Vipassana: The Dance of Para and Apara – Devi Deyna

This article was written by Devi Deyna for the 4th issue of Amrita Magazine.

Why commit to 10 days of silent contemplation, with up to 10 hours sitting meditation a day, although this is variable between institutions and there may be some moving meditation included?  

Throughout our lives on this earth we are intent on developing the Apara bodies; our material existence as a mind-body-emotion organism conditioned by our biology, culture and upbringing. We are part of Prakriti, the known universe: however fleeting and illusory it essentially is, it is undeniable in the actuality of our known and lived experience. But, as those on a ‘spiritual’ path come to realise, it is not the whole story. We have a dual soul; the knowing that, as well as our worldly bodies, there is a Para nature that is always already enlightened and connected with something beyond the confinement of our earthly manifestation. Para is our transformed, unmanifested self, the self that is connected to a Universal Self, or God, Allah, Brahman and in Yoga terminology, Purusha.

So, how do we access this part of ourselves which can seem so unreal and unattainable  …… and balance it with indulging our present Apara being; unavoidable unless we renounce all we possess and cloister ourselves in an ashram or religious equivalent?

One way is to take a temporary respite from daily life and its habitual demands. The meditation practice of Vipassana, rediscovered by Buddha more than 2500 years ago, aims to facilitate focus on our inner nature for the duration of 10 days as a way of accentuating our Para being. In denying all but gentle movement of the gross (Apara) physical body, eating simply and conservatively and sleeping just enough, it is one of the most accessible ways to encourage and embed increased attention to the universe within each of us.

Although I have meditated for many years, it was only this winter that I found time to sequester myself in rural Tamil Nadu (Southern India) to undertake a Vipassana retreat. And what a journey it proved to be ….

I try to not indulge expectation as I know it is the enemy of acceptance and something Yogis strive to avoid. Yet, I am aware I went towards the place where I was to do my 10 days of silent meditation and internal contemplation with an expectation that outer peace and solitude would be part and parcel of the whole experience. It meant that when I arrived at a noisy construction site my heart sank. Further disappointment followed – a room for 2 people (rather than the single cell I had believed it would be) was okay, but because rooms weren’t ready we were 4 people (2 on the floor) to one room with a bathroom to share. 

Outside, I looked with dismay at the concrete monstrosity being built, the inclusion of western toilets with their extravagant use of water (in an Indian state that is struggling to negotiate its share of an ever-dwindling resource), and cried: how can this be ultimately beneficial to people, the local environment and the planet which is our home and heritage? Yes we need to house our earthly bodies, but so decadently? To me, it is an increasing paradox in the Yoga / ‘Spiritual’ realm, not just in India but worldwide: the desire and demand for inner peace is rising, which seems to be creating more construction, clamour and commercialism not conducive to external peace and tranquillity, or solicitous of the Earth.

More struggle was to follow: we had already been obliged to have laptops, books, writing materials and phones confiscated but I then tried to do some Asana practice, was ‘caught’ and threatened with expulsion as no physical exercise is allowed on Vipassana. I sought peace in a quiet area of the grounds and was told it was forbidden to be there because of the possibility of snakes or harmful insects. When I objected (my ego screaming), again I was told to leave if I couldn’t abide by the rules and regulations. And I would have left, being of a wilful stubborn mindset, but luckily my travelling itinerary made this problematic. So, I negotiated a truce with the female ‘warders’ (that I could sit outside near to the meditation hall) and surrendered to my Vipassana journey.

I digress to set the scene as I believe the rebellion of my ego, of the Apara psyche, forced me (and probably other participants) deeper into Para awareness, simply because material indulgence at any level is so limited. This challenge is extreme, and we also faced the assault of 10 days of building noise even before stepping into the Dhamma (meditation) hall: I presumed a haven of silence where you can feel the stillness emanating from the walls themselves. Peace is there, but it was quickly dampened by the myriad and continual burps, farts, coughs, throat clearings and snores (yes snores) of nearly 100 people’s idiosyncratic noises. Our sense-consciousness is designed to protect us and will alert the brain to anything it considers a danger, so a loud sneeze or unsuppressed burp can be a violent aural onslaught when you are deep within contemplation.

My reaction to the sounds around me taught me that we do not lose our Apara self when we are paying attention to the Para bodies. In Vipassana we are invited to be mindful of sensations and vibrations without seeking to describe, qualify or quantify them; only to observe with curiosity and equanimity. It is training ourselves to accept our electro-magnetic-chemical constituency without attachment to its gross form, to smile indulgently at its whims and caprices, then move beyond to recognition of a free flow of atoms and molecules (despite our apparent solidity), indistinguishable from the rest of Prakriti. Ultimately, we are asked to acknowledge that we and everything around us, emanates from and returns to Purusha (God, Allah, Brahman). Slowly I learned to be humorously fascinated by my startled reaction to sudden, intrusive sound.

The guidance given could also be unexpected and disruptive: Goenka’s rather dated recordings from 1991 that are played throughout the 10 days dwell on our material aspect of being as uniformly ‘miserable’ (his emphasis on the word was quite depressing) and all actions, interactions and reactions in the world as part of a cycle of suffering within and without. It is a perspective that fails to celebrate the duality of Apara – the dance of joy and pain, tears and laughter, fear and excitement – those transient and unsustainable states that are inherently human and generate a diversity of felt physiological vibrations and sensations. 

The transformation of this self as solid and immutable in order to find ‘happiness’ or equanimity is undoubtedly magical and its concept is timeless and deeply therapeutic: it has been reinvented, perhaps diluted but beneficial nonetheless, with contemporary ‘mindfulness’ that teaches body scanning to alleviate pain and is a useful introduction to Vipassana. Connecting with ourselves as vibratory, ever dynamic beings and embracing the concept of equanimity and non-attachment to our sensations, however real they feel and whatever story we tell about them, is a gift. It does not negate or deny spontaneous joy or unsummoned crying that are the domain of expression without narrative – those emotions that arise and release in the present moment. 

But, whatever the experiential intent of a 10 day retreat seeking as it does to segregate and separate the Apara and Para bodies, at the teaching and intellectual comprehension level of consciousness, there remains an incongruity given that ‘life’ means they are incontrovertibly intertwined. If we accept most of us are not Yogis who cannot live on meditation and light alone, we need to pay heed to both Para and Apara aspects of our manifested human entity; our dual soul. Being mindful (but without judgement) of the food we eat and the Asana practice we undertake so that we can sit with aligned posture to meditate; heeding our manifested words, thoughts, deeds and flow of emotions so that we are not plagued by a persistently ‘negative’ mind. All help us to maintain a healthy dance of prana in the physical, mental and emotional bodies that enhance the illumination of the Para being. The two cannot be divided in the realm of Maya (Prakriti) which is our perceived daily reality. But with awareness we can incorporate the non-duality of universal consciousness (Purusha) and live from and with our amazing, magical, connected Self. 

Devi Deyna

Devi Deyna (Deyna Hirst) is a Hatha Yoga Senior Teacher who has studied extensively in the UK and India. She is based in the beautiful Lake District, during summer where she runs eclectic Yoga teacher training courses and she migrates to India each winter to work and learn. A passionate believer in the roots and philosophy of Yoga, she is now running a network called ‘Multiversity of Yoga’ to link individuals equally excited by Yoga adventures and exploration beyond Asana. 

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