I came back from a 10 day Vipassana course this weekend.
This post is about:
- my experience during the course
- similar ideas/techniques I’ve tried in the past
- what one should know about Vipassana before going for it
- a simple overview of Vipassana
This post covers mostly publicly available information about Vipassana and will go into my experience with it.
Vipassana is a meditation technique.
It makes a couple of philosophical assertions, but, it is non-sectarian.
It is non-sectarian in the sense, it is practicable without buying into some of the beliefs about life/death etc that come along with it.
It expects no one to convert from one religion to another, they also don’t proselytise.
The flip side to this is, they expect you, for the period of 10 days, to not actively practice the religion you follow in the outside world.
Their view on this is that Vipassana is a non-sectarian, universal technique with an aim to counter the suffering and misery that one is bound to face in the world and practice of any religious rites or rituals will make this hard to do.
An interesting way in which this is expressed (I’m paraphrasing here), there is no such thing as a hindu-pain, a muslim-pain, a christian-pain, an atheist-pain, an agnostic-pain or hindu-happiness, muslim-happiness, christian-happiness, atheist-happiness, agnostic-happiness ( or any such permutation/combination of relgion/caste/community with emotion/feeling). The emotion is emotion, the feeling is feeling, regardless of who one pretends is in the outside world, as a result, the solution must be universal, it cannot cater to a demographic, nor should it.
The entire 10 day course I went for was free, all the Dhamma centres are run on donations with the help of volunteers.
The course is 10 days long, but, you arrive there one day in advance and leave the day after the last day, so, technically, you have to bank ~12 days in order to do this.
Through these 10 days, they teach 3 different techniques,
- Anapana - a technique focused on being aware of ones breathing
- Vipassana - a technique focused on being aware of sensations on the body
- Metta-Bhavana - sharing ones goodwill and merits with the world and wishing the world happiness
What you should know
During this 10 day course, one observes 5 Silas (precepts), they are to abstain from:
- killing living creatures
- wrong conduct in sexual pleasures
- taking any intoxicants
What they do, is they take these precepts to their extremes in order to make sure no breaking of them happens.
They do this by:
- serving only vegetarian food
- providing you with accommodation + taking away belongings for those 10 days
- separating men and women completely (what this does for men, women who are attracted to same sex I don’t know, but, I think regardless, people can be trusted to not behaving wrongfully atleast in a closed environment such as this one)
- Noble Silence - where one is not supposed to speak to another meditator directly, cannot even acknowledge their presence, can only ask questions about the technique to the volunteers, teachers, is not allowed any reading and writing material
All of this is agreed to prior to coming for the course and enforced from day 0.
This will sound a little extreme to people, if it does, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
They also recommend that you continue practising the 5 silas after the course.
The interesting thing about these 5 silas is that looking at it from most religious perspectives, they would be signs of good morality and hence they have a universal religious appeal. For the non-religious( like me ) these silas are acceptable because they are rules everyone must follow, they are precepts that anyone who wants to learn this must follow. This makes it a question of discipline vs does this send one to hell/heaven or make them immoral. To put it another away, they are not about pre-judgement or judgement, they are for yourself.
The next thing to know is the schedule : Sample schedule here
This is no retreat.
It will be hard work, taxing, cathartic and, rigorous.
That sample schedule will be followed on all days barring some minor changes on a couple of days.
The schedule coupled with the Silas sets you up for what they call Samadhi and Panya Samadhi is mastery over the mind, Panya is wisdom.
At the end of each day, there will be an hour long discourse that summarises what one would have experienced on that day and what one must practice they next day. All these discourses are videos of S.N. Goenka that were recorded back in 1991 that continue to be played to this day.
I think they do this to standardise the experience of the meditators to some level.
You bring the most minimal luggage you can live with for 10 days and nothing else.
You also don’t pay for the course/lodging/food. This is considered a way for you to experience life as a monk, in the sense that the course is provided as a result of volunteers and donations from other people, so, for 10 days, in a simulated way, you live on charity.
Vipassana as is taught is considered to be the purest form of the technique that Buddha practised to attain Nirvana.
Whether or not you want Nirvana, I certainly have no such aspirations, it’s an interesting experience to go through.
Vipassana is not the first time I’ve encountered its main ideas : Awareness, Impermanence and, equanimity. I wrote about some of this in a post earlier this year.
Growing up I was to some extent exposed to Advaita Vedanta, which talks about some of these concepts, I’ve read similar ideas in text of other major modern religious and, in Roman Stocism.
The best example of all these concepts expressed in a single text would be, in my view, the Bhagavad Gita - especially Chapter 2.
Sometime in college, I came across this video called ‘This is Water’ by David Foster Wallace, which in a weird way talks about similar concepts while preaching the importance of acknowledging suffering, ignorance, and being empathetic.
In Vipassana they talk about 3 types of wisdom (Romanized spellings - my own):
- Sutta-Maya Panya - wisdom from listening to other people
- Chinta-Maya Panya - intellectual and analytical wisdom from effort of reading, learning
- Bhavana-Maya Panya - wisdom from personal experience
Everyone has on some level Sutta-Maya and Chinta-Maya Panya, Vipassana doesn’t bother with either.
Vipassana wants to deal directly with only Bhavana-Maya Panya.
It’s a technique to help you experience Awareness, Impermanence (anitya) and be equanimous towards it all.
I’ve also been exposed to and ventured out to try other meditation techniques in the past.
They have been from religious institutions and from non-religious ones.
But, they involved a philosophical buy in in the form of one belief or another, which I could mentally never do ( if that works for you, please continue, it just didn’t work very well for me )
Another proxy one can use for evaluating a technique is trying to see who the practitioners of the technique are and how they are as people.
I’ll cover my motivations for trying meditation techniques out in the next section, but, in my observations, be it people who meditate through activities(dance, singing, sports), religious devotion, and some of the other meditation techniques - I personally haven’t seen enough proof that those techniques ease their suffering beyond the time period where they practice it.
This is not to say that there is no one who is an exception to this, but, if the only proof is the exception then it may not be the right solution for me.
For the past year and a half, I have been exploring philosophy and such practices as deeply and widely as possible whenever I’ve found the concept personally agreeable, I think I did encounter practices and philosophies that helped me, I’ve experienced change in my self in multiple ways but, I felt like I had plateaued earlier this year despite continuous practice and reading.
I love reading and a book I read earlier this year was Anna Karenina, there were 2 passages towards the end that hit me really hard :
‘Please bear to the right, sir, there’s a stump,’ said the coachman, guiding Levin by the reins. ‘Kindly do not touch me and do not instruct me!’ said Levin, vexed by this interference from the coachman. This interference vexed him just as it always had, and at once he sadly felt how mistaken he had been in supposing that his inner state could instantly change him in his contacts with reality.”
This passage comes right after Levin(who is a self-portrait of Tolstoy) has a spiritual awakening. The other passage is the last para in the book :
‘I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!’”
In a way this summarises Tolstoy’s philosophy that he went on to express in other works including The Kingdom of God is within you.
But, when I read this passage is when I acknowledged my plateau, this is not to say that I feel myself in way comparable to the feelings, maturity, wisdom, spirituality etc of Tolstoy.
It did help me realise this though and I’ve been on the search since.
In truth, I had to cancel my Vipassana course sometime back in December last year, but, thankfully I could carve out the time this time around.
So, in a sense I had been through in different ways (as has everyone else) phases of Sutta-Maya Panya and Chinta-Maya Panya - this phase for the past few years, leading to intellectual conversations and debates with friends that helped no-one and went nowhere.
Intellectualising the concepts of Awareness, Anitya and Equanimity(Upekkha) regardless of source through which I read it, did not help me practice it. I still suffered.
Vipassana, according to them anyway, is a technique that enables you to slowly acquire Bhavana-Maya Panya, by experiencing the concepts.
To do this they make one philosophical assertion, the mind and the body are in a symbiotic relationship where the impulses on the body and our reactions to them ( and vice-versa ) feed off of each other to define our likes and dislikes or to use their terms - our cravings and aversions. This is the only belief that one has to hold.
On the lodging level, I had a room which I shared with one other person (who I did not communicate with until the course ended), it has a comfortable bed, a small shelf, a fan and a mosquito net - not too shabby.
For food - there was decent vegetarian food thrice a day, first at 6:30 AM, second at 11 AM and the last one at 5:30 PM.
Then there was silence.
The days were pre-planned down to the minute, and everything was always on time, never any delay in the schedule.
On day 0, I gave up my valuables for the period of stay there. There was a short discourse about the technique and what is to be practised on day 1 followed by a short meditation session.
All the discourses, as mentioned earlier were recorded videos from a long time ago by S.N. Goenka. He turned to be an engaging and genial orator, the discourses are easy to listen to and easier to recollect.
My motivation for searching out ‘solutions’ is the pain that I have felt over the past ~3 years, they haven’t been kind to me and it has made me mature and grow up as a person, but, it also helped me understand how wounded I was and I was looking for ways to heal.
With maturity comes the understanding the pain is not mine alone, every single person around is suffering in their own way.
Again, none of this is groundbreaking, this is simple to understand, hard to practice.
While all of this made me more empathetic in general, I did notice edge cases where I failed miserably.
When it comes to the idea of love, I resonated deeply with what I read earlier in a book called ‘The art of loving’ by Erich Fromm and yet found myself lacking when putting it into practice.
On the occasions where I did, I found myself hurting, which is another form of failing in this regard.
To sum up, my motivations were : to heal, to love, to be more empathetic, and to ease my suffering first before getting to others.
Coming back to my experience during the course.
Days 1-3 : Anapana
On the first 3 days, we were taught the technique of Anapana meditation.
This is a technique that revolves around being aware of your breath, not regulating it, as it is, as it comes, as it goes, every moment, from moment to moment.
The idea here is, as they put it, to experience the truth within by observing the reality within the framework of the body as it is, not what it should be.
This is done by focusing ones attention to the area around the nose.
The objective of this is to train the mind to be increasingly more aware of the natural breathing that we do, to do this, the focus is sharpened from day to day, until the awareness is good enough that one can start feeling subtle sensations in a small areas around the nose. Anapana is was to train the mind to be ready for the practice of Vipassana.
Day 1 was a really hard day for me personally.
The schedule involves ~11 hours of sitting and meditating, in this case, sitting and observing ones breath. Over and over, over and over, every moment, from moment to moment.
It can get to you.
Especially because the mind keeps wandering, and as you become increasingly more aware of your breathing, you also become more aware of how flaky your mind is and how much and how far it wanders. This revelation can be a little unsettling.
But, the hardest part is, there is no one you can talk to about it. You just have to get on with it.
Getting on with it in this case is waking up the next day again at 4, which is not something people do normally, and if you’re like me, you’re used to sleeping quite late in the night, which means, of the 6 hours provided for you, you end up sleeping for about 2-3 hours, and once you wake up, you get to sit and meditate for 2 hours.
During some of these sessions you are allowed to get up and get some water or stretch your legs if you’re feeling tired but, during the ‘group meditation’ sessions this is not allowed, which makes it even harder to go through.
But, a lot of this teaches you something, the other 2 concepts that are central to Vipassana are Anitya - Impermanence and Equanimity.
Day 4 - First day of Vipassana
On day 4 you learn through a change in the timetable that one of the usual 1 hour sessions in the afternoon is now going to be a 2 hour session and it will be one where you cannot change the position you sit in for the entirety of the 2 hours. This is called Aditthana - Strong determination.
It is during this session that the technique of Vipassana is first taught.
While Anapana is all about observing breath, Vipassana is about observing sensations on the body.
This sensation - as they will repeat through the next few days - can be anything - an itch, heat, subtle vibrations, tingling, cold, the feel of breeze, literally anything.
The idea is that these sensations exist on us at all times already, we are just not aware of them. Anapana prepares and trains the mind to be aware of them.
With this awareness you sit for 2 hours and observe your body part by part, piece by piece and start noticing sensations.
The sensation that was most obvious to me was pain, ~40 hours of sitting and meditating over 4 days can do that to you, and going back to the room and sleeping that night was a challenge in itself.
But, through all this, what is to be learnt is the wisdom that these sensations, whatever they may be, pain, heat etc, have one common characteristic, that of arising and passing, that of Impermanence - Anitya. The second thing to be learnt from this is to not react/to be equanimous, to not crave pleasant sensations, and not be averse to unpleasant ones, like pain.
I’ve had 2 bike accidents over the past 2 years, both of which have hurt my knee, through this session I had to sit through the harshest physical pain I have ever experienced in both my knees, and simply observe it and be equanimous towards it with the knowledge that even this is impermanent.
Days 5-9 - Continue Vipassana
Through the next 5 days you continue learning and advancing on the technique of Vipassana guided by the discourses at the end of each day.
I went through some interesting experiences along the way.
To explain this, we need some context.
As I mentioned earlier, they make a philosophical assertion about the symbiotic relationship between the body and the mind.
The implication of this is that feelings that we experience manifest themselves on the body in the form of sensations, our reactions to this sensations become how we express ourselves.
In a way, the idea is that these sensations are an abstract of the innermost-unconscious/subconscious part of the mind that we tend to be able to access directly.
So, instead, we interact with the abstraction in the form of the sensation.
Another belief here is that we hold positive or negative attachments - cravings and aversion - through our past experiences and reactions to such experiences in these innermost parts of the mind, they call these Sankaras. The sensations that we experience are the manifestations of these Sankaras coming to the surface either as reactions to thing we are experiencing now ( sitting for a long time ) or as a result of being equanimous to what we are experiencing now, things we have experienced in the past.
I didn’t and still don’t fully buy into this logic.
On the 5th night, I had a migraine, one of the worst I’ve ever had. I approached the teacher at the end of the day and asked him if I could get a little extra sleep for the next day (these were among the few words that I ended up speaking in these 10 days), his reply shocked me initially, he told me to observe the migraine.
So, while I was upset for a bit, I went ahead and observed it until I fell asleep and woke up without one the next day without taking any medication etc.
The 7th day, I had a sharp pain in my right ear canal, something I’ve experienced in the past usually when I’m stressed out about some deadline, this time I knew not to ask the teacher for solutions because I knew what the answer would be.
I observed the pain whenever possible, without being averse to it or craving it, while asserting to myself that this has arisen and this will pass away, just like everything else, and it did, it took its time, but, it did.
I tried it with my knees next, simply observing the pain and then I started interesting ways in which the pain dissolved(its hard to find the right word for this), but, it did. In effect, the feeling or the sensation on the body deconstructed itself while I was observing it and not reacting to it.
Like I said, I don’t know fully buy into the logic yet, but, I know what I experienced. It’s interesting if nothing else.
Day 10-11 - Metta Bhavana
After one last Vipassana session, you are introduced to the third meditation technique.
This one is quite wholesome atleast in intent, even if its hard to think for me that is actually does much good. This one is all about sending out the goodwill, love, and compassion that you have acquired to everyone in the world.
After that, the Noble Silence ends and you speak to people there for the first time.
10 days of not talking almost teaches you how little you need to talk and how harmful talking can be.
It takes a little time for people to start talking on the 10th day and then all at once people explode, atleast on the outside, as if nothing has changed.
On Day 11 - You finish one last discourse, exchange numbers, say your goodbyes to people and leave.
It’s only been 2 days since I finished the course and I’ve spent some of that time just putting these thoughts down.
I don’t know if I would recommend it yet, I need to practice it and see if and how it helps me before I make recommendations.
I will say this though, it was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
Thank you for reading
Bhavatu sabba mangalam