Part I: The Vipassana Experience
A duffel bag, a backpack, two pairs of loose joggers, three sweaters, a warm blanket and a thermos. This would be all I’d need for 10 whole days. I took one last look at my Parkdale condo before meeting my ride-share downstairs, and had a strange, familiar feeling. It was a feeling I’d felt before, just hours before my Dad passed away - the day I woke up, and something in me knew that something was going to change that day. It wasn’t a feeling of sadness or clinging, but a feeling of preparedness like an Olympian before some seemingly insurmountable feat. In the doorway, looking in contendedly at my apartment, I sighed the same way I did on the edge of my bed before visiting the hospital seven years earlier. I had no clue what to expect, except that some part of me was going to think a little bit differently next time I set foot in that space. I said goodbye to all my things, and embarked on the trek to the Ontario Vipassana Centre, located in the ghostly stillness of wintry Egbert where I would absorb the meditation technique and philosophy as taught by S N Goenka, a man who seemed more like your most jokes Uncle than a world renowned spiritual teacher.
Cruising ever closer to the destination on Country Road 56, the strangeness of it all sunk in. The last time I’d ever been in noble silence, abstained from killing (does that include ‘slaying’?), drugs, alcohol, sex (I guess it does), lying, cheating, stealing, writing, wearing makeup and the silver lining of not having to wear a bra for 10 whole days in a row, I was a fetus. Just a twinkle in Denise’s eye. None of this was natural. Humans are made to interact with other humans. Period. When I’d originally heard about Vipassana, I was dating a girl who’d recently endured the 10 day journey herself. I recognized it as one of those hippy-dippy, free-spirited things I would certainly never do. Seriously, why would anyone want to isolate themselves from the rest of the world in noble silence to endure 120 hours of meditation, with the added bonus of being alone with their thoughts without any trace of distraction? It was my worst nightmare.
Her explanation of the experience matched the vague recounting of several other lovely people I’ve since met and admired. Presumably, the vague descriptions are not to scare anyone off from going through the motions themselves. All I knew from our brief conversations was that the point was to transcend attachment. I hated it immediately. I mean, attachment (in my world) was what drove every meaningful relationship. I understood it to be this thing that every relationship (parental, platonic, and romantic) had to have and display through rituals of belonging to each other or else, well, you just didn’t belong to each other. You had to be present for family and squad gatherings, you had to be in constant communication, and you had to have the label - ‘my best friend’, ‘my girlfriend’, ‘my boyfriend’, you get the point. I, like countless others, love to belong.
The Buddhist path to happiness strives for non-attachment to all things. This definition on it’s own can be easily misinterpreted, as it was by me, to be a pretty ice cold way of approaching life. I was (and am) a woman of grand enthusiasm for most things, so non-attachment seems, by this definition, to be pretty damn near impossible.
At first, living a life without attachment just kind of sounded like just walking about aimlessly and not caring about people until you eventually die. It sounded like a ridiculous, passionless and misguided way to reach an enlightened ‘purified’ state. What’s more, it scared me that something could be blocking what I was trying so hard to build with this person I was starting to fall hard in attachment for. But after having gone through the Vipassana course myself, I have a better understanding of the attachment Buddhists and Vipassana students want to rise above, and I think a better word for it is ‘addiction’.
For so long, we teach ourselves to get from A to B as quickly as possible, and often end up spinning our wheels frantically trying to get to the desired result. We’re addicted to acquiring sensations - the feeling of having reached an elevated state or status and, once it’s acquired, we keep wanting more and more of it. Sort of like a crack addict looking for another hit of the good stuff. On the flip side of addiction, we often compulsively avoid anything that causes unpleasant sensations in our body. We just want to feel good. Most people (I am assuming) are entirely concerned with how to live their best life - how to live a good life. And we misguidely assume that a good life means always feeling good.
In addition to teaching the Vipassana technique, the 10 Day course provides the environment and conditions (no killing, no stealing, no sexual conduct, no speaking, no writing, no drugs or alcohol) for the duration of the course to curb existing destructive habits and give the technique it’s best chances of working it’s magic.
The Vipassana technique of mediation demonstrates the reaction that exterior events can cause in the body’s interior. Negative experiences or memories cause unpleasant sensations, and desirable events cause pleasant sensations. This is an objective truth. Vipassana simply asks students to observe the body's sensations as they arise and pass, prevailing through discomfort, and thereby re-conditioning the mind to simply persevere no matter what the scenario. It’s not an ice cold denial of attachment, but rather, a detached desire that I believe the practice strives for. That is, to recognize a desire, to sit with it for however long it is there, and be okay whichever way it goes.
My experience during the course was a storm in a tea cup, and a gift I am so glad I gave myself despite my uncertainties and apprehensions. What I thought I would miss - my phone, my social media accounts, watching television, going out on the town and getting homeless wasted - turned out to be the furthest thing from my mind. What I found was that, free from all the distractions that normally take up my headspace (or that I relied on as crutches), I was able to identify all they things that set me on fire (in good ways and bad). And if that wasn’t enough of a gift, it gave me the opportunity to build a solid foundation of perseverance, patience, and commitment for all the personal and professional things that are brewing in 2018 (and beyond!)
Vipassana literally means ‘experiencing’ or ‘the reality of things’. It is the active, lived, practical experience that takes the theoretical knowledge of the way things are - the philosophy of it all - into reality. In essence, I could write a billion articles on Vipassana, and you could read a billion and 1 books on it, but until it is practiced and acted upon, nothing is truly learned and the benefits of that knowledge are not realized.
In a nutshell, Vipassana is simply scanning and watching the body for sensations. That’s it. That’s what is so frustrating about the first five days (and what we’ll talk about in Part II: Monkey Mind & All It’s Fancy Tricks). Beyond watching the sensations, it is about actively experiencing what it feels like to be human, and in the process of just watching, discovering the underlying cause and natural solution to all human suffering (this we’ll talk about in Part III: Perfect Equanimity).