Even though meditation is a very ancient secular practice from India, the popularity of meditation in the West has grown only since the 1970’s. Prior to that, meditation was misunderstood to be religious practice. The practice is now becoming more mainstream, especially with the realization that the programs that target physical and mental wellness are falling short as they merely address the symptoms of disease, not the human being as a “whole”. Corporations and medical organizations have started exploring meditation and its benefits as a holistic practice for human well-being. The primary reason being our collective experience that stress and ill-health cannot be healed by medication alone. Our nervous system activates the “fight-or-flight” response when we are under stress and that causes an elevation of blood pressure, heart rate, adrenaline, and so on. Chronic levels of stress are harmful and a precursor to ill-health, and this is why researchers in the West have gained interest in studying the effects of meditation.
There are many different types of meditation practiced, such as mindful breathing, loving-kindness meditation and so on. Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. It was rediscovered and taught by Gautama, the Buddha, more than 2500 years ago. Since then, this technique has been handed down till the present day by an unbroken chain of teachers. The most revered Vipassana teacher of our time is Mr. S.N. Goenka, who went through 14 years of training with his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin, and has taught several teachers the Vipassana techinque after he began teaching in 1969.
The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. Vipassana meditation is a gentle but thorough technique. It is a structured system of training your mind to becoming more and more aware of your own life experience. It is about paying full attention to the changes taking place in all these experiences and learning to listen to your thoughts without being caught up in them. Vipassana meditation is founded upon non-judgmental observation of one’s thought, feeling and sensation. During the course of a busy day, without this awareness, it is difficult to observe how we think and feel without judgment. With continued practice, though, meditators begin to experience the world in an entirely new way. The Vipassana journey is really a process of self-discovery, in which one observes one’s own experiences while participating in them as they occur.
The practice of Vipassana involves focusing the mind upon an object. The object could be anything – such as prayer, a chant, a candle flame, a religious image or whatever, so that other types are thoughts do not invade the mindscape.
Why is focusing so important? Why not just sit down and be aware of whatever happens to be present in the mind?
The mind is a tricky space where we become trapped, immersed and stuck in chains of thought. One thought leads to another and fifteen minutes later we realize that we spent that whole time stuck in what was basically a daydream. In Vipassana, the breath is used as the anchor, the object of meditation. When the meditator’s mind wavers, focusing on the breath is what brings one’s attention back to the present moment.
Why use the breath?
Because it is a vital process connected directly to how we think. Shallow breathing causes stress, anxiety, irritation, while deep breathing brings relaxation to the entire system. Breath is a living process that is rhythmic and “always there”, making it a very reliable support mechanism for focusing.
When we first begin the journey on this path, we can expect some road blocks along the way. The mind will wander in multiple directions, darting like a bee, often on wild tangents. But that should not be cause for worry, for the monkey mind phenomenon is well known. The thing to remember is when the mind wanders off, the attention needs to be brought back to the breath. This process needs to be repeated again and again and again and eventually the awareness of the wandering mind grows and it becomes easier to bring the focus back to the breath. Essentially, Vipassana is a process of becoming totally aware of everything that is happening, within and without, with an unbroken awareness in present time.
Try this simple technique
1) Find a quiet place where there are no distractions. Turn off your cell phone and ensure that you don’t need to get up for the period of time that you have set aside for the practice. It is better to use the same space if you intend to practice daily.
2) Sit comfortably on the floor or chair.
3) Close your eyes and keep your attention on the breath.
4) If your mind wanders, which is normal, bring the attention back to the breath. Be aware of the thoughts and feelings that surface. Instead of wrestling with or engaging with those thoughts, practice observing without reacting. Let them pass as you return your attention back to the breath.
5) Do this exercise 10 minutes once or twice a day, gradually extending your sessions to 20 or 30 minutes each.
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