Goenka the Teacher had reminded all the students that the Day 2 and Day 6 in our 10-day course of Vipassana would be the most difficult. At least, I can say, the Day 2 was really the biggest torture.
I came to the Vipassana meditation course with an expectation of finding salvation from my depression. I thought I would see a magic aura of enlightenment, or beautiful visions, or a surreal experience of ecstasy. But what’s this? This was just a boring process of sitting in total silence, with nothing to do but to observe breath for ten hours per day. The more I craved for a divine vision, the more I got restless. While I closed my eyes and seemed calm, my mind was not unlike an untamed wild horse which brought me galloping over series of memories and fears. Once I saw blurred pictures of places I have visited, changing rapidly as flash: mountains of Himalaya, deserts of Pakistan, jungles of Papua. Suddenly after those happy moments of reiterating my traveling years on the road, my mind threw me to sorrow: hospitals, graveyard, funeral house, dead bodies of my parents, dead body of myself.
This is the most frightening part of meditation. We humans are afraid of boredom. Remember when you have nothing to do, you will always try to find something to fill up those moments of emptiness. You grab your mobile phone, you check the internet, you post status in Facebook, you refresh your Twitter, you meet friends, you read books, you eat, you shop, you sleep, you sex or you drink or you drug yourself,… you do anything to avoid being lonely, as lonely will bring you boredom. And we have expression for this: bored to death.
The sentence has its logic: your fear of boredom is your fear of death. When you are bored, you experience a slice of death—being idle with nothing to do. And the meditation exactly throws you to this total idleness.
“Observe whether your breath comes in from the left nostril or right nostril, observe whether it goes out from left nostril or right nostril,” says the Teacher through the prerecorded audio. Do I really care whether my breath comes from the left nostril or right nostril? My mind revolted, shouted that I was just wasting time. But, despite of that, nothing else I could do and nowhere I could escape to. I had no choice other than just continued sitting, closing eyes, facing my own self, and wishing the bell to ring sooner.
The boredom is scary, because when you are bored you have nothing else to face but your own mind. And your mind is such an insane one, which in one moment brings you happiness and right after that it crushes you into misery. It sometimes brings you hope, but suddenly punches you with despair and fear. What a dangerous mind! While I was meditating, I had been blown away by my mind several times. Sometimes I smiled, sometimes tear flowed uncontrollably through my cheeks, sometimes I was sure I would be able to finish this seemingly never-ending Day 2, sometimes I was thinking of the possible ways to escape from this prison of mental tortures and back to my happy life inside Jakarta apartment blocks. But most of the time I was sleeping. Most of the time I was being mindless.
The Teacher, through the discourse at the end of Day 2, explained that meditation is kind of a mind surgery. The mind knows we are trying to tame it (remember how Pi tamed the wild tiger in the Life of Pi?), and it fought back. To be master of mind is to change the habit thinking pattern from mindlessness to mindfulness. For this purpose, one needs to follow three steps: sila (morality), samadhi (concentration), and panna (wisdom).
There are five silas (“Pancasila”) to follow: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no false speech, and no alcohol or drugs. The strict rules inside the monastic meditation camp force us to follow the silas definitively. We eat vegetarian food only (thus we kill no animals), we don’t talk (thus no false speech), we don’t have physical or even eye contacts (thus no sexual misconducts), we are not allowed to have any possessions but basic clothing (thus no stealing), and surely no alcohols nor drugs. What a perfect environment to purify your behavior. Then comes the samadhi, the meditation, the process of mastering the mind. And after that, we will reach the level of panna, “wisdom”, to purify our mind.
In Day 3, the students were asked to observe any sensation around the nose and area between the nose and the lips, while breathing. What sensation? I felt certain vibration, flowing around my nose. Is this the sensation? I felt very much annoyed by this, I wanted to rub my nose as the vibration was very tingling, but Goenka’s recorded voice reminded us: “Don’t do anything, don’t make any judgment to the sensations. Just observe. Observe.”
Then, again, my mind blew me away. I saw a vision. Of a dark face, with hollow black empty eyes, with a slightly open mouth like screaming unspeakable pains. It looked like the face of a suffering imprisoned soul. But who is this little soul? I concentrated on my breath and the sensation around my nose. The more I concentrated, the stronger the picture of that scary face drawn in my sight. Now I could feel the soul. The eyes of that face were juxtaposed exactly on my eyes. The nose of the face was on my nose. The mouth was on my mouth. I felt goosebumps all over me. Is the imprisoned soul me?
I started to appreciate this Silence, as it brought me freedom rather than imprisonment. I felt so much invigorated by the vision. I really wanted immediately to share this magical experience to anybody. But, alas, we are not allowed to talk at all except to the American lady the meditation teacher in our room. I was so excited when it came to my turn in the session of private interview after lunch. I sat under her feet, explained enthusiastically, “The Day 2 was very hard, extremely hard. My past was torturing me, my fear of death was torturing me, but…”
The teacher did not have so much time to listen to my rants. “Did not you listen to the discourse yesterday? It was mentioned already, that the Day 2 and Day 6 would be the most difficult. Didn’t you listen?”
The way she generalized my personalized experience put a sudden stop to my ranting.
So far we have practiced Anapana technique of meditation, that is pure observation to breath. In Day 4 afternoon, we technically just started the Vipassana. The reason why we had to learn putting attention to sensations around small area around the nose, is that to practice our subconscious mind to be sensitive to these subtle sensations. When we have a certain of mastery, we would be able to feel sensations all over the body.
The two hours Vipassana teaching in Day 4 was the most magical moment in my life. Through the broadcast audio, Goenka commanded the students to put more attention to sensations between the nose and upper lips, then redirect the attention from that area to the top of the head. This was the first time in my life, I felt the top of my head. There is a small hole on top of our skull—the hole as big as a nut left open after the solidification of skull covering our brain, of which process started since our baby time. I never knew there was such hole existed. But now, by closing up eyes and without even touching it, I really felt the little hole. It was vibrating.
Any my skull was vibrating. Every part of my face was vibrating, including my eyes and my tongue. Goenka’s deep voice led us to do a full body scan, from the top of the head to neck, from upper hand to each finger, from chest to tummy, then the whole back, then the two legs until it toes. The whole body was vibrating, tingling, flowing. The body, which I have carried during my 33 years, for the first time became sensible to me. I was being reintroduced to my own body; and it turned to be the first time in my life I became really curious about my own body. Curious of my own reality.
During the meditation, Goenka kept repeating the Sanskrit keyword: Anicca. “Changing”. The vibration we felt on our body was the proof that our physical body is changing, moment to moment. Every moment it decays, every moment we are one step closer to death.
Anicca is the Buddhist understanding of Law of Impermanence. Nothing is permanent, everything is changing and by the time will disappear. Just like the physical body, our sensation is also bound by the Law of Impermanence. All sensations arise then disappear, arise then disappear. All pleasant sensations (like the flowing and liberating subtle vibrations) and all unpleasant sensations (like the pain and numbness after long sitting) are bond to Law of Impermanence—it all will arise then disappear, arise then disappear.
Meditation is to train our subconscious mind to deal with these sensations. We are used to react to any sensations, and now we train our mind not to do anything but observing. As every sensation is not permanent, why we develop attachment towards those which bring pleasant sensation? And why we have to develop hatred towards those which bring unpleasant sensation? The craving of pleasant sensation and the aversion towards unpleasant sensation are the source of our misery. All of the sensations, no matter it was pleasant or unpleasant, will bring misery.
It is not hard to understand unpleasant thing will bring misery. When you develop hate towards the things or people you dislike, the bigger your hatred, the bigger your misery will be. But how about pleasant sensations? Having money is nice, but you see many rich people are unhappy in their never ending greediness to earn more money. Being famous is nice, but you see many famous people are actually in misery in obsession of seeking greater and greater attention. Sex may bring you certain pleasant feeling, but being obsessed by it will give you more despair and depression.
The more you are attached to anything, the more miserable you will be. In his discourse, Goenka gave an example about losing watch. A friend gave you a precious watch from abroad, which you love so much. One day, you broke the watch. You cried for the watch, your heart was broken together with the broken watch, as if your world devastated. But if the same broken watch was owned by someone else, you surely would not cry at all. Nobody would cry for a broken watch. It was your attachment to the watch which bring the tears.
Another story was about a woman whose baby passed away. She loved the baby so much and the death made her totally mad. She believed the baby was just sleeping, she hugged the corpse of the baby, brought the baby everywhere and asked everybody’s help to wake her baby up. She then came to Buddha. Buddha said that he could help her. What she needed to do was to go to the city, collect sesame from any family who had never seen death. She went from one house to another house. But where she can find such a family? All families have stories of death, all families have sufferings of their own, and some even were more suffering than her. When she realized this, she came back to Buddha, and agreed to receive the teaching of Dhamma.
The understanding of this Truth is a wisdom of life. Nobody is free from death. There is no use to deny this Truth, to reject and run away from the Truth. One day our body will be buried or burned. All the sensations will vanish, all what we have collected in life will be taken away, all of the heroes will have to go back to zeros.
Anicca. May all beings be happy!
(To be continued)
Disclaimer: This is my personal experience of taking Vipassana meditation. Meditation is personal, and everybody’s experience should be different. Please don’t take my experience as guide or reference when you take your own meditation. If you are interested to start your Vipassana meditation, you may check dhamma.org for worldwide free 10-day courses. Enjoy the journey and be happy!