So I completed a 10 day Vipasanna meditation course the other day. I have been waiting a while to collect my thoughts about it properly, so here they are. It was certainly an experience; 10 days of silence and sitting for extended periods cross legged on the floor. With no books or music for distractions it certainly makes you quite introspective and gets your brain working in different ways to usual. Was it for me though. Well no, not really.
Here is what the daily timetable was like:
|4:00 am||Morning wake-up bell|
|4:30-6:30 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|6:30-8:00 am||Breakfast break|
|8:00-9:00 am||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-11:00 am||Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|11:00-12:00 noon||Lunch break|
|12noon-1:00 pm||Rest and interviews with the teacher|
|1:00-2:30 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your room|
|2:30-3:30 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|3:30-5:00 pm||Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions|
|5:00-6:00 pm||Tea break|
|6:00-7:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|7:00-8:15 pm||Teacher’s Discourse in the hall|
|8:15-9:00 pm||Group meditation in the hall|
|9:00-9:30 pm||Question time in the hall|
|9:30 pm||Retire to your own room–Lights out|
I had heard lots of different accounts from other travelers, mainly in Nepal, of there experiences doing the course. Some were overwhelmingly positive others said it was the hardest thing they had done and dropped out. I was curious. Mainly as physical and mental test for myself and curious about the benefits of meditation. So I decided to see what is was all about, joined up to the 10 day course and even signed to say that I am wiling to give it a fair trial and put in the work. All with a healthy dose of skepticism though.
The ride there was quite nice from Kanchanaburi. 190 km heading North West toward Myanmar. The last 30km from Thong Pha Phum were particularly scenic with a flowing road up through the knobbly limestone karst hills that have been prevalent in SE Asia. I arrived with an hour to kill before the course started and spent it getting my last doses of music, beer and a cigarettes. I was a bit nervous but mainly curious and slightly excited at what to expect.
The first three days were spent focusing on breathing. In the mediation hours we would sit and place all our attention on the area on the flow of air going into and out of the nose, gradually narrowing it down on the third days to a small space under the nostrils. We were guided at the start of each sitting by the voice of Goenka, the teacher from Myanmar who spread Vipassana since the 70’s. On the evening of the 3rd day I felt my first strange experience. I guess I would call it ‘hyper-sensitivity’ of my nose and it’s presence on my face. This was part if the process, focusing on a small area to increase the sharpness of our minds apparently.
By the morning of day 4 I was getting pretty bored and was glad to be getting to the actual technique of Vipasanna. This is basically using your mind to scan up and down your body to find sensations on the surface (until you progress further and go inside). You are supposed to register the sensations felt, be they gross ones such as pain or heat or subtle ones such as a tingling or vibrating. When you find them the whole idea is to remain equanimous and not respond to them.This is where one of my first major doubts arose.
Within a day or I was able to feel ‘subtle vibrations’ or tingling all over my body when scanning. Or could I? I couldn’t help getting the nagging feeling that I was just sensing them because I was looking so hard. Or was I actually creating them? These vibration are supposed to be the vibrations of atoms or of their arising and passing away (apparently the atom exists and ceases to exist 1022 times a second according to Goenka but I am struggling to verify this online). I was struggling to believe that this would be perceptible at all to the human mind. Anyway I decided to carry on practicing and see where it took me.
From day 6 I really started counting down the days, not out of struggle, although my knees were quite painful but out of boredom. Normally I am pretty happy being by myself but there was a real lack of things to do in terms of stimulation and it is strange the way my thoughts became more intensified as a result. Memory especially became stronger. Sometimes meditating I would bunk off in my mind recalling the plot of favourite films, thinking about things throughout my life, thinking into the future or having a silent disco listening to parts of songs I could remember. Talking afterwards it is weird how we seemed to look more at nature. I happily spent a few minutes a day watching ants going about their business diligently while another guy poked the big golden orb spiders dotted around the grounds and a highlight was when it rained heavily and s0me eel-like-snakes or snake-like-eels were lolling about on the path.
Day 8 I reached my goal. I sat for one hour cross legged (with the aid of a few cushions) for an hour of full concentration without moving. After that I have to admit that my concentration and will to keep going dropped off a bit. In the afternoon and evening my mind was weighing up the pros and cons of staying. Ironically it was partly ego, something the technique should reduce, that made me stay at the course. I had the decision between staying another couple of days which I assumed would be fruitless or stay just so that I could say that I had completed it. It was Goenka’s discourse, his excellent videos of an hour long that explained the theory and practice and always seemed to preempt my questions, that kept me there for the final 2 days. He was a down to earth man, quite disparaging to the blind faith of religious people, had a very friendly manner and had funny little stories to make his points clear. In the end I’m glad I did stick it out because day 10 was the most interesting.
After 10 am the ‘noble silence’ ended. I had had an unsuccessful hour of not attempting to meditate, I was just counting down to the hour. We left the hall as normal and made our way to the dining room. Everyone was still silent for a moment of so I thought I would break it with a slight cheer. And then we (the 6 of us foreign guys on the course, we were still separated by gender in the living areas) all broke into smiles and outpouring of chatting which lasted all day. Having all gone through the same physical experiences it was interesting to hear the differences and how we were taking it all. We also got to know each other very quickly, there seemed almost instantly to be a trust between each other and we were happy to talk about quite personal things straight away.
The whole point of the technique seems to be to free the individual from suffering. This is the real problem for me: the belief that everybody is suffering. I have discussed this with a few people on my trip and am happy to say that I am not. I may feel pain or get worried or stressed (rarely) but I know that these are normal and do not dwell on them. I have a lot more joy and happiness in my life though (and I realise that I am lucky to be able to say that, come from a financially powerful place, am not persecuted because of gender or sexuality etc). The technique seems to take the joy out of life for me. Where is the pleasure of dancing, watching a sunset or eating something really tasty in this technique? We are supposed to remain equanimous to them. No thanks, I enjoy the world and don’t want to train myself to become automaton with no emotions.
I have a few more disagreements but I won’t go into them here. I’m sure the technique does ‘work’ for some people. Some people want to have a world view that gives everything a purpose or meaning. Taking time out of your day to sit and meditate is definitely a way to de-stress or organise your thoughts, so I’m sure it has tangible benefits. I also think as an ontology is superior to any other religious tradition in terms of the effects on society and individuals and doesn’t create conflict. I still can’t buy into it though.
One thing that people often experience in Vipassana is a bringing up of old memories, regrets or mistakes you have made (Goenka defined them as Sankara’s). This is probably psychologically beneficial to acknowledge, not dwell on and to move on from. This did happen to me at the center, but I certainly experienced it more on the first 6 months of my trip when I was riding harder and living cheaper. It was thinking this that made me see the similarities between cycle touring and Vipassana. Cycle touring takes you out of your comfort zone, you have to focus on your breathing, you have to try and not think about physical pain or at least not bother about it and I guess living in a tent, eating fairly simple food and not speaking to people much created similar settings to the center. So it seems that you don’t have to do the technique to achieve the same results.
So maybe I am liberated already? If not I don’t want it, not the liberation he preaches anyway. I may meditate in the future, when waiting for a bus or if i ever get stressed for that I am glad I did the course. However I don’t think it will in some way purifying me nor do I accept the lens through which to view the world. Still it might have been worthwhile just to go without for a while. Living without worldly pleasures for a short while certainly makes you appreciate them. Listening to music the day the course ended was amazing, as was a variation in food and the beer at 7:30 in the morning when the course ended was one of the best I have tasted for a long time.
Here is one of the last songs I listened to before going in, it was stuck in my head the whole way through:
And this is an example of Goenka’s discourse that we got to see it the evenings. I love his calming face and Indian-Attenborough voice.