I recently sat my first 10-day Goenka-style Vipassana retreat and found it gave me new and insightful ways to understand how to transform the mind at the base. Goenka-ji emphasized that there is a part of the unconscious mind that is always experiencing bodily sensations but that for the most part we are unaware of the endless and constantly changing subtle sensations of temperature, pulsing, itching, tickling, the feeling of clothing against the skin, etc.
By paying very close attention to moment-to-moment physical sensations we can notice what usually happens below the radar: not only that sensations are always occurring in every part of the body, but also the constant tendency to grasp what is pleasurable, push away what is painful and ignore what is neutral. By turning up the dial of our awareness to notice these ever-present bodily sensations, we also have a chance to observe and shift the ways we react to them. Rather than changing posture immediately the moment we feel discomfort, without even registering that a subtle aversion to the discomfort is pushing us, we can merely observe it. We can notice the fleeting, changing nature of discomfort without reacting to it with dislike, as this only intensifies the suffering.
In the beginning of the retreat, because we were practicing sitting meditation for 10 hours a day, most of us were experiencing abundant physical discomfort and I was quite fidgety. As the retreat went on, I was surprised over and over again that physical sensations that might have pushed me to automatically shift position at the beginning of the retreat could be observed and often faded on their own if my mind would get interested in something else. The range of what sensations were tolerable grew drastically, usually linked to how calm and still my mind was. The more I sat, the more I could sit. As my mind settled, so did my body.
Each time we don’t react to something unpleasant with aversion something shifts in the depths of our minds. Similarly, each time we don’t react to a pleasant sensation by clinging to it blindly, we also gain a tiny bit more freedom in the base of our minds. What helps to maintain equanimity in the mind is remembering that all these sensations are impermanent.
While it may be harder to notice the impermanence of sensations in our daily life off of retreat, even bringing occasional or only limited equanimity to meet painful and pleasurable sensations is highly transformative and can increase our sense of freedom and ease.
As we transition into the new year and new decade, I wish us all a fruitful time observing impermanence!