It would be 10 days of isolation from the world, 100 hours of meditation in noble silence*, limited food and no exercise...
A sharp nail is stuck in my head. Heavy weights hang on my nose and cheeks, pulling my face downwards. Horrid pinching is felt in my neck and shoulders. Several electric tearing sensations run down my back. Below my right rib-cage, a sword-like puncture wound pierces through me. My hips are aching. Both my ankles are trapped in a vice, the "pins and needles" that began in my feet have now traveled through my knees, into my upper thighs. I do not recall ever experiencing such raw torture in my entire life and yet none of it was real, it was all happening in my mind...
It’s been exactly one week after the Vipassana course ended and feelings of anger and frustration that have dwelled in me for so long have dissipated. I also have been trained in immense patience – queues and being put on hold are a chance to ease the busy mind. What remains is an acute sensitivity to others and a looming sadness. The preciousness of life is far too real for me now. At times, this melancholy feels like it would overwhelm me and cast me into a deep depression if it wasn’t for the immense gratitude I feel for being alive.
Maybe it was the removal of worldly pleasures for 10 days or maybe it was my (not so) recent obsessive interest in photography but I am literally and figuratively seeing everything from a new perspective. For whatever reason, I wasn’t accepting others as they are, instead seeing them through some filter of how I wanted them to be. I am both a people-pleaser and harshly critical of others, both character traits which have brought me immense suffering and either aided me in seeking out unhealthy relationships or ostracizing myself from healthy ones.
But what is this grief I carry with me now? The muscles at the corners of my lips pull down sharply and it feels like hunger pains from the chest, only encompassing a much larger area, pressing into the vital organs and never fading away. It must be fed I guess, but by what? What have I been starving myself from for so long? What can I nourish myself with now that will absolve this emptiness? Only with continued mindfulness and gentle reflection will I likely get closer to solving this reverent riddle.
The self-blame and endless rumination that did little to solve my problems, have subsided. I feel much lighter and if it wasn’t for the empty weight in my chest, I think I would feel like a new man. I suspect with more work, more meditation, I will one day expunge this sorrow from me.
When you are left alone with only your body and mind, a plethora of sensations and emotions will manifest throughout your body. Vipassana encourages you to observe those experiences as they arise and let them dissolve, reminding you that no matter how intense and painful an experience might be, it will eventually pass.
In the book DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS How To Discuss What Matters Most (Stone, Patton and Heen), the authors outline "A landscape of sometimes hard-to-find feelings". I found the following list presented in the book quite useful when exploring the emotions you experiencing day to day.
Love affectionate, caring, close, proud, passionate.
Anger frustrated, exasperated, enraged, indignant.
Hurt let down, betrayed, disappointed, needy.
Shame embarrassed, guilty, regretful, humiliated, self-loathing.
Fear anxious, terrified, worried, obsessed, suspicious.
Self-doubt inadequate, unworthy, inept, unmotivated.
Joy happy, enthusiastic, full, elated, content.
Sadness bereft, wistful, joyless, depressed.
Jealousy envious, selfish, covetous, anguished, yearning.
Gratitude appreciative, thankful, relieved, admiring.
Loneliness desolate, abandoned, empty, longing.
When examining my sadness and using the table above, it seemed my emotions more closely resembled that of "Hurt" and "Loneliness". I was uncovering the layers from some very difficult and challenging times in my life. I was also dealing with current concerns about how my future might unfold. With the guidance of a coach / mentor / teacher, meditation is a viable alternative to personal therapy, keeping you on track and focused with what matters most in your life.
What Vipassana teaches, is that what I am feeling now will someday pass and for me to get wrapped up and stuck in my current emotional void, neglects the impermanence of it all. That my feelings, no matter how strong, will someday disappear. I also gained an incredible sense of self-reliance. That it is up to me to produce the results I want in my life. Gaining an understanding at the experiential level, creates a solid foundation from which to take action and pursue your dreams. However, remind yourself, that no matter what it is you striving for, those feelings, your motivations, this life... all will soon pass.
Bhavatu sabba-mangalam "May all beings be happy"
*Noble Silence - The practice of not speaking and not engaging with fellow meditators. No hand gestures, written notes or prolonged gazing at others. Meditators are still able to talk with their teacher at predetermined times of the day.
**Equanimous – controlled and balanced.
***some variation depending on length of discourse
Stone, Patton and Heen. Difficult Conversations. First published by the Penguin Group Penguin Books Limited (1999), 2010 Edition.
With mindfulness, sensitize yourself to the subtle sensations experienced in your body. Cultivate nonattachment by allowing those sensations to manifest and dissolve. Gain wisdom that all experiences eventually rise and pass away – that everything changes, nothing is permanent.
The Noble Eightfold Path
Stage 1 – Sila (Speech, Action and Lifestyle). These are the ground rules that set the foundation and environment for sound meditation practice.
Stage 2 – Somadhi (Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration). The meditation practice itself.
Stage 3 – Panna (Understanding and Thought). The epiphanies for what it means to truly experience how the universe works.
The Vipassana Meditation Technique
While breathing naturally, observe all the sensations of the body with equanimity** and non-attachment.
The 4 Main Stimuli Experienced
Gross sensations – stimuli from sitting, injuries and the environment that are readily experienced with little focus.
Subtle sensations – stimuli manifested during higher levels of mindfulness. They can overpower gross sensations during deeper states. In Vipassana, subtle sensations are thought to be emotional trauma stored in your body, which are explored during meditation.
Emotions – how does a distinct emotion appear in the body? Anger can be felt as heat, headaches, tension in the legs. Fear or sadness as a hollowing in the chest.
Thoughts – How are they manifested onto the body? How might they transform into emotions? As combinations of emotions or “feelings”? Does a particular thought correspond to certain pains in the body?
The Daily Schedule
4am wake up
12pm Interview with the teacher
5pm Tea break
7pm Discourse then meditation
10pm Lights out
Total meditation time per day 10 hours 45 minutes***
Meditators are allowed for some portions of the day to meditate in their room instead of the hall