Meditation has always been a prominent tool in my life but I only began to appreciate its true utility after a 10-day silent retreat in Worcester, Cape Town in the December of 2015.
I hear and acknowledge your scowls, I shared them as well. Why would someone put themselves through 10 days of torture without speaking, without any forms of exercise and without their best friend, their phone? Well, the answer is quite simple and it lies in the frailties of the human condition. I call it the human condition because it is applicable to all sentient beings. Every person on this planet has a voice in their head that whispers false truths, as Dan Harris puts it so eloquently “the voice in my head is an asshole”.
The ABC correspondent and Anchor for Nightline in the US suffered a panic attack on live television which subsequently lead to his exploration into meditation and the release of his acclaimed book: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. A must-read for any sceptics of this ‘airy-fairy practice.
My decision to embark on this peculiar experience was reaffirmed after reading 10% Happier. So off I went and adjourned into my ‘self’, into the vivid arena of frustrating beauty. This Vipassana journey would enlighten me about notions of self-transformation through equanimity. However to avoid the risk of beaming esoterics I’ll appropriately place Vipassana Mediation on the map.
Vipassana meaning, to see things as they really are, is an ancient practice that dates back 2500 years ago to the times of Gotama Buddha in India. Its efficacy is embedded in self-observation and direct awareness of bodily sensations. It’s through this deliberate attention that one appreciates the mind-body connection. Yet this practice of bodily awareness finds its place on the backdrop of nature itself — in so far, Vipassana asserts that reality is always changing and in flux. Better said and in the native Pali, Anicca: where things never stay the same and impermanence is the status quo. With this understanding in mind, one can transcend mental impurities through mere observation and non-judgmental awareness. Yes, solace is afforded to those who notice attachment as a mere process opposed to identifying with its spell-bound murmurs.
So we have an ever-changing reality, our basic human nature to avert from pain and immerse into immediate pleasure and our resultant mental impurities. What Vipassana teaches is self-transformation through direct experience allowing one the opportunity to respond rather than react to these attachments that cause us such trouble. If we start with the body the mind will follow.
Please do not fret over the former abstract narrative, the next passage will fill in the gaps. In Vipassana one is required to sit in a meditative position for approximately one hour and deliberately observe sensations throughout their body — some know this practice to be called a body scan. However, the actual work arises in one’s ability to notice the sensations even when they uncomfortable. Now, this is where the actual work begins. When pain arises, the work is not to identify with the pain but merely notice it, alternatively when you reach a pleasing state, not to identify with that sensation either but once again notice. This sobering appreciation for applying deliberate awareness of ‘noticing’ becomes one’s enabler to reach bhāvanā or experiential wisdom.
“In this ineffable experience, where words are stripped of their potency, I had consummated the very essence of Vipassana’s fruits and left with a blueprint for serenity”.
So what did this look like for me, actually living the experience of Vipassana in my skull size kingdom? Well on day 1 we are all gathered outside the main meditation hall in anticipation to receive our meditation spot for the next 10 days. We are instructed to take as many cushions and blankets in to build what will become your meditation fortress. Note aside, don’t be afraid to try every combination from half-moon cushions to meditation benches — initial comfort goes a long way.
We are then read and asked to acknowledge and accept 5 precepts or codes of discipline that we will subscribe to throughout the retreat, these include abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual activity, speaking falsely, and intoxicants. I left my knives and ropes at home so I knew I wouldn’t be tempted. Then, 40 other meditators and I began our first meditation of the course. We did not begin with Vipassana but rather Anapana, a meditation technique that fixes your attention on one’s nostrils and the natural breath as it enters and exits the space above your upper lip. It’s through anapana that one develops the acuteness to feel sensations and calm the mind in readiness for Vipassana. This practice is mastered over the next 4 days, approximately 8 hours a day of serious work observing the breath through the nostrils. After 4 days Vipassana begins, and essentially this bodily scan of sensations carries you through till the end.
An average day begins with a 4:30 am wake up and call to meditate in the main hall, there are three compulsory group meditations in the hall throughout the day; two meals are served before 12 noon and tea and fruit for beginners served at 5 pm; the rest of the day is spent either meditating in one’s room or the main hall or resting; every evening for the last hour two televisions are turned on in order to watch the nights teachings from S.N Goenka one of Vipassana’s greatest teachers who brought the practice back to India (For more on S.N Goenka visit: https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/goenka ); then lights out by 10 pm.
The former daily schedule may seem treacherous but each day holds a new lesson in your own journey towards self-transformation. For instance, on day 6 and what is known to be the most difficult day, I began my morning meditation with mental toughness and mindfully made it through 35 minutes without flinching, my body was aching but my mind was still. I left for breakfast with my chin lifted high and a strut that would be typical of a champion. When I returned to my castle of cushions I thought to myself with a smirk on my face, “one hour, I’ll easily make one full hour now”. 5 minutes later, and my world had shattered before me. My mind was reeling with noise, I tried harder, my legs were aching…my back on breaking point…I tried even harder…but no progress. The rest of my day from the meditation period to the lunch break was spent in a spiralling stupor. After the course, fellow meditators would say that all they wanted to do for me on day 6 was give me a hug. My struggles were clearly worn and visibly present.
So during lunch, I wrote my name down on a piece of paper hung up on the kitchen wall. A list that allows 5 minutes of talk time with the teacher. This is the only time that one is allowed to speak. I sit down during my talk time and explain my ‘hero to zero’ moment with the teacher. He gracefully smiles at me and utters “put down the whip Kyle, equanimity is about acceptance”. With one sentence it all makes sense, the answer has been under my nose the whole time…literally. The very next meditation session in the hall I would complete a full hour in a state of complete serenity.
What I understood from that day is the art of letting go and accepting what is. Fighting a battle that doesn’t need to be fought will only prove to be a disservice and ignite mental impurities. It’s through self-control and impartial judgement that one can begin to move the needle.
Self-control in itself is an interesting concept in Vipassana, in the sense that one doesn’t fall into the trap of attachment. Immediate gratification just adds fuel to the fire supporting a Pavlovian reaction. In my instance, I fell into the trap of identifying with pleasure and it became my lust, my everything, in so far leading to my demise.
Matthew D. Lieberman, a leading Social Cognitive Neuroscientist maintains “The battle for self-control over an intense undesired habit consists of an endless series of skirmishes, in which our urges and our better angels clash several times each day.”
He further maintains that through the act of self-control we build stronger neural pathways in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC) that nourish our ability to control the self with all its urges and whims. Lieberman findings also lead to the conclusion that all types of self-control including motor, cognitive, emotional, financial and perceptive-taking (holding competing perspectives with the person you are trying to take the perspective of) all initiate increased activity in the RVLPFC, inferring that one self-control strategy could unintentionally induce another. This is particularly interesting with Vipassana in mind, affording greater importance to its place in self-transformation.
I guess what I’m trying to get across is the art of Vipassana has myriad benefits for us not just as a meditative technique but as a tool to engender self-control in pursuit of self-transformation.