I finally did it. I went to see what having nothing for company for ten days – not even my own thoughts – was going to do to me . And it was pretty amazing! I’d definitely recommend it. It was very hard; a bit more a strenuous, SAS style strenuous, workout for the brain rather than the mystical experience I was hoping for. There were certainly moments that felt a bit trippy and out of body, but most of it was just hard slog. Sitting, concentrating on nothing but your breath and then the sensations on your skin for ten hours a day for nine consecutive days is just as mind bendingly dull as you’d imagine. It reminded me a lot of school. But it was worth it. It’s early days yet and I feel a lot calmer and better able to cope with stressful situations. On a practical level its sorted out my bad back after 10 days of sitting poker backed, broke my sugar and caffeine habit after 10 days of wholesome veggie food and fennel tea, and given me 10 days off the stresses and strains of family life. I’ve also overcome some of my impatience and can happily meditate for an hour – almost.
Vipassana is an ancient Indian word that means insight into how things really are. Vipassana meditation was re-discovered 2500 years ago by Gotma Buddha as he wanted to make everyone in the world happier – isn’t that great. I guess that is the goal of all religions, life philosophies and self-help books everywhere, so what’s Vipassanna got to offer that all the rest don’t? Each mediation session is rounded off with the chant “bahvatu sahvu mangilam” (may all beings be happy), and after an hours self-centred meditation you end with 5 minutes of metta (selfless love) mediation, where you project the love you’ve generated out into the world. Kooky ain’t it. But just imagine what the world would be like if everyone was doing it! What makes Vipassana unique, and really excites me about it, is that it provides a very simple technique that’s been around for thousands of years and for ten days provides you with a protected environment to practice it before going back into the world. It doesn’t claim to send you out enlightened, but just shows you the right path (Dhamma). The teaching emphasises that it’s all entirely up to you; up to you how much you carry on practicing; up to you if you come back for more and up to you if you even pay them anything (they recommend 2 hours a day, one 10 day session meditating and one 10 day session serving each year). They provide everything free: the teaching, board and lodging because they know Vipassana is just going to blow you away! So it seems it takes the very core of religion – make you happier and more content – and teaches you a technique to achieve it and keeps you around until it’s sure you’ve got it. Are there other healing techniques/religions that do that (I expect Vipassana mediation is practised my Buddhist monks just like Christians practice contemplative prayer)? This isn’t a rhetorical question I’d love to hear of anyone else’s experiences. I guess for me mediation is also a lot “cooler” than praying; maybe I’ll try a Christian retreat next. I was little worried about the cult possibilities – more on that later – but it is a completely secular technique practised by people of all religions. It is part of the foundation of Buddhism, but then Buddhism is not strictly a religion as there is no deity, it’s more a life philosophy. Different followers of Buddha have taken his teachings and created the “religion” of Buddhism, just as disciples of Jesus created Christianity. But apparently Jesus had higher supernatural aspirations than Buddha, but anyway before we get into all that …
One of things that I found disconcerting about the retreat was that they didn’t really explain what was going on until the end – or not in a way that satisfied my scientific mind. So here is my take on how it works (and a large part of what they teach just leaving out the bit about becoming aware of your sub-atomic particles vibrating). The heart of it is that Vipassana meditation helps your conscious mind control some of the decisions that your unconscious mind is making, sometimes badly. Knowing that you should look before you leap is one thing, but how do you consistently put that into practice? Obviously we’re happy to let the unconscious mind keep our heart beating and keep an eye on things whilst we’re asleep, but the problems start when it makes bad decisions that our concious minds could have made better. Vipassana meditation gives your concious mind a chance to step in and take over, by making you senstive to the physiological responses your body makes when it is unconciously responding; your changes in breathing and the tingling sensation in your skin as the adrenaline courses through your body. This it does by getting you to focus on nothing else for ten days. It teaches you to avoid developing any unhealthy cravings or aversions, or any kind of attachment to any situations or sensations. It teaches you to remain aware of how impermanent and changing everything is. It’s not a quick fix; the ten day course just teaches you the technique and sets you on the right path. But at the end of that path are enlightenment and the ability to remain equanimous to all situations, be it a late bus or the death of a loved one. Not many of us will reach the ultimate goal but every step in the right direction makes day-to-day life a little easier. Now I originally thought that would mean you become completely passive and removed from all of the experiences of the world. But that’s not the case, the idea is to make you just as aware of the world and experience it much more than before, but now you do it on your terms; you’re conscious of the decisions you make to be happy or sad, elated or depressed. And then when you don’t want to feel like that any more you don’t.
So how does it perform this clever feat? Well, it’s a very simple three stage process: the first stage is to live wholesomely for at least these ten days. This means no killing (no meat), no lying, stealing, sexual misconduct or intoxicants. The second stage is honing your concentration through concentrating on your breath for three days. The third and final stage is the actual Vipassana meditation where you concentrate on the sensations on your skin for six days; the sensations of the clothe against your skin, the cold air, the warm air, etc. The last day is more relaxed with less meditation and you are allowed to talk, to get you ready for the outside world again. So, the first two days are spent concentrating on the sensation of your breath passing in and out of your nose – Anapana mediation. The third day you move onto any point on the inside or outside of your nose or your upper lip, and finally just concentrate on the dip between your nose and upper lip. Between the 4th and 9th day you move this point of concentration around the rest of your body, doing it various, more rigorous ways each day until ultimately you are trying to get the tingling sensation of being aware of your skin sweeping up and down the length of your body in time with your breath. The whole ten days are spent in silence; although there are people you can talk to if you have any problems or questions. The whole getting yourself to tingle on demand is pretty cool, and fun to play with! One thing I discovered was if you conciously swing this tingling sensation from side to side across your body, as if in time with a pendulum in front of you, after about five minutes you can stop conciously doing it and the sensation continues sweeping left to right, right to left through your body. As much fun as this is Vipassana also emphasises that you shouldn’t crave this pleasant sensation; it’s just a road-side cafe on the path to enlightenment.
So overall, a tough, but amazing experience that I’d recommend everyone give a go. I’ll continue the blog with a day-to-day account of my experience: slept, meditated, eat, meditated, slept, meditated, etc. So watch this space.
I’d love to hear anyone’s comment and thoughts, or if they done or would consider something like this.
More information can be found at the Dhamma Dipa website. An intesting, related book I was reading before I went was Sara Maitland’s “Silence”. Ian Hetherington’s “Realizing Change: Vipassana Mediation in Action” talks about lots of people personal experiences and there is also a book of S N Goenka’s teachings called the “Art of Living”.
A Little History:
Vipassana is a very simple meditation technique that was rediscovered by Gotma Buddha 2500 years ago, and it was this and his other teachings that were taken by his followers to develop the various branches of Buddhism. So although the Vipassana technique has its roots in Buddism it is a secular technique so is practised by people of all religions. The word means insight into how things really are, and was Buddha’s answer to ending all of the misery in the world. It was taught through-out India and the surrounding countries for the next 500 years, but for whatever reason stopped being practicing widely. However it did survive in its original form in Myanmar (Burma). It was then passed down through the ages until it was bought back to the world in the 60s by S N Goenka, a successful Indian industrialist who was looking for reprieve from the migraines he was suffering from. In 2007 54,000 people attended the 10 day course worldwide for the first time.
If you are thinking about having a go, here are some practical tips:
1. Preparing your mind
I’d been practising Anapana for half an hour a day in the few months leading up to the course, which helped to start calm my mind down and generally helped me relax. I’d also spent a day keeping to the schedule – up at 4am, etc – which had been incredibly dull and probably harder than doing it at the retreat where you had the discourses, other people and lots more breaks (about every hour, hour and a half) but did give me an idea of what to expect.
You are going to be sitting on the ground for 9 days, for a total of almost 100 hours, so have a think about ways to sit. There are lots of cushions and blankets available and you’ll spend a lot of time moving around trying to get comfortable as your legs get used to being kept bent for so long. Look at the little meditation stools for crouching on and half-moon cushions to sit cross-legged on that support your knees which get quite sore. It will be painful and uncomfortable, but stick at it and after ten days you’ll be amazing at how much your body has adapted. I’ve always been dogged by muscle problems in my back, and didn’t imagine I’d ever be able to sit on the ground without moving for an hour. But now 90% of the aches and pains have gone and I can just about manage it.
3. “Patience my child”
A big issue for me was that I did not always understand what was going on, and why I was doing it. Be patient, they’ve done this a thousand times and the evening discourses explain exactly what’s going on, why you are doing it and how you probably feel. It’s all worth it in the end and it will all be explained.
4. Footwear and Clothing
The meditation hall is kept quite warm, but you do cool down as you meditate. Take plenty of loose fitting layers and slippers to slip on and off when you are leaving and entering the hall.