I attended my first Vipassana course from 20-31 October 2021 in the Dhamma Dipa Centre, Hereford. Out of the 6,000,932,123 thoughts I had throughout the experience, ranging from the profound to the profane, here are some of the more useful ones.
For the past two years, I have been struggling with my meditation practice. Having ardently practised Heartfulness meditation, which features prominently on this blog, I suffered a spiritual trauma in August 2019 and subsequently stopped meditating. I had heard of Vipassana from a number of Indian friends and the idea of it had always intrigued me. All of them had professed that it had changed them in some way. The framework seemed unique: commit to 10 days in silence, forego technology, and learn the technique of Vipassana meditation. Vipassana represented a fresh new frontier, free from the baggage associated with my previous meditation and its respective community and I was hoping that it would catapult me back into daily practice.
After two attempts were foiled by COVID, my third attempt was successful. I travelled to the Dhamma Dipa centre in Hereford, located in the rolling hills of the English countryside. Our group totalled 100 people of all ages and ethnicities: 50 women and 50 men. I was parted from my phone and my purse; two items which remain almost constantly on my person. I was allocated my dorm number, my seat number in the dining room, and my seat number in the meditation hall. After some housekeeping rules were read out to the group and we settled into our dorm, we were summoned to the meditation hall. It was then that we were first introduced to the voice of S.N.Goenka; the teacher who popularised Vipassana and who is responsible for the way the course is structured today. His voice was to become a familiar staple of our meditation; guiding us, encouraging us, humouring us – and occasionally chastising us. We committed to five precepts; not to kill, steal, lie, undertake any sexual activity, and to avoid all intoxicants. And to do it all in noble silence.
Like a curtain signaling the first act, darkness descended. So did the silence.
The silence is the easy part
Most people who I spoke to about the requirement of remaining silent throughout the course proclaimed that they would not be able to stay silent for that long. In fact, the silence was the easy part. By removing the expectation of conversation, I was able to draw my attention inward and focus on the meditation. As the course progressed, Goenka advised us “not to play the game of sensations”, in other words, not to start our meditation expecting it to be pleasurable and to not become competitive in the pursuit of interesting meditative experiences. As all of us had come from different backgrounds, with some people meditating for the first time, I understood the silence as a valuable pedagogical method of preventing us from comparing our ‘progress’, or what kind of experiences we were having through the meditation. In addition to the silence, removing technology reduced distractions and interference from the outside world. This enabled each one of us to focus more deeply on our individual practice.
The mind will rebel
The transition from the rhythms of daily life into the very different structure of a Vipassana course is a disorienting one. The sound of my phone alarm was replaced by a gong, which signalled my wake up time, mealtimes, and meditation times. I rose before sunrise and adapted to two meals a day. Without the distraction of technology, I found that time became stretched and boundless. Still, I strode around the centre like I was perpetually in a hurry to be somewhere until I realised that I had nowhere to be but here. When I sat for meditation for the first three days and was instructed to simply observe the inflow and outflow of my breath, I was overwhelmed by the incessant chatter of my mind. Goenka likens the unregulated thought pattern of the mind to a monkey swinging from tree to tree; no sooner has the monkey grabbed on to one vine or thought, and it is on to the next. At the end of the course, a participant remarked that she felt like her mind was like a monkey, clapping cymbals, trapped in a washing machine on spin. The mind, suddenly deprived of the stimulus of our modern lives, takes time to adjust. Adjust, it does. But first, it rebels.
Pain is part of the practice
When I asked my hairdresser who had also done a Vipassana course if he had any tips, he told me to try sitting in meditation for longer periods of time in the run up to the course and to pack some Mars Bars since the food consists of a plain, vegetarian diet.
In true form, I asked for advice and then eschewed it. Having meditated intensively in ashrams across India, I cockily thought that sitting for long periods of time would not be an issue for me. I was sorely, sorely wrong. Goenka recommends sitting on a cushion, cross-legged and preferably unaided (ie, without a backrest), although some people did receive chairs and backrests as the course progressed. This posture is not a position that I am accustomed to and given that each sitting is one hour in length, and that the schedule mandates at least 3 hours of meditation with capacity of up to 8 hours of meditation daily – my body revolted. After day 5 we had what were called “sittings of strong determination” where we were instructed to try not to move or adjust our positions during the hour sitting. I thought this was some kind of sick joke. However, the more I practised the Vipassana technique, the more that I realised that the pain is part of it. As we are asked to scan the body from head to foot and foot to head, becoming aware of the sensations throughout, I became aware of the pleasurable and painful sensations. Particularly, how when I was feeling pleasurable sensations I would experience intense attachment to them and disappointment if they disappeared. Similarly, I would experience intense aversion to painful sensations and my mind would seek to escape from them by bringing me out of the present; focusing instead on the future, or the past. By not identifying with the pain and practising non-attachment to it, the pain faded into the background. In doing so, I learned to accept the reality as it is, rather than the idealised version of what I wished it to be, and broke the trance of reactivity by observing the sensations objectively. Goenka’s interpretation of Vipassana is a manifesto for happiness; by not reacting you can weather through the “vicissitudes of life” with resiliency.
Change is the only constant
As the technique of Vipassana is a technique of becoming aware of the sensations in our body, it requires intense observation of the body, the mind and the self (or, as I will discuss later, lack thereof). Each meditation session is different and during each session, the body produces different sensations and sounds, and the mind produces different thoughts and stories. Goenka asks us to observe the body as an ever-changing phenomenon and ourselves, as an ever-changing phenomenon. This learning was further compounded by being in the meditation hall, where throughout the meditation sessions, I could hear the changes in the weather, from rain pouring down overhead, to wind blowing through the trees. On two occasions, when we exited the meditation hall, the most glorious rainbows stretched over the sky. Each afternoon I went walking in the neighbouring fields and witnessed the last ebbs of autumn as more leaves fell from the trees and subtle temperature differences marked the slow creep of winter. We are changing and nature is always changing around us. This made me realise that resistance to change is resistance to our nature. Change is the only constant and thinking we can control change is a non-reality.
The self does not exist
The spiritual teacher, Tara Brach (quoting Wei Wu Wei) jokes that the reason we are unhappy is because “99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.” (Tara Brach, After the RAIN: Part 1 – The Flowering of Awake Awareness). This can sound pretty woo-woo and esoteric. In Vipassana, through the practice of body scanning, it is possible to break down the body into sensations, matter, and delve further into the energetic origin of our being. During the meditation, I understood that the self is an egoic construction of the mind. When we peel back the layers of ourselves, the self ceases to exist.
Continuity of practice is the secret of success
Vipassana is fundamentally a meditation practice and like any practice, is only beneficial once it is done consistently with intention. This was a thread that was reaffirmed by Goenka throughout the 10 days. To experience the benefits it is recommended to practice for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. With the demands of modern life, many participants admitted at the end of the course that they thought this expectation was unrealistic. I was searching to kick-start a regular practice again, after considerable time struggling with my own meditation practice. Through Vipassana, I made peace with my past issues with meditation and decided that I wanted to return to Heartfulness. Since returning from Vipassana, I have re-established a consistent practice and reconnected to the Heartfulness community.
Spirituality is mediated
Each evening, we watched a recording of S.N. Goenka’s discourses, which gave the theoretical framework to the experiential work we had been doing on that particular day. He also speaks about morality and other aspects of meditation. These recordings were taken in 1991 and are almost 30 years old. Goenka passed away in 2013 but he continues to spread the teachings through this medium. It occurred to me that spirituality is mediated and that it’s through recording equipment and technology that we are able to be guided by his instructions today. This has facilitated the spread of Vipassana centres across the world, as it is no longer required to seek out a teacher or ‘guru’ in a faraway land. At the end of the course, we were invited to download an app to be updated about events and other courses. This shows that spirituality has modernised with technology.
Leaving the centre and re-entering the world outside was daunting. What surprised me was that so little had changed in the 10 days spent away from the constant updates, notifications and messages that siphon our attention. And yet, the way that I engaged with the world was different. As I sat on the train back to London, the train came to a standstill and we were informed of quite a significant delay. All around me, people let out sighs of annoyance, angrily calling relatives and loved ones, cursing the poor train service and their bad luck. I was unfazed.
Accepting the reality as it is makes this human journey a smooth one.