The gong sounded at 4am. It was pitch black. I pulled myself up from the half-deflated air mattress and unzipped the fly of my tent. Levering myself out of the tent I grabbed my water bottle and traipsed through the long wet grass to the meditation hall, which sat at the top of the rural property like a centred jewel overlooking the surrounding countryside.
It was day four of my 10-day vipassana course. For the past three days we had been practicing a technique of meditation called annapurna. This was a process of reconditioning the mind that involved focusing on the breath entering and exiting the nose on the first day, then narrowing the area of focus to a small part of the nostril on the second day. By the third day my mind had become sharp enough to focus on the tiniest pulse on my upper lip.
It had been the hardest three days of my life. I had gone to war with my mind to get to this point. For 12 hours each day I had sat alert, focusing solely on the flow of the breath. The goal was simple but excruciating. Keep watch for any intrusion of the mind. Any thought, or pain, or craving. And to kill it in its tracks.
I imagined myself as a sentry in a guard tower. I scanned the dark horizon ready for attack. Sometimes a memory came charging over the horizon. I observed it for what it was. A loose foot soldier sent by the mind. I fixed my focus on my breath and it was gone. Then came a thought of the future, a chore that needed doing, or a good story idea, or something I should say to a loved one when I got home. I watched each scurry for the wall, steadying my footing on the breath until they were eradicated.
For hours on end I sat alert, duking it out with my mind, refusing to give in. In return he did everything he could to resist being chained down. He gave me headaches and sent intense pains shooting through my crossed legs. He told me I was worthless and so was the technique. He called the retreat a prison and told me to go home. He said I had better things to do and that this place was making me sick. He tried everything to get me to stop.
By the end of the third day I had a sore throat, blocked nose and pounding headache. I had run the full gamut of emotions. From anger and frustration to self pity and despair. I felt like a shadow of my former self. Still, I refused to give in. Over and over again I diverted my attention from the physical pain and mental cries.
Eventually there was no further I could fall. I had hit emotional bedrock. On this bedrock my ego had nowhere to go. And so as I continued to apply more and more weight I quashed it entirely. Thoughts of self-pity turned to gratitude. Thoughts of wanting to escape turned to acceptance. Thoughts of the future turned to an appreciation of the moment.
We hadn’t even started the technique of vipassana and I was already so grateful to have started this journey. I had come to see just how conditioned my mind had become after 29 years of defilements, bad habits and pent up anger. I had seen firsthand how sick my mind had become.
The course was set up brilliantly. There was nowhere to run. We were isolated on a rural property and once the course began no one was allowed in or out. For 10-days we were to operate independently in silence with no distractions. There was to be no reading. No writing. No phones or computers. No exercise aside from light walking. And no communication with other meditators, neither verbally or nonverbally. Males and females were also divided for the entirety of the course and the last meal of the day was served at 11am. Everything was set in place so there was no use craving. It forced us to commit to the moment.
I was just glad we were finally getting started on vipassana. Any longer staring at my nostril and I thought I was going to go crazy. After several more hours of meditation we were introduced to vipassana. The teacher explained that the reason we had done three and a half days of annapurna was to sharpen our mind to such a point that we could now start to feel even the most subtle sensation on the body. We were ready to start the healing process.
To give you some context, vipassana is 2500 year old technique of meditation developed by Buddha. Essentially, it is the process of purification, which Buddha used to gain enlightenment. The technique is designed to help an individual develop love, compassion and peace of mind by dissolving all mental impurities.
To start the process we were told to take the focus of our consciousness to the top of our head. Focusing on area of around an inch in diameter you start to feel subtle sensations. Say, heat or tingling or pulsing or electricity. You then conduct body scans, moving this focal area from the top of your head down to the face and neck, the arms and torso, and the legs.
Each body scan takes around 10-minutes. During these scans you encounter pleasant sensations and unpleasant sensations. Pleasant sensations often feel like tingles and butterflies. According to Buddha these are triggers that lead to cravings and clinging. They are the sensations for instance that make us think, I’m hungry, or I could go a cigarette, or I wonder if something good was posted on Facebook. They encourage us to want things and they tend to bug us until we give in.
Unpleasant sensations manifest themselves in the form of electricity, pain, burning etc. According to Buddha these are triggers that lead to anger and aversion. For instance, they are sensations that tell us, I don’t like her, or this traffic jam has destroyed my entire day, or I feel like arguing. These sensations want us to lash out.
Unlike most forms of meditation, which involve focusing on the moment, the breath for instance, to attain mindfulness and calm, vipassana is a purification process. An operation of sorts. It involves taking your consciousness and eradicating the neural pathways that are the source of our bad habits and frustrations. When you come across a sensation the goal is to spend time observing it with a neutral mind. In other words you watch the sensation without feeling craving or anger. You simply acknowledge that you have seen it without reacting to it.
The idea is that our body is conditioned to feel a pleasant sensation and to think, this is nice, I’d like more of that. This feeds the craving making the sensation, or neuro-pathway, stronger. The same is true for unpleasant sensations. The tendency is to think, this electricity makes me feel like I need to lash out. Again, if we give in, we feed the sensation, making it stronger.
Encountering these sensations with a neutral mindset slowly eradicates the sensations because the neural pathways learn that you no longer react to this particular message. Once this sensation is removed, deeper sensations buried in the subconscious begin to rise to surface. So as you perform more and more body scans, you free yourself from more and more of these conditioned responses.
Over the next six days as I delved further into the process I found myself feeling lighter and lighter. I felt less and less inclined to distract myself with thoughts of the past and future, and felt a lot less annoyance towards the little things like pain or hunger.
Between meditation sessions I’d sit on a log and watch the ants or walk around in the forest and listen to the trees creak in the wind. My existence had become so simple. I began to fall in love with those things that I would have overlooked on any other day. The ripples on the pond that moved in perfect circles. The warm sensation of walking barefoot through the fields. My mind had become so sharp that I had begun to detect even the subtlest sensation in nature. The density of the breeze. The stickiness of the grass. The moistness of the woods.
The further I went with vipassana the more in tune I became. I remember wandering around in the woods after meditating one day and feeling complete euphoria. It had the same feel as the beginning stages of a mushroom trip. I could feel every sensation in my body. The beat of my heart. The warm tingling on my skin. The pulse of my muscles. It felt as though I was wearing a sleeping bag and heavy shoes, and yet I was floating.
My vision too had changed. It was as though the colour spectrum had been pried open a little farther. The colour of the trees had smudged with the landscape behind and there seemed to be a tinge of every colour in every object. I felt everything.
Still, I could tell six days was only enough time to dip a toe in this world. It was clear that this practice could take me a lot further. Buddha for instance took the practice to the extreme. According to scripture he eradicated every sensation in his body, peeling back layer after layer, first from his adulthood, then his childhood, and then from those lives of his ancestors. All of those inherited fears and angers and bad habits. When he was done he declared he was enlightened, describing that his body felt like butter.
I could see what he was getting at. Several times I had completed body scan after body scan until I had no more sensations left. At that point my mind would sharpen again and I would begin to pick up on even smaller and more subtle sensations. Each time as I zoomed in further and further, I felt lighter and lighter.
So it goes, Buddha took the practice to such a level that he could feel even the tiniest molecule in his body. He was one of the first people to put forward the idea that we were made up of trillions of tiny particles. He didn’t need a background in quantum mechanics to understand that, he simply felt the flow of sensations in his body at such a zoomed in scale.
On the last day we learned the third piece of vipassana called meta meditation. This is how meditators traditionally cap off a vipassana session. It involves taking the compassion and love you built up during vipassana and spreading the good vibes to others. I’m not sure if I was too exhausted by this point, or if I couldn’t get my head around how one could intentionally spread good vibes, but I didn’t feel anything during these short sessions.
Still, meta meditation aside, I found the combination of annapurna and vipassana to be an enormous eye opener. They taught me not just to experience the moment, but to fall in love with it. They showed me that if you look hard enough you can find a beautiful complexity to anything. They also closed the case on the search for who I was. I was the guy in the moment. The one who acted without thinking. The one who didn’t worry what other people think. The one who was grateful and happy. That was the real me. Everything else was my mind. The practices also showed me how to master my mind. They helped me reset and gave me a practical way to keep myself in check.
All this said, I saw two dangers to the practice of vipassana. The first was drawing too much meaning from the visions that came during deep meditation sessions. This happened to many of the first-timers. They had visions whilst meditating and became attached to these images. They then constructed meanings around these visions and walked away from the course believing that something magical had happened.
Personally, I had decided against having an epiphany before showing up to the retreat because I know that an epiphany is a manifestation of the mind and meditation is absence of the mind. I understood that as soon as I had a vision my mind had wandered and I had stopped meditating. So, I deliberately suppressed all such ideas.
The second danger I saw was obsession. Many of the meditators had given their lives to the practice. They had found their path to enlightenment and become all consumed with stepping further and further along. One member of our group had done 25 vipassana courses over several decades. A handful of others had done a dozen or more.
Sure, I respected the practice. I felt its physical and psychological benefits. I left each session feeling lighter, less miserable and more at peace. And I left the entire course feeling clearer on life itself. Only whilst others described this practice as a one-stop-shop for an end to misery, I found myself more encouraged to look for other ways to get to this same place of healing.
My issue lay in the fact that vipassana told people to stop searching. To stop thinking. It told them the answer was here, and that it was simply a matter of doing the work. This is where I disagree with the practice. I feel attachment to any one thing, even a process that promises to rid one of attachment, is a narrow view on existence. I feel the beauty of life is to keep asking questions and to never stop looking for new ways to keep yourself on your toes. Vipassana, on the other hand, encouraged devotion and conformity.
Many of the regulars spoke of how they were likely to run themselves into the ground when returning to the real world. They said they needed an annual dose of vipassana to recalibrate. Many viewed the practice as nothing more than an annual cleaning service. It wasn’t something I could agree with. I was more interested in turning the foundations of this practice into a way of thinking that I could feed off, not just when meditating, but in every moment.
I also detected a certain level of arrogance in those who had dedicated their lives to the process. And, whilst I hate to judge a practice based on the attitudes of a few people, I can’t help but say that I lost a little confidence in the effectiveness of the practice, considering many of the first-timers seemed more compassionate and open minded than those who had completed dozens of courses.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the goal of vipassana, to make one misery-free, is a noble one. I’m just not sure it is that simple. Yes, I think it is important to keep misery in check. To ensure one isn’t abusing intoxicants or becoming attached to specific material items. I believe we must stop blaming others, and our past, for our situation. And I believe it is our responsibility, and our responsibility alone, to make peace with ourselves if we feel sad or angry or inadequate. I also believe vipassana can help us with all these things.
However, at a certain point, I feel we must embrace an attitude of calm and healing into every moment of life, not just during meditation. We shouldn’t see ourselves as clocking on when meditating and clocking off when operating in the real world. And we shouldn’t run ourselves into the ground during the hours between meditation sessions. Instead, I believe we should maintain a more aware state of mind around the clock, which includes being active in questioning and exploring all of life’s little nuances.
I believe we should celebrate life in all its forms. We should not just abstain from things in fear of misery. We should experiment, and have fun, and feel ecstasy, and despair. We should feel everything, so long as we don’t become attached or agitated by one specific thing or another.
I also believe that this place of healing vipassana takes us to is a place that can be accessed in many ways. This was something none of the regular vipassana meditators shared with me. They believed vipassana took them to a unique place that couldn’t be accessed through any other activity. I disagree. I believe vipassana helps us achieve a state of flow. The same place of flow we can get to in several ways.
Sure, vipassana is perhaps the only technique that allows us to be a spectator of the healing process. Still, I believe many activities provide us with the same level of healing. Activities like yoga, rock climbing, playing an instrument, gaming, snowboarding, writing, painting, acting, dancing, playing chess.
When we do these activities enough, and become good at them, we often enter a state of flow. A state where we are fully immersed in the moment. A state where we have full control over the outcome and are fully energised. In these moments, when we completely merge action and awareness, and time stands still, I believe we are in an optimal state and the body does its greatest healing.
I believe this because in this optimal state we send a powerful message to all the cells in our body that we are alive and well. That we are strong and capable. That we are in control and the boss of our body. I believe this state of flow shines the light on cortisol, the stress hormone that lowers our immune system and impairs our thinking. The hormone that mental health practitioners have declared public enemy number one. The hormone that leads to depression and mental illness, and lowers our life expectancy.
In other words, I believe there are many things we can do to rekindle our health. Perhaps Buddha streamlined the purification process so people can gain health, and eventually enlightenment, in the shortest possible time, but who said that doing things in the shortest possible time was the right way to do something?
My biggest qualm with vipassana is that I find it impossible to implement into my daily life. To perform the practice properly one must abstain from all intoxicants and sexual activity for the entirety of their lives. They must also devote at least three hours a day to meditation and complete one 10-day retreat per year. Without complete commitment we give in to cravings, often reversing the work completed during meditation.
My takeaway is that I believe everyone should try vipassana, but I separate from those who devote their lives to such a goal of purification. I believe life is a playground to question and explore, not a serious place of obedience and devotion. I also believe there are many ways to beat suffering and misery, vipassana is just one of them.