I sat in excruciating pain as an ax crashed down on my knee. No eye contact, speaking, writing, reading or non verbal communication for ten days. One hundred hours of meditation in ten days- all done sitting on the floor with my legs crossed. “I do not recommend you sit in a chair, just observe your pain. It is only a bodily sensation,” the meditation instructor advised.
Vipassana meditation is not about listening to the sound of birds chirping and achieving instant bliss and inner peace as we may commonly think. It is about coming out of your suffering and understanding that every experience, emotion, thought and bodily sensation arises and passes. Ten days invested in coming to a deeper understanding of this universal truth at the experiential level. When we experience high or low points in life, it is very easy to accept the saying “this too will pass” at the intellectual level. Vipassana meditation is about experiencing this for yourself through observation of your body sensations and respiration. “If Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha sat here and maintained his same posture for hours on end until reaching enlightenment, then I can at least complete this course,” I told myself three years ago during my first ten day Vipassana course in Bodhagaya, India. After all the pain and suffering I came out successful and was able to observe my physical pain in a more objective manner and had a higher pain tolerance. I mentally prepared myself for the challenge that awaited me at Dharma Korea and was ready to get back into the practice.
The wake up bell rings every day at 4 AM and your day is packed full until it is time to retire for the night at 9:30PM. Two meals are given each day- at 6:30AM and 11:00AM. A glass of tea is given at 5PM.
I have always been a big eater and am never one to miss a meal. Therefore, the new eating schedule was one of the biggest challenges for me. I often found myself hungry by 4PM and had a hard time believing I would have to wait another 14.5 hours until my next meal. Vipassana teaches that all cravings arise and pass and hunger is no different. I found myself reasoning that nothing negative would occur as a result of restricted caloric intake. Before the course, I did extensive research on the benefits of intermittent fasting which helped myself overcome my hunger. I was becoming healthier due to my new eating schedule and hunger is only a product of hormone spikes at certain times of the day due to years of maintaining the same eating pattern. Native Americans would eat whenever they felt the urge, often going days without eating. It was only until European imperialists came and labeled natives as “uncivilized” due to their eating habits was the three meal a day habit made into a cultural norm.
The Romans only consumed one meal a day around noon. In fact, breakfast was actively frowned upon. They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. In the Middle Ages monastic life largely shaped when people ate. Nothing could be eaten before morning Mass and meat could only be eaten for half the days of the year. It’s thought the word breakfast entered the English language during this time and literally meant “break the night’s fast”.
I could feel my hunger arise and pass throughout the ten day period. When 9:30PM came around I was too tired to think about food and would pass out for the night with no problems. Often, I was able to focus on meditation with greater intensity during the two hour morning session right before breakfast, or the last two hours of my fast. Perhaps the Romans were onto something.
Sitting on the floor with my legs crossed for ten hours a day is not the way I usually spend my day. I have always been a high energy person since childhood and sitting in one place has always been a challenge for me. I put myself through a lot of high intensity circuit training and weight lifting drills everyday but rarely stretch my body before or after. During the ten day Vipassana course I paid for a lifetime of ignoring my post workout stretching session. My knees often felt as if someone was squeezing a vice around them, especially during the one hour periods when you are not supposed to move your body at all. The last fifteen minutes would often feel like two hours as sweat would pour down my face.
The Joy of Pain
I had a major breakthrough during one of my hour long, no movement sessions. “I am just sitting here and this is giving me pain. Not from movement, but from sitting here!” I thought to myself. I suddenly burst out in laughter in the middle of the silent meditation hall as the idea of experiencing excruciating pain from remaining sedentary for an extended period of time seemed like the most ridiculous thing I could ever fathom. Here I was, a guy who used to jump over stacks of hurdles at 1PM in Texas summer heat,cycled through fiery hot Middle Eastern deserts and the world’s highest elevated highway. Now I was going through pain from sitting in one place. “This should be nothing!” I thought to myself. After that moment, my pain level decreased dramatically and never came back. Your mind truly does create and destroy pain itself. By the tenth day I started to enjoy my physical pain. Many times in life we can’t avoid painful situations so the only thing we can do is try to enjoy them. All pain is created by my interpretation of reality.
A Mental Roller Coaster
In society we are often encouraged to never show our emotions or feelings and keep busy or distracted instead of facing our demons. Don’t act too happy, never cry in public, don’t lose your temper and get angry. People often relieve their stress through external simulation such as alcohol, drugs, food, television or keeping busy on the Internet. By rejecting our emotions we become smaller and smaller and have constant inner wars with ourselves. Inner peace can only be attained by accepting and absorbing all of our emotions or else they will come back to haunt us at the unconscious level. Vipassana meditation makes the practitioner deal with all of their inner impurities at the deepest level of the abyss. Most of us only close our eyes when we are unconscious. By keeping my eyes closed and rejecting all external visual stimulation during my waking hours, I was able to reach deep into layers of my mind that I did not even knew existed.
The surgical procedure into the unconscious began from the first second I closed my eyes. Every major event in my life replayed in slow motion as the incision became deeper and deeper. Focusing on the meditation technique is an impossible feat to accomplish ten hours per day. The mind wandered back and forth, as emotional events I never had the courage to look in the eye suddenly reappeared one by one. The bottled up teen angst that I failed to deal with in a productive manner during my adolescence turned me into a raging beast. The following moment I would be hysterical with laughter as my mind decided to replay one of my hilarious moments on the road in a small country village in South Korea. The chatter in my mind seemed endless and I had the realization that there was nothing I could do to control it. I was indeed a slave to my mind but I was determined to set myself free.
Tears of Peace
The rain was pounding on the ceiling as the summer crickets just stopped their loud roar. Suddenly the meditation hall in the South Korean village turned into a hub of peaceful energy that I had never experienced before. When any emotion becomes overbearing and too strong tears roll down our faces. Sadness, joy, fear and anger often make us tear up. My eyes turned moist as the peacefulness I experienced became overwhelming. Suddenly, my face and neck were soaking wet from the tears this new powerful emotion I never new existed before produced. Perhaps I absorbed the peaceful energy in that room from the forty other people that were sitting alongside me. All I had been doing was observing my respiration and bodily sensations for ten days with my eyes closed, but this hit me by surprise. At that moment I had no cravings or aversions to any thought or emotion that my mind could potentially create. It was as if the bruises and scars of my past had all been healed at the same moment. Tears of peace are something that everyone should experience in their life- no chemical substance is needed.
Negative Energy Shield
After finishing my third ten day course I felt as if no negative external energy could ever enter my plane of existence. Cranky or angry people that I often came into contact with did not stand a chance of penetrating the shield I was now carrying. After the course, an old woman came and started yelling at me because the staff at the meditation center did not pay her for the watermelon she sold them. She mistakenly thought I was a staff member and was trying to cheat her out of her money. I quickly noticed that my inner reaction had changed immensely. Normally, I would have became agitated and perhaps even snapped back at her. Not this time. I smiled at her with compassion and patiently explained that I had nothing to do with the watermelon and would relay her message to the staff when they returned. She stomped away in her anger. The old woman tried to pass on her negative energy but I refused to accept it.
A few hours later, someone bumped into me by accident as I was carrying a cup full of hot water that spilled on my hand. I just observed the hot sensation in an objective manner and did not react negatively like I normally would have. I smiled in peace as the other person quickly apologized.
I felt like a superhero whose negative energy shield could never be broken. This was the reward at the end of my third 100 hour meditation course. Like anything else in life, it took hard work and determination to arrive at that state of mind. Maintaining practice is also imperative as any skill diminishes if not practiced properly. The taming of the mind is a constant struggle that I will always deal with. The battle continues!