Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pain-multiplier effect: My key insight from a 10-day Vipassana course

Gita says, “Act without expecting returns”, Upanishads say, “This is whole, that is whole”, Buddha says, “Every form is impermanent, don’t cling to it”. As I was growing up in India, I heard these pearls of wisdom at home, in school, in movies & plays and from beggars in the Bombay local trains. The question is: “Was any of that my personal experience?” The answer is, “No”. I like the way Eckhart Tolle puts it: You may know the molecular structure of honey, you may have done a PhD on honey, but have you tasted honey? I got an opportunity to practice “tasting honey” in a 10-day Vipassana meditation course earlier this month held at Dhamma Pafulla on the outskirts of Bangalore. If you want to know what Vipassana is about, there are various Vipassana experience diaries available on the Net (e.g. here is one). In this article, I would like to focus on my key insight, which I call “pain-multiplier effect” and the events that led to it on the 7th day of the retreat. Note that Vipassana doesn’t promise any specific insight and experience & learning of every individual is unique.

During the first three days, we had practiced a type of concentration meditation called Anapana. The objective here is to develop the faculty of awareness to feel subtle sensations. This involved feeling the incoming and outgoing breath at the tip of the nostrils. It also involved feeling any sensation on the nose and seeing it arise and pass away etc. On the fourth day, the primary tool of Vipassana, body scan, was introduced. It involved scanning your body part by part by putting attention on each part separately. While the attention is on a part, say the right shoulder, you need to observe any gross sensation (shirt touching the shoulder), or subtle sensation (vibrations, tingling, pain etc). You need to do this with equanimity i.e. without craving or aversion for any type of sensation. If the faculty of awareness is the left leg of Vipassana, the faculty of equanimity is the right leg.

For me, things went relatively smoothly until the fifth day of the course when Adhitthana (meditation with strong determination) was introduced. We were told that during the three group sittings – 8-9am, 2:30-3:30pm and 6-7pm, you need to sit for one hour without changing the leg and hand postures and without opening the eyes. Halfway through the first Adhitthana session, a pain fight began between legs and upper back. Whoever was winning, say legs, would grab all the attention and the body scan went for a toss. The last fifteen minutes became really painful hence I changed the posture a couple of times.

By the seventh day, I had learnt to zoom into the pain area (primarily upper back) since the hour appeared like several hours long and you had to pass it somehow. So I thought I might as well see what this pain is all about.  The pain had two distinct components – one, the physical pain and two, the mental build up due to the resistance to the pain (“When the hell will this session end?”) On the seventh day, I got tired of resisting and gave up. To my surprise, the overall pain reduced substantially. The physical pain in the upper back still remained. But it was quite insignificant compared to the overall pain I had experienced earlier. From then on the Adhitthana sessions ceased to be a problem. During one of the evening discourses, Goenka-ji referred to this phenomenon as the “multiplier effect”.

Back pains, then the body reacts to this sensation with aversion – I don’t want this pain. That starts a chain reaction which builds a reactive pain which amounts to a large portion, say 90%, of the overall pain. If we are able to reduce or drop the resistance, the pain reduces substantially.

What Goenka-ji mentioned during a discourse is that all types of pains (and pleasures) share this property. It may originate from a physical pain, a remark from the boss, a friend or spouse that hurts or revival of an old painful memory. The multiplier effect is common and it is responsible for the major chunk of the suffering. I had heard of the theory part, but never experienced it with this clarity. Now, I would like to observe this phenomenon in other day-to-day situations. Let’s see how it goes.

Do you have to go through the 10 day course to experience the multiplier effect? I don’t think so. However, the course provides a great laboratory environment for experimentation on self-observation.

PS: My wife Gauri attended the same course in December 2014. She has shared her experience before and after Vipassana.

17 comments:

  1. Congratulations, Vinay. Regards, Kichu

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  2. Hey Vinay,
    Congratulations on completing a 10-day Goenka Vipassana retreat. It sure ain't easy and you handled it well. I can definitely relate to your insights!
    Thanks for the mention, by the way,
    Regards,

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    1. Thanks Gabriel. Your diary is very good. I am sure it will be helpful to many.

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    1. Thanks Abhijit. Hope to catch up with you soon.

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  4. Whom am I is best guided by Ramana Maharshi. It is much simpler one to practice by people. I try to practice this in my own way. I see wonderful benefits.. dr mandi

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    1. Thanks Prasad. Will get some tips from you on "Who am I" practice.

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  5. Hi Vinay

    Body scan by mind head to toe (during shavasana), done at the end of the yoga session, brings lot of peace and according to me is relatively the easiest part of yoga :-).

    But the method you described in quite interesting.

    i usually use a different method to overcome pain while doing badminton work outs for non-stop 30-40 minutes, the gross pain will be on legs and sometimes the back and sometimes together at the midway of the workout telling my mind to stop and go home, but at times i overcome this pain by diverting my mind from the pain saying "few more, few more..moving closer to the end and mind gets a lot of motivation by seeing the reduction in the gap towards the goal" or "thinking about something interesting i am doing at work and by the time i come back to presence i would have finished to some extent the workout and not even realize if there was pain felt so far ".. and when i finish the workout there is no feeling of any gross pain. I guess similar technique used by sailors while they row the boat by singing music to divert the mind from pain.

    - Rajas

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    1. Rajas, Thanks for sharing your experience. The physical pain during exercise is perhaps a relatively simple example of pain multiplier effect. The more sever case is related to a painful memory typically associated with some relationship problem. In such a situation the audio cassette keeps playing in the head asserting how "I am right and the other person is wrong" or how "I was treated unfairly" etc. Diverting attention away from the thought may not uproot the painful memory. It springs up again at another time. Vipassana advises to become aware of the repetitive & compulsive thought pattern without judging it and let it run out of steam. The most challenging aspect is "without judging". This muscle of seeing things non-judgmentally is very weak for a beginner. Not sure what your experience is.

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  6. Great insight Vinay. Like they say - it is all in the mind.

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  7. Great Insight-wish to do it some day
    Thanks for sharing

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  8. Must have been an amazing experience! Thanks for sharing.

    - Nilesh

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  9. Found this excellent article titled Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional by Dan Mager in Psychology Today on Jan 13, 2014. It talks about the chain reaction and how the awareness of it can change it.

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