To get right to it, the Vipassana course was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done and it was a huge accomplishment to complete it. It was basically meditation boot camp. About 100 of us, varying in age, size, ethnicity and all those identity politics, joined two teachers and about fifteen volunteers to meditate every day for about ten hours a day, for ten days. The first bell rung for morning meditation at 4am followed by meditation in 1 hour, 1.5 hours and 2 hour increments throughout the day until 9pm. We rested only for a few hours each day for meal breaks and listened to a one hour discourse each night from the head teacher, S.N. Goenka, who is responsible for bringing this Vipassana technique from Burma into the West.
Gobi, the Hindu doctor from Fresno who was kind enough to drive me to pick up my rental car when the course ended, told me all about Indian politics and the history of conflict between the Hindus and the Buddhists. He was pleased that the teachings of the course were not Buddhism and told me that I was fortunate to receive the teachings void of any prior knowledge of the religious controversy. It seemed obvious to me from the first time the teacher gave his discourse that this wasn’t a religious experience.
Instead of learning about Buddhism, we were taught the Buddha’s (Siddhartha and his friend Gotama’s) meditation technique from over 25 centuries ago. Goenka told us that Siddhartha discovered this technique at age 5, while sitting under a tree. He sat under that tree for 30 years and meditated until he reached enlightenment and died peacefully in his 80s and under the same tree, teaching the technique to anyone who was open to learning it.
The technique makes perfect sense to me. In fact, I find it to be brilliant. Just as Freud theorized in the constancy principle that the way to keep the mind in a state of peaceful Zen (Freud also called this space ‘zero’) was to expel all negative affect and thoughts, this technique works to bring an awareness to the negativity that gets contained in the body as well as the mind. The technique creates the space for someone to realize that they are often generating sankara - a craving reaction to a pleasant sensation or an abhorrent reaction to something that the mind/body does not want.
The idea of the Vipassana is to learn through the meditation practice not to react to either pleasant or unpleasant situations and to remain unattached or equanimous to whatever sensations arises within the body (and by extension of course, the mind). Since everything in life is aneecha, or impermanent, if you remain unattached in each moment you can always find comfort in what is, because what is will forever be changing.
Think about how much peace and love there could be in this world if we could truly accept what is and never generate disappointment or anger towards others, and towards ourselves…
I digress. The Vipassana technique brings awareness to the sankara. With practice and the awareness that comes with it, one can be mindful to stop generating negative sankara (and not cling to positive sankara). Furthermore, to keep practicing is to eradicate old sankara until the old pain that has manifested throughout one’s body gets resolved. This takes dedication, commitment, persistence and will ultimately lead to enlightenment. During enlightenment, the body will be felt as the pure energy source that it is, one with the Universe and all that is.
It was amazing to feel the technique working. I was able to witness a thought and the way that thought affected my breath or my heartbeat (negative thoughts speed up my heartbeat and make my breath shallow).
The longer I sat, the deeper I went into the body to work through old negative sankara. The longest discomfort I felt was in my shoulders, where anxiety is stored (not to mention too many years of carrying a heavy bag throughout the streets of New York City) and in my lungs (with 12 years of smoking sadly under my belt). With my lungs in particular, it was incredible to feel myself work through the discomfort from the top of my lungs down to the bottom. I could almost feel the smoke releasing my body.
At one point during the course, I felt discomfort inside my nose only to revisit mentally the trauma I experienced when I had rhinoplastic surgery at age 16. I cried from the memory’s emersion and then moved on with the psychical discomfort dissipating in tandem. Thus, this past experience became complete in both body and mind. It was amazing.
While I practiced the Vipassana technique, I became more and more excited as my mind connected the experience to my professional interests. In my world, it was not a coincidence that right before the course Somatic Experience re-emerged as a therapeutic practice that I am interested in (for those of you who were with me in Costa Rica, this is the type of therapy Barbara’s sister travels all over the world to practice).
Somatic Experience is used with survivors of trauma. It is a form of talk therapy where the therapist helps the client to become aware of the bodily sensations they experience while they share about their trauma. Just like the Vipassana technique, the idea of Somatic Experience is that the trauma will be released from being stored inside the body, thus helping to provide closure both within the body and the mind. An infusion of the constancy principle and Vipassana, if you will!
As I will soon begin to work with survivors of trauma at Safe Horizons in NYC (yep, not time to leave NYC yet!), I look forward to deepening and implementing my experience, knowledge and understanding of the mind/body connection into the mental health field to help others heal.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.
With Never Ending Love,