10 Days Of Silence: The Art Of Living Part 3
This article, the last in a three-part series, attempts to demystify “silent retreats”, or “spiritual journeys”, as well as answer some of the questions I am frequently asked about silent meditation retreats; what goes on behind the walls of a retreat centre; and the benefits gained from subjecting myself to the rigours of this annual pilgrimage, regarded by some as a “tortuous journey”.
Lessons From The 10-Day Vipassana Retreat in Kuantan, Malaysia (4-15 January 2014)
“Vipassana is the art of living. Not the art of escaping.” – S.N. Goenka
The writer provides a day-by-day account of the 10-Day Vipassana Meditation Course – the hardship and rigors of the “tortuous journey” as well as the epiphanies gained.
By the end of the course, she comes to the realisation that everything is ephemeral, arising and passing every moment – annica. The rapidity and continuity of the process create the illusion of permanence. The only way to break the illusion is to learn to explore within oneself, and to experience the reality of one’s own physical and mental structure. As the understanding of annica develops within her, the notion that there is no “I”, no “mine”, hits her. There is nothing that lasts more than a moment, nothing that one can identify as an unchanging self or soul.
There is a story I love about a Zen master. This master had a faithful but very naïve student who regarded him as a living Buddha. Then one day the master accidentally sat down on a needle. He screamed, “Ouch!”and jumped into the air. The student instantly lost all his faith and left, saying how disappointed he was to find that his master was not fully enlightened. Otherwise, he thought, how would he jump up and scream out loud like that? The master was sad when he realized his student had left, and said: “Alas, poor man! If only he had known that in reality neither I, nor the needle, nor the ‘ouch’ really existed.” Sogyal Rinpoche, “The Tibetan Book Of Living and Dying”
The first day is fraught with great difficulty and discomfort. We learn to focus on the breathing, the air coming in and out of the nostrils. For 10 hours and 45 minutes, we focus our attention on our nostrils and the air flowing in and out, through the left, the right, or sometimes both nostrils. Near the end of the morning sitting the teacher calls everyone up in small groups of three to five so we can ask questions.
Twenty minutes into meditation, I find my mind wandering as I take in new sensory perceptions … focus on my breathing, focus, focus … this is a very nice, very relaxing space; so warm and cosy … hmmm … the young lady seated in front must be Thai … Indonesian, or Myanmar…? How does she keep her back so straight? … I wish they had meditation benches …I could use one now … focus .. focus … focus …
The mind does not want to stay on the breathing, or on any single object of attention: instead it runs wild. This is a reality of our mind.
Our teacher S. N. Goenka tells us that the goal of Vipassana meditation is to purify the mind, to free it from misery by gradually eradicating the negativities within. It is an operation deep into one’s own unconscious, performed in order to rid our minds of all negativities and past conditioning.
The pain shoots down my legs. I squirm. A brief respite. Then pins and needles. More visceral reactions … I shift my weight. Then bring my knees up as noiselessly as possible, lock my fingers, rest chin on knees, clasp raised knees with both arms. At the end of the session, I stretch my legs out for a full five minutes to shake off the pins and needles before slowly rising to my feet.
We focus on the naval cavity today. The pain in my legs and lower back is intense. I shift my weight constantly, aware of all the movements and sounds around me …people moving, and adjusting their clothing, cushions and shawls; the creaking, cracking and popping sounds of knee joints; every yawn, cough and sniffle; cacophonous bird calls, the humming and chirping of myriad insects; the light rain falling and hitting the ground; gardeners sweeping the compounds, the construction activity close by ... In the meditation hall, the large sounds of silence are magnified.
The mind is so restless, agitated, wild, like a bull or elephant which creates havoc when it enters a human dwelling place. The teacher reminds us that to tame the mind, we must work very patiently, persistently and continuously. We have to do the work ourselves; no one can do it for us.
By training the mind to remain focused on one point, a real object of the present moment, without craving or aversion, we will be able to penetrate to the depths of the unconscious and eradicate all the impurities hidden there. This is the only way to enjoy real happiness – the happiness of liberation.
Today we focus on sensations in the nose area. A couple more students request for chairs. (We have to explain to the course manager why we are requesting the use of a chair. Permission to use a chair is denied if the request is deemed frivolous.) Others rearrange cushions in an effort to lessen their discomfort. Towards the end of the day, the twitching in the lower legs intensifies. How can this pulsating pain be an illusion -- “superficial, apparent reality, not ultimate truth”? It is so real and palpable; I feel the needles of pain shoot up my legs.
Everything is ephemeral, arising and passing every moment – annica. The rapidity and continuity of the process create the illusion of permanence. The only way to break the illusion is to learn to explore within oneself, and to experience the reality of one’s own physical and mental structure.
As the understanding of annica develops within oneself, the notion that there is no “I”, no “mine”, dawns on me. There is nothing that lasts more than a moment, nothing that one can identify as an unchanging self or soul. If something is indeed “mine”, then one must be able to possess it, to control it, but in fact, one has no mastery over anything, not even over one’s body: it keeps changing, decaying, regardless of one’s wishes. One learns to accept the truth.
We start the actual Vipassana technique today – the mental surgery. The first three days are preparation leading to the surgery. For one hour three times each day we have to sit perfectly still without shifting or moving. Some people contemplate leaving at this point. I make a quick decision. Should I leave? I raise my hand and ask for a meditation bench instead. The course manager, sensing my real and urgent need, quickly procures one. I grab hold of it and sit on it, on bended knees. My knees are now resting on the cushion while I am seated on the small wooden bench. The relief is immediate. I silently shout for joy.
Today we learn to observe bodily sensations and to remain equanimous. While we sit for meditation, most of the time, we will react to the sensations, but we will experience a few moments during which we find ourselves remaining equanimous and oblivious of our pain. Such moments are very powerful in changing the habit pattern of the mind. Gradually we will reach the stage in which we are not bothered by any sensation, knowing that it is annica – and bound to pass.
From observing respiration within a limited area, we now proceed to observing sensations throughout the body. When one begins the practice, it is very likely that one will first encounter unpleasant sensations such as discomfort, pain, pressure and so on. The habit of the mind is to react to sensations, and be agitated. We learn to observe sensations without reacting or identifying with them.
Ultimately, sensation gives rise only to wisdom, to the understanding of annica. When one stops generating a new sankhara (the mental reaction), one of the old ones will surface in the mind, and along with it a sensation will start within the body. If one remains equanimous, it too passes and another reaction arises in its place. One can choose to remain equanimous to physical sensations while the old sankhara continue to arise and pass, one after another.
If, out of ignorance, one reacts to sensations, then one multiplies the sankhara, and multiplies one’s misery. Conversely if one develops wisdom and stops reacting to sensations, the sankhara are eradicated, one after another. Misery is eradicated. To achieve this goal, we have to work on ourselves for the remaining five days of the course so that we can come out of our misery.
I grit my teeth and press on.
We are instructed to sweep, or scan, the body and take in all the sensations --- both pain and pleasure. We observe the sensations without any reactions of craving or aversion.
Gradually, as one learns to observe the phenomenon of mind and matter within, one stops reacting, because one gains wisdom and comes out of ignorance. The habit pattern of reaction is based on ignorance. The old habit of generating new reactions must be eliminated. This can only be done gradually, with repeated practice. One must put in effort. Work patiently, persistently and continuously.
The muscles in my legs twitch uncontrollably although the pain is now more manageable.
We are reminded to work hard and continuously, and to develop awareness of all the sensations that occur within the body while remaining equanimous towards them. Sooner or later, all the gross and unpleasant sensations will slowly become subtle vibrations in the blind areas of our body. We will start to experience a very pleasant flow of energy throughout the body.
The danger when this situation arises is that one takes this pleasurable sensory experience as the goal towards which one was working. The purpose of practicing Vipassana is not to experience a certain type of sensation, but rather to develop equanimity towards all sensations.
I am beginning to experience subtle, pleasant sensations and less pain. I remind myself that this too will change. Every sankhara, every mental conditioning is impermanent, arising and passing …
The entire exercise does become easier today as we sweep our bodies for sensations and watch them arise, and then disappear. We are reminded to understand the technique properly and make use of it in our daily lives. If one develops wisdom and starts observing objectively, the process of multiplication stops and the process of eradication begins. Layer after layer, the old sankhara will arise and be eradicated. Remain equanimous. Happiness is here and now.
The teacher tells us that it takes time to master the technique but as one practices, gradually one will find that in more and more external situations in which one would have reacted with negativity, one can now remain balanced. Even if one does react, the reaction will not be as intense or prolonged as it would have been in the past.
These ten good mental qualities are reinforced:
- strong determination
- pure, selfless love
Let us take the quality of tolerance. How does one develop tolerance? In a roomful of other meditators, one has many opportunities to develop tolerance. A fellow meditator’s persistent coughing, shifting her position, or adjusting her cushions, jolts my awareness. When the throbbing in my legs starts, I resist the impulse to adjust my position. I tread lightly instead of shuffling my feet. As I do this, I notice the noises around me quietly fading into oblivion … This is how we develop tolerance.
We are reminded that we have come to the course to live a life of morality, of mastery over our mind, and of purity of mind. We have taken the first step, a very important step, although the journey is long and will take one’s entire life.
We have discourse for the rest of the day and the one-hour sittings before Noble Silence is broken. When speech is finally permitted, we find our voices, not without some difficulty ...
The first words are the hardest to find. We gather outside our rooms and laugh, tears of mirth flowing amidst all the hilarious stories and heartwarming confessions swopped. How a kind-hearted student, on seeing rain drops pelting on the clothes left to dry on the clothesline outside, had wanted so badly to tell the neighbor to take in the laundry, but was afraid to break Noble Silence … She restrained herself, summoning every ounce of her willpower. We experienced unpredictable monsoon weather every day and had to take in the clothes and re-hang them on the clothesline several times a day, when we were not in the meditation or dining halls.
Even the simple act of hanging laundry out to dry elicited heartwarming responses. Taking time to enjoy the warm sunshine outdoors, and the feel and smell of clean laundry, was in itself a very relaxing meditative experience some of us learnt to appreciate. Hanging out laundry on the clothesline after carefully hand washing it ourselves, like the daily sweeping and upkeep of our own rooms, are just a few examples of living life with purpose and giving meaning to ordinary household responsibilities that had eluded some of us present at the retreat.
More confessions pour forth … how we had had to make a great effort to avert our eyes at every meal, because we knew that initial eye contact, added to our close proximity, would lead to growing familiarity. Those of us who had inadvertently caught each other’s eye at times admitted to quickly looking away; the eyes, being windows to the soul, reveal great depths … and so, we pour our hearts out.
An hour is set aside for lunch and settling administrative matters. We watch a documentary featuring the work of volunteers who bring Vipassana meditation to a school in Malaysia, thus transforming lives through their outreach work. In the late afternoon, we start sweeping the premises and cleaning our dormitories, and then spend the rest of the day at leisure.
After breakfast we get down to work cleaning the designated common areas, hug everyone goodbye, and lug our luggage to the entrance of the Dhamma Centre for the homeward-bound journey. LB and I hop into our waiting cab which once again winds through dirt and gravel tracks flanked by graceful palms and beautiful forested areas.
Noticing the glow, and the aura of peace that has settled over the home – bound passengers, the cabbie politely inquires about the course. We are quieter, more calm and serene, on our return journey. There is a certain balance in our thoughts, as well as in our carriage, that was not there before; even the cabbie is noticeably less chatty. Annica …
THE LAST WORD ON MEDITATION AND FINDING MEANING IN OUR LIVES
“According to the wisdom of Buddha, we can actually use our lives to prepare for death. We do not have to wait for the painful death of someone close to us or the shock of terminal illness to force us into looking at our lives. Nor are we condemned to go out empty-handed at death to meet the unknown. We can begin, here and now, to find meaning in our lives. We can make of every moment an opportunity to change and to prepare -- wholeheartedly, precisely, and with peace of mind -- for death and eternity.”
-- Sogyal Rinpoche, “The Tibetan Book Of Living and Dying”