Notes- Vipassana as taught by S.N Goenka

I took a 10 day Vipassana course from 11/28/2018 to 12/09/2018 in Kelseyville, CA.

I took it because I wanted to learn a new style of meditation; I had been practicing transcendental meditation for the past year and Kriya Yoga much before that. I was searching for a meditation technique that is practical and would provide clarity of thoughts.

These are my notes and learnings from the course

  • Vipassana is a technique discovered by Gautam the Buddha. The technique’s purity was preserved in Burma
  • Buddha is a title not a name. His name was Siddhartha Gautama, a born prince and heir to a kingdom
  • It is about the universal law of nature or dhamma applicable to all irrespective of religion, beliefs, caste, sect etc
  • The technique is based on the observation of reality as it is (yatha bhootha) and does not involve focussing on any imagery, sound or external objects
  • The objective of the technique is to purify the mind by removing all its defilements which are basically all the cravings and aversions we feel consciously or subconsciously
  • This purification is based on three very important parts- sheela, samma samadhi and panya
  • Sheela means living a life of morality which include not harming any living being in thought, word or action, not stealing, not lying, no sexual misconduct and not intoxicating oneself (presumably because it leads to the other four)
  • All the rules of the meditation camp exist to keep you to maintain this sheela for the 10 days- things like complete separation of men and women and remaining silent throughout (you are only allowed to ask questions to your teacher or the management)
  • Samadhi is the mastery of the mind, which involves developing the faculty of the mind and train it to pay attention to the reality as it is without getting distracted with all the chatter that usually goes on. This is very challenging to do.
  • The difference between this technique and others is that the samadhi here is a samma samadhi which means it is taken on the foundation of morality (sheela). Most other teachers did not emphasize sheela for taking samadhi
  • The third part of Vipassana is about panya- which is the the actual purification of the mind.
  • Purification again means the removal of cravings and aversions and remaining equanimous to all things we experience
  • All other teachers before, contemporary to and after Gautam Buddha also talked about purifying the mind but only in theoretical or devotional manner
  • No one really practiced what it means to remove cravings and aversions from one’s mind practically
  • This is Budhha’s discovery and his contribution to mankind: he found out how to practically eradicate all cravings and aversions from our minds which are the root of all miseries one experiences
  • This is why this technique works at a direct experience level: you are not supposed to believe in it because the Buddha said so or your teachers told you so or some scriptures prescribe it. You are supposed to understand it directly through your own felt experience
  • When you do so, there is complete dissolution of the ego
  • Our minds have four main parts which generates the feelings of “I”- perception, cognition, feeling, reaction
  • This means whenever you have an external stimuli, your cognition analyzes the stimuli, your feeling part immediately designates it as good or bad and the reacting part of the mind generates a reaction or a sankhara. This is then committed to memory
  • These sankharas or reactions are what cause the misery i.e cravings and aversions and we generate them almost every moment of the day
  • So in order to rid ourselves of our miseries we need to stop generating reactions
  • But this can’t be done by not having any external stimuli (or destroying all external objects of the world) or by shutting down all our perceptions
  • What can be done though is to control our reactions by remaining equanimous
  • Most scholars, teachers, scientists and philosophers understand the external stimuli are perceived by us, analyzed by our minds that then generates a reaction
  • In order to stop generating reactions Buddha discovered that we don’t actually react to the object directly but in fact we react to the sensations our bodies produce when in contact with an external stimuli. So if we become aware of the sensations our bodies experience when confronted with a stimuli, it is in our power to choose to remain equanimous to those sensations instead of generating a reaction or a sankhara
  • By remaining aware and equanimous to these sensations we stop generating reactions, which means we remain equanimous to all cravings and aversions which in turn eradicate all our present and (over time) past miseries
  • This link between the subconscious and experiential mind with the physical body was the core part of Vipassana technique as discovered by Buddha
  • What he discovered and what you can actually directly experience yourself is that these sensations are constantly changing at a rapid pace
  • Therefore, he concluded that it is pointless to react to something so ephemeral and substance less
  • This led to a revelation of the true law of nature that everything is constantly changing at a very rapid pace. This is dhamma
  • The scientific discoveries related to motions of sub-atomic particles confirm this experiential understanding of the Buddha
  • He further concluded that the law of nature is such that everything is a cause and effect chain- many nested and interlinked. Also part of dhamma
  • By constantly generating cravings and aversions we keep adding to this cause and effect chain, never being able to get away from all the miseries
  • In order to break this chain, the only way is to stop generating more sankharas or reactions
  • By understanding this interaction between mind and matter, you understand the true reality and can stop generating reactions, break this cause and effect chain and experience the complete dissolution of the ego aka liberation aka become an arihant
  • Once your understanding goes beyond mind and matter you realize the ultimate truth i.e. become enlightened which is what the Buddha was
  • By dissolving your ego completely, you develop true wisdom and tap into infinite amounts of love, compassion and goodwill within you
  • Bonus for the believers: you also break the chain of rebirths because there is nothing more left for your soul to react to.
  • There are 5 hurdles or nivarna’s that can interfere with your practice- one of them is drowsiness.

What did I experience?

In short, automatically my mind went to the question of “Who am I?”. There was no direction given to ponder over this question but that’s where my mind went. And every session was about finding an answer to that question layer by layer.

There have been many experiences in my life along with personality tests that I’ve taken till date that I thought had given good clarity on who I was. So it was a bit surprising that my mind went there. But even more surprising was the realization that came from meditating over this question for such a long time.

It resulted into the unbundling of the “I”. Now, I had read and know about “I” being just a concept but this was the first time I actually experienced it. The observing or meditating self realized that the thinking self and the physical self are just parts of the concept of “I”. So too the part of self that identifies with particular habits, bonds, traits etc. Those weren’t “I” either, they merely made up the concept of “I”. So, then surely this observing self must be the real “I”. Nope.

Here’s how my mind unbundled the “I” after the first few days of meditation

  1. There was a clear difference between thinking brain and the self.
  2. In the thinking brain, the parts I could identify were things like planning, imagination, memories, analysis (problem solving) and attention. It was like one can literally switch on and off these thinking functions
  3. Then there was the ego that later on split into the anti-me. The ego was classified as things that had feelings of pride or hurt or accomplishment or comparison/competition associated with it. The anti-me was the voice of skepticism, important but skewing more towards the self-righteous side of things. It worked hand in glove with ego and it was difficult to separate the two but they were experienced as distinct.
  4. Finally, the various components of the self that we trick ourselves into believing is “I” or “me”. Those were experienced separately as well and the conclusion was that the habits, bonds, fears, regrets etc were just components of the self used to define the “I”.

If there was still an observing self that could break these down rather clearly, then surely the real “I” must be something else.

Then after the discourses, it did start to go deeper. On the deeper levels, the same components of self existed but at a more base level. For instance, I have a habit of procrastinating (lots of people do but I suspect everyone’s reasons might be different). This was previously classified as a “habit” but the truth was that not all procrastinations were created equally at the deeper levels. It was extremely insightful to just observe why the habit of procrastination forms and how it affects my body (not an expert recognizing these bodily sensations by any stretch, yet).

That led to a modification of the diagram above.

So, the biggest insight became observing how “my” body and “my” surface mind is affected by and connected to “my” deep mind. What “I” also realized is wisdom is greater than willpower.

Its one thing to will your way through resisting some temptation (or forcing a good habit like exercising regularly) but its a totally different feeling experiencing why that temptation is bad for you. When you develop wisdom like that, you don’t have to rely on your finite pool of will power/motivation to do what’s right for your body, your mind and the people around you.

As a direct result of this insight, I have given up on alcohol for the foreseeable future. I find that I am simply not tempted by it or crave for it any more; not because I need to keep my calorie targets but simply because I have experienced how much negativity it generates.

So, who am I?

“I” suspect that one discovers that there is no “I” after all which is what the teacher means by the “complete dissolution of the ego”. It must depend on how far along you go on this journey.

Then what is the soul?

This question did pop into my mind and it immediately concluded that if there is no “I” then there must be a “soul” which creates the “I”. Frankly, I did not experience anything that could be classified as “soul”. Maybe longer and deeper meditation might reveal this mystery as well.

Again, for the believers it is said that the Buddha, just before achieving nirvana experienced millions of his past lives that he had been “housed” in, and that might be the answer to what is the soul- basically a source of energy that changes shape and form over time, never being created or destroyed (law of conservation of energy, anyone?).

Should you try Vipassana?

It depends on what state of mind you are in. I’ll say this- it is quite a challenging experience just at the surface level- no dinner, 4 am to 10 pm strict routine, no reading or writing or exercise (other than walking which I didn’t do much of because it was very cold), total silence and ignoring other’s presence completely, amongst other rules of the center. And most critically very long hours of painful sitting in one position. Not many can deal with all of these things.

I did it because I’m generally curious about the self and a life long pursuer of clarity in my mind. I’ve had a challenging few years with making and releasing my film and somewhere I found that a profound life experience of bringing an idea to life from inception to release actually created more dissonance and depression in me than what I could’ve ever imagined. I was expecting the exact opposite in all honesty when I finished making my film. While I didn’t find my true self and get the clarity I needed from the journey of making my film, I do marvel at just how many layers there are for one to be truly in touch with themselves and see the reality as it is.

Vipassana meditation is quite practical (which means that it can be practiced without giving up worldly connections)and does lead to self awareness at the deepest levels. No amount of therapy or life coaching or leadership training can tap into the depth of awareness this technique can in my view. Again, it is beyond simply intellectually processing and applying learned concepts. It is learning about oneself and the law of nature at the deepest possible experiential level.

If learning about the self at all costs is something of interest to you, I highly recommend the 10-day Vipassana course. I’m also happy to answer more questions about this topic, feel free to leave a question here or get in touch with me.

Product and Design in San Francisco. Creator of design led feature film @fhtgmovie . Now streaming netflix.com/title/80176707.

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