Freedom through Non-Attachment

dolphin swimming

About ten years ago, I participated in a 10-day silent Buddhist Vipassana meditation retreat in northern California. During the ten days, silence was to be observed at all times, the exception being that during breaks we could kneel before the teacher and ask a brief question.

The word Vipassana means to see things as they really are. Vipassana meditation is an ancient Indian practice that was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha himself some 2,500 years ago and resurrected by him as a practice for mastery of life.

Our retreat was led by Indian teacher S.N. Goenka from a distance through audio and video recordings, with his approved teachers physically present to guide us.

The key teaching in Vipassana is impermanence. The word Anicca (pronounced ah-nee-cha) means impermanence — things rise and pass. It is from the ancient Indian language, Pali, in which many of the earliest Buddhist literature is written. During our meditations, periodically S.N. Goenka’s voice could be heard on the recording, reminding us – anicca, anicca, anicca. It was a reminder to be present to the moment and not fixate on anything that was transpiring within us.

On day 4 of the retreat I was to have my breakthrough, but it wasn’t going to be pretty. During the first three days, my legs would cramp during our hour-long meditation sittings (10 per day). We were to choose a position to sit in during the hour and not change it for the duration of the sitting. After about 30 minutes, the cramping would start. My mind told itself, “Don’t worry, once you get used to it, the cramping will stop.” That got me through the first three days, but when the intense cramping was still there on the fourth day, I was highly agitated.

I decided that after the first meditation session on day 4, I would approach the teacher and simply ask him about the cramping. When the session ended I approached and kneeled before the teacher. He nodded indicating he would accept my question. I asked him, “If my legs are in severe pain during the meditation, should I still hold the position?” His response was, “If you can.” Nothing more was said.

I returned to my room feeling furious. I had previously defended Buddhist teaching when people said it was all about suffering by saying, “No, it is about the alleviation of suffering.” In that moment, in my mind, I began to curse the Buddhist teaching, thinking “It’s true. It is all about suffering. The teacher is perfectly fine with me suffering here.”

On this day 4, I was clear that I would not tolerate this pain any longer. Something had to change. I was even willing to break my agreement and leave early if necessary to alleviate my suffering. In this moment of desperation, I found my breakthrough. The lesson that had been obscured by all of my discomfort was the very simple lesson of the whole retreat – the awareness of impermanence and the practice of non-attachment to alleviate suffering.

I got it clearly – the pain didn’t need to go away, just my attachment to it going away did. For the remaining six days, the pain never did subside. One half hour or so into each session, the pain would begin. Instead of resisting it or wanting it to go away, I embraced it. I observed it with a degree of detachment. I even found some humor in it as I would observe, saying to myself, “How interesting it is that my legs are in such pain right now.” Without my resistance, the pain actually felt much less intense.

That day 4 of the retreat, I got the lesson of how the practice of non-attachment allows us to be with and see things as they truly are – impermanent.

The invitation this day is to remember that whatever we are experiencing right now, whether we call it positive or negative, shall pass. May we simply be in the joy of the moment, unattached to what is rising and falling away.

Enjoy the journey.

3 Comments

  1. joeythebuddhist says:

    It’s great to see people being introduced to insight meditation through the Goenka method, wishing you all the best in your meditations 🙂

  2. Sherry Chastine says:

    I, too, have done a 10 day Vipassana retreat, learning the teachings of Sayagi uba Chin, Theraveda Buddhism, in Westminister, MD about 10 years ago. Quite an experience. Lots of lessons in gratitude!

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