My Experience Taking a Course in Vipassana
What is Vipassana?
Gautama Buddha taught a specific process of meditation that would lead to enlightenment if practiced diligently and seriously. It begins with Anapana meditation (observing the breath) and when the mind is sharpened from this observation, it graduates to observing the sensations in the body (the Vipassana technique). The idea is to be aware of everything in the body from pain to pleasure and regard each of these sensations with equanimity, and to not react with aversion or with craving but allow each sensation to exist until it changes. At the base of this approach to sensation is an understanding that the nature of everything, is changing. Anicca. During these 10 days, I vowed to disengage from harming all other beings (we ate vegetarian meals twice a day), to not speak or read or write, to meditate for ten hours every day, and to follow the general life of a monk in pursuit of enlightenment. What I encountered was a very valuable experience that has been strange to contextualize.
Living the Life of a Nun
We had the same schedule almost every day of the course: Rise at 4 a.m., from 4:30-6:30 a.m., we meditated in our rooms, then ate breakfast and had time to rest and digest. Then from 8 to 9 a.m., we all meditated together and from 9 to 11 a.m., meditated alone in our rooms. Next, we had lunch and a little more free time to walk around or stretch or shower. Strangely enough, we were not permitted to practice yoga. Then from 1 to 2:30 p.m., we meditated alone, then all meditated for another hour in the hall together. After meditating alone again until 5 p.m., we were allowed to have tea and fruit but no dinner. After this evening rest, we reconvened in the meditation hall (the Dhamma Hall) for an hour meditation from 6 to 7 p.m. Then each evening, the teacher, S. N. Goenka, gave a discourse explaining the technique and discussing the philosophies behind the technique and how it came to be. During the most trying days (the first four), he offered help from generations of former students along with support for us on our journey through stories, analogies, and sometimes humour. After the roughly hour-long lecture, we meditated until 9 p.m. and then went to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat the next day!
The first three days of the journey were devoted to Anapana (breath observation) meditation. We spent these days focusing our minds on our breath—is it passing through the left nostril? right nostril? both? is it heavy? evenly spaced? shallow? This evolved into observing the “touch of the breath” and the sensations that breathing left on the nostrils and upper lip area, serving to sharpen our minds and build up our body consciousness and sensitivity.
Cycles became prominent in this aspect of the experience. Much of what we practiced was focusing on breathing. You can practice this for 10 days or 10 years; thoughts will still summon themselves from the ether of your mind and start telling their own narrative. This was very frustrating to confront…until I accepted it. Accepting the unconscious structures in the mind was par for this course. Goenka described the process as a very deep surgery of the mind, diving below the conscious mind (awareness of thought) and subconscious mind (strings of thought that characterize our mental “duration”) mind, into the unconscious realm (the formula-like structures that gear our minds into patterns of craving and aversion, or direct our thoughts towards past and future). These unconscious processes will be with us for the entirety of our lifetimes. Instead, it’s about learning not to react to them—not to act on our cravings and aversion—but to allow ourselves to sit with both pleasant and unpleasant sensations in the body, listen to and acknowledge them them [as impermanent], and let them be.
I know what you’re thinking: “this sounds like one of those things that’s really easy to say in a faux-Guru-dreadlocked-hippie-lounging-on-a-
stoop-smoking-a-joint kinda way.” Well, you’d be right! In practice, this process consisted of realizing I was drilling into something with my mind and turning back to my breath only to realize I was thinking again less than a minute later…but for two hours straight. In combination with the un-ignorable pain in my body, I was a very distracted pupil for the first couple of days. Because we were meditating so much each day, I cycled in and out of “productive” sessions to ones spent more in the thought realm than the breath observation realm.
Meditating for 10 Hours a Day for 10 Days
As relaxing as this sounds, it was excruciatingly painful to endure for the first five-seven days. In the last five days of the experience, the pain slowly went away as my body either acclimated or learned to look at and detach from the experiences of pain. My posture improved significantly, as much of the experience consisted of sitting up straight, focusing on breath, slowly moving back into a slouch, realizing I was slouching, and starting over from the top. As you can imagine, this required all the patience that many do not have.
An important lesson was learned here: it is useless to spend your time trying to force yourself to be something that you simply aren’t. When it comes down to it, you have to accept where you are and start again from the beginning. And start again, and again, and again. Perseverance was difficult to grapple with the many times I failed to stay focused. Many times, I gave up halfway through a meditation and decided to just think or just breathe without observation.
One of the vows we all took going into this experience was to deny ourselves speech, eye contact, and physical contact. It was meant to be a solitary experience, without help from others. We were instructed to pretend that we were alone on this journey. However, the four hours we had between registration on Day 0 and the official start of the course (during which we were allowed to speak and associate with each other) made it difficult to not feel a strong presence and kinship with the 40-some others I was embarking on this journey with. It can be noted the moment we were told we should start to observe, the no speaking/touching or making eye contact tenants, the considerable amount of social anxiety I’d been working through vanished. I found a new power in the reservation of speech and [nine days later] realized that speech can make you unconscious of your actions. This realization struck as I was talking to one of the girls I’d shared a room with—on Day 10, we were allowed to talk to each other part way through the day. I suddenly became aware of the massive amount of ego I was lobbying in the conversation that I was dominating. I became suddenly quiet and made efforts to coax her into sharing and adding to the conversation, but I would find myself once again rattling on and on as she stared, smiling and blinking. I was horrified to find such a monster inside of my ability to share my thoughts. It felt like I COULDN’T TURN IT OFF. The feeling was akin to the frustration I experienced when my thoughts continually invaded my meditation. It felt like unconsciousness in the pursuit of complete sentence.
Accepting my Own Self-Centeredness
Vipassana prides itself on being an unadulterated teaching, passed down through a will to share peace with others and a compassionate loving-kindness that serves to alleviate suffering. Supporting this image, Vipassana centers around the world are unfunded by any corporation, fueled only by the donations of people who have taken the course. This 10-day course was entirely free for me to take—I did not have to pay for any of my meals, for the room where I slept, or for the teaching. All those that cooked for us, taught us, served us, and helped maintain the facility were volunteers who had also received Vipassana instruction. All the food and funds for electricity, hot water, and heat were also donated. I feel now that I should have been kissing the feet of everyone who gave of themselves and yet on the last day of the course, I could not deny a sense of entitlement. This deserving feeling, and a general lack of care for those who donated 10 days’ worth of their time to give me a good experience, deeply shocked me. I was very uncomfortable realizing these feelings were inside me and tried desperately to understand them because I knew that I should be overflowing with gratitude. It didn’t take long for me to apply what I had been learning the whole course: acceptance and starting again. Since I took this course, I have been embarking on a process of incorporating what I learned. The first step was accepting that part of my shadow self includes this self-centered attitude and a lack of gratitude. The next step was [and is] working to acknowledge gratitude in my everyday life for the people I live with, my coworkers, my family, my friends, and the opportunities that just spring up in my life. Above all, I learned that everything is a constant process. There is no destination, just a direction from moment to moment.
All in all, this wound up being a very valuable and intense experience. I doubted myself many times, but I was still touched by deep appreciations for life and all that I’ve experienced just as many times. In the month that’s passed since I finished the course, I have slacked off from my continued meditation practice, but the philosophies have very much remained: viewing all intense emotions as Anicca, changing. I confronted many weaknesses within myself and have since developed a better understanding of the way my mind works. I would like to take another course after a year or so has passed because I really do appreciate the multi-faceted aspects that gave me such a genuine and renewing experience.