Vipassana: pitstop on a wandering path

A rich life with little stuff. That is what I hoped to find when I stepped into the train to Mongolia. Two years ago I started on a journey that found at least one conclusion in a meditation centre last week. There I learned a technique that may liberate me from craving and aversion, promising a lasting happy and fulfilling life. The realisation that nothing on the outside can create lasting happiness is not exactly new. That idea is lingering in this universe for probably more than three millennia. But how you realise a rich life within, independent of stuff outside, that has been a cause of headaches throughout time and space. Well, not any more for me.


The last ten days I spend sixteen hours a day with my eyes closed, of which – if I were lucky – I slept six. The other hours I was observing the surface of my body. Every curve, every tiny dot that felt a little different from its neighbour, every sweaty corner or cold nail got my full attention – when I wasn’t distracted. Ninety people in a hall poised on pillows moving their attention up and down and down and up on their own bodies. And again. And again. And one more time. Every hour there was a five minutes break and then we started all over.

What was this, a game of endurance? A bad joke? A hypochondriac’s wet dream?

No. According to mr. Goenka a guy named Guatama Buddha found out that it is by observing the sensations as just a matter of fact, brain and body get retrained to stop reacting to everything happening inside and out. And it is the nature of the reaction – craving and aversion – that causes misery in the lives of people. But pain, heat, a breath of fresh air past a nostril, anxiety, frustration, love, pleasure, all have the same nature of arising and passing. Everything is temporary. So why bother trying to get more or to get rid of it? To make reality different from what it is in this moment?
From my own experience in the past I knew that every time I follow the same craving or aversion a groove is made in my brain. And then deeper. And then wider. Until it becomes very difficult to do anything but follow the old familiar patterns. Sankara’s Goenka calls them.

Now I sat on a pillow observing intense pain in my hip. Yes it is on fire. What sensation can I feel next to that patch of hurt? Until what part of my leg does it sting? But also: how much longer does this torture last? Why am I doing this to myself? Ah… distraction. Back to the spot I was observing. I reminded myself that everything changes, sensations itself are result of some process or another. And while I observed slowly the emotional hurt subsided. It is my mind that turns natural pain into agony.
It still was no picknick. I found out that I find intense physical pain much easier to bear than emotional hurt, and unsolicited feelings of anxiety or old sorrow are bound to come up. Through Vipassana old trauma can surface easily. It took all my determination to accept the fact that I am alive and bound to feel powerless, lonely or desperate for any number of times. I had to stare into my pain without the guarantee that meditation will prevent future pain. But as a friend of mine frequently says: ‘Hurts you more, bothers you less’.

Throughout the week I seemed to be getting lighter, and it was not just because I was missing evening meals. The sensations became subtler, I started to feel my pulse everywhere, and then tingling, until my whole body felt like a fluid mass of vibrations. According to mr. Goenka’s that is what happens when you stay out of the old grooves. Every time you just observe any sensation with compassionate attention, an old pattern in the brain surfaces and dissolutes, leaving space to observe more subtle sensations. And you don’t have to do anything but observe and let it happen. Like a fire that slowly burns out when you stop adding fuel to it. But then a new danger emerges: the desire for more of those lovely vibrations. It is so tempting to see those as better or more profound. We were instructed to see it as a chance to let go of a sankara of desire. Pleasant sensations are just as temporary as pain. And with a deep sigh I surrendered.

A feeling arouse that my body and mind were being reintroduced to each other.

As if there had been misunderstanding after misunderstanding since birth. It was not just a matter of mind over matter, my body was training my mind to give proper responses, not just blind reactions to its information. After ten days I felt I no longer could be fooled when it comes to any sensation that arises in my body and mind. I can recognise my addiction to reaction. I can feel my breath quicken with anger, a craving pull in my chest when I see ice-cream. I don’t need to do much about it. I am present. The sensation passes. I am learning to observe everything that arises from moment to moment.

Observation changes everything inside, but nothing in the outside world. I went back home, still the same home. I went back to work, still the same work. I opened my mail, a bigger stack to take care of. At a meeting, still the same agitation. And worse. I have sensitised myself to a whole new level, but I am not yet equanimous enough to stay calm. It will take time. Old promises have to be fulfilled. New decisions have to be made. Every fibre of body and mind have to be retrained. So I’ll just stick to my schedule of meditation, observing breath, taking time to be silent. I can feel that change will slowly come. Compassion for my own ignorant suffering is growing and turning into love for the whole universe. For the adventure of human life.

I thought that to stop craving means to stop enjoying life.

I had a very common misconception when I started Vipassana training. That pleasure would be sin, that tears should be shamed. That meditation would be heartless hard work. Well, I enjoy so much so much more. It is not the enjoyment you stop, just the reaction to it. Many people told me to look inside from a distance like a scientist. Cold. Reserved. But I experienced that I look within from the inside. Neutral or giggling for my own delusions. It is a distributed awareness from body and mind combined. Effortless. Like breathing. But to get all my brain to that alert state of mind, that is heartfelt hard work. Full of compassionate perseverance. And so I practise.

A rich life with little stuff? A happy life devoid of craving and aversion. A life in embrace with the infinite now. With these people, these trees, these birds, this hunger and these challenges. To experience truth within for a few days is just a step. A big step on a long path, but nothing more. It feels like a pitstop on a long journey. One that will take a life time.
I still want to know what a rich life looks like out there, in the world. And nomads are still special friends, their lives attuned to detachment. I hope they will continue to help me to see how all unique human beings realise their own truth in their own lives. And I feel blessed to be part of some of that.

May all beings be happy.

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