Stardusts, gong baths, and the madness of Vipassana (insight) Meditation
The purpose of this boot camp was meditation. The conditions and setup of the retreat were there to allow us to experience the madness of meditation fully.
Vipassana meditation was all about building awareness of our sensations. As we primed our awareness, we were guided to experience key concepts of Buddhism. Specifically, the retreat attempted to let us experience the reality of impermanence and equanimity, two frankly very woo-woo concepts.
We were reminded that our breath and the feelings of our breath were constantly changing. Sometimes air would flow through my left nostril, sometimes both; sometimes the exhale was wet, sometimes it was forceful. As we spent hours just “staring” at our nostrils and air, the reality of things ever changing were drilled into our heads. Impermanence wasn’t a difficult concept to accept. Most of us could understand the rationale behind it, that everything was always changing. However, when I experienced impermanence to the extent we were forced to by the set up of the retreat, I started to appreciate why embracing this concept could be useful. For instance, remembering that the feeling of hunger would come and go, helped us get through those involuntary intermittent fasting sessions. Repeatedly, for hours and hours, we were reminded that nothing was permanent: “Gosh, I am hungry.” “Oh, I don’t feel hungry anymore.” “God damn, I am hungry again.” “Oh, did I feel hunger?”
When we were then asked to become equanimous, I experienced the real madness of Vipassana meditation. The basic idea was equanimity was a balanced mind, where we were not supposed to crave for the good and avert the bad. If toast tasted terrific, don’t yearn for that feeling. If pain was excruciating, don’t avert it, or crave for it to go away.
As we spent hours scanning our bodies and looking for sensations, my brain would become so primed that I started feeling these tiny little tingling or trembling in different parts of my body. In the beginning, there were bubbly sensations on my forehead. After a few more hours of meditation, I started feeling these sparkling sensations on more parts of my body. Frankly, I was not sure if those were real sensations, or was it just my brain going insane. Regardless, those sensations became more prevalent across my body.
Occasionally, one could reach a state where the entire body would experience these bubbly tingling sensations uniformly. It felt like I could sense every cell on my body jiggling and wiggling. All the cells in my body were having a little party, dancing to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”
We’re up all night ’til the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky ….
This sensation was immensely blissful because while it was very foreign, for the first time, I felt every cell in my body connected. It felt like I was having a really substantial, smooth, and satisfying number 2. Sorry, I don’t have a better way to describe this.
This euphoric state would continue to evolve and elevate as I plunged more hours into meditating and sensing my body. During one sitting, as my body was dissolving into these bubbly sparkles, I started to feel I was part of the air surrounding me. I could not help and think, “Oh, I am just stardust!” While I was fully aware of the insanity of such thought, that I was merely a dust bunny of the universe, I could not resist this feeling of ultimate connectedness. During another sitting, I was experiencing a lot of pain from sitting too long. My brain then tricked me into believing that the stardusts in my left ankle just started to all move in unison, somewhat like a swamp of birds flying in formation. Within a few seconds, these murmurations swept the pain away and replaced it with this feeling of utter awe.
(One great thing about these experiences was everything was happening in my head. Hence I did not have to worry about how I looked or behaved. Plus, even if I looked nutty, everyone else had their eyes closed. I could totally let myself go crazy. )
These addictively rewarding experiences were also the foundation of the mind game of Vipassana meditation. Equanimity means you are not supposed to crave for anything. The moment I had some of these strangely satisfying experiences, I wanted more. The moment I craved for them, these sensations became elusive. When these joyful sensations didn’t return, I hated the presence of those normal merely human sensations. The more I averted the normal feelings, the more stubborn they became. Therefore throughout the retreat, I was battling these two states:
I want stardusts!
Wait no I should notwant stardusts.
Where are my stardusts!
This self-inflicted never-ending torture was the game of Vipassana meditation; this was the training. As Mr. Goenka passionately proclaimed midway through the course, “Awareness, equanimity: THIS! IS! VIPASSANA!”
I now understand why people would spend their whole life meditating. Vipassana meditation was the most intensive training one could get to work on how we live life equanimously. We could practice not getting attached to things in real life, but nothing could compare to this kind of constant and brutal beating. Every meditation could potentially become a drill to learn how to let go of desires and aversions:
“Darn my mind drifted off again. Argh. Wait, I should just let it be and accept the reality of my mind drifting away. How could I still suck badly? I should be better by now. Wait, I am yearning again! Equanimity does not exist! Oh fxxk, anger just barged into the room too!”
I was amazed by how the monks figured this out. Vipassana was basically the best game ever invited to prepare us for life. All one needs to do is to close your eyes, work on getting detach from the positives and negatives, the wins and fails, just by observing and dealing with bodily sensations.
The last thing I find entertaining was how much I now enjoyed chants. Most meditation sessions would begin and end with chants by Mr. Goenka. He was chanting in a language I didn’t understand, and the noise and grunts he made were dramatic and hilarious. The chants didn’t really have a tune to them, so I was having fun making fun of them (in my head) in the beginning. Everything changed when I was battling the pain from one of those inhumane “strong determination” sittings.
In this particular hour-long sitting, the pain started about 15 minutes into the session. I knew this was going to be hellish, that prolonged torture awaited me. My mind started going all over the place: I was convinced that I had set myself on fire. I was convinced that the gong was broken, it was not gonging, and someone had to do something about it. I was hallucinating. Then the session-ending chant finally started, and for the first time, I felt my body reverberating with the vibration of the chants. It was liberating and ridiculously comforting. Behind my closed eyes, I was tearing with immense joy. “I have arrived! I am a believer! Gong baths are real!”
Continue to Part 3: “Torture of pillows, insanity, greatest game on earth.”