Yesterday I returned from sitting the ten day vipassana meditation course for the second time at Dhamma Dipa. Apologies to those who have been trying to contact me – I think I’ve dealt with the backlog of messages now. You can read about my first experience here. To summarise: it’s ten days plus the evening of the day before and the morning of the day after. Nine and a bit full days are spent in Noble Silence, which means not communicating with other students even by gesture or eye contact. About ten hours each day are spent sitting in meditation.
It was tough the first time – why put myself through it again? Well the answer to that is complex. To start with it is recommended to repeat the course once a year. I didn’t feel the need to do that. However, after two years I began to appreciate the privilege of having ten days in which to focus on nothing else but meditating. My own practice has been steady at most mornings for a short meditation and then about three afternoons per week to sit for one hour. I was starting to feel a little stale with it so this was an opportunity to refresh and deepen my practice.
So was it tough the second time? Yes but in different ways. Knowing what to expect certainly helps. My existing practice meant that I don’t find it difficult to sit on the floor for an hour – although that can still become painful when repeating it hour after hour with just short breaks. Old students are asked to practice in a slightly different way to new students and this requires even more focus and sensitivity. This was frustrating at the start, but I did get it eventually.
The main aims of vipassana are to train us to:
- Recognise the changing nature of everything, that some things are pleasant and some unpleasant but either way they don’t last forever.
- To realise that our bodies respond to events with sensations which we find pleasant or unpleasant and that we can break out of old patterns of reaction by treating all sensations with equanimity. This leaves us free to act rationally rather than react out of habit.
- To see that the stream of internal dialogue that we have is not our ‘self’. Neither the sensations we generate nor reactive habits we have are the self either. There is no need to identify with them.
S.N. Goenka, the teacher, explains that many students get caught up playing games with the sensations. It took me almost to the end of the course to realise that I had also fallen into this trap. It had become relatively easy to deal with the pain of sitting still, and to feel connected to most of my body with sensations that if not pleasant, were at least not unpleasant. The danger is in becoming attached to that state – to cling to it, and to crave it when it disappears.
Sure enough, on the ninth day, in the first session I was all cocky and feeling that I’d worked my way steadily though the course. Unexpectedly I struggled to focus. I felt something dreadful going on in the left side of my trunk and it was so distracting. My mind played every trick in the book to avoid even acknowledging the sensation. Only after an hour and a half of this did the realisation strike: Oh, this is what he’s been talking about. It was like coming to from daydreaming at the back of the class to find the teacher shouting “YOU BOY! YES, I’M TALKING TO YOU!” Here was an unpleasant reality and it was my job to treat it no differently than the pleasant warmth from the blanket draped over my shoulders.
After breakfast I went for a short walk in the woods and admired the daffodils waving their heads again after several days of being blanketed by snow. Returning to the hall for the next session with some apprehension, I found to my surprise that the sensation was barely there. Lesson learned, I knew better than to rejoice as it continued to dissolve. Better just to observe, and to realise that I can be happy in myself in any case.
In the following session we practised metta meditation, which is a way of focussing outwards after the inward gaze of the previous nine days. I find it akin to Quaker worship in the way that it turns the mind toward the well being and happiness of others. With that done we were permitted to talk, and the course entered the wind-down stage. It was good do hear the experiences of others, and to realise that they are all different and all valid.
Will I be doing it again? Yes, probably. One option is to volunteer to serve on a course, which means working in the background to help run the centre for the meditators. It’s a way of expressing gratitude for the benefit of a course, by supporting others. I think I would like to do that.
Meanwhile: may all beings find true love, true peace, true happiness.