Never before had I been asked to sit cross-legged on a blue foam pad for a four hour stretch with the simple mission of diligently observing the small triangular patch of skin bounded by my upper lip and nasal septum. This is not an easy task, particularly given an overstimulated mind’s mischievous delight in jumping everywhere from the faces of grade school classmates long forgotten to the elastic constant of the blue jeans helping to keep my legs crossed in position. But observe I continued, patiently corralling my attention back each time I caught my mind sashaying away. Closer inspection of my nasal exhalation made me wonder, but for the featherlight flow, how the heat of this airstream had never before scalded my upper lip. It was hot. Oh yeah, and I remember Chantel, whatever happened to her? Focus. Delicately yet seriously quite hot. One of a hundred discoveries each moment on the small of my face. This was the third day of Vipassana meditation training, and we were just getting started.
In 2001 I bought The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Meditation, seemed interesting. Didn’t touch it for years. In 2006 I carried all 358 pages with me backpacking around the world, seemed like I’d have lots of time to read. Didn’t open it across 30,000 miles of wandering. In 2009 I cracked the spine, seemed like it was about time. Read it, took notes even, but didn’t do more than a few unguided sessions before giving up.
Finally, in August 2011, I managed a project in Singapore that was directed by my colleague and now friend Manish. He had attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation course nearly a year earlier and had experienced a profound transformation in his approach to living his life in an even more balanced and productive manner. Hearing about the value of meditation to Manish as a senior business consultant and reading the book he published within 2 months of his course (The Equanimous Mind) made me determined to follow suit. I registered for a course in Cisarua-Bogor, Indonesia spanning late August and early September.
Vipassana is an ancient technique of meditation rediscovered by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. It is nonsectarian and is not only for Buddhists. Though, one who follows the path of dhamma prescribed by the practice of Vipassana may eventually become a buddha (“enlightened one”). Clear enough. The 10-day courses are designed to help students with one overriding mission: train the subconscious mind to become equanimous. The logic as I understood it is as follows. All misery and suffering arise from cravings (either unmet or met and replaced with new ones) and aversions. Both of these spring from attachments to objects and objectives. These attachments, however, have little point as everything in the universe is anicca (“impermanent”). You, me, a mountain, even Beiber. This is not to say do not care about people or things but rather do not let your happiness by defined by what you cannot control.
This is all relatively easy to understand intellectually, but the real action is in our subconscious where we have been craving pleasant things and avoiding unpleasant ones since day one. You cannot just logic your subconscious into equanimity: the only language it understands is direct experience of sensation on your own body. The word vipassana means “seeing things as they really are” and boils down to a technique whereby you simply observe real, increasingly subtle sensations on your physical being. At this experiential level, it is possible to train your subconscious mind to not get too attached to positive or negative feelings, as they are all impermanent. Sharp pain in knee? Impermanent. Pleasant buzzing along spine? Impermanent. Your body feels it come and go and your subconscious gets the point. In other words, firmly implanting the notion as relayed to me during my childhood by Rabbi King that “this too shall pass”.