Return to Your Breath: Immersion into Vipassana Meditation
On January 10-12, our cohort spent 3 days quietly immersed in the practice of Vipassana meditation. We were guests at Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center in Yangon. Vipassana, mindfulness or insight, meditation is a practice of Theravada Buddhism. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had spent about 6 weeks of the fall semester practicing this mediation as part of my Spiritual Practices class. Furthermore while we were in Myanmar, during the week leading up to our retreat, every morning one of our classmates would lead us through about 20-30 minutes of insight meditation. It was helpful to have had this background and not start with a completely blank slate, however the retreat was still challenging!
Before I get into details, I should explain the practice of Vipassana meditation itself. Overall, there is a pretty clear reason why Vipassana is also called insight or mindfulness mediation. According to a small booklet of guidelines we were each given at the center:
“Vipassana or insight meditation is, above all, an experiential practice, based on the systematic and balanced development of a precise and focused awareness. By observing one’s moment-to-moment mind/body processes from a place of investigative attention, insight arises into the true nature of life and experiences. Through the wisdom acquired by using insight meditation one is able to live more freely and relate to the world around with less clinging, fear, and confusion. Thus one’s life becomes increasingly directed by consideration, compassion, and clarity.”
The way to develop this clarity, mindfulness, or awareness is to pay attention to your breath. Specifically, this could mean noticing your abdomen rising and falling with each in breath and out breath, or noticing the air going in and out through your nostrils. The breath is perhaps one of the most important concepts in meditation, and from what I understand, many people who use this practice would say that’s because the breath is the one thing that you always have throughout your life. Breath is, in fact, life. (Actually, this concept is deeply embedded in Christian theology as well. In the creation account of Genesis 2, God breathes life into the nostrils of first human being. Our breath is the life and breath of our Creator.) So to boil your attention down to just your breath, the source of life, is a simple yet profound act.
Now obviously, just paying attention to your breath is a lot harder than it sounds. The mind wanders, you begin to day dream or to get distracted. “Rising… falling… rising… falling… rising… I wonder how everybody else is doing with their meditating… has it been 10 minutes so far or only 5?… I think I’m getting hungry…” It’s really not that hard to realize that you’re no longer focusing on your breath. But here’s the beauty of Vipassana: that’s okay. The mind starts to wander, starts to think, because that’s in fact what it was designed to do! The mind is just doing its thing. So when that happens, the key is not to scold yourself about it or feel guilty or frustrated, but rather just to notice it, to become aware of it. Notice that you are thinking. Notice any object of awareness that might arise, like feeling hungry, or becoming cold or warm, or hearing a sound. Label those: “thinking,” “hearing,” “imagining,” etc. Then return to your breath.
This is a very basic understanding of sitting meditation. There is also a practice of walking meditation, which is similar in its intent but slightly different because walking involves movement. In short, the focus of walking meditation is to notice the process of walking through every movement of the feet and legs. You stand up (“standing, standing”), you lift your right leg (“lifting”), you push your right leg forward (“pushing”), you drop your right leg to the ground (“dropping”). Repeat for the other leg. Obviously this is done very slowly in order to notice each of the steps. Also, I want to note that both my descriptions for sitting and walking meditation are for beginners. There are deeper ways to sharpen your focus and become more aware as things arise during your practice, however most of us were beginners at this practice and were not expected to reach the next levels. (I should also add that this has been my humble attempt to briefly explain a practice that is deeply rooted in a cosmology and a community of which I am not a part. For anything that is incorrect or simply unclear, I apologize and suggest one book that was helpful at least for my rudimentary understanding: Larry Rosenberg’s Three Steps to Awakening: A Practice for Bringing Mindfulness to Life.)
So Vipassana became our practice, at least for those three intense days. You might be wondering, well what exactly did those days look like? Did you just sit on a cushion for 12 hours a day or walk very slowly and mindfully without doing anything else? Well…here is what a typical day looked like.
A bell would ring to wake us up, 4 descending chimes, around ten minutes ‘til 4 in the morning. Yes, you read that correctly: around 3:50am. At that time, we had about 40 minutes to take an ice cold shower (or find some other effective way to wake up, but that usually did it for me!) and then make our way to the building that had been arranged for us to practice. We began our practice at 4:30am, and it was suggested to us that as beginners we alternate between 30 minutes of walking meditation and 30 minutes of sitting meditation. At 6:00am, the bell would ring again, and we would (mindfully) walk to the dining hall for breakfast, along with the other monks and nuns who were also on silent retreat. We sat on the floor, about 5 persons at each round table, and ate in silence (oh, did I mention that this retreat also included eating and drinking mindfully? To reach for your glass of water to take a drink: “moving, moving…taking, taking, taking…drinking, drinking…moving, moving.”) After breakfast, we resumed our practice of either sitting or walking meditation until a bell rang again at 10:30am: lunchtime. Again we ate our meals in silence, and very slowly. Personally, I made sure to fill up, because lunch was our last meal of the day. According to the precepts that we committed to observe during our time at the center, it was considered improper to eat between noon and dawn. So that 10:30am meal was pretty important. Following lunch we returned to our breath again through walking or sitting meditation. Around 4:30 in the afternoon we were allowed to have what our guide called “soft drinks,” which really meant some sort of fruit juice, usually papaya or lime. (We were also allowed to drink water at any time throughout the day.) Finally, our day would end around 8:30 or 9 at night. We would go straight to bed, because the first bell would be ringing in just a few hours to wake us up!
That was a basic outline of our daily routine at the meditation center, however there are two other things I should add that were actually very important to our routine and our experience there. The first is that we received permission for our group to practice yoga in silence for half an hour, twice a day. This allowance was truly a gift, because after many hours of sitting quite still or moving quite slowly, the body can become stiff and sore! The yoga was so beneficial for us both physically and mentally. One of our classmates, Liz, has practiced yoga for over a decade and offered to lead us, so twice a day (at 4:30am and at 3:00pm) we moved and stretched our bodies in ways that helped us loosen up and recalibrate. The fact that we practiced yoga in silence was actually quite remarkable, and while it wasn’t strenuous exercise, it was definitely the most unique yoga I’ve ever done.
The second piece I should mention is that we were also gifted with daily meetings with the meditation center’s assistant abbot, a monk named U Nyana Ramsi. A typical expectation for participating in retreats such as ours is that meditators will meet with a teacher once a day for an “interview,” in which meditators report on their practice and raise any questions they have. The teacher will give suggestions or instructions in response. So each day around 5:30pm, our bhanti (a Pali word of reverence or respect, similar to “sir”) would slowly enter the room in his saffron robes, often with a junior monk or nun at his side, sit in a chair in front of us, and ask softly, “How is your practice going today?”
At first I think we were all a little nervous to speak up. But slowly we began to ask questions or bring up challenges and things we noticed about our sitting or walking meditation. Bhanti was patient and kind and so very wise. We were amazed at the wealth of knowledge that he drew from as he answered our questions. The way he spoke, softly yet confidently, and the way he moved his hands when he talked, gently touching his fingertips to list the eight kinds of suffering, or the three kinds of awareness…it was mesmerizing. Looking back I know we were very fortunate, as a group of mostly Christian seminarians from the United States, to have the opportunity to sit at the feet of this teacher and be treated like any other meditator in Buddhist Myanmar. I’m not sure how many Westerners can say that.
So at this point you may be wondering something important. What does it mean for seminarians or for Christians in general to practice Buddhist meditation? A few thoughts here.
This course, “Walking the Path of Nonviolence in Myanmar: Buddhist and Christian Approaches,” by its very nature was an interfaith experience. In our curriculum, this course is designated as a Border Crossing Immersion. At Andover Newton, all Master of Divinity candidates are required to complete 3 credit hours of a Border Crossing immersion that engages students with communities and persons of different social, cultural, ethnic, racial, economic, national, and/or faith identities other than their own. So in this particular class, not only were we crossing an international and cultural border, we were also intentionally crossing a religious border.
Furthermore, as I’ve already mentioned, Buddhism is not just the majority religion in Myanmar, it is also the state religion. It would be impossible to begin to understand the culture, society, and politics of this country without learning about Buddhism and Buddhist practices. And we can learn and read all we want about Theravada Buddhism and Vipassana meditation in a book or online, but we won’t really understand it until we’ve lived it. This concept of personal experience is also deeply embedded in Theravada Buddhism. The monks say, “You can only learn from your teacher up to a point. You cannot benefit from another’s practice. It must be your own practice that transforms you.” Likewise, we can only learn about the Buddhist practice of vipassana mediation by practicing it ourselves.
From my perspective, the practice of Vipassana meditation is not antithetical to my identity as a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus, who modeled a Kingdom of God-oriented life of nonviolence and compassion. Vipassana meditation is a practice that, alongside regular prayer, worship, and service to others, can only serve to increase a Christian’s compassion toward themselves and others. Furthermore, meditation itself does have its own place in Christian history. Also described as contemplative prayer, this ancient spiritual practice has been reclaimed in recent decades by Benedictine monks such as Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton. In her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthia Bourgeault describes how these monks have reintroduced meditation as a Christian practice and how the gospel of Jesus aligns with the goals of meditation, inner awakening, insight, or mindfulness. “Wake up!” John the Baptist proclaimed. “The Kingdom of God is near!” Might meditation help Christians awaken to the ways in which the Kingdom has arrived, and the ways in which it has not yet arrived? Might meditation help us live a little more attentively to the ways in which we might usher in the always new, in-breaking Kingdom of God?
Return to your breath. This is a common instruction and reminder in insight meditation. As a Christian, this is also a reminder to me: return to one who gave you breath. In my mind I hear the old haunting hymn:
“Breathe on me, Breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love what Thou dost love
And do what Thou wouldst do.”
As I meditate, may this also be my prayer. With each in breath and out breath, may I be reminded of my Creator and Sustainer who gave me life and continues to give me life each day. With each thought that crosses my mind and takes my attention away, may that be one more opportunity to return to my breath and return to my breath giver.
After this intense, 3-day immersion, and now after returning to the United States and continuing a practice of daily meditation, I am curious about what role, if any, meditation plays in your life. A secular version of mindfulness meditation has been growing in popularity over the past 1-2 years, and researchers have praised its psychological, physical, and emotional benefits. People of faith, and especially clergy, emphasize the importance of individual spiritual practices such as prayer, journaling, reading scripture, or yoga, and meditation certainly falls into that category. So, do you have a daily meditation practice? If so, what kind of meditation do you practice? I am especially wondering about my clergy friends and if meditation aligns with your theology and your personal spiritual practices.
As always, thank you for reading, and stay tuned for my final Myanmar reflection, coming soon!