Monday, June 13, 2011

Passing Through Vipassana

It was over a year ago that I first read about S.N. Goenka's secularized movement of Vipassana meditation and the 10-day introductory courses for the practice, offered at centers around the world. It was perhaps eight months ago that I decided I was interested in trying it, and last week that I finally took the course. The decision came after speaking with one of the directors of Cap Corps about how easy it is to get addicted to extreme emotions, because they're clear, free of ambiguity, and give one a sense of truly "living," whatever that means. Swinging from extreme emotion to extreme emotion, however, is also extremely stressful. The director had found that Vipassana helped her stay more in control, and I thought I could get in on that. After spending a week in silence at the Taize monastery in France, I had learned to embrace rather than fear 10 days of silence. I was a little worried about waking up at 4:00 in the morning, though it turns out it's easier to wake up at 4:00 to meditate than it is to wake up at 6:30 to go to work.

The idea behind Vipassana is this: people are driven miserable by constantly reacting to things with pleasure or aversion. We yearn for what we want yet don't have, and long to be rid of that which we have yet don't want. It may be a fleeting craving for ice cream or a burning desire to fall in love, a brief pang of hunger or chronic back pain. These reactions drive us, and drive us crazy.

This idea was not news to me particularly, and it's not news to most people seeking spiritual balance, via religion or otherwise. It has provoked such wisdom as the theology of abundance, which is the belief that God has given enough for everyone and we don't need to be constantly trying to compete with others for happiness and wealth.

What Vipassana contributes to the effort to avoid madness is a meditative practice. The theory goes that when I interpret an outside stimulation as good or bad, I'm not actually reacting directly to the stimulation. At a deeper level, my body reacts first, with tension or relaxation, pain or tingly chills. My brain then interprets my body's reaction with craving (Give me more of that) or aversion (Stop this). This interpretive process is what makes me miserable.

So during meditation, I just sit there. I may feel pain, or tingly, relaxed or tense. I observe my body's sensations with equanimity and remind myself that they'll go away. And then they do. And something else equally temporary replaces it.

The first day was the hardest for me. My eyes wanted to be active. They disliked being closed for so long when my mind was awake. I also really disliked not knowing how much longer I had to meditate. I gained a new appreciation for the kids at Hope House who were always asking, "Is my reading time over YET? How much longer?" We meditated for about ten hours every day: 4:30-6:30, 8:00-11:00, 1:00-5:00, and 6:00-7:00. Since we couldn't read, write, or exercise during the break time, it wasn't too hard to go back into meditation, because there was nothing else to do.

During the first few days, as much as I tried to focus on my breathing, I also took stock of the impressive array of thoughts that parade through my mind on a daily basis. None of it particularly shocked me, though I was surprised that I went through a couple days of nearly exclusive imagined interactions with fictional characters from TV and books before I started reliving memories. And always there were the show tunes. No matter how many different kinds of music I may listen to, Broadway seems to be the music of choice for my subconscious mind.

It took me until the eighth day to have the epiphany that none of this mattered. I didn't have to be aware of what was passing through my head, much less resolve or extract insight from it. All that mattered was my observation with my body and what it was feeling. It was like realizing I don't have to solve all any of the math problems in the textbook. I just have to look at the pictures very intently.

Day nine was the wonkiest, because that was the day we started scanning inside our bodies. I hit a whole bunch of spots where my body had stored its reactions to painful memories. It didn't hurt, it was just really uncomfortable. I hit one point in my stomach, like a knee-jerk reaction, started weeping. I didn't feel sad or angry, nor did I recall any specific memory. It was downright bizarre. And then, like all feelings, it passed. I didn't feel the spot again. And sure enough, when the course was over, I didn't feel such a strong physical reaction to various memories as they came up.

I was skeptical about Goenka's insistence on the universality of the Vipassana practice, mostly because I'm skeptical of any claim of a universal solution to suffering. Like all universal truths, suffering is understood, is explained, only in the cultural and the specific context. I found many aspects of his evening discourses problematic. But I accept his premise that Vipassana meditation can be useful even for those who are not followers of any of the Buddhist traditions. I especially love the bottom line: it's about the practice, not the belief. Christianity can get so caught up in orthodoxy, right belief, as opposed to orthopraxy, right practice. Both have their place. Yet, as Goenka taught in his discourses, there are levels at which one can have wisdom. There is th e level of being taught, like reading a menu and thinking, this looks like it could taste good. Then there's the observation level, which is looking at other people who are eating the food and seeing that they are enjoying the food. The only level that really counts is the experiential level, where you actually taste the food for yourself. Vipassana is about taking those precepts of not acting out in anger or pain, which I've always had in mind, and trying to let them permeate to a deeper, physical level.

As Goenka pointed out, it's so easy to believe the importance of things like "Be angry, but do not sin," or "Do not look on your neighbor with hatred," but it's so hard to find an exercise that allows you to cultivate these Christian precepts so that you can implement them in your daily life. Modern Christianity, which as I have said before is too frequently estranged from its contemplative traditions, is often unhelpful in providing these exercises. This is where Vipassana can help.


  1. "I especially love the bottom line: it's about the practice, not the belief."

    Interesting-- this came up when a friend and I were learning Mishna recently. The relevant passage is Berakhot 2.1-- "If one were reciting [the Shema] in the Torah and the appointed time for saying [the Shema] happened, if their heart/mind is directed toward [the Shema] then the obligation [to recite the Shema] has been fulfilled"
    In other words, if one were studying the text of the Shema in the context of learning the relevant Torah portion (as opposed to stopping one's activities to recite it as a prayer), this activity counts as one's ritual obligation PROVIDED one's intention, or "kavannah" is properly focused-- indicating the opposite of the above statement.
    This is noteworthy because the stereotype of Jewish practice is generally in accord with the idea that the practice is more important than the belief-- a "fake it 'til you make it" ritual ethos, as my friend put it. What I suggested is that perhaps the ritual actions are designed in part as mnemonic devices--by repeating these rituals in rhythms so alien from our mundane activites, it is as though we are forcibly shifted into a different frame of mind.
    It is also noteworthy that the Mishna is silent (so far!) on just what is defined as the appropriate kavannah. Perhaps one could study the words "Hear, O Israel-- Adonai is our God, Adonai is one!" and think, "What nonsense! I don't buy monotheism/a special relationship between God and any given group of people!" You can't say that person's mind ISN'T directed toward the words of the Shema. Perhaps the Mishna's silence here allows for a great plurality of belief or thought, so long as the relevant words/practice is at its center.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts, Rebecca. The one distinction I would make is between "belief" and "intention," which seem somewhat conflated in your comments. Belief would be having the "correct" worldview, like believing that God is one, that Mohammed is His Prophet, or that Jesus Christ is divine and died to save the world from sin. What I think you're talking about here is more like what Vipassana calls samadhi, or awareness, similar to what the Catholics call intentions, which is where the mind is focused. This is part of practice rather than belief. That is, in the case of the Shema, that your mind is centered on God, which (if I'm not mistaken), is more or less the purpose of the Shema. Belief would be more like if someone asks you on the street while you're buying oranges, "Hey, do you believe God is one?" and you would say, "well, of course I do." or "Do you believe in karma?" and you would say, "No, I don't." It's not so much about where your mind is focused, but how you understand the world.

  3. Kathryn,

    I agree that the distinction you elucidate is critical, and that I should have been clearer about it. I would still argue, however, that "intention" and "belief" are both species of "cast of mind". The important part, it appears, in both practices we describe is doing the practice with attention TO THE PRACTICE--regardless of the lens of belief or worldview through which we may focus that attention.

  4. Do you have a full translation of La Misa Campesina