What the f*** is vipassana anyway?
Vipassana is a meditation technique first used by Siddhartha Gautama or Buddha, that chill dude who lived 2500 years ago. You probably have an image of him somewhere in your house, purchased for $4.99 at Ikea or Target. I certainly have a few.
|I even have a Buddha in my car.
I’m pretty sure Buddha would find that amusi
The idea is approximately thus: in order to become enlightened, we need to know that everything is temporary (the Sanskrit word for this temporariness, which I have now heard about six million times, is ‘anicca’, pronounced a-ni-tcha). According to vipassana we need to do more than (a) know this in a superficial, passing way, more than (b) understandthe scientific actuality of this fact, that everything is in flux and constantly changing and inherently impermanent. We need to (c) experience, and the only way we as humans can have a direct experience of this impermanence is by feeling it – sensing it – experiencing it in our own bodies. Self-transformation through self-observation.
Goenka, the dude who until his death in 2013 was the wonderfully intelligent and wise leader of this vipassana meditation movement, emphasised the secular nature of vipassana. There is no dogma or theory to be accepted. You can practice vipassana alongside your religion. It does encompass a moral code, which basically boils down to ‘be kind to yourself and others’ (no lying, stealing, cheating, that kind of shiz). It’s practical; as Goenka noted, you can read a million books and discuss theory until the cows come home. But being on the path to enlightenment, or even heading in its vague general direction, is a practice. You have to do the work.
Do sweat the technique
As such, the focus throughout the retreat is on technique. The first three days are a warm up, meditating on the natural breath and focusing on the sensations around the nose and upper lip. This focus gives you the ability to tune into the subtle sensations that arise in the body. Heat, cold, tingling, itchiness, vibrations, pain, whatevs. The idea is just to observe these sensations as they arise and pass, and in doing so have a personal experience of the impermanence of everything (and eventually, about a zillion years later, become enlightened). The actual vipassana meditation technique is only taught from the fourth day. You start with full body scans, checking the body carefully for sensations and observing these. Eventually it evolves into a kind of flow of awareness and attention through the body. Sometimes the energy flows freely, sometimes there are blockages. Both are temporary.
What’s so spesh about vipassana?
Vipassana is different to many other meditation techniques in the following way: often when you meditate you focus on controlled breath, or an object, or a mantra, or a visualisation. This soothes and concentrates the mind, which feels nice. Win, right? In Goenka’s view, not so much. It’s like, say you’re crying your eyes out, and someone hands you an icecream. You stop crying because: icecream. But the reason you were crying remains unaddressed. Similarly, if you distract the mind with an image or whatever, it’s a superficial fix – you’re not looking at, let alone resolving, what is causing the fluctuations.
Why I finally decided to do this
|How I came to the decision: a hand-drawn representation|
Not to become enlightened. My affection for steak, sex, shiraz and other sensual pleasures is way too strong to contemplate reaching the end of this path in this lifetime. I wanted to relieve myself from the often powerful negative thought patterns in my head. Honestly, I didn’t even know for sure in advance if this was possible at a vipassana meditation course. But I smiled with gleeful anticipation in the first day’s lecture as Goenka explained that we would be performing ‘mental surgery’ on ourselves, cutting out old habits, old behaviour, old beliefs. Clearly I am something of a masochist.
Vipassana is practiced in more than 90 countries in hundreds of different centres, so every retreat is different. This one was held at a slightly run down retreat centre on a hillside near Faro in southern Portugal. About 80 people attended, 45 women and 35 men, and 10 people served (cooked food and cleaned up – legends). There were two managers, one male and one female, and two teachers, an incredibly zen Portuguese couple. Accommodation varied from decent (proper beds, private bathrooms) to rudimentary (crappy mattresses on a dormitory room floor). I was in the latter. There were lovely gardens surrounding the centre but these were mainly out of bounds. Men and women do not interact throughout the course at all. Separate accommodation, dining room, bathrooms, garden areas. It seems old school but it helps, trust me.
From Day Zero 6pm until Day Ten 10am, we maintained ‘noble silence’ which means not only no speaking, but no looking at faces/ eyes and no gestures. No communication whatsoever. The final day, our vipassana sessions were interspersed with warm-fuzzy metta meditation, in which you meditate for the peace and harmony of all living beings. As Goenka put it, these sessions were the ‘balm on the wound’ (he was serious about the whole mental surgery thing).
4:00am first morning gong sounds
What I experienced
What I learned
My mind is as cunning as a pack of foxes when it comes to distracting me from the present moment.
We spend a lot of energy on polite interaction and social niceties. Silence, including no eye contact or gestures, allowed me to fully focus on the meditation. It was great to be able to speak again, but the silence – that was magic.
After more than 100 hours of meditation, and really pushing myself all the way to the edge, I realised I am capable of amazing things.
So… to vipassana or not to vipassana
It was rewarding, in the way that stupidly hard stuff is. It burns, like a deep massage that gets right down into the niggly, painful tough spots. A deep massage that lasts 10 days. Apparently, I enjoy those kind of massages.