What is vipassana?

Disclaimer: I have attended just one course and my understanding of Vipasanna might be inaccurate. I would recommend interested people to read literature on the same by Goenkaji or actually attending the course.

vipassanaVipasanna is best summarized as a meditation technique that revolves around body sensations. Sounds strange- right?
But apparently this strange but simple technique was what helped Siddarth Gautam (The Buddha) to progress on his path of enlightment & nirvana in top gear !

So here’s how this course approaches the technique:
– For the first 3 days one is asked to practise what is called Aana-Paana. This refers to an exercise where you tell your mind to focus on the normal breath- as it comes in & goes out. It might sound easy- but trust me its really tough to keep the mind focused on such simple things. The idea of taking breath as the object of focus is cos this is always with the person, you can hence practice this anytime, anywhere right upto the moment you die !
Initially we are supposed to observe the flow along the full length of the nostrils and the area above the upper-lip, but by day 3 this area has been gradually narrowed down to the tip of nostrils and the area above the lip.
This narrowing of the area (to focus on) helps make the mind sharp and ready for the next technique- Vipasanna.
Also all throughtout the techniques one is told not to verbalise or visualize anything. These might help focus faster but then it beats the purpose as you are not focusing on the breath or body sensation but the word or image.
It is this aspect which also proves that Vipasanna is not aligned to any religion. Many including me feel that this is a Buddhist technique and sometimes that creates its own set of apprehensions or perceptions.

– Gautam Buddha felt that there has to be a path that should actually help one become equanimous. The power & need for equanimity in life was something that had been highlighted for ages, but most sages/philosophers had failed to find and show the path to reach there. In his quest to find such a path, Gautam Buddha started looking within.
He found that the mind is made of 4 parts:
1.The Cognitive part which is basically taking the input from the senses; 5 senses and 6th being thoughts
2.The Recognitive part which basically takes the input and tries to match with its existing database. Say the cognitive part feels a smell, its this part which will say it smells like rose.
3.The Feeling part which actually starts reacting to the input and manifests itself as body sensations. This is the part which would say, ah the smell of rose, its good!
4.The Reaction part is where the mind finally reacts to the body sensations. It is this part of the mind that is deep rooted and always working (even when we are asleep).

It might sound strange at first that our mind actually reacts to body sensations and not directly to thoughts or sense inputs. But think about it for a moment and you would remember that there were a lot of bio-chemical changes you experienced in your body when you were really angry, when you saw that woman who you really feel passionate about, when you were “trembling” with fear….

So Buddha asked himself, how can one break this chain, and he realised that the only point it can be done is between stage 3 & 4- i.e. if one can train the deep rooted, always awake mind to “observe” body sensations and still remain equanimous, the cycle is broken, we are not prisoners anymore ๐Ÿ™‚

– So Vipasanna begins by making the mind focus on each body part and the existing sensation there- whatever it might be. In some cases it would be unpleasant, and we would have to keep on telling the mind, this is impermanent and hence dont react. Similarly once we come across pleasant sensations the same argument applies.

So from day 4th to day 10th we basically observe body sensations and there are various variations that one does in the approach.

– Even before the course starts there are some strict rules that one must observe, basically the 5 shilas- or vows of morality like no stealing, no lies ,no sexual misconduct etc. These are taken to ensure that one approaches the meditation with a calm and pure mind.
– The silence also helps one in achieving focus as there is less noise of the thoughts. I also think that since we hear nothing but Goenkaji’s words during the course, our minds start giving more attention to his words ๐Ÿ™‚

My experience of the Course
My own experience of the course was amazing as it helped me see myself as a stronger person. I saw that many people had moved their cushions and chosen a spot where they could rest against the wall. I was really tempted to do this myself, but then I saw this really aged chap- must be 60+ who was sitting with an upright back and I felt ashamed of myself. If he can do it, so can I.

Similarly, after day 3 there are 3 sessions of 1 hour each when you cant move at all- no opening of eyes/hands/legs- in my first 2 sessions I kinda cheated- found a pose where my arms were supporting the back and I was happy with myself for being so smart. But then again, stepping out of the hall, I saw this Jap kid sitting like a true Buddha, cross legged and calm even after 60 minutes of no movement, and the same wave of inspiration washed over me again…

I couldnt sleep for a minute on day 5 & 6 and you can well imagine how I felt on the 7th morning. I was out of the dorm at 3.00 in the morning, pacing the lawns.Somehow managed my sessions and was having chai in the evening when I realised that my mind was again wandering off to things far away from the course. I started asking myself, whats the point of all this meditation if even after 7 days, I cannot get my mind to focus on present, and then a thought stuck me- maybe I am supposed to practice aana-pana or Vipasanna when I am drinking tea. And I was thrilled with myself (am still far from the desired state of equanimity you see !)- and I started observing my breath as I took my walks that evening.
And then it happened, the evening discourses started and the first thing that Goenkaji says in that is that some students might be having trouble sleeping. It felt that he was speaking directly to me- I looked around- how many others had a trouble sleeping- I distinctly remember hearing 4 sets of snoring last two nights from 17 other occupants ๐Ÿ™‚
Anyways I was relieved to know that sleeplessness is common and then came the next shock- He said the next two days need real hard work & he expected all students to keep on practising Vipasanna even when they are not sitting for the course. I could feel my hair standing, was it telepathy- did I read his instructions a day before?
Coz even during the 4th day something similar had happened.

On day 10, when we could talk to co-students, a monk asked me how my experience was. I related to him the incidents of day 4 & particularly day 7 and summarized it thus – ” I feel that Vipasanna was always within me, and it just got discovered here”. He smiled.
And then in the discourse that evening, Gonekaji says that there are two types of students- ones who had the seeds of Vipasanna already and it got sprouted here and the others in whom it has been planted now.
I looked across the hall to the monk- with a look saying “See. Told you!!”

Whatever way you look at it, I think if your own mind seems to find the next step on a path, it might be a path worth walking- So here I am back in normal life, trying to give Vipasanna a good try…

Time only will tell how much progress I make & where it takes me ! But I have AY & his mom to thank for persistently nudging me to sit for the first course- really good to have such friends in life.

Disclaimer: I have attended just one course and my understanding of Vipasanna might be inaccurate. I would recommend interested people to read literature on the same by Goenkaji or actually attending the course.