An Unmoving Mountain – Reflections from a 10 Day Vipassana Course
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
It’s the day after I completed my first 10 day vipassana course and reintegrating into daily life is easier than I thought it would be, because going from no talking, only sitting with yourself to interacting with the outside world and answering emails should feel abrupt. Or at least I thought it would. For the time being I’ve undone my knee jerk reaction of reaching for my phone, because I feel more settled in my own skin, and somehow that makes being in the world simpler.
I was given the opportunity to participate in a vipassana course, ten days of silence learning one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. Vipassana was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and passed down to the present day by an unbroken line of teachers. It is taught as a ‘universal remedy for universal ills’ aiming for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resulting happiness of liberation.
Nestled in the Rocky Mountains with not a town or neighbor in sight, I was asked not to communicate in any way. I sat with myself, in silence, alongside 50 others. Initially, I felt the need to run away, away from the work they were asking me to put in. I was looking for distractions in conversations, emails, planning, doing. I quickly realized I wouldn’t have access to any of them for 10 full days. At first, being there sitting from moment to moment, I wanted to do anything else. But what? Why?
With the Vipassana technique we work with felt sensation in the body. Before external action there’s an internal sensation, and according to the technique it’s at this level we need to think about transformation. Our subconscious experiences a sensation it’s come to associate with pleasure, and we automatically act towards it (cravings), it experiences another sensation associated with pain and we act to avoid it (aversions). We are asked to observe and dissect these subtle and gross sensations by observing the moment before the automatic reaction towards or against the sensation and re-route. We re-route to simply being there with the sensation and thereby break its association with pleasure or pain. We observe it for what it is – a sensation in the body that will eventually pass. Before bringing our awareness there, our actions and the way we are in the world, seem to only be interfaced with experiences outside us, which leads us to believe it’s someone or something else dictating our reality. That notion that its me, it’s always been me—or rather my unconscious mind calling the shots by reacting to those sensations – flooded my understanding.
An example to paint a picture – you have a big presentation coming up and you get anxious. Our subconscious mind has come to associate the sensations that come with anxiety with something to push away, so the usual avoidance strategy kicks in. We spin out, go over in our heads the worst possible outcomes, maybe figure out a way to bail, or we say something to bring someone else down. With vipassana, we are asked to observe the anxiety and bring the discomfort to our conscious mind. Feel the tension and how it actually feels in the body. For me, it’s a knot in the throat, shallow breathing, tightness in the chest.
The pleasures and discomforts are merely sensations felt in the body that shouldn’t be labeled. They shouldn’t be considered good or bad, right or wrong, craving or aversion. They are just energy vibrating without our awareness. Until they aren’t. Until we become aware and discover the mind body connection and how that determines our external world. The process put forth by this technique seemed almost scientific to me. We feel the sensations and retrain our bodies and minds to not react by our deeply rooted patterns of attachment and aversion, patterns ingrained internally by past experiences. We do this by observing objectively. From this space we can retrain our actions to be less reactive and therefore less tainted and more connected to our authenticity. If all our reactions and unconscious patterns were to be erased, there would be nothing fogging our view of the present moment, and we could experience the world as it is.
Back to the example – by observing the anxiety, you settle the mind on the body, into the present. Maybe you watch the anxiety pass soon after, or it remains until after the presentation is over. Either way, the anxiety is there but it’s not taking hold of you dictating your actions. You can consciously choose your next set of actions from a clearer state of mind. It’s not easy and it's something that takes practice. It takes doing it consistently in a daily seated meditation practice, when your effort is focused on objectively observing the sensations in the body, for it to be a new way of operating out in the world, when the attention is mostly outwards.
Changing external circumstances is useless because the method of perceiving and interacting with the world would remain the same. In other words, you'd be looking at something different on the outside, but the lens through which you’re looking would be the same, with that same warped tint. There would be the same unconscious reactions to things feeling good or getting tough, so from where you’re standing the world would look the same. The work needs to start beneath the surface for real change to happen. You don’t change the presentation, you change your reaction to the anxiety that comes up because of the presentation.
The first 3 days were mentally challenging. Getting through an hour of just sitting in the same room, never mind not changing positions just yet, was hard. Really. Hard. I had to come up against all the reasons why that was so difficult and find the mental determination to overcome them. I had to tell myself to just wait it out and no matter what I wasn’t going to run back to my room (sometimes we had the option of meditating in our rooms but I knew I would just take a nap or start stretching to distract myself). So I stayed, and stayed and stayed. At some point, I think around the 4th day the staying got bearable, and I was able to face the next challenge—staying without moving. That’s when the pain came. To some extent the physical pain was easier for me to deal with: there were moments it was excruciating, but it felt like something tangible to work with, whereas the mental discomforts of restlessness were so hard to pinpoint in my body. But the sharp precise pain was a clear place to rest my mind. The challenge at this point came from observing objectively, removing the mental anguish from the physical pain and simply witnessing the sensation within the body.
I went in. When there was discomfort there was pain, uneasiness, anxiety, more pain, sadness, a scattered mind and then more pain. And then there was the other side of ease, calm and glimpses of peace. I watched and trusted that what I was told was true—there’s always another side, and it’s worth going through the pain to get to the other side. There was one particular experience during the 10 days where I was able to observe the pain without reacting and see through to the other side of pain. I watched as the intense pain in my left shoulder was broken down into vibrations moving faster and stronger, taking all my attention. I studied it long enough to eventually watch it dissolve into the sea of vibrations contained in the rest of the physical, energetic body.
There’s a catch though, in this process of looking through to the other side of pain. After moving through the pain in my left shoulder, I felt good. The vibrations dissolving into the rest of the body felt ecstatic. It felt so good that I wanted more of it and just like that I was again caught up in the cycle of craving. I faced another challenge—continuing with objective awareness even as the gross sensation passed and the other side was sensed. Moreover, I couldn’t let this experience inform future ones. I needed (and still do) to develop the capacity to observe for the sake of observation, not for the promise of a particular sensation arriving or disappearing. Instead there should be genuine objective observation, without the expectation of a particular outcome.
Another profound part of this course was the silence. No talking, no communicating in any way with anyone (unless you had an emergency you could talk to the course administrators). Since I wasn’t communicating externally all my attention was internal for 10 full days. I was with myself and that’s it. The first couple days I realized just how much actually goes on in my head. With no other noise to cover it up, it was all I could hear. Then to watch as these thoughts slowly faded as the days went by felt so settling. It was a relief to know that all the thoughts, conversations and stories created in there aren’t really necessary. I had this deeply rooted idea that I needed to keep these thoughts active to maintain a valuable identity. Who am I without these stories? Who am I without the person that comes up to interact with others? Who am I without people around me I know and share a common life with? Who am I without a job to do and people around me telling me that I am doing it well? Who am I without my parents and family showing me where I came from and those who came before me? Who am I without all the distractions covering up who I really am underneath all that? I think these are all questions that will take a lifetime (probably more) to discover and definitely a 10 day course didn’t answer for me. But what it did do was offer a path to understand that the labels we give ourselves can’t define who we truly are because they are always changing, in the same way the sensations in our bodies are always changing.
There were moments I wanted to run after the next car that passed and beg them to take me with them. There were moments I grew so restless and agitated knowing I needed to be there for another day and another… but the bigger picture of getting through day by day (rather than getting through one sit) put things in perspective for me yet again. Why did I need to get out of the course? To be who? To do what? I would continue being the same person out there that I was in the course. No matter where I go, I’ll be there, with the same reactions, cravings, aversions, with my insides reflected on the outside. I knew I just wanted out to distract myself from the work. Wholeheartedly coming to terms with all this gave me the determination about halfway through to really get down to work. To look in and keep looking in and keep looking in. I found the determination to put in the work. And that’s something I wasn’t prepared for—just how much effort this would require.
It was amazing to me, and still is that I experienced this whole process through the means of looking inside, by my own effort! Every sensation I experienced, whether mental or physical, came and went. To experience the reality of impermanence inside myself was a sort of paradigm shift in the way I see myself, but also beyond that – how I see the way events and people unfold before me. What first meets the eye isn’t the whole story. It’s just a glimpse of a moment in time. There is so much more. There’s the inner world, the whole story of the entire universe. To think we understand someone or something fully by only perceiving the superficial external aspect in a particular moment is misleading. Because that will change and therefore we must look deeper. What we’ll find is true for everything—nothing lasts forever. People aren’t set as the person you see or think they are. Events aren’t set in one condition. I think it’s important to re-learn the people we think we know and to look at situations with a new perspective. Refusing to accept the truth of impermanence will only lead to suffering, because contrary to what the subconscious is trained to believe, nothing lasts forever, so we might as well surrender.
The mountains surrounding the center helped me get through the course and understand the process I was going through. They hovered over me, strong, stable and unmoving throughout the entire 10 days; yet their external appearance never the same as the sun rose and set, the shadows and the way the sun rested on their sides was always changing. Likewise, we are always changing—our minds, bodies, ideas, everything. There’s nothing about us that remains the same, yet we act like we are this one unchanging being with a perfectly constructed image. An image that can so easily be shattered at any moment. Only awareness is always there looking out— the unmoving mountain.
To learn more about Vipassana 10 day courses taking place all over the world, visit https://www.dhamma.org/ This course is truly accessible to anyone!! No prior meditation experience is necessary, although having a daily practice of even 10 minutes a day is helpful. They even give the option to sit in a chair, if sitting on the floor is uncomfortable. I highly recommend participating in one and I'd be happy to answer any questions you have about the course, just reach out.
For some guided meditations of varying lengths, check out my YouTube channel