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: