through an entire hour meditation without moving, and to sit with the sensation rather than fight against it.
I thought something must have been wrong with my knee for it to be so excruciatingly painful, so my bullshit meter was on high alert. But, I thought rather than back out and ask to leave the retreat that I should give it a shot and see what happens.
The pain came up again in the next sit following our talk, but I let it be and continued meditation rather than fixating on the pain. To my amazement, I felt it melt away. It was replaced with light feeling in my knee. This kind of experience continued for all sensations throughout the retreat, making me realize the truth of the idea of impermanence or 'anicca,' which Goenka talks about through the retreat.
Experiencing this within my own body was powerful. I’d gone my entire life swept away by my reactions to stimuli, as we all are to some degree, but never had I known it was possible to tap into the root of where our reactions lie. This was a big turning point in my life.
One of the more well-known Vipassana instructiors in the west, Joseph Goldstein, says about Vipassana that, "Wisdom is the clear seeing of the impermanent, conditioned nature of all phenomena, knowing that whatever arises has the nature to cease. When we see this impermanence deeply we no longer cling, and when we no longer cling we come to the end of suffering."
The technique makes sense on a neurological level too. As we become able to simply observe sensations, from exploding knee pain to feelings of pure bliss, without feelings of attachment or dislike or reaction, it changes our brain.
Instead of neurons firing in the same patterns from stimuli, you open new ways for neurons to fire rather than the habitual route it would take. Studies like this one and many others are showing results like neuroplasticity, changes in brain regions to do with attention, stimuli processing, amygdala response, and more as people continue meditation and other methods such as floating.
But the retreat isn't just meditation, pain, and tasty food. It's possible to drop into some weird psychedelic-like states. I had an interesting and puzzling experience during my first retreat that continued afterwards.
Around the 7th day, as I was meditating, I started to see varying light pattern-like images with my eyes closed. They started looking like people gathering into the meditation hall, but slowly turned into swirling geometric patterns.
Each millisecond was like a beautiful art piece I would never be able to see again. They were incredibly intricate patterns that started taking up my whole vision. After my meditations from that point, I would still see the swirling opalescent colours. It was almost like a shimmery rainbow over everything I saw placed like a filter over my vision.
I could see the intricacies of what made up each colour. In dark rooms, or looking at black and white surfaces it would become very apparent and distracting. This lasted for about 2 weeks after the retreat, and I still sometimes feel like I'm on the edge of being able to see the colours, especially when certain colour combinations are present,
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But the integration aspect and coming back into life is the most important part of the whole experience. It's not about re-entering daily reality and returning to habitual patterns, thoughts, and actions as you had before as a, "serious meditator."
The key with any retreats like this, psychedelic journeying, yoga, etc., is to bring the insights you get from these peak experiences into how you live daily at base-level reality. Maybe you had an experience of dissolving into pure bliss, seeing beautiful psychedelic visions, having your heart opened and crying for 45 minutes straight, or maybe even catching a glimpse into your personal-hell you hold yourself in so often, but each of these experiences are fleeting.
The experience means nothing afterwards unless you can align your life afterwards, and use these experiences as catalysts to grow as a person, not to cling onto and get stuck in.
This doesn't mean that going to a retreat is going to solve all your problems. Like anything, meditation is a practice that takes time. But through practising the method, you're able to slowly train yourself to react less, begin to make aware responses to any stimuli, and live in the stillness of your own mind even amid the turbulence of life.