I recently completed a 10 day Vipassana course taught by S.N. Goenka and have committed to continue the practice for the next year at least. I’ve been wanting to share about my Vipassana retreat experience on this blog but wasn’t sure how. The issue is that Vipassana and karate are very distinct practices. While a Vipassana practice may help in karate training, this type of meditation is not officially sanctioned or taught at the dojo. People come to the dojo with many goals: fitness, competition, community, leadership…the list goes on. There are no right answers and meditation practice may or may not be part of your own interests. That’s ok. This is just my particular experience, personal development being my primary purpose in karate training.
So how to describe my Vipassana experience without mucking up people’s own unique experience in the dojo or causing confusion about the relationship of the practices?
My first thought was on the parallels of the history of the birth of Shaolin Kung Fu. Vipassana is a sectarian practice, with a lineage going back to Siddhartha Gautama, whom we refer to as the Buddha. He is said to have attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree located in Bodh Gaya in India’s eastern state of Bihar.
The Shaolin monks were Buddhist practitioners in China who received martial arts training from Bodhidharma. They had become physically weak and were victims of attacks. Bodhidharma traveled from India and trained them so they could become strong enough to defend themselves to continue their practice in peace. This is the story of the origins of martial arts as we know them, routed in Zen Buddhist philosophy.
Martial arts training may be just as useful to the modern day Vipassana practitioner as it was to the Shaolin monks. In fact maintaining strong boundaries is an essential part of attaining real peace. You need boundaries to carve out time for your practice. You need to establish a quiet space free from distractions. Anyone who has kids at home, or even roommates, will realize this is challenging. The key to the Vipassana practice is to use the right level of force to maintain boundaries without losing equanimity. Shouting or even physical defense can be essential tools, just do so without losing your cool.
This is where karate comes in. Dealing equanimously with a challenging situation, from someone invading your personal space to a full-blown physical attack, is possible when you have techniques at the ready to defend yourself. You still take the action to defend yourself with strength and assertiveness, you may even need to harm the other person to put an end to their aggression. The key is to retain a calm, balanced mind while doing so. Both karate training and Vipassana practice help you work towards this goal.
One of my fellow Vipassana practitioners told me this story. Just a few days after returning to LA from the retreat she and her partner were walking down the street at night. A car with no headlights on pulled up beside them. Two guys got out and came up beside them, putting their arms around her shoulders, saying “Hi friend.” The next thing she knew the guys were drawing guns.
“Give us your wallet & purse,” they demanded.
Having just returned from the retreat, feeling exceedingly calm and equanimous, she stepped back and looked at the guys. She saw fear in their eyes and body language.
“I could see that they were totally freaked out,” she later recounted.
“You don’t want to do this.” She said said to them, calmly, clutching her purse to her body.
Surprised and confused, the two would-be robbers bolted into the night. She just pulled a total total Jedi mind trick
That is the level of equanimity one can have while still maintaining strong boundaries. You don’t have to be a pushover to have empathy. Self love is the cornerstone for being able to have compassion for others.
There are other parallels that have become clear to me as I continue to practice Vipassana and focus more on my karate training.
The practice of Vipassana is all about attention to the physical sensations in the body. After practicing this technique for 11 hours a day for 9 days straight (the 10th day was a bit of a decompression), I became highly attuned to subtle sensations. The very next day after the retreat I thought it was a fine idea to get back to karate training.
At that point I was way oversensitized. The minute someone came at me in a partner drill I freaked out. Having been isolated in meditation, separated from men that whole time, it was a bit overwhelming to have a man punching towards my body, even with that knowledge it was done safely. Logically I knew no harm would come, but the flood of adrenaline & other physiological responses felt so new & intense, like I had never felt them before. It took a bit to calm down. After a few days back to normal life I was able to train again without a freakout. Even now with continued meditation practice I have a strong awareness in the present moment of my own physiological responses to the stimuli around me.
Why does that even matter? What benefits are there?
The intensity of Vipassana has allowed me to realize through direct experience the way physical sensations drive my responses; to stop letting those feelings rule me. I now have options rather than responding automatically.
In “The Martial Spirit, an introduction to the origin, philosophy, and psychology of martial arts” Herman Kauz writes:
“Ideas unconcerned with the form may appear, but he should ignore them as they come into his awareness and immediately return his attention to the form. He must endeavor to keep his mind on his every movement and try to do it as well as he can. Moreover, he should try to become fully aware of the position of his body and the changing location of its various parts.”
There are major differences with this meditative approach to karate and Vipassana. Vipassana is a seated practice in which the practitioner does not attempt to control the body sensations in any way and to “just observe.” However the finely tuned attention to the details of the physicality of the body are similar. The ability to dissect and zoom in on these details in their subtlest form. Putting aside irrelevant data and stimuli. Total focus.
The edge of pain is a good example as it relates to karate. Many of the techniques we practice result in submissions like wrist lock. The ability to sense the moment of the threshold where a stretch of the tendons becomes too much is very helpful in avoiding injury. We learn to breathe into the motion, to allow the submission to go just a bit deeper. But not too deep. A finely attuned sense allows us to reach that edge safely.
Another tenet of karate that relates to Vipassana which Kauz expounds is regarding the role of the teacher:
“It is, of course fitting that a teacher receive respect, appreciation and loyalty from his students. He has something valuable to offer in his knowledge & experience…But students should not expect too much of him. He is human and should not be deified. Nor should students think that being in his presence or listening to his advice will solve their problems for them. Each of us must be self-reliant. We should not become overly dependent on another person for the attainment of outer or inner growth. If we do establish such a dependency, we will find, sooner or later, that we have taken a wrong turning.”
Similarly in Vipassana training, Goenka stresses that each of us is responsible for our own “salvation.” No one can do it for us. We have to do the work for ourselves. While the technique is universal our experience is uniquely ours. A Vipassana retreat is intentionally set up to be a silent, inner journey with minimal contact with others. Karate is social practice within the community of the dojo and helps us deal with conflict in a positive way. But ultimately our progress on the path is deeply personal. We get to set goals and boundaries for ourselves; commit to regular training; bring our best selves to the dojo and seek to work out differences with others productively. Our teacher is there to guide us and show us the path however it is only from our own diligent effort to walk that path that we will benefit.
One final thought from Kauz:
“When we practice, we must not think we are sacrificing something or suffering in order to attain some reward. The thing we are doing should have been chosen because of its inherent value for us and thus is worth doing for its own sake. Taking the view that we are practicing in order to reach some imagined goal tends to devalue what is being done. The goal we are striving to reach may not exist or, if we feel we have reached it may not be at all the way we imagined it. All we really have is our daily practice and living our daily life…Beyond carefully making our initial selection of a particular road to follow, it is of little worth to speculate constantly about the kind of human being we might become at some future date.”
Or to put it more simply:
Just do kata.