Observing Things As They Are
I recently completed a 10-day Vipassana retreat, which was a pretty enlightening experience. I’d highly recommend it to anyone seeking to reduce their suffering. I learned a lot, but my key takeaway from the entire exercise is that our suffering arises from not accepting the reality of things as they are.
Our minds are constantly engaged in constructing a fictional ideal world conditioned by our desires while heedlessly ignoring the true nature of things. This breeds nothing but misery.
The Sanskrit word yathābhūtaṃ is a compounding of the words for “in whatever manner” (yathā) and “reality” (bhūta), which approximately translates to “reality however it is”. It features in several discourses in the Pali Canon, and is referenced in the context of developing the right understanding (sammādiṭṭhi) of the nature of things by objectively observing reality as it manifests.
Reality is Now
True objectivity is only possible in the present moment. Our recollections of the past are littered with biases. Predictions of the future are probabilistic and tinged by our expectations.
Objectively observing reality keeps one grounded in the present moment and makes it easier to detect distracting thoughts. If a thought doesn’t relate to the phenomenal experience of the present moment, it doesn’t reflect the true nature of things. This is also a key aspect of the whole mindfulness movement — being aware of the present moment.
Before attending the retreat, my self-taught meditation practice involved actively controlling the flow of breath. However, early on in the instruction, we were discouraged from trying to control the breath and asked to just observe its natural flow. It didn’t matter whether it was fast, slow, shallow or deep — you were simply meant to observe it as it was.
Initially, after changing my technique, I found myself more easily distracted. I realized that the sense of agency I had in consciously breathing helped keep my mind occupied. Sustaining bare attention with no volitional impulse was a lot more challenging. It felt like I was trying to meditate on hard mode.
However, as time went by, I slowly started seeing the actual purpose behind this.
Part of the goal is also to help cultivate the virtue of equanimity (upekkhā). While it is possible to attain a certain level of tranquility by controlling the breath, the intentionality behind the act of control also becomes a roadblock to achieving perfect stillness.
Controlling the breath implies a desired way of breathing. But, to be truly equanimous, no particular way must be preferable over any other. One must simply accept the state of things as they are, with no yearning to change it.
I also noticed that as I became more equanimous, I was less critical of myself upon noticing distraction. Instead of hating myself for losing focus, or becoming averse to the object of my distraction, I would simply acknowledge the reality of the present moment — that the mind had wandered off — and calmly get back to focusing on the breath.
Seeds of Suffering
The urge to control can also be interpreted as a form of desire (taṇhā), and Buddhist doctrine considers desire to be the source of all suffering (dukkha samudaya). Desire can be further broken down into an attachment (rāga) to pleasurable sensations and aversion (dveṣa) to unpleasant sensations.
It’s perhaps obvious why unpleasant sensations are a source of suffering, but what about pleasant sensations? It certainly feels like pleasure is the very antithesis of suffering. But, objectively observing the nature of phenomenal experiences will show you that every pleasurable feeling contains the seeds of suffering within it.
Sensations are Impermanent
One of the undeniable characteristics of all experiences is their impermanence (anicca). This means that all pleasurable feelings will at some point fade away. Relishing in a pleasant feeling naturally causes an attachment to that feeling. Subsequently leading to a craving for the same feeling when it eventually ceases.
It’s this craving for pleasure that manifests as suffering. Anybody who has personally dealt with any form of addiction can attest to the magnitude of suffering in craving for a high.
Psychologists term this phenomenon hedonic adaptation. According to this theory, the mind begins to adapt to a positive feeling leading an eventual regression to the baseline state. Which is simply another way of explaining the transient nature of all pleasurable sensations.
Pain Also Passes
On a more positive note, this impermanence also applies to unpleasant sensations like pain. Being unaccustomed to maintaining my posture for extended periods of time, I would regularly move my arms and legs upon feeling even mild discomfort.
Then, they introduced the “strong determination” (adhiṭṭhāna) sittings, where you were supposed to maintain your body posture without any major movement for a whole hour. Instead of reacting to every minor ache, I decided to observe its impermanence. But, it seemed like the longer I waited for the pain to pass, the more it intensified.
Then, I realized that I wasn’t objectively watching the sensation, I was observing it while covertly wishing that it stopped. The craving for cessation took on a life of its own and exaggerated the pain. Keeping my attention impartially focussed on the sensation without willing it to stop helped me notice that the pain also eventually faded.
Another major lesson for me was that my original motivation for attending the retreat was also a hindrance to making progress on the path. I came in hoping to experience some extreme state of bliss. But as we neared the end and no such feeling arose, I started getting anxious.
The recorded instructions spoke of subtle sensations all over the body, but I didn’t feel any such thing. Was I a bad meditator, doing something wrong or was the technique itself flawed? I started thinking of ways to generate such sensations — I could layer up heavily and I should feel the prickle of heat all over my body.
But then, it was explained that it didn’t matter what you were feeling — pleasurable pulsation, annoying itch, or nothing at all — your job was to impersonally observe and accept it. The aim of the technique is to train your equanimity and awareness by observing sensations, without craving for particular sensations or trying to artificially manufacture them.
Attaining enlightenment doesn’t require experiencing some form of transcendence — although it may naturally occur on the path. The ultimate goal is to end suffering by relinquishing all forms of desire, including the desire for enlightenment itself.