Getting to serve a 10 day Vipassana meditation course was one of the most enlightening experiences in my years of self-inquiry. There are so many theoretical themes in vipassana that I have been able to directly experience in my sitting/meditation practice, that were more challenging to integrate in my day-to-day. As a server for the course, you begin to consciously thread these themes into your day. It was also helpful to see the way the other servers, with varying levels of vipassana meditation experience and number of courses they've attended, threaded these major themes of vipassana into their days.
Below are a few of the major themes from Vipassana that I was able to see and attempt to integrate into every waking moment of the 10 day retreat. The themes are all written in Pali, the original language of the Buddha:
Sati - mindful awareness came in handy while we were preparing meals together for the 30 students, 2 teachers, 6 servers, and a handful of other Dhamma center workers/managers. Learning to execute new recipes, figuring out where everything goes in the kitchen, and working as a team while not messing up the recipes and having to start from scratch was a constant practice of Sati. I find myself accidentally nocking things over, clumsily moving through the world, and can be easily distracted when I am not at a vipassana retreat. Although those attributes are still there, because I got to practice and cultivate sati/mindful awareness, I noticed a significant reduction in the above characteristics.
Anatta - non-self or no unchanging/permanent self. When I found myself becoming achy because of sweeping the dining areas 3 times a day or mixing the oil that separates from peanut butter (this was actually a pretty labor intensive and necessary task), it was useful to disengage from identifying the pain in my back as "my" pain, and instead observe it as the constantly changing impermanent experience that it is.
While observing sensations, I am not always successful at witnessing without identifying the pain as mine. It is hard not to observe the sharp pain that has been in my right shoulder blade area since I began my meditation and pranayama practice several years ago, as anything other than my nagging nuisance that I face in almost every meditation practice. However, in one of the evening discourses, Goenka (the main teacher for Vipassana that brought the practice to the masses) reminded us that we are all made up of kalapas (subatomic particles) that are constantly in a flux. When we begin to directly witness the ever changing flow/vibrations from these kalapas throughout the entire body, we begin to relate to self differently, becoming less consumed by identifying with the story of "I."
We need a word like "self" to help us navigate conversations in the world when we refer to the body - the body which these constantly oscillating subatomic particles/kalapas make up. Otherwise, we would be walking around, as Goenka said, calling each other bubbles of constantly changing kalapas.
As I mentioned earlier, when I sit in meditation, it is easy for me to witness intense sensations like pain and not feel reactive about it, but it can still be challenging not to see a chronic pain as anything other than "our" pain. Getting to witness "pain" throughout my day and remember that this too is an opportunity to observe as varying levels of pressure, throughout my ever changing kalapas, instead of "my pain" was something that I would attempt every few weeks in my real life, but was now able to experience it several times a day. This leads to the next theme!
*I have a lot more to say on anatta from my beginner's mind/perspective on the conversation of soul vs. no soul, but I will save that for a future blog.
Anicca - impermanent and constantly changing. When I find myself having aversion to discomforts, I often repeat the phrase "anicca" because it is one that Goenka repeats regularly in his guided meditations. It was truly fascinating the way the aches were intense while I swept as well as 3/4 of the way through a few of the one hour sits, but other times, there was absolutely NO PAIN. Where did the pain come from in my 1 hour sits? Why is it that it would feel most unbearable at about 45 minutes into the practice? And if I did notice any discomfort in that area in the beginning of the practice how was it was just a small irritation? What made it evolve from a small irritation to not noticing any discomfort, to feeling unbearable at times toward the end of the sit?? This helped me see firsthand how the mind creates/intensifies so much of our pain. It can also be easy to get caught by clinging or be attached to having painless meditations, but the moment we get too excited about it, the next practice becomes riddled by pain.
Upekkha - equanimity. At one point I had attempted to practice sati and be fully present with the very fulfilling job of squeezing the lemon juice and separating the seeds from the juice. Once I completed my task, I accidentally dropped several seeds into the pitcher of lemon water. I was about to say "f*ck me" when I caught myself because I noticed the kitchen manager (seasoned vipassana meditator) standing right next to me looking incredibly equanimous and calm. He had witnessed my slip up and simply noted that all is well and that I can just grab one of the sifters, extra pitcher, and separate the seeds. This was one of a handful of moments where I was about to express my autopilot habit energy of reactivity, but chose to cultivate equanimity instead.
A big lightbulb moment for me was seeing the difference between equanimity and apathy. More on this below!
Metta - unconditional love and kindness. This can be insanely challenging when you find yourself frustrated with the behaviors of another, but when it feels most challenging, I try to remind myself that only hurt people, hurt others. Whatever frustrating behavior I witness is only the tip of an iceberg and I got to practice opening my heart several times after it felt like closing. *This is not a practice that we do toward people that have traumatized us unless you are ready to give it a try with a therapist. Lets face it, people like Hitler do not need our metta!
Putting It All Into Practice
The work on upekkha, metta, anatta, anicca, and sati came to a culmination when one of the servers kept breaking small rules here and there. I could feel my reactivity and my memories of being a manager in the retail industry come flooding through. I found myself approaching the server and reminding them of the rules they were breaking, but could sense frustration on their part for getting feedback.
I finally got clarity and insight when one morning I had breakfast duty and it was just the above server, me, and the monk. I noticed that the server had once again done something they weren’t supposed to, and the monk laughed and lightheartedly pointed out the rule they had just broken. How equanimous and full of metta! He approached the server with kindness, compassion, and without a trace of the frustration that must’ve been laced in my feedback to the server. I realized at that moment that my approach and attempt to be equanimous must've sounded passive aggressive. I was frustrated when I pointed out what I saw had been done incorrectly and was not at all considering the humanity of the server I was communicating with. That was a lightbulb moment I will never forget and appreciate as one of the biggest gifts from the experience of serving.
Each evening, I had the opportunity to watch the discourse from Goenka (I believe they must've been filmed in the 80's but they still feel relatable and inspiring). The discourses dive deeper into how the practice relates to our everyday lives. The evening that Goenka was explaining how equanimity does not mean we disengage from the world and avoid challenging conversations, reinforced what I had seen with the monk and the server.
Goenka gave an example of his incredibly kind and compassionate teacher reprimanding a meditator at one of the vipassana retreats because he kept walking away from his meditation cushion during one of the hour-long meditation practices where students are advised to stay for the entire hour. He was stern as he spoke to the practitioner, but walked away laughing. Goenka explained that his teacher didn’t have an ounce of frustration or anger toward the student. It was pure love and compassion that urged him to impress upon the student the importance of staying in his seat for the hour.
*On a side note, because I served the course, during one of the evening check-ins, the teacher tried preparing us for vipassana day by telling the men’s and women’s manager that if anyone left one of the hour long sits, they were to follow the student and stay by their side, offering any support the student needed. They were asked to give the student time and patience and if the student felt ready, to walk them back to their seat. I was asked to follow any other student that left if the women’s manager was away with another student. I’m happy to report, the group stayed together through the one hour sits!
It was also a blessing to be away from my phone for the 10 days and fully absorb my surroundings. Most of us are listening to a podcast, audio book, music, or watching tv when we cook, eat, or go to the bathroom. Our attention is incredibly divided and it becomes easy to feel drained and mindless. With the freedom from my technical devices, I had the opportunity to appreciate the sound of rain, and the way the rain made the branches outside of my bedroom window dance. When the sun finally came out, I was delighted to sit by the small pond enjoying the waterlilies and the sound of the wind in the branches of the tall pine trees...until the relentless mosquitos discovered me and I was back to practicing equanimity.
Below is my bedroom window and one of the only asanas I practiced while at the course - legs up the wall.
One of the reasons I really enjoyed serving the course instead of sitting, is that as a server, I was allowed to read books on Dhamma and journal. As much as I love listening to Goenka's discourses, having the ability to also follow it along with books on vipassana, really helped make things much clearer. The books had the Pali words written out and explained in more details. As a student, I would hear words like "sila, samadhi, panna" and had no idea how to spell them so that I could look them up and try threading those elements into my life. As a server, I was thrilled to have access to the books that supported the teachings.
Icing on the cake was getting to read the kitchen manager, Metta Mike's, "Dhamma-isms" book. As a vipassana meditator, we don't generally hear teachers talk much about later stages of meditation where one starts experiencing really wonderful and pleasant sensations (among other things), because this can make students too goal oriented with their practice. That being said, having the opportunity to read through Metta Mike's passages which were notes/thoughts on his several years of sitting, was a true delight because there were several passages that eloquently described those later stages and his writing was evocative enough to drop you into a meditative space. (Keep a lookout for the book in the upcoming years. He plans to sit for another year and see if the passages still resonate.)
Ultimately, it is easier to practice meditation formally than it is to ensure we are living our practice. If you've attended a vipassana meditation course, have continued a consistent practice, and still find yourself feeling reactive or withdrawn, I highly recommend serving a course in order to learn from the sangha/community.
What have your thoughts been on the above themes? Is there anything that clashes with your views? Are there any themes in vipassana that have really been helpful in your everyday life??
Leave a comment below and let me know! I'd love to hear from you.