How do you feel?
Literally. How do you become aware of the physical sensations on your body?
This is a question I repeatedly asked myself while learning vipassana meditation. With vipassana, the physical answer is the key to understanding the emotional response to the same question.
The answer is the question itself. How Zen.
In this post, I share my experience doing a 10-day silent vipassana meditation retreat at Dhamma Thali in Jaipur, India. Forgive me if this runs long, but there’s a lot of ground to cover. I want to illustrate what it was like for anyone curious about vipassana, considering a retreat at this site, or any of my friends just wondering what I’ve been up to. Grab your meditation cushion and get comfy.
The Vipassana meditation technique
Vipassana meditation is an ancient technique rediscovered and popularized by the Enlightened One, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. His core message is a simple theory: by mastering control over one’s body, his or her mind can be liberated. In the centuries following the Buddha’s life, his teachings of dhamma (the path to enlightenment) spread from northern India throughout south Asia.
Simple and universal, the method has been passed from teachers to students for 25 centuries. In time, the practice disappeared from India. The vipassana technique was kept alight in Burma (Myanmar). Last century, SN Goenka rekindled the flame of vipassana in India and into the wider world.
Finding myself in India
Before Stephanie and I first plotted our around-the-world itinerary, India owned the top spot on our respective travel wishlists. Kindred spirits that we are, we both dreamed of entering a meditation retreat in this land of ancient and profound mysticism. When Stephanie proposed Dhamma Thali in Jaipur, the decision was made on the spot.
[Travelogue continuity note: there are still plenty of African adventures in the queue. Don’t forget to subscribe below!]
Several months and thousands of miles later, Steph and I arrived in Jaipur as bundles of nerves. Travel hassles in Nepal, Indian bureaucracy, and an ill-managed demonetization program had burned our fuses to the end. We even got into an uncharacteristic shouting match with rude line cutters. Twice.
The meditation retreat came at the right time.
Our home for 11 days
Dhamma Thali is located just outside the 15th-century fortress walls of Jaipur’s old city. Nestled in a peaceful valley, away from the noise and chaos of the city, meditators were outnumbered by monkeys, peacocks and a variety of birds. The grounds were the ideal setting for resting one’s mind.
After registration, men and women were divided to separate sides of the campus. Stephanie and I said our goodbyes and made our way to our rooms. Mine was 8’ x 8’ with decent light and an attached bathroom. The bed was a firm wooden plank with thin matting. It was modest, but I had envisioned a dirt cave with no windows, so I consider it a win.
All meals were provided. The simple vegetarian menu was designed to be healthy and unstimulating (read: bland). The foodie in me gave ratings of 3/10 to 5/10 for all the dishes, but the reality is it was nice to have wholesome meals prepared without having to think about it.
Meditation sessions were held in two large “Dhamma Halls,” each hosting about 80 people. Indian men in one, foreign men and all the women in the other. This meant Stephanie and I could sneak the occasional glance (and confirm the other hadn’t bailed out early). Meditations were guided by an audio recording of the teacher SN Goenka. In the evenings, we would watch a video discourse by Goenka. An assistant teacher was always on hand should we have any questions.
The ground rules
Vipassana meditation is serious work. They made this point clear on the website, the welcome emails, at registration, and in the reception discourse. As such, a number of rules are in place to ensure we remain fully committed to the practice for the entirety of the program.
From the code of conduct:
“The foundation of the practice is sīla – moral conduct. Sīla provides a basis for the development of samādhi – concentration of mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through paññā – the wisdom of insight.”
Everyone must abstain from: killing any being, stealing, all sexual activity, telling lies, all intoxicants. The isolation and vegetarian menu pretty much prevent anyone from breaking the rules.
The noble silence
The first rule about vipassana meditation is that you do not talk about vipassana meditation. Actually, you don’t talk at all. Everyone is required to remain silent until the end of the course. No speaking. No glances or gestures. No reading or writing or listening to music.
It’s an eery feeling, being around so many people and no one saying a word. Especially in the cavernous mess hall, with only the echo of 200 people eating their gruel. Occasionally, the thunderous cacophony of a dropped metal plate was a welcome break from the deafening silence.
The silence was particularly stark for me, having Stephanie at my side 24/7 for the past 8 months. Aside from a few days visiting Iguazu Falls early in the trip, there haven’t been many days of silence for either one of us.
Learning to breathe
SN Goenka’s soothing deep baritone sets the stage for each session:
Start with a calm and peaceful mind.
The first couple days were a prerequisite to the vipassana technique. It’s called anapana, the Pali (Buddha’s language) word for “mindfulness of breathing.” The instructions seem simple enough: breathe through my nose using my natural breath. That’s it. For an hour at a time we were to sit with our eyes closed and breathe normally. No regulated breathing. No mantra. No “think happy thoughts.” Just breathe and be aware of it.
Sounds easy, right? After all, I’ve been doing it nonstop from the moment I was born. Next to having a heartbeat, breathing is literally the thing I’ve done most in my life. Turns out, breathing naturally was actually kind of hard. At least, when I was being conscious of it.
In day-to-day life, if I’m thinking about my breath it’s because I’m facing a stressful situation, and the objective is always to take deep, intentional breaths to lower my heart rate. Similarly, with other forms of meditation, the focus is to control the breath in order to free the mind. With anapana breathing, one simply lets the breath come and go as it happens. No control, no judgment, just awareness.
It took some time to get used to letting go and breathing, but with 8 hour+ long sessions for 2 days, time was all I had.
My wandering mind
It became apparent that breathing was only part of the reason for the anapana prerequisite. Those two days were really about washing out all the distracting thoughts I took with me into the retreat. And boy was my head awash with thought going in.
The 2016 Presidential election had taken place just a week earlier, and I was a bit stunned by the result. I had spent much of the previous days reading editorial postmortems, finger-pointing, and a battery of call-to-arms. Plus there were future trip plans, blog posts, and freelance gigs all vying for my attention.
Stepping aside for a few days to break out of the stimuli-reaction cycle proved invaluable to my psyche. Unable to jump to the next link or make my feelings known in a comment box, all I could do was let these thoughts arise and pass away. I was getting my first taste of aniccha, the Pali word for impermanence.
Learning to sit
Anicca vata sankhara, uppadavaya-dhammino
Impermanence is the nature of all conditioned phenomenon. They arise and pass away, again and again, with great rapidity.
We were told to observe our sensations objectively. All sensations within the body are impermanent, fleeting. Because pleasant or painful feelings arise and disappear, reacting to them is only a temporary solution. If one can avoid reacting, he remains detached to the cravings and aversions, or sankharas, that form the root cause of our misery. Unfortunately, no one taught the message of impermanence to the pain in my legs.
During meditation sessions, I tried sitting in the lotus position: legs crossed with feet tucked under the opposite thigh (“Indian style” in the parlance of the casually racist 1980s). Inevitably, after 5 minutes a sharp pain would shoot out of my left hip. After 10 minutes, it would spread to my knee, ankle, and toes. I wasn’t alone, as the westerners among us struggled with posture. This isn’t meant to be torture, so the teacher and assistant teacher gave permission to shift posture if necessary.
Learning to feel
In each of the first 3 days, we were directed to focus our attention on our respiration. With each day, we were to hone in on a narrower and narrower spot. First, the breath broadly going in and out. Next, the sensation of that breath in the nostrils. On the third day, we focused on the tiniest area at the end of our nostrils. The idea is to sharpen our awareness and increase our sensitivity.
Feeling the sensation was easy. Staying focused was the bigger challenge. The monotony of it all started becoming a bit too much for me. I was getting frustrated. I started counting the minutes and hours until it would all be over. I’m 25% through this course. Can I do this 3 more times without going crazy?
After what seemed like an eternity learning anapana breathing, it was finally time to start practicing vipassana. The main event. Alright, let’s do this. Bring on the next challenge.
Focus your attention on the area just below your nostril, above your upper lip.
And…? What else? I’ve been working hard for 3 days and the big reveal is to move my attention down 1 centimeter? For crying out loud. If this wasn’t a silent meditation I was going to tell the audio tape exactly where this enlightening technique could focus its attention.
Day 4 was a lot like day 3, with the added fatigue of my untethered mind and dying leg. Sit still and suffer through the pain. Shift posture, lose my concentration and start over. It was a fidgety fight of self-inflicted misery on repeat for hours.
Mercifully, after the evening discourse we were given a new task.
Focus our attention at the top of the head until we feel any sensation, then work down the rest of the body continuously. Hot, cold, pressure, lightness, tickles, tingles, pricks, or pulses. If we felt anything, we could move on. Again, the idea is to simply be aware of the sensation, not react to it. Warm fuzzy feelings on my arm or pins and needles in my foot, they all get the same equanimous indifference. And so I observed…
The light touch of hair on my head, shirt on my shoulder, breeze on my arm, the texture of cloth touching my hand, fingers touching fingers, leg pressed to the floor, pinch in my hip, the flex of my knee, numbness in my toes.
Finding footing on the path of dhamma
Maintain perfect equanimity
I awoke the fifth day to the sound of the 4:30 session gong beckoning us to the dhamma hall. I had struggled mightily during the morning meditations, so I decided to sit this one out. Instead of rolling back to sleep, I found the will to meditate in my room. With a wall to lean back on and a new technique to practice, I got to work. It was the first morning I didn’t start out as a total grump.
Uppajjitva nirujjhanti, tesam vupasamo sukho.
When past sensations arise and are met with awareness/equanimity, their cessation brings true happiness.
The rest of the day was great. I scanned my body, working it over and over to sense every little sensation. I even did a fairly good job of being equanimous. Observing without reacting. After a positive night session to cap off my first good day, I walked out of the dhamma hall feeling like I had taken my first solid steps on the path of dhamma.
Then a monkey peed on my head from a tree above.
Fuck that monkey. My equanimity has limits.
Monkey pee notwithstanding, I was making progress. The sixth day went along smoothly. I moved my meditation cushion to the back so I could use the wall to take pressure off my hip. Things seemed to be hitting their stride.
Aneka-jati samsaram sandhavissam anibbisam, Gahakarakam gavesanto dukkha-jati-punappunam.
Through countless births in the cycle of existence I have run, in vain seeking the builder of this house; and again and again I faced the discomfort of new birth.
Alas, as the wheel of dhamma rolls up, it must turn back down equally. The next few days were a long slog of restlessness and waning focus. The monotony of the experience seemed to drag on forever.
The light touch of hair on my head, shirt on my shoulder, breeze on my arm, the texture of cloth touching my hand, fingers touching fingers, leg pressed to the floor, pinch in my hip, the flex of my knee, numbness in my toes. From head to feet and feet to head. Again. Again. Again.
Without the incremental intensifications, my sense of purpose eroded. Maybe I was wasting my time. I was too unfocused and too undisciplined to make it work. Worse, I got upset with myself for not having focus and discipline. I felt like I was missing the whole point of vipassana.
Maybe I didn’t have to look too hard. Vipassana teaches one not to crave or desire the sensations. Just be aware. Here I was getting frustrated because I was looking for progress in the sensations themselves. On a physical level, I could feel my body with detachment (leg pain willing) relatively easily. On the mental level, however, I was reacting with a desperate need for improvement. It’s the craving that was driving me nuts, not the actual lack of new sensations.
Gahakaraka! Dithosi, puna geham na kahasi. Sabba te phasuka bhagga, gahakutam visankhitam. Visankhara-gatam cittam, tanhanam khayamajjhaga.
Oh housebuilder! Now you are seen. You shall not build a house again for me. All your beams are broken, the ridgepole is shattered. The mind has become freed from conditioning; the end of craving has been reached.
I wouldn’t call this a breakthrough. But I will take it as evidence supporting the underlying theory behind dhamma. Remove the attachment to craving or aversion, and you free yourself from misery.
Sabbe sankhara anicca’ti. Yada pannaya passati, atha nibbindati dukkhe. Esa maggo visuddhiya.
Impermanent are all compounded things. When one perceives this with insight, then one turns away from suffering; this is the path of purification.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t make that realization and all of a sudden gain total control of my mental cravings. I didn’t regain my focus and meditate stronger. The last 3 days were full of day dreams and scattershot thoughts.
On the 9th day, the final day of intense meditation, we were instructed to peer deeper into the body to feel the sensations under our skin and throughout our muscles and bones. Think of it like a mental MRI machine, but instead of images, the feedback is all touch. Over the course of the day, I was able to control my focus and create a full body map of sensations. This happened only twice for about twenty minutes. Putting attachment concerns aside, this was a trippy and very pleasant experience.
Sabbesu cakkavajesu yakkha deva ca brahmano, Yam amhehi katam punnam, sabba sampatti sadhikam. Sabbe tam anumoditva, samagga sasane rata, pamada rahita hontu arakkhasu visesato.
May the holy entities of all the universes rejoice in this wholesome meditation process performed by us, which is productive of all happiness. May they all, unitedly devoted to the teaching, be without negligence, especially in giving protection.
Learning to speak
The tenth and final full day was called Metta or Love Day. The message was all about how to carry the lessons back into the real world. Namely, by treating everyone with selfless compassion.
After the morning session the vow of noble silence was lifted and we were allowed to speak with each other. We still had a meditation schedule, but the rigor and discipline was completely shattered. Cellphones pierced the quietude and everyone was late to everything. With the silence lifted, everyone just wanted someone to talk to. It was fun getting to chat with some of the other meditators.
When Stephanie and I finally reunited, all we could do was laugh at our shared experiences. Her take on the food and morning chants and the inner frustrations were extra funny to me because I was thinking the exact same things verbatim.
Punna bhagamidam c’annam, samam dadama karitam. Anumodantu tam sabbe, medini thatu sakkhike.
We share with all equally the merit of this meditation and other wholesome deeds. May they all accept with joy our sharing, and may the earth stand witness to it!
All things must pass
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I wish I could tell you there was some enlightening conclusion at the end of the course, but that’s not really how this works. The path to enlightenment is long, and traveling it takes sustained effort. It’s too soon to know what lasting impact the retreat will have on me, but I definitely feel better for it.
On a superficial level, it was great to unplug my mind and body from a lot of the distractions and bad habits I’d found myself entrenched in. Namely, the break made me realize how unhealthy my internet and caffeine habits were. Those are two areas where just a little mindfulness can go a long way to prevent a cascade of other deleterious effects.
On a deeper level, I now have a new tool set with which I can apply to daily living. I plan to continue meditating, and hopefully with time I can improve in the technique. At an experiential level, I’m more aware that mental stresses are the manifestation not just of bodily impulses, but of my own reactions to them. With this knowledge, I feel I can live more mindfully.
Bhavatu sabbe mangalam
May all beings be happy!
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