First time at Vipassana

A few weeks ago I went away to my first Vipassana meditation retreat in Egbert, Ontario and it has changed the way I live my life.

My friend strongly recommended it a few months back and instantly curiosity took me over as I read all I could about Vipassana, its teacher — S.N. Goenka and wondered if I could really unplug from the world for 10 days and be silent.

Vipassana means seeing things the way they are. It’s the technique taught by Buddha 2500 years ago as path to enlightenment by observing yourself. I liked that there was no religious spin to it or any leaps of faith in S.N. Goenka’s teaching and especially liked his sense of humour even though his teachings were recorded in the 90s. The amazing thing is that this specific teaching from Buddha got lost a few hundred years after he passed and somehow ended up in the closed off country of Burma and into the hands of a businessman name S.N. Goenka who was looking for a cure to his migraines and then help spread it around the world only in recent decades.

The premise of Vipassana is that we humans react to physical sensations (and mostly sub-conciously). Why we suffer is that instead of living in reality (which gives us both pleasant and unpleasant sensations), we try our best to get more of the good stuff (pleasant sensations) since we crave them and also we’re hard wired to avoid the bad stuff (painful sensations). So if we get to know what these physical sensations feel like on every part of our body and we actually experience how fleeting these sensations are all the while fighting the natural reaction of reacting to them…we won’t suffer. At first I didn’t understand — it sounded as if they were trying to show us how to become desensitized robots and learn how to not react to anything. But actually its the complete opposite. It’s that in every moment you should be aware of whatever physical sensation is happening, and if that brings you intense joy or pain then recognize what it is and experience it. However, longing for more or wishing for it to stop is where things go wrong. I think that’s the intent of this meditation practice — actually experiencing what “live in the moment” means. And also being in an environment where all you do is observe yourself for 12 days, truly brings meaning to the wise age old prescription of “Know Thyself”.

The act of sitting still an hour at a time from dawn to dusk with the single purpose of listening to your own physical sensations is surprisingly not boring at all. First, you find that your mind moves through thoughts in no particular order — jumping back and forth from the past to the future like a wild untrained horse. Then you start seeing how many times you’re tempted to move, shift, stretch, yawn, breathe hard — really anything to break up the monotony of self observation. And how quick we want to move or change our current situation at any slight discomfort — be in pain, soreness, or a slightly itchy nose. It’s also amazing at the rare moments that you actually don’t react and let the distractions subside, you start seeing that most discomforts do pass regardless if you did anything about it or not. That whatever “this” is right now that’s top of mind, will pass. And that sometimes, it’s not worth it to react, but just observe. This flow feels pretty awesome.

But don’t be fooled, at least for me these moments of being in the flow of meditation are rare! Usually there’s many moments of frustration that your mind has wandered, that you seriously want to stretch or take a walk, or that you miss the outside world so much and wonder why you’ve chosen to use 12 days of vacation to stay in a cold wintery Ontario where you have to wake up at 4:15am everyday and eat only twice a day while you could’ve gone anywhere in the world that’s warm. Then there’s the confusion of why sometimes you can’t feel your breath and keep wanting to control it or why there’s blind spots when you try to get senses from parts of your body. For an alpha dog with a big ego and a huge craving of control, it’s super hard sometimes.

Lesson #1

That’s the beauty of it all — the length of time of each meditation session is enough time for you to practice this art of observing and patience, which also means to stop judging yourself and being so hard on yourself to control a certain outcome. The suffering — be it boredom, monotonous, physical pain, or sleepiness — it will end, at the hour mark. We get our fair share of washroom breaks, food, walking and napping time. The pain does end — so either fighting it by fidgeting or just embracing the hour, it does end. I think a lot of the wisdom and quotes from enlightened people feeds our intellectual mind sometimes, but the experience of it actually seeds our own interpretation of what it means to us. I really feel I now understand the the quote, “This too shall pass”. That everything is impermanent so that there’s no use getting attached or wishing that things will stay the same. By the same token, there’s no use wishing and forcing things to happen a certain way or stay the same and being upset when it doesn’t.

Funny thing is the week I chose to go to Vipassana also happened to be the same week as the end of daylight savings time and the transition of Winter to Spring. So the lesson of constant change was visible everyday. On the first few days we were there, it was full on winter snow on the ground and on the trees. As time went on, the snow melted, rain came, the ground froze then melted, revealing rocks and dirt on the path as we departed. Sure we might think we take the same path everyday, and that everything is the same, and even we’re the same person. But that isn’t the case — things are constantly changing, the trees on the path turn from being bare in the winter, to growing leaves, blossoms, flowers then to colourful leaves which fall away again; our body takes in air and exhales air every moment and the our body is made up of 60% water which we continue to ingest and remove; from the moment we’re born, everyday our skin changes, our hair, actually everything. So how did we ever delude ourselves into think we’re permanent? They had a word to describe this lesson — Annica: the only constant is change. I absolutely loved the walk in the ravine at the meditation centre — I would walk through it at least three times a day observing the constant change and lesson of impermanence. One day it hit me, those trees have been around for hundreds or thousands of years and if each could talk, I’m sure they would be full of stories and memories of all the various seasons, people and animals its encountered. Yet, right at that moment, their story would include me and how they watched me change over a short span of a week. So cool.

Lesson #2

In a consult with my teacher — she said something that was rather obvious but not to me. She said — look around, there’s many other people here who are suffering and have suffered in the past too. Don’t think you’re the only one. I think that was exactly what I needed to learn. For a while now, because of my battle with cancer, diabetes and my desire to get over my turbulent past, I unfortunately identified too much with my story. In my head, it gave me a free pass to unleash suffering onto others because I assumed that it was only me that was struggling and that everyone else had it good. Somehow over the years, I stopped following the age old mantra of “Love your neighbour as yourself”. My version of the rule had too many exceptions and over the years had become dark sadistic almost, “Make sure your neighbours suffer so that they know how much you’ve suffered”. Yup, totally irrational — I know. Coming to this realization shook me.

Goenka shared a story of a woman who’s child died and she came to Buddha asking him to help revive her child. Buddha knew she couldn’t be reasoned with so he instructed her to go get mustard seeds from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent or friend. She was excited and went on her way — when hearing of her story, every household she visited had mustard seeds to give except each house has mourned the death of a beloved. She finally came to her senses and went and learned Dhamma from Buddha.

Everyone has a story. We love stories. And yes, I love telling stories. However, stories describe the past and the past already happened. Telling a story is different than wishing the story ended differently or reliving the story over and over wishing it happened differently. The best stories are the genuine ones told as it happened along with the raw emotions, setbacks and struggles — not unattached unemotional ones nor made up ones. And what I realized is that there’s a healthy way to write and tell great stories and there’s an unhealthy way to dwelling in the past wishing that this next time that you tell it or experience a similar situation, that you can change what happened.

All I have to say is even though EMDR does good things as therapy to cope with a traumatic past, it was Vipassana that really launched me into finally accepting the past, forgiving those involved and moving on. It literally brought me to tears realizing all of this — that if you don’t come to terms with your past, you’re not really living in the present or making sound choices for the future. And there’s only one person to blame in constantly making this same choice over and over — yourself.

Lesson #3

At first, no communication seems daunting. Not only are you silent in meditation but you’re in silence eating and walking around. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten in silence ever in my life, especially while sharing a table with others. The vegetarian food, made by volunteers, tasted amazing. Instead of reaching to my iPhone (which has to be checked in the first day) to take an instagram photo of my food, I would just look at the vibrant colours on my plate and taste each bite. It was actually really relieving not to make small talk with the strangers around me and just be in my own space. The best part is that you can actually listen to your stomach and only eat to 3/4 of fullness (apparently meditation is much easier not on a full stomach). I can’t remember the last time I ate for sustenance and just enough rather than over eat because it was tasted too good. Actually, what Vipassana has helped me with is my issues with eating. Growing up, my family rarely if ever let me eat out. So when I was old enough to make money and move out, eating anything I want has been my form of control/rebellion which has spiralled out of control in my unhealthy love of food. Food is simply just nourishment/sustenance for your body to keep alive and healthy. Attaching emotion, control, ego, love to it is simply irrational and unrealistic. Using it to compensate for other things happening in your life is even worst of an idea. Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the food and can’t enjoy the social aspects of eating — but just be aware of what you’re eating, why you’re eating it and why you’re sharing it on social media.

It was a pleasure to get new vegetarian cooking ideas. And it was a pleasure to feel good having ingested healthy food. I looked back at the ridiculous amounts of fad diets and broken promises I’ve kept in trying to ingest food that’s good for me. I thought about all the cravings and times I’ve fallen off the wagon. I’m not saying that the change just happens over night, but Vipassana has actually reset my perception of food and slowly I’m letting go of the emotional eating.

I could go on and on about all the realizations I had during my precious 12 days of spending time with myself. I believe it was time well spent because it cut pretty deeply to the root of things. I mean, I’m just a newbie and definitely have ways to go on my path of self-awareness and enlightenment (I hear it might take multiple life times) but I do believe that as people learn more about themselves, help themselves become more peaceful, they inadvertently help others around them. I found that this paradigm or view of the world works for me — it’s practical and rational requiring no beliefs or faiths. Really, all you’re doing is learning to observe what your body feels as physical sensations without craving or aversion — no mantras, no visualizations, imagination, or anybody to compare yourself to. 12 days is a long time to be away from the world and it’s definitely not a fun relaxing vacation. But what it gave me was a taste of peace and a practical way to strive towards peace of mind.

Words can’t really do justice to the first hand experience and I highly recommend it to you and your family if this sounds at all appealing to you. If so, read this speech from S.N. Goenka which does a much better job at explaining what Vipassana is.

So I’ll end off for now how we ended every meditation — with a wish:

May all beings be happy.