Experiencing Vipassana — Part 2
Notes from doing 10 days of Vipassana meditation for the first time in my life
This is the second of two posts documenting my Vipassana experience. For Part 1, click here -> http://bit.ly/2GKnZkG
Knowledge / Observations
At the end of each day, there would be a 1.5 hour discourse by S.N. Goenka explaining the meditation practice for the day and relevant philosophy of Vipassana. The discussion below follows from the same.
The nature of the mind and the goal of Vipassana
The mind is described as perceiving reality through a four stage process:
- Cognition: The part that perceives the raw sensory inputs coming to your mind.
- Recognition: The part that draws meaningful interpretations from the sensory inputs coming to your mind. Recognising the shape as a circle or a woman, the sound as a child or a crow, etc.
- Evaluation: The part the passes judgement and attaches emotion to what has been perceived and recognised. An angry man, a beautiful woman, a bitter taste, etc.
- Volition: The final reaction of the mind towards the evaluation it has received. Fear of the angry man, lust towards the beautiful woman, repulsion from the bitter taste, etc.
While the first three are automated processes, your volitions are completely in your control.
Your mind doesn’t just a produce a volition (or reaction) in isolation, overtime your prior volitions have created a layered stock of volitions such that your current reaction to seeing an object is a response to both the object itself and prior reactions on seeing the object. It is the volitions (reactions) you have practiced.
Fundamentally, there are only two volitions — craving and aversion. When your mind perceives something as pleasure-giving, it seeks more of it (craving) and when your mind perceives something as pain-giving, it seeks less of it (aversion). This seeking to have more or less of something is an expectation, an expectation you impose upon reality wishing it were something else. This expectation of a different reality and denial (or ignorance) of the actual reality is the cause of suffering.
Through meditation, you practise non-reactance or acceptance; you start by being neutral to your breath (and eventually all the sensations on your body) so that you may perceive things just as they are instead of how you/your mind would like them to be. Meditation thus becomes an exercise in acceptance of the truth.
While meditating itself, one observes how the mind races between the past and present; pleasant memories, fears about the future, fantasies of the coming times and more. And all along you can see it dance between craving and aversion. It is shocking how these fantasies can be so overpowering; I’d be sitting there in the meditation with my legs folded and eyes closed going through Vipassana, but mentally I’m in a completely different world, in absolute oblivion to the reality around me. And you wonder if this is how we go through life, albeit with our eyes open.
This framing of the mind doesn’t sit too far away from what one might read in popular psychology books. Our behaviour is the outcome of a pile of habits that we ourselves have trained ourselves into through constant repetition. Pavlovian dogs responding to the bells of our masters; but ours masters are none but ourselves.
The eightfold path of Buddhism
In Buddhism/through Vipassana you’re trying to walk along the eightfold path.
It’s three main divisions are:
- Sheela: Right actions
- Samadhi: Right thoughts (A pure mind)
- Panya: Wisdom
During the course you’re expected to follow the Five Precepts :
- to abstain from killing any being,
- to abstain from stealing,
- to abstain from all sexual activity,
- to abstain from telling lies,
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
This automatically takes care of your sheela.
Through anapana and meditation, you purify your mind, striving for samadhi.
With a pure mind, you can now start observing reality free from craving and aversions, seeing things as they are, understanding the true nature of reality, and attaining panya.
A interesting distinction is made in the types of panya
- Suta-maya panya: Wisdom gained through knowledge acquired from others. Eg: A friend tells you that a restaurant has delicious food.
- Chinta-maya panya: Wisdom gained from rational thought. Eg: You visit a restaurant and observe that the customers are leaving satisfied, the food smells delicious, etc. eventually concluding that food must be delicious.
- Bhavana-maya panya: Wisdom gained through one’s own experience. Eg: You visit the restaurant and eat the food, experiencing and knowing for yourself that the food is good.
Here the strongest emphasis is placed on bhavana-maya-panya and believing in things because one has experienced it themselves. One is reminded repeatedly that Vipassana is not a thing to dogmatically believe in but something to experience first-hand.
I feel this emphasis particularly relevant in our information age. We are surrounded by must-eat foods to become sexier, must-read books to get wiser and so on. We feel good once we’ve read an article or watched a video about a good diet or whatever, we enjoy suta-maya panya but unfortunately we just stop there, indulging in the masturbation of self-improvement. It almost feels like an accomplishment to just know. But here we’re reminded that we can discover the ultimate truth not through knowledge but through experience.
The bigger picture — according to Buddha
So why are we doing all this? What’s the bigger picture? Here’s how it goes:
We’re all going through an endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Life is misery (dukkha). No you didn’t read the wrong, life doesn’t have misery, the cause of life is misery. The misery of your desires. In every life, you are born, you battle your cravings and aversions, you suffer for them, caught in suffering and unable to attain peace, at death, your consciousness enters another body and repeats the cycle. Endlessly. Ad infinitum.
How does one break the cycle? By eliminating desire — by getting rid of our sankharas (another word for volitions). By following the eightfold path, we are able to see the endless cycle, let go of our desires, rid ourselves of misery and are no longer are trapped by the thirst of desire. We attain nirvana and are set free.
At the time of Buddha, there were many other philosophies prevailing. His discovery of the meditation technique of Vipassana is what connected abstract philosophy (birth/rebirth/liberation) to a practical everyday reality (observing one’s breath).
As Gautama the Buddha, meditated with intensity, he was able to experience the finest sensations and perceive the depths of reality.
He discovered that we are all impermanent. Every moment we change, atoms from our body fall out, new atoms come in. Every moment we are different. The universe is in constant flux. Everything is changing every moment, nothing is the same. Impermanence is the truth. There is no boundary that separates us from the rest of the universe. A person talking to another person is pile of atoms directing vibrations at another. The self is an illusion visible only at the aggregate level.
Vipassana as I experienced it, is a beautiful path to follow. Buddhism in its limited form as taught during Vipassana is a wonderful set of beliefs. It is less like a religion and more like an exercise routine. An exercise routine targeted towards your mind. In the course of our daily lives, we naturally chase the obvious and the visible: controlling our diets and our behaviours. Vipassana meditation focuses on the root of it all: the mind. It teaches us to look at the mind as a muscle that you’re trying to strengthen. This shift in perspective is extremely powerful. You go from helplessly experiencing your thoughts, emotions, sensations to being able to see them as something outside of you, with complete control of how you will react to them. You find a level of consciousness above the mind.
The extreme emphasis on practice is admirable. You do the work, you get the results. No miracles. Wisdom is not given but must be experienced and discovered. Alone.
The lack of dogma of any sort is also admirable. You will find the Buddhist religion and philosophy nestled inside Hinduism. One will find all the teachings and lessons completely in tune with contemporary scientific thought except for concepts of birth, rebirth, liberation. Here too you are told, that if you don’t want to believe, you need not do so.
Overall I found Vipassana to be a very compelling experience and would highly recommend it to everyone.