Ten Day Vipassana Course: An Intensive Confrontation With Myself
Watch your thoughts,
they become your destiny.
My whole life has been a more or less successful quest for wisdom and happiness. By what would later turn out to be a stroke of luck, this quest brought me to The University of Northampton. Before the 10-day Vipassana retreat, however, I doubted the decision: what if I had simply stayed at home? Would I have not been much happier than I am now? Thoughts about the green fields of my home base Amsterdam had made the current situation appear hopeless. I felt unhappy and generally uncomfortable; and it was me who was to blame for this faulty decision that has caused all this misery, and the outside world for not living up to my expectations.
One thing was sure: I was not living up to my potential. (This might have been due to the Jonah Complex). At the same time I was not doing anything to change it. I smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, and consumed drugs to avoid reality and I felt guilty and ashamed about my whole being. Contact with my body and emotions was virtually nonexistent. And to top it all: I was aware of my tendency for worrying about the fact that I worried while I was supposed to be happy.
John Welwood writes in Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation that our minds are mostly in a state of a crowded, narrow thoroughfare that is choked with traffic trying to move in different directions. One thought moves in one direction, and other thoughts move against it. (“I’m angry”—“I shouldn’t be angry”—“Why shouldn’t I be angry?”—“But what will people think?”). Although I would have considered my thoughts to be way more profound than the description above, I have to confess that my “philosophizing” was indeed not much more than such a traffic jam of inner oppositions.
In a nutshell: I clung to past pleasurable experiences that were no longer there for comfort and security, I rejected most of what was happening in the current moment because it was difficult and painful, and I had desensitized myself so that I did not have to cope with my emotions and feel the whole problem at all. The time was ripe to face reality. This is where Vipassana comes in.
Vipassana literally means seeing things as they are, not as you would like them to be. It is the name of a meditation technique to eradicate suffering that was rediscovered by Gautama the Buddha 2500 years ago. The Buddha famously said that peace comes from within and that we should not seek it without. It is by looking inside and getting insight into once own ever-changing nature of body and mind that real happiness and harmony can be obtained. By observing the bodily sensations as they are, while not categorizing or identifying with them and understanding their temporary nature, we initiate a natural process of self-purification through self-observation.
The technique of Vipassana is based on the Eightfold Noble Path (the Way that leads to self-awakening), which consists of sīla (ethical conduct), samādhi (mental discipline), and paññā (wisdom). The sīla consists of abstaining from stealing; harming other beings; exploiting the passions; the use of intoxicants, and falsifying speech.
Not being able to lie proved to be the hardest part for me. I was quite used to be slightly dishonest about myself and past experiences so I would look better. Luckily Noble Silence (silence of body, speech, and mind) was observed so there was no way to impress my fellow meditators.
Besides observing the sīla, samādhi was practiced by focusing on one object so we tamed our wild monkey minds. Our minds normally jump from past memory to future fantasy and are extraordinarily out of control, and according to the Buddhist teaching, controlling this wild mind is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself and humanity. The pioneering Western psychologist William James said in Principles of Psychology that “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will. No one is a compos sui [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.” The first four days of Anapana (observing the natural in going and outgoing breath) can be considered to be such a practical education that James was unaware of.
Practicing samādhi and observing the sīla are prerequisites for paññā: the understanding of the three truths of anicca (impermanence), anattā (egolesness or no-self) and dukkha (uncomfortableness) through insight meditation (Vipassana).
On an intellectual level all three truths are seemingly evident: it is clear that in life things are impermanent and that everything will pass (and if it does not you will pass anyway); that there is discomfort in the world; and modern science has made it clear that the idea of a fixed self or subjective observer that ‘does things’ is illusory (see for an overview Consciousness Explained). However, the technique of Vipassana is not an intellectual game that can be understood by thinking about it. According to the teaching, the only way to truly understand these truths is by knowing them on the experiential level. Vipassana is about “having” the experience, not using the intellect to “figure it out”.
An example to illustrate this is given by the teacher S.N. Goenka in one of his lectures. He states that when we see someone in a restaurant eating a meal we can imagine how delicious the food is and feel the water running into our mouths, but to truly experience the meal we have to eat it ourselves. In the same manner we can observe a fully liberated person, see that he is happy and that we would also like to experience life that way, but we cannot ask him to liberate us by touch or give us one insight that will magically heal all our discomfort. To do this, we have to walk the path ourselves and fight our own individual battle.
All force is tension against the stream
The battle we have to fight during a Vipassana meditation is against the defilements in the mental-physical structure that condition the way we react to arising situations. In Buddhist thought, it is the attachment to sensations by craving for or rejecting them that is the root of all suffering. By observing the bodily sensations as they are, objectively, without adding judgments of craving or aversion on top of it, we can slowly began to eradicate these unconscious habit patterns of the mind (saṅkhāras).
This relationship between mind and matter became strikingly clear when on the eight day I woke up with a numb spot in the lower left corner of my heart. It was as if my heart was a pizza and one slice was stolen. When I pointed my attention towards it, a stream of negative thoughts from my throat to my brain gave me a headache. After 13 hours of dispassionate observation it suddenly disappeared. My whole life cleared up. My heart felt as pure as what the Sufi mystics would call a polished mirror. I perceived reality in the clearest way I could imagine. I felt like a walking synchronicity.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.
In the lecture later that evening S.N. Goenka stated that on the last days it is normal for old saṅkhāras to come up. I have no idea what past experience this saṅkhāra entailed, but I am glad that it is gone. And as the teacher explained it is not important what it was: when you are washing your clothes you are not wondering where every individual stain comes from, you just want to get them clean. This experience has convinced me that the relationship between heart and mind is unbelievably delicate, and that right attention and effort can release blocked emotions that are stored in the body.
Another learning moment came up when I could not control myself and against the rules decided to write my insights down so I could tell others about them. This turned into an unhealthy preoccupation with my own comparative spiritual status, made me feel special and chosen, and gave me a strong need to be positively reinforced. An excellent example of spiritual narcissism, which Jorge Ferrer in Revisioning Transpersonal Theory : A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality defines as “the misuse of spiritual practices, energies, or experiences to bolster self-centered ways of being”. I am aware of this tendency in me, but it is not always easy to let it go.
Your only problem with 10 days of Vipassana is that after four days you can’t get out to tell me?
-My Hungarian friend
According to John Welwood, the manner in which I started to live in my own story would be “a way of separating [myself] from reality, standing apart from it, and substituting a mind-created virtual reality in its place.” As Welwood observes this ability to create a story about what is happening is a function of the ego; which is a way of trying to be.
The feeling of being in charge of your life: the story you tell yourself to frantically control the uncontrollable is not really control. By adding a story over situations there is no one behind the steering wheel of your experience, you are only making predictions. Only what is true to culture is true to nature, as the microbiologist Ludwik Fleck puts it in his book Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. By frantically trying to control the uncontrollable by doing or imagining things – by playing the social game – reality is not seen as it is, only as it appears to be.
The less interconnected the system of knowledge, the more magical it appears and the less stable and more miracle-prone is its reality.
– Ludwik Fleck
A 10-day Vipassana retreat is not all fun and games. As Guy Claxton notes in his article Mindfulness, Learning and the Brain it is not an infrequent mistake of meditators to over-identify with an observer of thoughts (i.e., ‘the watcher’ who looks at thoughts passing by like clouds). It interesting that a similar warning can be found in the roadmap to liberation of the philosopher Hegel. Claxton and Hegel admonish that such an observer of thoughts is also an illusory mental construct with which we should not identify.
When I can let go of the controlling inclination to “prove myself” or forcefully help others, it feels as if I am in contact with a deeper reality than perceived in everyday life. This egoless state of pure awareness in the present moment is a way of being wherein I can let go of almost all control and concepts and experience life fully. However, in everyday life it is healthy to hold on to some goals and concepts; by being in a state of ultimate bliss and wandering around like a madman, it is virtually impossible to have stable interpersonal relationships or function in Western society.
Other people have what they need;
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about,
like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.
– Tao Te Ching verse 20
As Welwood observes, the difference between the need for a healthy ego and the concept of egolessness epitomizes the difference between the psychologies of East and West. In the West there has always been worked with the development of the strength of the ego (the reality-principle of personality), while in the East the ego is essentially an illusion and unnecessary. Culture has a large influence on the development of the ego, and in Western society the ego is filled with the desire to “go somewhere or get something”, that is not yet here in the present moment. This desire is what makes a great deal of Westerners preoccupied with chasing after something that can only be attained in the distant or infinitely distant future (e.g., heaven, girls/boys, diploma’s, jobs, status, or sublime objects of ideology) which will ultimately not live up to our expectations. There will always be something lacking if we do not change on the inside. According to Eastern thought this is an unsatisfactory and inauthentic way of living. It is only by learning how to let go of those desires that we can realize that there is nothing missing and fully experience the mystery that life is.
Before the retreat I was a sufferer of these (un)conscious desires for something that was not in Northampton. I think that all those desires ultimately came down to a search for love that was lacking, and I was trying to find it outside of myself (e.g., friends, relationship, other environment). The Vipassana meditation taught me how to love and accept myself and to stop worrying. I know that it won’t last forever, but I can genuinely say that I am happy. I live life more spontaneously and confidently, and am inexpressibly grateful for the experience.
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.
It is highly recommended to learn Vipassana from a qualified teacher! To do so take up a 10-day course and learn the technique from S.N. Goenka and his assistant teachers. There are Vipassana centres all over the world. Visit www.dhamma.org and find out for yourself. It’s free!