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The Paradoxical Quest for Bliss - Insights from my recent vipassana meditation course (Part 1)

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After sitting my first 10 day Vipassana Meditation course in 2019, as soon as we were allowed to break our noble silence, one of the students zip lined to me and asked how it was for me. I couldn't put what I felt into words, and instead, tears started to flow. I was asked a few moments later if I saw myself ever doing something like this ever again and I said with strong conviction that it was incredibly unlikely.


I returned in October 2021 to serve a 10 day course and just recently came back from sitting my 2nd course. If you're curious about the difference between serving and sitting a course, check out my previous blog.


These meditation courses are not your mainstream comfort focused retreats. During the 10 day courses, there are 10 scheduled hours of meditation a day (longest of these being 2 hrs). You are asked not to speak, make eye contact, read or write throughout the 10 days. For your first time sitting the course (they refer to the practice of meditating as sitting), you are allowed to have fruits with the tea they serve at 5pm, but the last full meal is served at 11am. Students that return after their first course, are asked to only have tea or coffee and to skip all fruits available during the 5pm tea service.





Icing on the cake, 3 of the 1 hour sits, you are asked to practice "adhitthana" or strong determination not to uncross your legs/hands or open your eyes. There is a short note from the teacher, Goenka, taped in the entrance of the meditation hall saying that it is not an opportunity to torture yourself, but to attempt to look at your discomfort in a different way - as the sensations that compose the experience without the aversion, or attempt to reject it, or identify with it as "your" pain. Although Goenka has passed, his recordings are what guide the meditations and discourses. That being said, there are assistant teachers there to keep things organized and to answer questions about the technique.


As challenging as all of that sounds, somehow, I have been able to have some of the most blissful experiences on these retreats and while practicing vipassana meditation.


Because my vipassana practice was starting to feel blissful, I was beginning to slip into the very dangerous territory of craving more of the bliss and completely missing one of the most important points of this practice. Equanimity.


The first of the 3 major insights that I'll be sharing over the next few posts is that this practice is NOT about creating more bliss for ourselves, but about cultivating equanimity - the ability to let go of clinging/craving as well as aversion and be with "what is" instead. The cultivation of equanimity is emphasized because the human experience is filled with challenges and most of us (if not all) are addicted to some behavior or thing that helps us numb ourselves when we are anything other than happy. In order to cultivate this illusive equanimous mind, the technique asks us to sharpen our ability to be with things as they are and pay more attention to sensations instead of our opinions about sensations, thoughts, emotions, or sounds.


Being with things as they are is one of the main reasons I avoided this technique for so long. I had/have a lot of pain in the body once I sit. Why would anyone want to sit with their pain? The answer is simple but our conditioned habit energies get in the way. We sit with our pain not to torture ourselves, but because our aversive thoughts about our pain and our desire to rid ourselves of pain, generally intensifies it. As Goenka clarified in his note, this is NOT an opportunity to torture ourselves. Students are allowed to use chairs, meditation cushions with back rest, and people generally end up having a pillow fortress by the end of the course.


Instead of torturing ourselves, we can challenge our autopilot reactions. We can choose to cultivate equanimous awareness by witnessing all the different kinds of sensations, from gross to subtle, without trying to reject any part of our experience.


It was truly mind boggling to feel so much pain one moment and then suddenly, because of pure observation and curiosity of the sensations composing the discomfort, the pain would miraculously disappear. Or some sits were so painful in my right shoulder blade area that my pinky finger would go numb on my right hand. But other times, just as I had chosen to have a strong determination (adhitthana) to sit without moving, I chose to have a strong determination to allow uncomfortable experiences to be there and to embrace the technique instead of obsessing and staying fixated on the discomfort. Those sits were not free from pain, but did evolve into profound moments of peace and stillness.


What we resist, persists. Why continue to resist when we know this concept to be fundamentally true? Why is it so hard for us to establish a different way of relating to what we don't like?


Goenka said each time we are able to see intense emotions or pain subside in our sit, it is likely we have eradicated a deeply rooted sankhara, or mental reaction of aversion/clinging and craving that gets stored in our body. This reminds me of the book "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk, MD. In this book, a key message is that although our minds tend to forget previous challenges or traumas, our bodies do not and that most traumas can not be healed with only talk therapies and instead require embodied practices.


Vipassana strengthens our interoceptive awareness and supports us in becoming more embodied. The technique helps us be with sensations without getting sucked into a downward spiral of aversion which can lead to a liberating and deeply peaceful moment of bliss.


Eventually, the more you use this technique, the more you witness old memories come up that you have not been able to process and heal from. When these memories come up for me, the tears begin and because you don't have anything to distract or numb yourself with, it shakes me to my core.


What should one do when these memories surface and the strong emotion comes with it? The technique is all about equanimity and initially there might be some confusion about how to practice with these strong emotions. I've asked the same question to each of the 3 assistant teachers from my courses to make sure they provide the same answer for the technique, and I'm glad to say, they say the same thing each time.


"Don't ever hold back your tears, let them come, AND feel the body. Never suppress. Witness all the sensations that come with it." (One of my favorite meditation teachers would also just add that we should minimize the narrative and editorializing. Focus on the somatic experience.)

It does feel like allowing myself to feel it all gave me the opportunity to hold the experiences in a more spacious awareness that was less reactive than my usual way of relating to them.


The process of healing from these painful memories, for me, looks like a pendulum swinging to one side to feel into the sensations of discomfort, and then swings to the other side to feel open/vast awareness that feels safe and can witness the discomfort without being sucked into a downward spiral. It swings back and forth a few times until the pain of the memory feels less triggering. I emphasize that this is my anecdotal experience, but this is a technique that most trauma therapists believe to be healing as well. (The above link is an entire 2 hour podcast episode on the neuroscience of erasing fears and healing trauma.) The pendulum starts with a strong felt sense of safety, touches the discomfort, and back to a sense of safety. Dan Siegel, M.D. refers to this as widening our "window of tolerance."


The "dangerous territory of pleasure"

On the other side of the pain scale is pleasure and Goenka mentions, several times, that the moment we start to feel the pleasant gentle vibrations throughout the body, it is "dangerous territory." We are to keep in mind that those are also impermanent or as he refers to it, "anicca!" Some people take a little longer to experience the very pleasant gentle vibrations, free flowing throughout the body, and some feel it right away. He says multiple times that the yardstick of success in the practice is NOT the experience of blissfully pleasant sensations, but our ability to be equanimous about those sensations as well as the more challenging sensations.


This technique asks us to abandon the craving of bliss/peace, to be with things as they are, and when we can actually achieve this, the bliss that comes is like nothing we've ever experienced. It is ineffable.


Yes, there are moments of unbelievable bliss and the loveliest felt experience of profound calm that comes with a vipassana meditation practice, but the more we crave that feeling, the further we are from establishing long lasting joy and peace, and the further we are from understanding the true essence of this practice.


This also helps us see that we don't need to escape our lives to find bliss. It's not the vacations, "treat your self" pampering days, blue skies, or material wealth that support us in establishing enduring and unshakeable joy. We can step off the hedonic treadmill and develop our ability to be equanimous through the highs and lows, to discover the paradoxical bliss that comes with being with things AS THEY ARE.


I've been enjoying incorporating this reminder of equanimity more regularly since returning from the course with my moments of happiness, instead of possessively gripping my moments of happiness, fearing that they will slip away too quickly. I can now let myself feel more fully awake with the experience, without allowing the background noise of trying to figure out how to have more of the happiness take up space.


The second big insight that I was reminded of during the course is all about the impermanent nature of experience. Having a strong understanding of impermanence supports the cultivation of equanimity. This does not mean we live a joyless life, just that we no longer need things to be a certain way to feel joy. More on this in the next post!


With metta,

Franci










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