On New Year ’s Day I returned from a 10 day Vipassana course in North Fork, CA. Intellectually I had some grasp of what the course would be like from information I had read. In reality, I gained much more than what my imagination and expectations had prepared for me.
On the evening of arrival, we sat in the meditation hall and, for many of us, heard for the first time the recordings of the pragmatic voice of S.N. Goenka, teacher of Vipassana meditation. His soothing voice trailed off into gravely moaning sounds as he chanted a few words of encouragement in the traditional language from the the time of the Buddha. He went on to give us an introduction of what we were going to learn and what was expected of us.
We left the hall and began our nine days of hard work and noble silence- no verbal or non verbal communication with anyone but the teachers or course coordinators.
Each morning began with a 4am wake-up call of three strikes of the little Buddha shaped gong hanging from a tree near our sleeping area. Days roughly followed the same schedule alternating between required sittings in the group meditation hall and periods students could opt to meditate in the hall, their rooms or a cell in the newly constructed pagoda. We ate simple vegetarian meals in the morning and midday and only at fruit and tea in the evening. Strenuous exercise was not allowed but a small walking path allowed us to stretch our legs. Everything we did had a reason that had been long thought out and trialed over centuries.
There were roughly five hours of required group meditation meetings each day and for the first half of the course, I could manage little more. Long time practitioners returning to the course would spend somewhere between seven to ten hours each day in meditation. Physically and mentally it was strenuous work and one had to be determined and diligent to maintain the motionless posture and focus of the mind.
The purpose of this course is to teach a meditation technique and to explain the logic and outcomes of this technique. There is nothing mystical about it. There are no gods or external beings to worship. People of all religions may come to learn this technique in their search to become happy, loving, compassionate human beings.
The technique works on an experiential level. First, one stills the body and minimizes any outside distractions by sitting in a quiet, dark place. Then you begin to observe sensations in your own body. You do not create sensations by altering breathing or movement. You simply observe the breath. This is the first step in the process of learning to control your mind and getting to the root of what causes misery and unhappiness.
As an objective observer you pay equal attention to all sensations whether they are pleasurable, painful, or neutral with the understanding that they are all impermanent and change is inevitable. Naturally, we gravitate toward the pleasant sensations until we are consumed by an uncontrollable craving and we develop aversion to that which is unpleasant. The goal of this process of equanimous observation is to reprogram the mind to stop the cycle of craving and aversion that inevitably brings us misery. It is easy to be happy when life is going great, much harder to be happy when life delivers a truck load of turds. With this practice, one can gain more control over their own mind and control their reactions to the external world.
It was hard work. To really practice the technique took diligence and determination. Gradually I began to get moments of free flowing feelings of relaxed lightness throughout my body, and they were wonderful, but true to the law of nature, everything is constantly changing and I could not allow myself to hope for those feelings to remain. Neither could I allow myself to be disappointed when they did not return for days at a time.
It was a wonderful experience, and a worthy introduction to a meditation method which purifies the mind. I didn’t leave enlightened. I left after receiving the equivalent of a kindergarten education on the path to full liberation. Even that little taste made a difference though. Should I continue the daily practice of Vipassana meditation, I will certainly continue to move down the path toward a happier, more loving, compassionate life. If I don’t continue the practice, I have faith that will find other ways to remain truthful to myself and manifest lifelong happiness.