Why do I meditate? Perhaps the answer lies in some of my life experiences.
I can still remember clearly. It was my 8th birthday and after the birthday celebration I found myself alone in the front steps of my home; and then out of nowhere I heard the question coming deep from within me: “ Who are You? Who are You? For a moment I felt disoriented and confused. It felt as if life had come to a HALT and as if I was seeing life and reality from a different perspective that was unfamiliar, as if big concentric circles emanated from the center of my being, connecting me to the stars and the rest of the universe. This perhaps was the beginning of a knowing, of a longing to connect to something deeper or bigger or more transcendental than the comings and goings of daily life.
Another experience that impacted me was sitting with my grandmother to pray the rosary, a practice that she observed twice a day. This allow me to see and feel her great faith and devotion, and I connected this practice with her radiance and her great compassion and dedication to the service of others. This was inspiring to me, and I thought I want to feel that bliss and have that radiance and largesse of heart.
At age 16, I was introduced to a yoga institute, where I was taught hatha yoga and meditation. I was introduced to principles of Hinduism, and the concept that we are One resonated with me. They had a special temple built for meditation, and we had to shower and wear white clothes before entering the temple. This reinforced the idea that before meditation we should practice purity of heart.
I started to meditate looking for Oneness, Bliss and Peace that would surpass the reality of life, in other words the reality of suffering; but for many years following this introduction to meditation, I had a lot of difficulty making meditation practice consistent.
Life became very busy with medical school, residency, developing a practice, motherhood, etc. During these years I continued to meditate in spurts, not only because life was very busy but also because meditation itself seemed so nebulous, so difficult to grasp and this gave way to many doubts about what was I doing. Was I deluding myself? Was I wasting my time? I practiced different kinds of meditation throughout those years, but I was not able to stay consistent with any of them.
This started to change more recently when I joined a meditation group and especially after I attended a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat led by teachers trained by Satya Narayan Goenka. Goenka is a lay teacher of Vipassana meditation, in the Theravada tradition, and a student of Sayagyi Ba Khin. He has trained more than 800 assistant teachers, and each year more than 100,000 people attend Goenka led Vipassana courses throughout the world.
Vipassana, which means “seiing things as they are” or” insight into the true nature of reality,” was immediately attractive to me. Vipassana is considered one of two types of Buddhist practice, the other being Samatha. Samatha is a focusing, pacifying and calming meditation common to many traditions. In contemporary Theravada orthodoxy Samatha is used as preparation for Vipassana, first pacifying the mind and strengthening the concentration in order to allow the work of insight.
In the retreat that I attended, the student had to make a commitment to 5 behaviors prior to attending the retreat. These behaviors included no lying, no stealing, no sex, no killing and no mind-altering substances. It was explained that these behaviors, plus observing silence during the retreat, created the possibility of not harming others, the practice of sila, or morality, which would promote the ability to meditate. Goenka also explained that these were universal laws: when we harm others conflict arises, and it comes back to hurt us; when we practice wholesome actions and refrain from hurting others we enjoy more peace and tranquility
I was able to get some insight as to the veracity of this practices very quickly. I was having a difficult time relinquishing so much control regarding food, (this was a completely vegetarian retreat where only breakfast and lunch were offered), sleep (we had to get up at 4 in the morning and meditate with some breaks until 9 pm), inability to communicate with others (I worry about not having access to my phone and car keys),
not being able to write and read (reading and writing materials were not allowed), etc., so I decided to be” flexible” with some of these rules and later obsessed about the fact that I was not being truthful, which interfered with my ability to meditate. Nevertheless the insight about how not being truthful affected me was worth it !!
During the first three days of the retreat the student practices Anapana, which is mere observation of the breath as it enters the nose, in order to develop concentration. This concentration prepares the student for the main part of the practice, Vipassana itself, which takes place in the following days of the retreat. The Vipassana technique involves scanning the body with our attention, observing the sensations as they arise in a methodical sweeping up and down.
Goenka teaches that the practices of sila or morality, right concentration or samadhi, and experiential insight or panya are like the legs of a tripod: all three need to be strong and each of them helps support the others. Liberation from mind impurities and suffering can only be attained by the combined practice of these three.
Students are encouraged to learn the truth about themselves experientially by observing these sensations with awareness and equanimity, going deeper and deeper from gross sensations to very subtle sensations in a process of mental dissection that frequently sheds light into the relationship of mind and matter, therefore leading to InSight or Wisdom.
There are three stages of insight or sources of wisdom: (1) the wisdom that results from hearing the teachings of others; (2) the wisdom that results from one’s own reflections about the truth of existence, which is considered intellectual understanding; and (3)the wisdom that results from direct experience and that enables one to see the three characteristics of existence: impermanence, suffering and impersonality. These three stages of wisdom are progressive. An example of the first one is when we go to a place of worship and listen to the scriptures; an example of the second kind of insight is when we examine and reflect on our mental states or the nature of life and we come to an intellectual understanding of it; this second type can destroy wrong views but it tends to be temporary. The wisdom that is obtained through direct experience is the tool by which it might be possible to destroy the mind’s impurities and delusions completely and permanently.
Therefore the purpose of insight is the destruction of all hidden impurities or defilements, cravings and wrong views. This was the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings, to enable all human beings to appreciate and realize the Dhamma, the truths of nature or existence.
At the retreat we were instructed to sit and meditate for periods of one hour with eyes closed and without moving, as we watched the sensations rising and changing. We soon observe how these sensations are in a constant state of flux; we thus realize the characteristic of Anicca or impermanence. Soon we noticed the desire to change our position, move our feet or the legs or straighten the spine; there was a mounting tension on our muscles, and as the hour progressed, not moving becomes very painful; now we were realizing the second characteristic of existence, dissatisfaction or suffering. We craved to change position, no longer at ease in the one that we were in. It was difficult to observe with equanimity under these circumstances. The natural reaction was to avoid and change the posture, the faster, the better; but we learn to observe without reacting with aversion. At times the sensations became very pleasurable, like a buzing or vibrating throughout the body, and then the challenge was to observe without clinging to it.
One of the most surprising experiences that I had at the retreat as the result of this meditation technique, was the unfolding of past traumas and memories that I had thought had been completely resolved and dealt with. I have been trained as a psychiatrist and as part of my training I pursued my own individual psychotherapy, which by the way was insight-oriented psychotherapy. I had dealt with these issues. So why were they resurfacing now in such a raw and painful manner? I did not know what to think about it. Later, after the retreat as I tried to integrate these experiences, I concluded that these were major complexes that had shaped my life experience and that had conditioned the way by which I see life and others; in Buddhism they are called Sankharas, and they are one of the five aggregates that form our idea of self. Individual psychotherapy had provided insight into these issues but had not uprooted these complexes permanently , only temporarily, and they remained hidden within my idea of self.
The Buddha rejected the concept of self as a permanent essence. He taught that all thoughts of self are thoughts about the five aggregates or one of them. The five aggregates refer to form, sensations, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness. A massing together of these mental states and matter gives us the impression of one solid mass or entity that is permanent, but at the core of these aggregates there is “ no thing” there.
What we regard as the self is a very rapid succession of rising and passing, of these mental states and matter; but because we cannot see this rapid change nor separate the five aggregates, we get the impression of solidity and permanence. The illusion of personality creates craving which perpetuates the cycle of Samsara: birth, old age, sickness and death.
This concept of no self is very fascinating; in psychology the development of a concept of self and a stable sense of identity signals emotional health. But in Buddhist philosophy the identification that we have with the body and other things that we perceive as I, me or mine originates in a lack of understanding about the impermanence of living beings and creates separation and suffering among them.
We are very attached to our identity, and it is not easy to even want to let go of it. It has been said than even greater than our fear of death is our fear of annihilation. So it is not surprising that we cling to ideas and beliefs that we feel define who we are.
When we meditate we notice that sometimes we are looking for a special state of being such as bliss or peacefulness; or we will notice that we attempt to control the experience, becoming irritated if the mind seems to be wandering. We think “I am not doing this right.” This perpetuates the concept of self and the idea that we can be in control of our mental states.
Meditating with awareness and equanimity or detachment–that is without craving or aversion for the object of meditation–is the right application of mindfulness. Achan Naeb, another Vipassana teacher, states: “It is similar to watching the characters in a play. As for the character who has not yet appeared, we do not desire to see him; similarly we do not desire to hold or follow the characters going off stage. Our only interest is keeping our attention on the character who is on stage and not on the directing of the play. She advises:” Simply watch mindfully the constant flow of matter and mental states as they come into consciousness. Do not try to attain any special mind states such as bliss or peacefulness. Either mind states or matter should be the continual object of meditation, always those of the present moment. The only object that can reveal the truth must be the present object, which occurs by itself and independent of our wishes.”
In this way, staying present, developing awareness and equanimity, going deeper and deeper in a process of purification of the mind, eventually we reach a state when the sense of self dissolves. It is said that at this moment we realize our true nature, our Buddha nature as boundless love or compassion, and that we go beyond the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.