The word itself means “to see things as they really are”. Vipassana is an ancient meditation practice that was rediscovered by Siharrtha Gottima, who most know as the
Buddha, in India 2500 years ago. It started to spread all across India and the surrounding countries until it was lost again in all except Burma. Here it passed from generation to generation retaining it’s purest form until the last century, when it started to reach across the world again. S.N. Goenka, a wealthy Burmese man of Indian descent, who was experiencing crippling headaches and became addicted to morphine because of it, found the technique in a small village in Burma and from there became it’s champion. In the mid 2000s Vipassana was introduced to Donaldson maximum security prison in Alabama to certain convicts after it had massive success with with reforming prisoners all over India. In a documentary about their experiences, a man convicted of murder comments that he did a few years on death row before his sentence got reduced, and Vipassana was harder than that.
After arriving in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, I had a decent night’s sleep and at 6am I packed my bags again for the walk to a local Pagoda to catch the bus to Battambang. A few years ago I acted with a girl in short scene for acting class and she told me about her experience with Vipassana in Thailand. While traveling through southwest China last month it popped in my head again and I applied to a few Vipassana centers across southeast Asia. I filled out a form detailing my past drug and alcohol use and whether I had any serious mental illnesses. The center in Battambang, Cambodia was the one that accepted me.
I met a few other backpackers on the bus headed to the same center, an older man from Switzerland, a girl from France and one from Belgium. It was a long ride of about seven hours, with a few stops in between to get snacks and use the bathroom. Every time we stopped I looked around confused, once again not able to communicate at all, and a Cambodian man who spoke english would smile and help me out. He introduced himself as Sam, he had a long Cambodian/French name that I couldn’t pronounce. Me and Sam got to talking a bit and he told me that he was heading to do the Vipassana along with his wife; their two kids were at home.
Upon arriving we were ushered into the dining hall where a few older Cambodian men shuffled us around and called out our names one by one to tell us our room numbers. The rooms were a tiny cell with a bed, a mosquito net, a meditation cushion, and a small table. It was a big barn and there were no individual ceilings; if I stood on my bed I could almost see over the small walls into the rooms surrounding my own. We were told to put all communication devices into the lockers far away from our rooms. We were allowed no phones, computers, books, or writing materials. We could not talk to each other or make gestures of any kind. There was to be no eye contact, writing notes, no communication at all. We were to be completely isolated. The women were separated from us and only during the group meditations did I see them meditation on our right. It was all meant to keep us isolated from distraction, and it worked. We were still allowed to talk at this point, and I met some people taking the course with me. There were a few older European men, in their 50s or 60s, a younger French guy about my age living in Saigon, a 16 year old Cambodian who recently got kicked out of a military school in New Mexico and wanted to work on his concentration, and the rest were Cambodian men.
When we filled out the application we had to read and sign a letter stating that we would follow five precepts:
1. to abstain from killing any being
2. to abstain from stealing
3. to abstain from all sexual activity
4. to abstain from telling lies
5. to abstain from all intoxicants.
The first one immediately caused some distress in my room. I opened the door to find a lovely salamander strolling across my wall, and quite a few spiders making their home in the corners of the walls. So I spent my first hour or two trying to cup all the creatures living in my room in my hands and bringing them outside to the garden without injuring them. Number two shouldn’t be too much of a problem because no one had anything to steal, three definitely wouldn’t be a problem because all the men and women were completely separated from each other for the entire ten days. Four was easy because, well, I couldn’t talk, so how could I tell lies. And the only nourishment I would be getting were vegetarian meals made by the volunteers so five was also taken care of. I was a new student, a first timer, so along with the strict timetable those were the only rules I had to follow. Returning students had a few more rules, including not eating any dinner.
The men’s section had a large rectangle garden in the center with champei trees on either side of the walkway showering the ground with white and yellow flowers that had a lemon smell to them. There were a few toilet stalls, a few showers and a faucet coming out of the ground to hand wash your clothes. There was no handle to flush the toilet, and it took me a few minutes in the stall to figure out that you had to fill a bucket with water and then scoop the water into the toilet to cause pressure to flush it. Along with no talking, there was to be no reading, no writing, no music, and no exercise. If we wanted exercise we could walk along the garden during our breaks.
After a light vegetarian meal we went into the Dhamma hall, where there were cushions for each of us , men on the left and women on the right. There were about 60 men in total, about five foreigners, 30 Cambodian men, and the rest were the monks who sat along the wall on elevated seats, and as the sun went down their orange robes seemed to get brighter and brighter. The women were more numerous, and the nuns with their shaved heads and immaculate white robes sat on the ground like the rest of us.
The daily schedule was as follows.
4:00 a.m. Morning wake-up bell
4:30 — 6:30 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30 — 8:00 a.m. Breakfast break
8:00 — 9:00 a.m. Group meditation in the hall
9:00 — 11:00 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00—12 noon Lunch break
12:00—1:00 p.m. Rest, and interviews with the teacher
1:00 — 2:30 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30 — 3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
3:30 — 5:00 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00 — 6:00 p.m. Tea break
6:00 — 7:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
7:00 — 8:15 p.m. Teacher’s discourse in the hall
8:15 — 9:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
9:00 — 9:30 p.m. Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m. Retire to your room; lights out
That’s eleven hours of meditation every single day. Eleven. Eleven hours.
The first day was exciting, the bell woke me up at four, I put on some loose clothes and found myself forming sentences and phrases about the night’s experience to say to everyone when I walked outside, until I realized that there was nobody I could talk to. I don’t know what was more alarming, that I couldn’t talk to anyone or the fact that I actually plan out things to say to people.
The first three days we focused on Anapana meditation, which teaches you awareness of your breath. You sit with your mouth and eyes closed, and pay attention to the natural breath going in and out of your nostrils. After a few seconds your mind drifts away and when you realize it, you bring it back to your breathing without any disappointment or contempt for yourself. Then after a few more seconds it drifts away again, and again, and again, and again. It’s difficult to sit and focus on your breathing for 20 seconds, I had to do it for eleven hours a day. At night, after the 6-7pm group meditation, the students who spoke English would go into a room and watch videos of S.N Goenka talking about what we learned or practiced that day, usually him encouraging us and acknowledging what we were going through. In other circumstances the videos would probably be boring but because I had only my own thoughts to listen to all day, I always looked forward to those videos at night. In the first video he told us that usually days two and six gave students the most trouble and encouraged us to keep moving forward. The one word repeated more than any other during those ten days was “equanimity”. Keeping judgment out of anything that happens during your meditation. If your mind wanders, no problem, the present reality is that your mind has wandered away, simply bring it back. There is no way to focus your mind forever, nothing is permanent, so just bring it back and focus again. When I was able to focus for minutes at a time, there should be no attachment to that success, it is good, but impermanent, your mind will wander again, so accept that you were able to focus and continue on.
It was on the second day that the size of what I was doing hit me. There is something they call a “Storm”, when a meditator experiences sudden rushes of anger, hatred, and sadness. That day I was sitting in my sixth hour of meditation, watching and feeling my natural breath go in and out of my nostrils, either the left or right, shallow or deep, simply observing, when a song got in my head, and I couldn’t move past it. I would gently push it away but it came back, louder. Anxiety shot through my body, and I tried hard not to move a muscle or change my breathing. Steadily all the terrible characters from my past made entrances into my mind to laugh or ridicule me, I could feel anxiety rising up from my stomach, into my chest, through my arms and legs. It was then that I understood what the lack of distractions was for, so that you can’t escape your mind. And the mind, as I learned, can be a really terrible, terrible, place.
And then, I got better. By the third day I could hold attention on my breath for minutes at a time, and when it wandered away, I became aware within a few minutes. We were still only focusing on Anapana at that point, and during the nightly videos we were told that a strong foundation in Anapana was necessary before we got into Vipassana. The third night during our last meditation before bed we were told to focus our entire mind on the area outside our nostrils and the triangle above the upper lip as we observed our breathing. They told us to look out for any sensation we might feel; it could be heat, cold, vibration, itching, pulsating, throbbing, prickling, anything, anything, anything. After five minutes of breath awareness I started to feel a numbness on one nostril, then a sort of electricity pulsating through my upper lip. It was one of the weirdest moments I ever experienced, especially since I had never felt it before and they had just mentioned it to me a few minutes prior.
The fourth day we began work with Vipassana meditation. Just as we focused all our attention on sensations below our nostrils, we moved attention to the top of our head, and focused there. Then onto our whole scalps, then our faces, then our shoulders, arms, hands, abdomen, back, legs, feet, every single inch of our body. Some had sensations, some didn’t. Either way, we were to look for any sensation we felt, going down our bodies in order, and if we felt none, we would not condemn it, just focus for another minute there and move on. Slowly but surely, my mind became concentrated enough to feel sensations on most parts of my body.
The idea behind Vipassana is that nothing is permanent. Everything changes. It is in the attachments and cravings that we find misery.
Siddhartha Gautama, or “The” Buddha (the word “buddha” just means “enlightened one”) sat under a tree meditating when he realized that the idea of one’s self, or the individual, doesn’t exist; that we are all just vibrations of energy, along with the trees, the water, everything in life, just vibrations of energy. This theory was later proved by Max Planck who won a Nobel prize in physics for his work in Quantum Physics, thus why you’ll hear many Buddhists today calling the Buddha a scientist and not a god.
At all times, there are sensations throughout your body. At each moment those vibrations are changing. It’s like when you look at a flame, it’s still perceived as the same flame, even though at every moment it’s renewing itself. With Vipassana, you concentrate your mind so intensely, so sharply, that you break through the wall of consciousness into the subconscious, and you feel all the vibrations. Eventually, with time, you can feel your entire body as vibrations, no area has a blind sensation and then your image of the body itself dissolves into nothing but the forces of energy all around.
How and why does this pertain to the end of suffering? Why not just accept the science and not meditate? The intellectual belief itself is not enough, and throughout the entire ten days many efforts were made to show that Vipassana is not a religious rite or ritual, there are practicers of Vipassana from every religion, and that the only way to truly understand the natural truths of life are to experience them oneself. Constant metaphors were presented to us about how showing someone the path is not enough, people must learn for themselves and only then will they become enlightened.
That is the headier aspect of it. With the nitty and gritty part of meditation, you learn to remain equanimous through any type of attachment or craving. THIS is the daily grind. I would feel vibrating sensations on certain parts of my body and get so excited and try desperately to hold onto them, and then feel sad and frustrated when they went away. And we were reminded every day, every time we started meditating, that the sensations, like everything in life, are not permanent. They come and go; craving when you don’t have one is pointless, attachment and refusal to let go when you feel one is pointless.
Day after day we would focus our minds moving up and down our bodies, piece by piece at first, and then symmetrically, and then through a free flow where it felt like someones poured a bucket of water on our heads and it was slowly trickling down. Any part with no sensation we would come back to and focus minutes at a time on it, always remaining equanimous.
I woke up in the morning and meditated, then I ate and meditated some more, I walked around the garden during our break in the afternoon and would see Sam and some monks picking up each leaf or flower on the walkway and placing it back into the garden. I wanted to talk to him so badly. I wanted to talk to anyone so badly, to express my frustration or loneliness or joys, but there was just me, me and my thoughts. And then I would meditate some more.
Days 5,6, and 8, were the worst for me.
On the fifth day, I was meditating in the morning in the hall with everyone else, on my assigned cushion with Sam right in front of me. My mind kept wandering away from me and I needed a moment’s rest so I opened my eyes and saw a massive spider, his body at least an inch and a half long, on Sam’s cushion. It was about to start crawling up his leg and I sat there sweating about whether or not I should disturb his meditation to let him know. I decided to touch his arm for a moment, and then ten seconds passed before he slowly turned his head from this abnormal sensation and saw me pointing at the spider. He didn’t acknowledge me at all, just gently brushed the spider away in front of him and went back to meditating. Well, that was it for me that day. There was NO WAY I could focus on anything after that. After everyone left the hall that afternoon I stayed behind and located the spider. I spent 20 minutes chasing him down and trying to corner him in a way that he would walk out the front door. Each time I got close he would climb under someone’s cushion so that I had to brush him off and then place it back exactly where it was before, all in time to not lose him again and get him outside.
On day six I had another storm, a big one, filled with anger and doubt about what the hell I was doing there, I felt a panic attack coming up and I sat there, not moving, not forcing any change on my natural breath as I watched it pass before me. My anger usually came out in images and scenes played out before me as if the back of my eyelids were movie screens. On one such occasion I was chopping violently with an ax at a tree stump outside a lake house from my childhood. Screaming the whole time I then poured gasoline all over it and watched it burn. Then I ripped the remains and roots out of the ground and tossed it down the hill into the lake below, took it to an island and burned it again. Peaceful meditation retreat indeed.
These images came and went as my anger and sadness came and went, after each time I would walk around feeling lighter. The three group meditations were called “strong determination”. During these we were told to try our best not to move a muscle for the entire hour. The first half an hour the pain in my legs and back were bearable, then the next 15 minutes were terribly painful, then the final 15 minutes were absolute torture. Not only could I not move, I actually had to focus in on the pain as I passed my mind over my legs, realising that those sensations were real only in that my mind made them real, they were impermanent just like any other sensation. The concentration became so intense that when an actual physical sensation happened, like a drop of sweat or tear, it was as if a bolt of lighting was slowly ripping open my face.
That sixth day it became too much for me and I scheduled an interview with the teacher. I walked in barefoot and he was seated with his legs crossed, now a symbol of pain in my mind. These interviews are for meditation technique purposes only, and we are told that in no way should these be philosophical or theological discussions. He knew my name and in his Cambodian-kermit-the-frog-like-voice he told me, “you’re doing very well James, I’ve noticed the calming of your face.” His warmth eased me as I told him about the sensations I felt or couldn’t feel, and about how storms were coming up. He reminded me that the road I had started on is a lifelong path, and that I had only taken a few shorts steps, to not rush anything and if my mind got too agitated, to simply focus again on my breathing. Then he said, “I wanted to talk to you James. I’m from Southampton.”
“I’m from Southampton, outside of Philadelphia. I escaped the Khmer Rouge and have lived there for many years. We have a Vipassana center in Delaware.”
“What?! I’m from Bucks County!”
“Yes, I know, I read your form and your emergency contact had 18966 as a zip code. But we can talk about this at the end of the ten days. For now, you’re on the right track. Keep going.”
Each day had it’s ups and downs, the seventh day had more storms, the eighth day was heavy sadness, and by the ninth day I was exhausted. There were breakthroughs as well, I couldn’t feel anything on my shoulders until one day I focused so hard and weird vibrations started spreading across, either that or a spider had somehow landed on my upper arm and was slowly humping my shoulder; I couldn’t open my eyes so I guess I’ll never know. But during the breaks I found that instead of doing laps around the monks as I walked, I lifted my head up and noticed the perfect blue skies, how nice the breeze felt on my arms, and the incredible size of the insects in the garden. There was one spider’s web I sat looking at for an hour that stretched almost from the ground to above my head and in the center was the largest and most colorful spider I had ever seen. Sometimes I found a mantis waiting for me at my door and would pour myself water and stare at him until he suddenly flew at my face scaring the hell out of me and making everyone else look at the sudden commotion. During the meals I would stare at the wall in front of me and really taste the effort the cooks put into the food. And I could completely clear my mind for a few moments. No miseries of the past, no fantasies of the future, just the feel of the ground on my feet and the breath moving through me as I walked.
The morning of the tenth day came and went just like the others, with two hours of meditation in the morning, breakfast, and then another group “strong determination” meditation, except at the end we were allowed to break “noble silence”- we could talk again. The teachers got up and left, and most of us sat there not knowing what to do. Each person had developed their own personality in my mind, from the way they coughed or fidgeted during meditation, or how noisily they ate, but now I could actually communicate with them. We all walked outside without saying a word and a few congregated around a bush in the corner of the garden. The few who saw me and spoke English said, “careful, dangerous snake, poison, no close.” We all looked in the bush and saw a perfectly camouflaged green snake laying there. Suddenly, one of the men reached in and grabbed it by it’s tail, then, swinging it around and around he ran over to the wall and threw it over into the trees. That’s when the silence was really broken.
We couldn’t leave until the next morning, and still had to meditate on the regular schedule until then, but now in the breaks I was able to talk with everyone else, including the monks. They waved me over to their dormitory and I sat on a curb while the ones who knew a little english asked me about my life. There were a few novices, but most had become true monks, and some were elderly men. They each invited me to come and see them in their pagoda if I made my way to that part of Cambodia and I invited them to stay with me in New York if they made it that far. One monk who always smiled, had big gaps in his teeth, and couldn’t speak English had his friend ask me what year the terrorists hit the big towers. I told him 2001, and that my father was in the second tower when the first one got hit, but that he got out and is fine. His breathing got rapid and his eyes watered as he started spurting out quick Khmer which his friend translated into, “He wants to apologize for bringing up this tragedy. He knows that this event caused so much pain for your country.”
“No, no, no!” I told him as I reached out to touch his arm. “My father is fine, and you may ask me anything you want.” Later, I thought about how much compassion he felt for me and my country, when his country itself lost a quarter of it’s population to violence only 40 years ago.
The next morning as we packed and got ready to leave, I said my goodbyes to the teachers, Sam, and the monks came over and each said their goodbyes. The one who asked about 9/11 came over last and with the little English he knew, he smiled, shook my hand and told me that he wished me peace and happiness in my life. There was nothing empty about what he said to me, nothing fake or any self interest, it was the most pure sentence I had ever heard, as if a wall of kindness and compassion slammed into me and brought tears into my eyes.