In the spring of 2018 I took a sabbatical from my Yoga and Pilates teaching schedule to travel to India and Japan for some spiritual endeavors. I was in search of Himalayan mountains, Buddhism, meditation and spirituality. Before departing I had reservations for a vipassanā meditation course, a Tibetan Buddhism course, a week at a yoga ashram and a week at a Zen Buddhist retreat. But before all of the meditation and hard work, the first thing on my itinerary was a week of trekking in the Indian Himalayas.
My trip to India started with me landing in Delhi and spending a night before my flight to Dehradun in Northern India. Once I was in Dehradun I met up with my trekking group and newfound friends. Everyone in my trekking group was Indian and welcomed me to their country. We had a great time getting to know each other while driving 12 hours up and down some harrowing and busy roads into the Himalayas. Early on I realized India is a place of contradictions. While we were driving through some remote Himalayan foothills with sharp drop offs and lots of open undeveloped hilllsides, whenever we came to a small town or village there would be lots of commotion and movement by the roads. All of my travel by road had this contrast of vast undeveloped land beyond the road, but bustling markets and towns near the road. It seemed that there were little shops everywhere with people trying to squeak out a living.
After a week of hiking in the Himalayas and making new friends I arrived at my next destination of McLeod Ganj, near Dharamsala, the home of the 14th Dalai Lama in exile. Because this is where the Dalai Lama settled after fleeing Tibet, there is a large Tibetan community in the surrounding area. The climate was perfectly temperate since McLeod Ganj sits between the snow covered Himalayan Dhauladar range and the hot and humid plains below. I was comfortable here due to it being warm by day but cold at night, with the weather changing frequently, similar to the weather of my Californian coastal home. After a few days in McLeod Ganj it was time for the vipassanā course I had signed up for, the main reason I had travelled so far from home.
Sitting above McLeod Ganj, nestled in between tall thin pine trees, sits the two meditations retreats I was to spend the next 20 days in. After arriving and getting assigned my dorm I was definitely taken back by the poor accommodations. I had expected Spartan-like rooms and facilities but I was not ready for the poor quality of the facilities. The heavily used sheets, disgusting pillows and hard metal frame bed (along with squat toilets and unclean bathrooms) made the idea of calling this place home for the next ten days very unwelcoming. Metal fences surrounded the retreat grounds, as well as a metal caging around the walkways that were covered with a flexible and durable plastic. The families of monkeys that lived in the trees in the surrounding area would climb and run over the fences and walkways. The buildings were mostly concrete and at the center there was a concrete yard with metal benches. All of this gave the meditation retreat a sense of being in a prison amongst pine trees.
A vipassanā course is a ten-day silent meditation retreat that involves no talking, reading, writing, listening to music or gesticulating non-verbal communication to other participants. The meta-day is the first day when you check in, get assigned a dorm, meditation seat number and start the silence with the first evening’s meditation at 8-9pm before sleep and the start of the first of ten days. After years of learning about Eastern meditation, philosophy and spiritual practices, and months of planning my sabbatical, I was full of motivation heading into the retreat. However on the meta-day I was already struggling. I had had some food poisoning a few days earlier and after two days of throwing up I was still feeling a bit ill. During the orientation it was taking all my will and energy just to be present. As soon as we finished the orientation and started the noble silence we were walking to the mediation hall to begin our first meditation session, I was hit with the sudden and urgent need to vomit. Luckily everyone was walking ahead of me and there was a tree close by. I ducked behind the tree and began regurgitating out the last bit of food and liquid in my body. After that I felt much more clear-headed and was mentally ready to start.
Day 1 starts with a 4am wake up bell and 430am-630am meditation before breakfast. The meditation sessions were 10 hours broken up each day, starting at 430am and finishing at 9pm. The meditation instructions were given in Hindi first and English second through old tapings of S.N. Goenka (1924-2013). The entire technique for the first three days is to sit up-right but relaxed, focus your concentration on a small area of the upper lip as air passes through the nostrils, try to move as little as possible and if the mind wanders do nothing but refocus on the breath. This sharpens the mind for the latter stages of vipassanā.
The first day was the hardest for me. The reality of being voluntarily stuck in a situation where I was suppose to be sitting and meditating for 10 hours a day was really sinking in. I could sit still without moving for maybe half an hour before my body was aching. And while I could sit still that long most of the people right around me could not sit still for nearly as long. The commotion of other people changing their position, coughing, or getting up and leaving the meditation hall was hard for me to ignore. I observed that when there were moments of longer silence my nerves would really settle, so that if someone coughed or suddenly moved a bunch and their jacket made a lot of noise my whole body felt more sensitive to the noise.
Breakfast, lunch and tea at 5pm were the only breaks. Every other break was 5 to 10 minutes long, just long enough to go to the bathroom or stretch your legs. Lunch break would feel particularly long, with a whole hour to just sit and think and do nothing before having to try to focus the mind again in meditation. In your mind you keep reassessing how many more days left you have. When the answer is still 9, 8 or 7 that is a real daunting thought at times.
After day three the meditation technique changes to body scanning. The technique is to use your mind’s eye to scan two to three inches of your body at a time, starting from the crown of the head working your way around and down the body to the soles of the feet and back up again. In ancient India, in the time of Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha, the teachings from the yogis and spiritual seekers was that everything is sound, energy and vibration, and therefore everything is in constant flux. This is an insight that physics has shown to be true, that solid objects have more space than matter and that matter in objects is in constant motion. The ancients had this insight long before science proved this to be the case. The Buddha is the one who taught the technique of vipassanā, which teaches this insight. The technique of vipassanā allows one to become aware of the physical sensation of fluctuation in the body. By watching fluctuations in the body arise and end, and by having no reaction to these sensations, we can break our habitual conditioning to desire and aversion and ultimately to suffering.
One of the four noble truths in Buddhism is that nothing in the universe is permanent. At the end of each instruction Goenka would chant annica, annica, annica (impermanence, impermanence, impermanence). In Indian metaphysics the idea of reality being made up of vibration (spanda), and the idea of impermanence (annica), were common in the time of Siddhartha the Buddha. What is unique to the Buddha is the approach he taught to relieve suffering. Vipassanā meditation means special insight meditation. It is a mental technique that is non-secular, universally applicable to mankind and scientific in its approach. He taught that the way to relieve suffering is to undo the conditioning of the dualistic approach to life of having either aversion or attachment to experience. By having a reaction to a thought, an emotion or an experience, you are conditioning the body to have a similar reaction again in the future. You plant a seed of desire or dislike in your mind that you water every time you have a similar experience, thought or emotion. This makes the seed grow into a tree and have fruit that has seeds for more trees of the same kind. Meditation techniques that focus on a mantra or a visualization technique get the mind to focus on one thing. These kinds of meditation techniques train the mind to focus, but they don’t deal with the cause of suffering. This is like trimming or pruning a tree, it doesn’t get to the root and the tree will grow back. The way to remove the seed of your habituations towards attachment and aversion is to experience the sensations that arise in the body, have neither an aversive nor an attached reaction to these sensations, and then observe the sensations leaving the body, as all phenomena are subject to cessation. It is this special insight into the nature of reality that is not understood intellectually but rather experientially; that relieves suffering. This is an understanding that can only be understood by experience. A simple intellectual understanding of this process is not enough to relieve suffering. What cannot be perceived in the body cannot be understood in the mind.
By day 5, 6 and 7 I was feeling settled and able to benefit from the vipassanā. I could sit for an hour without moving and apply the technique of body scanning for 15-20 minutes without my mind drifting into some thought process. I could observe sensations in my body arising and threatening to overtake me if I reacted to them and gave them attention. I could observe these sensations fading away leaving space in the body and an expansive feeling of peace. Here, mid way through the retreat, I could feel that my mind had settled a lot leaving my senses feeling sharp. I could watch an itch arise on my skin and not react to it. It is hard to describe the feeling of peace from observing a sensation and not being forced to react to it, not feeling pulled in one direction or the other.
I was also getting accustomed to eating just rice and chapatti. Since I had food poisoning at the start of the retreat I had no appetite for India spices and ate just the fruit, white rice and chapatti. Being from California, a chapatti is very similar to a tortilla. By day 5 I was use to the blandness of my food, which I felt was bringing me into balance. Since my taste buds were getting use to having only bland food I noticed how much flavor the fruit. Later, near the end of the vipassanā, I began to eat the Indian dishes. The extreme increase in flavor from the white rice was intense and made eating feel like a new experience.
While I did achieve the ability to still for an hour meditation session, there were still some sessions I would need to stand up and leave the meditation hall for a break. This was usually during the middle of the day when one of the sessions was two hours long. I’d walk up and down the short walkway to move my legs or I’d find a sunny spot through the trees and let my face soak in some sunrays. I was warned before the retreat that past things might arise that you have to work with. While nothing traumatic arouse for me I did notice that the memories that did come up for me I could recall with great vividness. Thinking back on past times I would be filled with a sense of the smell, noises and temperatures of places. I attribute this to having a mind that wasn’t distracted by day-to-day processing and decision-making. I learned that the mind is capable of computing many things at once and when given the chance and time to really let go of having to make decisions that the mind can recall the past with greater precision.
As I became much more comfortable and relaxed with my living conditions and surroundings I noticed I was able to find pleasure in certain aspects of the daily routine and how attached I became to those things. One of the things I drew pleasure from was our tea break. Since my dorm was in the far corner of the property it was surrounded by tall trees that you could look through and see the snow covered mountain on the other side of the valley. I would take my tea and go to a spot where I could see one snow covered peak and I’d enjoy my tea pretending I was in a wooded camp planning my next day’s summit hike to the peak. I recognized that this was a fantasy that removed me from the reality of where I was and put me in an imaginary place that I have associated with happiness. I also drew pleasure from the weather. In India (being there near the start of the monsoon season) if it rains it rains hard. When it was pouring rain I’d stand under the metal balcony and watch clouds passing through the trees that were lit up a sharp green from the lightning strikes that cast color throughout the think white rain clouds. I’d pretend I was already in Japan, which was my destination after India. I’d pretend I was in the forests of Koyo-san Japan, in the midst of typhoon rain, and I was about to go take a soak in a nice hot onsen (hot spring bath), followed by some sushi and sake. I’d pretend I was at a winter vacation home, sipping some hot tea getting ready to read or write a book. This was another fantasy and I knew it, but I still indulged myself nonetheless. These fantasies were short lived but they helped fill the gaps between the meditation sessions.
While in the middle of the retreat I was able to sink deeper into concentration and focus on the vipassanā technique with greater focus, near the end of the retreat on the last two days I was back to having a hard time focusing. Cognitively I knew that soon I’d be out of there and onto the next retreat. My stamina was wearing thin and this knowledge of new things to come filled me with anticipation. This made meditating much harder. I think nearing the end of the retreat was having an effect on everyone that in turn creates a group energy that influences each person differently. Other people in the retreat were also cracking and beginning to talk to one another quietly.
Goenka taught that doing body scanning could lead to feelings of vibration or energy flowing through the body. There were times when I was meditating that I would indeed get tingling, light energy sensations running through my arms, neck, back and thighs. These sensations make you think that you’re reaching a level of success or breaking through the chatter of the mind. The teaching is to not identify with these sensations as something good or bad and just to observe them just the same as you observe pain in the body. While the sensation were fascinating and a nice relief from pain, or from simple monotony, I didn’t have a hard time not clinging onto them. For me I have had similar experiences of tingling in my body when I prepare myself for an exercise, or moments of reflection on the beauty of life when looking at mountains that can send shivers through my body. When working out in the gym I imagine energy flowing through my body and sometimes have very similar experiences to the sensations I had in the vipassanā retreat. That being said, an interesting experience happened to one of the meditators on the last day. We had finished a meditation session and had a 5-minute break. When coming back into the meditation hall there was one man who hadn’t left the meditation hall and was still sitting on his cushion with his eyes closed. Suddenly he started breathing really hard and hyperventilating. People began watching him and some I could tell were quite disturbed and worried. I wasn’t worried for the man because I believed it would all pass. This went on for a few minutes and some of the facilitators tried to help him by tapping hard on his cushion to bring him out of his trance. Since there is a rule of non-touching they were not allowed to shake him to bring him out of it. After a few minutes of hyperventilating he began to break out in hysterical laughter. This went on for another minute of so. During this time he never opened his eyes. I don’t think he was even aware that he was doing this. Slowly it all began to subside as he began to come back to reality. After this episode the next meditation session began and that was that.
On the 10th day after the morning meditation session the noble silence ends and people can once again talk to one another. Goenka says that this is necessary as it gives people a chance to recalibrate before entering back into the regular world. He likens the experience to a medical procedure in which you go into a deep surgery and when the surgery is over you spend some time in the hospital recovering before you exit. Everyone is in a good mood at this point and there is a strong sense of camaraderie. The feeling is like being on a sports team that has just won a championship. Everyone feels a sense of brotherhood and companionship sharing their experiences over the last 10d days. With this feeling you wonder why people are so mean to one another out in the real world. With this new understanding of oneself you can see how everyone would benefit from a vipassanā retreat.
Every day I am reminded of the lessons and teachings I learned during my vipassanā retreat. Even today after just finishing my work and errands, as I was just finally sitting down to write this article, I was pulled away from my writing for an emergency. As I became slowly more and more filled with frustration I realized I was reacting to my attachment to finishing this writing. If I could let that attachment go I could let my anger and my negative energy dissipate out of my body and mind. I began to meditate on the mantra annica, annica, annica (impermanence, impermanence, impermanence). As my mind focused on the temporality of the moment I was able to soften into the moment and let the energy building within me lessen its hold and soften away.
Of course we all experience different degrees of suffering and pleasure, or aversion and attachment. Each day is a spiritual test anew, testing out attachments and aversion; it is a matter of how aware one is to these tests. Despite learning vipassanā philosophy and practice, I am still operating with fluctuating emotions and therefore fluctuating capabilities through each day. When I am successful at feeling my frustration or anger originating in my body and then observing the sensation as something not conducive to me, and having no reality other than the reality I choice to assign it, only then can I see the moment as a teaching and a fleeting moment in my life. With this perspective it is easier to see suffering as a choice. When I am aware of the origin of the arising of pleasure, then I can resist over attaching to the sensation and avoid creating dependence in the mind and an addiction to an experience. With this perspective it is easier to see pleasure as something to enjoy but not to lust after.
Vipassanā meditation is a continual practice and lends truth to the adage how you do one thing is how you do all things. To a vipassanā meditator every experience is part of vipassanā meditation. Every experience has an opportunity to lead you towards habituation and karmic cycles, or to lead towards liberation and lasting self-sufficient happiness. After completing my first vipassanā meditation I am highly committed to wanting to do another vipassanā retreat as soon as I can. I can tell that the lessons and the path is one that will take a life time of commitment, but one that is worth the effort. I greatly encourage you to try out a vipassanā retreat as well! The good news is you don’t need to travel to India to experience a vipassanā retreat, they are held all around the world. I wish you the best in your spiritual endeavors.