I have spent ten days in a seminar for Vipassana meditation. Ten days of silence, ten hours of meditation each and every day.
Vipassana is a meditation technique – according to S.N. Goenka – that follows the original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who is often referred to as the Buddha, even though he considered himself just as a buddha, ie. one of many, simply as that development path is open to everyone. In fact, Vipassana is a strictly secular meditation technique, free of religious or other sectarian beliefs and superstitions. It’s a method of hard work on introspection and development of your own mind. I can use this technique, and it either works for me, or it does not. The goal is to develop equanimity – a well-balanced mind that does not automatically, subconsciously react to our perceptions.
Vipassana is based on the observation of your bodily sensations, with the basic idea that they are reactions to one’s subconscious processes. Other meditation methods focus on conscious observation of your thoughts that arise, on concentrating your attention, sometimes using verbalisations or mental images, in general on calming your mind, stopping or reducing the continuous, mostly unconscious processing of the thoughts – what is now called the Default Mode: whenever we are not focusing on a something specific, our mind wanders. The part of our brain responsible therefor is called the Default Mode Network. The default mode, or mind wandering, is considered to be responsible to build our own image of our selves, and also for a lot of suffering, as the default mode processing tends to focus on negative aspects – eg. memories of bad experiences, or envisioned troubles in the future, or on craving for something, or someone, yet or forever out of reach. And because this processing is unconscious, we build up negative, emotional and automatic reactions.
Vipassana addresses our unconscious reactions to our perceptions, both from our environment, but also our thoughts. That is, our own mind is considered to be a source of perceivable input as well, as are visuals, speech and other audio, smell, touch, and taste – our “senses”. We can consciously decide to react or not to perceptions, but Vipassana wants to go deeper and include the unconscious reactions, the emotions, which, as mentioned above, express themselves in bodily sensations. Interestingly, this jibes well with recent neurophysiological theories, which explain emotions as changes in the homeostasis of our body: if you encounter a tiger, your flee-freeze-or-fight reaction is not primarily based on the visual perception, but on the unconscious reaction of your body, which happens earlier than your conscious identification of the tiger (for example, see Anil Seth).
According to recent findings and theories in neuroscience, our perception is not simply a linear process from sensor to recognition, but a projection of our expectations that gets adjusted by the noisy signals from the sensors. That is, our consciousness, unconsciously, determines strongly what we perceive and how we perceive. Which explains the rather different account of different people of the same situation. It’s often called the Bayesian brain (we start with assumptions, and correct as we go, continuously), or Predictive Processing, or even “controlled hallucination” (Seth, Metzinger, and others). Hence, focusing on developing a balanced (equanimous) mind, as Vipassana does, will also help to have a balanced impression of the world around us, and of the continuous flow of thoughts in our minds due to the default mode processing. In general, it’s amazing how a meditation technique from 2,500 years back fits current scientific knowledge.
In the seminar, we first learned to focus our minds and to observe an increasingly small area of our body, by focusing on the breath, always bringing back the mind as soon as it wanders off, and then focusing on a small part of our face (nose and below), with a technique called Anapana. That’s 35 hours of meditation just to get started and be ready for Vipassana. As said, with this technique you don’t pay any attention to the thoughts that arose while your mind wanders. It was astonishing how, on the fourth day, I was able to precisely localise and observe any sensations anywhere in my body, just by focusing my mind.
Which was useful, actually the prerequisite for the actual Vipassana method, which was taught and the practiced from day four: scanning your body for sensations, which can be of many kinds, from pleasant to irritating to disturbing. According to the theory of Vipassana, these are manifestations of your unconscious processes. By just observing these sensations, without reacting to them, you develop equanimity, stop or reduce the continuous unconscious processing which results in the build-up of automatic (emotional) reactions of craving or aversion, which then influence your perception and your reactions to them, and so on. In Pali, the language spoken in Northern India 2,500 years ago, these reactions are called Sankara. By recognising that your sensations are not permanent (Pali: Anica), but just arising and going, all the time, you become equanimous: you don’t need to react, as you know they will pass. Vipassana aims to ingrain this calmness into your mind on the subconscious level, with the goal of influencing your behaviour to the better in every day’s life: you stay calm, but also you don’t spread your emotional reactions into your environment, potentially poisoning other peoples' lives and minds.
In the course of the ten days, you get utterly calm, and reach a profoundness of meditation impossible outside this kind of setting. We meditated about ten hours per day, in sittings between one and two hours. After a few days, within minutes of sitting down, I was deep into working the technique, breath and body scans and all. Here, at home now, my experience is that it’s much harder in my daily meditations, one hour twice a day (or so I try). Mind wandering is hard to control at times. But I take things as they come, equanimously. :)
There were strict rules during the course. No speaking at all helps enormously to attain the aforementioned depth. And you have to commit yourself for the whole ten days, no bailing out possible before. The organisers know their students… On the second day, I thought, how will I make it through to the tenth?! The practice is taxing on your mind and also your body. Try to sit for one hour in a chair, without moving. It’s difficult, we actually ever so slightly move our bodies all the time. Now consider sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, without changing your posture for one hour. I have bad knees, and after some time there was just fire in my legs, and my back ached badly. Experimenting to find a more suitable position helped, but there were long periods of suffering anyway. Then, on the fourth day, I all of a sudden realised that the pain had started to subside. By scanning my body, I still could feel the pain points when I visited them, as I could outside the meditation sittings when walking – the micro-lesions of overstretched muscles and whatnot had not miraculously disappeared (remember, it’s a secular technique, not religion). However, my mind had begun to not pay attention anymore. Pain is only in our minds, my knees, say, cannot feel pain. My brain receives signals from the knees, and can interpret these as pain or not. Our brains have a model of our body (proprioception), so they know where the signals come from, hence I feel pain in the knees, but that’s only a mapping (that’s why one can feel pain in an amputated limb). Pain happens in the brain. This reduction of pain was the first foretelling of changed processes in my mind.
And there was more. Much more. We trained our minds to be, or become, equanimous, that is, to only observe our bodily sensations, but not react to them. Vipassana says that by this, old Sankaras that had formed in the past will cause all forms of bodily sensations and then dissolve for the better, purifying your mind in the process, which basically means getting rid of old behaviour patterns. I don’t know (yet) if that’s true, but gee, sensations there were! At times it felt like under the influence of a psychedelic (mind-altering) substance. Or I felt vibrations all over my body, with a cooler touch, but I could feel each and every square centimetre at once, without the need of any scan.
More often than not, though, meditation just meant scanning my body, up and down, and observe small or big, but local sensations, nothing spectacular. Or there were, at times, no sensations in a specific part of the body, so-called blind spots. Hour after hour, to learn and practice the technique – which is the purpose of the course, not to give the students a good time, or some revelation, insight, or feelings of bliss. Nothing touchy-feely. Ten days of hard work.
In this sense, the seminar was just a starting point. Now I try to practice Vipassana (and Anapana or Metta, another meditation method taught, as I see fit) every day. I am sure I also want to learn other meditation techniques. Exploring my mind rocks.