While I don't meditate everyday, I still meditate most days for an hour in silence. Actually, it's not completely silent. The unguided routine I follow, over the course of an hour, begins and ends with a few minutes of chanting along with some comments sprinkled throughout the session. Since returning from May's course, I've tried different routines from 30 minutes to two hours and discovered that an hour is my sweet spot.
Sitting perfectly still without opening my eyes, mouth, or moving for an hour or two is now not a problem. At the Vipassana course I had an opportunity to try different positions. Sitting crossed legged in the lotus, half-lotus, or Burmese positions didn't work well for me because my legs would fall paralyzingly asleep. I discovered that a meditation bench works beautifully to solve this problem. A meditation bench is a small bench that allows me to kneel on both knees, but instead of my butt resting on the back of my heels it's seated on a very low, small bench.
The ten-day course I attended followed a precise schedule. The teaching of the Vipassana technique doesn't begin until the fourth day. For the first three and a half days I meditated for ten hours each day focused solely on my breath passing in and out of my nose and how it felt on my upper lip. This practice is called Anapana.
The third day was the hardest because focusing on my breathing and upper lip was mind numbingly boring. It only took a few minutes for my thoughts to quickly wander off so I had to accept this fact and gently bring my attention back to my breath. While doing this for ten hours a day my body was getting sore, tense, and fatigued. But that all changed with Vipassana.
On the afternoon of the fourth day we gathered in the meditation hall to learn the beginnings of Vipassana meditation. For about 40 minutes, we practiced Anapana. My upper and lower back hurt and my ankles were sore. I could hear the all-too-common squirming of the other students as they continuously readjusted into temporarily more comfortable positions.
Then the instructor told us to focus on a point on the top of our head, rather than on our breath, and simply observe how it felt. Over the course of the next 30 to 45 minutes I followed his guidance and moved this point from the top of my head down to my feet by spiraling around my head and then down my back and front.
As my attention and point of focus moved, I could feel it on my skin. While this feeling isn't a physical force, the sensation is real. It's no different than focusing on the back of your hand for a minute or so and sensing, perhaps, the air moving over it, your hairs bristling, or the cuff of your long sleeve shirt resting on it. You didn't notice that sensation a few minutes ago, but now you do. Like blinking, you don't notice it until you explicitly pay attention.
Revelation and Understanding
I continued to move this point on my body and something amazing happened. As I focused and observed this point of attention move across the top of my back, over my painful shoulder, I clearly noticed the discomfort. But then, as I continued moving my attention down my back I noticed that my upper back was no longer tense.
At first this didn't seem unusual since my discomfort during the previous days would come and go throughout a meditation session. However, understanding this "coming and going" is an important Vipassana concept called anicca which means impermanence. In other words, realize and accept that everything is temporary and it will pass.
I continued following the instructor's guidance and moved my focus to my lower back which was also sore. Then, as I moved my focus away from my lower back to my legs and down to my feet, I noticed that my lower back had stopped bothering me. This got my attention. The same thing happened when I moved my focus to, and then away from, my sore ankles. My ankles were no longer bothering me.
I was never told to expect any of this, so it wasn't a subliminal psychosomatic reaction. Throughout the entire course, we weren't told to expect anything. A key lesson throughout the course was anti-expectation. Simply observe and accept our experiences without reacting.
I wanted to know if I was the only person experiencing this sensation and relief. But how could I find out? Due to my vow of silence, I couldn't speak with the other students.
However, I quickly discovered that all of us experienced the same thing. At the end of this initial Vipassana session the entire class was no longer squirming. The room was still and silent. We all felt the calmness.
I am a skeptical critic of new things. I wanted to know exactly what was happening. It turns out there were a couple of things going on.
First was the realization, I mentioned above, that I explicitly felt a sensation on the part of my body where I focused my attention. As I indicated earlier, while this sensation I perceive in my mind is real there isn't anything physically happening on my skin. I'm simply paying attention to my body in a highly focused way.
This attention to my body led to my second observation. When I focused on the unpleasant sensations, such as the pain in my back or in my ankles, I would unconsciously relax that part of my body and it would feel better. The pain and discomfort I was experiencing was of my own doing. We frequently do this to ourselves by tensing up during unpleasant experiences. We feel this when we shrug our shoulders while hunched over the computer or sitting with bad posture while focused on the work we're doing. We become hyper-focused on one thing without noticing its effects elsewhere.
In the Marines, I had to implicitly learn how to deal with discomfort. At this Vipassana course, I was explicitly learning the same thing at a deeper level.
I had a personal goal, when arriving at the Vipassana course, to meditate for two straight hours without moving. The best I could do, the first four days, was about 80 minutes. But, after learning Vipassana, I was able to meditate an entire two hours, each day, without moving, for the remainder of the course. It wasn't easy – there were times when I was hanging on by a thread – but I did it.
An Old Student of Vipassana
During the next six days I learned how to refine and perfect the Vipassana technique of meditation. I went from initially visualizing a point moving along my skin, over the course of 30 or 40 minutes, to being able to sweep through, and scan, my entire body with each breath.
The Vipassana technique of meditation allows me to focus on every part of my body so I can "check in" and survey how it's feeling. Regardless of what I'm feeling when I meditate, I accept it without craving the good sensations or avoiding the bad ones.
When our body feels good, our mind feels good; and repeatedly doing something purposely makes our mind feel good which makes our body feel good. It's a resonating cycle of equanimity.