Vipassana Meditation Part III: The Obstacles

Before we left the meditation center, our teacher Vijaya told us that we should practice at least half an hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. Another former student, a middle aged Indian uncle, chimed in and said at least one hour is necessary to keep up the practice. He came to a meditation retreat a long while ago and stopped altogether. Coming back to it was very difficult for him. At that time I was excited to come back to the real world and share my experiences; I was not so hung up on the advice because I knew once everyone leaves the place, challenges will occur and excuses not to meditate would come by easily. Challenges to the practice already existed inside the well-organized albeit temporary meditation center.

I constantly wanted to write during my meditation hours. I managed to sneak and write a few short notes when I could not hold back, although it was against the rules. I also got bored sometimes even when the electric tingling experience was "happening." Instead, I would reminisce the films I watched before. Italian classic Cinema Paradiso was particularly vivid and when the explosion of the cinema happened in my head, the tingling also intensified surreptitiously. A fellow meditator exclaimed on the last day that she also had replays of Sesame Street songs or unpleasant film scenes.

I recounted these experiences to a friend of mine, a Chinese monk. He also knew before that people's memory becomes extremely sharp during meditation, even in traditions other than Vipassana. He recounted an urban legend: a guy who used to be a butcher terminated his trade and followed the Buddhist path. During a silent group meditation sitting in a temple, he shouted "Ahh!!" Everyone looked at him. Apparently, he remembered how someone short-changed him in exchange for the pork he sold a long time ago. I could definitely relate to these aha moments, although luckily none of my memories were as regretful (e.g., "I should have caught that person who short changed me!"). I also have similar issues nowadays while practicing at home. 

Aside from the neuro-challenges during meditation, one long term obstacle to the practice has been the cultural baggage. I don't want to be seen as someone "looking for a trip," in the words of Goenka, but then to be "committed" to yoga, meditation and/or some other practic has also been tough. Although no one has ever criticized me for testing the waters, I project these judgments at times. Goenka's reassurance has helped settle down some of that baggage.

JNU at dusk, usually the time when people come out to exercise
Politics has also come into the list of challenges to meditation. When I exchanged in JNU, Delhi, the dominant attitude among the Left was to frown down upon certain activities related to the Hindu pantheon. Yoga day was recently introduced by the Modi government and that would obviously be taken up as an issue, since many of the minorities who don't want to bow to the sun. I would sometimes see a person meditating by the tracks under the tree. I wondered when I would ever have the confidence to do that in public. The politics veered towards an automatic, reflexive bent--when the Paris attacks happened, I would overhear a person in JNU my age explaining to his parents (who were strolling with him) about the hypocrisy of the Western world--"no one mourned for [x country] when [y number] of people died!" I was emboldened when I heard it at first, since it reflected my views as well. But sometimes this attitude could become a dogma as well, especially in regards to spirituality. Anything with an "om" becomes the agenda of the Hindutva or Brahminical. My friend Amit, who meditates, also agreed with me on this point. He thought that more JNU students could benefit from meditation. In other words, we all have the obstacles we created on an intellectual level.

One of the rare Hindu events on campus that I attended--Kali Puja
On the other hand, one can also see how meditation can be difficult in a casteist society even if the programs are offered free of cost to all participants (They are sponsored by previous students' donations). When asked by Linda about caste and Buddhism, I said that if one is used to being an outcast, it would be very difficult for him or her on a psychological level to even enter a space that offered Vipassana in India. But that I have yet to corroborate with research. Someone should research on the challenges posed by caste on the Vipassana revival in India! 

Paradoxically, I gained the courage and motivation to treat meditation seriously at JNU, even when I didn't pick up the practice then. My friends here, such as Yogesh, were committed to social issues but also incorporated meditation in their lives. Yogesh would often suggest that I meditate as a way to concentrate on my studies and offered rewards, as if I was in his class as a student. He was a good mentor during difficult times. Alas, other cravings were stronger at the time. Still, I managed to meditate again despite the challenges. I could even say that the challenges helped me look inward: I was in the happiest and liveliest place in India, yet suffering was still all around. Turning inward was indeed an answer, even months after I had left.


Vipassana Meditation Part II: The Experience

The previous Part I post has introduced the Vipassana technique, how I came across meditation, and some of the debates in my mind during the practice. This post I will discuss some of the experiences and insights gathered from the fellow meditators. 

Goenka's dharma talks helped a lot to gain insight in what occurs each time anger overwhelms oneself. Simply put, the mind has many functions in its perception of the outside world. Reactions are one way that we deal with the world: when we like something, we create craving. When we dislike something, we generate aversion. The ideal state is that one should react with equanimity to all sensations, and thus eliminate aversion or craving. But oftentimes the reaction faculty is strengthened beyond other faculties, such as observation. When anger overwhelms us, we are not the masters of our own minds. Even watching films, drinking a glass of water, eating nice food or taking a walk only diverts the problem. Meditation helps us weaken the reaction faculty that often overpowers us with negative thoughts or speech when someone says something against our ego.

One other excellent way to deal with possible sources of anger is to see how you are in control of what kind of poison you take in. It's crazy but we take in poisons all the time even though on an intellectual level we would all agree to stop suffering. (Brother Khalil Jaffer has delineated this problem excellently in his 6-part series The End of Negative Suffering.) Buddha is one of the masters of this practice: once there was a devout Hindu man who lived in the time of Buddha. His family started Vipassana practice and stopped performing Hindu rites. He was furious that Buddha has led his family "astray" and went angrily to Buddha. He had a mouthful of dirty language and insults. 
The Buddha was unmoved in the slightest by this barrage of insults and just asked a question in return:“Do you sometimes receive visitors as guests?” “Yes I do” replied Akkosa. “And when they come, do you offer them food and drink and courtesies?” asked the Buddha. “Yes, sometimes I do” Akkosa said.
“So what if your guests don’t accept what you offer to them – where do the food, drink and courtesies return to?” “They return to me of course!” Akkosa answered. 
“Akkosa, you came here today, hurling insults and abuse at me.  I do not accept what you have offered.  So where do these insults and abuse return?”Akkosa got the picture. (quoted from How Buddha Handled Insults)
For me, this lesson also applied to other aspects beyond insults. I am often sensitive to labels that people might use to label me. But ultimately these are gifts from the outside. I can choose to either accept or refuse the labels, similar to the insults. I don't have to take all of them. 

Goenka says that this practice purifies the mind of negative thoughts and demolishes the ego. When he first wanted to try meditation for the sake of curing his migraine, his teacher said you should not approach meditation with this mentality. You should place the moral need for meditation first, and then the other benefits will come as well. Just as the sugar factories don't set out to produce molasses but gets molasses as a byproduct, one would also get the additional benefits in the end. In my case, I gained insight to certain problems regarding my friend circle in India as well as Germany. I used to think of myself as a generous, open-minded and easygoing person. But during meditation and reflections of one's ego, I realized that I had the illusion of open-mindedness. Many conflicts arose precisely because either I alone or both sides of the exchange did not want to listen or understand the other person's narratives. To be truly open-minded, it is not enough to be interested in some culture or the other. It is to be able to see precisely how the other person sees the world, however impossible it may be. Furthermore, oftentimes I receive more than I give. Goenka denounced how people say they love someone and they do certain things out of love, but actually it is out of love for oneself or the maintainance of the image of oneself rather than for other. This resembled much of what Kabir says in his poetry. Goenka told the story of King and Queen Malika during Buddha's time, who both meditated. Here is a textual version from the book Buddhist Women at the Time of The Buddha where I found from Access to Insight,
One day when the King was standing on the parapet of the palace with the Queen and was looking down upon the land, he asked her whether there was anyone in the world she loved more than herself. He expected her to name him, since he flattered himself to have been the one who had raised her to fame and fortune. But although she loved him, she remained truthful and replied that she know of no one dearer to herself than herself. Then she wanted to know how it was with him: Did he love anyone — possibly her — more than himself? Thereupon the King also had to admit that self-love was always predominant. But he went to the Buddha and recounted the conversation to find out how a Saint would consider this. 
The Buddha confirmed his and Mallika's statements:
I visited all quarters with my mind 
Nor found I any dearer than myself; 
Self is likewise to every other dear; 
Who loves himself may never harm another.

I have also found that my reactive faculties reduced along with the physical benefits. I started out with a sore back but after the meditation, despite prolonged sitting, I felt fine. Many other people also said that they have gained, most importantly, an insight to their own ego and how it treats others, and secondly, physical well being. I exchanged thoughts with the female group on the 10th day of our retreat, the day when noble silence ended. Linda, for example, reflected that she used to think her son was abnormally attracted to lofty thoughts like becoming a musician. She kept on trying to ask the question: Is it just a problem that happens to my son or also other people his age? Now she realized that she has problems in terms of her expectations. Elizabeth, my roommate for this duration, also exclaimed to me that sometimes it is not a difficult problem that requires you to solve it. Rather, your own perception has created this situation for yourself that seems like a problem. But sometimes the perception of the problem is often circumstantial and cannot be analyzed through an equation or searching answers on the web. One in fact is often addicted to analyzing the problem from a political or social perspective instead of realizing what is going on inside. Both Elizabeth and I had vivid dreams. On the second night I thought she was going to leave the place, but I could not ask at the time. One the last day she revealed that indeed she wanted to leave because she found it unexciting, but she is glad to have stayed. 

Jain statue in Gwalior, 2015
Goenka would often warn in his talks about the harmful aspects of creating anger and negative reactions because of a certain mental trace called "shankhara." This  shankhara occurs every time one generates craving, aversion or negativity and remains deep in the subconscious. It does not go away even during one's sleep. I thought that this could be the explanation for certain nightmares that also contain emotions that projected onto things in real life. The old fights become a source for new fights, and thus we multiply shankharas with our old habits. Through meditation, Goenka says, old and deep shankharas come to the surface and pass away because one is not generating new ones. 

Jain statue in Gwalior, 2015

The notion of achieving something beyond the mundane through meditation is also an important part of Sufism and Daoism. The Vipassana Research Institute, started by Goenka and followers of him, also edited many volumes gathering insights of people from other faiths.  One modern Jain practitioner, who came into contact with Vipassana, has also pointed out a similar triangular notion of moral qualities, meditation, and wisdom in the Jain tradition. 

Goenka warns people not to mix meditation techniques because it would be dangerous. But he respected different interpretations and had his own aphorism recorded in one of the Vipassana Research volumes:

"Hindu ho ya Baudha ho, Muslim o ya Jain
Jisane mana maila kiya wahi hua bechain
Hindu ho ya Baudha ho, Muslim o ya Jain
Jisane mana nirmala kiya waha bhoge sukh chain."

Rough translation:
Whether one is Buddhist, Muslim or Jain,
the one with an impure mind will suffer, and one with a pure mind will be happy.

Further Reading:


Vipassana Meditation Part I: The Practice

I recently went on a Vipassana meditation retreat organized by the Michigan Vipassana Association. The chief person that started the revival and popularization of this technique on the global stage is S. N. Goenka, a Burma-born Indian from a Hindu business community. He was successful in business and participated in what he would later call a “rat race.” After suffering from an intolerable migraine, he became interested in Vipassana meditation and the meditation surprisingly cured the migraine and inspired him spiritually. He became a long-time student of the Burmese Vipassana practitioner and monk Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971). U Ba Khin passed on to him the technique that he learned from previous Burmese teachers. U Ba Khin told Goenka one day in the 1970s to spread the practice of Vipassana in India. This technique later became further popularized in the west since the 1980s, and a sizable community formed in the Michigan area in the 21st century. 

Part of our walking areas, near a lake
In the 10 days, we did not have access to cell phones, electronics, or books. We maintained noble silence and did not speak to each other. The new students had to abide by the five precepts while the old students had to abide by eight precepts. We took refuge in the three jewels and meditated during the day. At night, we listened to Goenka’s English dharma talks made for a predominantly Western group like ours in 1991. He emphasized that this dharma is universal for finding the “Kingdom of heaven within” or the “brahmanic / nirvanic peace” within, and never used the word "Theravada," which is the name of the Burmese Buddhist tradition. The "universal" practice would needs sila (qualities of morals), samadhi (meditative concentration), and paññā in Pāli (or prajñā in Sanskrit, meaning wisdom). According to Wikipedia, paññā “is insight in the true nature of reality, namely primarily anicca (impermanence), dukkha (dissatisfaction or suffering), anattā (non-self) and śūnyatā (emptiness).” There is the first type of paññā attained from listening to wise people and the second type of paññā attained from intellectual reasoning. Goenka emphasized that without experience one cannot attain the third kind of bhavana-maya paññā. Impermanence (anicca) can directly manifest itself through our meditation experiences. After the first three days of observing our respiration, as a way of sharpening the mind and concentration, we were told to observe our sensations. One sensation would arise and we instructed not to react. Whether it is an itching one, hurting one, or a temperature related sensation. While I did not follow this strictly and shifted here and there, I tried my best not to react most of the time and the sensations that usually would only go away with some kind of willful intervention went away by themselves. In this way we can understand how things are impermanent and we should not get ourselves too attached to the current situation and try to change it by reacting.

S.N. Goenka
Goenka says that these three qualities are like a a tripod and cannot work without the other. Some Indian traditions have tried to dispense the quality of sila and just work on samadhi, thereby achieving fantastical results in what Goenka would call “mind games.” That was exactly my issue with purely achieving samadhi: I had some clue of what samadhi felt like and what moral actions were, but very little idea of the next step of practice.

How did I gain this understanding prior to this retreat? My initial contact with meditation was also somewhat connected to Vipassana. My college friend Rachit’s grandparents had started practicing during their self-exploration years (presumably after retirement) and told him a lot about it. He found out that there were weekly meditation sittings in the interfaith center at our American college. So we started going regularly at first and then sporadically later. I stopped after finding the instructions a bit too superficial. The person conducting the meditation sittings, a learned professor, seemed to have a chip on his shoulder against his previous profession. He would often compare the superiority of Zen Buddhism against his previous knowledge field. I found this comparison unhelpful and thought I could just meditate at home and stopped attending the sittings circa 2013. For the most part, I didn't meditate, until this past week.

Even though Goenka was speaking to a western audience in the Vipassana dharma talks, he still has the Hindu traditions in mind. His deductions the obviously were results of engaging in debate with other Indians. So at times it also seemed that he had a chip on his shoulder. But since Vipassana was already very successfully influencing people of all faiths in India (see documentary Doing Vipassana, Doing Time), Goenka obviously attracted many assents from his polemics. He also used the Indian rhetorical form of 
story-telling commonly found in many Hindu religious discourses to his advantageI also found it beneficial for me to compare the different traditions. He was answering the questions I had about the contrasting traditions, such as Vedanta: If both Vedanta and Vipassana advocated for disillusionment, rational analysis, detachment and samadhi, then what is the difference? Goenka would say that sila (moral rectitude) is the difference. I think another understated difference was that the dharma could be practiced by a householder (male or female) who was busy with mundane tasks as well. In contrast, it was probably after the encounters with colonial missionaries did the Hindu reformers start to think about what to do in this life to attain a higher spiritual path other than asceticism and devotion. 

Goenka did not shy away from controversial stances: he would ridicule the promissory offerings done by the bhakti devotees or the people who would recite “Hare Ram” every day: “Why do the Gods need you to say their names? If I set up something and asked people to say ‘Hare Goenka’ everyday, what madness!” I had just watched two documentaries about Kabir to gain spiritual motivation, so I really appreciated some aspects of bhakti devotion. Still, I knew where his critiques lied: if the people just want to achieve some kind of benefit through recitation instead of emulation, it is not dharma. The bhakti singer Prahlad ji, a major character in the documentaries, wrestled with the same dilemma.
Prahlad: "Your place has more sagun (gods of form) worship. Yet you believe in nirgun (formless divinity)."

Interlocutor: "Yes."

Prahlad: "Why do you believe in nirgun?"

Interlocutor: "Nirgun is the truth."

Prahlad: "And sagun?" 

Interlocutor: "I don't believe in it."

Prahlad: "Sagun is not the truth? Why is sagun untrue?"

Interlocutor: "It's the trickery of the pundits! Of Brahmins.

Prahlad: "But set aside Brahmins for a moment. Sagun doesn't mean Brahmin. Sagun means that which is visible, has forms and features. Our body is too sagun. So is the body a lie?"

Interlocutor: ...

That was what one of my co-meditators pointed out as well: we observe a lot of our physical reactions and sensations, while at the same time we want to overtake the impermanent physical aspects. So which point do we know that we have attained realization? To answer that, the next post will discuss the experiential aspects and how different people had different meditation results. 

Further Reading: