Some weeks ago I participated in a 10 days course on Vipassana. The course was designed according to S.N Goenka of the burmese tradition of the Theravada buddhism.
More information about Goenka’s tradition can be found here: http://www.dhamma.org/
He claims that his tradition has save-kept the knowledge about the original meditation techniques taught by Buddha himself. Now, thats a claim I have heard too often from various groups and religions. They all claim they are the one and only path with the true knowledge handed down over centuries from master to master and kept in its purity.
Nevertheless I was very interested in their techniques and in having an intensive off-time for 10 days.
I wanted to experience something new and to broaden my understanding, gaining some new perspective on my meditation practice and knowledge about meditation in general.
They give their teaching and courses away for free. You can donate something at the end of the course if you like. I find this a wonderful example of how spiritual teachings should be best transferred. It helps greatly in keeping financial egos and power games out of the teaching. The Transcendental Meditation movement could learn something from it. (See my article “My thoughts about…“)
Most challenging in this ten days is certainly the daily schedule. You will be woken up at 4 in the morning and you meditate about 11 hours every day. And, there is no media consumption allowed during this 10 days and no talking either. Mobiles and electronics are to be handed over at the beginning – silence inside and outside.
It was not easy in the beginning. I am used to about 6 hours of meditation maximum, usually I did never more. And to wake up at 4 did never fit any daily routine in my life so far.
They only media consumption that takes place is in the form of a recorded one hour lecture every evening where Goenka explains the meditation techniques.
If you have problems with meditation or the daily routine you are allowed to talk to the teacher of the course in private once a day. If there are problems with accommodation and food, the manager of the course can be contacted and talked to. Other than that no talking is alowed.
The first days started easy by just watching the breath. But as you have to wake up at 4 am in the morning, thats not as easy as it may sound. You are tired and you are inevitably drifting off constantly.
Then the actual Vipassana technique is taught. The difference here is the center of attention. Instead of putting your attention on your subtle breath at the tip of your nose, you sweep your attention through your body.
Whatever may arise in the body, you neither reject it nor embrace it, thats the main instruction. Stay centered and do not move.
After a few days it became kind of easy to do it. My body literally froze, I could sense those areas in my body that were in pain due to the long sitting, but I was detached from it, sitting in a non-wavering mind, not touched by anything.
Only the early mornings still contributed to a more dizzy meditation experience almost till the end. It was the afternoons and the evenings I enjoyed most in meditation. The last day or two I realized that I slowly got used to waking up so early. I can imagine that it can become a habit, although I really do not aspire for it.
This meditation experience of a non-wavering mind, sitting like a rock, was nothing new to me. I had a phase in my meditation experience where my meditation was exactly like this. I like to think of it now as ‘I grew out of it’. Although It gives me a super sharp mind and a lot of energy, it also makes me cold and brittle, and distant. I see it now as a third eye experience, especially as I was literally sleepless during this time. It’s a meditation experience that enhanced a subtle aspect of my ego. It made me feel like being a human superhero. My understanding was superb, but I was separated from everything. It was a valuable experience though, but it made me feel separated, not united. It made me feel cold, not warm and in touch with creation.
I don’t want to say that everyone using this mediation will necessarily have this experience. Others may experience it differently. So please regard this as my very personal experience, it is no judgement on others practicing Vipassana, and it might be unique due to my background. Tools, as it is, can produce different products. So it is with meditation. A meditation technique will have different results for different people. For some, this meditation is the right tool, and I value their decision and bless their path. I am at peace with each individual itself and the responsibility they take for their experience-realm. I am not easily at peace though with any kind of group-think or organization that may emerge from this. I have no wish to impose my experience or my understanding onto anyone. My main intention in writing this, is to clear my own mind. By writing about my experiences, I do understand them better and more consciously. And I fancy, that some people may be out there who will find this words useful or who resonate with it.
Vipassana is said to burn away latent impressions inside you, impressions that are called samskaras by buddhists and hindus alike. Samskaras are nothing else than impressions of past experiences in your mind and heart, that can rise their head anytime. All that is needed is a trigger, and they will show up their head and you will suddenly become angry, loving, or whatever feeling is associated with them. Some inner or outer trigger, something someone said, something you encountered on the street, and suddenly you have this feeling of being angry, annoyed, loving or whatever.
They constitute what I would call our automatic self, a self thats conditioned by education, culture, beliefs and personal history. The characteristic of a samsara is that you like some of them and dislike others and that you have no control over that like and dislike. You react automatically on them and therefore you are bound to react in always the same way when they occur, predictable with hundred percent certainty. They are the vicious cycles in life, experiences that repeat themselves again and again, with no chance of escape.
It can be something simple as the automatic aversion towards a person because he once said something that revealed a view on politics, sport or any other subject that one didn’t like. From that day on this person can be viewed entirely through that judgment alone, leaving aside all other aspects of that person.
Or it can be a childhood experience that we have forgotten already on our conscious level, but that still leads to a feeling of worthlessness whenever we encounter a situation where we are not accepted as we are. We get so conditioned by this that we may even pro-actively take that role of being not worthy so that it never can surprise us again. And any feeling of the opposite is viewed with great suspicion.
The buddhists and hindus do apply this also to positive samskaras. Everyone has this positive triggers as well, a certain situation, a look, and suddenly one feels happy again, maybe even without realizing why or without remembering what this situation reminds one of. If you are not aware of this trigger, it will be part of your automatic self. You have no control over it, no control over being happy, not being able to be happy without needing any outer stimulus.
By not reacting to any samskara, which is any kind of sensation emerging in your body, mind and heart during meditation, by just watching them come and go, you kind of release or burn this triggers. You train yourself in not-reacting, and you will then be able to see them for what they are, something that comes and goes and that is not permanent. It will not give you peace forever and it does not contribute anything towards your I’ness.
There have been lots of sensations in the form of thoughts and feelings during the long hours of meditation on this course for me. The sensory deprivation alone did set my mind into turbo mode, into endless loops of thought strains, of repeating past experiences and feelings in my inner worlds.
While I was sitting there, motionless, focussed, I could see them as what they are, thoughts and feelings coming and going. They are not what constitutes the sense of I’ness in me. They will pass. They will not last.
Every time you shut out any means of communication, shut out the world and any means of distraction, the mind usually starts to rise its head and will phantasize in never-ending streams of thoughts, often combined with strong emotions. By not clinging to them, by not rejecting them, by staying equanimous towards any sensation, you see them as what they are, and you do not attribute them to yourself as part of your I’ness anymore. Then they loose any power they had over you. In daily life you will experience, that this will give you more energy and freedom. Freedom of being a victim to circumstances and surroundings. Finally being able to make really free decisions that are not, or less directed by your subconscious identifications and rejections.
The non-judging mind
This experience of Vipassana meditation is, in its essence, nothing new to me. Since I left the Ashram and promised myself not to say ‘No’ anymore to this world and all the experiences it contains – since that time I got more and more in a habit of observing what is, and accepting it, as what is, developing a habit of nonjudgmental observation while participating. Whatever arises inside me, thoughts or feelings, there is nothing to judge. Whatever happens in daily life, there is nothing to judge, nothing to have an immediate opinion about it, but to observe it for what it is first. So, this attitude of observation and not-reacting is something that is not only done in meditation, but an attitude that can be carried into daily life day. And this is what Goenka is pointing to in the last lectures.
Difference between Vipassana and TM
What hit me most in the technique of Vipassana is the instruction they give how to deal with distractions. They have been exactly the same as they are taught in the Transcendental Mediation (short ‚TM‘) technique of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a technique I am practicing, together with several advanced techniques, since 35 years.
The core essence of it is: Do not fight.
By fighting you strengthen what you want to fight, thereby never being able to conquer it. If you find yourself lost in thoughts, you can’t do anything about it. Fighting them, will only create more thoughts. But once you recognize that you have been lost in thought, you can do something. And what you do, is coming effortlessly back with your attention to your body, sweeping it like a Radar for any sensations in it as taught in the Vipassana course.
The only difference I see here is the centre of attention. Maharishi teaches to go back effortlessly to the Mantra one is listening to inwardly. Vipassana teaches to come back to the body.
So the mechanics of this meditation are the same. The difference I experienced was though, that it is so much more difficult for me to keep my attention on my body. When I practice Mantra-Mediation on the other hand, the attention remains easily on the mantra. It is very easy to do, and the continuous awareness of my body becomes kind of a by-product of this as my senses start to sharpen as my mind calms down.
At the end of the ten day course I got a bit of a surprise. When we were finally allowed to talk to each other, I spoke with 3 fellow participants, and I heard that none of them had shared my experience of a non-wavering mind, witnessing all the thoughts and emotions taking place inside my body. One of them was even fighting his way through all this ten days, every day a day of doubt and thinking to give up.
And I myself felt rather cold, brittle, passive and distant and not very much connected with what I would call the life-stream inside myself.
It took me several weeks now to digest this experiences and it all boils down to one point, a point that I believe to be fundamental to existence:
“Nature always works in the simplest possible way – achieving a maximum with the least amount of effort”.
This technique, or at least how I and other people handled it, did not fit into this my understanding, which makes me think, that there is actually a lot of energy wasted, or is it that some people just need stronger tools, are not able to let go that easily? A lot of work, for a little result. This is not a very natural way as I would call it.
Something feels very wrong to me with this Vipassana, or at least how Goenka teaches it. There is too much effort involved.
Now, people and experiences vary greatly. So this again, is just my personal experience. I don’t want to put one technique above the other. It is a great temptation to do so, at least once one experienced the first breakthroughs with wonderful meditation experiences. Suddenly one dips into that silent inner peace and the heart overflows with joy, so it is very natural to start to tell everyone about it. The message though is always colored by our current maturity. If one is of a childlike nature, the message will be simple and free of any mental concepts. If not, and that seems to be the usual case, one uses mental images, judgments and ideas, that lead easily to the built up of huge concepts, and so may take a form of exclusiveness. I believe this to be a step in growing up to an adult, self responsible human being. It seems we can not avoid this immaturity on the path. The more important are fellow travelers that have made that experience too, or have just the natural ability to feel this kind of untruthfulness easily.
I always feel disturbed by other people who had made great meditation experiences and reporting about it as if their path is the only one. But then I remind myself, that this is so familiar to me. I kind of feel like a tobacco consumer who just quitted smoking, who now can’t stand the smell of cigarettes anymore without getting angry at those who smoke them.
I am very happy that this boat has finally sunken, and that I am standing on my own feet now, at least I do my best to be honest to myself. I do owe great thanks to a dear friend here, who has the ability to spot untruthfulness easily in me and let me know about it.
Nonjudgmental observation of the sensations in ones body as taught by Vipassana is a tool I find also at the base of several modern therapies. I did several years of Hakomi therapy in the past and found attentive non-judging observation as the key concept there. For everyone more body-centered, and less mind-centered, this seems to be a good starting point as the body is always interconnected with the mind. Both form a mutual relationship. If the mind is agitated the body is it too, and the other way around. If the mind is calm the body will follow, and the other way around. You can start at both ends for any improvement. You may find it more helpful to start with the body. Some may find it more helpful to start with the mind, putting your attention on a thought. The tradition of Goenka uses the body in Vipassana. I worked all my life with thought, or inner sound as I would rather call it.
In the end, Hakomi, Vipassana, TM, do all work with attention, and attention in itself is a tool of the mind, it is conscious directioning of your awareness. Awareness is what I am inclined to think of – to use an expression of Maharishi – like watering the roots of the tree. It leads automatically to each leaf on the tree being nourished as the water is transported from there to each individual leaf – easily and without effort.
On the other hand you could treat each symptom as a separate illness and treat them one by one. That would require a lot of effort, it is like putting some water on each individual leaf. It is very time consuming and not very effective.
Attention is the root that gives water (life) to body mind and heart.
The wish to experience
One more source of surprise and bewilderment was revealed in the lectures of the last days. Goenka dived deeper into buddhist world view. I couldn’t help but feeling my heart retract from it. The conviction that you have to dissolve all the samskaras that you have accumulated in this life and all lifes before that – which may amount to millions – before you can get liberated, feels depressing. What a terrible outlook on life. Imagine sitting for life after life now with some hope that in some distant future you may get liberated. This reminds me too much of the catholic church and other religions. Salvation is always in a distant future, and it can only be obtained by hard labour. This is actually how religions accumulate their power. They hide the knowledge that liberation is always in the now, and not in any future, and most of all, that your potential as creator is so much greater than you could even imagine right now.
Opposed to the buddhist view it is my understanding, that this world exists, because of us desiring for it. So this creation is here because we wish to experience it. If we are the creators of this reality, so, how can anyone tell us, that it takes ages to get out of it? No, it just takes a moment of realization I would suppose.
But traditions are deep rooted and it will take a long time until a radical different understanding like this will hit the masses. And when it does, the days of organizations dependent on slavery are over.
If we are really the creators of our world and our experiences, we surely must be also the creator of our bodies. Therefore working with attention, seems to me like the logical and most natural way of dealing with any problems one may encounter. And therefore the tool of choice for meditation. And attention is effortless. If you find yourself straining or struggling in meditation, you are doing something wrong, which is, you may have a slight notion of judgement or of having to do something left in you. Take your time to put your attention on just that until it dissolves and that is, again, effortless.
The wheel of pain
The buddhist view of the world as a never ending wheel of life might be true. A never ending wheel of incarnations again and again. My problem with it is twofold. For one it is a very linear view, and secondly it is utterly depressing to think of that. It feels christian like, a never ending wheel of pain, like the cross jesus is nailed to and whose face, pain stricken, is shown in every church. You are waiting after death for some distant time to get woken up again. Horrible.
Working with symbols is powerful, especially if you are not aware of the symbols. Working with symbols of pain, inevitably induces into you a notion of “life is misery” and you need to do something to get out of it. Now, pay attention, who is telling you how to get out of it? Exactly those churches that have impregnated you with that notion that life is misery. This same principle is used also in other realms of this world, be it business or politics or military. It is often those who created the misery, that are the ones that offer the “solution”.
Get rid of this. Don’t by into that anymore.
I see life as a voluntary decision, not as a wheel you are bound on like the cross that Jesus is bound to. You incarnate here, you experience this world here, because you thought, this would be an interesting experience. And it is my understanding, that you can stop it anytime and choose to experience a different reality, one of which we can not even imagine right now because the actual possibilities have been hidden from us. The catholic church for instance has worked tirelessly for almost two thousand years now, to burn any books and often the owner with them, that dared to touch on that subject. We have been kept on this planet in dependency purposefully.
Truth has been withhold so that they can keep up their power. Be aware of that whenever you participate in a religion or even a group. Even small groups can develop a group think that is quite similar to a church.
Pay attention to the beliefs that you have taken over unconsciously and question them, because they govern your life without you even realizing it.
According to buddhists and hindus life is based on the law of cause and effect. Whatever you do, you have to bear the consequences. This law that is often called the law of ‘karma’ and is accepted meanwhile by many as it is easily experiencable in our daily lives. There is nothing wrong with that. But I have my problem with accepting this as the ultimate truth. Whenever there is an ‘ultimate’ somewhere, be careful! Even my own ‘ultimate’ convictions – I handle them with care – and do not allow them to take over myself. Meditation is a great help here as it frees you of any concepts. But of course talking about this, I have to use ‘some’ words.
Meanwhile physicist developed some astonishing different views of reality that have some striking similarity to some of the old scriptures that survived the burnings by churches. They are experimenting and are observing that cause and effect can be reversed or that that the observer is always influencing the experiment, or that an effect is observed with seemingly no cause, out of nothingness. Or that nature in itself is first of all of an undecided quality, more of a nebula of possibilities, and that it is the act of observing, of your attention, that puts one of the many possibilities into existence.
In plain language: “The laws governing the traffic of the roads do not apply to flying objects”.
So I would rather vote for expanding our knowledge and experiences instead of limiting our view in favor of some distant realization. We will find that limitations on one plane are confined to that realm and do not apply to higher dimensional realities. Or to put it differently, problems are not solved on the level they are created, but on a higher level of understanding.
Acknowledging your active role in this creation, we inevitably transform from the victim mentality in us – that was so cleverly tattooed on our skins at birth and engraved further through education – into a truly self-conscious creator of our world, of what we want to experience. Our inmost nature is creativity, creating out of the fulness of our hearts and minds.
Another problem I have with the buddhists is that they seem so passive, not doing anything anymore. As you get into a habit of observing and not reacting anymore, you can get easily into a passive life mode. This seems to be also a natural consequence of moving liberation into the future. This life becomes just a passing-station, not valuing it other then in terms of using it to get liberated somewhere in the future. You will find this passivity in other churches and belief systems as well.
If you find yourself leading a more and more passive life, it might be time to question your belief systems and become creative. Only as a creator are you in contact with the life-stream in you, only as a creator are you a whole human being, self responsible and self-luminous, free of any victim mentality.
Coming to peace
This concludes my experiences and impressions of a ten day course of Vipassana.
I would specially like to thank all the dedicated volunteers working in the kitchen, cleaning floors and toilets, and all the organization that had to be done, that made this course possible. This selfless dedication was a very unique experience for me. I never experienced so many honest and “staying-in-the-moment” people at one place. They have been practicing Vipassana during the day in action. They do not charge anything, and they give with all their heart not wanting anything from you, so that you can concentrate on meditation for the whole duration of ten days.
I have great respect to those sincere and honest individuals on the path of Vipassana and wish them with all my heart all well and good. I am aware of the fact that we do share a lot of common experiences.
I learned, again, to sit frozen for a long time, and by doing so became aware of the power of nonjudgmental observation. It helps greatly if you are plagued with stress, worries and any kind of distress and it will be a valuable tool for me in my tool-kit. Though I prefer to be much more relaxed while doing it.
Unfortunately I found also some ‘church’-experiences in this Vipassana movement. I may be a bit allergic here though, so bear with me. If this my personal impressions hurt you, let me tell you, that it is not my intention to hurt anyone, it is my intention to stay honest to myself and by doing so, not deceiving anyone around me. I do not doubt the sincerity of many fellow-meditators who meditated with me in the Purusha group of Maharishi, nor do I doubt the sincerity of Vipassana meditators.
The greatest pleasure of this course though is experienced by me now weeks afterwards. Now, by finally writing about it, I come to peace with the diverse experiences I made and inner reactions I observed.
It helped me to re-evaluate my own experience as I now value much more the treasures I have got in my personal meditation practice and the importance of attention and awareness in my life. I gained a broader horizon by slipping in other shoes for a short time. In the end though I have to realize, that my own shoes fit me best.
I do not want to be part of any structure that could be called an organization anymore. I value my freedom and I will think for myself. No one will tell me anymore what I should think, what I should belief, what I should do. And I respect anyone taking up that responsibility for himself, even if we may differ in opinion.