Vipassana – A Personal Perspective
by Kourosh Soroushian
This is an account of the meditation course that I attended almost 2 months ago, over the new year. It was written by my friend Kourosh Soroushian, who I met there. This was his first sitting and I think it’s a really beautiful and accurate description of the experience — everyone’s specific experience is different, however I think this a good reflection of the process that one goes through in questioning and wanting to leave, but allowing oneself to be open and allow the experience to be what it will be. The whole point of Vipassana is to see things as they really are. Thank you Kourosh for sharing this!!!
MAY ALL BEINGS BE HAPPY!
This is not Joshua Tree, but it’s a similiar environment. The Joshua Tree center
feels more rustic.
Introduction: This article is a personal account of my experiences at a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Joshua Tree, California (near Los Angeles), from December 23rd, 2006, until January 3rd, 2007. It was one of the most unique experiences of my life, and compelled me to capture it in a descriptive form which could be easily shared with others.
Imagine the congregation of over 200 men and women from all walks of life, who otherwise would have no reason to be together. An energy healer, a masseuse, engineer, physician, comedian, substitute teacher, student, and the unemployed. From those living in multi-million dollar mansions to ones living in their vans. Asians, Europeans, Indians, Americans, and Middle-easterners, all living and eating together for 10 days under trying conditions.
This is our teacher S.N. Goenka and his wife.
Welcome to Vipassana, the freely taught meditation course which is offered to everyone around the year, and in centers throughout the world. Yes; after living in the United States for over 20 years, I had finally come across an organization which provided free food and shelter to those in search of personal improvement with absolutely no religious, commercial, or political ties, and without any expectation of receiving monetary returns. But if you have the impression that this was a small vacation, do read on!
You may first begin to wonder what would drive someone to forego Christmas, the New Year, their birthday and a friend’s wedding to wake up every day at 4:00 a.m. and meditate until around 9:30 p.m. at night, while observing noble silence - the silence of body, speech, and mind – at all times. This was a question which I struggled with throughout the 10 day experience, including the two points where I almost left the center. Eventually I came to realize that people – including me – could only have come to this event in search of bettering their mental, physical, or spiritual health. Intellectual curiosity alone could not be enough; in my opinion making it through this experience probably required something more – a degree of spirituality which must come from the inner core of each person.
Of course, a free course meant that the location, accommodations, and food would be very simple and functional. There were 3 or 4 people sharing a room, and up to 8 people shared one bathroom. The food was simple, vegetarian, and plentiful. Breakfast was served at 6:30 in the morning and lunch at 11:00 a.m. Dinner consisted of fruit and tea, which was a welcome change for me.
No reading or writing of any kind was allowed. And noble silence meant that in addition to speaking, eye-contact and the use of body language were also strictly forbidden. This of course made eating and other group activities somewhat of a challenge, but everyone soon became acclimated to the intricacies of living and eating together without communicating. The overall objective of noble silence was to provide everyone with a safe environment to meditate and discover the path on their own terms. I must admit it was quite effective, and at times an absolute necessity.
For the first 3 days, the phrase which crossed my mind continuously as I walked the grounds and followed the silent herd of men in the meditation hall, cafeteria, and dorm rooms was ‘pure madness’! How was it possible that in a capitalistic society which praises individualism, grown men willingly follow each other silently and wake up at 4:00 a.m. to engage in something completely outside of the boundaries of their day to day lives? It only could have been a conspiracy, one which I was now on a mission to uncover. (Of course, since there is complete segregation of men and women at Vipassana, I can only imagine that the female group was also subject to the same exact set of rules – and the same conspiracy theory).
Well in fact, after three days I did not experience anything out of the ordinary, and to my disappointment there was no big conspiracy in the looms: the teachings talked about the strict non-commercial and non-religious aspects of the meditation style, and how everyone was free to choose whichever aspects of the technique which seamed reasonable to them. It was on the afternoon of the third day that I first had thoughts of leaving: sitting on the floor for long stretches of time started to take a toll on my lower back, and at the same time I was having great difficulty focusing my mind. The course teaches two primary meditation techniques, both of which require the concentration of the mind on the realistic state of the body. This was different than my previous experiences with meditation, and using only breath as the central focus of the mind made concentration very difficult.
Then miraculously, on the evening of the 3rd day I finally discovered a posture which was relatively comfortable, and my mind finally cleared up such that I could meditate by observing my breath for long stretches at a time. My body ache was still present in full force, including the sheering back pain which required me to change positions every 5 to 10 minutes. I did not know it then, but in the coming days I would come to see my pain in a completely different light: a companion; an entity that I could observe rather than a simple blind experience.
During the evenings, we were presented with discourses – audio-visual recordings of the original teacher of the course who currently resides in India. His instructions were also given at all meditation sittings, which actually turned out to be a very effective means of teaching the course. We were accompanied by 4 assistant teachers – two men and two women – who were available for guidance and consultation during the break periods (speaking with the teachers and the staff was permitted in moderation). It was after the third evening discourse that I realized the importance of noble silence: the chatter which had been going on in my mind for years could have only been calmed by entering a field of isolation.
Somewhere on the 4th day the main Vipassana meditation technique was taught. It consisted of 3 sittings of one hour each throughout which students were asked to remain absolutely still (or as it was called, ‘hour of strong determination’) while observing all the senses of the body from head to toe. The technique is of course taught gradually and in small steps, but nothing can prepare one for this conundrum: the periods of ‘strong determination’ are used to demonstrate the impermanence of the senses – pains, itching sensations, and tingling – all of which come about after around 10 minutes of immobility. The mind can eventually detach itself from the physical pains and pleasures of the moment, learn to observe them, and even decipher them as a different entity. With further practice, one learns to gain full control aversions and cravings as part of observing the sensations of the body – leading to the complete separation of mind from matter and achieving a more balanced and realistic mental experience (the literal translation of Vipassana is observing things as they really are).
I believe it was on the 6th day where noble silence finally started to get the better of me. I missed my friends, family, and it was getting close to the New Year 2007. I thought hard and long whether continuing my sacrifice was really worth it; after all, I had already learnt Vipassana meditation and was getting pretty good at it. I could actually take a step back and observe the senses of my body without reacting to the pain – which was a great achievement for me. I admittedly was starting to get a little bored. But to my surprise, the boredom of the 6th day was transformed to ‘only an act God will take me from here’ by the evening of the 7th day.
Throughout the evening discourses, the teacher kept on repeating that Vipassana meditation will perform a ‘deep surgical operation on the subconscious mind’. He mentioned that intellectualization can operate on the surface level of the mind, but problems often remain deep within the subconscious. Well, for me (putting it mildly) this sounded like a bit of science fiction. But in the early afternoon of the 7th day, as I was partaking in my daily walk between 12:00 and 12:45 p.m., I became overwhelmed by thoughts which I had buried in my mind for years. Like a newly discovered spring, thoughts from my childhood, young adult life, and those of just a few years ago poured out uncontrollably. Events, accidents, and experiences that I had long forgotten and buried in deep vials surfaced like a sunken ship rising from the bottom of the sea. I seemed to have lost control of my great intellectualization abilities, which had given me a complete sense of security over the years.
There was no where to run to any more. I absolutely did not want to talk or see anyone. I only wanted to deal with my unexpected and unwelcome guests and understand them. By myself, and through an objective and clear mind. For the first time, I understood the need for noble silence. I desperately wanted to immerse myself in noble silence.
Vipassana teaches one to ultimately give up all aversions and cravings, thus freeing the self from all misery. While I still struggle with this basic premise, I found out that most (if not all) of the unpleasant experiences of my past had in fact been due to excessive craving, or alternatively hatred, of something, someone, or some place.
Eventually, I would make it through the entire course. I came to understand that the course had been constructed with great care. All instructions and new techniques were delivered with ample time and clarity. Interviews with the teachers helped in understanding the subtle details of the meditation styles. Even on the morning of the 9th day where I was feeling ‘meditation overload’, a new method of meditation was introduced which again became a challenge to decipher and digest.
The evening discourses discussed various concepts centering on the teachings of the Buddha and theories behind the different meditation techniques. Being of Zoroastrian faith, I could not help but notice some of the similarities between these teachings and those of the prophet Zarathustra. The concepts of the ‘universal law of nature’, ‘ultimate truth’, and ‘good thoughts, words, and deeds’ were presented and discussed in ample detail. In fact, one of the discourses delved upon how thoughts lead to actions and words, and that ultimately, good thoughts were the origins of good words and deeds – just like bad thoughts were always necessary for the ensuing physical and verbal actions. Besides these, the freedom of choice was also greatly advocated and presented as the only way for understanding and accepting Vipassana as a practice in one’s day to day life.
I found the teachings to be clear, concise, and in no way contradictory to my own religious beliefs. There was some mention of a concept regarding “the relinquishing of need for organized religion” after one achieved the state of ultimate truth or nirvana - a state that cannot be described in words. I suppose that in some way, this could be interpreted as an anti-establishment idea. However, achieving this state also requires living the life of a monk – which for me is nowhere on the horizon!
And yes – I plan to take the course again as an old student in the future.
For more information on Vipassana meditation, please visit http://www.dhamma.org/
For a sample of my own soothing music compositions, please visit http://www.soroush.com/
Souroush’s music is very soothing and beautiful! Thank you Souroush!!