10 Days in Silent Meditation
This year, I participated in a Vipassana meditation course outside of Mexico City. Meditation is becoming more popular in the West. One of the oldest meditation traditions is a technique called Vipassana. This form of meditation was created by Gautama Buddha 2,300 years ago, preserved in Burma for thousands of years, then brought to India and eventually the West by S.N. Goenka. Vipassana focuses on respiration and awareness of one's body sensations. Using the technique, Buddha attained enlightment while meditating under a tree. According to historic Buddhist texts, he held his posture for seven weeks.
Welcome to life as a munk or nun for ten days. Vipassana courses have a reputation for being hardcore. During the course, men and women are separated, and only come together for the group meditations. Food is prepared, two meals per day. No speaking. No reading. No journaling. No eye contact. No physical contact.
Your only job is to meditate. Wake up is at 4 a.m. The schedule gives time for ten hours of meditation per day, some of which can be done in a private room. Most students at the course are actively meditating for over eight hours per day.
Entering the Vipassana
It felt amazing to stand on the sacred land of the Vipassana center. Similar feeling as walking into a church or standing at the top of a mountain. You become part of a spiritual community where people have come for years to meditate and look inward.
I was given advice by a seasoned Vipassana meditator that whatever comes to the mind during the meditations, remember and trust that it is exactly what I need at that moment. Do not fight the emotions, thoughts, or sensations. Accept whatever arises.
My main intention during these ten days was to meet the subconscious mind, soul, or spirit. Another reason I wanted to do it was to disconnect from technology and the modern world in order to reconnect with myself. I was there to learn one of the most historic meditation techniques. I wanted to identify what may be holding me back from living the highest form of self. Would this time in silence allow me to see with a new perspective? Could this have an impact on my relationships, lifestyle, addictions, mental barriers, work, or creativity?
Exploration of Consciousness
This meditation course will challenge the student to navigate discomfort. Through these experiences, one learns how to be peaceful in diverse environments. As well as the power of awareness, concentration, determination, and focus.
Connect to the conscious oneness, the subtle vibrational energy of life. The eternal light and force. Pure source. At a certain point, I surrendered to this Vipassana. I gave my body to the earth. I broke through my mental fears. I became still.
The Buddha's meditation technique reminded me of some mindfulness body-scanning exercises, the kind of short guided meditation where you are told to focus your awareness on different parts of your body. In Vipassana, you are given tools for perceiving more advanced body sensations. When the body is absolutely still, and attention is focused extensively on one area, the mindful observer interacts with the pure life force. For me, this felt like being introduced to the dark formless foundation of my being.
After a few days of focusing on the nostrils and upper lip, Day 4 in the ten-day course begins to give instructions on how to feel sensations on every part of the body, piece by piece, inch by inch. Could it be true that the body is constantly sending nervous signals to the brain every moment? We seem to have habituated to these topical sensations in normal living, but with awareness in meditation the subtle sensations are felt all over the body. They have depth and intensity.
In the course, eventually the student advances the sensation scanning technique to a pure flow from head to feet and feet to head. Stopping to isolate on each body part when necessary. For me, there were brief moments of total body buzzing, vibrations, electricity, white light, and white sound. I had occasional brief visual hallucinations, sometimes faces appearing for seconds. We were taught to not crave the good (bliss, peace) and not avert from the bad (discomfort, pain).
Practicing this neutrality allows one to experience eradication of deep conscious negativity. It takes time for this process to happen. Ten days are just an introduction.
I felt like a fluid system of nerve receptors. One continuous network between the brain and nervous system, communication between the central and peripheral nervous systems.
Atoms are the building blocks of matter. Modern science accepts the theory that atoms are composed of mostly empty space. While practicing the full-body Vipassana technique, I felt that I was sending vibrational waves of consciousness through my molecular composition. This 'flow state' feeling occasionally occurred in deep meditation towards the end of the course; however, most of my time was dominated by my chattering mind.
The free flow was beautiful. Buzzing electric consciousness. Pure activation of the nervous system.
Mind Over Matter and Pain Management
During the first days, the body needs to adjust to the meditation postures. It is common to have pain during the first three days, especially in the knees and back. Taking rest when necessary and conservative positioning of my meditation cushions helped me get through it.
After a few days of warming up the body, the schedule calls for three hour long group meditations of strong determination. The recommendation is for the meditator to keep their eyes closed, hands together, and legs folded for the entire hour of silence.
Personally, the first six sittings were tough and I had to change position at least once. However, I successfully completed the sittings of strong determination during days 6-10, about 15 total hours.
During these sittings, the meditator witnesses the mind beg for attention. After forty minutes or so, the pain comes and the mind screams for a change of posture. Primary pain is physical. Secondary pain is psychological.
With practice, the observer of this mind is able to decide whether or not they respond to the mind's desires. This practice of non-responsiveness is a form of equanimity.
We sometimes talk about our individual pain tolerances. My mother, for example, always told me that I had a high pain tolerance compared to my siblings and other children. Why does this phenomenon occur? I believe it is an example of the psychological pain, when the mind can make the pain worse.
According to a neuroscientist at Wake Forest University of Medicine, individual differences in pain sensitivity are "supported by genetically determined hardware but heavily modified by psychological and cognitive factors." The author describes how certain conditions like anxiety and a negative outlook on life have a positive correlation with subjective pain.
Understanding psychological pain is extremely useful in life. Our minds are convincing. When we crave sugar, the mind tells us to eat the sweets. But most of us have the ability to recognize this tendency as a craving, something that comes and goes. In the same way that the observer of the mind decides to be equanimous to the mind's desire for sugar when you walk a candy shop, one can remain equanimous to back pain during meditation.
This is a big deal. Essentially, you can learn how to recognize and slowly detach yourself from your mind and its human conditioning for addiction, aversion, craving, desire, etc.
At Day 5 of the course, I was feeling a fever coming. Working diligently with the techniques, my mind and body were exhausted. I reached a wall. That night I had the feeling that I wanted to talk to the male leader about taking extra rest the next day if I became sick overnight. I was conserving my energy and focusing my awareness on healing.
The next morning I felt better and took deep rest during the breaks. I recovered strong, feeling like a spiritual warrior. For me, this was an example of how psychological awareness can speed up healing and recovery with the immune system. A related study published in the International Journal of Yoga found that transcendental meditation had a positive effect on some cells within the lymphatic system, suggesting that meditation can improve immune system health. This kind of top down effect shows the potential power of awareness and meditation.
If I Am Not My Mind, Then Who Am I?
Some spiritual traditions believe that we are consciousness experiencing life as human beings. We are not only the physical. The body, senses, and mind are just tools for our conscious spirit. Maybe it is fair to call this kind of being our soul.
At times, it feels like we are the mind. It can feel like we are the cravings, the suffering, the attachment. But it seems that these human experiences are superficial, surface level, and distractions.
This perspective interested me. After the Vipassana and spending a month at Hridaya Meditation and Yoga community in Mazunte, this idea of a greater consciousness started to make more sense to me. Could this be the God that many religions speak of? No one has a way to prove an answer. Allow this practice of self-inquiry to serve as a healthy contemplation.
Life After Vippasanna
My mind ran wild for ten days. I was thinking mostly in the future, creating stories and potential paths for the next weeks, months, and years to come. I also expressed forgiveness for some shadows of my past.
Before I entered the Vipassana, I told my friends and family that I was going to a meditation retreat. Upon leaving, it felt more like a spiritual boot camp. Tough love. Rapid spiritual growth.
I was hiking the Berkeley hills one day with a friend in the Bay Area. We looked down at San Francisco Bay and saw the winds create significant chop on the water. Contrarily, I thought about the clear reflections of mountains on the still water of alpine lakes. Nature taught me this concept: In order to reflect, one must be still. Calm the mind. Play in nature. Learn from the great spirit.
During the Vipassana, I was inspired to get my first tattoo. I chose a native american arrowhead on my left arm, with the tip of the arrowhead pointing towards the ground. The peaceful warrior. The spiritual warrior who knows when to use of the strength of compassion to better the tribe. I wanted this to serve as a reminder to my self about my dedication to this path of integrity, good will, peace, honesty, and strength.
-Written by Benye Thompson