About four months ago I completed a 10-Day Vipassana course at the Dhamma Medini Meditation Centre, just north of Auckland in New Zealand. I am not sure if and how much I should share with you about the course by writing this article. However, I read a lot of Vipassana reviews and stories myself and still had a completely different experience than I was expecting. Haha, so it probably does not really matter what I write as you would probably interpret everything based on your own life experience anyway. Moreover, the beauty of the whole experience stood out for me and it really touched my heart. Therefore I could not just leave things unspoken and I hope that my story and information inspires you to go out there and see for yourself.
What is Vipassana?
That is 10 days of meditation in the meditation hall or in your private room. Wake up bell is at 4 am and the last meditation session ends at 9 pm. Breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea are provided and there is some time to rest or have a walk on the property. However, exercise in any form is not allowed. The food is completely vegetarian as no (involvement in) killing of any being is allowed. Other rules to keep the mind free from impurities are to abstain from stealing, from telling lies, from all sexual activity and from all intoxicants.
To help with these rules men and women are separated and you spend the days maintaining noble silence. That means no physical, verbal or even eye-contact with fellow meditators and servers. The only human contact you have is with the teacher during question and answer periods twice a day. Before starting the course you have to commit to fulfilling the complete 10 days. Sounds awesome right!? I mean, who does not want to commit to an isolated 10 day meditation prison.
And what is the idea behind all this?
In the end the goal is to become a Buddha or in other words to become ‘awake’ or to reach ‘enlightenment’. This Dhamma, the way to liberation, was first taught by Gautama the Buddha and eventually by Mr. Goenka who spread the teachings around the world. Although Buddhists based their religion on the teachings of Gautama, it doesn’t mean that you will have to become a Buddhist to practice this technique. Gautama never intended to create a following of people separate or “more developed” than the rest of humanity. The technique he taught is universal and thus transcends all religions, sects, races, sexuality and so on.
Vipassana literally means to see things as the really are. The theory is very simple and scientific. It all starts and ends with anicca, the universal law of nature. This law states that all things are impermanent and constantly changing. Instead of just accepting this, we tend to hold on to pleasant things and run away from unpleasant things. Through this process we create our own suffering; we crave for things we do not have and feel averted towards things we do not want to have. This reaction pattern is so deeply rooted into our minds and to change it we have to work deep within ourselves. Therefore Vipassana works at the experiential level, the level of body sensations.
The course is split into two parts. During the first 3 days of the course you work with Anapana meditation. Anapana is simply directing your attention towards the natural rhythm of your breath and the accompanying sensations. This practice has a couple of benefits and lessons for us. Since the breath is controlled by voluntary and as well as involuntary processes it functions as bridge between consciousness and unconsciousness.
Becoming conscious of an unconscious process helps you to become more aware of what is actually going on for you and your body in the present moment. You become aware of more and more subtle body sensations and of the mind-body connection.
That is, by observing the natural rhythm of the breath you realize how it is affected by impurities of the mind such as lust, fear, anger, envy or greed. Also, by trying to focus the attention on the breath you start realizing the tendency of the mind to pull you into the past or future. In short, Anapana trains the mind to be calmer and more focussed on the present reality so you can adequately practice Vipassana.
Vipassana is the real deal and it starts on the 4th day of the course. Vipassana can be seen as a very thorough and analytical study of the body. With a calm and concentrated mind you start scanning the body from top to toe and from toe to top. While scanning, the goal is to remain equanimeous. That is, observing what is without generating feelings of craving and aversion. If one manages to remain completely equanimeous while observing body sensations, no more feelings of craving of aversion are being generated.
In other words, no more conditioned responses (called saṅkhāras) are being created or reinforced. Moreover, remaining equanimeous actually provides the opportunity for old saṅkhāras dissolve. These are felt in the body as gross sensations, for example as painful, numb or throbbing sensations. Conclusively, Vipassana meditation is about developing your equanimity to dissolve all (even past-life) conditioned responses and eventually live a life free of suffering. By relieving one’s suffering, one notices that deep feelings of gratitude, love and compassion towards all of life arise naturally.
Overall, the 10-day course was one of the most beautiful, insightful and healing things I have done in my life so far. It was also a challenge and there were times that I felt quite horrible and really dreaded the coming meditation sessions. However, in my journey, I have realised that healing and personal growth is never completely comfortable. Taking steps towards a more fulfilled, joyful and peaceful life is often quite scary and/or painful. In the Vipassana course, it was especially the physical pain that stood out for me as it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. On the other side the course did leave me with a more calm, present and positive mind and I can honestly say that the pain was well worth the gain. Therefore I titled this article: Vipassana: Brainsurgery without anaesthetics.
My biggest insight/transformation was regarding my aversion to pain. When we started the Vipassana meditation, I experienced an intense pain in my lower back. In spite of the pain, I managed to sit through the first three determinations sessions. In these sessions you try to meditate for one hour straight without changing your posture. Although I barely moved, the pain did not dissolve and it actually got worse.
I started experiencing feelings of despair and failure: No matter how hard I try, this backpain of mine just won’t budge.
Then, a sudden realization came to me: This is me, working hard and yielding nothing but disappointment and it is happening everywhere in my life; from striving to impress my dad so he would come back to be with me to trying anything and everything to cure my nasal polyps. However, all without result… A short mental conversation followed:
” So I guess I will just have to observe the pain, is that right?”
” Yeah man, just watch the pain, sit with it instead of through it.”
” Ah, I really do not want to.”
” Because it really hurts.”
Man, I cried my pants off. How obvious it became how I just never truly accepted my father not being there. How I never accepted my nasal polyp being there. I absolutely hated the pain. Absolutely hated how sad it made me feel. I had made the connection intellectually before but at that moment I was able to really sit with it. I was able to really watch the sadness for what it was, at the experiential level of body sensations. Since I was finally just observing, I gave the opportunity for the pain to dissolve. Now, I can’t say (yet) that I am completely free of suffering but I am fighting pain and hurt less thereby enabling myself to better observe, let go and move on. I even feel as if my nasal polyps are clearing up hooray. I shouldn’t get to excited though…Stay equanimeous.
This correspondence of patterns at the sensational, physical/health and social levels reminded me of a documentary called inner worlds and outer worlds (http://www.innerworldsmovie.com), where they explain that the smallest particle contains the complete pattern of the whole. For example, the same pattern might occur in the very cells and atoms of my body. And on the other side, I might actually be a dysfunctional cell of a massive organ that we call the Milkyway. To me this shows how important it is to make changes within as we actually influence everything around us. As a person who was always quite focussed on helping and wanting to change other people that was quite a relief. It created more responsibility for my own thoughts and feelings and gave me the freedom to work more on myself.
I was really impressed by the amount of progress one can make in 10 days and I improved in ways I never thought possible. In the beginning, I could barely concentrate on my breathing for a couple of seconds and it was quite interesting to see to what crazy, creative and often destructive pasts or futures my mind would take me. However, in the end I was able to concentrate on breathing and sensations for long stretches and forget everything around me. On the last day we watched a documentary and there was literally no background noise in my head and I was seeing and hearing like I’d never done before.
Furthermore, I was able to notice subtler and subtler sensations as we kept on practicing and eventually became so aware that I started to wonder if the sub- or unconscious mind actually exists. Maybe it is just a matter of “not being aware of the present”? Mr. Goenka says: “The mind is a strong wild beast, however, imagine if we could actually tame it and make it work alongside us.” I say we would be present to our needs and those of others and we could fulfil all our dreams without being distracted and with limitless creativity. Although my mind now is not as calm and present as it was on the last day of the course, it has definitely helped me become more present and to “catch and reset” myself when I am drifting of in vicious thought patterns.
On the tenth day we were allowed to speak to each other again. This was the best experience of the whole course as well as the most confronting. I noted that not being distracted by my own troubles and stories at that time really enabled me to connect with other people. I felt so much love and gratitude for seeing how beautiful and unique everyone was. On the other side, it was really confronting to realize that I always thought I knew what was going on for everyone and especially of how negative they thought about me.
There were so many stories, opinions and expectations I had made up around my fellow meditators. Thankfully, they didn’t make any sense at all. Sometimes I would not even know that I’d already made up a story about a person until they started talking and I would suddenly be surprised that he was actually very kind or, for example, had a really high pitched voice. Knowing this now helps me to better connect with the actual person instead of with the person I think they are. Furthermore, I am starting to see that most people are actually way more supportive and accepting than I always believed they were.
Finally, the great thing of the course is that you can actually experience everything you just read for yourself. For me, that was awesome. Especially since I was often (sometimes still am) looking for answers outside of myself. I spent hours on internet searching for my best diet, for what yoga and breathing techniques I should use for nasal congestion and what movies I would definitely like according to IMDB. All very useful information but very dangerous if you actually never ask yourself and your own body what works for you. In my opinion, modern life unfortunately works like that. From the day we are born we are told what to do and what to believe. Amazingly, the Buddha does not want you to believe but invites you to come and see.
Oke, what now?
If you are interested in doing a course I would refer you to the Vipassana website: https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index. There are a lot of countries where the courses are being given. Note that you often have to book a couple of months in advance as the courses are quite popular. If you want more information feel free to ask any questions or watch the documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkxSyv5R1sg.
Furthermore, a friend of mine has some explanatory videos about Vipassana on his YouTube channel. (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9o_6dH1fbdHvglkU5AqHaw). If you don’t want to do a course, that is also perfect. If you are worried about the physical pain please note this: Everything always happens within the limits of you and your body and friendly Mr. Goenka will be there every evening to treat your wounds: “Patiently and persistently, you are bound to be successful.”
Written by Ramon.