This past weekend, a dear friend and I did a one day “Old Student” Vipassana course in Metro Milwaukee. Vipassana is a meditation practice, and in Pali means ‘Seeing things as they really are.’ Being an “Old Student” means that one has sat for at least one ten day, fully silent retreat in the past.
Yes, I have sat a few courses in the past few years.
And did I feel like an “Old Student”? Not much.
At times, there was a lot of beginner’s mind going on for me. And at other times, a lot of “Why did I sign up for this?” This is the struggle in meditation. I have felt it many times. The change inherent in sitting with whatever comes up, for hours and hours, is deep. And difficult.
We started with Anapana, or breath awareness. In a ten day Vipassana class, this is the focus of the first three days. From an outsider’s perspective, that seems like a long time. Once in the midst of my first ten day course, craving and aversion (S.N. Goenka’s terms) came up, a lot.
Cravings came in the form of the taste of a large latte. The feeling that comes at the end of a Bikram yoga session. A piece of poppy seed buttercream iced torte. The aversions were sharper. It could be analyzing difficult conversations from years ago. Or at times, regretting an argument with someone I loved.
At times, I began to crave return to the breath, just to be away from the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts. Three days sounds like a long time. I also knew it was only about 1/3 of the entire class. Sometimes I felt like my only hope was breathing.
This was no different in a one day course, I just had the hope it would change quickly. Ha, “Old Student”.
In Dhamma Verses, S.N. Goenka writes: “The mind is volatile and flighty, wandering in every direction. Bind it with a chain of breath, confine it to one point.” (Verse 49, p. 27). This is what the breath awareness does for me. Sharpens my mind. (Between cravings and aversions!) Makes me feel like the present moment is always possible. Reminds me I have the capacity to be with what is.
After Anapana for an hour or so, we began the Vipassana practice. Formally, we ask our teacher (in Pali) to teach us. And we trust they will be with us, to offer us wisdom through the process. Vipassana involves noticing the sensations on one’s physical body. At first, we each begin by just concentrating on a small part of the top of the head. Any dull or sharp sensation.
And then we start moving across, down or up the body – never getting bored or making the process habitual. Inevitably, a sharp or dull pain comes up. For me, it’s almost always starts in my sit bones and moves up my back. I want to stretch. And stand up. And move. And not feel this pain.
The goal is to recognize these sensations and not attach the painful thoughts and emotions to them. In doing this, we can begin to recognize the impermanence of everything – pain and pleasure – and not get roped into either.
I can’t say that I felt much of that recognition at the one day course this past week. And, at the first course I took, I certainly did. After that course, I practiced every day, two hours a day, for about six months. And things got even better. I shed a lot of the day to day worries and self criticism that most of us have felt at some point in life. I realised there were things in my life I wanted and didn’t have, and I began moving towards those things. I felt changes come, and I didn’t run away from them, even when I was afraid.
In short, it worked.
Currently, my journey back to making this a daily practice is a slow one. I won’t be getting back to a daily two hour practice for (at least) a few years I am certain. And, I am grateful for the nights, after my daughter is asleep and my training ride in the basement is done. It’s quiet in the house and I can have 20 minutes to just sit with whatever comes.