I’ve tried a lot of meditation techniques over the last five years, but nothing as intense as this. In some respects Vipassana meditation wasn’t what I was expecting.
I spent the last 10 days meditating for 10 hours a day, where I experienced the Vipassana meditation technique that resulted in Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment.
During these 10 days, I wasn’t allowed to communicate verbally or non verbally with others, read, write, use my phone, the internet — or have any access to the world outside of the Vipassana meditation centre.
Prior to the course, I was feeling skeptical. I felt that those leading 10 day Vipassana meditation courses were irresponsible to allow complete beginners to sign up.
I also wondered about people with deep psychological issues and mental disorders. Meditation should never be used as a substitute for therapy, yet I wondered if this had been made explicitly clear by the vipassana Trust. Spending 10 hours a day meditating and going inwards when you’re mentally unstable seemed pretty dangerous to me.
This is a meditation technique that isn’t a light and fluffy way to relieve stress and relax while imagining you’re thoughts are like passing clouds on a clear blue sky. It’s more like meditation boot camp. It’s a technique that delves deep into the mind and can at times be painful.
Despite my initial thoughts, I had wanted to try Vipassana for a long time. I was curious about the technique, being silent, and also what being away from the outside world would be like. Therefore, to give the practise a fair trial, I made sure that I entered the experience from a neutral place.
What is Vipassana meditation?
Vipassana is a Pali word which means to see reality as it really is. The technique is a non sectarian form of meditation that aims to eradicate mental impurities, liberate the practitioner and bring about true happiness.
It was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha over 2500 years ago and has been popularised by a variety of people, including Vipassana meditation teacher, S.N. Goenka, who set up the centre, Dhamma Dipa, in Hereford where I stayed.
To some extent, it could be argued that all meditation is transcendental in nature and aims to discover what lies behind the ego, mind and personality. There are, however, different routes to get there.
In the West, we tend to see meditation and mindfulness as practical tools to relax and reduce stress. However, these things could be viewed purely as pleasant byproducts of meditation — they were never meant to be the goal. Vipassana will therefore, help to relax the practitioner and relieve stress but it will also take you deep within yourself.
Let us focus on the commonalties of all religions, on the inner core of all religions which is purity of heart. We should all give importance to this aspect of religion and avoid conflict over the outer shell of the religions, which is various rites, rituals, festivals and dogmas. — Goenka
The Vipassana meditation technique explained
Observation lies at the heart of the Vipassana technique. There are no mantras, fancy breathing techniques or visualisations. You work purely by observing what is already going on in your mind and body without interfering.
You begin by concentrating on the breath flowing naturally in and out of the nostrils. After time, you then start to pay attention to any sensations on the area around the nose and above the lips.
Sensations could be anything from itching, tingling, heat… anything that occurs naturally on the body. The idea is to sharpen the mind — by focusing on such a small area — to detect different sensations all over the body, that perhaps wouldn’t ordinarily be felt.
After focusing on the nose area, you then take your awareness to different parts of the body, starting from the top of the head and working systematically down to the tips of the toes and back up again. You’re not interfering with the sensations that are felt — you’re simply observing without judgment. This process is then repeated.
According to the Vipassana Trust, when this technique is practised, “The scientific laws that operate one’s thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace.”
A sensation appears, and liking or disliking begins. This fleeting moment, if we are unaware of it, is repeated and intensified into craving and aversion, becoming a strong emotion that eventually overpowers the conscious mind. — Goenka
My experience of Vipassana
During the retreat, I couldn’t write anything down, so when I started to reflect on my experience afterwards, my mind felt a little blown. During the rest periods I’d have conversations with myself and start drafting articles in my head which I can’t fully remember. So, I’ve broken up my experiences into sub sections, based on some of the things I thought about during my 10 days in silence.
As the retreat unfolded, we were continuously reminded to be equanimous as we practised. Without this quality, meditation becomes pretty hard — if not impossible.
Equanimity: “Calmness and composure especially in a difficult situation” — Oxford dictionaries
In one of the evening discourses, Goenka reminded us that one of the laws of nature is ‘change’ and that humans, are in a constant state of change, yet many of us want things to stay the same — or let me rephase, we want the good stuff to always stay the same and the bad stuff to go.
Vipassana, doesn’t teach you to ignore negative emotions or pain — rather, when this stuff comes up, the practitioner is encouraged to remain neutral or equanimous. If pain is felt, it should be acknowledged, but it’s also important to realise that the sensation or feeling will pass and change into something else, but we should never force it to go prematurely.
When you practise Vipassana, your senses are heightened and in my case, I was able to feel so much more going on in my body. I found it difficult to remain equanimous but I realised how important it was — not just in meditation, but in day to day life too. In some respects, it made me realise how damaging some of the ‘positive thinking’ philosophies are. After all, it’s human to feel the full range of emotions — it’s how we respond to them that counts.
Removing old conditionings from the mind and training the mind to be more equanimous with every experience is the first step toward enabling one to experience true happiness. — Goenka
Being silent made all the other senses so much sharper. I remember lying on the grass one day in the morning sun when it started to rain lightly. Each drop felt hot on my skin and left a lasting tingling sensation that made me feel like I’d never experienced rain before.
Equally, eating in silence every day made me stop shovelling food into my mouth and really start tasting what I was eating. I just slowed down. We’re in such a rush in the west. Before we realise it, our lives will end up becoming a series of events and we’ll have zombie walked through the rest of it, not really taking any of it in.
I thought about non attachment a lot during my 10 days in silence and think it’s worth writing about because it’s a term that’s often misinterpreted. Non attachment does not mean throwing away all your worldly possessions, running away from your life to live in an ashram, or being passive.
Non attachment, to me, means realising that there’s more to us than our physical bodies, minds, possessions, thoughts, interests, opinions, likes, dislikes…
If we cling too tightly to all of this stuff then it becomes impossible to experience what lies behind it. This is essentially what transpersonal psychology is about — the study of the self beyond the mind. It’s a strange concept to grasp because it can’t really be fully understood intellectually or in writing. Meditation, however, takes you to a state beyond the mind and thought.
Vipassana and the ego
My final lesson of the course, was about the ego.
On the last day, we were allowed to talk after the 9am meditation. It was a really bizarre experience because at the start of the course, I thought I’d be desperate to speak to people when the time came. Instead, I had the complete opposite reaction.
I remember walking outside and passing a group of people talking really loudly, and then walking towards the woods and open fields away from everyone — I just didn’t want to talk. I ended up lying down on a wooden bench underneath a tree. I felt really overwhelmed. I also felt my ego rise up and start questioning and talking at me: ‘why don’t I want to talk?’ Should I be feeling like this?’ ‘If I stay here, will people think I’m weird?’
Rather than indulging in these incessant questions, I allowed myself space and wondered how many things I’d done in life because I thought I should have done them rather than because I actually wanted to. I also wondered how many times I’d made ego based decisions rather than the inner voice that sits within us all.
My ego at the end of the course had a desire to exert itself and be noticed, yet I didn’t actually want to talk. Not indulging my ego at that point was such a huge relief. My mind was obviously still processing stuff, because as I looked up at the sky through the branches, I felt more stuff came to the surface and then dissolve away.
I figured that when the time was right, I’d end up speaking with people which is exactly what happened, and I ended up having some really mind blowing conversations.
Would I recommend vipassana? Do I still think it’s dangerous?
It’s early days, so I can’t say vipassana changed my life, but I have decided to continue practising the technique for an hour every day. It’s also something I do think is suitable for complete beginners.
After speaking with people afterwards, I soon discovered that lots of people, had never meditated before, yet they’d got a lot out of the experience.
I still think the technique is quite extreme but I don’t think it’s dangerous, providing the practitioner is in a stable frame of mind to begin with. As for people with deep psychological issues, it soon became clear that anyone who was mentally unstable would have been advised not to do the course in the first place which is wise.
For those who think Vipassana sounds extreme, I would have to agree but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. The western world in some respects is built on ‘promises of happiness’ which in hindsight seems quite damaging to me. Vipassana shakes that belief on its head. To some extent, we’ve all been conditioned to believe that happiness is just out of arm’s reach. If we buy into this philosophy, we’ll be waiting our whole lives for something which will never last.
True liberation and happiness, therefore, has to come from the mentality that life is continuously changing and evolving, and rather than suppressing all of the bad stuff, we just need to learn to ride with it — nothing after all stays the same.
10 day Vipassana courses are open to everyone, regardless of your background or religion, and they run solely on donations. For more information or to find a course visit the Vipassana meditation website.