Sometimes it feels like modern life is characterized by a detachment from reality – a feeling that we are sleepwalking through a world of extreme sensory input from television, the news, music, advertising and the hustle and bustle of business life. It may come as a surprise then to know that this feeling is nothing new, and that the stresses we see in societies and individuals today were apparent to the great thinkers two thousand years ago.
The Mindfulness of Breathing meditation we have practiced is a form of Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is often translated as ‘Insight’, ‘Mindfulness’ or ‘Awareness’, but the most telling translation is ‘Seeing things as they really are’. When we sit in Vipassana we are working towards developing an understanding of our minds, our bodies and the world around us that is free from the delusions and constructs that we normally cling to.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion. – from Vipassana Society Website.
As such, Vipassana cannot be taught, but can only be gained from the practice of meditation and the experiences we have. In the stories of the Buddha (which means, literally, ‘The Awake One’), there is a tale of a time when He silently held up a flower in front of a group of followers. Immediately one of the followers understood, and was enlightened.
The inventor Buckminster Fuller was fond of holding up his hand and asking people, “What is this?” Invariably, they would respond, “It’s a hand.” He would then point out that the cells that made up that hand were continually dying and regenerating themselves. What seems tangible is continually changing: in fact, a hand is completely re-created within a year or so. So when we see a hand—or an entire body or any living system—as a static “thing,” we are mistaken. “What you see is not a hand,” said Fuller. “It is a ‘patterned integrity,’ the universe’s capability to create hands.” – Recounted by Peter Senge in ‘Presence’.
We can start our Vipassana practice on the cushion, but the hope is to be able to see everything as it really is.
One of the tricks our mind uses to keep us from being aware of the reality around us is to keep the mind busy, chattering and wandering. Our Mindfulness of Breathing practice is a way to keep the mind centered and focused. Paying attention to the minutiae of the breathing process builds an awareness of our body and the way it works, and the relationship we have with it. Once you have a feel for this kind of focus you can apply it to everyday tasks – from eating your cereal in the morning to walking. Slowing down our pace, removing distractions and taking the time to really be present is a great step forward in ‘seeing things as they really are’.
Practice: How Did I Get Here?
This meditation helps us to start to see the complex web of interconnections that we are part of. One of the great insights of meditation is how none of us are independent, but that we are all intricately connected to each other.
Start by practicing the Mindfulness of Breathing. When you get to the point of dwelling in the moment, totally present and aware of your breath, allow your mind to ask the question ‘How did I get here?’ Start with the mundane, ‘By Car’, then gently peel back the circumstances, relationships, meetings, happenings that led to you being here. All the while keep you mind centered on your breath, being very aware of the present.