Does meditation work? Only if you allow it to. Sophia Ann French shares her experiences in Vipassana.
Mind on Meditation
My thoughts are purple monkshood petals,
on mountains older than time
they sigh and wilt, the peaks
swallow their memory
I feel my many selves fall away,
scattered across the Ganges
like the remains of a lotus
severed from its stalk and offered to God
On an unscalable Himalayan glacier
Buddha blinks — an eternity is born and dies
a vanishing landscape of my diminished life
dissolves into infinite impermanence
Only a poet and a highly trained monk can make death a thing of mystery and deep romance. I wrote this poem after spending 10 days at my first Vipassana course.
My mind’s journey to peace began five years ago at an ashram on the banks of the Bhagirathi (a tributary of the holy Ganges) in the mystical mountains of North India. At the time, I was initiated into meditation with a mantra. I was told to keep repeating the mantra in my mind as this would train my mind to focus on one thing. When you focus on a mantra, an idol, a God, etc., the mind is being trained to concentrate. But, I was also told that eventually, I must become unattached to the mantra or whatever it was that I was focused on because true bliss is experienced when every fluctuation of the mind ceases. What I wasn’t told was how to achieve this state of mindlessness through complete awareness. How can I be mindless and aware at the same time?
Five years later, I experienced said mindlessness. Only this time, I was in Tiruvannamalai (South India) practising Vipassana meditation as taught by Shri S N Goenka. Here’s my account of what happens to the mind when it practises Vipassana, and why Shri S N Goenka is right when he says that this technique is essential for “real happiness,” “real peace,” “real freedom.”
A 10-day Vipassana course requires absolute silence. Students are taught the technique through audio recordings of Shri S N Goenka.
The accommodation is basic and at this centre, everyone shared a room. I shared mine with two women. At first, this made me uncomfortable because I’d be living with strangers for 10 days, that too, in silence. The first day was spent mulling over roommate concerns, in silence. We start meditating at 4:30 am and continue till 8 pm with a few breaks in between. This is done sitting in a cross-legged position on a cushion placed on the floor. All my years of practising asana were put to the test and thankfully, I managed to sit still and focus on my breath.
We practise ana pana breath on the first three days by focusing on the triangle between our nose and upper lip. On the second day, my body began to react. I feet a sharp, piercing pain between my right shoulder blade and spine. Shri S N Goenka says that we have to keep moving our attention to the various sensations across the body and that each will rise and pass, but this pain in my back was so severe that every moment felt like an eternity. By the end of the second day, I was consumed by anger and irritation. During the evening meditation, my mind went to my earliest memory of feeling anger. I remembered feeling anger for the first time, how I learned it, how it multiplied and why I have such an abundance of it.
I’ve been short and foul-tempered even as a child. I’ve got various good qualities, too, but anger has the talent to wash away a 1,000 good deeds in one ugly moment. It’s the emotion I struggle with most and it’s probably why it’s the first thing that came to the surface of my mind during meditation. Memory after memory of angry thoughts raced across my mind and I became a witness to the violence of my own anger. I was terrified. By the third day, I was miserable. I had nowhere to vent my anger, nobody to fight with, nobody to talk to. I couldn’t even cry and I think that happened because I wasn’t allowed to talk.
Vipassana’s annihilating silence does not allow us to manifest our thoughts into words. If we can speak about how we feel, we can cry about what we’re saying. When we don’t have the faculty of speech, we have no choice but to start questioning ourselves (our motives, intentions, thoughts and actions) and figure out why and when we started feeling wretched in the first place.
The third day was the hardest and longest for me. I wanted to leave at the end of day three, but thankfully, I’m not one to quit and decided to stay. Or at least give it another day or two.
On the fourth day, we expanded our practice from ana pana, and started actual Vipassana. By now, my anger had subsided a little, but the pain between my right shoulder blade and spine got worse. I still managed to sit still. I thank my asana practice for this. It really does make the body strong and builds endurance. The fourth day was uneventful. I wasn’t comfortable but at least I wasn’t very angry. But now, I started feeling sorry for myself — another colossal waste of time and energy. Vipassana makes you feel all this intense emotion in silence and stillness.
We were given private meditation cells on the sixth day. Sitting in that small room all by myself and left with only my mind, I learned a very important lesson about the nature of my anger. I noticed that any memory (happy or sad) that comes up during Vipassana doesn’t repeat itself once you deal with it at the root. My anger has a pattern. It’s quick to arise, and I always succumb to it, but it’s also an anger that is short-lived. I don’t hold on it. The problem was the severity of how I react when anger arises and my lack of control over my reaction, words, thoughts and mood when I am under its influence. This understanding of the pattern in which my anger operates helped me alter the way I think when something makes me angry. This was a first, small, step towards gaining some kind of control over my chaotic temper.
I spent the next two days using that mediation cell to study the patterns of other thoughts I have. It was a refreshing break from being angry. A new flood of memories came rushing through my mind. This time, they were a mix of good and bad. Each memory was analysed, dealt with and put to rest. I was happy to remember so many wonderful things that happened to me. My mind moved away from anger to focus on other, happier thoughts that the destructive force of negativity makes one forget.
During the morning practice on the 8th day, the pain I was feeling in my back dissolved. I felt it physically. I felt it move from my shoulder blade to my spine and then it moved down my spine and dissolved at my tailbone. Once the pain went, my mind became sharper, more concentrated on other parts of the body and then, the entire body. When I walked out of the meditation hall that morning, my consciousness felt altered.
When the mind has nothing left to attach itself to (pleasure or pain), it moves out of itself and into consciousness that is not limited by individual experience. The only living consciousness outside of the self (individual consciousness) is nature. I had spent eight days without speaking, eating vegan food (this also irritated me), and being still and silent. My mind grew tired of anger, remorse, feelings of self-pity, and even moments of happiness. With nothing left to attach itself to, my mind focused on what I chose to focus on, the movement of energy/sensations across the body. This was when my eyes were closed.
After an hour spent in deep Adhiṭṭhāna (sitting for an hour in undisturbed meditation), when I opened my eyes, nature turned into a visual extravaganza of colour, texture and pattern. My sight had grown sharper. I could make out venation patterns on leaves from a distance. When I lived at the ashram on the banks of the Bhagirathi, I discovered a yellow flower that only blooms at night. I discovered a similar flower at the Vipassana centre. This was a purple, bulbous beauty that furled into itself when dusk descended and unfurled at dawn. Nature’s romance really is the greatest seduction.
Both flowers have a very short life span — three days. Even the wonders of nature are fleeting, impermanent things. Everything dies. The natural death of a plant is the most beautiful death I’ve seen. A wilting petal or leaf is still beautiful in death. Shri S N Goenka says, “it’s important to die well.” I agree. Death is a passing sensation, just like life. My anger is also impermanent, just like every other emotion. I stopped taking it seriously, and it returned the favour. More control for me, less control for anger.
During my last three days at the course, I was in a healthy, positive frame of mind. This is because my mind was in the present, and my present reality was all about nature and serenity. My mind experienced peace. Vipassana brings past, present, future delusions to the forefront of the mind, makes you look at your delusion, and enlightens your mind to the reality of the present moment. This is freedom of the mind from delusion. Any thought that is not dealing with the present isn’t valid because it’s taking place in the past or imagining the future. We can only control our now and our mind must be trained to think in the present. That is my personal understanding and application of the Vipassana technique.
After the course, I came back home, grew a halo and became an ashtanga superstar! Just joking. It’s not that easy or that simple.
There is no pot of the gold at the end of the Vipassana rainbow. The peace I felt between day eight and 10 was put to the test when I got back home and had to deal with quotidian reality. I make sure to spend at least two hours a day meditating. If I can, I spend more. There are days when I still lose my temper, but since I’ve been meditating, the frequency at which anger arises has reduced. I’m learning how to tame my temper. My temperament of impatience and having things my way has also begun to dissipate. I’m getting over myself each day at a time and this to me is the beginning of my path to peace. It’s a serious business. It takes time and hard work.
Sanyas of the mind might be the only way. As long as we are attached to anything or anyone, I don’t think complete liberation is possible. We can get glimpses into it and reap a few of its infinite benefits but to reach the buddha consciousness, all sense of self-consciousness and all extensions of the imagined self must dissolve. One has to become nobody. Then the mind becomes free of its self-containment and seeks a higher consciousness. It has no choice.