the ten day vipassana meditation course (as taught by s n goenka) was tough but not for the reasons I expected. Not talking, reading, writing, listening to music, watching tv etc was not a problem. I had more than enough to keep me occupied.
The schedule can be summarised as 3X1hour group meditation, 2X2hour and 2X1.5hour meditation either in one’s room or in the group hall. Wake 4am, sleep 9pm. No food after noon. There’s plenty of time to go for walks around the property and contemplate the view in between meditation times.
The first challenge i faced was that sitting on the floor, even with cushions, while maintaining a straight back is difficult and physically painful especially if you do not move (and it is advisable to not move so as to achieve deeper states of meditation). This struggle is part of the learning process especially after i discovered a posture for myself that allowed me to keep my back straight with minimal strain. Any posture where the level of your knees are lower than your lower back will do this but unless you have flexible joints, it is possible to damage your knees. I made a saddle of cushions and sat astride them as one would a motorbike thus sparing knees and back. It still hurt of course but through meditating, it became obvious that the pain is not a constant – it came, I felt it, and then it went. By fifth day or so the pain had gone. Sitting was no longer a problem.
Complementing the physical pain was a larger degree of emotional pain. Spending time with yourself with no distractions and very little chores to do meant that there was no escape from issues and past unresolved traumas. It seemed that pretty much every unresolved emotional hurt I’d sustained in the last thirty years bubbled up to the surface. Some of which I’d thought long healed and forgotten. Fortunately, the meditation itself helped by somehow breaking the feedback loop that escalates past hurt into present self-condemnation, anger and depression. It still hurt of course but it didnt seem to linger. The pain came, I felt it and then it went. I cant tell if I gained any intellectual insight or emotional ephiphany or any sense of closure as such. In many ways, all of these were irrelevant.
I never quite completely overcame the next hurdle – which was that of drowsiness during meditation. Eventually, I gave up and allowed myself to nod off. As I was sitting with no support, nodding off lasted as long as it took for me to lose my balance. I discovered that after ten or fifteen minutes of this, my body generally gave up trying to sleep and I would then achieve deeper levels of meditation.
At the deepest level I managed to reach, I found that bodily sensations disappeared, external data became irrelevant and while i was completely aware, time as marked by the speed and numbers of thoughts self-generating in my mind, slowed to a minimal. I was conscious and aware. I could return to normal levels of mental activity if I chose but I chose not to. To maintain that level of meditation was very difficult for me – along the lines of a fine balance act. It was like standing on my tiptoes while keeping my face as close as possible to a cold window pane without touching or fogging it with my breath.
On a fundamental experiential level, I learnt that pain in one form or another will always be with me, ever present but never constant as it waxes and wanes. I learnt that happiness as we know it is usually nothing more than reactive distractions from that pain or the satisfaction of physical hungers of the body. I discovered that if one does not become trapped or attached to the pain, distractions from that pain or to the pleasurable sensations of physical satiation, there is a different more subtle state which I had only rarely if ever been in.
I cannot describe it really except by analogy – imagine that all your life, you’ve been at a party where there’s all sorts of music being played all at once, some of it is nice, some not so nice but never ending. Imagine, for the first time, stepping outside of that party into a place where there is no sound whatsoever. Most of the time, I’m back in the party of course, but the noise doesnt bother me so much.