V For Vipassana

by - Friday, November 08, 2019 ( Views)

It turns out that I have been training my whole life, for doing Nothing.

With the capital N.

No writing, no reading, no coding, no driving, no cooking, no phone, no texting, no internet, no emails, no books, no newspaper. And did I say no speaking? For ten straight days (and nights in between)!

This was the most unproductive I have ever been; since I learned to feed myself with my own hands. 😁

How did it feel?

It felt normal. It felt like living in my elements. It felt like being ... at home.

It also confirmed my suspicion that behind this loud, outgoing facade, lives a true introvert.

Since the moment of our birth, we are constantly fed many stories.

Stories about us.

Stories about others.

Stories about good and bad.

Stories about failures and success.

At some point, without us even realizing, we make these stories our truth.

"People tell you who they are, but we ignore it.
Because we want them to be, who we want them to be.
(Don Draper – Mad Men S4:E8, The Summer Man)

The word Vipassanā, in Pali, means ‘to see things as they really are’.

In the words of Buddhist monk Bhante G, it is a quality of mind that allows it to "look into something with clarity and precision, see each component as distinct and separate, and pierce all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing".

Without this quality, the mind is bound to see this world through its own needs, projections, and fears.

It is bound to see recklessness where there is pain, see malice where there is truma, and see personality-disorders where there are deeply unmet and invalidated core human needs.

And when this seeing gets distorted enough, we could spend our entire life, 'Tilting at the Windmills'.

Meditation is one simple tool available to us to see things as they really are and replace the adopted stories with the actual truths.

Vipassana Meditation Technique, as taught by Satya Narayan Goenka, or as I like to call it "Coachella for Introverts™" 😉, is a ten day residential program where participants are taught the basics of a few meditation techniques.

Sunrise that greets you every morning

The Kelseyville center, nestled amidst a rural forest of lush green pine, fir, and oak trees, is located in the Cobb mountain area of Lake County, California.

The program provides a well supported environment that includes spartan but comfortable living space, simple yet delicious meals, and a group meditation space for the participants to practice together.

The course is taught through audio and video recordings of Mr. Goenka’s instructions and discourses, while assistant teachers are available to answer any questions a student may have.

Seasoned yoga practitioners would find elements of Yama, Niyama, Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna, and Samādhi included in the instructions and techniques, while Āsana, Prānāyāma, and Pratyāhāra are conspicuous by their absence.

A group of kind and thoughtful old students volunteer their time and energy to assist the new students with everything they need.

It’s the energy of such people and those of the co-students that creates this calm and caring atmosphere where even the first time practitioners manage to get through the grueling mental, physical, and emotional demands of such intense practice.

As one of my dearest friends would say - ‘People are Magic!’. 😊

The conflict free nature of this program creates opportunities to observe oneself beyond just the structured meditation.

I, for example, found myself feeling annoyed by Mr. Goenka's instructions, discourses, claims, and even his voice, which I found to be repetitive, misleading, exaggerated, and authoritarian (yes Mr. Anderson, I do have a problem with authority 😉).

Since then, maintaining an equanimous state of mind during his discourses became part of my practice.

All meditation techniques are methods for Self-realization.

The central idea is to turn our attention inwards, deliberate upon, see, accept, and eventually integrate with our true Self.

For those who have looked at meditation from periphery, the whole practice may seem to be concentrating one’s attention on a single point, image, sound, or object.

While the practice of single-pointedness is an essential part of any meditation technique, it is only the beginning of the process. Once trained in it, this helps us in examining the internal landscape of our mind from an observer's neutral vantage point, and in time, allows us to see the truth.

Truth that leads to Self-realization

Truth that ends the inner struggle to become who we are supposed to be and be who we already are.

But the claims of Mr. Goenka go beyond Self-realization.

Some Buddhists believe that when someone experiences a craving for a pleasurable sensation or an aversion towards a painful sensation, a Saṅkhāra, or a ‘mental imprint’ is generated and deposited in the storehouse of one’s mind.

The intensity of these imprints varies. Some are like a line drawn on water, some like a line drawn on sand, and some like a line on rock.

At the moment of death, the most intense saṅkhāras accumulated in this storehouse rise up, leading to the recall of the original craving or aversion and provide the required push to the flow of consciousness into the next life.

I found this related to and a metaphor for the modern research and understanding about trauma. Severe traumatic events rearrange the brain's wiring, leaving unprocessed imprints in the implicit memory. Until these imprints can be brought back to and integrated with our conscious mind, the past associate with the trauma never becomes past.

Maybe what Buddha referred to as the ‘cycle of rebirths’ is essentially someone reliving the intense traumatic experiences, over and over again, in this very life.

Those doing trauma work, either for themselves or for others, would find the book The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, more insightful than the mystical talks by Mr. Goenka.

Mr. Goenka claims that if one practices ‘his wonderful technique’ ardently, continuously, consistently, diligently, persistently, patiently, objectively 😉, then ultimately one can witness the entire field of mind and matter at the subtlest, atomic level, realizing their impermanent nature at the experiential level, and learn to avoid having strong reactions to such sensations by practicing equanimity.

Roman Torgovitsky has succinctly captured a lot of what I thought and felt about these claims.

During his 7th day discourse, Mr. Goenka tells us a story of Buddha's final hours on this earth.

"On the auspicious night of Mahāparinirvāṇa, a large crowd had gathered to see the last glimpse of Buddha and to pay their respect to this learned soul.

Among the crowd, there was this man who instead of paying respect, insisted upon learning ‘this wonderful technique’, directly from Buddha, lest he passes away and his disciples do not teach this technique properly.

When Buddha heard this commotion at the door and realized that someone ‘needs Dhamma’, against the counsel of his disciples, he ran from his deathbed with the desire to teach Dhamma one last time!"

Listening to this story made me feel impishly curious.

Assuming that this story is true, I wondered, could it be possible that Buddha had gotten extremely attached to his work of teaching Dhamma?! Did this strong attachment lead to a strong craving to teach it one last time, a few moments before his death?! Did this craving generate a very deep saṅkhāra in his mind?!

And, as a result, did he fail to attain Nirvāṇa, continued on this cycle of rebirths, and in his latest incarnation, was born as SN Goenka?! 😉

I guess I am not getting nirvāṇa in this life either! 😅😂

In his excellent and aptly titled book, The Trauma Of Everyday Life, psychotherapist Mark Epstein — whose life work has been in integrating both Buddha's and Freud’s approaches to trauma — interprets Buddha's spiritual journey as an expression of primitive agony grounded in his developmental trauma.

Trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people. It is the bedrock of our psychology,” Mark asserts.

However, once acknowledged as such, trauma can be used as a lever for growth and an ever deeper understanding of change,” he continues. “When we regard trauma with this perspective, understanding that suffering is universal and without logic, our pain connects us to the world on a more fundamental level.

There is suffering in Saṃsāra, but also bliss,” he concludes.

Seen in this light, Buddha's enlightenment, essentially, was him integrating fully with his childhood traumatic experiences and in that process finding release from the pain he had suffered his whole life, until that point.

The fundamental disagreement that I have with the middlemen like Mr. Goenka, who sell their truths and techniques with appeal to authority of Buddha, is their claim that the life as it exists in this world, and continues through the cycle of rebirths, is because of the accumulated saṅkhāras generated by strong cravings and aversions.

And the claim that this cycle ends when this account is settled. For good!

I think that this is a misleading interpretation of Buddha's teaching as this fails to explain why life manifests in the first place.

A robust error-handling routine is an essential part of any well-designed, complex system. But it is never the primary reason for its existence.

I claim that we manifest this life to carry out our unique Self-expression.

I believe that for some of us, that self-expression is assigned even before life begins. Others get to define and refine our self-expression in this very world.

We live this life to fulfil the purpose or meaning through the selfless execution of that self expression.

Leading with the heart, which is our strongest tool on that path.

As Anāhata, or unhurt, it can process and overcome any and all traumas through Mettā.

If you have never experienced such a retreat where you could take a complete break from day-to-day life, in exchange for doing nothing, I strongly recommend that you find the nearest center and apply for a 10 days course.

I would also recommend to spend some time practicing simple Prāṇāyāma and Āsanas, and reading up on some Yoga philosophy before embarking on this journey. You'll be spending a lot of time with your breath, body, and mind and this groundwork will allow you to have meaningful conversation with them.

And while you sit in meditation, do yourself a favor and resist the temptation of searching for ‘a constant flow of subtle, pleasant sensations’.

They are 'Emperor's New Clothes'.

It’s easy to raise a brow seeing Satya’s attempt to appropriate meditation and ‘Dhamma’, easy to feel amused by the strawman he creates in his stories, easy to get frustrated by the logical fallacies in his intellectual discourses, and easy to start questioning his motives behind the fabricated facts.

Yet, the truth remains that if one can turn one’s attention inward, retracting the sensory experience from external objects, sit with oneself and one’s thoughts and feelings for a length of time in an peaceful container supported by the energy of wonderful people, for a solid ten days, one is bound to move forward on one’s spiritual journey.

On this journey to see and accept our true Self as it is, with all its light and all its shadows.

Because as Satya admits, it's not the technique that works.

It's You.

And believe me, we are all good for Nothing. 😉

Program — 10/10
Instructor (SN Goenka) — 8/10
Location (Kelseyville) — 10/10
People — 10/10
Overall — 10/10

(A version of this post is available on my Facebook page)

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