Five senses plus four more

At the core of Vipassana is understanding the impermanence of all things. Everything we know, we experience within the body as a sensation, either as a subtle vibration of awareness, or through our senses. Everything we experience arises within us, and then passes away.

Our obvious senses include sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch.

According to wikipedia, our senses also include:

Thermoception – the sense of heat or the absence of it (cold)
Nociception – physiological pain (in our skin, joints and organs)
Equilibrioception – our perception of balance
Proprioception – our kinesthetic sense – our body awareness

What about our thoughts? Are a thoughts one of our senses? Or are they a product of a different sensation? They’re certainly something I experience… and something I can even influence occasionally.

Dissolving pain

I have experienced two 10-day Vipassana retreats.

During my second retreat, I had an amazing insight into the power of the meditation. (I’m a slow learner.) One of the objectives behind Vipassana is to dissolve pain by observing it in the present moment and accepting what is. When we are aware of the internal resistance we are creating, we can stop the cycle of craving or aversion that creates pain within us.

At these retreats, around the fourth day, they start these sittings where you are expected to sit still for the entire hour. For a guy like me, who doesn’t sit on the floor often, my back starts aching after about 10 minutes. In my first retreat, I never quite made it a full hour without adjusting my back.

The second time around, and something stupid came over me – I resolved to sit still for a full hour. My back was killing me, but I continued to meditate without moving. I could barely focus on anything except for the sharp feeling in my back, which, by the way, felt like an army of four year olds scratching chalkboards. I forced myself to sit through it. Masochistic? Probably.

And then the most curious thing happened. The pain… dissolved. It went from feeling completely unbearable to feeling like any other sensation on my body. It didn’t cause me any more anguish. What I found really peculiar was that those same sharp fingernail on chalkboard sensations were there… they just didn’t hurt. They didn’t distract me. They felt as painful as my pillow.

That’s when the practice of Vipassana became clear to me, and what they mean about using awareness to dissolve your pain. The physical sensation, even if uncomfortable, is not what I thought was the pain. The true source of pain is something I don’t think I could have understood before I experienced it.

I have started noticing where in my life I am resisting what is, and how I am reacting to situations. It is not just physical pain, but can be found anywhere – arguments, laziness, frustration, boredom, apathy, and probably a million other places.

Practicing Vipassana

Vipassana meditation is pretty straight-forward. At the retreat, you start working with your breath, and progress to passing your awareness through your body.

The rough guide to Vipassana is:

  1. Awareness of breath (paying attention to your breathing).
  2. Focusing your breath awareness onto a smaller and smaller point at the base of your nose.
  3. Passing that same awareness slowly over the surface of your entire body, starting with your head, arms, chest, back, legs and then back up to the head.
  4. Sweeping your awareness over the surface of your body.
  5. Passing your awareness through (inside) your body.
  6. Becoming aware of your entire body simultaneously.

All this is done while trying to remain as an objective observer. This would be dead easy, but unfortunately, minds like mine like to run wild… much of the meditation is just recognizing that thoughts are popping into our head, accepting that this is happening and returning our awareness to the practice.

I never knew how much my mind had a mind of its own until my first retreat.

Vipassana retreat

The largest offering of Vipassana Meditation is that taught By S. N. Goenka, offering free 10-day courses (costs are covered through donations). It originated in India, but now there are meditation centers world-wide.

At first glance, the daily schedule for the 10 days looks pretty demanding:

4:00 a.m. Morning wake-up bell
4:30 – 6:30 a.m. Meditate in the hall or your own room
6:30 – 8:00 a.m. Breakfast break
8:00 – 9:00 a.m. Group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 11:00 a.m. Meditate in the hall or your own room
11:30 – noon Lunch
12 noon – 1:00 p.m. Rest break
1:00 – 2:30 p.m. Meditate in the hall or your own room
2:30 – 3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
3:30 – 5:00 p.m. Meditate in the hall or your own room
5:00 – 6:00 p.m. Tea break
6:00 – 7:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
7:00 – 8:30 p.m. Video recording to recap day
9:30 p.m. Retire to your own room/Lights out

When I first went, I thought it would be impossible to wake up at 4 am and meditate all day long in silence. (There is no talking during the retreat, except for brief check-ins with the assistant teacher.) But waking up was a lot easier than I expected… you are naturally rested from going to bed early and meditating all day. And you are free from other distractions, such as work, mobile phones and e-mail, so it’s not difficult.

At the same time, I think I convinced myself on one of the days that time had stopped and I was going to be there forever.

Vipassana

Vipassana is a meditation centered around observation and awareness. It differs from focused meditations that use mantra’s, such as transcendental meditation, or meditations that focus on controlling the breathing, because it is precisely about NOT controlling anything, and just observing.

Sounds easy enough, right? In Vipassana, for once your life you don’t have to DO anything. In fact, you’re specifically NOT supposed to do anything. Well, other than observe…

The meditation stems from Buddhism as the technique taught by the Buddha to reach enlightenment. The meditation itself is quite separate from Buddhism and is something that anyone can do.

Where to start? Zencast has some great meditation podcasts available for download introducing meditation.

The danger of thinking

Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal.
— Eckhart Tolle

So much for mindfulness. Yesterday I wrote a short post, and saved it, but didn’t think to publish it. That is known in scientific circles as the “absence of mindfulness”. It was a miracle that the thinking blog found me today, which appeared to be exactly what I needed… until I found myself having optical seizures. (Which just fuels my theory that too much thinking is painful.)

So am I supposed to think or not? Becoming brain-dead certainly isn’t the answer.

To be mindful is to be aware of what you are experiencing in the present moment. It is about observing the emotions and feelings you are experiencing, and being aware of the thoughts fluttering into your mind. The point is not to stop your mind from thinking, rather to stop your mind from thinking uncontrollably.

Mindfulness

How often are you caught up in your thoughts, worrying about tomorrow, regretting yesterday, or waiting for something to happen? Are you aware and conscious of what you are experiencing right now? Do you notice the strain on your eyes from staring at your computer for too long? Or is that just me?

This week’s topic is about mindfulness. I’ll try to remember.

Bedtime meditation

As I lie in bed at night, I practice a simple gratitude meditation before I fall asleep. For about five minutes, I review my day, and focus on a few things that I am thankful for (trash cans, toilet paper, healthy toenails). It is not as important what my gratitude is about (whether it something small, like the London transport working, or something big, like the London transport working), but that my feelings are genuine (like when the London transport is working).

If I can foster these feelings of gratitude, then I sleep more deeply, and when I wake up the next morning I am centered and excited to start my day. How my day starts has a huge impact on the rest of my day. If I wake up feeling grumpy, for example, the London transport usually breaks down. So if 5 minutes or reflection can keep my underground running, how can I resist?

If you’re having trouble, here is another gratitude meditation. Or, just visit the Transport for London to see how well I’m doing.