Vipassana Teacher and film-maker Eilona Ariel discusses Vipassana Meditation and Body Sensation at TEDxJaffa 2013 conference. Below is the full transcript of the whole talk.
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Eilona Ariel – Vipassana Teacher and filmmaker
[Sound of airplane]
Do you feel it? Anything on your body? Sensations on your body? How about if we combine image and sound together?
[Sound of nails scraping the blackboard]
Most people react just like you did. So quite a number of researches were made on why we react the way we do to nails scraping a blackboard. One research found that it resembles a sound of the alarm calls of apes, and our ancient conditioning is reacting to it. A more recent research found that it has to do with our anatomy, the ear canal. Our ear canal amplifies a certain frequency and so the nails scraping a blackboard has that range that our ear amplifies, so it irritates us. But we really cannot change everything that causes us unpleasant sensations. it’s just impossible. And we run into visions and sounds and smells and tastes and touch everyday of our lives. We cannot just wipe everything.
26 centuries ago, there was a brilliant scientist, The Buddha. He made a six-year research and at the end of that research he found that every input, every data the mind receives through the sense doors, the sense bases, every vision, sound, taste, smell or touch evokes a sensation on the body, and we are blindly reacting to it.
The mind also brings some dramas, memories, thoughts, emotions, anger, fear; it always comes with a sensation on the body. The remarkable thing was that he found that we actually react to the sensations and not to the outside object; the mind receives an image, a form, a shape and it will immediately recognize it: a human being, a man, good-looking, scary looking. And reaction will come with a sensation. If it’s a handsome guy, pleasant sensations, scary guy, unpleasant sensations, and our breath also will start pumping. That scientist realized that we react with craving, constantly.
You just saw a number of examples before which were gross and intense and you felt a sensation on the body but actually, every moment in your life, even right now, your sub-conscious mind keeps producing reactions. You changed your posture. You were not comfortable. You changed to a more comfortable position because you don’t like the unpleasant sensations, right? Or maybe one of you came with a real tight pants today, a tight belt; soon enough you may find the speaker is annoying and you really would want to get out of here, but it’s because you didn’t come with your pajamas or anything loose that would make you enjoy today.
So we don’t even know that we keep reacting all the time to sensations being evoked on our bodies. The Buddha gave a mental practice to come out of the blind reactions. And it is called Vipassana. It means to see in a special way, like insight, like to realize out of experience, and I was lucky enough to get to know about a ten-day course in Nepal 26 years ago. It was a silent retreat where they taught Vipassana meditation; I didn’t know exactly what meditation was, but I couldn’t believe it when I sat there ten hours a day for ten days and discovered that I’m actually not reacting to anybody who insults me. It’s not to the person. It’s to the unpleasant sensations he evokes on my body. I don’t suffer because of my sadness which I had, it’s the sensations that came along with that emotion.
And so, at the end of that course, I couldn’t wait picking up the phone to everybody I knew and called them and tell them, “You have to go.” I was living in Nepal at that time, I called the whole world, whoever I knew. Some took it seriously, and even went, but people like my sister, for example, she was like, “Eiona, you sound like a missionary!” And when she said that, it sank in, seriously, I stopped telling people about this experience but I felt I had to do something.
So I decided to make a film. I collaborated with Ayelet Menahemi, a very talented filmmaker, who was also a meditator, and also wanted to volunteer and serve in a way that people would know about these courses. And we figured, “Let’s do a round-the-world tour.” There were back then 25 meditation centers that were teaching exactly the technique we are talking about by the teacher S.N. Goenka, and we decided we buy all the equipment, a commando team, 150 kg of equipment, we go around the world, and we film in every center. But what kind of film will come out of it? I mean people are sitting there closed eyes ten hours a day. What? Going for lunch, drinking, sitting?
We started getting cold feet as we started touring going from American centers, to French, German ones; we came to Asia, and then it clicked: at least one place we knew we have a film and that was Tihar Jail in Delhi.
[Video clip: For decades Tihar was notorious for its inhuman conditions. It was branded a veritable hell.]
A horrible place, but a change came to that prison with a program of Vipassana. They decided to turn one of the wards into a Vipassana center because they wanted most of the prisoners there to go through this program. And why? Because they were fighting with recidivism: criminals being released, committing crimes again, coming back to jail; about 70% recidivism. The Vipassana program brought it down finally, so they really wanted it. Now at glimpse of what it looked like is here.
[Video clip: On the fourth day of the course, Vipassana is taught. Students learn how to observe objectively all the sensations in their bodies, whatever they may be, without reacting to them. They watch emotions come and go; they watch pain come and go, they watch pleasure come and go. And they realize, not intellectually, but through their own experience that nothing is permanent. Hatred, passion, greed, are not abstract anymore. By watching the physical sensations accompanying these emotions, and by understanding their impermanent nature, one can actually start changing the habit of blind reaction. Between the two poles of expression and suppression, lies a third option: mere observation.]
The film was successful, it showed on many television stations, but then, it landed in the hands of Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, and he was working with Donaldson Prison.
[Ron Cavanaugh: When you introduce Vipassana, then you’re talking about this meditation technique that starts where cognitive behavioral therapies leave off. ]
In Donaldson, which is a high security prison, most of the inmates will never go out. Most are either on death row, or life without parole, or lifers.
[Video Clip: These prisoners live inside a dangerous social world. Overcrowding, deprivation, and hopelessness drive men towards extreme aggression and despair. In this environment, self reflection and change are difficult, if not impossible. In January 2002, the prison undertook a radical experiment. It allowed a 10-day meditation retreat based on ancient Buddhist teachings to be held inside this modern day maximum security prison.
Man: The gymnasium had been transformed from a place where people yelled and hollered; there had been a lot of fights in there, there had been people who were assaulted in that area and it had been transformed into an area where you took off your shoes, and walked to a mat to sit to meditate. ]
These people are locked in for life from a very young age. Some of them were so angry for years. The first time that they had some relief was when they were taught how to sit down these 10 hours a day, for 10 days, and observe the sensations coming up with their anger that usually caused an immediate reaction. There was a 20% reduction in disciplinary action. And so they decided in Donaldson to bring Vipassana in, periodically, at least four times a year, so that many more prisoners will be able to go through this program.
[The Dhamma Brothers: I’ve always been angry. I’ve always been angry. I took anger management, stress management, but anger management is showing me how to conceal the anger, and stress teaches you basically about the same. When I went to Vipassana, I sat on a cushion for 10 days. That showed me how to… let it come up and deal with it. Don’t let anyone suppress it. I’ve got to deal with it. I’ve done that. Everyone makes a mistake. I made a mistake. And everyone can change. I can stay out of the change. It feels good.]
So if it wasn’t for Vipassana, I wouldn’t be able to stand here and talk to you, because I was a very shy child and adult, painfully shy, stressfully shy, that I never dared talking in front of people; and I used to get sick with high fever every time I needed to go to school and face the students who were my friends. I just couldn’t do it. It’s not that it’s not stressful nowadays, but I’m coping. So I just wanted to let you know about this opportunity to bring a change to yourselves. Thank you.