I have been back from the 10-day silent meditation course for almost a week. After ~80 hours of sitting meditation, my conscious awareness did feel like an upgrade from color TV to a high definition one. The birds still sing, people still talk, and I hear them all the more lucidly. The 10-day has been a great reset button, although it's painful to see all the "unmindful" bad habits coming back 😅
Digesting the experience has taken a while. During the meditation course, there was no writing nor reading, so it was definitely a good chance for me to recognize what activities are so essential.
It is strange to be so behind of work, especially this newsletter. It also remind of how much I love this work and how wonderful it is to share life reflections with you all through the written words.
Truths in the Body
This week is a longer reflection on the 10-day silent Vipassana course that I took. I hope it gives you some interesting perspective and lessons :-)
During this time, students lived a monastic life without any contact with the outside world. No Internet or talking would be fine, but no reading or writing seemed like a big challenge to someone like me who writes and takes notes a lot. In a sense, there is a lot to say, and there is also nothing much to say.
One technique, many reasons to learn.
People attended this 10-day course for vastly different reasons.
Some people found out about this course by themselves and do it out of curiosity. “Oh meditating for 10 day seems like an interesting experience” Most, like me, have been recommended by someone else because “it’s good for you”.
Indeed it has been good for many people. Quite a few report a big realization about their life or catharsis of some inner wounding. It makes sense. Imagine being in isolation from the world for 10 days to focus on being just with yourself, not in a chillax, yoga-infused retreat with vegan cookies (writing from Bali) but an serious stretch of silent self-inquiry. Some pretty deep stuff is bound to come out.
Many returning students come back to refresh and deepen their practice, as the course is structured as an intense bootcamp that will help one develop a new, more consistent spiritual practice or reboot an old, uninspired one.
Practically speaking, 10 days of worldly disconnection is a big enough break and a necessary reset button for many people. This is especially true for those who are in a transition phase of life and unsure about the next big decision.
Overview of the technique
We spend the first 3 days practicing noticing the breath (anapana), especially the touch of the breath on the the small area under the nostril.
Then we moved to noticing body sensations (vipassana). This technique, first developed by Gautama Buddha, can be described as the continuous cultivation of awareness and equanimity. One becomes more aware of what is happening moment-to-moment in the body and remain equanimous to both pleasant and unpleasant sensations.
Through that, one cultivates morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (panna), which altogether can bring one to the cessation of suffering, or true liberation.
Suffering as defined here happens when one wants what one doesn’t have and have what one doesn’t want. It exists because of our ignorance to the truth of impermanence (anicca): everything changes in every moment, so attachment to anything, whether perceived as good or bad, will eventually lead to misery.
Read the previous paragraph again. You probably understand all of it at an intellectual level. Nevertheless, the technique emphasizes experiential truths, or reality as it is present in the body. You come to know the truth not because someone tells you or you work it out in your mind, but rather because you experience it as sensations in your own body.
For example, it’s one thing to know that we should not be angry, as people tell us so and even it makes sense logically to us. It’s an entirely different thing, as I’ve written before, to truly feel how angers manifest in our body and understand where it came from — our unconscious strong reaction to something undesirable. Only the latter offers a genuine, lasting freedom from it.
Know our own pain
Virtually everyone experiences some sorts of pain from this extended period of sitting, especially in the most common cross-legged lotus posture.
For me, the neck pain became really intense from day 3, especially during the afternoon sessions. At worst times, the neck felt as if it couldn’t hold the head anymore. During the five minutes break, I would just lie down on the concrete floor outside the meditation hall to rest. Sleeping was even difficult some nights as I couldn’t turn my neck.
As per instruction, I kept the order of scanning body parts from top to bottom, spending a few more seconds on the aching necks but not letting it distract me from other parts.
By Day 6, it was gone. Miracle or impermanence, I don’t really know.
Our pain threshold has surely increased throughout the course, but it wasn’t numbing down (by distracting oneself and thus feel less) but rather transforming it (by attending to them directly and equanimously).
These disciplined sits became an experiential lab to investigate the nature of pain, or more accurately our perception of it. For example, when my awareness is dull, the pained neck felt as if a slow fire burning from inside out. Yet as I zoomed my attention into a smaller area there, the act of zooming somehow transmuted that diffused burn into sharper aching sensations. In that way, awareness is similar to a microscope: the resolution (level of awareness) determines the perception (the pain). An intellectual idea now has an embodied understanding.
The Yin-yang of Awareness and Equanimity
Awareness is not the only important focus of Vipassana practice though. The other side is equanimity, or non-reactivity. Whatever comes into awareness, respond without craving or aversion.
These two elements are like two wings of a bird. You need both, and more importantly, if they are not balanced the bird will fly only in circle.
Equanimity came quite naturally to my personality. I’m an Enneagram Five, a detached observer. Non-reactive by default, I can seem aloof from the outside. Yet, what became so clear during those meditation is that I could be so calm because I was not that aware of what’s going on. It’s really not calmness but rather insensitivity 😛. Real truth is profoundly dangerous; the more we know, the more we have to be okay with it.
Case in point: it took me a few days to feel any sensations on my thighs during those sits. Even until Day 10, most of the times I still didn’t feel them regularly.
It was such a revealing and humbling experience to even notice those persistent blind spots. I had no awareness of certain part of what I called “my” body. This is why when my more experienced Vipassana friend told me about all the body sensations she experienced from piercing back pain to tingling sensations in the chest, I was amazed. With such level of awareness it’s probably much harder to remain equanimous.
Yet, the more awareness, the more intense both the pleasant and the unpleasant sensations we feel and the more we must remain equanimous so that we can stop our patterns of reactivity (crave for what is considered good, averse what is considered bad).
Simultaneously, when the mind calms down, it is capable of sharper awareness, which will bring to surface deeper patterns of such reactivity.
To me, understanding this process was such a big Aha. Imagine a rope that keeps getting twisted on both ends. When we stop twisting it at one end (not reacting to the present sensations), the old twisting from the other end will continue for a while (old patterns continue to surface). If we can remain equanimous even to those inertia, eventually the twisted rope will be undone.
In that sense, anything that happens is an opportunity to practice non-attachment. As an example, I noticed a pattern of my mind. When I encountered a blind or misty spot in my awareness such as the thigh, there will be an initial dislike, especially compared with other pleasant vibrations I’ve experienced in other body parts.
I’m not alone to dislike blind spots (who wants to admit our own ignorance?) and even more averse to staying with them as the technique wants us to do. Tricky enough, I’ve somehow consciously overcompensated this pattern by going to the other extreme and hunt out blind spots instead.
Now there was instead an initial enthusiasm of “Yay I found a blind spot, let’s stay with it and explore what it is”. Soon enough it will turn into boredom “aiz so dull this part of body” or doubt “is there anything happening here?”
In theory, there are always plenty of happenings there on my thigh. In practice, my awareness wasn’t sharp enough to perceive them.
You can see then how it becomes an extreme swing of excitement & boredom. It’s as if there are two distinct characters inside me: one is a bliss junkie who hates boredom and the other is the die-hard consciousness warrior who hunts down every single blind spot. Hopefully, when these two characters get along, they will allow me to calmly and sensitively look into the blind spots, feeling their full unpleasantness yet also not rushing to make them go away.
Fortunately, the training in equanimity helps dampening that swing, while the awareness helps experience everything more deeply rather than becoming a more detached, emotion-less person.
We still have preferences and act upon them, but there is less agonizing or going crazy about any decision. As Richard Rohr says , even though on the surface things can seem so hellish, everything is deeply okay.
Read the full post here on Medium.
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Quotes I'm contemplating this week
"When I was a young man, I liked ideas and books quite a lot, and I still read a great deal. But each time I come back from a long hermitage retreat, I have no desire to read a book for the next few weeks or even months. For a while I know there is nothing in any book that is going to be better, more truthful, or more solid than what I have just experienced on the cellular, heart, and soul level." - Richard Rohr, from this wonderful short essay.
Very much captures the lack of quotes for this week ;-)
Some photos of Bali
Right now I'm in Ubud, Bali to meet up with some people and explore this famous place. It's quite a hippie heaven with all sorts of interesting (and sometimes dubious) mix among modernized spirituality, hip artsy movements and traditional culture. More on that on another post. Here are some photos to share with you....
Balinese massages everywhere - a heaven for those into bodyworks
The variety of penis worship: apparently, the Hindus here have a healthy reverence for the masculine
and last of all Merry Xmas :-) May all of us continue to receive the beautiful gifts of life.