November 14th to the 25th, North Fork California, on a idyllic, rambling acreage with deer grazing among us, woodpeckers pecking and squirrels playing games in the trees, I sat for 10 days in mediative silence with no connection to the outside world, no writing tools, no reading materials, with a group of about 50 other women and maybe 30 men. We bunked in simple dorms sharing facilities with 2- 4 others. The men and women were completely segregated the whole time. We ate well prepared simple vegetarian meals and were generally completely looked after so that our only possible focus was learning how to practice the technique of vipassana mediation. We started mediating at 4:30 am and finished around 9:00pm. The schedule was perfectly co ordinated with meal and rest breaks so it flowed along without much anxiety over staying in a fixed position for too long.
In 1979 the course instructor, S.N. Goenka revived the practice of vipassana mediation, first taught by Gautama Buddha, in India and proceeded to spread it around the world. Centers are now in various parts of the world. Every cent behind running and building centers is based entirely on donation. There is no fee for the course. You are only asked to donate after you have completed one ten day course. After that you can send as many checks as you want. The intent behind this practice is to keep you humble and in the correct spirit. If you were to pay for the course then you would be prone to express preferences based on a sense of entitlement, having paid for something. This may seem like a relatively innocuous thing but it is a concept that leads to sankaras and one thing you learn in the course is – NO MORE SANKARAS!
The course is lead by two assistant teachers who are there to inquire about your progress and respond to your questions, which are allowed at certain times. The head instructor is S.N. Goenka himself communicating through audio and visual recording. There are a couple of managers for the groups and the rest of the people are servers that are made up of old students working solely to develop ones pauramEu, (good karma). They do not take the vow of silence since communication is essential to their tasks but do get to meditate with the group in the dhamma hall three times a day. In this case there only appeared to be 2 or 3 servers for our group of 50 women. Apparently they were short staffed and run of their feet in the kitchen.
Experientially it is pointless to explain. Everyone has their own experience of vipassana. One of the reasons for noble silence is that people don't start comparing with each other. The focus is solely on your vipassana. Every person has a completely different make up. Every one of us has our own special blend of misery to address, no two can be alike. Therefore is of no importance to compare experiences. Of course when noble silence was over that is exactly what everyone did. Baby steps. The most common of all experiences was settling down into a tolerable posture. Sitting still is one of the hardest things to do and one must dig deep and work hard to find the first levels of awareness on this path.
It takes generally 3 days for this amazing feat to happen (settling down). That is why the fourth day is when you actually learn the vipassana technique. From then on you understand what you are working with. Essentially that is undoing your past sankaras. Knots, pain, tension, pleasure, tingling, ease, all can be sensations that arise during a vipassana meditation. With a alert and attentive mind, a equanimous attitude, an awareness of breath and that everything changes one sweeps the body with the mind paying attention to jammed spots and not getting hung up on the pleasure spots either. Theoretically, sankaras arise out of two instincts that are two sides of the same coin, craving and aversion. Both are addictions that lead to personal misery. The continued practice of vipassana will help you stop creating new sankaras. NO MORE SANKARAS. Once this is accomplished through maintenance of the technique and observing the 5 precepts of good conduct the old sankaras start to peel off automatically. This must be accomplished through the experience of ending one's own misery by being aware of every breath and sensation in the body and getting control of one's mind. Thus one actually experiences the end of misery instead of just mentally or intellectually believing or hoping it is so.
Personally, when I entered the retreat, I knew I had to get a hold of my out of control sankaras. Although I had no idea what they were, I knew that I had to deal with something to find personal happiness. Truthfully, I was a swamp of regret. I couldn't think of anything without wishing I had done or thought another thing. It could be as minor as buying the wrong brand of soap to as major as not having children. I felt I was always making wrong decisions, even though I was doing well, and couldn't console myself with any positive achievement I had made in my life. In short, miserable.
A sankara, from my understanding, can be as ephemeral as a ripple in the water to as solid as a carving in the rock. Whatever is not resolved in this life is carried over the next. They arise from the mind spinning out of control reacting to either a feeling of pleasure, thus stimulating a craving to a feeling of pain, thus stimulating an aversion. Without awareness of vipassana meditation, we become prey to the automatic responses of the mind when these sensations continue to occur. We become slaves to our conditioning, feeding lust and anger like an addiction and never really getting over it. Without a proper handle on the situation the mind will multiply the negative side effects and it is truly no wonder why the world is such a mess. Vipassana is a technique to eradicate this suffering permanently.
I am personally immensely relieved to have been led to this place and technique. I feel and know that I have a tool to deal with my misery. I can hope realistically that my future accomplishments, hopes and dreams won't be tinged with regret through the unconscious arising of an old sankara. I can hope realistically that I can find real peace and real happiness in this life. I can hope realistically the same for others. May all beings be happy.
Find out about Vipassana online at www.dhamma.org
Ellen Atkin 2007