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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007

A deep dive in with Vipassana

Ages-old meditation could help with modern dilemmas


By KARRYN CARTELLE
Special to The Japan Times

I guiltily sneak a peak at my watch and then at the woman meditating by my side. She seems so peaceful, so focused on her meditation practice. With her straight back and calm expression I start to wonder how she is "clearing her mind of thoughts" and if her mind, like mine, ever strays. Only five minutes have passed — already my foot is falling asleep and my mind is racing.

Vipassana meditation focuses on breathing and bodily sensations in the hopes of helping practitioners gain insights into themselves
Vipassana meditation focuses on breathing and bodily sensations in the hopes of helping practitioners gain insights into themselves. KARRYN CARTELLE PHOTOS

It has been a year since I first sat next to Nicole Porter, on a retreat, and a year since I first started exploring the world of meditation. With a host of traditions to choose from, each with their own benefits, it was hard to know where to begin. In an ironic twist, after coming to the land of Zen meditation, I decided to take a different approach and instead have begun to learn the ancient Indian meditation technique of Vipassana because of its closeness to yoga.

"In Vipassana (which means 'to see things as they really are'), the meditation focus is the naturally occurring experience from moment to moment, primarily our breath and bodily sensation, rather than a created focus such as a visualization or mantra (repeated word or phrase)," says Cameron Harris, a Kamakura, Tokyo-based yoga instructor who has been meditating daily since 1999. He further claims that, "In focusing our awareness in this way we quickly deepen our conscious experience of reality; what is unconscious becomes conscious, and during this continuing process of expanding awareness experiences of 'super-consciousness' occur and become more frequent."

Like other forms of meditation, Vipassana hopes to help practitioners "gain insight into themselves." Leza Lowitz, owner of Sun & Moon Yoga, a studio in Meguro, Tokyo has been meditating for over 25 years and, among other traditions, she has incorporated Vipassana into her practice.

"Meditation helps to calm the mind and center ourselves," says Lowitz. "When we meditate we can tune into ourselves and find stillness within."

After a year, I'm starting to see the benefits from the deeper states of relaxation that I am able to tap into. But the benefits are broader than just a feeling of calm. The book "Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation," by Michael Murphy, Steven Donovan, and Eugene Taylor cites over 10,000 papers that outline physical and emotional benefits. Some studies show decreased muscle tension, less symptoms from premenstrual syndrome, and the positive effect meditation has in the healing process for cancer patients, to name just a few. In the book, 19 different studies are cited in which practitioners have lowered their blood pressure through meditation.

News photo
Eleven Hearts Retreat in Okutama, Tokyo

To get started Lowitz recommends "finding a quiet place and a time that suits you, preferably the same time every day. Sit in a comfortable position and 'watch' your breath for five to 10 minutes a day. When a thought comes up, just let it pass — as if watching a cloud floating in the sky — and return to your breath. Try it for a week and see how you feel. If you feel better, keep doing it."

Harris likens the process to any new task. "You should see learning to meditate as learning an important new tool, such as learning to swim or speak Japanese" he says. "No one can swim one hour after their first time in a pool, or have a flowing conversation in Japanese after their first lesson."

Once I finally committed to a regular practice, I found that after a lifetime of letting my mind fill with thoughts, it did not easily oblige when I told it to stop. When my thoughts wandered, as they still do, I had to remind myself to come back to watching my breath, without judging or getting agitated.

"Breath is a highly effective 'anchor' to help one stay in the moment while the mind does all the crazy things the mind does," says Catherine Pawasarat from the meditation group Dharma Japan, adding "the intention to observe the breath brings us back to the present moment again and again."

For those who want to learn more, a meditation retreat, workshop or class can give their practice a much-needed push. Pawasarat believes that the most important thing is to find a truly experienced teacher and spend as much time with them as possible.

Simple tips to start

* Practice when and where there are minimal distractions.
* Try to practice at the same time every day.
* Make sure you sit in a comfortable position with eyes closed.
* Start by focusing on your natural breath.
* Try to commit to regular practice until it becomes a habit.
* If you have minimal time five to 10 minutes a day is enough when starting out.
* Try to remain calm when your mind starts to wander (and it will) — just go back to watching your breath.
* Sign up for a course to learn more about the practice.
* Practice under an experienced instructor.

If you have the time, signing up for 10 days of meditation practice at the Vipassana Center in Kyoto is a good way to learn more. Open to all, the course is by a cash donation of your choice.

"It's not unusual to experience periods of both high agitation and hopeless drowsiness in the first few days of the course," says Chris Weeden a volunteer at Dhamma Bhanu and Vipassana centers throughout Europe. "But with patience and perseverance, the meditation slowly improves and we usually find that by day eight or nine of the course most students are able to meditate quite seriously."

"It is not difficult once you make your mind up to do it and complete it," says Stacey Krumenacker, a yoga Instructor at Sun & Moon who attended the Vipassana course twice over the last few years. "It is, however, extremely difficult to tame the mind, much less control it. I don't normally feel any changes until after the first five to six days or so. You have to be persistent."

Krumenacker says the experience is like "a detox for the mind that will leave you feeling fresh and clean afterward."

With limited time, my five to 10 minute daily practice feels a far cry from people like Porter who dedicate an hour or more each day. But despite my short attempts, I still see the advantages, and I'm excited by what my fellow retreat participant Porter, with two more years experience than myself, has to say.

"My concentration and awareness has improved and I feel less stuck in my personal habitual patterns, reactions and responses to situations, which has given me greater personal freedom," she says. "And all of this has helped to deepen my compassion for myself and therefore for others."

However, even after three years, Porter still sees her meditation training as a work in progress. And as for me, it looks like I've got a long way to go, but as with many things, it's more about the journey than the destination.



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