There are many types of meditation resulting in trance states, complete relaxation, intense concentration or wide-awake focusing on the now. None of these, in the writer’s opinion, has the majesty of the Satipatthana meditation, the Way of Mindfulness. This meditation is all encompassing, and soon we find we are doing it all day long rather than at certain short periods where we are sitting quietly.
One student of mine at a university, after practicing the Satipatthana for several days, suddenly had an experience in which he saw the events of his entire lifetime flashing before his eyes, as though he was watching a newsreel. This frightened him. At such a time one must decide if he or she really wants heightened awareness, one of the greatest gifts in life, and is willing to follow the way faithfully.
A learned monk in Burma took a few of the features of the Satipatthana and began to teach the Vipassana meditation at the meditation academies of Burma. It spread to India, particularly Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha had his enlightenment), and is now occasionally being taught in the United States, in a modified but very stringent from. Usually retreats will last ten to fourteen days. In Burma, twenty of the twenty-four hours of the day are spent in alternating sitting meditation and walking meditation, only four hours being reserved for sleep. It goes without saying that food, too, is cut to a minimum.
Here we are going to work with the whole Satipatthana, so that those who detect its beauty and efficacy can go on to practice it in their own lives. With the Vipassana, the meditator must come slowly back to normal life as his functioning has been slowed to a walk. However, no such adjustment will be necessary as we practice the Way of Mindfulness.
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We have already practiced the four ingredients of the Satipatthana meditation separately. Now we will review them and then put them all together. The ultimate aim is to incorporate them into our daily lives.
Sitting quietly (ten to fifteen minutes), we watch our breath, noting if we are taking long breaths or short breaths, and whether the breathing is coarse or smooth.
We now try to recognize our state of mind, the current fleeting phase rather than long-term chronic conditions. We might note our posture (sitting or standing) at the same time since we have determined that this affects our state of mind (and vice versa).
After doing this, we turn to feeling-sensation and try to note the various feelings of touch on our bodies, as well as our reactions to them. We do not have to be moving or in action to have these tactile sensations. Emotions, such as love or hate, hope or any others do not enter into our observations. Our reactions are to the sensations and the feelings that they inspire.
Finally, we get into objects of mind. We want to know what impinges on our sight and hearing, no matter how faint, and our reactions to them. This is a passive state, waiting for the sounds and sights to come to us. We do not go searching for them.
Having finished with these four observations, we now attempt to put them together. Our basic practice is watching sounds, sensations and feelings, and changes in our mercurial states of mind. We might attempt to do this for half an hour. At first it will not be easy, but we persevere and soon we make progress. Practicing like this every day, we will begin to see the observations carry over into our active everyday lives.
If one says he cannot give the time or effort to this practice, I will answer by saying, “You want to play the piano without doing your finger exercises.” The effort is large, but the rewards can be great.
Practice of the full Satipatthana meditation is much to be desired; in this writer’s opinion, it is the king of meditations, leading to total mindfulness. It is too much, however, to expect that people in the busy Western world will carry it to its extreme, where almost any reward can be expected. Rather, a half hour of Satipatthana practice every day – or even every other day – should gradually impregnate the everyday life with some of its attributes. We may even get to the point where formal sittings are unnecessary as we begin to be aware of our breath, our state of mind, our feeling-sensations and the objects of mind that we see and hear in all daily activities. Should this happen, we could soon expect to see changes in ourselves, changes in outlook, perhaps cessation of temper and impatience, and greatly increased range of awareness. We will be more aware of music, painting and other sources of beauty. More importantly, we will begin to approach cognition of Reality. Knowing dimly that there must be unchanging Reality underlying phenomenal changes, we may now begin to intuit the Real and attune to it against the background of constant change.
This is the path of highest spiritual significance, and it is a way we will have to follow alone. No matter how many people we know or live with, the way to the top becomes more and more rarified. As we evolve, we can see others clearly, but unfortunately, they cannot be aware of our path. “The Growth of Certainty” (as I have called it in my book, Abandon Hope) is within and cannot be shown, but it is wonderful to have. It keeps us from blowing around. To live in the changing with an eye on the Eternal is the way of saints and sages.
There is no doubt that practice of the 14-day Vipassana meditation, certainly extreme, can have a strong, immediate effect. Whether these effects last after the retreat is over is a moot point. If there have been spiritual revelations during the course, it is possible the effects will remain. I do believe that one should engage in such extreme practice only if psychologically fit for it and in good health. On the other hand, the Satipatthana as we practice it here should continue with us, perhaps permanently. Rather than a short period of deep immersion, we practice continuously in moderate amounts. And we can take it as far as we want to go.