My Vipassana experience...

What made me do it? What made me go on a 10 day course where I couldn't talk (to others - I talked to myself lots though) or cook or read or do email or web? Well, after doing chi kung for a few years and noticing what happens to me when I keep the body still, I was interested in meditation and working with the mind. And for the last few years I've kept bumping into people that had done it and some friends that were still doing it. One friend said ah right you'll be doing that Vipassana course next I reckon. I guess he was right.

So, I was generally curious about the course as so many people I knew had done it. I also had in mind that meditation could perhaps provide me with a tool to assist me with day to day stuff. Especially when I talk with people about world peace or my dreams about the future I find I can get emotional or flustered or talk loud or caught up in word games - sometimes I'm just matching the people I'm talking with. And I'd really like to catch myself and say calm down, take it easy, be nice and have fun.

I read nothing about whole Vipassana history or organisation save what would be required of me: silence and no running away, etc. I've never been good at being told what to do. My natural reaction is to rebel - regardless of what it is I'm actually being told what to do - whether it's good for me or not. It's very uncharacteristic for me to give up control of my environment. So, this was all a big change for me - to commit to someone else's rules. I found this very difficult but it gave me lots of insight into how I work - the limits that I am comfortable with. And, very importantly, not to try and change this aspect of who I am. I need to be in control of what I'm doing and where I am - unless I don't want to be! - and that's all OK - that's just me.

I took a laid-on minibus from Auckland with a few others. They were all very chatty but I didn't feel like joining in. We arrived at the centre and registered and allocated rooms. Most were single but I got a double (it was quite interesting not speaking to my room mate for 9 days). On unpacking - what little I had - I discovered that I had lost my hat. It was beige and had a surfer on the front. I bought it in Thailand a few years back. Now I don't usually loose things. So, once it really became clear that I had lost the hat a strange feeling came over me. Something is going to change here. I'm going to loose something. And all that stuff about not being attached to things came up. Little was I to know that 'impermanence' is one of the central themes of the course. Oh, I've got a new hat now.

There were about 30 to 40 people in all - roughly half boys and girls - segregated for the whole course, by the way. We meditated in a large hall with the sound of saccades. Getting up at 4.30 am and going to bed at 9 pm. Meditating for most of the day with breaks and time for food.

The food was great in that they provided exactly what I could eat - tailor made. Before arriving I had extensive email conversations regarding their meals and suggested how they could easily adapt their meals to those that I could have. Such as taking out food from the pot before adding sugar, vinegar, soy sauce or anything else I try to avoid. Nearly every meal there was a little bowl with my name on with my special meal inside. In one of the discourses the teacher says that you have all surrendered to the course and, as such, given up ego for 10 days. "You have had to eat what food was provided". Well, I did, but only under my own terms. Does that mean I didn't give up my ego? Most likely! Again, it was all part of my controlling the situation until I felt comfortable enough to stay.

I guess the first shock was that all the teaching was given by video (in the evening) and audio (in the lead meditation parts of the day). I was really expecting a live human to be doing the teaching. The assistant teacher mostly pushed start and stop on the DVD or tape cassette. I did speak with her quite a bit and she did know her stuff and had probably been on a proper, approved teaching course and the like.

The man in the videos is the man who basically brought the meditation technique out of Burma. It had survived there for 2500 - passed down from person to person. It is the original teaching of the Buddha - yeah THE Buddha! Now I didn't know that. Cool, eh?

Buddha wanted people to come out of misery and suffering. He said that suffering is caused by craving and aversion - when we are in these states we always want to be somewhere else and hence we are unhappy with where we are right now. So, the aim is to be happy with where one is right now. But the brain is tuned to be craving and aversion-ing. So, the technique of meditation aims to change the way the brain works - to reprogram the brain. What you do is become aware of all your bodily sensations - both the unpleasant ones and the pleasant ones. And rather than say this one is good or this one is bad you just observe them "with an equanimous mind" side by side - they are just sensations of your body - they with come and go - are impermanent. The aim is that the brain eventually (hopefully not that long though) gets the idea that you no longer judge these sensations as being good and bad. And when you do that you can modify your reaction to them. Meaning that if you get a pain you don't have to feel unhappy - the two things can be decoupled and you can choose your reaction to any sensation. Yes, you can even choose to be happy with pain.

Now the interesting thing here is that this is not an intellectual process. You don't sit down with your brain and say listen, buddy, everything's going to change. And try to force it behave and not react negatively to situations. You just observe. That's all. And don't react. No, don't react. I guess you're teaching your brain by example - look, this is how we can do it. The bodies sensations - our sense of feeling - operate at a very deep level and so this reprogramming does too. It's like really good hypnosis (or brain washing), I guess.

Another part of this, which I'm most interested in, is that, as we live our lives and go about the earth, we can observe our sensations and feelings. So, it's not just about sitting cross-legged (or in a chair in my case) for so many hours a day wrapped snugly in a blanket. Now that we can observe our feelings we can be more in control of our reactions rather than being on some sort of autopilot with arms flaying hither and nither. We can make conscious decisions on how we react. So, instead of flying off the handle at someone you can say hey, I feel yucky and short of breath and I really want fly off the handle at so and so for what they just did to me... hmmm... but do I really want to do that? will it make me feel any better? could I choose a better response? should I just give them a hug? A useful tool indeed. More hugs all round!

One thing that gets me quite a lot is beating myself up about not being who I think I should be. Like I should be more in the now, or less in the future, or more giving, or more able to receive, or more blah blah blah. Many of these ideas come from the outside and I take it in. People saying be more like this or that and don't beat yourself up. So, I beat myself up for beating myself up because I've got it into my head that beating myself up is bad for me, doh!

Ah, thanks Daniel, thanks for being who you are right now. Thanks for doing what you're doing right now - it is right for you right now. Hmmm...

During the course I wanted to tell the manager that I wanted an extra carrot with my evening meal. So, during the break my mind repeated this request over and over and over in my head - and over - refining and honing it so it would come out just right. Now, I do this kind of thing a lot - repeat stuff again and again to either remember it or work it through. In fact, in some cases, it's how I do my best work - designing my desired future. But in this case it was getting a bit too much. But something different happened - rather than say oh shut up Daniel I just noticed what I was up to and thanked myself for persistently reminding myself that I needed an extra carrot!... and smiled that I could be happy at myself with this thanking. Was a good moment because I could see how I could be happy no matter what I did - it's just a switch I choose to throw or not regardless of what I am doing or what's going on around me. It's my choice. I've just got to catch myself before I get down/negative/depressed in a situation. I guess, in order to notice, I've just got to be observing what's going on before I react. Oh, I got the extra carrot.

For the first three days we all concentrated on our breath - not forced breath but natural breath. We learned to sense our breath on the area just below the nose and above the upper-lip - the moustache area, I guess. Then we took this sensitivity of the sensations to all parts of the body - the surface of the body. Very quickly I got to the point where I could feel tingling all over - it seemed I was able to feel the whole surface of my body all at once - cool dude! I came out of that session on a real buzz - man, this is crazy stuff! ;-)

Another point insight came soon after when I was observing my sensations. I had got a very good amount of pain in my middle right back from sitting for so long. So, I had some real pain to work with - lucky me. At some point, it became very clear, I could observe the pain and the tingling side by side and the pain was just pain, just a sensation - I didn't have to get down about it. That was a great realisation for me. And, I guess, what was good about this is that I had actually experienced it - it wasn't an intellectual theory.

What happens next is pretty mad. During meditation unpleasant sensations will actually appear on the surface of your body. The crazy thing was that this only happened to me on the last sit of the last day. It formed around my left eye. Up until this point I had only felt the pain in my back. But this new pain was very different - when I stopped that sit the eye pain went away quite quickly - if not immediately. These meditation pains are meant to be old habits/stuff coming up to the surface and if you can just observe them rather than judge them (either as good or bad) you will change the way your mind works. And, I guess, remove the influence that this habit/stuff had on you.

One reason I can think of that these 'phantom' sensations came to me so late was that I was doing a lot of visualisation of the human body in order to know where I was feeling - I pictured parts of my body and then I could feel them. In the last session I just felt my body without visualising it - go figure. I gave it a go after talking with some other attendees about how it was going - it was the last day so you could talk!

Once the surface of the body is clear the teacher said you can then go inside and feel out your sensations and observe them. Freaky, eh?! ;-)

I guess there were a few small things that got in the way for me. The chanting on the tape put me off concentrating a bit. And the use of old Indian (?) words to describe concepts kinda got in the way too. "May all beings be happy" was said a lot. I'm not sure about this. I mean sure it's really nice but really I want "all beings" to know that happiness is a choice and that they are free to choose it any time they wish. "May all beings be who they want to be" perhaps is more what I'd like to say. Where their vision of themselves matches who we really are - that will bring happiness too perhaps but then they'll know it was self induced. And that's not to say that we all achieve great super-being status of our expectations but that our expectations/visions fall in line to who we really are.

Hmmm... I guess I don't like to force happiness on people. For myself, I know, sometimes it's nice not to be happy for a little while. When I get down and depressed (which is not very often) I kind of appreciate it as it slows me down, makes me be with myself, take stock of a situation or just put everything on hold. Just breathing. So, not being happy is quite useful actually. So, "may all beings truly know that they are truly free to decide who they want to be and how they want to feel at any moment in their life". Hallelujah! ;-)

The first few days after being out were a bit strange - not surprisingly. Just before leaving the centre I asked a few people if I would loose the ability to meditate if I were to stop it for a while. There stock reply was yes, it would subside, unless I practiced 2 hours a day. Now, I'm not one to jump into things. I like to dip my toe in, and then think about it, dip my finger in, then sleep on it. Whenever I try something new I like to be able to get off it and see what it's like being 'normal' again. And see if I really want to incorporate this new thing into my daily regime - see if the body or mind misses it. So, the idea of continuing to meditate without a 'normality' break really concerned me. But, on the other hand, I didn't want to loose the ability to practice Vipassana. So, I got myself into a bit of a mild tizz for a couple of days until I realised that I should just chill out and see what happens - be open to what happens - which is kinda what the whole course was about too. Since then I've come across a few people who have practised or currently practice Vipassana. So, they come and go and I see that one can leave it for years and then just take another course if one wants to get back into it. So, the pressure has gone and I'm back in control - phew! ;-)

So, since the course I haven't practiced every day and, if I do, it's generally one sit in the morning for how long feels right - unless I'm sitting with other people! ;-) I kinda like it. I've also been playing with being mindful (observing my sensations) when I'm just out and about in the real world - that's quite nice. A few days ago I went for lunch and decided be mindful. I took time over each mouthful. It was a really nice meal. I think there's potential - and not just for culinary appreciation - perhaps when I'm in conversation it may be useful. I look forward to playing with observing more...

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