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, and saw this course as an opportunity to learn to put it into practice. 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.
We had to live by a number of rules, most of them not too taxing: no killing, stealing, lying, or intoxicants, and complete sexual abstinence.
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.
We started by learning Anapana meditation, which focuses on the breath. This is similar to the techniques taught in 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.
The difficulty of the practice was offset by the evening talks. The talks are recordings of S. N. Goenka, who set up the course. He seemed like a great speaker, likable 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.
A few days into the course we were taught proper Vipassana meditation – 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. We were told that this technique is there to purify the mind.
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: suffering is not inevitable, it comes about due to our aversion to certain sensations or craving for other sensations. If we come to accept reality as it is, and get rid of aversion and craving, we can be at peace with anything and act with love and compassion. Much of the intensity of the pain we feel is actually our aversion to that pain, rather than the pure physical pain itself.
In this theory, every time we react to a sensation with craving or aversion we generate a sankhara – a kind of reactive emotion – leaving a lasting trace on the body and mind. 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.
This sounded like it could make sense. But then Goenka went on to explain that through Vipassana meditation we can stop generating new sankharas, and erase all the old ones, which would help us reach our Final Goal of Enlightenment. This involves training our meditation-sharpened mind to feel ever subtler sensations, until we can feel the vibration of each individual subatomic particle in our body (which come in one of four types – Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind). Another bi-product of this process is that we’d witness all of our past lives (I forgot, Buddhists believe in rebirth!) and clear the sankharas from those lives too.
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. ”
This theory, and the belief in rebirth, lead them to think 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 this knowledge to others. You can do this by teaching them, volunteering to help on a course, or donating to the organisation. Hmm.
After this talk, 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 decided I’d leave the next morning, but that before I leave I should speak to the teacher just to make sure I wasn’t overreacting. A friend who’d done the course 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. 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.
On day ten the requirement for Noble Silence was lifted, and we were allowed to talk to each other. I found out that some people bought in to the whole thing, and a handful of people were 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 meditation technique with completely made up theories about subatomic particles and rebirth, strung along by a far off dream of Universal Truth, Enlightenment, and transcendence of mind and matter.
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.
- 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.