3 days of Anapana and 7 days of Vipassana meditation
I’m not sure if an ordinary person could meditate ten hours daily. See, it’s easy for monks and nuns who don’t have any responsibilities that hold them back from working towards infinite happiness.
This is why Goenka wanted us to dedicate 10 days of our lives to the lives of monks and nuns, who live from the charity of others. So we had this great chance of giving up on our daily duties and disconnect from the outside world and social media. With my mind having accumulated so much distress, I found no privacy and space to evaluate them in silence; therefore, I couldn’t have gone to a better place than the meditation centre. You might see it as a form of escape, or even selfishness, which I will not deny. I’ve allowed myself numerous selfish acts, but this one had to be good.
On the arrival day, they asked for our electronics, books, journals, pens, etc., which they looked after. I didn’t like the idea of not having my journal for 10 days. In the end, I thought, had any writing or reading ever managed to help me dig deep down my mind to observe my misery without reacting wearily while scribbling the words down? Or did all that merely enhance my self-pitying state?
Gradually I grew to realise that I’d been a slave of my own mind since the day I was put to a kindergarten, as though a seed of misery had been planted and over the many years have grown into a weeping willow where all the eyes of the leaves are pointing down towards melancholy. Over the years, the slave had grown accustomed to the sight and presence of the little tree and even referred to her as an inspiring friend. There was nobody else around. Can you resent the slave for it? All these years, the slave has been capable of filtering the tree’s negative energies onto paper, but it no longer works. The slave realised that all the things, whether good or bad are ephemeral, and the only reason she had been so attached to the weeping willow in her mind was that it had promised to inspire her to write a masterpiece.
It didn’t work like that.
She had been on a crusade with her mind with both knees down. There was no focus, just the desperate belief in a lie that would tie more knots and develop more negative sankharas (mental formation).
Then I remembered why I came here.
When the gong went at 4:00 am on the first morning, I was already in the shower. If there is anything I am good at, it’s setting the alarm of my body clock to a certain time, and I would wake up easily. The first meditation class of the day would commence at 4:30 and finish at 6:30 (breakfast time). You were free to meditate in your room or the main hall. I would always opt for the main hall because it was always air-conditioned, which helped keep my head cool and cause my skin sensations.
Astonishingly, my mind was sharpest in the mornings. Before I came, I was anxious about negative thoughts ruling my head throughout the course, but my thoughts were merely random, so it was easier to recapture the focus on my breath. However, I was distracted by thoughts of the future, so I had to remind myself of the here and now. In the first half of the course, I remember hearing poetic words, articulate phrases and accurate expressions of my feelings in my head, but I couldn’t put them down anywhere.
I understood the importance of noble silence. You weren’t even supposed to have eye contact with fellow meditators. I enjoyed it. It could have gone on forever for me. Silence is gold to the mind. Talking to people would’ve disturbed your mental flow. Only silence would lead you towards a greater depth of the mind.
I can’t do a proper lotus position because my legs are too short. You shouldn’t force yourself, either. It’s crucial to make sure that your knees aren’t in discomfort from the beginning. It was interesting to watch other people’s quirky ways of getting comfortable. Some would create a mini couch by placing cushions on their backs and wrapping a shawl around them to hold the cushions. Then they would fasten both ends of the shawl onto their shins. A good number of people (with knee and back problems) were provided chairs. Of course, it isn’t easy to keep your back straight at all times, even if you lean against a chair. I merely sat on a self-inflated cushion by BackVitalizer™ with another cushion below it. I also had two yoga blocks to prop my knees. Most of the other people didn’t seem to find a comfortable position. I found the kneelers very interesting. They either sat on buckwheat hulls filled meditation cushion, kneeling, or some would sit on a kneeling chair.
Goenka trained over 1300 teachers. If you went to a course now, there’d be an assistant teacher who would play original audios or video footage by Goenka. At first, it was difficult following this stranger’s voice, and yet, you trusted him. Later on, the videos helped in developing familiarity. He taught you the first step, which was morality (sila). You’ll be asked to say the 5 precepts out loud before committing yourself to Vipassana. They are universal, and you will see elements from other religions in them. You abstain from killing any being, stealing, lying, sexual activity and intoxicants. The precepts can’t be any simpler than that.
The next step is samadhi’s essence, which is basically the significance of the mind’s concentration.
The third step is panna – wisdom and understanding of the technique. You understand the law of nature (dhamma) and accept it. The way Goenka talked about dhamma was interesting, as it reminded me of karma. Do a good deed, and good things will happen to you. In other words, this is a Buddhist principle. He also talked about goodwill being the only good thing that prevails. We don’t harm people because we don’t want them to harm us. We don’t steal from others because we wouldn’t want them to steal from us. I recognize this concept. It is what the Christian philosopher Albert Schweitzer had once said (like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc.) when attempting to explain “goodness.”
I would say I managed to get my head empty twice during the 10 days. But I’ll go into more detail later. It’s definitely not something you can achieve at every sitting. Funnily enough, during one of the teacher’s discourses, Goenka would say that we were merely at the stage of kindergarten in the school of Vipassana.
We spent three days practising anapana meditation, which focuses on the triangular area of the face –breathing in and out of the nose while paying attention to any sensation inside and outside the nostrils and the air that touches the upper lip. Those days were tough. The whole point was to sharpen the mind and not feed it with anything else but…the air coming in and out of the nostrils. I could see how people were growing dubious about this exercise. I believed that there was great importance in practising anapana, and I knew that I had to focus and not let any verbalization or visualization distract me. Of course, it did. I felt no sensation on my upper lip on the first day.
I struggled mainly on the second day because my body was shouting, “Lotus position AGAIN? Are you f***ing kidding me?!”
I spent Day 2 and 3 in pain. My hip joints, hamstrings and inside the shoulder blades were very sore. There was pressure around my knees, which made me believe that I wasn’t doing it right.
The afternoon classes were tough; I felt tired and would crouch forward and doze off for one second.
I was insecure about my work and sought reassurance, so I signed up to speak to the teacher, despite his reserved and exceedingly detached nature. He was a tall German man with a pale complexion. His outward appearance resembled that of a surgeon or a biology teacher. He knew that I was German, too, from my profile. But I wasn’t thinking in German at that time, and I didn’t want to speak German. I just wanted reassurance that this pain will go the fuck away!!! Luckily he confirmed it. And so I continued as usual.
In fact, the pain didn’t go away; I just grew accustomed to it.
Goenka would say that if we encounter any negative or positive sensations in the audiotapes, we shouldn’t react to them but observe them objectively as if we were detached from our body. I didn’t understand it at first. I wanted to revolt, but I didn’t know that revolt meant surrender.
The longest break was lunch, from 11 am to 1 pm. They serve Vegetarian food made with organic vegetables. Despite being a meat-eater, I’ve always appreciated Vegetarian food and enjoyed almost every meal they cooked for us. We had chilli con Carne, Bolognese, Thai Curry, veggie pie and lots of vegetable stews, tofu and salad. There were brown rice and quinoa. I wasn’t as fussy as I used to be; I even ate yam potato, which I dislike. I would always eat quickly and use my time to walk outside in the walking area. It would often be a quick walk, too, because I was paranoid about the mosquitoes and the hot sun. I stayed outside longer when it was overcast or drizzling. I just found it a lot easier to breathe.
Sometimes I would also lie down in bed to rest for half an hour but never really fall asleep. Even when keeping one eye half-open, I would start a dream sequence. During the course, I’d had very vivid and pleasant dreams. I saw myself content with my boyfriend and family – even dreamt about people I’d met 12 years ago. The dreams were linear, slightly comprehensive. They were no longer broken fragments. However, there was a thunderstorm on the 8th night, triggering a nightmare. I saw a girl stirring her hand in a puddle of water and blood.
On one of the previous nights, I also heard a noise outside. I couldn’t work out what it was. A fox? Surely it was no dog because it didn’t howl or whimper like a dog. I can’t even describe the sound. Mating foxes would let out distinct high-pitched howls, but I’ve never heard them communicate with one another through raspy barks. At some point, I even believed it was a starving human walking towards the building, which was unlocked. My room was right next to the back entrance. Somehow I managed to fall back asleep and convince myself in my dream that the creature had been a fox.
Another bizarre incident happened as well during the day. My room was a twin room, which I shared with a roommate. We had a small wardrobe, each placed against the window, mine facing my bed; my roommate’s facing hers. That was our privacy. We had two doors as well; literally, she was room 128, and I was 127 – like two rooms co-joined into one.
One morning after breakfast, I entered the room, and she wasn’t there. I was getting ready to go outside, put my socks on and grabbed my sunglasses. On the way towards the door, I heard movements in her wardrobe. Next, I heard breathing and sniffles. I’d assumed that she was hiding in there for some reason. Later it turned out that she hadn’t been hiding. I almost felt embarrassed. My paranoia and imagination were driving me nuts and, at the same time, scares me.
The days had been hot, and the meditation hall remained the coolest place in the building. I’d grown attached to the hall.
He taught us Vipassana on the 4th day. I remember being very excited and curious. Goenka asked us to scan the outside of our bodies from top to bottom, but each part of the body individually. You would start from the top of your head and slowly move down your scalp. Next, you would continue from your forehead down your face, scan your throat. Next, I would do my arms; observe each upper arm separately before moving down to my lower arms and hands. Then I would scan my chest and belly before I do the neck, upper back and lower back.
I never really felt anything in my legs until some time had passed, and discomfort began to arise.
The whole point of it is to observe the sensations in your body. Cool air might be brushing your skin, or a dust particle might be tickling the tip of your nose. There were all sorts of sensations if you were looking closely with your inner eye. Now and then, I would sense a stinging itch on my leg, or my foot would throw a jerk like in a falling dream. The worst was my seborrheic scalp, which would tingle almost all the way through, and I could not scratch. Interestingly, I didn’t feel like I needed to. My skin still reacted sensitively in the dry environment of the room. It also dried out my mouth and throat.
On another note, my hearing got so strong that I believed the entire room heard me swallow my own saliva. You could also hear everyone’s digesting belly, which was not a pleasant sound.
During one of the teacher’s discourses, we watched a 75-minute video in which Goenka explained that we were now removing the mind’s impurities by viewing reality as it is through our own body’s framework. He emphasized that those natural sensations were the key, and there was no other way. Pleasant sensations would ignite a sense of craving, while unpleasant ones would trigger aversion. Therefore, none of these are good for the mind.
And your job is not to react to any of them. Do not feed your mind with reactions, but be aware of them and know that they are merely impermanent. Remain calm, equanimous and patiently observe how it fades into oblivion.
He gave us a good example of a starving person. If the person gets no food for about two weeks, the body will start consuming its reserves. And it’s the same with the mind. If you don’t feed it with any reactions, inner verbalization or visualization, it will start digging up old material and consume it. What’s interesting about this process is that you are not always fully aware of what it is your mind brings up.
During one Vipassana class (on Day 6 or 7), I wasn’t supposed to move my body for the whole hour. If you don’t move your limbs, they will somehow detach themselves from you. You get a sense of numbness. (Sometimes, if you were cheeky, you’d try to wiggle your toes or move your fingers to make sure you’ve not paralyzed yourself with the exercise.) After a while, a vibrating sensation surrounded my body in a way that I couldn’t describe. It was as if all those tiny little sensations, including the legs’ discomfort, have somehow collaborated and turned me into a giant Transformer. I couldn’t tell if I liked it or not; it certainly felt different. Here, Goenka would tell you to look out for any sensations inside the body. You’d scan the inside from front to back, back to front, and then from left to right and right to left.
Goenka said the danger of that sensation was craving. Some people would find it so pleasant that they would aim towards it during each sitting. I definitely didn’t crave it after the first time.
By the time someone had hit the gong, and I opened my eyes, I noticed a lump in my throat. I tried my best not to cry because I didn’t understand why I would cry. Besides, we were having lunch. I didn’t know what the tears were for, so I held them back.
Day 6, 7 and 8 were probably the most effective days for me. I worked very hard. Sometimes I would be the first to enter the hall before anyone. I needed so much time to count myself in. Usually, 10-20 min of anapana would do before I started scanning my body. Sometimes I would spend the entire hour doing anapana.
I felt those vibrations another time, but I wasn’t doing the exercise properly, as I had visualizations. Afterwards, I wanted to cry again, but I didn’t. I knew I made a mistake, so there was no point. It took me a while to accept that those 10 days were merely a beginning – the first step, and yet I wanted to make the most out of it because I knew that my social environment back home wouldn’t give me space and time to practise as much as I should.
I wanted to give my best on Day 9 and failed miserably because I couldn’t let it happen naturally. I was impatient and put myself too much under pressure. The vibrations never came back, and my mind was all over the place again.
It’s interesting how while observing the discomfort or even pain, you would unconsciously poke an area in your body that has stored the negative energies of a past event. You call it up to the surface and observe as it fades away.
But reaching down the depth is not easy. Grabbing it by its roots is not easy.
Noble silence ended on Day 10 after the morning sitting. That ruined everything for me. It was practically over. People really enjoyed talking in the dining hall. That chatter began echoing in my head so badly that I needed to get out. It all came way too fast, and I couldn’t handle it. It made me anxious. I also had my first cramp in the calf, which stopped me from concentrating properly.
Last but not least, Goenka taught us metta meditation, which is the awareness of positive energies that you want to share with people around you. You develop compassion, love and wish everyone happiness. It was a little too much for me to handle, and I knew I wasn’t ready.
Some people would do the course for 20 days or even 30. I’ve decided to do another 10-day class in Australia next year. I’ve always worked better with an instructing teacher. Now being back at this hectic point of my life, I’m finding it so hard to have alone time. But nothing is ever an excuse.
Impermanence never really strikes us as impermanent. If you’re in the present, you believe that certain things such as love will last.
Derrida has already explained to us that nothing is constant. Things break. And if you put them back together, they won’t ever be the same. We shouldn’t form any attachment, especially to objects that are bound to break. Drug-addicts aren’t addicted to the drug, but the transitory sensations. One would say he or she has always known that, but one has never been aware of it.
I’ve now given up on alcohol entirely because I don’t like it. I don’t need a cigarette anymore, either, when feeling nervous or anxious, because there is no point. I’ve given up on drugs because I’ve never felt any sensation, except for nausea, paranoia or nothing. I just no longer see the point of it all.
If you go to a Vipassana course, you will learn that a Buddha has rediscovered this meditation technique over 2500 years ago. It’s not an organized religion or a sect; it’s just a school of meditation that teaches you how to eradicate the mind’s impurities and live a happy life. Goenka himself was a Hindu and emphasized that Vipassana was for everyone who wanted to be the master of his or her own mind and become free from misery by stopping the mind from multiplying bad sankharas through observation, awareness and equanimity. Eventually, after a lot of effort and hard work, you will be able to grab the misery by its root and rip it out.
It’s mere science.
I’ve learnt that only I myself can cleanse my mind, and neither writing, escaping, or any antidepressant will ever help me. The weeping willow is no longer a friend; we observe each other; that is all. In a way, we’ve been taking each other for granted. And somehow, she knows I want her to go. She would. But trees can’t move.