I just came back from my first Vipassana meditation course. It was a unique and tough experience full of ups and downs, and very different from what I expected.
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. 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.
At first, 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, 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.
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.
The change for me came during the talk at the end of day five. Goenka explained the reasoning behind Vipassana meditation: 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, we can be at peace with anything and act with love and compassion.
In this theory, every time we react to a sensation with craving or aversion we generate a reactive emotion that leaves 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 effects which 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 these emotions, and reach our Final Goal of Enlightenment. Not only that: we can train our mind to feel ever subtler sensations, until we can feel the vibration of each individual subatomic particle in our body.
This theory, and the belief in rebirth, means they think the best thing you can do in life is to clear all past reactive emotions, liberate yourself, and save all future incarnations of your consciousness from the misery that otherwise awaits them. Don’t worry about alleviating the apparent causes for suffering – poverty, starvation – as long as you’re on you’re on the path to Enlightenment and sharing this gift with others. You can do this by teaching them, volunteering to help on a course, or donating to the organisation. Hmm…
After this talk I felt like I’d been deluded into joining a cult. I thought about leaving, but remembered a friend who’d done the course and told me to ignore anything that seems like bullshit and focus on the parts that are valuable or useful. I managed to get back into meditating, and felt my mind focus more. On the remaining days I did close to the complete 11-hour meditation schedule.
So… how do I feel after doing the course? I do feel a bit different, but I’m put off by the cult feel of Vipassana and the way people are persuaded to swallow the probably useful meditation technique with 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.