Experiencing “vipassana” meditation

In January 2021, I got initiated into Vipassana meditation technique, as taught by Shri S N Goenka ji (principal teacher or pracharya), who learnt & brought this meditation technique from the Buddhist monks/saints of Burma/Myanmar to India in late 1960s; thereafter devoted his life teaching this meditation technique to the world, till he left his body (died) in 2013.

Introduction to Vipassana meditation technique by Shri S N Goenkaj ji

What I learnt

The 10 days of total silence onsite programme (free deep meditation retreat) kept the attendees (students or sadhaks or disciples) occupied & engaged from 4 am in the morning till 9:30 pm at night. The student wasn’t allowed or expected to talk to anyone around even by gestures! There was no communication with external world. This silence was called as “noble silence (or arya maun)”, which was one of the 5 pledges each student took during the initiation of the programme/retreat.

I experienced for the first time in my life – an intense disciplined life of a “gurukul” (monastery), with 12 hours of meditations every day, 3 meals breaks, logical rest periods wrapped around those breaks, with each day ending with audio-visual (recorded) discourse and (live) Q&A sessions – above all was the experience of pure silence/ quiet time for that 10 days period.

Everyday starts with the introduction of a simple task for that day – WHAT has to be done and HOW it has to be done. The task needs to be practiced by the student during the long meditation hours, spread across the day.

Everyday ends with about 1.5 hours of discourse (teaching or lecture) from the principal teacher (acharya Shri Goenka ji); his videos are played in the meditation hall and the (residential) assistant teacher (sahayak acharya) clarifies our questions, during the Q&A session following the discourse.

The video-based discourses are very deep, where-in the teacher explains WHY was the practice of that day done and WHERE would it lead to in this spiritual (self-realization) journey.

I could relate this to the “Karate kid” movie where the experienced Japanese karate teacher makes the young American student do all sorts of physical tasks (in the name of Karate training), but only towards the end of the day disclosed the “purpose” of those physical steps and how they fit into this kid’s karate learning journey!

The day end feeling of “fulfillment” of that kid/student in the movie, could be experienced by me during the day end discourses by Shri Goenka ji.

In his daily discourse, Shri Goenka ji also explained the 2500 years old (and even earlier) history of this long-lost Vipassana meditation technique. He touches this topic everyday with so-many examples and logical facts.

Days 1-3, students are taught 2 fundamental sub-techniques (vidyas) clubbed together as “aana-pan” :-

  1. In a comfortable meditation posture with back and neck straight, keeping eyes closed, focus your mind (the ever wandering mind!) to a particular part of the body (nostrils in this technique). Idea is to train the mind remain focused on the inflow/outflow of breath (being agnostic to the type or quality of breath, i.e. just observing the flow). Initially it was very hard to remain focused for more than a couple of seconds! The technique teaches that when we realize that our mind has wandered, bring it back with a smile and resume observation of inflow/outflow of breath again.
  2. Observe/feel inside nostrils for any kind of sensations like touching of air on internal nostril walls, heat/cold, twitching, shivering, pulse, vibrations, wetness, dryness, numbness, anything – just observe, but do not search/look/desire for any particular sensation. Thus BEING AWARE OF BREATH and BEING PRESENT IN THAT MOMENT.

The above technique helped in training of my mind; I could experience some progress in 3 days. Additionally, the pain of the back/legs and urge to change the legs/posture, due to long sitting hours, got less day by day, as the mind (slowly) started accepting and (infact) started ignoring the pain/urge and remained focused on its job!

The “aana-pan” technique teaches focus and observations on as-is basis, and expects that students do not mix it with any other meditation techniques or imaginations or prayers. Reason: Else the mind will not focus on the task of observing the (real) subtle sensations happening in our body parts, but would start imagining/visualizing lights, colors, objects, gods, etc or focus on mentally reciting words/prayers (jap, mantra, etc) taught in other meditation techniques.

The “aana-pan” technique teaches to just observe (and not control) breath as its not a breathing or mind control exercise. Reason: Else the task or focus would be on achieving something or controlling something, which would disturb the (real and natural) flow of breath.

I was convinced with above fundamental expectations of its teaching, and could really experience that meditating becomes easy without imagination and control!

Day 4 is initiation (deeksha or teaching) of Vipassana meditation technique and its initial practice.

Vipassana meditation technique teaches to combine the above 2 sub-techniques of aana-pan, however shifts the focus of the mind from head to toe (step-by-step) at the body surface level AND listen to (observe) the subtle (or even gross or blank-spots) sensations of that body part.

It is like scanning our body ourselves just like x-ray or ct-scan or MRI. The initiation was done in a (painful) 2 hours long guided meditation session.

The fundamental idea of this technique is 2 folds :-

  1. Being aware of the subtle sensations of the body parts (be those good or bad sensations or feelings) -> be aware of those -> accept those as-is -> and move forward to next body part (as told) without any good or bad response (or reaction from mind). This trains our mind to BE AWARE, BE in PRESENT, and DONT REACT/RESPOND (just be AWARE of the FACT that there are some sensations in the body parts).
  2. Mind has some logical parts – some texts may say 3 & some may say 4 parts – anyways important is that the (universally accepted) sub-conscious part of the human-mind which holds the “deep-rooted habit patterns” (seeded in this life or debatable past life karmas), wired/programmed (connected neurons) to react/respond/reflect to the 5 sensory inputs (simple or complex), need cleansing or training or re-wiring or re-programming or re-calibration (whatever you wish to call).
    • In this practice of Vipassana meditation, we are taught that for every input we receive from our senses, which gets processed/filtered/mapped/etc in our (some parts) of mind, our mind responds in a way its trained over the period of time. The response is a set of (discrete0 small responses, triggered by bio-chemical and electro-mechanical signals from brain to different parts (glands or motory system) of our body. For example: If we meet someone we hate, our mind senses/processes & triggers some signals to different parts of our body/senses. On the contrary if we come across someone/something which we love, a different set of signals are triggered – again by this mind.
    • Vipassana meditation teaches a very simple way of calming mind (or control) – we are taught to OBSERVE the subtle sensations across the body, which (naturally) arise in response/reaction to the sensory inputs of external factors/conditions or (even) arising when we are thinking or day-dreaming (as an untrained mind stays either in past or in future most of the times; it always forgets that living in present is the real PRESENT!)
    • Vipassana meditation teaches that all such sensations/thoughts are temporary, thus it teaches the process of CLEANSING or RE-TRAINING of mind by above ways of observing & balancing of our reactions, thus gradually developing a serene calmness and balanced view for everything (i.e. developing samta bhav for anything external or even internal).

Days 5-9 are continuous practice of Vipassana meditation (with some methodical variations, like going toe-to-top (& vice-versa) and going deep inside organs, etc), learning importance & history of this technique in the spiritual journey of humans – How it was manifested, how it got lost, how it was re-discovered by Gautam Buddh 2500 years ago, and how & why it got lost again in India 2000 years ago, how it got preserved in Burma/Myanmar.

Shri Goenka ji gives Vipassana meditation’s references in the ancient texts/teachings of various religions of the world – Hinduism (sanatan dharma sanskrit texts – RigVeda, Bhagwat Gita, Upanishads), Jain and Budhist sanskrit/pali texts, teachings of Bible, teachings of Quran, in teachings of Guru Nanak, Kabir and many more saints/sufis of last 1000 years.

He also shared his experiences of teaching this meditation technique, to the clergymen and priests of all faiths and how could they relate with their religious texts, while he taught India/across globe in 40+ years.

The daily discourses are available for free at their site http://www.dhamma.org or on their youtube channel playlist https://youtu.be/iBU3d-MTWsU

Giving links for easy access and quick check.

Discourses in English
Discourses in Hindi

What remained unanswered

During the Vipassana meditation practice, I had some observations of breath flowing in my spine and limbs. However, this part of was not covered in the discourses and thus wasn’t answered by the available assistant-teacher at the retreat. I was asked to focus on the technique itself (a typical gurukul way of teaching!).

What I didn’t accept or understand

Shri Goenka ji stressed on the fact that the ultimate aim of human-being is to do good things and attain moksha/mukti. This is also told in teachings of many religions, that I am aware of.

He stressed on the fact that religions (infact religious practices) have deformed/maligned in last 2000 years or so, and people & priests/clergy have lost the true sense of pure dharma (which is based upon the universal laws of the nature).

He says that dharm (or dharma in sanskrit or dhamma in pali) is not a religion, and is remembered/practiced by all living beings and non-living things.

For example: Living beings – animals, fish, plants and birds know what they have to do and they do it.

For example: Non-living things – The fire, water, air know what is their intrinsic property (dharma), what they have to do and they do it.

However, he says that the human-being who was gifted by the creator with budhhi & chitta (2 important parts of the mind, which makes him superior than other living beings) have lost the understanding/essence of pure dharma by boxing himself into religions and practicing those without understanding.

He gave many examples, and disqualified (infact criticized) following the religious practices without understanding the reasons behind the teachings and practices (he stressed to differentiate between to-follow and to-know).

He also challenged the mantras, prayers, hawans (fire ceremonies), fasting, philosophies of atma (or atman or brahman), philosophy of dwait or a-dwait, etc.

However, he himself believed in rebirths and soul cycles (and carry over of karmas to next birth), infact his everyday prayers sounded like mantras, with strong voice modulations (which hurt me over my head first few days).

Many questions remain unanswered by him/assistant teacher, and that gives me pointers to next steps of my just initiated spiritual journey.

However, he gave me a simple and powerful technique to follow for the rest of my life, so I discount him on the above views (as of now).

Thank you to this pious soul who came to live along with us in our lifetime – Shri S N Goenka ji; God bless his soul.