Meditating in unchartered territory

I recently did a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in Cochabamba Bolivia, in the tradition of S.N. Goenka. The best way that I can think to describe it is like a long trek with several difficult climbs that are endless, frustrating, and painful as well as other moments that are peaceful, breathtaking and provide new viewpoints for life. When the retreat was over I immediately forgot all about the hardships and began dreaming about doing a longer one, perhaps for 30 or 45 days.

Unlike some other types of meditation, the Vipassana taught by Goenka is a highly practical body scan technique that makes use of mindful breathing to focus the mind but not as the object of the meditation. Nor does the technique use mantras or visualizations; instead the main object of meditation is the body sensations that arise. The first three days of the retreat focus on practicing the technique of anapana meditation which involves concentrating on the sensation of breathing around the nose. The following 7 days provide instruction and practice in observing body sensations. Each meditation session is framed by Goenka’s chanting in a style that is strange to unaccustomed ears but becomes an important source of nourishment on the retreat.

The course was given by tape in Goenka’s Indian accent along with an excellent Spanish translation. The evening dharma talks were lucid and witty, full of illustrative anecdotal stories from India. My favorite one was about his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin who served as Auditor General of Burma and instituted a successfully strict plan to reduce corruption including Vipassana meditation courses for all public employees. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more governments tried this approach!

The talks were based on the unstoppable repetition of three main points:

  1. Morality- adhering to the 5 basic precepts including not killing, not lying, not stealing, etc.
  2. Taming the mind- through a single-minded focus on observing the breath
  3. Equanimity- training the mind to remain balanced by not reacting to any thought or bodily sensation, which little by little over time will teach the mind not to react with craving or aversion to any experience

The meal bell conditioned us all like Pavlov’s dogs and mealtimes were a great litmus test of our progress in equanimity. Watching the bowls empty from the back of the line was a very concrete lesson in anicca.

I calculate that during the ten days, we spent over 100 hours meditating, 60 hours sleeping, 30 hours resting after meals, 20 hours eating, and 10 hours listening to dharma talks. This schedule was daunting at first but I found that I quickly became accustomed to low-level tiredness and hunger. They became the least of my worries as the mind careened around, thinking about various topics including:

  • When will that woman next door stop yelling at every member of her household including the dogs? And can I specifically request that my dana donation be used to invite that woman to participate in the course next year?
  • At least this Shakira remix will drown out her yelling for a moment (although isn’t Shakira going through a bad moment professionally, she had so much more integrity during Pies Descalzos). Oh no not Kylie Minogue, I won’t be able to concentrate for the rest of the day!
  • What if I design a year-long program for kids who are at risk of dropping out of school, I could base it on Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Each month would be based on recognizing and fostering a different type of intelligence so that every child could identify and build on their strengths…

And some of the techniques that I tried to get my mind to focus included:

  • Friendliness- hey dude, let’s just sit down here together and meditate for a while, it will be fun, yeah?
  • Bargaining-  if you concentrate now, I’ll let you think about multiple intelligences for 5 minutes at the end of the hour. Ok, I’ll let you sing Can’t Get You Out of My Mind for 2 minutes now if you promise to concentrate afterwards
  • Sternness and threats- you get back here right now or I’ll make you sit in the lotus position for the next hour. Here, now, pay attention!
  • Begging- please, please, please just concentrate until the bell rings, we’ve got to get through the next 15 minutes anyway we can

If you’re in Bolivia or anywhere else in the world for that matter, find out when the next retreat is, you won’t regret the steps you take on this journey of a thousand miles.

Recommendations for before you go:

  1. Read the main S.N. Goenka Vipassana meditation website carefully
  2. Walk a lot, preferably plan to go on a multi-day trek in the week beforehand so that your body will find it easier to sit for 10 days with very little exercise. I did the 3 day Choro trek and found that it really helped
  3. Familiarize yourself with some essential concepts including:
    • the three trainings: sila, samadhi, pañña
    • the three jewels: Buddha, dhamma, sangha
    • the three characteristics of phenomena: anicca, anatta, dukkha
    • the five aggregates: ripa, viññana, sañña, vedana, sankhara
  4. If you want you could also look up these additional concepts:
    • the noble eight fold path
    • the ten parami
    • metta
  5. Pack according to the given list and make sure to take flip-flops for wearing after showers and to and from the dharma hall; hand sanitizer, echinacea or other things to help you avoid getting sick when sharing tight space with many other people; hair bands for people with long hair to keep it off your face during meditation (you won’t need any additional itchy sensations); warm socks and polar fleece blanket to keep warm during 4am sittings; large shawl or wrap to use while resting in the grass between sessions; and mosquito repellent and after bite lotion.

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