A Serious Operation on the Mind
David Swick on the ups and downs and ups of his first Goenka vipassana meditation course.
Getting up at 4 AM I kind of enjoyed. Having only tea and fruit for supper I didn't mind. Sitting for 10 hours a day produced aches and pains, but I was coping, and I could feel my mind clearing up. Everything seemed fine until the afternoon of Day 4, when I plunged into hell.
I had been practicing basic shamatha—following the breath to increase mindfulness—regularly for four years, and read widely on Buddhist history, theory and practice. I knew shamatha and vipassana were different, so I should have been ready for something new. But I wasn't prepared for a jolting surprise.
The first 3 days we practiced anapana, which is like shamatha but with more concentrated awareness. Then on the afternoon of Day 4, S. N. Goenka—on audiotape—introduced vipassana meditation. From now on, he said, we will move our concentration over every inch of the body, and we will observe the sensations.
Okay, he instructed us, start at the top of your head and observe all sensations; then move to your forehead; then down to your eyes…observing, observing…and on down to your toes, before starting the whole process again. One sweep of the body might take ten minutes or more.
These sensations, he said, are proof that the body is not a solid entity, but energy in constant motion. Every time we observe a sensation with a calm mind, instead of wanting more or wanting it to go away, we see things as they really are—that they all share the fundamental characteristic of impermanence. This, Goenka said, is what the Buddha taught.
At the break I stumbled out of the hall, in shock and unhappy. I lay on the grass thinking, I'm going to spend the next week feeling sensations? I don't want to do this! How do I know that what he says is true? Maybe the sensations are simply created by the attention of the mind. Why haven't I heard of this before? What the hell am I doing here?"
For the next three days I struggled to do the technique, while constantly debating its validity. I knew I had a classic Western mindset. I wanted proof—proof that could only be had by experience—before trying the experience. The battle raged on in my mind. I grew frustrated and tense.
On the morning of Day 6 I reached a point of crisis. During one of the three daily sittings of "strong determination"—an hour in which you should move only if absolutely necessary—scanning my chest area revealed extreme tension around my heart. I felt as if I might explode and jumped to the idea that I was having a heart attack.
Hypochondria is not one of my usual indulgences. Knowing this helped my fear gain power, and my chest set tighter. Growing more alarmed, I stopped doing vipassana and switched to shamatha, in the hope of getting grounded. And so I survived the rest of the hour. At the break I decided to go to my tent for a minute to take stock. As soon as I pulled back the flap and was alone, I fell on the floor and burst into tears. I don't cry often and was making up for some dry years. It was a hard, pounding sobbing that continued for 10 to 15 minutes.
Afterwards, washing my face in the men's washroom, I decided I wouldn't sit any more that morning. Walking back outside, though, I saw the kindly course manager looking for me. Seeing me from a distance, he turned and headed back to the meditation hall. I changed my mind then, deciding it might be best to get back on the horse, as it were, and try again.
The rest of the morning passed without incident, and at noon I signed up to talk privately with the course teacher. I told him my experience, and after verifying I had no medical condition, he said this was just another example of what happens when mind and body interact, and not to take it seriously. Sensing his conviction, I was somewhat reassured.
Before going to sleep that night I sat overlooking a creek, thinking, "Well, friends of mine have done this and liked it. Maybe I should just gave it an honest try, even if I don't believe all the theory and doubt the history. In four days, I can throw it away." That night I slept soundly, and in the morning worked hard on perceiving sensations.
The next four days zoomed by. To my surprise, I liked vipassana meditation a lot. Sensations came in all kinds: little squirrelly curls, tiny crawling ones (twice I checked for insects), big pains, tingling, cold spots, dampness. Regarding them all with equanimity was positively empowering.
On the last day, Goenka said (again, on tape) two things I was pleased to hear. If you don't believe everything I say, he said, that's fine—what's important is to practice. And: these ten days have been a serious operation on the mind, and you should see a difference in your life. If you used to get angry with your wife for twelve hours, it should now be eight hours, or six hours, or less. You should see positive change right away.
For the next three days I looked for positive change. I drove with my horn less than usual and felt more empathy for strangers, and wondered if these would last. Then proof that something real in me had changed arrived, in a rare meeting with my father. Our relationship has been strained for decades, and we only see each other briefly every two or three years. My impatience and his poor listening skills have at times made a fiery combination.
Our first hour together everything seemed, unfortunately, the same as always. Then he launched into an old family story featuring me as the punch line. I could feel anger rising but decided—uncharacteristically—not to inflame matters. I thought I'd let the episode pass, but then was amazed to hear myself explaining the other side to the story. When I finished, my father looked at me in an unfamiliar way. And then he said, "Oh."
I had explained a point to my dad without passion, and he had actually listened and heard me. This may sound like small potatoes to you, but to me it was loaves and fishes.
So I continue to practice (about half the two hours a day that Goenka suggests), and know I will return for another 10-day course. I may not yet believe all the theory, and still need to look into its claim on Buddhist history, but the practice is working for me. For now, that's all that matters.
David Swick is a former columnist for The Halifax Daily News.
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