Rather than continue on with my feeble attempts to explain the experience, I will defer to someone far more experienced than me to speak to this subject with vastly superior literary finesse.
What follows is a beautiful and eloquent excerpt from “Cultivating Inner Peace” (see below for source) describing the 10-day Vipassana meditation courses that I have been taking part of as taught by S.N. Goenka. This book was written by Dr. Paul Fleischman, a teacher in this tradition who has produced many such books on the subject, which can be purchased in Ebook or paperback format from the following non-profit online store: store.pariyatti.org
How can such a spiritual ideal (peace) really be approached by an average sweating mortal? The Vipassana tradition is alive and well today, accepting ordinary people from all walks of life. Having been such a student myself many times, and having been a volunteer to guide hundreds of students through such experiences, I’d like to take you into the minds of a group of people attending their first ten-day Vipassana retreat.
A person who applied to take a Vipassana meditation course would receive a packet of preliminary information describing a codified, concentrated training in a common-sense approach to equanimity via mental purification. The prospective student would have to stay for ten days, temporarily subsuming themselves to a regulated schedule starting at 4 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m., and this commitment would propel forward their cherished aspirations towards inner peace.
Arriving at the Vipassana Meditation Center at Shelbourne, Massachusetts (one of dozens of center found throughout the world), the new students have some idea what to expect, having read the introductory information from the dhamma.org website or from the packet that arrived in the mail. They are white, black, or brown, employed or a mother, she or he, an Ivy League dean or an unemployed member of Alcoholics Anonymous. They may have a diffuse intuition as to why they have come, or a particular goal they hope to attain (which they may find themselves dramatically revising).
As they walk the dandelion-spangled grass while waiting for the course to begin, they may be surprised to find themselves reexperiencing the mild Richter-scale of summer-camp homesickness that they haven’t felt for ten or thirty years – after all, married or single, with four grown children or a young doctor-in-demand, they have come here alone, to take a step backward from surface distractions and turn their attention within.
Around them on the small campus of tents, cabins, and buildings, there is a hubbub of unpacking, old friends meeting, families departing – the exciting loneliness of a green, rural train station accepting passengers on a hopeful departure rumbling with new beginnings.
They meet with fellow students here or there as they register or unpack, and feel intimidated or leery or warmly surprised by the elderly grandmother from New York whose doctor recommended the course to her, or by the local carpenter who is back for the fourth consecutive year. Slowly the anticipated time stretches through the afternoon; suddenly in the evening they are seated in a row on the floor of a silent hall. A window shade rises in the house of their mind, and they are alone and can begin to live with themselves in a private moonlight.
Their Vipassana course will be ten days in the atmosphere of noble silence: ten days free of telephone, conversation, books and mail, ten days of unpunctured solitude in supportive, kindred company. It will also be tend days of safety under the guidance of volunteer teachers who have spent decades or more practicing the technique themselves under the same course guidelines and conditions, inheriting a tradition stemming from an unimpeachable eruption of mental purity in human history. The hall where they are seated with fifty or a hundred other people has an atmosphere of ruddered, communal listening to directions that derive from a successful historical apogee. Absorbing the opening formalities, the students find they are listening as if to a voice from within themselves.
The students are asked to internalize the emanations of quiet, determined truth-seeking by three acts of mental sanctuary. First, they “take refuge in the Buddha,” meaning in the capacity of a human being to be peaceful, selfless, free of bondage to conditions of historical accident, a seeker of universal truth. Enlightenment, personified by the Buddha, is incipient in everyone. Next, they “take refuge in the Dhamma,” meaning in the order and coherence of the universe, the lawfulness of physics and psychology that enables a path to exist, a teaching to be conveyed. The students will aspire to follow truth, not comfort and illusion. Third, the students “take refuge in the Sangha,” meaning in the humanness of their enterprise, the person-to-person inspiration, guidance, and friendship of those who have had the glimpse to those who are in shadows. Alone in silence, the students are also in wise caretaking company.
Now that they have girded themselves in safekeeping of their own best wishes, they are ready for another mental step: commitment to precepts, to behavior that expresses the goal. This step, like every step, is directly targeted, logical, consistent. Before the airplane flies, it is pointed on the runway. Before meditation, there is a facilitatory position to take: “I will not kill, steal, lie, become intoxicated, or commit sexual misconduct.” Peace is based on a kind and caretaking life. This is a school of self-responsible self-restraint.
Meditation begins that evening in the half-lit hall. The students are directed to focus their attention on breath passing in and out of their nostrils, a quiet invisible touch of their own life, a subtle, sometimes elusive focus for a mind more used to data processing, diagnosis, or diapers. The students doze and wake, oversoothed into somnolence by the sudden dimming of daily clamor.
That night they sleep exhausted, or they anxiously lie rigid over sleep all night, and arise at 4 a.m. to begin three days of reminders, explanations, and their own solitary repetitive effort to master a cascading and slippery mind.
From within, as the students try to focus on the bare sensation of breath at their nostrils, they find themselves bombarded by the lives they have lived: memories, wishes, fantasies, and plans, sluicing past the diaphanous gate of their effort to concentrate on the soft fact of breath. At times the students seem to be drowning in reminders: to call their accountant when they get home, to buy a new sofa, and to write to their father. The students almost cry, feeling asthmatic with frustration of mental dyscontrol that has underlain consciousness all their life but has never been exposed before. No one can do what the student is asked and wants to do: concentrate on bare breath. All of their previous concentration all of their life was dependent upon glaring stimuli to attract and hold attention. In life, we all concentrate by using a loud gong of stimulation to command our focus. But subtle breath slips from our attention like sand grains grasped in hand. Our students find they have ridden a fantasy jet into passionate liaisons or into lotteries of excess time and cash. Their daydreams are florid and for hours unstoppable, like a rock dislodged and ricocheting down a precipice.
After a day or two, the students realize that have been concentrating. It happened for mere seconds even on that first dim evening when they had taken their vows. It happens again in the muffled predawn hours when they begin to feel too tired to worry or fabricate. It happens again and again as the first three days unroll. Sometimes our students concentrate unbroken for thirty seconds, and not again for an hour. Sometimes they concentrate a few seconds at a time, on and off, for half a day. Then again, tidal waves of memory sweep over them. Old wounds, harsh words, rejections, humiliations, successes, triumphs, epiphanies, are left exposed by the undertow of the racing mentation. The students wallow in them; then, reminded by the near yet seemingly distant lifesaver thrown out by the teacher’s voice, they effortfully restore their concentration. Long runs, samadhi, happens.
Of course, these people have concentrated before, most of their lives in fact. Maybe as a medical student memorizing anatomy, or as a ninety-word-per-minute typist, or as a mother watching her rambunctious son in a playground pronged with swings and curbs, they have concentrated on achieving a goal. But this samadhi is different. When it lances through the imagery of mind, and holds only the touch of breath in its purview, one, two, sixty moments, a clear, pure tranquility dawns. All other concentrated calm is based upon external stimuli or pictorial fantasy: “Tomorrow I will be on the beach,” “When my boyfriend visits, I can relax,” “When my son really marries that girl who is good for him, then I’ll grow old happily.” But the calm of concentration on bare breath is situationless; it contains no “if” or “when”; it has no picture. Sometimes a marquee of lights, or a moonglow, sometimes only the ripple of respiration’s tickle, suffuses the mind. Tranquility is possible, incredible. Based on observation, it is actualizable but unobservable, like fresh air. It emerges from effort, from a wrestling match with self. Then it coasts in frictionless ease, contentless freedom. Only after it has dissolved again can the student feel tranquility absent once more under the tangled arms and brass band of mental life.
Our students are now anchored in moral orientation of their refuges and vows, and increasingly, if intermittently, concentrated in mental mastery for three days, and are ready to practice Vipassana meditation per se.
He or she “dwells observing the phenomena of arising and passing away in the body…This awareness develops to the extent that there is mere understanding and mere observation and s/he dwells detached and does not cling to anything in the world of mind and matter.” In that one sentence, Buddha described Vipassana. Today, as thousands of years ago, it is taught as a gradual training, a step-by-step comprehensible technique. Taking almost a week to be accurately taught and initially experienced, it can be summarized as direct, serene awareness of the vibratory totality of the sensations of mind and body, in their ephemeral, impersonal, yet lawful nature.
The students learn to concentrate not merely on a focal point of breath, but gradually, by practiced expansion of locales and then simultaneous regions, they eventually gain the capacity to be aware of all the sensations in their body – scalp, forehead, eyes, nostrils, sinuses, head, mouth, face, chest, heart, lungs, abdomen, etc. Meditation becomes the sweeping motion of awareness flowing through the entire structure of the body, a scanning alertness in which the object of concentration is the totality of the subject themselves. They observe the mass of themselves flickering in its constituent particles. They feel as if they can observe their entire body as a “dot matrix” person.
But why this focus on the body? Doesn’t the inner light spring from the mind? The Buddha himself taught: “Mind comes first, mind matters most.” We feel ourselves to be primarily our thoughts, our feelings, our psyche. How can a technique be deep, be other that a tranquilizing gimmick, if it continuously requires turning concentration away from psyche to soma? What does this meditation on breath and body have to do with mental purification and inner peace?
For the mind to be plumbed, it must be observed at the juncture where it is coterminous with the body. As self-observers, we cannot observe our mind alone. It buries us. It subsumes our objective, observing powers under its own urgent theater of imagery. The cinematographic reels of the mind are seemingly endless and dominant. We are them – so it feels. We believe in them, are captured by them, live them out. Yet the elaborate drama of our mind in which we always star, that screen where we take up most of the space, is predicated on a brief package of body.
There are many levels to reality. Our skillful preoccupation with mundane details has its own proper role. Everyone must competently wend their way through a complex world where ability, labor and pragmatism corral their fair domain of food, shelter, friendship, knowledge, and affection. But inner peace is the pollen of absolute reality. Ultimately, the visible, tangible universe is a shifting flow of matter in ceaselessly transforming aggregations. The final fact is change. Deep meditation leading toward abiding peace must descend beyond the useful but ephemeral thoughts of transient personality, to the eternal truths at the basis of all personalities at all times.
Vipassana is a submarine-based observation of change. It carries our bare, honest observation to the depth of the sense of self. Every thought, dream, mental picture is a product of the body that contains it. A biochemical reaction underlies every flicker of the mind. The mind is juice squeezed from change. Neurotransmitters, complex biochemicals streaming across synapses in the dendritic microforests of the brain, enable our moods and our mentations. Psychiatrists prescribe medicines that regulate these chemicals to elevate depression, compress mania, or salve schizophrenic horror. No one can think with his head chopped off. The “I am” who inhabits our thoughts and feelings is a product of the possibilities of the biology, chemistry, and physics of our bodies. As we think, we change our chemistry. Chronic thought-patterns change our bodies, ulcerate our duodenums, break our hearts, or restore our vitality. Mind and body are two sides of a coin.
But mind alone can convey the illusion of “I am” that obliterates the reality of ceaseless transformation in every atom, every body, every galaxy. Mind unpinned from its body dreams it is free of flux. Uprooted from the truth of ceaseless transformation, mind elaborates the illusions that alienate it from integrative harmony with the facts of the world.
We have no difficulty in becoming aware of our mind. It floods us: it spawns epics and anecdotes and vacation plans. We all dwell in the captivity of our own melodrama. No one who has not spent whole days sealed alone inside her own head can know the fantasia of multiscreen ideation that will not stop for a moment. How can this self-entranced mind gain a more embracing and enduring perspective?
The only way the human mind can experience truth is when that truth is felt directly in the bodily basis of “self”. To stand outside ourselves and view our lives with the “cosmic long view,” we must penetrate ourselves within and find the multitudes of galaxies swirling in our bones. We can only stare at the heavens. We live and die in our hearts; we can directly experience our own sensations. Transforming self-knowledge derives from the inner journey. Purity, transcendence of imaginary and divisive selfhood, is the outcome of the experience of ineluctable change throughout the dream of the self. When the bodily basis of the self dissolves into the impersonal flows of universal matter, one drop of purity glistens in the mind. Purity is a direct product of experiencing ultimate reality of change in every particle of one’s own body-mind. In a moment of sweeping, penetrating meditation, the students may experience themselves as they might if they observed themselves from a helicopter for a hundred years: as a passing cloud.
As the meditators learn to sit still, observing arising and passing away in the body, merely observing without reacting, they are again reflooded, this time not only by mental contents as they were while concentrating on breath, but also by somatic clouds and suns previously unknown. At times they will find Vipassana a paradox. Having come to it for inner peace, they temporarily find themselves more beset than ever before. After moments of stellar clarity, mental hullabaloo returns. An ancient loss buried twenty years ago rises up and screams, “You’ll never be able to forget me!” A wish unfulfilled dances tantalizingly hour after hour: “How can you live without me? When you leave this course you must change your life to have me. You will never, never feel satisfied unless you have me.”
One student runs to the teacher, confused, upset: “I must be doing something wrong. I can’t concentrate. My back feels like it has a hot iron ramrod in the muscles beside my spine. I can’t sleep at night. But I fall asleep as soon as I try to meditate! Instead of transcending desire, I am becoming a furnace of passion.” He is incredulous when the teacher laughs and reassures him that he is right on target! His honesty, self-insight, and deepened appreciation of the human dilemma are all signs of progress. Having tasted a drop of purity, he is now consciously aware of the self-attachments that are its antithesis and would keep him from it.
Another student’s unbroken penetration of meditative mindfulness into the bodily sensate self has unshelved reactions in the dusty library of her unconsciousness. Piles of her past conditionings are stirred from where they moldered in the unexplored archives of body-sensation-based mind. Her awareness of buried sensations brings up awareness of their repressed mental contents that are the two sides of the same coin. Not just her brain her whole body is filled with memory and desire.
Modulated by vows, buffered by tradition, teacher, and technique, the students’ archaic reaction patterns rise and transpire from the surface of mind, neither driving action, because the students are sitting still in the sanctuary of their vows, nor able to hide any longer in unawareness. Systematic, penetrating awareness of body-mind in mere observation and dispassion peels off old snakeskins of old “selves”.
As the days crawl past through the thick broth of loneliness and confusion, then alternately flash forward in exhilarating insights, breakthroughs and discoveries, the meditators are reminded by a persevering teacher’s voice to return to awareness of the reality of sensate bodily life, observing its instantaneous, incessant changes with a balanced mind. The moon of the students’ own clarity slowly absorbs the excited flashes of stars and shines light down into the black hours. The new meditators learn to ride the transformations of themselves. The students can balance above the surges and urges inside themselves, like a horseback rider, like a surfer, learning detached self-humour within the whirlwind. Now our new meditators can recognize the way thoughts rise out of their body, and sensations change with thoughts. They are developing freedom from the compulsions of animal life. They are exercising new mental organs, new spiritual muscles. They can watch themselves change, body and mind, like the earth in its seasons, like historical eras in the geography of time, and yet know the poise of being meteorologist and historian of themselves. They experience peace as they have never known it before – peace based upon detachment from the undulating reality of change.
From under the cover of their blinding ignorance they see the rising of the qualities of a purified mind. Why harbor and rationalize so much hatred or fear, all based on transient scenarios? Fantasies of a permanently happy self in the confines of terrestrial life are tossed off like childish daydreams. They realize that clinging to fairy tales about themselves is the source of their suffering. They recognize that all living beings suffer the same core anguish that they have. They feel called to release others as much as they have been released. Sorrowing for the ignorant bodies everywhere clinging to their transitory, illusory selves, they find their own self-pity uncoiling into love. Every one, every thing is an orphan, an exile, a friend. Their detachment is from themselves, not from others, toward whom they yearn to reach with the wand of their own insight: truth brings peace.
Within the pain of change, loss, dissolution, is the liberation of serenity and its generous light. When ceaseless change is realized to be the ultimate fact of every moment, you know you are reborn into freedom a thousand times a day. The even mind, without demand, is objective, realistic, clean. Muddy mind is a product of its own self-referential expectations, projections, confusions. Purity is awareness and equanimity. The path to Nibbana is simply peace walking toward deeper, more unshakeable peace. The students have understood that suffering is caused by their self-obsessed mental drama; and for moments, hours, days of the course, they have now felt free. For intermittent hours, or for whole days, they have come to thrive in Vipassana, aware of but not reacting to sensations of pleasure and pain, mentally stepping aside to watch objectively, free of personal craving or distaste. They have experienced peace that is simultaneously intimate and animated, yet so deep that it makes normal relaxation with a book, or normal vacations, seem like a hubbub. They have climbed the foothills to get a glimpse of liberation. They leave the ten-day course with a sense of having worked incredibly hard and having experienced a quality of peace that is unique, profound, and inspiring.
Will they really leave their course benighted, loving, selfless, and wise after ten days? To some extent. One week of pure Vipassana meditation hasn’t made them Buddha, and their friends and family will recognize them only too easily on their return. But the life they only imagined so shortly before, they have now begun to live. One smudge is wiped from the window glass. One moon has risen in an interior heaven. Who can see far enough to predict where a ray of light will halt? These new meditators are on the Path.
Hopefully, they will see their Vipassana meditation course as a first step. They may start and end the rest of they days with meditation upon reality as it is. They may return to sharpen their insights in more courses. They may progress to where they can help others learn.
For their meditation to actually change their lives, and not be just an interlude, they’ll have to realize that meditation isn’t sitting still. It is the cultivation of a permeating perspective. Practiced sitting, it can grow until it accompanies the active mind in its daily tasks. A life of meditation saturates work, family, leisure, and friendship, until the round of existence turns increasingly frictionless on the hub of purity and equanimity.
Source: Fleischman, Paul R. “Cultivating Inner Peace: Exploring the Psychology, Wisdom, and Poetry of Gandhi, Thoreau, the Buddha, and Others / Edition 1 by Paul R. Fleischman, William Radice (Foreword By).”