“As soon as we pay attention to our breath, as we breathe in, these three things—body, breath, and mind—come together.”
– Thích Nhất Hạnh
Earlier this year, I completed my third Vipassanā (insight meditation) retreat. It was a ten-day silent retreat to learn a meditation technique that was re-discovered by Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha) over 2500 years ago. I’m writing this blog to highlight some of the basic tenets of Vipassanā (there’s more to it than being silent for 10 days!) without delving into the details of what I personally experienced as this varies from person to person and is best not discussed.
What is Vipassanā?
Vipassanā in Pali means “insight” or “seeing deeply”. It involves training the mind to observe reality as it is and not as we wish it to be. It is a meditation technique that the Buddha mastered over time and found to be effective in eradicating suffering. It is considered to be one of his most fundamental teachings.
The introductory Vipassanā course is a 10-day silent meditation retreat that doesn’t allow any form of communication. This means that you can’t speak, read, write, sing, or communicate in any form (including gestures and eye contact) — except with your instructors to clarify doubts. The idea is to enable you to focus all your attention on learning Vipassanā, given that most of us have little control over our minds and thoughts (the extent of this becomes apparent once you start meditating).
However, these are just the finer (and less significant) aspects of the practice.
Turning the Unconscious Into the Conscious
“The mind spends most of the time lost in fantasies and illusions, reliving pleasant or unpleasant experiences and anticipating the future with eagerness or fear. While lost in such cravings or aversions, we are unaware of what is happening now, what we are doing now.”
– S. N. Goenka
The mind is its own master and tends to wander in a hundred different directions at any given point in time. It’s no surprise, then, that being fully conscious and mindful of the present moment is harder than we think.
Tell me — when was the last time you were aware of your natural breath? The sensation of air entering and exiting your nostrils…
We’re so caught up with the noise in our minds (and surroundings) that we fail to notice something as basic as the sensation of our own breath that keeps us alive! Now imagine how many other things we may be missing…
While many meditation techniques help in improving one’s concentration and calming the mind, they don’t help us reach the depths of the unconscious mind and tackle our thoughts, emotions, and mental defilements at the root.
Vipassanā meditation seeks to dig out deep-rooted “saṅkhāras” or mental dispositions that we have collected (and multiplied) over the years.
To put it simply, the majority of our problems and insecurities as adults stem from our childhood. As time passes, we assume we have processed our insecurities, emotions, and baggage. However, more often than not, we merely shove them to the back of our minds until they’re temporarily forgotten and replaced with new woes. We keep collecting more and more of these negative emotions or saṅkhāras — until the negative energy we’ve amassed over time starts taking a toll on our physical and mental health.
In order to deal with our saṅkhāras, we first need to be aware of our reality — our natural breath, our thoughts, and the sensations within our body. Vipassanā meditation helps train the mind to do this with equanimity, that is, without any judgment, craving, or aversion towards them — but by observing and accepting them for what they are.
Experiencing the Interaction of Mind & Matter
“Anything that arises in the mind will manifest itself as a sensation on the body; if you observe this sensation you are observing both the mind as well as matter.”
– S.N. Goenka
Have you ever wondered how your mind and body interact with each other on a daily basis?
Biology classes in school aside, I certainly hadn’t thought about it until I attended my first Vipassanā retreat. As articulated by Jay Shetty, the only thing that stays with us from the moment we’re born until the moment we die is our breath — and every emotion in life is experienced with a change in our breath!
The technique of Vipassanā meditation brings us closer to our inner being by making us conscious of our natural breath, and in turn, using it as a tool to witness the interaction of mind and matter.
By using our breath to sharpen our concentration, we gradually become aware of the various sensations within our body that we otherwise don’t notice (think of the billions of atoms buzzing around inside our bodies, yet we don’t feel a thing!).
The sensations we feel may be painful or pleasurable, but the idea is to observe them for what they are and not how we’d like them to be.
As we become more conscious, we’re able to observe reality in the outside world with equanimity.
Changing the Habit Patterns of the Mind
“Real wisdom is recognizing and accepting that every experience is impermanent. With this insight, you will not be overwhelmed by ups and downs. And when you are able to maintain an inner balance, you can choose to act in ways that will create happiness for you and for others. Living each moment happily with an equanimous mind, you will surely progress toward the ultimate goal of liberation from all suffering.”
– S. N. Goenka
Whether you’re new to meditation or have been practicing it for a while, having control over one’s mind is no easy feat (not even for monks!).
The mind tends to invariably wander and forms its own habit patterns, breeding and multiplying negativity even without us realizing it. Almost every kind of suffering has its roots in some kind of craving or aversion, and we become so entangled in these that it’s hard to break the cycle.
Breaking the existing habit patterns of the mind through Vipassanā practice enables us to respond to situations in the external world more meaningfully, with a balanced mind.
No matter how many self-help books you read, intellectual discussions you have, or know what you should be doing/thinking/ feeling, in practice, it’s hard to shift away from age-old habits of the mind. Changing our habits requires conscious effort, particularly at the unconscious level of the mind, and Vipassanā helps us achieve this.
Once we embrace the impermanent nature of everything around us, we’re also likely to live more fully in the present (the only thing we have!).
Developing Compassion Towards All Beings
The realization that every human being in the world is suffering in some way or the other is humbling. Every person has accumulated saṅkhāras of their own over time and imprisoned by their own cravings and aversions.
In Buddhism, it is also believed that there’s no permanent “self”. We are a different person every second, so there’s no point in being attached to the idea of who we are (or think we are). Everything in the universe is interrelated — nothing exists in isolation — and the sooner we realize this, the better.
An important component of Vipassanā is to develop “mettā“, that is, goodwill and compassion towards all beings, which also helps us purify our own minds by weeding out unnecessary negative thoughts and emotions.
It is with this intention that I decided to write this blog. The impact of Vipassanā meditation on my life so far has been profound — giving me a framework to live a better, more balanced life. I have a long way to go, and this blog is my way of expressing my gratitude for this technique by sharing my learnings with more people.
I’ll end with a line that my teacher S.N. Goenka often says –
“Without learning the art of living, one cannot master the art of dying”.
– S.N. Goenka quoting Gautama Buddha
Related reading: https://ilareddy.substack.com/p/mind-it
I have attended Vipassanā meditation retreats taught by S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin at the meditation centers in Igatpuri (Maharashtra), Jaipur (Rajasthan), and Alur (Karnataka). More information about the centers (in India and abroad) and future course dates can be found here.
A strict schedule is followed by all participants of the course, including waking up at 4 AM, complying with the given meditation schedule and rules, and the set meal routines. Each of these rules has a purpose behind it and is not arbitrary (they also sound harder than they are). Read the Code of Discipline here.
The meditation technique instructions and daily ‘Dhamma Talks’ at all the meditation centers are through audio and video recordings of S.N. Goenka, therefore, the quality of the course is uniform across the centers. There are Teaching Assistants to clarify doubts, though I personally found the recordings sufficient to understand the technique.
While shorter-term courses are useful for regular practitioners, I would recommend doing a ten-day course (instead of a four-day refresher) for those who wish to get back to the practice after a sabbatical.
The Vipassanā centers set up by S.N. Goenka are extremely basic (but comfortable) so don’t expect a fancy ashram. The infrastructural facilities vary by location and the idea is to retain focus on the practice and not attract/distract participants with aesthetics or spend money on unnecessary beautification.
The courses are free of charge and are sponsored by voluntary donations contributed by past students. If you benefit from the retreat, make sure you donate whatever amount you’re comfortable with so that it supports the next person.
My foray into Buddhism was through some brilliant books I read over the years. They changed my perception of Buddhism (which can appear very complicated and overwhelming at the onset, depending on the traditions you’re exposed to) and also piqued my interest in its practical application.
I’m sharing a few recommendations below, although this is not an exhaustive list. I’ve deliberately listed books that vary in style and content as different articulations work for different people.
Do note that reading about Buddhism and mindfulness doesn’t compare to experiencing the theory in practice (which is the actual work and is hard to do!) so I would highly recommend attending an introductory Vipassanā course before delving into literature.
- What Makes You Not A Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
- The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise by Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Old Path White Clouds by Thích Nhất Hạnh
- At Home in the World by Thích Nhất Hạnh
- The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer
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