Today, well I guess I mean yesterday, I finished my third 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. A wonderful, an intense experience - essentially requiring no talking, eye-contact, writing, reading, electronics, connection to the outside world. Two meals a day and (depending on capacity, 7-9 hours of meditative sitting a day).
Why would someone do this. :)
Meditation in essence is a pragmatic technique and practice of mind-training - training the mind to focus, attend, and develop an equanimity toward the reality of that everything is impermanent.
The first three days were focused on training attention upon the breath, the in and out of the breath, without letting the 'monkey mind' dance from idea to emotion to memory to conversation. Just clear, consistent focus of the awareness of breathing and the sensation of the air going in and coming out of the nostrils. This is called anapana meditation.
Despite what the description implies, this is both not boring and very hard work.
It's hard because the mind is always wandering, and paying attention - developing the muscles of mental focus means constantly bring the mind back to the object of concern. It's also hard because we are asked to sit still.
Now, we don't sit for nine hours straight. :) Sitting is in one-hour session with moving-stretching breaks. But even an hour is hard. I brought my own cushions - 15 inches of memory foam and a back-support. But after 45 minutes - even 15 inches of memory foam turn to stone and squirming seem inevitable. Fortunately we are allowed to shift positions during the first 3 days.
The remaining days are focused on Vipassana meditation proper. Now that a focus on the breath built the muscles of focus on a very small area of sensation - the practice turns attention onto the sensations arising on the whole body. Each day represents a step in the technique.
The theory is the suffering arises from clinging to what we consider pleasure and aversion to what we consider is not pleasure. When we can train our mind to be aware of that first moment of sensation we can exercise choice - rather that simply reaction. But more, since all sensation and all reality is constant change & impermanent - clinging/aversion to a sensed reality that will inevitably change. So the most reasonable stance is one of equanimity.
One learned to watch how all bodily sensation change and in that awareness is the possibility of training the mind not just to focus, be aware, but also to be equanimous.
With the six days of Vipassana training comes the requirement to sit in stillness, without shifting in the slightest your position. There is inevitably pain. What I learned however, is that rather than taking the normal stance to pain - trying to deny it, to block it out, to take the development of focus and use it to focus on something pleasant to overcome the pain, one can actually examine deeply the all the sensations that constitute the pain while including the sensation in the body that are not painful. What happens when I actually penetrated my observations into the pain, is that it stopped being a singular dense sensation. There were many sensations, I became aware of all the muscles I was holding rigid and tight that contributed to the pain, I was able to allow them to relax and experience the muscles relaxing and what I first felt as a singular pain became many sensations, constantly shifting - sort of bubbling. While still intense it became tolerable. By the end of the 10 days I could sit like a stone (even upon the stone that had been my very soft cushion).
But the object of the training on the sensations - was not the sensation - it was on the development of an attitude of equanimity toward these sensations - how pain dissolves into other sensations, how lovely bright subtle sensations become replaces with less pleasant sensations (numbness, pain, strain, etc). Soon my awareness could watch how sensations moved, dissolved, transformed one-to-another and I learned that I could experience these impartially without clinging or aversion.
At least for brief periods of time. The continued practice of meditation is to deepen, strengthen and integrated these moments of equanimity into an integrated, unshakable foundation for how one experiences all of ones life.
These three 'Monk Camps' :) have shown me that it actually is possible for someone to become liberated, enlightened and achieve this unshakable happiness.
There is great deal written on the theory/philosophy and the details of the training, and it is said better than I can say it.
But having experienced this three times I really believe that everyone would never have a regret for having invested 10 days of their life to experience this training. This is a mind training that has nothing to do with a religious point of view or system - but anyone with deep religious convictions/aspirations could also actually become better Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc.
This is a mind training all children can and should be exposed to - it actually enables one to learn that one attention can be trained to focus and to become more finely aware. An essential tool in learning and learning how to learn.
My personal practice is not as rigorous as recommended, yet the benefits I have gained have improved my capacity to enjoy better relationships, a calmer attitude toward tribulations, and really importantly a huge change in my ability to let go negative feelings (without denying them, anaesthetizing them, repressing them), simply with awareness and choice to watch them dissolve.
Ten days is a big chunk of time in a busy life full of commitments, aspirations and obligations. But as said, I don't think anyone would have regrets of investing in at least one such experience.