Tuesday, March 8, 2011

10-day Vipassana meditation course: Experiences during the course

This is one of multiple posts related to my experience at a 10-day meditation course. The first post is here.

Of all the posts, this is perhaps the post where your experience is unlikely to match mine. The reason is that I have taken the course 3 times and the experiences during the course were very different each time. So other than serving as a log of what I recall of my experiences during the course, they aren't really of much use. Note that we are not allowed to take notes during the course and I'm not big on documenting experiences, so this is really the first time that I've tried to put these memories in writing. They are by no means complete, but I'll try and cover significant experiences.

I'll describe each of the courses separately.

The first course

During the first day of the first course, immediately after the first sit when the period of silence began, I started to feel overwhelmed. I can't describe in words what was going through my mind, but I just felt I wanted to break free. I wanted to speak to someone to ask if they were having a similar experience. I started to feel helpless like an animal that was going through overwhelming emotions but was unable to express itself. I got into bed and things only got worse. When I closed my eyes I started seeing images that didn't make any sense. I had to open my eyes to keep that from happening. Then I felt that I was being brainwashed. I started contemplating leaving the course but remembered that the parking lot was barricaded so it wouldn't be possible to silently leave. Amidst all of these overwhelming experiences, I gave in to chanting. Immediately my mind calmed down. I was able to reason that I would stay for the 10 days but instead I would decide what parts of the instruction I wanted to follow. I could simply meditate the way I had being doing before the course. (I ended up following all of the instructions for practice as given.) Note that we were cautioned very strongly against chanting or engaging in any other spiritual practice during the course, so I had broken this rule.

The next day, during the interview with the teacher, I mentioned this experience and that I had chanted. I asked if that would detract from the benefit of the course. He said I should not have chanted and that the feeling of being "overwhelmed" was due to the mind becoming very concentrated. He said the next time something like that happened, I should just breathe through it. I never did feel as overwhelmed again during the course. In one of the discourses, Goenka talks about how even he had this overwhelming feeling of wanting to leave the course, but was talked out of it. So I guess it's kind of normal to go through that.

By the second or third day, I started to feel a ringing in the left ear. I talked to the teacher about this as well. He told me if I would "know" if it was something that needed medical attention. Most likely it was again a sensation that was always present, but that I was not normally aware of. The ringing continued throughout the course but went away a day or so after the course. In subsequent courses, the ringing reappeared on the first day itself. The best explanation I could think of was that mind becomes very tuned to sensations within the body when at the course because we have cut the external stimuli to a minimum (no talking during the course, not even eye contact with other participants, no reading or writing, etc.).

Next, during the first instruction of vipassana, I felt as if my body was being massaged and layer of something was being removed, almost like a sensation of exfoliation. After a few more days of vipassana, the whole body was filled with subtle sensations and that lasted until the end of the course. The sensations were gone a day or so after the course.

By the 7th or 8th day, I had another somewhat jarring experience. I had a feeling of being in a time warp -- the clocks had moved forward several years, I was in old age surrounded by some of my friends who were also old, the previous generation (our parents) were all gone, my friends' children were all grown up, and all of my life seemed meaningless -- all of the things that I worry about incessantly just didn't seem to matter.

Towards the end of the course, a fear started to emerge -- a fear that the course hadn't done anything for me and that it didn't help address any of the problems that I was hoping for it to address. I felt as miserable and fearful as I did before the course. I discussed this with the teacher and he said the course is supposed to help give us strength to deal with problems in life, so I should just trust it.

There was a lot of physical pain during the course. Even though I was used to sitting without a cushion at home, I simply couldn't do it here without a cushion. Early in the course, during the anapana phase, I discussed the issue with the teacher. He said that we should just stay focused on the breath, and that once we get to vipassana it would get easier to deal with the pain since pain is "just another sensation". I found this to be somewhat true in that when doing vipassana we do become aware of the reactivity of the mind to the sensation of pain ("I want this to end, I want this to end, ...") and as the instruction of the course says, we need to break that reactivity and simply observe. The difference between being aware of the pain but being detached from it versus simply ignoring the pain is very subtle and hard to express in words, but it is something that the course teaches us to experience.

By the end of the course, I felt I had physically aged a few years. The body, even though it was in physical pain from sitting so much, actually felt more supple instead of tense. And there were subtle sensations all over the body.

With respect to food, I found that I lost my appetite as the days progressed. Initially, I'd eat fruit in the evenings, but by the 3rd or 4th day, I just didn't feel like eating any. I lost about 15 lb during the course and I haven't got them back since.

On leaving the course, at a physical level the ringing the ears and the subtle sensations were both gone within a couple of days at most. When trying to do the scanning as required by vipassana, the body felt dead. I immediately became aware of the effect of being away from external stimuli that we are inundated with in the regular world. While I didn't feel any kind of "aha" experience in the mind, there was definitely a shift in the subconscious mind. A number of situations that would normally cause me to become reactive and angry simply didn't have that effect. That doesn't mean that there was nothing that would upset me; rather it took a lot more to get me upset and I would look back in retrospect at various situations and say "oh, that statement is something that would have normally upset me before".

The second course

The second course was no where near as profound in terms of experiences as the first one.

I arrived at the course a day late (a luxury afforded only to "old students"!) because of some work commitments. When I got my seat assignment and went to look for cushions there were none. All I was able to get was a couple of blankets. As a result I struggled to find a comfortable posture, and this was the time when I switched from sitting on my ankles to sitting cross-legged for meditation.

Even in this course, I had a lot of trouble sitting still even though I had been practicing regularly at home. When I discussed this informally with the course manager after the course (not an official interview with the teacher), he said it might be because I'm combining it with a strong morality practice while at the course. In the discourses, Goenka seems to suggest that pain (and other undesireable sensations) arise because we are practicing as we should and that is how the technique works. During this course, I signed up for maybe one or two interviews with the teacher and the only question I recall asking about was that I felt my eyes drying up during meditation (which happened during normal sits as well) and teacher recommended using eyedrops (which I don't really use even now).

I had the ringing ear problem appear on the first day itself. And I also experienced the subtle sensations all over the body. And just like after the first course, both of these were gone within a couple of days of leaving the course.

I was traveling a lot for work around the time of the course (both before and after) so I didn't notice any significant changes either at the conscious or subconscious level other than that I was able to sit for longer periods of time more easily. But overall the feeling was quite positive.

The third course

I should mention that at some point (a year or so after the second course) I started feeling my life getting "too difficult". I also used to feel a lot of eye-strain after scanning the body (perhaps because I was trying to point my eyes as I moved the attention to different areas of the body). As a result I stopped the practice of vipassana in daily meditation and instead just continued practicing anapana.

I had the same difficulty with sitting in the third course as I did at the second course. I found it very painful despite sitting quite regularly.

As with the second course, I had the ringing ear problem appear on the first day itself. I also experienced the subtle sensations all over the body. And just like after the first and second courses, both of these were gone within a couple of days of leaving the course.

I left the third course feeling more anxious than I was before the course. As a result it sent me down the path of questioning -- Is the practice of vipassana right for me? I almost immediately fell back to anapana for my morning sits. I can't bring myself to completely stop practicing meditation (perhaps meditation is addictive!), but since then I have researched several other paths but none seems to appeal to me. For now, I'm happy with just doing anapana and occasionally using the principles of vipassana to observe sensations that arise, but I do not actively scan the body.

In summary

As you can see, there is quite a vast difference between what I experienced at each of the courses. So I don't think it is realistic for one to "look forward" to any of these. In talking to several other participants, I found quite a degree of variation in the experiences. Some folks had similar experiences, other had experiences that I would consider bizarre, and yet others had no such experiences.

No comments:

Post a Comment