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Sleepy Skepticism - Day 1

By Manish Chopra | 10/22/2021

The video discourse stated promptly at 7:15 pm and I saw Goenkaji for the first time—a full head of white hair, calm face, looking like he was in his late sixties though I had heard that he was well over eighty years old now. He started with stating matter-of-factly that the first day of meditation was over, and there were nine more days left in the camp to learn the Vipassana technique. He then proceeded to provide explanations for everything we had experienced during the first day.

The rationale for observing our respiration to build mental concentration is that the process of breathing serves as a medium for our outer (conscious) mind to connect with the inner (deep-rooted) mind by focusing conscious attention on the respiratory process which is an unconscious, involuntary activity regulated by our autonomic nervous system. Breathing is also a natural, neutral, and ongoing process to focus the mind’s attention and is conveniently ever present. He rhetorically asked if we were finding the process to be difficult.

Jokingly, he reminded us not to overeat during lunch now that we knew there was no dinner served because stuffing ourselves with food would interfere with the practice of meditation. I was a living testament to the fact that it was difficult to stay awake, let alone meditate well, during the post lunch session after an over-filling meal!

He went on to clarify that Vipassana is not a religious activity— Buddhist or otherwise—and hence no chanting of the name of a God or a super being was involved in its practice. The technique, however, was the same that Siddhartha Gautama used to attain enlightenment and become the Buddha over 2,500 years ago. Apparently, Buddha’s disciples carried on this practice flawlessly for roughly 500 years in its original form, after which it eventually became extinct in India.

When Vipassana had gained popularity over two millenia ago given its value, it had also spread to many of India’s neighboring countries, one of which was Burma (present day Myanmar). It was carefully preserved in its pristine form by a small group of Burmese people in the classic teacher-disciple learning ideology and had now been brought back to the country where Buddha originally discovered, taught, and practiced it. The part about this being a secular practice was very comforting to hear because I had been concerned that there might perhaps be some religious underpinnings involved in learning the technique.

He explained that observing in-coming and out-going breath is one way to sharpen the mind’s concentration but wasn’t the end goal of our meditation. He pointed out that the mind is prone to two types of activities when it is not fully under our control; it is either reflecting on things from the past or anticipating things in the future. Also, it is evaluating these experiences (or expecting these potential events) as either positive or negative, favorable or unfavorable.

As the mind wanders, it cycles back and forth between such thoughts in a completely haphazard random walk sort of way and exhausts itself. It is unproductive both to brood or reminisce on the past or imagine or worry about the future because neither time frame is in our mind’s control. I have known this intellectually for as long as I can remember and probably the whole world knows this in principle, but Goenkaji had drawn the link at the psychological level and explained how through further self-observations, the link would become even clearer.

He went on to explain that the processes of ānāpāna and Vipassana meditation were based on the tenet that we like to characterize in simple terms as “seeing is believing” or more technically, observing reality as it is and as it manifests (yathābhūta ñānadassana), and not how we would like it to be. Only when we experience certain realities transpiring in our own physical body does the inner mind get trained to believe them, much like the breath coming in and going out through our nostrils is the only reality that the mind observes when focusing on it in the moment. The previous breath that is gone is in the past and no longer relevant to ruminate over, nor is it worthwhile to guess what the next incoming breath would be like. As such, we must calmly maintain focus on the present moment.

Goenkaji then outlined that through the breathing process, in due course of time and with continuous effort, we can reach the deeper portals of the inner mind and cleanse it of its inherent tendency to cycle back and forth between the past and the future and focus it solely on the present. While I had some intellectual grasp over this concept, the experiential aha-moment only came when I connected the dots between my thus far theoretical appreciation with the activity we had undertaken all day and its practice.

Suddenly, the clouds of doubt and skepticism were beginning to evaporate, at least partially. So far, there was no flaw in the logic and my own experiments all day had borne out the theory being postulated. For someone who makes a living in finding opportunities to critique business practices and recommend changes, I had found it hard to find a loophole thus far.

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