My first 10-day Vipassana retreat (full run-down here) was by far the most intense meditation experience of my life thus far, so I’ve decided on a separate post for the nitty-gritty, nerdy details. While the main motivation for me in writing this is to sum it all up for myself, I’m also interested to hear if other Vipassana meditators have had similar experiences, any tips, etc. I’d love for everyone to read it but a disclaimer for those not into meditation: There’s a lot of jargon in this post.
Some background on my practice up until the retreat before I launch into the gory details: I’d been practicing a Mahasi noting technique for about two years, at first self-taught using the fantastic book, Progress of Insight. In the following years I attended a few relatively chilled weekend retreats, taught by the likes of Shinzen Young and Stephen Fulder as well as some day retreats and a bunch of group sittings at Miles Kessler’s Integral Dojo in Tel Aviv. Somehow I’d managed to navigate my way into a fairly serious practice (apart from the past few months when I slipped a bit due to various lifestyle factors), and seemed to be cultivating a keen understanding of physical and mental sensations, the interactions between them and the three universal characteristics of existence (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self).
Being on a longer, stricter retreat than I’d ever attended was a bit of a shock to the system at first, but on top of that learning a different anapana technique (with focus on the nostril and upper lip) and then panña technique (body scan) from what I was used to led to a fair bit of confusion and resistance. If I hadn’t previously learnt about the Five Hindrances to meditation (craving, aversion, tiredness, restlessness, doubt), I’m pretty sure I would have “packed up my bags and run away” (in Goenka’s words), cursing both his name and his teachings.
Apart from general resistance in the mind (“this makes no sense,” “who is this weird guy on tapes/video, tuning in from Planet Nibbana to preach to us poor prisoners,” “I’ve chosen a bad time for this retreat,” etc, etc), I suffered some pretty bad eye strain at a few different points in the course. It started on the first night (Day Zero) and continued throughout Day One, and eventually I realised it was caused by me literally going cross-eyed with my eyes closed by “looking” at my nose. I found that whenever I tried to consciously relax my eyes, my attention would slip down from my nostrils to my stomach, the area via which I was used to focusing on my breath. Eventually, after talking to the teacher and basically just reminding myself over and over to stop it, I managed to relax my eyes, and almost instantly dropped into what I believe to be a concentration state that I’ve experienced before but never really known how to deal with.
I’m pretty sure I used to experience this particular state as a child lying in bed at night, and it used to scare me then. As a result, when I’ve encountered it in recent years it still carries with it a certain fear, which I’d never quite been able to shake. Strange as it may sound, when I was young I was convinced that unlike “normal” people, I actually didn’t breathe. When I found out that actually I did respire, just like everyone else, I was sometimes gripped by an irrational fear that if I didn’t pay attention, I would stop. So sometimes I would lie in bed at night “checking” that I was still breathing, essentially practising my own little infant anapana meditation. During this practice, I’d suddenly get this odd sense that I was either really big or really small, though I’d open my eyes and find that everything looked completely in order. It still felt strange though, eerie but still very clear. This is exactly the same feeling I had on Day Two of the retreat, in one of the morning sessions right after I worked out how to relax my eyes.
I remember encountering this state before on a few day retreats last year and the year before, and every time I would become filled with that same fear from my childhood, get myself all freaked out that I’d “broken” my brain, and had to open my eyes and basically break my concentration completely. The same thing happened on Day Two, and – surprise, surprise – I found myself “falling” back into various aches, pains and doubts for the next few days.
By Day Four when we were taught the body scan technique my attention was pretty sharp, having spent so many days focusing on my nose, but again I felt resistance to the new technique, which I thought completely ignored a whole range of sensory experience (sounds, thoughts etc.) I spoke to the teacher about this and he gave a decent explanation, saying that with any sensation other than those on the body what we’re actually observing is the reaction to it (or the crude mental image), so it’s not as pure. Some combination of trusting him on this and wanting to give the technique a fair trial pushed me to keep going.
On Day Five I ended up in the creepy place again, but this time I had cultivated enough equanimity to push through the fear, to keep striving to observe sensations on the body despite the strange feeling. I discovered that I could actually feel things at a far more subtle level than ever before, and also properly understood that the weird feeling would pass as soon as I opened my eyes, that it was just another object coming and going (anicca – impermanence). I don’t know how else to describe it but to say that this drive propelled my practice to another level, and from here on in my attention was almost unbreakable (except for a coughing, crying and sneezing attack from the girl behind me on the night of Day Six, but that’s a story for another time).
On Day Six I found I could feel sensations all through my body, not just on the surface, and started exploring that, quickly getting to the point where everything dissolved into fine vibrations. I naturally started adding in an observation run up and down my spine, and it didn’t take long until I was experiencing what I think was the “Bhanga Nyana” that Goenka described in the Dhamma Discourse one of the following evenings.
I felt like I was making definite progress and tried as best I could not to let my (substantial) ego get in the way and ruin everything (most likely decide that I was the World’s Best Meditator, cling to this experience for dear life and then get annoyed every time it failed to arise in subsequent sessions). From then on my mind seemed razor sharp every time I sat down to meditate, quickly got to this state and then navigated it “with a calm and equanimous mind.” Straight after that, things got very gross and chunky and haven’t really changed since.
From about Day Two onwards, I thought a lot about was Daniel Ingram’s book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. I went back and forth between wishing I’d never read the stupid thing (thought it is definitely one of my favourite books of all time), and trying to work out whether it would be worth making up a story to get the course manager to give me my phone back so I could google the section where he describes the samahdi states and the stages of insight, to try to work out where the hell I was. Of course in the end I didn’t, thought it was the first thing I looked up after I turned my phone on and called my boyfriend and my parents.
At the time I thought the experience of the body dissolving was something of a “Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away” (A&P) event, though I’ve since found that it is the 5th Stage of Insight, “Knowledge of the Dissolution of Formations.” After that (when everything goes gross again), it seems that I’m bouncing around up and down somewhere there in the “Dark Night.” I’m pretty sure I’ve not reached Equanimity (stage 11). I should note at this point that I feel completely ambiguous as to whether or not reading such maps and descriptions of other people’s experiences is more of a hindrance or a help, but either way I intend to keep up my practice and push through to see what’s next.
Alongside all of this on-cushion fun, from about Day Five onwards I found that had heightened understanding of the theory which goes along with all of this practice, which I detailed in my last post on the topic. Concepts of craving and aversion of sensations chrystallised like never before, as well as acceptance of the impermanence of my own body and the benefit of non-reactivity (to objects such as self-degrading thoughts, for example).
Since coming home I’m finding the usual resistance to long sits, with the mind conjuring up all sorts of excuses as to why I should sit for half an hour rather than an hour, why it’s better to wait a few hours rather than sitting as soon as I get up (not having a full-time job at the moment probably isn’t helping here) and why today should be an exception to the rule. However for the most part, I seem to be keeping up with long sessions morning and night, as well as a few minutes here and there throughout the day. I’ve also found that quite a few of my usual vices have all but slipped away, with no cravings whatsoever, I’m more than happy to go to sleep at a regular hour (which has always been a problem for me), and I’m very comfortable with long periods alone (also an issue in the past as something of a die-hard extrovert).
To sum up, I think that despite my early discomfort with the new technique, body scanning helps me keep the “me” out of my practice, and to see the Three Characteristics of each object clearly (specifically impermanence). While there was a certain intrigue to the noting technique for me, I think I was often getting caught up in the content, using it as a type of self-therapy to understand how my thought patterns and physical sensations interrelated rather than as the tool to see true nature of things that it’s meant to be. For now I plan to continue with the technique, until such a time as I might be able to attend a long Mahasi-style retreat (presumably in Asia rather than here in Israel) and get the thorough basic training in that technique that I got from Goenka this time around.
In other news, meanwhile, I’m running at 10km race in the morning and my primary training over the past couple of weeks was pacing up and down the small walking track on retreat (wearing Crocs no less!) Wish me luck!