Vipassana meditation is something that I practice in my daily life. It is the meditation to cultivate self-awareness, and the capability to observe the sensations in the body without reacting to them – with the understanding that it is our reactions, in the form of craving or aversion, that lead to suffering.
I still remember the first time I sat at Dhamma Dipa in Hereford, Wales. It was my second 10-day meditation retreat, and I had just finished my MBA. I was freaking out about the job I didn’t have, and how I would survive with student loans while living in the expensive city of London. The train ride across England and Wales was beautiful. Seeing the rolling countryside, it felt like an adventure and an escape from the anxiety – even though I knew what to expect.
It turned out to be very different from my first sit. In my first sit, I had no expectations. A fellow classmate was organizing a meditation trip to India, it sounded cool, and I jumped on a plane without really thinking on what I was about to do.
Over the first few days of my second sit, I felt disappointed that my determination and focus to sit didn’t exist. I was meditating “worse” than my first sit! My mind was full of useless thoughts. I was unsettled and so was the weather. It rained every… single… day. Perhaps you can imagine the aversion I had towards rainy cold weather, and grumbling thoughts – stiff from meditating and just wanting to walk and stretch my legs.
The environment at the Vipassana retreat is designed to help you meditate. It’s challenging enough to gathering the courage to look at your thoughts and sensations and say, “this too will pass”, without reacting and giving it the energy that perpetuates the pain. It’s super tricky, because your mind habitually reacts. Reacting is a natural process of building habits, which helps us live efficiently. But the source of our suffering springs from this same efficiency.
Vipassana has a simple premise – eliminate suffering by observing sensations without reacting. The meditation practice is to experience what this means at the level of your body. It takes conscious insight and practice. For me, it clicked on the 7th day of that retreat.
As the instructions build up over the 10 days, you’re asked to sit still for an hour and observe your sensations – which means even if it is painful or uncomfortable. I’m not built for sitting on the ground, and maybe that’s a good thing — because after 20 minutes, my back begins to ache. I’d wiggle my back and stretch a bit and the ache would go away for five minutes or so.
But in this particular hour, I had this strange thought, “what happens if I don’t move? How long can I physically sit without moving?”
And I gave it a shot. Sure enough the back pain started. I watched it. Two minutes, still there. Five minutes, even stronger. Seven minutes, about the same as five minutes – painful, but now it’s my will versus the pain, and I’ve lasted this long, so why stop? Then around 10 or 15 minutes, something changed — quite possibly one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had in my life. The pain evaporated. Evaporated is a good word, because the stretchy striking sensation in my back that hurt moments before was still there. But the part of that sensation that was painful dissolved. The sensation in my back was the same, but now it was about as uncomfortable as the feel of my clothes against my skin. I could pass my attention over it without getting stuck on it. It was no longer a battle of will, because there was no pain. The pain had dissolved.
This experience was transformational in my practice because for the first time I saw the suffering as separate from the sensation. And when I went through it became clear how this realization applies to every other aspect of my experience.
It occurred to me that I was creating suffering from dwelling in disappointment about the quality of my meditation… and observing this became part of my practice. As did observing my grumbling thoughts about the weather.
The discourses speak of cultivating wisdom, and this is what happens, because you start to realize how you’re reacting and dwelling on your thoughts or sensations… and you begin to notice what forces are at play within your body, and how it leads to suffering.
Not to say that I was instantly enlightened and have since been living in bliss, free from all suffering. We all have our own path and time to take; and while I started this practice over 10 years ago, I’m still developing my daily practice and still learning. Even though I know what to do, my mind still wanders and I will dwell on sensations in a way that perpetuates the suffering. But it is less. And bit by bit, I find new ways to observe without reacting, and progress is made.
On the final day of the retreat, the rain cleared, and this beautiful full rainbow stretched from one end to the other. It felt like I had accomplished something. I simply smiled, knowing it didn’t matter. I took delight in what I was experiencing, but with the understanding that the moment too would pass. It was beautiful.
Also published on Medium.