Part 1: My experience on a 10 day silent, meditation retreat!

Part 2: The philosophy

The discourses we listened to every evening were an interesting explanation of the evidence behind the meditation as well as Buddha’s findings when it was first put together 25 centuries ago.  It was also clear that this is anything but religious or based on dogmas and beliefs, in fact the opposite.

I love the fact that it is based on learning the ‘art of living’ (which can only be done in the present moment), in other words how to; ‘live peacefully and harmoniously within oneself and to generate peace and harmony for all others; how to live happily day to day while progressing towards the happiness of a totally pure mind, a mind filled with disinterested love, with compassion, with joy at the success of others, with equanimity.’

The meditation practice is about understanding ourselves, mentally and physically and it begins with using respiration as the bridge from the conscious to the unconscious.  One metaphor the teacher used was about the unconscious mind.  He suggested that the unconscious mind wasn’t unconscious at all, but like sleeping volcanos. This really resonated with me.  For example, consider how often our ‘buttons are pressed’, triggering memories/behaviours etc from the past, which is like triggering the sleeping memories which had been lying dormant.

As an example, we might have lost a loved one a few years ago and maybe we haven’t actually thought about them for a few days or even weeks, yet sometimes something triggers a memory.  Thinking of past traumas etc like this as a ‘sleeping volcano’ I feel can help us see how, through journaling, meditation like this and other emotional work, we can help us address them rather than believing that because they are in the unconscious mind we can’t work on them ourselves.

This can be explained by the Buddhist teachings on which Vipassana meditation is based, where they talk about the four segments of the mind.

  • The first is consciousness, which includes awareness from our senses. This includes not only our 5 senses but also what they called the 6th sense, our thoughts and feelings.
  • The next part is our perception of what we have become aware of (the thought, sound, sight etc), which is then evaluated as to whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depending on our past experiences.
  • As soon as a sound/thought etc comes, there is a sensation in the body and once it is perceived and evaluated, the sensation become pleasant or unpleasant, depending on its evaluation. g. a sound (praise) may result in a pleasant sensation in the body and a sound (abuse) can result in unpleasant feelings in the body.  Sensations arise in the body and are felt by the mind.
  • The last part is the reaction to the sensation. If we hear praise, we might develop a liking to it and want more, maybe developing a craving for it. If we hear words of abuse and we dislike it, we can develop an aversion towards it. All or any of the senses will be processed in the same way, with pleasant sensations resulting in liking and then craving, while unpleasant sensation create a disliking and then aversion.

Self-induced stress

The problem with this is that the more we allow ourselves to mentally react with craving or aversion, the more misery we create ourselves, resulting in more mental and physical reactions/sensations, which can become habitual.  These mental reactions are happening all day and every day, with some being very light which resolve immediately and others making a deeper impression and lasting longer etc.

When understanding this explanation, I began to consider how so many people I start to work with are so focused on their pain/sensation and obviously strongly aversive to it.  Unfortunately this creates even more misery through their attention and fears, frustration, anger etc.  Then often when they begin to have pain-free periods they wonder if/when the pain will return (i.e. craving that this pain-free period remains and also aversive to the pain), both of which are based on fear and multiplies their misery/resistance, which can also then continue to trigger/perpetuate the pain.

Understanding the felt sense

One evening while considering what had been said in the discourse, I began to consider a metaphor for a variety of sensations that are possible and which might help me explain this to family, friends and people interested in my work.

I started to consider our skin as a field of grass and the sensations as creatures that are often found on patches of grass.  For example, we were encouraged to notice any sensation, including numbness, tingling, pulsing, pressure, heat, cold, pain, tension etc.  Therefore an area that is dense and heavy, maybe severe pain or tension, I likened to be like a cow lying on the grass and not budging or maybe just shifting its position. Whereas a crawling sensation might be a worm finding its way through the soil or a light, brief sensation could be a bird landing briefly on the grass.  Sometimes muscles in an area tighten and release for no apparent reason or there’s a feeling of pressure and this I likened to something like a mole moving around underneath the soil.

I’m sure you can come up with your own ideas but it helped me explain how, just as we aren’t aware of so much that is going on in and under a field of grass, there are so many sensations we experience, yet more often than not we are completely unaware of them until they become really significant and annoying.  In fact, very often before pain becomes an issue we experience twinges or tingles in that area, yet we are usually completely unaware of them or, because they were minor and transient, we don’t realise the relevance and therefore ignore them.  Unfortunately, as this is our mind’s reaction to a sense/a signal of inner turmoil if we ignore it, it’s no wonder that the cycle continues and can then result in a more significant symptom that then persists.

Just as I teach clients to acknowledge any sensations they notice during somatic tracking/emotional awareness strategies calmly and with acceptance, so Vipassana meditation teaches this while scanning the body.  By doing this, we do not react with aversion or craving and gradually we can start to break the habits of the mind by not multiplying the reactions we notice.

Rather than expecting everyone to want to go on a Vipassana retreat like I did, I suggest to clients that it can be helpful to always be mindfully aware of any shift in their mood and body.  The reason for this is that when the reaction to a sensation occurs, there will be a biochemical reaction in the body as well as a change in breathing.   In fact, in this interesting TEDx talk, Joan Rosenburg PhD also talks about this biochemical reaction and the importance of feeling unpleasant emotions.

Becoming aware of these shifts within us and the sensations they then cause, while allowing them to pass through without resistance, allows them to be acknowledged rather than avoiding them or repressing them.  It stops us ‘multiplying our misery’, for example by using distraction (busyness, alcohol, food, drugs etc) or over-thinking/over-analysing.  Therefore, the first thing I encourage clients to do is to calmly acknowledge whatever they have noticed while gradually slowing their breathing down until they are breathing calmly and rhythmically.  This, and allowing themselves to peacefully be aware of whatever sensation/emotion arises until it passes (usually 60 – 90 seconds – see TEDx talk) therefore helps to break the habits of the mind while boosting their relaxation response and calming the ‘fight or flight’ response.

The idea is that by developing this felt sense we can more easily over time acknowledge the ‘sleeping volcanoes’ when triggered, gradually working through past and current issues.  Clearly, it’s a lifelong journey, but the emphasis is on learning to ‘change the habits of the mind’ to reduce the self-induced stress we so often create in order to live ‘peacefully and harmoniously within oneself and to generate peace and harmony for all others’.

Find out more about Vipassana Meditation

Georgie Oldfield MCSP, Physiotherapist & Founder of SIRPA