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Silence and insight 

June 1, 2017

Not much time is set aside in our society for silence or self reflection. Even when we have the opportunity, many of us would rather seek entertainment and distraction rather than looking into the depths of ourselves. Our habitual tendencies remain as they are, and the same patterns keep emerging in our lives. We respond in similar ways with each stress that comes up, be it the frustration you may have when talking to your parents, the way you may often play the victim, or even just how angry you get at traffic on your commute. These tendencies and patterns don’t have to be such a blind occurrence. We don’t need to be unwilling passengers to a Pavlov’s dog-like situation in our own body.

In attending these silent Vipassana retreats, you’re able to dive into the depths of yourself, see these patterns for what they are, and slowly begin to correct your response to them.

Vipassana is ‘insight meditation.’ The technique is essentially body scanning with your mind. You try to feel the sensations in every part of your body. The process starts off very slow, but as you practice more you can scan your body quite quickly. Sensations you feel don’t start with the subtleties. First you scan and mostly feel itches, pains, the feeling of clothing touching you, the ground, etc. But as you continue, you work down to the level of feeling all parts of your body very deeply.

The teacher likens the retreat to a “surgery for the mind.” You cut deep into yourself and begin to remove things that are causing your mind to react in its reactionary tendencies, and give you a new sense of freedom in yourself. The schedule seems pretty brutal, with 10 hours of sitting meditation dispersed through the day, but once the days start going by it becomes easier to get into the flow of things and actually enjoy the sits.

Every night, there is a talk by the meditation instructor, S.N. Goenka. First I was expecting the talks to be kind of dull and just about meditating, but Goenka has a very good way of conveying deeply impactful information through his use of humor and examples to drive points home and to understand beyond just the language being used. Each talk has to do with the meditation technique up to that point, experiences you may be having, and insights that the technique reveal.

Goenka mentions towards the beginning that some days people find more difficult than others pretty regularly. I found this to ring true both times I’ve gone. The first 3 days aren’t too bad, but then comes day 4. Day 4 you go from doing Anapana (breath-based) meditation, into the actual Vipassana technique. The 3 previous days of anapana allow you to feel sensations in your body incredibly deeply. First all you can feel is your breath, then slowly you start to feel things like little micro air currents, very very subtle sensations around your nose and upper lips, even down to the sensation of blood flow. Getting to this level of body awareness is key for doing Vipassana. Vipassana brings that awareness to your entire body.

What does it mean to feel so deeply each part of your body? it can be almost as if you can pinpoint down to a cell on your body and feel sensation within or energy flowing through. Goenka makes the connection of the subconscious. That the subconscious isn’t just our underlying thoughts and anxieties that creep up into our awareness from time to time, but rather it is all the simultanious processing of the body as well. Think of your breath; it is not an entirely conscious or subconscious process, as when you are not in awareness of it you continue to take in oxygen. The technique shows just how connected the mind is to each and every part of your body, and how much even just a slight discomfort in one area can really affect us and change the nature of our minds.

The goal is to be able to look at all of your sensations with an equanimous mind, that is, to feel the sensations without the attachment of liking any sensations, or aversion of any sensations. This can be extremely difficult, especially when facing an itch on your nose that just won’t seem to dissipate for a whole sit.

I had a lot of difficulty with this during times at both retreats, as does everyone else who attends. The key in this is to not judge yourself for not being able to feel sensations as much as you’d like or not have an equanimous mind. That drives a thought-loop that will keep you totally unfocused on meditation and into feelings of frustration and annoyance.

Sometimes these sensations come up in the form of deep pain in parts of your body. In my first retreat, on day 5 I started experiencing extreme explosion-feeling pain in my left knee no matter how I sat to meditate. The pain culminated to a point where I had to ask the teacher for a chair, or that I may have to go home because of how unbearable it felt.

As I said in my previous post, the retreat doesn’t preach a dogma or a particular philosophy to follow and therefore is suitable for anyone of any religious or non-religious affiliation. Goenka says that anything he talks about that you haven’t experienced for yourself and know from experience to be true you don’t have to, nor should you agree or believe it. That being said, as you begin to experience the things he talks of, then you can reconsider what he said of having some merit to it.

The teacher told me that as you do these meditation techniques, you find ‘sankaras’ in your body. These are sensations of all varieties, from pain to pleasure to itching, that are held in your body through your life from not internally dealing with issues, or any kind of clinging or aversion to sensations in the mind. So as you recoil from stresses or get attached to pleasures instead of just allowing the sensation to run its course and dissipate, these supposedly build up in your body. The Vipassana technique allows them to come to the surface, make a sensation on your body, and eventually dissipate. Through keeping an equanimous mind while scanning through these sensations, the cycle of the creation of new sankaras is ended, and allows old ones to dissipate .

So to deal with my knee pain, the teacher told me to make it through an entire hour meditation without moving, and to sit with the sensation rather than fight against it.

I thought something must have been wrong with my knee for it to be so excruciatingly painful, so my bullshit meter was on high alert. But I thought rather than back out and ask to leave the retreat that I should give it a shot and see what happens. The pain came up again in my sit following our talk, but after a time of just letting it be and continuing on with my meditating rather than fixating on the pain I was in, I felt it just melt away. It was replaced very light feeling in my knee. This kind of experience continued for all sensations throughout the retreat, making me realize more and more the idea of impermanence or ‘anicca’ in our lives that Goenka talks about through the reatreat.

Going through the days and recognizing this experientially within my own body was a powerful moment. I had gone my entire life until this point swept away by my reactions to stimuli, as we all are to some degree or another, but never had I known that it was possible to tap into the root of where our reactions lie. This was a big turning point in my life.

One of the more well known Vipassana instructiors in the west, Joseph Goldstein, says about Vipassana that “Wisdom is the clear seeing of the impermanent, conditioned nature of all phenomena, knowing that whatever arises has the nature to cease. When we see this impermanence deeply, we no longer cling; and when we no longer cling, we come to the end of suffering.”

The technique makes sense on a neurological level too. As we become able to simply observe sensations, from exploding knee pain to feelings of pure bliss, without feelings of attachment or dislike or reaction, it changes our brain. Instead of neurons firing in the same patterns from stimuli, you open up new possibilities ways for neurons to fire rather than the habitual route it would take. Studies like this one and many others are showing results like neuroplasticity, changes in brain regions to do with attention, stimuli processing, amygdala response and more as people continue their meditation practice.

One of the most interesting aspects of the retreat was the incredible increase in dream awareness and vividness. Rather than waking up and being able to remember fleeting fragments of a dream, I found myself upon sleeping immediately coming into awareness of the dreams that I would enter, and have lucid control within them. For me it wasn’t just a slight increase in dream awareness, it’s as if through the technique and getting more body awareness, I became more able to see my continual subconscious processing in this visual way immediately upon sleeping during the retreat. I have never experienced that level of dream recall/vividness/awareness in my life. I’ll make a post some other time about some of these sort of experiences some other time.

But the retreat isn’t just meditation, pain, and dreams. It’s possible to drop into some quite weird psychedelic-like states. I had an interesting and quite puzzling experience during my first retreat that continued on after my time there. Around the 7th day, as I was meditating I would start to see opalescent phosephene-like images with my eyes closed. Started of looking like people gathering into the meditation hall, but would slowly start to turn into amazing swirling geometric patterns. Each millisecond was like a beautiful art piece I would never be able to see again. There were incredibly intricate patterns that started taking up my whole vision. After my meditations from that point, I would still see the swirling opalescent colours. It was almost like a shimmery rainbow over everything that I saw. It was placed almost like a filter over my vision. Almost as if I could see the intricacies of what made up each colour I would look at. In dark rooms, or looking at black white surfaces it would become very apparent and distracting. This lasted for about 2 weeks after the retreat, and I sometimes feel like I’m on the edge of being able to see the colours, especially when certain colour combinations are present,

But with experiences like this and others I’ve had at the retreat or throughout life, the integration aspect and coming back into life is the most important part. It’s not about re-entering your daily reality and going back into the habitual patterns, thoughts and actions as you had before but now as some kind of “serious meditator”. The key with any retreats like this, psychedelic journeying, yoga, etc, is to try to bring the insights you get from these peak experiences into how you live daily at base-level reality. Sure maybe you had an experience of dissolving into pure bliss, seeing beautiful psychedelic colour vision, having your heart opened and crying for 45 minutes straight, or maybe even catching a glimpse into your personal-hell you hold yourself in so often, but each of these experiences are fleeting. The experience means nothing after the fact unless you are able to align your life afterwards, and use these experiences as catalysts to grow as a person, not to cling onto and get stuck in.

This doesn’t mean that going to a retreat is going to solve all of your problems. Like anything, meditation is a practice that takes time. But through practising the method, from that point on you’re able to slowly train yourself to react less, begin to make aware responses to any stimuli you are faced with, and live in the stillness of your own mind even in the midst of the turbulence of every day life.

 

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