I spent my holidays in a very different fashion from years previous. I avoided shopping malls, and decided to give myself a unique gift: the gift of knowing myself. “Know thyself” is a familiar phrase, but I never truly understood the meaning. Vipassana, a Buddhist technique, gave me the opportunity to know myself on the physical level, not merely the intellectual.
Before attending a 10-day practice, I was a Vipassana virgin. Sure, I did some research as any good writer should, but all I knew was that Gotama Buddha liberated himself, creating the meditation technique of Vipassana. Gotama was the most well-known Buddha, and people referred to him as Buddha because he was an ‘enlightened person.’ Buddha means ‘one who is enlightened,’ so anyone can be a Buddha. Buddhas existed before Gotama, and have continued to exist since his passing.
Born into a lavish lifestyle, Gotama had the freedom to search for answers. He was five years old when he first meditated under a tree, and became fully enlightened when he was 35.
Gotama understood the Law of Nature, and he understood that humans are merely an aspect of this great law. It seems fitting, then, that he reached enlightenment sitting under a tree. After liberating himself, he spent 45 years serving others, offering them escape from their misery.
Misery is universal, whether you are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish—it does not matter. All humans experience misery. How does one escape from this cycle of turmoil? Gotama taught that misery stems from the subconscious mind and manifests as desire or aversion. I’ve adopted this practice to dig into the deepest layers of my mind, alleviating my misery.
The course was held at the Northwest Vipassana Centre in Onalaska, about four hours south of the Canadian border in Washington. Nothing but farmland surrounded me, but Mt. St. Helens sat perfectly placed in the background. The property covers about 50 acres, with four separate buildings dividing the space. Men and women were segregated throughout the duration of the 10 days, though everyone meditated together in a large hall.
The Vipassana course, for some, can be viewed as solitary confinement. I made a vow to stay for the entire 10 days along with five other precepts—I swore to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, telling lies, and taking intoxicants for the duration of the course.
I should mention this was a silent meditation, and I did not speak to anyone the entire time. If I spoke and consciously or unconsciously told a lie, I could harm my progress. Additionally, humans as social beings like to discuss their experiences, and thus cross contamination of one’s practice could occur. If I saw lights glowing around me and expressed this to another, they may pine for the same experience. This is not what Vipassana teaches. Vipassana teaches to be in harmony with the moment as it is, not how we want it to be.
The first step of Vipassana is a technique called Anapana Sati. Anapana centres around breath coming in and going out. I focused on my nose and nostril area. That’s it. Breath coming in and breath going out. I had to be aware of my normal, natural breath and nothing else.
Focus on my breathing; easy, right? Not exactly. The first day I sat on my pillow in a large space with 80 other bodies. Two teachers sat before us on podiums, one male and one female. The teachers were guides and answered any questions about the technique. The course, however, is guided by a man from Burma named S.N. Goenka. Although he has recently passed, his teachings are preseved on video and audio recordings.
Anapana Sati is a technique that sharpens the mind. Goenka refers to the mind as a wild animal, uncontrollable and dangerous. But if the mind is trained it can be a very powerful tool. What does it mean to have a wild animal mind? During my first sitting focusing on my nose and natural breath, thoughts flitted through my mind like a slideshow. Images of my grandmother’s health failing transitioned to pop icons popping their booties. How wild my mind is—jumping from thought to thought. Whenever these images diverted my awareness, I always found my way back to the gentle touch of air on the inner rims of my nostrils.
Sensation: seeing things as they really are
Doubt swelled in my mind as the days lingered on. Walking on a designated path over and over and over again. No one to speak to but my own self. I felt like a prisoner in my own mind. Spending three days focusing on the sensations in and around my nose—I felt like I seriously made a mistake coming to the practice. However on the fourth day, Goenka began teaching the technique of Vipassana. “The real work begins,” he said.
Vipassana is quite scientific in theory. Matter is made up of sub-atomic particles moving together to create a solid mass. Although the mass appears solid, on an atomic level this is not the case. A human body is a great example. Trillions upon trillions of cells make up our structure. Our organs function without asking them to. All these separate parts make a complete whole. Vipassana is where mind and matter meet. Vipassana taught me to use my body as a way to understand the world on the sub-atomic level.
So, sounds great in theory, but how to put it into practice? “Start from the top of the head and move to the tips of the toes. Survey every particular part of the body, piece by piece,” advised Goenka, “Sensations soon will arise.”
I focused on the soft spot on the top of my head and waited for a sensation. Sure enough I felt tingling, like a cracked egg seeping down my scalp. Next I moved to my forehead where more sensations stirred. As I reached my eyes I felt a nagging, dull sensation in the centre of my back; however, I kept my focus on my eyes—even though other sensations began to arise. Other parts were ‘blind’ where I didn’t feel any sensation. Instead of reacting in a negative or positive way, I passed my awareness to the next part of my body.
When we feel something, or don’t, we generally label or try to discern what it is. I feel happy, I feel sad, I feel sore, so on and so forth. We identify ourselves with the sensation. Vipassana teaches ‘no me, no my, and no I,’ remaining neutral to our emotions when dealing with bodily sensations. These are the two keys to Vipassana: awareness and equanimity.
I worked patiently and persistently like Goenka advised, and felt sensations pass as soon as they arose. I experienced this on a physical level with my own body. Little did I know it was teaching me a greater understanding: everything changes.
Impermanence, the idea that everything changes, is widely discussed throughout Buddhist philosophy. Understanding impermanence on the physical level allowed me to be removed from sensations and merely observe them, to observe myself. I was still skeptical about how this could liberate my mind, and doubt reared its ugly head. I’m the kind of person who needs tangible proof, and I was not yet satisfied.
One night the rain pounded on the skylight above my bed lulling me to sleep. The next morning the temperature dropped below freezing. I decided to take a walk after the morning meditation. The Vipassana schedule is quite strict, with the first bell at 4 a.m. followed by a morning sit till 6:30 a.m. I scampered onto the frozen walking trail after breakfast with impermanence swirling in my mind.
A lone pine tree sat in the middle of the path and I noticed rain droplets clinging to the ends of the pine needles. I placed a finger on a raindrop and realized the change in temperature had frozen the droplets as they fell. By this time, sunlight crept over the mountaintops. I knew in a few hours the sun would move across the property warming up the tree. The frozen droplets would warm up and fall from the needle tips to the ground. This is impermanence.
As beautiful as the tree looked, I knew the sun would come up and the drops would fall. How could I attach to something I knew wasn’t permanent? Craving or desiring something will only lead me to misery. This craving is never satisfied and only fuels the desire to satisfy the craving. It’s a vicious cycle. Such is the law of nature.
Goenka told us a story about Gotama Buddha and the teachings of impermanence. A young woman longed for a child. She would pray to the gods to give her a child and one day she became pregnant. She gave birth to a son and was overwhelmed with happiness. However when the child was two, he became very ill and eventually died. When family members came to take the child to the cremation ghats, the mother clung to the child refusing to believe the child had died. No one could reason with the distraught mother, so they sent her to Gotama.
She laid the body of the small child before Gotama Buddha asking him to perform whatever miracle he could. Buddha knew the boy was dead and would not be able to convince the mother. So, instead, he asked her to find five sesame seeds from someone who had never known another to die. Happy that Buddha might be able to help, she left hopeful. She went to the first house explaining how Buddha could save her child but all she needed was five sesame seeds. Eager to help, the householders gave her five seeds. Remembering Buddha’s words she inquired if they knew anyone who died. They looked at her sadly and said, “Oh yes, our father passed away.”
The mother returned the seeds and sought another house where she discovered they too experienced the death of someone in their life. She spent the entire day going from house to house and soon realized everyone had known someone who died. She came back to Buddha and understood she was just another person who had known someone to die.
Vipassana teaches the art of living to understand the art of dying. We are all living to die and it’s a reality that is not openly discussed. Many fear death, yet death comes for us all. Insect or human, everything that lives will eventually die. Such is the law of nature.
Dhamma- the Law of Nature
In S.N. Goenka’s book, Dhamma Verses: Poems of a Modern-day Master of Vipassana Meditation, he explains, “Dhamma is the universal path out of suffering that leads to inner peace.” Everyone’s experience with Dhamma is different. Dhamma is like a friend that never betrays, nor hates, nor asks for anything in return other than acknowledgment of it.
My truth is discovered through my own experiences. No one can have them for me. No guru or supernatural being will come down and enlighten me; I must enlighten myself. Experiencing sensations in my body and knowing this too shall pass is the law of impermanence, the law of Dhamma. This wisdom of knowing myself allowed me to understand traumatic life events that dwelled in the inner core of my being.
All misery stems from one traumatic experience hidden within the subconscious mind. Like a weed growing inside, producing more and more seeds. Seeds of misery. When a feeling is suppressed it later manifests as sensation on the body. We believe external forces are the result of our misery, but the truth of the matter is we are the first instigator.
By the end of my 10 days, learning the Vipassana technique, I understood I am the sole creator and crafter of my life. Everything that has happened has the same common denominator: me. Realizing I control my own life pulled on strings of wisdom that before were unknown to me. Observing my cellular structure gave insight into my subconscious mind and the habit patterns that manifest in my external reality.
Qualities of love and compassion arose out of this awareness, which was the last technique we learned. Knowing I am a victim of my own misery is quite a liberating thought. Knowing whenever I hurt someone in my life, it was because I was hurting too; This is my Dhamma, my truth. This enlightenment filled me with a desire for others to have the same experience, a compassion towards others, so they too can find their way out of misery.
Learning about Dhamma I understood: humans are nature. We are made up of the same elements that appear on the periodic table that exist throughout the universe. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the American astrophysicist said, “We are all connected; to each other biologically; to the earth, chemically; to the rest of the universe, atomically.”
Once I realized the interconnectivity of myself with the universe, I felt very whole. Like I’ve never been alone. I can explain it almost like a blanket draped over my shoulders that I wasn’t aware of before. I came to this understanding by observing sensation in my body—through the technique of Vipassana. I learned to be content with the moment as it is and equanimous to my own thoughts and emotions. Knowing that thoughts and emotions will change allowed me to experience a peace with them.
Everyone experiences enlightenment differently. No practice is better or worse. We must walk our own path and discover our relationship with all things. For 10 days I focused solely on myself. I explain it as a gift because I never before spent this much time alone. I learned to love myself as I am, not as I want to be. The gift of self-love is something all humans can experience. Come out of sadness to walk on the path of enlightenment. And may all beings be happy.