Artist as an interrupted yogi

Photo courtesy Bryan Ungard
Photo courtesy Bryan Ungard

Vipassana is a close observation of sensations in the body and how all sensations ultimately arrive and pass away. This is impermanence. The popularity of mindfulness or awareness is only half the practice of Vipassana, you must also observe the the body from head to toe: scanning piece by piece, part by part, welcoming each sensation and cultivating a feeling of equanimity regardless of whether what you feel is painful or pleasant.

You may feel like a beam passes over your body, or you are a building full of pores, or you may feel that a stain passes over your skin, or that your bones slowly become petrified. Your equanimity is what’s important, not what you feel.

Perceptions can be anything: a tingling, prickling pressure, expansion, contraction — what is important that you feel them arise and pass away. Even the painful sensation in your knee that seems to last for a few minutes or hours eventually stops once you don’t react with aversion. You observe each sensation, and ask, “How long will this last?”

The teacher asks if you are able to have an equanimous mind; he says the last mind you have is the first mind of the next life. Practice in Vipassana will relieve your fear of death, you can calmly see the approach of death, death as a promotion.

A 10-day Vipassana course gives you an opportunity to break out of ingrained thought patterns, addiction to the wheel of craving and aversions where you look for satisfaction in an external world. You have been taught to avoid pain and misery without understanding the root cause of suffering; you have been taught to seek enjoyment and pleasure, not understanding that pleasant experiences will go away as much as you try to cling to them.

The direct experience during the meditation course allows you to observe how we create our own suffering and to increase self control and peace. Vipassana is observational based and does not involve any form of image- or word- based focus. The only tool you work with is your breath and the sensations within the frame of your body. Your polished image of the self is broken into many versions of yourself, the many versions that people see you in their minds.

Revered Vipassana teacher Goenka likens the experience of some religious institutions to a person who has gone to a doctor and received medicine for an illness. When the person arrives home, he keeps a picture of the doctor on an altar and worships the doctor as a god. He takes out the prescription paper and reads the instructions as prayer, “Take one pill in the morning, two pills in the afternoon, etc.”

Vipassana is a nonsectarian and nonreligious practice. It is experience based and not faith based. You are able to gain happiness by experiencing the practice yourself and not by someone explaining the process to you.

The Southern California Vipassana offers a bilingual experience, and on this occasion you are privileged to take part of a Burmese language course where many participants are from Myanmar. You enjoy Burmese food during the breakfast and lunch breaks: tomato salad, noodle soup, fried peanut and chili garnish.

The Joshua Tree desert environment is stripped bare of flora and fauna. You see the flat landscape, mountains in the distance, a road — you feel the blinding yellow glare of the desert when you walk from your room to the cool and quiet dhamma hall. For a moment your eyes are blind as they take time to adjust.

On the fourth day you will begin strong determination mediation. You will practice once in the morning, afternoon and evening, and for an hour attempt to remain completely still, especially focusing on not uncrossing your legs, arms or opening your eyes.

You will be asked to sweep through the body from head to toes, and even penetrate through the body with the powerful concentration you have developed over the course, from the right to left or front to back. Even the spine slowly becomes not a fixed object in the body but a series of vibrations, even the smallest of perceptions becomes a wave, that rises and falls.

On the last day you will practice loving/kindness meditation, which helps to transfer the merits and peace you have gained from the course to those around you and the world at large.

You’re struck by the work ethic of the practice, diligence, patience, hard work, much work to be done, the poet’s mind plays — it’s not enough to be optimistic; you must also work hard! Goenka himself came from a well-to-do business family. He suffered from migraines and morphine addiction which brought him to a meditation center. He found the practice of Vipassana not only helpful for his migraines but so beneficial overall that he dedicated the rest of his life to starting meditation centers around the world, and his name is now synonymous with Vipassana.

The course is taught free of charge and all expenses are covered by donation from Vipassana alumni.

It’s how you examine the sensations inside and outside your body — without any craving or aversion — that is important. How you observe your memories from the past, your plans for the future. Your hospital, your degrees, your elephant. The You is I.

You are bound to be successful — bound to be successful with a calm and quiet mind.

Raj Chakrapani grew up on American breakfast cereal and balavihar. He studied Indian Classical Violin and worked as a journalist before joining Peace Corps, where he served in Romania and Liberia. As a teacher for the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar, he started writing poetry inspired by the political consciousness and distinguished history of Burmese poetry. He is a second-year MFA candidate in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he also teaches yoga.

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