I first heard about Vipassana from people who had completed the course who described their experience as ‘life changing’.
This sparked my curiosity so I did some research, came across an interesting TED talk by Anjali Kumar on it and without too much thought, reserved my spot at the closest centre to Auckland.
Every day for ten days I had to wake up at 4am, meditate for ten hours, eat only two vegetarian meals, abstain from communicating with anyone (that includes smiling and eye contact) and go without a phone, music, books, not even a pen. This may all sound slightly draconian, however it’s all an integral part of the meditation practice.
After completing the course, I regard it as one of the most profound experiences I’ve gone through. I learnt a myriad of lessons which will stick with me for life, here are four which impacted me the most.
1. Your thoughts are not you
During our first meditation session we were instructed to focus on our breath. This sounds pretty easy and straightforward but I was in for a rude awakening.
Inhale, exhale, inhale..a few minutes pass and I would catch myself in a lost memory from Primary school. Ok let’s try this again…inhale, exhale, inhale…hmm that Italian place I went to last week really should have had a caprese salad on the menu. Ahh, caught myself thinking again!
Day one consisted of random thought loops, constant readjustment of my posture and going in and out of a half asleep / semi-conscious state. The commitment of ten hours a day for ten days dawned on me…what in the world did I get myself into?
While meditating, my mind seized to switch off from its internal dialogue and sometimes I had the odd thought pop up which was so unlike me. That’s when I wondered, are our thoughts…us? Sure they come from our mind which is powered by the brain which is physically inside of us but where do thoughts actually come from?
After some research I found that no one really knows the definitive answer – a general consensus was that thoughts are like ideas, they pop out of nowhere. However, I found an explanation which resonated with me by best selling author and spiritual teacher, Ekhart Tolle. He explains the origin of thought as coming from “the collective consciousness – which is why we think thoughts at times, that don’t seem as though they belong to us”
If rogue thoughts are walking uninvited into our minds, then in order to distinguish ourselves from our mind, we need to try and observe our thoughts – and without judgment.
Eckhart Tole explains in the Power of Now,
“When you listen to a thought, you are aware not only of the thought but also of yourself as the witness of the thought. A new dimension of consciousness has come in. As you listen to the thought, you feel a conscious presence - your deeper self - behind or underneath the thought, as it were. The thought then loses its power over you and quickly subsides, because you are no longer energizing the mind through identification with it. This is the beginning of the end of involuntary and compulsive thinking.”
2. Meditation for your mind is like exercise for your body
Three days into the course, I started to see the light. I was thinking less which gave me assurance the meditation technique was working. Like our bodies, the mind is able to be trained.
The ancient meditation technique of Vipassana which means all-seeing and insight in Sanskrit originated in India and was made popular by the Buddha. It is a non-sectarian, universal remedy where its teachings are open to everyone, regardless of culture, background and belief. Vipassana focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body which brings you closer to the true nature of reality. From there we can be liberated from mental impurity, resulting in a mind full of peace, happiness and compassion.
Due to the age of technology however, our external world has become noisier, making it increasingly more difficult to focus on our internal world. We’re constantly being entertained and stimulated with social media, TV and video games that sitting in silence becomes a rarity. When we have idle moments in our day we find opportunities to fill it. We’re on our phones when we first wake up, while we eat, we grab it out at the traffic lights, we might use our phones, laptops and TV all at once, and don’t deny it, a lot of us are on our phones even on the toilet.
Being alone with only our mind might feel boring or uncomfortable however practicing stillness does get easier and its effects are proven to enhance our lives tenfold. Yogis and monks have been meditating for thousands of years and now that science has caught up, we have the research to prove how meditation actually affects us.
A consistent meditation practice will make a life changing difference to anyone’s wellbeing – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. A quick google search will give you countless studies on the benefits of meditation. It’s been reported to physically change the brain by increasing grey matter (which is important for learning and memory, self-awareness and compassion). It’s proven to reduce the stress hormone cortisol as well as cytokines - the inflammation-promoting chemicals it produces along with depression, anxiety and so forth. It also boosts the immune system and lowers blood pressure. There’s no surprise why many meditation centres, programmes and apps are growing exponentially.
3. Everything is temporary
On day seven we were given new instructions for our meditation - we had to try our hardest to remain completely still. That’s right - no readjusting our posture, no wiggling our toes, if we had an itch, we had to deal with it. During this session, the usual pain seared down my lower back and my leg was numb, but instead of readjusting I was determined to sit it through.
While I sat meditating with unbearable back and leg pain, it was around perhaps the forty minute mark where I began to feel an incredible euphoric sensation. The best I can do to describe this feeling in words is as though my physical body dissolved into a mass of vibrating atoms. I couldn’t feel an ounce of pain anymore nor could I feel my body. It was just my mind, floating in space.
After a few minutes, the blissful feeling went away. Although it was short lived, the experience was so profound it had deeply penetrated into my psyche. Following this I could now fathom the experiential understanding of anicca, a universal truth that everything is impermanent. When the burning pain down my back was suddenly washed away by waves of tingly vibrations, that’s when it sunk in. Everything really is temporary.
Moments are always changing, time does not stand still, seasons come and go, feelings change, what is alive will eventually die. Once we can accept this we can stop holding on to things – whether it be material items, emotions, relationships or our mortality with the expectation or fear that it will or must last forever.
“Everything is temporary. Emotions, thoughts, people and scenery. Do not become attached, just flow with it” - Buddha
Throughout the ten day course, I had pleasant meditation sessions where I was in ‘the zone’ and frustrating sessions where I just sat there wanting to scream. I discussed this frustration with our teacher and she told me that it was perfectly normal to have better days than others though it was important to remain equanimous. This meant not judging my experiences by attaching positive or negative feelings towards them and to just observe whatever happens objectively. Accept what is.
After our conversation, I tried to accept that the euphoric feeling I experienced on day seven might not happen again and having desire and attachment for that feeling would only lead to frustration and disappointment. This learning is still active in my mind to this day, I am consciously aware of when I begin to crave or grow attached to something. Although it can be difficult to get rid of these feelings sometimes, I try my best to not have any expectations.
I feel that our society might find it difficult to accept ‘bad’ things due to our belief systems. From the moment we are born we have been conditioned by the people around us that everything is either good or bad. It’s good when it’s sunny and bad when it’s raining. It’s good to win and bad to fail. When you get down to the core of it, there is ultimately no good or bad to anything. In reality everything is neutral but it’s up to us how we choose to perceive it. When we do not attach any negative or positive connotation to a scenario and just let it be, we can then let go of any resisting emotions.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”-Lao Tzu
That concludes my top four things I learnt attending a Vipassana. If you’re thinking about attending a course, be mindful that everyone’s experience is unique to them, and make sure you keep an open mind. The course is donation based and there are centres all over the world, making it very accessible. Make sure you book months in advance as they fill up quickly, and try your hardest to be a diligent student, what you put in is what you’ll get out.