I just came back from a 10-day Vipassana course. It was a unique and tough experience full of ups and downs, and very different from what I expected.
I’d been interested in meditation for a few years, but hadn’t had the discipline to put it into practice. I chose this course because it’s a 10-day immersive course with no communication throughout. No phones, no talking to the other meditators. Not even any eye contact or gestures. I liked the idea of the lack of distraction. Other than that I have to admit I didn’t know too much about this specific course before I went, and that became apparent as soon as I got there!
Upon arrival, we made a vow to live by a number of rules, most of them not too taxing: no killing, stealing, lying, or intoxicants, and complete sexual abstinence. We also agreed not to leave before the end of the course.
Each day of the course started with a gong at 4 AM and finished with a talk at 9:30 PM, with around 11 hours of meditation in between. The rest of the time was made up of meal and rest breaks.
During our first morning meditation I was slightly surprised to hear chanting in a language I didn’t recognise. I later learned that this was Pali, the language spoken by the original Buddha, Siddharta Gautama. It was a little offputting, but I didn’t think too much of it. After all, the introduction had said that this technique was completely non-sectarian, and that people of all (or no) faiths, religions, or cultures could practice it. It also explicitly said that there was no question of conversion. Just a meditation technique.
We started by learning Anapana meditation, which focuses on the breath. This was similar to the techniques I’d learnt in using mindfulness apps like Headspace and Calm, but without any counting or mantras – just a pure focus on the breath and the sensation it leaves on the nostrils.
The first few days were tough, physically and mentally. My back and knees were aching from sitting cross-legged for 11 hours every day. I wasn’t getting enough sleep at night, so I had naps during my meal breaks and occasionally during meditation times. Even when meditating in the hall I often had little involuntary micro-sleeps, where I could feel dreams creeping in to my meditation. This made it difficult to observe reality “as it is”. But I powered through, being determined to improve my willpower, ability to focus, and control of my emotional reactions. And maybe I’d even get some more insight into the illusion of the self and a better experiential understanding of my mind.
The difficulty of the practice was offset by the evening talks. The talks are recordings of S. N. Goenka, who set up the course. The whole series was recorded in 1991, and has been used on these courses since. He seemed like a great speaker, likeable and full of wit and wisdom, with stories beautifully illustrating the ridiculousness of the human condition.All the things we crave, even though they’ll never make us happy. All the things we’re worried about, when in in reality they’re not actually that bad. Many of the ideas really resonated, and reminded me why I was there. I’d come out of the talks eager to get back to meditating. For these few days I felt like going on this course was one of the best decisions I’d ever made, and I thought I’d want to tell everyone to take it when I got back.
Much of this changed on day five. We’d been taught a new technique – proper Vipassana meditation – on day 4, and were putting this into practice. This technique is more nuanced than Anapana. it involves scanning your body for sensations, and learning to be equanimous towards them. To notice them, be aware that they are impermanent, accept them as they are, and then move on. The idea behind this type of meditation, and the entire course, is that repeated conditioning of this type could change the habit pattern of the mind and make us more able to deal with difficulties on a daily basis. While Anapana trains awareness and focus, Vipassana also strengthens equanimity. We were told that this technique is there to purify the mind.
I liked the idea behind Vipassana, but it was tough. During some of the daily sittings we weren’t supposed to change posture or open our eyes for an entire hour, which inevitably means there’s a lot of pain and many urges to try to feel equanimous about.
The change for me came during the talk at the end of day five. Goenka explained the reasoning behind Vipassana meditation, which had been handed down through the generations from the original Buddha himself, who had come up with it while in deep meditation. At first the explanation sounded vaguely plausible, like a useful high-level psychological model of how we react to stimuli. In this theory, every time we react to a sensation with craving or aversion we generate a sankhara – which I interpreted as an analogy for a reactive emotion – leaving a lasting trace on the body and mind. Not only does it make us blind to what’s really happening, but it conditions us to be more miserable in the future. An example can be anger, where we can be completely engulfed by it for a short period, and the physical tension caused by it can have lasting (if subtle) effects. These effects can build up over time.
Ok so far. I can swallow that.
Supposedly then, the goal of Vipassana meditation is to stop generating new sankharas, and erase all the old ones. All of them. Through meditating and being equanimous towards our sensations, we stop generating sankharas. When this happens, old sankharas come up, and manifest themselves as sensations on the body. When we’re equanimous to those, they also pass away.
Hmm, ok. A little far fetched, but just maybe there’s a meaningful analogy there.
Then Goenka described the Final Goal: complete Liberation from these sankharas, followed by Enlightenment. These sankharas hold us back from observing reality as it is, and through being liberated from them we can observe what’s actually happening. We can train our meditation-sharpened mind to feel ever subtler sensations, right until we can’t go any further. At this point we’re able to feel the vibration of each individual subatomic particle in our body.
A lesson in particle physics. It turns out that there are only 4 types of fundamental particle, called kalapas, and they each have their own characteristics. Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind. These characteristics relate to emotions – for example, Fire is anger. When we feel a sensation of heat in a location on the body, that’s the manifestation of prior anger through a concentration of Fire kalapas in that area. Goenka emphasised the power of personal experience over observation-based science, proudly saying that Buddha had figured this all out by himself while sitting under a tree, just feeling his own particles vibrate. After all, this was obvious to anyone looking hard enough: “it’s just the Law of Nature. The law is universal. ”
In addition to this, while reaching Enlightenment, the Buddha witnessed all his past lives and cleared all the sankharas from those. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: rebirth is a thing, and when one organism dies its consciousness is transferred into another organism. That’s why the best thing you can do in life is to clear all past sankharas, liberate yourself, and save all future incarnations of your consciousness from the misery that otherwise awaits them. Don’t worry too much about alleviating the apparent causes for suffering – poverty, starvation, cruelty – as long as you’re working on clearing your own sankharas and giving the gift of Dhamma to others. You can do this by teaching them, volunteering to help on a course, or donating to the organisation. Hmm.
At this point I’d had enough. Suddenly my mind snapped from thinking this was the best thing I’d ever done to thinking I’d been deluded into joining a cult, and I saw everything differently. I became a lot more aware of the chants, which felt like odd rituals. (to be fair, we were never required to respond, and any chants we chose to participate in were voluntary)
A few things on which I’d earlier given Goenka the benefit of the doubt started unraveling, and after a short walk I decided I was wasting my time and would have to leave. After all, I’d gained the benefits of wanting to focus my mind and of seclusion. I figured I could just not tell anyone I was back, and carry on a non-religious meditative practice while reading, writing, and listening to music at home. I started to get really excited by this idea.
I decided that before I leave I should speak to the teacher. It was now day 6, which I’d previously heard was notorious for people leaving. Only around 3 out of 60 of the male students had left so far. I wasn’t worried about looking like a failure for leaving, but I did have a slight hint of worry that maybe my mind was somehow tricking me into not continuing to do something difficult. A few friends of mine had done it, and one had specifically told me to ignore anything that seems like bullshit and focus on the parts that are valuable or useful. When I spoke to the teacher he also reminded me of the value people get from the courses, and the reported benefits, so I agreed to stay another day to see how I’d feel then.
On day seven I got into meditating again, and felt my mind focus more. I constantly had to remind myself why I was there – to “purify my mind”, in their language. I slept more, there wasn’t too much superstition in the evening talk, and I felt ok. On days eight and nine I decided since I was there I might as well commit to the technique properly, and so I did almost the complete 11 hour schedule on both days. (I “slept in” until 6AM on day 8 to catch up on sleep)
I spent a lot of time in the meditation sessions just thinking, and since I wasn’t too worried about the exact technique anymore I didn’t feel too guilty about this. My thinking was very scatter-brained at first but by day nine my mind felt very focused and patient and I had long, slow thinking sessions. I went for a lot of meditative walks.
On day 10 the requirement for Noble Silence was lifted, and we were allowed to talk to each other. I was shocked to realise that everyone else’s experiences had been completely different. Some people bought in to the whole thing – one person I otherwise got on with very well had previously met a monk whom he believed capable of experiencing vibrations in his body at the most fundamental subatomic level. Some others bought the particle theories, but not the rebirth. Others still were on the fence about everything, but vowed that the technique worked. I found a handful of people in the same situation as me – revulsed by the pseudoscience and thinly veiled religious aspects, acknowledging that there were benefits but unsure whether these were from the specific technique or just from abstaining from everything which would otherwise be distracting and doing some meditation.
And that’s the stage I’m at now. I do feel a bit different, but I’m completely put off by the cult feel of Vipassana and the way people are persuaded (almost manipulated, in some ways) to swallow the probably useful and certainly testable meditation technique with completely made up theories about kalapas and rebirth, strung along by a far off dream of Universal Truth, Enlightenment, and transcendence of mind and matter.
And all this while being told that Dhamma is “so logical, so pragmatic, so scientific”, and free of “rituals, rites and ceremonies”. I guess it is, apart from the chanting in a language we don’t know. And the repetition of certain phrases. Oh and we can’t point our feet towards the teacher or lie down in the hall. And all the teachers are men. The female teacher in the instructional videos always sits there in silence. Oh and we have to obey their arbitrary version of morality. And the teachers sit on a raised chair, next to a sort of altar covered in white cloth, underneath a huge projected image of the great Goenka. But apart from those, and the other rituals, rites and ceremonies, there are none.
On the other hand, the course is completely free. At the end, you donate what you like. Absolutely no pressure, and no one is (at least visibly) keeping track of who donates. Anyone, with any or no income, can do it. That part really impressed me. And when you try to leave, the people who are volunteering to teach, clean, or cook for you try to persuade you to stay! Bizarre.
Some things I’ve noticed since leaving the course yesterday:
- Buying a train ticket was harder than I thought. The man at the counter didn’t have infinite patience as I slowly decided which ticket I wanted without acknowledging his question first.
- The music I’ve listened to has felt more intense. I think I’ve been able to pick out new parts in songs I’ve listened to a lot before.
- When I poured myself some tea, I could really hear it going in to the cup without looking out for that. It sounds stupid, but it felt kind of nice.
- I feel like I have more self control and focus. I’m better at single tasking and less likely to be pulled into another task. I’ll catch myself getting the urge to do something else, pause momentarily, and then the urge will disappear.
- I have a lot of motivation, and a feeling that time is precious.
- I’ve been smiling a lot, felt appreciative of people and their actions, and been completely undisturbed and mostly amused by anything that might otherwise be annoying.
To be continued…
To get an idea of the nicer side of Vipassana and its goals, this essay is a good place to start: https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/art
And if you’re seriously considering doing the course yourself, this post gives a more balanced view of the good and the bad parts.