'meditation' used to conjure up in my mind images of relaxation, of peace and tranquility. it was, perhaps, an old man seated by the bank of a bubbling river, contemplating its nature. or a long-haired hippie in a commune, visualizing peace and harmony for all of mankind. i thought that a 10-day retreat would give me time to myself, to clear my mind and figure out answers to some of the questions that had been bothering me lately. i never thought that i would actually be asked to work.
'vipassana,' or 'insight,' in the ancient indian language of pali, is what the buddha called the technique of meditation 2500 years ago that led him to his enlightenment. his enlightenment was basically the revelation of the truth of nature; impermanence, or change. most people would probably contemplate this for a few moments and shake their head. duh! this is a simple concept to understand. but the buddha didn't just understand this idea at an intellectual level. he understood it at an experiential level within the framework of his own body, through careful, constant self-observation. this experiential understanding is the goal of vipassana.
the first three days were spent practicing 'anapana,' or observation of the breath. this practice was intended to sharpen the mind for the work to come later, to open up its awareness to the subtlest sensations of the body and to observe them without judgement. on the fourth day we were introduced to vipassana in an excruciating 2-hour meditation session, as the teacher led us through a part-by-part, piece-by-piece observation of the body. from the top of the head to the tips of the toes, we were told to observe the sensations that we experienced, but in all instances to remain equanimous, or objective. if you feel a sensation of pain, don't react with aversion. if you feel a sensation of pleasure, don't react with craving. equanimity is paramount, and is the key to this technique. it is much more difficult to do than to say - after half an hour of sitting in one position, your knees and legs will feel like they've been beaten with a sledgehammer, and your back will feel like a fourth of july celebration. try remaining equanimous through that, and observing the pain as an object, without any feeling of aversion or attempt to escape. it's not easy.
this may all seem pointless, perhaps even harmful - my initial reaction was one of skepticism - 'you mean we're just supposed to sit here and observe our sensations? including pain? this isn't what i came for.' but i stayed, and gave it a chance. this was the teaching of the buddha, after all, and supposedly he was some sort of wise person. i figured ten days wouldn't hurt, though after the second and third days i have to say i felt like bolting. but i stayed, and i learned.
the buddhas that came before THE buddha (siddhartha gotama) taught that human suffering was caused by the mind's attachment to physical objects. the mind manifested these attachments through its reactions to said objects. if something was pleasurable or pleasant, the mind developed a craving for it, and was miserable until this desire was sated. if something was unpleasant or painful, the mind developed an aversion to it, and in its presence misery was bound to follow. gotama buddha understood this teaching, as the buddhas before him and the buddhas following him did as well. his contribution to the teaching was HOW this attachment was made, and how the damage could be undone. enter vipassana. by observing the sensations of the body equanimously, objectively, detachedly, these reactions (or 'sankharas') would surface in the mind - as the pain in the legs built up, sankharas of aversion would present themselves - but by remaining equanimous without reaction, these sankharas would be eradicated. the buddha taught that over time, more and more sankharas would surface, and as long as you didn't generate any new sankharas by reacting to these sensations, you would purify the mind of all of them. Continuity of practice, the buddha taught, was the secret to success.
our schedule for the 10 days reflected this continuity:
4am: Wake up430-630am Group meditation in the hall
630-8am Breakfast and rest
8-11am Group meditation in the hall
11-1pm Lunch and rest
1-5pm Group meditation in the hall
5-6pm Snack (for new students) and rest
6-7pm Group meditation
7-815pm Discourse (videotape)
815-9pm Group meditation
9pm Take rest
10pm Lights out
After the fourth day, when practice turned to vipassana, the schedule changed slightly. At three times during the day (8-9, 230-330 and 6-7) we had a 'determined sitting.' During this entire hour you were supposed to commit yourself to not moving - during the rest of the meditation periods you were allowed to change your position, but during these hours you were expected to make a dedicated effort to stillness. like i said before, after about half an hour the pain sets in, and the mental powers of objectivity are stretched to the limit. after 45 minutes i felt like crying, and sometimes did. after 50 minutes i swore that the teacher was an idiot and didn't know how to keep time and i started fantasizing about torturing him. every minute seemed like an hour in hell. every little noise or movement would send chills of anger through my spine. at 55 minutes the teacher would begin chanting, and we would know it was almost over. from that moment any pain was bearable, and suffering ebbed slightly. at 60 minutes as eyes were opened and legs straightened, knees popped, backs cracked and the entire body ached. everyone would hobble from the room with bent backs and buckling legs, swearing that they'll never do it again.
the majority of attendees at the retreat were old students. that is, they had gone through this before, some five or six times, and were back for more. there were only two new women and three new men - myself, deepak and patrick.
after 10 days of living with deepak and patrick i was convinced i knew them better than their own mothers. the fact that we had not spoken to each other over the course of this week and a half, or even made eye contact, was irrelevant. an action is worth a thousand words, so they say, and to me their silent actions betrayed their true characters. deepak (aka mr. bean - his silence made this likeness even more accurate) was indian, and didn't speak a lick of english. i was convinced he didn't understand a thing that was said during the discourses at night, so who knows what he was thinking about during the daily meditation sessions. probably spicy food. or sleeping. deepak loved to sleep (tucking his entire body under his covers for fear of mosquitos), and he let everyone know it by doing it as noisily as possible. he always slept on his back. the oath of 'noble silence' we had taken apparently didn't apply to snoring. he also hated avocados and sometimes he didn't take milk in his tea.patrick (aka gassy mcburpsalot) was a homeless kenyan, 27 years old, and had major gastrointestinal issues. we sat next to each other in the meditation hall, and with each gaseous emission i visualized a debilitating karate chop to the adam's apple. he also feigned illness to get out of meditating, and could be found afterwards asleep in his bed. he had undoubtedly just come to this retreat for the food. unlike deepak, patrick loved eating everything, and often went back for seconds and thirds. he also took a full glass of milk in the afternoon (milk that was meant to be mixed with hot water for tea), just because he could. and the showers. pat showered at least two times per day, and obsessively cleaned himself before AND after sleeping - god only knows what he was doing under those covers - so i was convinced of his obsessive-compulsiveness bordering on insanity. his affinity for his own reflection perpetuated this notion.
on the morning of the 10th day our noble silence was lifted, and the stereotypes and snap judgements were put to rest. deepak, it turns out, did speak english, though in short, very confusing sentences. though he told me twice, i'm still not sure what it is that he does for a living. some kind of internet marketing. he was apparently a very disciplined meditator, and didn't experience half of the problems or discomforts that plagued both patrick and myself. patrick was diabetic, and "feigned illness" by running to the room to inject himself with insulin. he was also a successful tax advisor and not homeless at all!
you may be asking: would i do it again? not tomorrow, no, but maybe next year. from my masochistic descriptions of the sittings you probably think i'm psychotic and enjoyed the torture. i didn't do much to describe the benefits. it's difficult to quantify - they're not tangible results, they're subtle shifts of mental clarity and precision, a greater capacity for awareness and mindfulness, a more pleasant disposition. there's only so much, though, that you can get from 10 days of anything. this retreat was intended to introduce new students to vipassana and establish them in the technique at home. i haven't started practicing daily yet, but i figure i've got time. after all, siddhartha gotama didn't even start practicing until he was in his 30s, and achieved enlightenment by 35. i'd say that gives me a headstart.