Vipassana meditation is by its nature developmental. It requires practice, that is, repeated performance or the repetition of an action to develop a skill. The skill that is being developed is that of close attentiveness to and experiential investigation of one’s own mind-body processes. In this way one progressively develops insights. Thus the practice is known as Insight meditation or Vipassana.
Adjusting to the Retreat Situation
Whether this is a first time experience of intensive meditation or you are a meditator who has some experience in this style of Vipassana practice, every meditator at the beginning of a retreat will need to make some adjustment to the retreat situation – at least in having to settle down and get into the rhythm of the practice.
First let us look how one relates to an intensive retreat situation and the way to adjust to the retreat environment, before the basic instructions and the framework that puts the practice into its context are given.
This is not a group practice. There are no formal group sittings or any orchestrated practice. The walking and sitting meditation sessions are done individually to allow you to go at your own pace. As this is essentially a self-regulatory practice, it is necessary that you learn how to manage yourself in the practice so that you can make your own adjustments as you go along with the help of the teacher. To self-manage the practice requires you have a thorough understanding of what you are doing as far as techniques and strategies go.
For the practice to stay on track though, it is important that the teacher and the student work together in tandem. The teacher needs to be a technician of Vipassana meditation with travel experience, whose role is to instruct, inspire and guide the meditator. But even when you go along with a guide, you still have to do your own work, which in this case is quite demanding, as the practice requires honesty, patience, and above all, persistence.
Putting Aside Unfinished Business
At the beginning of the retreat, there can be a lot of busyness of an ongoing nature in the mind that is brought into the retreat. Perhaps there is some ‘unfinished business’ you have not dealt with, especially if it is of an emotional nature such as a problem in a relationship. So at the start of a retreat, it is useful to make a formal determination to oneself (adithani) to put aside as much as possible all outside business for the duration of the retreat. This will help you to settle and minimise the disturbances these preoccupations have on the mind.
Be Gentle with Yourself
Be gentle with yourself as perhaps you are carrying a sleep-debt or are stressed. Most people, at least initially and up to two to three days, will experience some sleepiness and restlessness at the beginning of a retreat. If you allow for that, and without reacting too much to it, you will soon find yourself settling down into the routine of the retreat. So allow for a settling-in period as you recuperate and allow the mind to settle down somewhat. Then you will be able to focus your attention on what is happening in your own mind-body and in good time as the practice matures you will experience the naturally silent mind.
Changing the Focus
In everyday life we are naturally preoccupied with the content of our minds – the internal narrative, our story. For the most part, we are externally focused on sensory objects. What needs to happen is the change in one’s focus from the sensory world with its external focus to an inner exploration of our own mind-body experience. In the intensive retreat situation, as the mind settles down, there is a switch to investigating the natural processes of the mind and body from a state of increased receptivity. Although the switch of focus will naturally happen in the course of the retreat, it can be useful to intentionally change the focus of the attention from the external to internal by inhibiting the wanderings at the sense doors such as seeing, hearing, etc. In this way, the attention is refocused to introspect or see into one’s own subjective mind and body experience.
Getting Around in the Retreat Environment
Use the whole of the retreat environment as your practice arena. Do not confine the practice just to the formal sitting in the meditation hall. Have a more holistic approach. It is all about staying watchful and attentive as much as possible in the total retreat environment – in the bathroom, dining room, sleeping place, and as you travel from place to place. Start by being more deliberate in your movements and actions as you move around the retreat. This will help you to slow down and to settle. It is recommended that as the meditator moves around the retreat centre, one keeps the eyes restrained – no sightseeing, no verbal or non-verbal communication. This helps to maintain your concentration and support your fellow retreatants’ practice.
Maintaining the Intensity
It is essential to maintain the intensity of the practice without straining. Steady and sustained application is needed in all areas of practice, in sitting, walking and detailed awareness of activities throughout the day. But be careful not to over-exert yourself thereby creating stress, as it is not possible to be one hundred percent at all times. One has to go with one’s natural rhythms and one’s energy cycles. A balanced effort is required that needs to be as continuous as possible, as it creates the momentum to build up the awareness to finally deepen the practice.
Relating to your Experience
Notice how you are relating to your experience. Check whether you are evaluating or judging the practice. Try to have no expectations, just let it unfold. Right or skillful attitude is one of acceptance of whatever conditions and mind state arises, whether they are good, bad or indifferent. Monitor your mind states, emotions and feelings as much as possible without reacting to them. This acceptance and non-reactive awareness of whatever you are experiencing will develop the maturity factor of equanimity.
How to Act during an Intensive Retreat
* Act like an invalid
During practice, a meditator needs to move slowly and take extra care while making body movements just like an invalid or like a person who is suffering from severe back pain. A person with a chronic back problem must always be cautious and move slowly just to avoid pain. In the same way, a meditator should try to keep to slow and deliberate movements in all actions. While it is not a slow motion exercise, per se, slowing down in intensive meditation is necessary to establish moment-to-moment awareness. If you are still operating in top gear, bring the mind to low gear and be patient with the change of speed until you are able to slow down and function in low gear at all times.
Act like a blind person
It is advisable for a meditator to behave as a blind person during the course of the training. A person without restraint will be constantly scanning around to look at external things that randomly take his or her attention. Therefore, it is not possible to obtain a steady and calm state of mind. On the other hand, a blind person behaves in a composed manner, sitting quietly with downcast eyes. One never turns in any direction to look at things because, of course, being blind one cannot see them. This composed manner of a blind person is worth imitating. A meditator should not go sightseeing! Stay focused on the meditation object without exception. If a sight happens to take one’s attention, then make a mental note of it immediately, as “seeing”, “seeing”.
Act like a deaf person
It is necessary for a meditator to also act like a deaf person. Ordinarily as soon as a person hears a sound, one turns around and look in the direction from where the sound came or one turns towards the person who spoke and makes a reply. A deaf person on the other hand behaves in a composed manner. They do not respond to any sound or conversation because they never hear them. In the same way, a meditator should not respond to any sound or any unimportant talk, nor should he or she deliberately listen to any talk. If one happens to hear any sound or speech, one should immediately note “hearing”, hearing”. The meditator should be so intent on the practice that they could be mistaken for a deaf person.
In brief, act like a Vipassana meditator – careful and aware, patient, restrained, with no distracting communication, relaxed, self-monitoring, eager, accepting conditions, inquisitive, diligent, detached sensually and equanimous.
* Advice given by Mahasi Sayadaw.