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