I came across a book detailing the exploits of an Australian girl making her way across the Indian subcontinent.
A 21st century rewrite of the lore of the hippie trail, the book made for a curious reading of the life of a foreigner brave (or foolish) enough to have gone through all the trouble she did. The author chronicled days spent discovering religion and spirituality while avoiding hell — nosy neighbors, opportunistic rickshaw-wallas, and cultural oddities. She portrays an all too familiar India — the world’s spiritual shopping mall offering everything from tantra to psychedelic drugs to yogis seeking penance, food-poisoning and frightening latrines as common features on the quest for liberation. The book was a reminder of the trials and tribulations the average foreigner may have to endure if only to make some sense of the country. The smallest chapter in the book spoke to me the most. There was a tiny passage that depicted the joy and punishing solitude of the type rarely considered as thrill — monastic rituals, austere and rigorous routines, distress and hardship — it seemed a bit too much for anyone, let alone a young girl on vacation. And yet, it seemed like just about the only thing she really enjoyed doing in the country.
That was my introduction to Vipassana. That early memory is still fresh: the desire to confront this awkward specimen of a situation for myself, only because at the time, it seemed so bizarre. To my ignorant mind, I could not have comprehended the result of ten long days (and nights), sitting around without uttering a single syllable. If nothing else, it would just be yet another substance: to taste, try, and spit out, and rave about having conquered yet another mountain of sensory input; spin it all into a tall tale of meaningless adventure.
Thankfully, the taste was sweet. To that kid — me — this turned out to be pretty important. This felt like a gigantic discovery, and I often found myself proselytizing like a broken record for days after the first course. I eventually stopped for being seen as a bit of a nuisance, however, my fascination with the practice only grew with time. In those ten short days, I had experienced a deep, resounding change from within. As difficult as the journey had been, I knew I had only taken the first step.
Note: A dozen Vipassana courses later, it is the stark contrast that gets you; the juxtaposition of life inside a Vipassana course and the world outside. But that’s not really the point of this post. A Vipassana course is strict. There is no speaking or reading allowed. You spend most of your time meditating which you are patiently guided through. There are teachers to help you out; all food served is vegetarian.
People have a lot of misconceptions about Vipassana so it is ideal to not know too much as going in blind has its benefits. If you do not know much about what you are getting into, you have fewer preconceived notions about what a course should be. For beginners, this is crucial!
While reading this, keep in mind that merely engaging the intellect is not enough to understand consciousness or reality as the intellect is only a small part of experience. You can’t describe the taste of salt to someone who has never experienced it before, and you can’t learn to swim simply by reading about it. It’s very difficult to talk about meditative experiences because you have to somehow convice the reader to leave behind their preconceived notions of what meditation is, which is why the words and ideas used in this post have been carefully chosen to offer a analogous idea (and probably nothing more).
With that said, understand that even though I have been practicing Vipassana meditation for a while, it does not mean I have achieved any form of mastery over the practice. I still consider having taken only the first step in an unimaginably long path. I share these insights, all of which have broadened and enriched my understanding not only of myself, but of experience in the broadest definition of the word.
Beyond that, my only hope is to encourage you to sit down and focus on your breath.
1. Meditation will change your brain
The mind is a big ball of accumulated, tightly-knotted habits. Habits are not merely mundane proclivities like picking your nose or getting K-pop stuck in your head. They are the set of all unconscious tendencies, picked up over the course of one’s life and through generations past, resulting in present thought, action, or both. Natural instincts such as the struggle to survive and the urge for sexual gratification are among the densest of elements residing within the mental landscape.
Mental forces are easiest to imagine when you think of them as analogous to Newton’s Third Law: each action has an equal and opposite reaction. As the mind sees, the mind does. Cause and effect. Through millions of years of evolution, the mind has been shaped to recognize and react to patterns. Certain emotions result in specific thoughts. Certain thoughts may result in specific behaviors - patterns of behavior form one’s identity.
When you sit down to practice Vipassana, you essentially train yourself to observe your mind, without reacting. The process may not seem like much but, with time and effort, the simple act of observation decreases the rigidity and impulsiveness of the mind. The mind slowly overcomes its usual unconscious patterns - specifically, the restlessness and pursuit of an object of attention. Gradually, the simple act of watching desire unravel before you, unveiling its knots until they loosen and eventually fade away, brings about a significant mental transformation.
Note: This does not mean that after ten days of meditation you will deprogram your mind and achieve liberation. It is a very gradual process. Seriously. Even after all these years, I’ve only scratched the surface and, so far, I’ve managed to adopt a slightly better diet. But immediately after each meditation session, I have better focus, more clarity of thought, less anxiety, and I’m as calm as ever.
Meditation will change your brain. Thoughts included.
2. You are your mind’s weak, pathetic slave
At any given time, you have very little conscious ability to overrule your genetic programming, emotional state, and natural surroundings.† The goal of meditation is to break free from the mind’s thrall - its rigid mental patterns. That’s the liberation that meditators keep referring to time and again.
Over the course of our lives, we have been conditioned by our parents, school, society, even language. Our society has molded us to be the people we are today. Like the words we associate with objects to learn the alphabet, we continuously associate abstractions — words — to ideas; to the way things work. Our names for objects, people, places, feelings, situations, etc. are just names. They are concepts that are formed in the mind. In other words, our brain holds maps to reality which are drawn and redrawn over the course of our lives. But the map is not the territory, yet we are constantly under the delusion that the map is real.
† Many have even argued that there is no such thing as conscious control and that freewill is an illusion, but that is a discussion for another time.
Our tendency to be swayed by these ideas and thoughts creates the biggest hurdle. Even adept meditators will experience thoughts and be annoyed at themselves for thinking them, but it’s the intensity of thought that is different here. Repeatedly bringing one’s awareness back to the object of focus, of the presence of the breath or to sensations within the body, trains the mind to be focused and aware. With time, the length of time spent in consistent focus increases. Even if you find yourself constantly lost in thought, gradually, you will develop the ability to be more focused.
Most beginners often find it frustrating how difficult it is to ‘control’ their minds. But therein lies the effort. It is a skill to be cultivated like any other. Exasperation and the desire to stop is a natural byproduct of the conditioning described earlier. There is an inertia to progress that needs to be continuously overcome. However difficult this struggle is, it is helpful to note that changes are noticeable after only two weeks of practice.
Meditation is simply a tool to build mental resilience and sharpen the mind. A mind as sharp as an axe and as strong as a bull can cut through anything.
3. Everything is connected
This can be argued as a simple scientific principle. Richard Feynman in his lecture, “The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences,” describes the artificial divisions we create, forming a myriad of distinct models of understanding to comprehend and explain to ourselves aspects of the same reality. Brian Cox takes it even further.
My understanding falls slightly more on the philosophical side, but bear with me: Most religions and spiritual traditions preach purity of mind, speech, and deed. Whether through scripture or ritual, they teach compassion, loving kindness, mercy and wisdom. I’ve realized that there’s more to this than some vague notion of morality.
To greatly simplify this, let’s imagine the world as a closed, finite system — something like a small swimming pool. Any kind of movement results in ripples that gradually extend across the body of water, affecting everything in their path. Eventually, given enough time, those ripples will bounce right back to whence they came. Sooner or later, your actions will meet their maker. But don’t mistake this as a need to be nice out of selfish necessity. The picture is a lot bigger than this.
The world, much like our hypothetical swimming pool, is a melting pot of events resulting from simultaneous interactions between objects and entities causing countless, spontaneous consequences. It’s a chain reaction and an ocean of chaos, with the ebb and flow of individual currents that mingle, coalesce and form waves, crashing into one another to give us the great churning of the wheel that the Buddhists speak of, and the agitation that we are almost too familiar with.
The turbulence, in essence, is the mind being washed away with the tides, engulfed and drowned in the vicissitudes of a constantly changing life. To remain steadfast and solid in such stormy waters would require nothing short of supreme mastery in the art of mindfulness. A cornerstone of such an endeavour requires the cultivation of a conscious effort to sustain complete awareness and acceptance for the present moment.
When one remains vigilant of thought, speech, and deed, and acquires a resolute and unwavering focus, then all the torment the ocean can muster will be but powerless against this tranquil state of mind. But even beyond that, tranquillity will give way to reflection, understanding, and empathy. In other words, when you respond to anger with love, you cast water over fire.
With practice, each action undertaken will arrive with more effort, more purpose and consideration. That is the delicate insight to be gained — that every action, every moment, every breath is sacred. Every bit of conscious presence is a gift to be treasured.
4. Nothing matters as much as you think it does
Vipassana meditation is an exercise in cultivating insight through self-observation. You watch your breath and the sensations across your body as they arise and pass away, each time acknowledging their transient and impermanent nature. These properties, you come to realise, are the truth of all reality.
You realise that suffering is a form of mental attachment, not to any external object, but to the sensation that object casts on your mind. This attachment is sometimes so subtle, so imperceptible that it is impossible to witness it without a calm mind. These attachments are what cause dukkha or suffering. Attachments are not limited to sensations that feel good. Any sensation that makes you feel like had more of it or less of it — desire and aversion — is attachment. The mind runs after pleasure, runs from fear and pain. The desire to distract oneself out of constant awareness is the attachment and it causes great hindrance to one’s practice.
As you grow in your practice, you will gradually slip out of your old patterns of thought, replacing them with a more open, willing, and fluid presence of mind. What once bothered you may gradually dissolve into nothingness. What once seemed as part of you, possessed you, caused emotional havoc when you didn’t get what you wanted, might simply vanish from existence. No, you won’t turn into an emotionless robot. No it won’t make you give up everything in life, turn into a vagrant and move to the beach, unless you already desired those things. Meditation will only help you understand what it is that you really want.
Practice will help you detach yourself from your thoughts until you realize that your thoughts are not you. Feelings come, feelings go. They are impermanent, and they don’t matter.
5. You are not an experiential bubble
For many beginners trying to embrace the many forms of mindfulness, one of the toughest obstacles to overcome is doubt. It may be doubt in oneself, doubt in the practice, doubt in one’s teacher, and so on. But it’s a natural response to something new, especially to those completely unfamiliar with these types of practices. Imparting trust is a transactional habit. Unless one is certain of attainable benefits and can measure their worth, they may find an unwillingness to take even the first step.
But couple a doubtful mind with the myriad of mental encounters one may face during meditation and the result might just kill the desire to practise. People have reported everything from swirling lights, out-of-body experiences, synesthesia, to demons. This is not unusual. Meditation is a gateway into the unconscious — a surgical procedure as S.N. Goenka, the person who brought the teaching of Vipassana back to India, describes. Through the process of Sankharupekkha (observing mental formations with equanimity), the practitioner encounters dormant impurities in the unconscious that rise to the surface of the mind, and manifest themselves as physical phenomena.
Juxtaposed with modern-day culture, the meditative experience stands out like a sore thumb, often causing its students great confusion and mistrust in the very quality of what they are learning. It doesn’t help that the ideas and general philosophy presented by spiritual traditions are outright antithetical to western schools of thought.
Concepts such as avidya, anicca, dukkha, shunyata, samsara and nirvana are like salt. These are concepts that are almost impossible to understand through mere language without a depth of prior meditative experience. They are often horribly misconstrued and usually thrown out, replaced by a far shallower understanding that barely skims the surface of the teaching, conflating meditation with stress reduction and labour productivity. After all, these are the values our industrial societies can easily relate to.
We often make it harder on ourselves by letting our experiences fester. Remember to talk about them, discuss them, debate their essence, and let them be out in the open. Let these ideas, however alien, achieve coherence and solidity. Give them a better chance to struggle and survive. There are many people out there experiencing the same reality, watching the same movie, feeling the same thing. The emotional outlet, especially when you are starting out in this practice is immensely valuable. It’s a small thing but it matters.
After my first ten-day Vipassana course came to a close, as the new students could finally open their mouths and start speaking with each other about their ten days spent in silence, we could all see the benefits this strange new thing had given us. I was in a room full of fifty-odd people, all of whom seemed to have had a similar experience in the course as I did. They all seemed calmer than on the first day, happier for having made it through, and in the process, they had visibly changed. That’s what brought forth trust in the system; not only because it seemed to work across a diverse set of people, but because it made me realise that we are all in the same boat. We are all experiencing dukkha, we are all a product of avidya.
6. Compassion takes practice
Mindfulness meditation practices are linked to attention control and are known to increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes. Loving-kindness meditation shows an increase in the amount of grey matter in the limbic system which processes emotion, and the anterior insula which brings emotions into conscious awareness.‡
‡ Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005
A large body of research suggests meditation can change not only neural circuitry and internal emotional states, but by extension, physical behaviour. With only two weeks of training, participants in experiments reported being more likely to express altruistic behaviour such as offering up their seats to strangers and donating to charity.
In “Altered Traits”, neuroscientist Richard Davidson describes loving-kindness meditation as increasing “the connections between the brain’s circuits for joy and happiness and the prefrontal cortex, a zone critical for guiding behavior.”§
§ Condon P, Desbordes G, Miller WB, DeSteno D. Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering. Psychological Science. 2013
If it is a moral prerogative to protect humans and non-humans from violence and suffering, it is a moral prerogative to train oneself in being more compassionate.
An impulsive and ignorant mind does not have the capacity to form correct judgement. An angry and intolerant person cannot not be trusted to make rational and thoughtful decisions. Why do you need to develop proper judgement? The simplest possible answer: to progress in your practice. Therefore, while Vipassana may bring insight, on the last day of each course, students are taught a slightly different type of meditation.
Metta, meaning ‘loving-kindness’, is a type of meditation that involves concentrating on directing love towards ourselves and others, even those (especially those) who may have hurt us. A daily practice of metta has its benefits, but most significant of all, is the way it complements insight meditation and brings out lasting, positive changes in mind and body.
The feeling is hard to describe, but all I can say is that (at the risk of sounding cliche), through the course of one’s life, pain is an inevitability, but suffering through the pain is a choice. With regular practice in Metta, instead of being swept away by one’s emotions, one learns to consciously bring awareness to the suffering being experienced and replace it with compassionate and loving thought. Think of it as learning a language. Even if you have no prior experience reading the script or pronouncing the words, with time, you might just achieve fluency.
Compassion towards all beings, regardless of the situation, is an important goal for anyone serious about walking the path to enlightenment.
When you emanate a constant stream of loving thoughts without ever missing a beat, then you might definitely consider yourself having changed for the better.
7. It’s all just glorified play
By the time children reach the age of 3 or 4, their ego begins to form a cohesive identity — a map of themselves: I am this, I like that, I want to be so and so. Whether through nature or nurture, the child learns to take on a role for themselves depending on what the situation may bring: during interactions with their parents, with other children, and with society in general.
From an early age, children are engaged in play. Their games may be diverse, but are usually a form of role-playing: tea parties, dollhouses, make-believe — simulations of the adult world, to test its boundaries and see how things react. Fueled by curiosity and the joy of discovery, they rehearse and solidify their understanding of their surroundings, finding their place in the greater familial and societal picture, and simultaneously strengthen their masks of identity.
The masks we carry, birthed from the ego, may be necessary for our survival, but they are simply roles — the games we continue to play even as adults, with ourselves and with others. When the student of Vipassana comes to notice their own desires and attachments to the world, the identity of the self is often seen as the greatest attachment. It is the greatest epic: the story of ourselves that we’re so engrossed in writing and reciting—and madly in love with.
This story never ends. It lies permanently in the state of becoming: I am like this, I like that, I want to be so and so. The attachment to a false idea of oneself is the most difficult thing to witness and understand. It is the biggest delusion of the mind, and the greatest hindrance to one’s liberation from samsara — the endless cycle of birth and death. Whether you choose to believe that is unimportant or not, recognising one’s tendencies to cling to one’s beliefs; one’s mask and identity, is a crucial process towards self-discovery and insight.
Recognising the mind for what it is — a steady stream of consciousness constantly in flux, always undergoing change — will bring you a step closer to deciphering it.
8. You know nothing
I know nothing. For knowing involves being certain, but if everything is impermanent and things are constantly in flux, then nothing can be certain.
To understand how truly inept we are at comprehending reality, consider the incredibly narrow spectrum of perception our brains provide. Our sensory organs: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin offer only a slice of all the information that they come into contact with.
The eyes, for example, see only a thin slice of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we call visible light. Similarly, our hearing is restricted to frequencies of sound that fall between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. In the same way, we are only capable of limited cognitive capability and intelligence.
There is a great post about this on Wait But Why.
It’s a humbling thought. At the very least, reminding oneself of the fragility of one’s understanding is a good way to avoid complacency in one’s practice. Further, since no one knows anything, knowing you know nothing will actually put you a step ahead of most people.
“I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know.” — Plato’s Apology of Socrates
Similarly, from the Dhammapada:
“A fool who knows his foolishness is wise at least to that extent, but a fool who thinks himself wise is a fool indeed.”
Lastly, Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese Zen Master calls the state of knowing nothing the “beginner’s mind,” the constant prerequisite for progressing in one’s practice:
“The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” — from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
May all beings be happy.
All images created with Midjourney.