2010 was a peculiar year. It was the year in which I found the great fortune of stumbling under the peculiar sway of a book recounting through bizarre incidents, the experiences of an Australian girl voyaging through the Indian subcontinent. The book — a 21st century emendation to the lore of the hippie trail, offered little towards cerebral surprises, but made for a curious viewing of the life of a foreigner beguiled enough to have gone through all the trouble that she had.
Reading through her chronicles of days spent discovering religion and spiritual heaven while avoiding hell — nosy neighbours, opportunistic rickshaw-wallas, and the odd would-be rapist, she portrays an all too familiar India — the world’s spiritual shopping mall serving food-poisoning on Tuesdays, vehicular accidents every Friday, and frightening latrines as a daily course. Though not all of her pages carried drama, they certainly spoke of the trials and tribulations the average person might have to endure if only to make sense of the country.
It was perhaps the smallest chapter that spoke to me the most. There was a tiny passage parading marked joy and punishing solitude of the type rarely considered as thrill — monastic rituals, austere and rigorous routines, distress and hardship — it seemed a bit too much for the girl. And yet, it seemed like just about the only thing she really enjoyed doing in the country.
That was my introduction to Vipassana. That first memory is still fresh: the desire to confront this awkward specimen of a situation for myself, only because, at the time, it seemed so bizarre. To my ignorant mind, what could I have guessed would be the result of ten long days (and nights), sitting around without the utterance of a single syllable? If nothing else, it would just be yet another substance: to taste, try, and spit out, and rave about having conquered yet another mountain of sensory input, to spin it into a tall tale of some more meaningless adventure.
Thankfully, the taste was sweeter than I could have guessed. To that kid — me — this became pretty important. This felt like a gigantic discovery, and I often found myself proselytizing like a broken record for days after the first course. I eventually stopped for various reasons. However, my fascination with the practice only grew with time. In those ten short days, I had experienced a deep, resounding change from within. As difficult as the journey had been, I only knew I had to keep going.
That was all eight years ago. 2010 was peculiar, but a dozen Vipassana courses later, life only got weirder. It is the stark contrast that juxtaposes life within a Vipassana course, and the feeling one gets when they witness the world outside. It is hard to illustrate and is not really the point of this post, but I mention it only because I’d like to warn you that many of the lessons I’ve learnt are all experiential truths. Simply engaging the intellect is not enough. You can’t describe the taste of salt to someone who has never tasted it before, and you can’t learn to swim simply by reading about it.
With that said, understand that even though I have been practising for a while, it does not mean I have achieved any form of mastery in my practice. I still consider this as the just the first step in a very long path. However, I share these insights, all of which have broadened and enriched my understanding of not only myself, but of all-encompassing experience in itself. My only hope is to encourage you to sit down and focus on your breath.
1. Relaxing meditation is more like aggressive deconditioning…
The mind is a big ball of accumulated, tightly-knotted habits. Habits are not merely mundane proclivities like picking your nose, or enjoying K-Pop. They are the set of all unconscious tendencies, picked up over the course of one’s life and through generations past, resulting in present thought, action, or both. Natural instincts such as the struggle to survive and the urge to reproduce are amongst the densest of elements residing within the mental landscape.
Mental forces are easiest to imagine when you think of them as analogous to Newton’s Third Law: each action has an equal and opposite reaction. As the mind sees, the mind does. Cause and effect. Through millions of years of evolution, the mind has been shaped to recognize and react to patterns. Certain emotions may result in specific thoughts. Certain thoughts may result in specific behaviour.
When you sit down to practice Vipassana, you essentially train yourself to observe your mind, without reacting. The process may not, at first, seem like much, but with time, the simple act of observation decreases the rigidity and impulsiveness of the mind. Gradually, the simple act of watching it unravel before you, unveiling its knots until they loosen and eventually fade away, brings about a significant change. This does not mean that after ten days of meditation you will deprogram your mind and achieve liberation. It is a very gradual process. Seriously. Even after all these years, I’ve only scratched the surface and, so far, I’ve managed to adopt a slightly better diet. But I have better focus, more clarity of thought, less anxiety, and I’m calm as fuck.
Believe me (and these guys), meditation will change your brain. Thoughts included.
2. You are your mind’s weak, pathetic slave.
At any given time, you have very little conscious ability to overrule your genetic programming, emotional state, and natural surroundings (while many have argued that there is no such thing as conscious control). The goal of meditation is to break free from the mind’s thrall. That’s the liberation that meditators keep referring to time and again.
If you find this hard to believe, try keeping a steady focus on the breath just for a few minutes. You’ll quickly see how easily the mind is carried away by its own thoughts — either of the future, or the past. Bringing it back and keeping it in the present is a constant, seemingly endless struggle.
Our toxic addiction to our own thoughts creates the biggest hurdle. Our fascination and attachment to our artificial concepts of what is real, important, and urgent is what hinders progress. The stories that we forge for ourselves turn into the very bondage that keeps us in indefinite servitude to the mind and the rosy image that we paint of our ourselves.
The mind is a slippery serpent, as dangerous when untamed as it is powerful when mastered. Most beginners often find it frustrating how difficult it is to ‘control’ their minds. But therein lies the effort: sustaining complete awareness of the present moment. It is a skill, to be cultivated like any other. The emanating exasperation is a natural byproduct of the conditioning described earlier.
Meditation is simply a tool to harness and rein in the unruly mind.
3. Everything is connected. Every action has a consequence, and it matters.
This can be argued as a simple scientific principle. Richard Feynman in his lecture, “The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences,” describes the artificial divisions we create, forming a myriad of distinct models of understanding to comprehend and explain to ourselves aspects of the same reality. Brian Cox takes it even further.
However, my understanding falls slightly more on the philosophical side. Most religions and spiritual traditions preach purity of mind, speech, and deed. Whether through scripture or ritual, they teach compassion, loving kindness, mercy and wisdom. I’ve realized that there’s more to this than mere morality.
To greatly simplify this, let’s imagine the world as a closed, finite system — something like a small swimming pool. Any outwardly action you perform results in ripples that gradually extend across the body of water, affecting everything and everyone in their path. But eventually, given enough time, those ripples will bounce right back to whence they came. Sooner or later, your actions will meet their maker. But don’t mistake this as a need to be nice out of selfish necessity. The picture is bigger than this.
The world, much like our hypothetical swimming pool, is a melting pot of events resulting from simultaneous interactions causing countless, spontaneous consequences.
It’s an ocean of chaos, with the ebb and flow of individual currents that mingle, coalesce and form waves, crashing into one another and give us the great churning and agitation that we are almost too familiar with.
The turbulence, in essence, is the mind being washed away with the tides of the present; engulfed and drowned in the vicissitudes of life. To remain steadfast and solid in such stormy waters would require nothing short of supreme mastery in the art of mindfulness. A cornerstone of such an endeavour mandates cultivating a conscious effort to sustain complete awareness of the present moment.
When one remains vigilant of thought, speech, and deed, and acquires a resolute and unwavering focus, then all the torment the ocean can muster will be but powerless against this tranquil state of mind. But even beyond that, tranquility will give way to reflection, understanding, and empathy. Practically speaking, when you respond to anger with love, you cast water over fire.
With practice, each action undertaken will arrive with more effort, more purpose and consideration. That is the delicate insight to be gained — that every action, every moment, every breath is sacred. Every bit of conscious presence is a gift to be treasured.
4. Nothing matters as much as you think it does…
Vipassana meditation is an exercise in cultivating insight through self-observation. You watch your breath and the sensations across your body as they arise and pass away, each time acknowledging their transient and impermanent nature. That, you come to realize, is the truth of all reality.
You realize that suffering is a form of mental attachment, not to any external object, but to the sensation that object has on your mind. As you grow into your practice, you will gradually slip out of your old patterns of thought, replacing them with a more open, willing, and fluid presence of mind.
What once bothered you may gradually dissolve into nothingness. What once seemed as part of you; possessing you, causing emotional havoc when losing the object of desire, or distress when confronting the object of aversion, might simply vanish from existence. No, you won’t turn into an emotionless robot. No it won’t make you give up everything in life, turn into a vagrant and move to the beach, unless you already desired those things. Meditation will only help sort out what you really want.
Practice will help you detach yourself from your thoughts until realize that your thoughts are not you. Feelings come, feelings go. They are impermanent, and they don’t matter. All it requires is time and the simple act of observation.
5. You are not an experiential bubble.
For many beginners trying to embrace the many forms of mindfulness, one of the toughest obstacles to overcome is doubt. It may be doubt in oneself, doubt in the practice, doubt in one’s teacher, and so on. But it’s a natural response to something new, especially to those completely unfamiliar with these types of practices. Imparting trust is a transactional habit. Unless one is certain of attainable benefits and can measure their worth, they may find an unwillingness to take even the first step.
But couple a doubtful mind with the myriad of mental encounters one may face during meditation, and the result might just kill the desire to practice. People have reported everything — from swirling lights, out-of-body experiences, synesthesia, to demons. This is not unusual. Meditation is a gateway into the unconscious — a surgical procedure, as S.N. Goenka, the person who brought the teaching of Vipassana back to India, describes. Through the process of Sankharupekkha (observing mental formations with equanimity), the practitioner encounters dormant impurities in the unconscious that rise to the surface of the mind, and manifest themselves as physical phenomenon.
Juxtaposed with modern-day culture, the meditative experience stands out like a sore thumb, often causing its students great confusion and mistrust in the very fidelity of what they are learning. It doesn’t help that the ideas and general philosophy presented by spiritual traditions are outright antithetical to “western” schools of thought.
Concepts such as avidya, anicca, dukkha, shunyata, samsara and nirvana — concepts that are almost impossible to truly understand through mere language without the receiver having a depth of prior meditative experience — are often horribly misconstrued and usually thrown out, replaced by a far shallower understanding that barely skims the surface, conflating meditation with stress reduction and labour productivity, as those are the values our industrial societies prefers.
We often make it harder on ourselves by letting our experiences fester. Remember to talk about them, discuss them, debate their true essence, and let them be out in the open. Let these ideas, however alien, achieve coherence and solidity. Give them a better chance to struggle and survive. There are many people out there experiencing the same reality, watching the same movie, feeling the same thing. The emotional outlet, especially when you are starting out in this practice is immensely valuable. It’s one of those things that do matter.
After my first ten-day Vipassana course came to a close, as the new students could finally open their mouths and start speaking with each other about their ten days spent in silence, we could all see the benefits this strange new thing we had learned had given us. I was in a room full of fifty-odd people that seemed to have had a similar experience in the course as I did. They all seemed calmer than on the first day, happier for having made it through, and in the process, they had visibly changed. That’s what brought forth trust in the system; not only because it seemed to work across a diverse set of people, but because it made me realize that we are all in the same boat.
6. Compassion takes practice.
There is no absolute right or wrong. Understanding which is which requires not only context but patience. An impulsive and ignorant mind does have the capacity to form correct judgement. Why do you need to develop proper judgement? The simplest possible answer: to progress in your practice. Hence, while Vipassana may bring insight, on the last day of each course, students are taught a slightly different type of meditation.
Metta, meaning ‘loving-kindness’, is a type of meditation that involves concentrating on directing love towards ourselves and others, even those (especially those) who may have hurt us. A daily practice of metta has its benefits, but most significant of all, is the way it complements insight meditation and brings out lasting, positive change in mind and body.
The feeling is hard to describe, but all I can say is that, through the course of one’s life, pain is an inevitability, but suffering through the pain is a choice. With regular practice in metta, instead of being swept away by one’s emotions, one learns to consciously bring awareness to the suffering being experienced. Suffering is simply a negative reaction of the mind to any form of pain. With practice, mental aversion to pain gradually fades. Like mental ointment, compassion may heal the deepest of wounds.
But compassion takes practice. Think of it as learning a new language. Even if you have no prior experience reading the script or pronouncing the words, with time, you might just achieve fluency.
Compassion towards all beings, regardless of the situation, is an important goal for anyone serious about walking the path. When you emanate a constant stream of loving thoughts without ever missing a beat, then you might definitely consider yourself having changed for the better.
7. It’s all just glorified play.
By the time children reach the age of 3 or 4, their ego begins to form a cohesive identity of themselves; forming a framework for their mental selves: I am this, I like that, I want to be so and so. Whether through nature or nurture, the child learns to take on a role for themselves depending on what the situation may bring: during interactions with their parents, with other children, and with society in general.
From an early age, children are engaged in play. Their games may be diverse, but are usually a form of role-playing: tea parties, dollhouses, make-believe — simulations of the adult world, to test its boundaries and see how things react. Fueled by curiosity and the joy of discovery, they rehearse and solidify their understanding of their surroundings, finding their place in the greater familial and societal picture, and simultaneously strengthen their masks of identity.
The masks we carry, birthed from the ego, may be necessary for our survival, but they are simply roles — the games we continue to play even as adults, with ourselves and with others. When the student of meditation comes to notice their own desires and attachments to the world, the identity of the self is often seen as the greatest attachment. It is the great epic; the story of ourselves that we’re so engrossed in writing and reciting— and madly in love with.
This story never ends. It lies permanently in the state of becoming: I am like this, I like that, I want to be so and so. It is this attachment to a false idea of oneself that is the most difficult thing to witness and understand. It is the biggest delusion of the mind, and the greatest hindrance to one’s liberation from samsara — the endless cycle of birth and death.
Whether you choose to believe that is unimportant, but recognising one’s tendencies to cling to one’s beliefs; one’s masks and identity, is a crucial process towards self-discovery and insight. Recognising the mind for what it is — a constant stream of consciousness always in flux — will bring you a step closer to deciphering it.
8. You Know Nothing.
I know nothing. For knowing involves being certain, and if everything is impermanent, then nothing can be certain. Like change being the only constant, uncertainty is the only certainty.
It’s a liberating concept to consider when you notice how each thought you carry, either of the past or the future, is married to a supposed certainty (or outcome), when nothing could be farther from the truth. Chew on this. Let it possess you. You know nothing.
Moving past this, it’s easier to see how truly inept we are at comprehending reality when we take into account the incredibly narrow spectrum of perception our brains provide. Our sensory organs: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin offer only a slice of all the information that they come into contact with.
The eyes, for example, see only a thin slice of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we call visible light. Similarly, our hearing is restricted to frequencies of sound that fall between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. In the same way, the mind might offer us only a narrow spread of cognitive capability and intelligence.
It’s a humbling thought. At the very least, reminding oneself of the fragility of one’s understanding is a way to minimize cognitive bias. Further, since no one knows anything, knowing you know nothing will actually put you a step ahead of most people.
“I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know.” — Plato’s Apology of Socrates
Similarly, from the Dhammapada:
“A fool who knows his foolishness is wise at least to that extent, but a fool who thinks himself wise is a fool indeed.”
Lastly, Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese Zen Master calls the state of knowing nothing the “beginner’s mind,” the constant prerequisite for progressing in one’s practice:
“The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” — from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
May all beings be happy.