By Tina Rodeen
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The day I got home after spending 10 days at a vipassana meditation retreat, I wrote four sentences on the chalkboard that hangs in my kitchen: Just observe. No craving. No aversion. Impermanence.
That last one, impermanence, isn’t so much a sentence as it is a concept important enough to encompass my entire experience at the retreat — an idea that contains the whole of my 15 years of Buddhist practice.
Vipassana, in the Pali language of ancient India, means to see things as they really are. At the retreat, vipassana is taught by the late S.N. Goenka via recordings played during group meditation and videos projected onto the wall in the meditation hall. It teaches the meditator that she should just observe any and all sensations in her body while meditating. No craving for a particular sensation during meditation. No aversion to any particular sensation that arises.
Form no attachment to sensations, do not cling to the tickles, the itches, the vibrations, the aches and pains one feels while sitting still for one hour of vipassana. Sensations of any kind are all impermanent and should, therefore, just be observed.
Impermanence isn’t something I think about often. I wasn’t thinking about it at all when I arrived mid-September at the Northwest Vipassana Center in Onalaska. I was confident I would last the entire 10 days of the retreat because I’ve been meditating for a few years now, and how much harder could vipassana be than the mindfulness meditation I do almost every day? I quickly learned that my confidence, like all things, was impermanent because vipassana is hard.
Sitting still for one hour is hard. Concentrating my mind on my breathing for one hour is hard. Trying to ignore the hunger pangs in my belly during evening meditation is hard — vipassana meditation believes that the meditator should not eat after midday because meditation is best done on a near-empty stomach.
By the fourth day of the retreat, I was ready to go home. My body was getting stiff from all the sitting, I was tired of being hungry at bedtime, I was seriously freaking out over all the bugs, and the mandatory Noble Silence was just plain awkward. Day Four of vipassana meditation, the day when the real work begins, is when the meditator learns the practice of sweeping over the body to observe any sensations that may arise. That part was easy, I often do body scan meditation as part of my own practice, but the no craving, no aversion, just observe part was hard work for me. I was averse to the pain in my neck and shoulders from sitting so straight for so long, and I craved the release of the pain that shifting into another position would bring. But the serious vipassana meditator doesn’t move while sitting on the cushion, or in the chair, in my case.
During the last half-hour of the meditation, I found myself too distracted to sweep the body. I was replaying movies in my head, trying to recall the titles of all the books on my bookshelf at home, surreptitiously wiggling my toes in my socks, and glancing at my watch to check how much meditation time was left. I was irritated and bored.
By Day Eight, I was convinced I was getting sick and needed to call my mother to come rescue me. But the manager for all the females at the retreat (men and women were segregated) discussed with me that my feelings of illness could be and likely were a sankara coming out from all the meditation. Sankara loosely means “reaction” in vipassana meditation. I decided I would ride out my potential illness and the other sankaras I was experiencing and keep meditating.
During the group meditation that night, I found myself scanning my body for longer, more concentrated periods of time, and I was truly just observing the sensations I was feeling. The itch on my nose went away when I moved my attention elsewhere. The tight muscle in my neck was still there, I observed, but I wasn’t clinging to its pain as I moved down to my shoulder. And when the meditation ended, I was relieved that I could stretch out the stiffness in my neck and shoulders. I was joyful because I felt different. I wasn’t thinking about feeling sick, I wasn’t upset by the lingering pain in my shoulders, the hunger pangs weren’t so intense. I was still feeling sensations, but I was just feeling them. I had no craving for good sensations, I wasn’t averse to the unpleasant sensations that lingered, I was simply recognizing the areas on my body that still ached and at the same time, the areas that didn’t ache. I was experiencing the impermanence of sensation, good and bad. I had just observed my body for what it is, an impermanent vessel of sensations that come and go.
This is what I learned at the retreat. Seeing things as they really are through vipassana meditation, by just observing my breath and body sensations, I am experiencing impermanence, the arising and passing of everything. When I observe a sensation, an experience, a thought during meditation and at any time, and I neither crave nor am averse to that sensation, experience, or thing, the concept of impermanence has become reality.
Tina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.