Two weeks ago, my partner and I completed a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat as taught by S.N. Goenka. This technique of meditation considers itself secular and non-religious, however it is a technique that traces back to the 2500-year-old teachings of the Buddha. Over the course of ten days, I along with about 100 others attendees meditated for about 8 hours/day while maintaining total silence. We were neither able to talk or make eye contact with one another nor distract ourselves with our usual methods, i.e. no phones, books, journal writing, or exercise. The focus of our experience was meditation and all other activities such as rest and meals were regimented to support our internal work.
Dread filled me in the days prior to the experience because of a fear of what would come up and whether I would be able to handle it. What I was undertaking would be emotionally and mentally challenging especially because of the solitude. Even before the meditation instruction began, I noticed how difficult it was to be entirely cutoff from the warmth and caring of my relationships with my friends and family. As I went deeper into the technique, different internal tensions were exposed.
In the Buddhist tradition, Vipassana means to see things as they really are or to have insight into the true nature of reality. In essence, Vipassana meditation is how to harness the wisdom of the body to tame the mind. Through careful, repeated, and encouraging lessons, I learned the technique. It quickly became apparent that my mind was unruly, agitated, and anxious. My mind did not want to focus on the object of attention; it instead desired to live in fantasy or projection. At times, the speed and nature of my thoughts was deeply terrifying. For the majority of the retreat, I struggled to make meaning out of my mind’s activity. Was I just totally insane? Thankfully, the kind and experienced teacher reassured me that my experience was normal and that these thoughts and emotions were, in fact, a sign that I was doing good work and moving through my accumulated tensions. He encouraged me to stick with the technique and have good faith that it would be helpful.
Vipassana and Buddhism in general, emphasize change. That everything is always changing and the more we become comfortable with this truth the less suffering we will experience. We create pain by either craving a sensation or emotion or by being averse to a sensation of emotion. If we sit with our body and mind enough, we gain insight into these relationships and no longer live a life of reactivity. The choices in life become clearer. Vipassana also emphasizes compassion. If we are to live a happy life we must also help those around us to be happy.
Somewhere around the seventh day, I gained confidence that I could handle the crazy activity of my mind and its’ accompanying emotions. I became less attached to the meaning of my thoughts and actually began to enjoy the meditations because it gave me an opportunity to do self-help work. Since the conclusion of the course, that enthusiasm has continued into my daily life as I have maintained the meditation practice.
In our culture, we emphasize work. We work our jobs, we work our bodies at the gym, and many of us work diligently at a hobby to have fun. We understand that work should payoff, that there should be some tangible benefit to the expense of our energy. Vipassana brings this same belief to the domain of the mind. If we think of mediation as work for the mind, then the payoff will be peace, balance, and happiness. Like any pursuit, the more we put in - the more we get out.
My ongoing exploration into therapy related topics.