My First Course at Southern California Vipassana Center

Some content in this blog you may find esoteric. My initial plan was to make this blog protected, but I finally decided to make it public. But with this disclaimer. My usual advice to people about esoteric content is that I do not expect you to believe it, but I do expect you to keep your mind open. That being said, the esoteric content has been kept to a minimum and is well within the recommended dosage :).

Last week I got an opportunity to visit the Southern California Vipassana Center. Most of my visits had been limited to the California Vipassana Center in North Fork, CA.

It would be a long drive from Santa Clara, so we deliberated a few times between driving and flying. It was an eight hour drive, so it would not be completely exhausting but though merely stop one step short of it. What broke the tie was the few extra hours I would get on a weekday if I flew.

I was advised by a close friend that Ontario, CA was the closest airport. Now, the question was whether to take a rental car or do ride-share from the airport. Every Vipassana center has active ride-share boards to share rides before every course. Ride-share was a good idea but I chose the rental car option for pure convenience reasons.

It was a two hour drive during L.A. rush hour (I know that folks living in southern California object to it, but for few ignorant folks in the Bay Area everything south of Bakersfield is L.A. 🙂 ). L.A. driving is not the best experience when you’re running late, as the flight was already half an hour late.

By the time I landed and hit the road, it was 5 pm. My first thought was why do we have to go so far when there is a lot of vacant land between Ontario and Twentynine Palms, where the center is located. Obviously this feeling was more driven by me getting stuck in traffic than actual facts. The reality is that a lot of dimensions have to be right for a site to qualify to be a meditation center. So just having a center in an area is a blessing, far or near. As it was, the center was right on Highway 62 (but amazingly quiet).

My ideal estimate was to arrive at 5:30 p.m., and finally I reached it a few minutes before 7:00 p.m. I did inform the management about my delay. Mostly, Vipassana courses do not start before 8:00 p.m. on Day 0, as a lot of students fly from other places and surprises are inevitable (read guaranteed), when an average course has more than 100 students and servers (unpaid volunteers making the whole thing happen).

When I reached the center, I was told I had been assigned a private room. It was music to my ears. The room was spacious and had an attached bathroom. In every meditation center, providing isolated private accommodation to every student is the ideal goal, but it’s amazing to see it happen in practice.

It is a smaller center, so the walk between the residences and meditation hall was but a few minutes, which added some extra convenience. In Dhamma Hall (Meditation Hall), seating is roughly by the number of courses you have taken, and surprisingly, I was assigned the first row. Though I have been practicing Vipassana for almost 18 years, the number of courses I have taken is very low. The only reason I got in the first row was that it was a short course and a lot of senior meditators prefer to go for long courses.

This time, I had a specific reason to go for a course. The reason was technical, which I will get to later in the blog. But first let us continue exploring SCVC.  Dhamma Hall at SCVC is relatively small compared to CVC, with a posted capacity of 83, if I remember correctly. The vibration level was not as intense as CVC, but that is directly proportional to the age of the center, everything else being the same. It was amazingly developed for a center less than 10 years old. I am gifted to be slightly extra sensitive to different vibrations than an average person. Saying anything beyond this would be an overstatement.

What sets CVC apart from SCVC and perhaps every other center in the U.S. is the pagoda. “Pagoda” is a distorted version of the Sanskrit word dhatu-garbha. The pagoda, in its most modern form, provides concentric circles in which meditators sit in isolated cells, all facing a common center (think of center as long and cylinder, as the CVC pagoda is multi-floor). It maximizes isolation without losing out on convenience. To put it bluntly, you get the isolation of being in a forest with no fear of wild animals and no fear of the weather.

Now let’s get to the point: the reason for this course. It is slightly technical in Vipassana terminology, so if you have not taken a 10-day course, you probably should not read it further.

Parimukh Area – The Holy Grail of Challenges

The word parimukh is used by Buddha to explain the area to focus on while focusing on breath. One shallow approach can be to just focus on breath and maybe the volume of air which is flowing in and out. This can be a good approach for someone with a gross mind. but to make progress, you need to focus on the smaller part. Buddha called this smaller part parimukh, and it refers to the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip.

As someone practices Anapana more and more, this area becomes more and more sensitive. In fact, this area for some people gets so sensitive that Goenkaji compared the area to a car’s starter (you have to be old enough to remember that cars used to have starters!).

The challenge I was facing for more than the last five years was that this area was so sensitive I was not able to focus on my breath at all. I did try to focus on the sensations throughout the rest of the body, but this did not help as it was akin to ignoring the elephant in the room.

This challenge was something I thought I would be able to address in the aforementioned course. Daily meditation is good to retain practice and to be very effective in addressing life challenges. But is not enough to address specific meditation challenges. You need a dedicated window of time to solve them, and a meditation course is the only place you get that.

When I narrowed my focus on the area of body above the upper lips to around one square mm for many hours, I realized a pattern. The pattern was that sensations being felt by this part were quantized. One quantum was the sensation I felt when I was breathing in, and the second was the sensation I felt when I was breathing out. There were also a few milliseconds of time gap between the two, but that was not of much significance. What was worth noticing was that there was a huge difference between intensity of the two sensations. The sensation associated with incoming breath was smooth like slowing the lifting a lid. The sensation associated with outgoing breath was sudden like the lid falling with the force of gravity.

This simple observation now connected breath and sensations I felt on the parimukh area. In fact, even now, if I ignore breath and focus on this pattern of sensations, it would not matter as it exactly represents breath pattern.

The frequency and amplitude of sensation was directly proportional to the frequency and shallowness/depth of breath as you can easily guess.

I hope this observation helps someone who is struggling like me. Everyone on the path of meditation charts his/her own course, and the challenges they face can be very different. This is the reason a lot of specific cases have not been covered in texts. In fact, I tried hard to find some exposition of this aspect in commentaries, but could not find any.