For ten days I lived the ascetic life of a Buddhist monk at Dhamma Pakasa, a vipassana meditation center in the wilderness of Illinois. We scrupulously followed five precepts - to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants. We ate simple vegetarian meals and had only fruit and tea after noon. We put away our electronic screens and undertook Noble Silence, avoiding all eye contact and communication of any form except with the teacher. My roommate Vibhore would later describe the experience as “voluntary solitary confinement.” And most importantly, we meditated for upwards of ten hours every single day.
The schedule was as follows: Wake up at 4 am, meditate, eat breakfast, meditate, eat lunch, rest, meditate, drink tea, meditate. Listen to a nightly discourse from the teacher about the techniques and the philosophies behind them. Meditate some more. Sleep by 9:30 pm.
A few things I immediately began to realize:
- My lower back was weak
- My legs were stiff and inflexible
- My mind was scattered
- How rarely I spent time with myself in my own head
In Buddhist philosophy, the path to individual liberation and Enlightenment begins with oneself. Each person can only receive Dhamma, Buddha’s teachings, through experiential wisdom, physically experiencing meditation and its benefits. It is not enough to read about the philosophy or listen to the words of others; one must take the time and effort to practice the techniques and understand their philosophies.
Vipassana teachers claim that the meditation technique is non-sectarian and can be applied universally. I found this to indeed be true in practice, though the nightly discourses and philosophy from the teacher S. N. Goenka (who is awesome and extremely funny) were decidedly Buddhist and skeptic of rituals and rites from theist religions. The path to Dhamma relies on three aspects, called Threefold Training: sila, samadhi, and panna (pali/sanskrit); or, morality, concentration, and purity of the mind. These aspects do seem logical in their purpose and their benefits are hard to dispute in other practices - as Goenka pointed out, “What religion would not agree with practicing morality? Who would be against training their ability to concentrate? What group of people would not want to purify their minds?" Each of these aspects was practiced during our ten days: the five precepts we undertook, along with Noble Silence, embodied sila; the first technique we learned, anapana meditation, trained our samadhi; and the primary technique, vipassana meditation, began our efforts to attain panna.
The first three days were entirely devoted to anapana meditation. Coming from a world of continuous stimulation and communication, I had a hard time sitting still for more than 15 minutes at a time, and the minutes seemed to crawl with each meditation sitting block. My lower back turned from aches to pains, my legs buzzed with numbness, and most difficult of all, my mind flitted down a million different thought paths when I tried to focus my attention on my breathing. Anapana meditation sharpens the mind through focusing attention on a very small area of the body. Observe respiration as air comes in and air goes out, through this nostril or that, passing gently over the area directly below the nostrils. We did not try to control the flow of respiration; we simply observed it. Slowly, ever so slowly.. sitting by sitting, hour by hour, I was able to calm my mind down. By the end of day three, I experienced the first major benefit of meditation: the improved ability to calm the mind and concentrate. (All this is a work in progress; discontinuing practice, like with any other technique, will atrophy concentration.)
The following seven days were when the true efforts to liberation began with vipassana meditation. As I understand it, Gautama the Buddha teaches that all things are impermanent, all things change - anicca. One suffers because of attachment to things, and to become liberated one must come out of the ignorance of attachment in the form of craving or aversion to things. As we go through our lives, anything our six senses come into contact with - sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and thoughts - generates an unconscious reaction of craving or aversion in our minds, called sankhara, which manifests biochemically as physical sensations. These sensations can be anything - tickling, itching, vibrating, pain, temperature, anything at all. Vipassana meditation trains us to be aware of these bodily sensations, and to simply observe them with neither craving nor aversion. Pain, aches, tickling, pleasant buzzing, anything must be observed objectively. We move our attention from part to part in our bodies, from “the top of the head to the tips of the toes” as Goenka put it, observing our sensations but not reacting to them. In this way, we begin to change the old habit patterns of our unconscious minds, training ourselves not to react thoughtlessly in our lives. We learn that everything, including the bodily sensations, sankhara, are impermanent, “arising and passing away, arising and passing away” as Goenka says. We stop generating new sankhara and begin to remove the deep roots of old sankhara from our past as our bodily sensations come and go.
All of this can sound a bit mystical. Psychophysiology is a subject that I will have to do more research into; previous students have told me of existing studies in Western science demonstrating links between psychological and physiological processes. Experientially, the combination of Noble Silence, natural wilderness environment, and disciplined meditation did instill in me a great sense of calm and peace. While long term effects are obviously still to be seen, in the short term I have become more mindful of my respiration, my bodily sensations, and how I react in all situations. I have become better able to concentrate on a task, and my discipline has improved as I try to continue the practice and meditate one hour in the morning and one at night.
The last technique we learned is called metta, meditation focused on love and compassion for oneself, one’s loved ones, ones friends, neighbors, enemies, strangers, and really for all sentient beings. Every meditation session was concluded with metta and a phrase uttered with pure love and compassion: May all beings be happy.
"Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam - May all beings be happy.” -S. N. Goenka (his favorite phrase)