Thursday, October 31, 2019

Vipassana Meditation .. Moving towards Stillness & Equanimity

I recently completed a 10 day Vipassana Meditation course (as taught by S. N. Goenka).  It was hard... and long … and the slowest 10 days of my life.  When it ended on the morning of Day 11, I gave myself many pats on the back.  This is a huge milestone in my journey towards stillness and equanimity; a journey that has changed and evolved my life in the most profound way.

When I decided to try Yoga almost 20 years ago, I just wanted to touch my toes.  To gain flexibility in a body that is stiff by nature and made even stiffer by being an athlete my entire life.  I tried different styles of yoga and only fell in love with Ashtanga Yoga as it was dynamic.  I found the more static forms boring and my mind started going crazy if I wasn’t moving.

During my annual trips to Mysore, India, to practice with my teacher Sharath Jois, a lot of my friends would practice Vipassana meditation afterwards.  I was never interested as I knew I could not just sit and meditate.  I have been also been gifted with an innate ability to fall asleep very easily, especially in moving vehicles (even bumpy safari cars).  So, just sitting and being asked to close my eyes is a recipe for instant Zzzzz-ing.

I did some meditation during my 2 month Yoga intensive in 2003 and when I went to a Catholic ashram for a weekend in Mysore.  It was 1 hour maximum a day but I was bored, unsettled and definitely fell asleep a lot.  Over the years, even with a moving meditation practice, which is what Ashtanga yoga is sometimes described as, my mind has quietened down a lot.  In 2008, I felt that I could ‘sit’ long enough to attend a 1 month Pranayama course in Lonavla (outside Mumbai).  That involved specific breathing techniques which occupied my mind while I sat… I still fell asleep though.  I went again in 2009 and would love to say that I improved and fell asleep less often…

In the back of my mind, I had always thought about trying the 10 day Vipassana course.  Perhaps it was a challenge to myself; to see if I could do it or maybe it was to see if it was as beneficial as many purport it to be.  Many years of a daily Ashtanga yoga practice had taught me to be more aware of my body, thoughts and feelings but the ultimate goal of equanimity and not reacting to external stimuli was still beyond me most of the time.

Vipassana Meditation is a Buddhist technique.  Vipassana means to see things as they really are.  The objective of Vipassana meditation is to develop an insight into your mind by observing the physical realities of your body.  All new students have to do a 10 day course with a very strict daily schedule.  The first 3 1/2 days involve observing your natural breath as it moves in and out of your nostrils (Anapana meditation).  This helps to focus and sharpen your mind, preparing you for Vipassana meditation where you scan the body from Head to Toe to observe any sensations that you may feel (pleasant or unpleasant).
The objective is to develop Awareness and Equanimity, as you try not to react to the sensations you feel.  The underlying principle here is Anicca; that change is inherent and nothing stays the same. 

“All things are impermanent
when one observes this with insight,
then one becomes detached from suffering;
this is the path of purification.”

In the middle of the year, the desire to attend the Vipassana meditation course suddenly became very strong.  2 of my students who had both done it were very encouraging.  I can really procrastinate but with their support, I found myself blocking off dates and registering for a course at Dhamma Malaya (Kuantan) in September.
The Great Hall just a few steps from my room

The Vipassana course is tough not just because it’s long but because it’s very regimented with lots of rules to follow.  There are people who leave without completing the course.

The first thing the course managers did was to tell us all the Do’s and Don’ts as listed in the Code (a lot more Don’ts than Do’s).  Here's a bit more about the Vipassana technique and the Code of discipline.
Here is the daily schedule.  Looking back, it’s good that I didn’t look at it closely until I got there.  Because I might not have signed up.

Adhering to the schedule and the rules is strictly enforced.  The course managers go around to check if that people are present for the group meditations & meals, that you don’t sit with your feet facing the Teachers’ chairs or slouch down too low during the nightly discourses (talks) etc.  This could vary depending on the centre but the teachers and managers on my course were always on the lookout for any infractions.

Maintain Noble Silence
No talking to anyone (except Teachers and the course managers); not even sign language or making eye contact).  To me, that was not a problem.  I didn’t know anyone there and was not there to make friends.  I don’t think I even talked to myself those 10 days.  The Noble Silence is actually broken a day before the course ends.  This is to ease you back into the real world.  Personally I preferred it when people didn’t talk because they couldn’t stop talking.

No phone
I thought that would be a problem but once I didn’t have it, I didn’t miss it except when I thought of something I didn’t know the answer to and I couldn’t Google it! That drove me nuts for a while.

Many ‘new students’ ie first-timers have to sleep in a dormitory but Dhamma Malaya only has single rooms, probably why courses there are in such high-demand.  The room is basic but clean with a thin mattress, a small pillow (some people bring their own) and a ceiling fan (so it’s cool even during the hottest part of the day).

My block

My room

No hot water
I was warned that there would be no hot water in my room.  I didn’t have an issue with that; have had many a cold shower during my backpacking days.  You can imagine my surprise when I discovered not only a hot water shower in my room, but with a built-in booster pump so I had decent water pressure too! Turns out I was lucky to be assigned a room in the 2 blocks with hot water showers; so the older ladies don’t have to lug hot water in a bucket from taps situated outside.

Shower with heater & booster pump
4am wake-up call with the 1st sit at 430am
Again not a problem as I was used to waking up even earlier in Mysore.  Apparently there are people who skip this sit and just wake up in time for breakfast. But this was my favourite sit as it was cool and quiet.  I could go to the Hall or meditate in my room but I always went to the Hall as it was nice to meditate with people when the urge to lie down on your bed to sleep is strongest.

No food after lunch at 11am
Hhmm … breakfast was at 630am with lunch at 11am.  Meals were all vegetarian (also not a problem for me).  There was tea at 5pm and as a new student, some fruit (usually bananas and apples).  There was Milo as well and many students put some in a flask to take back to their rooms.  All food had to be consumed in the eating hall.  I heard that people sneak in food but I didn’t and didn’t really feel hungry as I didn’t do much more than sit the whole day.

No yoga.  That was a big problem for me as I have maintained a 6-day-a-week Ashtanga practice for over 15 years.  I missed it a lot.  I did do some stretches as my back and shoulders got sore with all the sitting but it wasn’t the same.  They discouraged any other form of meditation or healing/spiritual practice during the time you are there.  This is to allow you to experience the Vipassana technique in its purity.  You also had to surrender any prayer beads, religious pendants etc.  The only exercise that was allowed is walking so I walked a few rounds after each meal.

No reading and writing
Oh no!  Although most of our time was spent sitting, we did have some spare time after meals.  Books and writing were not allowed.  I have maintained a daily journal for years and a lot of my thoughts are condensed when I write things down. There was only so much hand-washing and cleaning of my room that I could do.  So I did spend time sitting in my room staring at the wall.

Lots of sitting
 … nothing but sitting … the whole day.  And from Day 4, during the 3 group sits, you were strongly encouraged not to open your eyes or change your leg and arm positions.  Now that is what almost did me in.  After so many years of an asana practice, my hips are open enough that I can sit cross-legged without discomfort.  But 1 hour of not moving? 45 minutes was very do-able but the last 15 minutes was excruciating; made worse by the growing mental anxiety that hearing Mr Goenka’s voice to signify the end of the hour was taking SO LONG.

Bilingual course
More than half the participants were Mandarin speakers so all the instructions were repeated in Mandarin.  The group was split up into 2 during the nightly discourses.  There was also a multi-lingual room with headsets and audio tracks for people who needed translation to other languages.

There were 2 (husband and wife) on my course.  They didn’t give any instructions as everything was done by Mr Goenka via audio/audio.  They were there to oversee the sessions, check our progress and handle any individual questions.  So, other than 1 question that I had, I didn’t have any interaction with them at all.

As I have said before, my problem is staying awake, not falling asleep.  However, after Day 3, I had problems falling asleep at night.  This bothered me enough that I went to queue up to ask the Teacher if Vipassana meditation affects one’s sleep.  She said ‘Yes it can’ as the mind is very alert.  She told me to lie down, keep my eyes closed and try and relax (so the body can rest).  Then just scan the body and observe whatever sensations I feel, without reacting (so the mind can rest too).  This way, I will still feel rested in the morning even if I don’t fall asleep.  Easier said than done because I couldn’t help but feel a little anxious.  I wanted to sleep so I would not be tired during meditation.  So ironic, that I couldn’t sleep when I was supposed to be and fall asleep during meditation instead.

Many people have asked if this course has improved my life?  People are supposed to feel lighter after the course. A course-mate said that his eczema was noticeably better.  Personally I didn’t feel very much difference on Day 10 than I did on Day 1.  Being a bit of a skeptic, I found that being isolated from people is not reflective of the realities of daily living.  Mr Goenka did say in his discourses that we need regular practice in order to see differences in how we react to things.  You are recommended to continue to meditate for an hour every morning and evening which I find hard to do on top of my daily Ashtanga and Pranayama practice, plus my teaching.  In addition, I am tired and my mind is distracted.  How can I meditate with a quiet, focused mind?
But as my student who has been such a help in encouraging me and answering my questions says, just do what you can.  It is what it is, just observe and have no judgement/reaction to the quality of your meditation.
So it’s been almost a month since I came back and I have tried to meditate when I can.  It hasn’t been every day and only 30 minutes on average.  I always doze off but I think that I see a difference in myself.  In the Ashtanga practice, you observe your Breath and your Body but you control the breath and how you move your body.  You try and remain detached to whatever you are feeling in your body that day, whether it is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ practice.  In Vipassana, you train your mind to focus on the physical body as it is, observing in great detail whatever you feel, without reacting to it.  I have found that the slow detailed observation has helped me remain equanimous (calm and composed) for a bit longer before I react and to try and react in a positive way.  It’s almost like things are in slow motion.  My Ashtanga practice did that too but Vipassana seems to have helped sharpened my focus and for a longer period of time (even though in reality everything happens in a flash).  When your area of focus is narrower (body part by body part), your awareness does get more acute 
Not reacting negatively to external stimuli was my main objective of attending this course so yes, I think it has helped, though I still have a long way to go.

Would I do this 10 day course again?
I hesitate to say Yes because I find the inability to do anything other than sit very restrictive.  I would if I could maintain my Ashtanga and Pranayama practice.  I find them very complimentary to Vipassana.  The physical stretching and focus on the Breath helps prepare the body and mind for the many long sits in the Vipassana course.

My journey continues ...
When I attended my first yoga class, I only wanted to touch my toes.  I had no idea of Yoga's mental and spiritual effects.  Now I can touch my toes but my journey is far from over.  I may reached Mt Everest's Base Camp but there is a whole Mountain yet to climb.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Free your mind ...

and the rest will follow … 

I have always loved this song by En Vogue (yes, I am dating myself).  Super-catchy melody accompanied by a snappy beat.  I am attracted to songs based on melody and beat; definitely not a fan of slow sappy songs.  I don’t really pay attention to lyrics though.  Many a time have I sung along to songs on the radio, without even realising what words I am singing, let alone their meaning.
But somehow, these 3 words from the En Vogue resonate with me … Free your mind.

There are 8 limbs of yoga.  The first 2 limbs advise on the moral codes we should follow in interacting with others and personal duties towards ourselves (yamas, niyamas).  The other ‘lower’ limbs deal with the body (asana, pranayama).  These prepare us for the ‘higher’ limbs which deal with the mind (pratyahara - sense withdrawal, dharana - concentration, dhyana - meditative absorption) and ultimately lead to Samadhi (enlightenment).

In today’s modern context of yoga, there are classes for Asana, Pranayama and Meditation, each with different styles and techniques.  I have my regular Ashtanga (asana) practice and I try to do some Pranayama first.  I find that it helps deepen and lengthen my breath in preparation for my Ashtanga practice.  Meditation? Nah, but not that I haven’t tried.  If you put me in a seated position first thing in the morning with no movement involved …. I will fall asleep and it doesn’t matter how much sleep I have had the night before.  My gift of being able to sleep anywhere anytime is a curse when it comes to developing a meditation practice πŸ˜€

Different forms of meditation have different methods.  Some will focus on a thought/concept, a deity or repetition of a mantra.  Some get the mind to concentration on breath control or observance of the breath.  Some will instruct not focussing on anything at all but to watch the thoughts that come into your head.  Not holding on to any but just acknowledging it and letting it go.  The Ashtanga yoga practice has been described as ‘Meditation in motion’.  Students are instructed to focus on observing and controlling the breath, keeping it steady in length, depth and rhythm whilst syncing it to specific movements.  Drishti (specific gazing points in each asanas) also help to focus the mind.  I have to admit that I may start off doing that but in the end, my mind wanders off.  Yes, bad Ashtangi. But I can’t help it.

My time on my mat each morning is my personal time.  Breathing and moving through asanas which are automatic to me now is a chance for me to   mentally let go.  It is amazing what thoughts come into my head and even more astonishing, the conclusions and ‘A-ha’  moments that pop out of nowhere.  Many a day have I stepped onto my mind worrying about something or pondering a problem and during my practice, the solution just comes to me, clearly and logically.  I have even generated mental To-De lists; things that I have needed to do for weeks but have forgotten.  Strangely (or not), it is sometimes hard to hold on to these thoughts.  The To-Do list is usually forgotten by the time I am done with practice.  I am guilty of stopping (just a few times) to write them down .  The solutions or possible options to more complex issues/problems though, tend to stick and get reinforced in my head.  Sometimes they even get sorted out in point-form which I love.  Call it an occupational leftover from my previous life as a management consultant.  It never ceases to amaze me what passes through my mind during the time I am on my mat.

There are days when I manage to keep my mind on controlling my breath and observing the sensations passing through my body.  Inevitably though, my mind will go off at some point.  If Guruji heard this, he would probably go ‘Bad lady. Incorrect method’.  But instinctively I feel that sometimes not controlling your mind is enlightening; a form of release and freedom from all restraint.  I feel mentally lighter; no worries or concerns, even if it's just for a while before coming back to reality.

So, try it … click on this link ... come onπŸ˜‰