Vipassana Meditation Themes - Part 2
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
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