As I walked the well-treaded path, I noticed I was craving tears. I wanted to cry. I had found out Shep had committed suicide just a few hours before. I could feel that thing we call a frog forming in the back of my throat. “I thought I might be grieving by now. Am I not sad?,” I thought to myself. I couldn’t tell anyone, so I mentally noted my experience and kept walking as the sun set and then went inside for the next hour of meditation… The next morning the tears came in the shower, multiple times. I know some of the ladies heard me - they had to - but they didn’t say anything. We weren’t supposed to talk to each other to keep our experience here personal and unique. I kept meditating on schedule, and I kept noticing how sadness came and went, came and went, like waves through my mind and on my body...
The next few paragraphs are going to paint a picture of what a 10-day vipassana style meditation course was like for me. I am writing this piece mostly for myself and my friends & family who want to hear how this experience went. For others: this is your invitation into my personal experience.
I want to imprint a few points upon you (the reader) as I begin:
- I am not an expert on vipassana. I have researched and studied it and practiced it since taking the course, but to find out the official word on this meditation technique, please go here.
- The course is exclusively experiential. That means, the course and the technique is as valid as your experience of it is. Each individual will experience and notice what he needs to feel to have the ten days be valuable. One of the reason’s participants don’t talk is to limit comparing. With that point - you cannot expect any similarities in a course you take save for the logistics and timetable of the course.
- This style of meditation is not taught as the only path to the Truth. Students are allowed to reject any part of the theoretical aspects of the technique. There is nothing to believe about vipassana, the only request is that students practice the technique as designed and observe the results they get.
- I am going to use conversational language in this post. I have deep respect for this technique, and also want a person who maybe has never meditated to feel like they can step into this experience as I share it. I'm especially thinking of my young adult, working professional cohort.
A little background
(Most of the following is what I learned during the course.)
Vipassana is a 2500 year old meditation technique that was discovered by Gautama Buddha. Gautama used this technique to become enlightened - to become the Buddha we think about when we say “Buddha”. From the age of about 35 to late into his death in his 80’s Gautama, well-versed on many types of meditation, taught the technique of vipassana meditation to anyone who came to him to help relieve them of their suffering. It’s a technique that worked - vipassana spread through India, to other parts of Southeast Asia, and I heard even to Europe. It was used by people of all kinds - from Queens and Princes, to businessmen, to religious leaders, to the commoners and the poor.
Vipassana is not a religious doctrine - Gautama was very clear on this point. It is a technique, a style of meditation, that uproots the two reasons for suffering: craving and aversion. It’s a path to Enlightenment.
Do you notice how you want to avoid things that are that you don’t want? Or how you crave things that aren’t? While I’ve personally learned to that avoiding things I don’t want to see often turns into more trouble (my financial advisor can attest to my growth in this area), I still had and can have the intense experience of craving things - ruminating over a decision or future conversation and wanting it to go a particular way.
The knowledge, the knowing that craving and aversion are the cause of suffering was not new then as it is not new now. Read any facebook wall and you’ll see plenty of inspirational quotes from Osho to Oprah. The self-help industry in the U.S. sits at $10B in size, and I can give you a list of inspirational TED talks for days if you want. There’s an aspect of living these universal truths the masters speak about that I found laborious and seemingly ephemeral, and so did Buddha.
What Gautama Buddha did differently was teach a practical way to eliminate these causes of suffering at their source and for students to develop equanimity (mental calmness) right now… today - not in the future or in an afterlife.
Wait just a minute here, this is a technique that anyone can do anywhere. It doesn’t require a step-by-step list, a yoga mat, a coach, a friend, a seminar, an internet connection, or a rosary. This is the technique that made Buddha, Buddha?! And I can practice it, too? And the course to learn all about it is free? WTF. Why haven’t I heard about it before? - those were some of my thoughts during the course as I learned what it was I was doing for ten days.
Soon after Gautama’s death, many of the existing vipassana teachers lost their rigor in teaching it in its pure form. There are 5-8 precepts or rules to follow, depending on whether you’re a new or old student, and a strict moral code during the course to allow students to achieve the best results. These rules include abstaining from killing any being, from telling lies, and from consuming intoxicants, among others. A little slip here and there, easing up on this precept or that precept, and students stopped receiving the powerful value of the technique and stopped practicing.
Two teachers who were sent to Burma during this time were told this: Vipassana will be lost to India and to the world for the next 2500 years. You must keep this practice in its pristine form and there will come a time when vipassana will be reintroduced to India and from there it will spread worldwide.
No joke, a little short of 2500 years later (in the 1960’s), an international businessman by the name of S.N. Goenka had a migraine that no doctor could cure (he even came for treatment in the U.S. and Europe). He had exhausted nearly all possibilities, when a colleague of his (who happened to be the Secretarial equivalent of the Department of Justice in Burma) suggested he try this thing called vipassana. Goenka, an Indian who grew up in Burma, was hooked and learned this vipassana technique kept pristine by Burmese monks for centuries. He taught one course of vipassana to his mother and 12 others in India in 1969 and kept getting requests to teach more and more courses. Forty-five years later there are over 200 vipassana centers around the world and they’ve figured out the logistics so anyone can take a course without pressure to pay - for anything.
Way to go Burmese monks for keeping this gem pristine.
In addition to the logistics of only Burma really practicing pristine vipassana for the last 2500 years (and really receiving the benefits of it), here are a few additional reasons why I think it isn’t as widespread as you might think:
- Vipassana is not easy. I had to face physical and emotional pain like I had not faced ever, for days. At some level, that was doable (I’ve been through a divorce, deployed as a civilian to Iraq, once trained for the FBI - all of those very painful in different ways). I also had to face nothingness - the literal realization in my physical being that none of *this* matters. It is trendy nowadays to talk about “nothingness” and “emptiness” at an intellectual level, maybe even experience it at the end of a yoga class. Try it for ten days in silence - you’ll walk away the same human being, but with access to a perspective you only had a hunch existed.
- Because it is free, it runs on volunteerism and often doesn’t have the resources to “market” the course. Plus, how would you market something that eradicates suffering and is a path to Enlightenment? As an oversold and inundated customer myself, I’d be weary of any of the technique’s claims.
- Even though I live in Austin (woo-woo capital of Texas) and even though I live in Texas (a very faith-based community), there is still something very vulnerable about being honest that I’m exploring my spirituality, my sense of consciousness, my depth of self. It isn’t a one hour seminar, it isn’t a book I’m reading before bed - I committed to take ten days of my life to do this and it’s a little bit harder to hide the fact that I did this. My employer had to know, my mom had to know, and I had to have a “will you be my emergency contact?” convo with my significant other. I think just getting to the course can be a huge hurdle.
I don’t want to go into too many other details of the course. If you’re interested and want to learn more, visit this page, sign up for a course, and read all the material they send you. Trust that you will know everything you need to complete it.
About my experience
This will be tricky. Remember, the course is highly experiential - your experience weighs more heavily than anything else - so I won’t go into every little thing that happened during the course. I had plenty of new experiences I hadn’t had before - dreams, sensations, and visions - and I faced many physical sensations - “chronic” pains or fears - that seemed very familiar to me.
One experience in particular, though, I want to expand upon.
I started this post with a real event. The son of a good friend did commit suicide while I was there. I learned about it because another close friend called the Center and asked to speak to me. She had completed a vipassana course before, knew what I was doing and where I was in my course, so I trusted that she had something important to say when I got the news.
Side note: if you don’t know me personally, you’ll also want to know I’m committed that veteran suicide ends by 2025 and my family has a history of suicide. (I’m finding many people’s families do.) It almost wasn’t a surprise something like this happened during my course, because I believe whatever shows up in life in a course like this is what we are meant to face.
When I got the news, I was also invited to the funeral- scheduled for day 9 of the 10 day course. My immediate reaction was to figure out a way to get back to Texas for the funeral. She (the survivor) needs me. I’m her good friend. I need to be there… immediately went through my head. And immediately after that, I breathed, felt calm, and said, “Well, I feel conflicted. I can stay and I can go. What do you think?”
I ultimately decided to stay in the course and not attend the funeral, knowing that my friend was fully supported through those few days. And while I wouldn’t be there physically at the funeral, I knew I would be there for her for the remainder of her days here on Earth.
What I got out of the experience of staying in the course was an opportunity to examine grief in a way not many have. Because no one at the course (besides the staff) knew what had happened, no one was fawning over me or asking me questions or being awkward. Because we were asked to keep silent and refrain from making eye contact, no one commented or stared when tears welled up at breakfast. Because we were asked to observe sensation on the body, I was able to physically experience sadness and grief on my body - that back of the throat feeling or straining in the eyes - come and go. I could feel tears forming. I can’t tell you how beautiful that was! To watch the sadness come, then go, then come, then go. I would feel sad, then clear my plate from the dining hall. I might feel angry, then sit still for a meditation session.
Feelings weren't personal. They weren't permanent. They weren't heavy, like depressing or stuck. They moved. And, grief was in the mix of all of the other sensations I was feeling while meditating - and there were many! I observed all of them. Being sad seemed like less of a magnet for my attention, there was less focus on that one particular feeling, and so I could be sad freely, without expectation or fear.
I could observe the feeling of anger as a prickling sensation on my arms, a biting sensation on my ribs, a tingling sensation in my underarms, or a tight sensation in my chest. I’m not sure what anger is anymore, but maybe my aversion to all these different uncomfortable bodily sensations.
And in the days since, I’ve wondered, what if all experience could be felt freely? Could we learn to be with our family members’ deep sadness in a way that doesn’t add our own opinions or insecurities to their experience?
Because that’s what we do - we add to someone else’s pain by wishing it to go away.
I’m reminded of a section of Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem “The Invitation”.
I want to know if you can sit with pain mine or your own without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.
What if wanting veteran suicide to end wasn't the stance to take, like I had thought? I’m not saying I want it to happen, but am I adding to my own pain and making it stick more by wishing it to go away?
Trying to avoid something that already is, is a recipe for suffering.
Do we crave our loved ones to be a particular way when they aren’t? Maybe some days, and seemingly many days, they aren’t happy the way we want them to be. What are we saying about what they are feeling when we say, “cheer up” or “it will get better” - are we saying that happiness is more valuable than what they are experiencing right now?
Are we saying it would be easier for *us* if *they* were happy? Holy crap.
In addition, how many times have you felt down, and then felt bad for not being grateful or happy for what you do have? It’s a vicious cycle, and I find the unpleasant feelings end up sticking longer.
Is there a way to strengthen our resilience in being with life the way it is and the way it isn't that is more beneficial to ourselves and our communities?
What if we could sit with the pain our loved ones feel without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it? What would they get to experience from that? Could they fully experience what it feels like to be them at that moment, unencumbered? What would we experience in those moments for ourselves?
What if we could just observe what it feels like to be human? All human. All the feels...
I dedicate this post and inquiry to Shepherd Mantia, a teacher to many past his last breath.
I promised some more info and links at the bottom of this post. Check these out:
Dhamma.org - learn more about 10-day courses The Man Who Taught the World to Meditate - Huffington Post Doing Time, Doing Vipassana - a documentary about bringing vipassana to some of India’s worst prisons