Last Sunday I came back home from a 10-days Vipassana meditation course as taught by S.N. Goenka. Vipassana meditation has an ambitious goal: liberation from suffering.
But what is suffering? The common understanding is that suffering is psychological pain. So while pain is physical, suffering is mental. In accordance, Buddhism does not focus on pain but on the secondary effects that happen when the mind fixes on negative events. Or, in the words of mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young, suffering is turbulence in brain activity.
One of the core teachings of the course was that suffering boils down to either ignorance, aversion or craving. We suffer because we are either unaware of what we are experiencing, trying to avoid or hold onto something. However, everything is impermanent and there is no use in trying to avoid or preserve something that, soon or later, will change. With meditation, this wisdom develops through direct experience, by observing that every bodily sensation arises and passes away. As far as I understand, this is the central belief of Buddhism.
Meditating intensely for 10 days significantly affected me. I feel the pace of my experience slowed down by 50%. As I experience more spaciousness between sensations and responses, I am less reactive. I cannot tell whether this is because of the teachings or the meditating; probably both.
This reminds me of a famous quote by Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Meditation is a way of increasing this space between stimulus and response by carefully observing the stimulus. Increasing this space gives us more power to choose, which results in greater freedom to respond to events.
Another realisation I had from meditating long hours was noticing how many sensations we are not aware of when we don’t pay attention to them. For example, I noticed that persistently paying attention to a small area of the body rapidly increases sensitivity in that area. After a few days in which we were instructed to focus on the area between nostrils and upper lips, I felt as if I had some large and super sensitive moustache. Another phenomena I noticed, which may relate to the lateralisation of somatic pathways, is that when I focus on sensations on one side of my body, such as my right cheek, suddenly all bodily areas on that side of the body, from head to feet, are more sensitive.
I can see why experiencing the limitedness of our awareness and the impermanence of all phenomena can lead a person to accept the present more profoundly and be happier regardless of circumstances. It is not by chance that the wisdom of Buddhism survived and thrived for millennials. However, this jump from experience to belief feels big. Coming back from the retreat, my mind and behaviour feel different. I feel calmer and more equanimous. While in part this may be due to these beliefs, other wise beliefs I acquired in the past did not influence me as significantly, so something in me must have neurologically changed as well.
Buddhism gives practical meditation instructions and spiritual beliefs about the big picture but it doesn’t say much about what happens in between in the brain. Understanding how meditation neurologically generates peace of mind, can tell us what are the active ingredients of the practice. This is challenging, because there are many factors contributing to an effective practice, such as the atmosphere and philosophy surrounding it. For instance, Buddhist believe that effective practice can happen only in a morally pure environment. Nonetheless, a simplified and more generic understanding may help us to increase access and use the practice for good with less dependence on any specific cultural tradition.
May you be happy