I joined a Vipassana meditation course without knowing what it was. My favourite cousin and wild spirit whom I deeply love once told me I had to do a Vipassana as it would change my life. So I unquestioningly signed up. Only then did I start reading up on it and realise what deep mud I had gotten myself into. This is the daily schedule of the 10 day course:
|4:00 AM||Wake-up bell|
|4:30 – 6:30 AM||Meditation|
|6:30 – 8:00 AM||Breakfast and Rest|
|8:00 – 11:00 AM||Meditation (with one 10 minute break)|
|11:00 AM – 1:00 PM||Lunch (optional question time with teacher for 30 mins)|
|1:00 – 5:00 PM||Meditation (with two 10 minute breaks)|
|5:00 – 6:00 PM||Tea and rest|
|6:00 – 7:00 PM||Meditation|
|7:00 – 8:30 PM||Teacher’s discourse (video)|
|8:30 – 9:00 PM||Meditation instructions for next day|
Sound intense? If that isn’t enough, check out some of the rules.
- Noble Silence – this means no talking for 10 days. At all. Except if you have a question for the teacher or an issue which a volunteer worker can help with. Even beyond no talking, no eye contact with anyone either! Of course, no physical contact. Also of course, no contact with anyone outside the course (our phones and laptops were confiscated, along with all reading and writing materials).
- No exercise except walking. No jogging, not even yoga! This was the hardest rule for me.
- Complete segregation of men and women.
- No eating after midday – only old students (who had done a previous course) were expected to do this, thank goodness, so I gorged myself at tea time on the snacks provided.
- Then of course the expected no alcohol, no drugs, no provocative clothing, no lying, no sexual activity, no stealing, and no killing.
- Stay for the entire course. Once you commit and start, don’t leave.
The rules all had good reason which we gradually understood – if you want explanation, just comment below and I’ll get back to you.
What is Vipassana?
Why would anyone put themselves through this torture?
Vipassana meditation is a technique that eradicates suffering, with the aim of eventually attaining total liberation and full enlightenment. The practice eliminates the 3 causes of misery: craving, aversion, and ignorance, and teaches us to not react in an unbalanced way to pleasant and unpleasant situations. It is a process of self-purification by self-observation.
The word Vipassana means to see things as they really are, rather than as they appear to be. The three steps along the path to enlightenment are sila (moral conduct), samadhi (mastery of the mind), and panna (wisdom/insight).
All this probably sounds like garble to you, as it did to me until actually doing the course, which I took up in cold, northern India, at the Dhamma Thali Vipassana Centre near Jaipur, Rajasthan.
My Vipassana Experience
Day 1 – Anapana meditation
Can’t even concentrate for more than 2 breaths without my mind wandering.
Day 2 – Anapana meditation
14 hours of “meditation” into this course and I have definitely not meditated yet.
Suddenly 30 minutes of straight focus happened – YES!
Day 3 – Anapana meditation
Excited to learn Vipassana meditation tomorrow, 3 days is more than enough to “focus on breathing” and I’m getting bored.
Day 4 – Vipassana meditation
What the hell is this? Why the hell am I here?
Day 5 – Vipassana meditation
This is horrible and it’s cold and I’m lonely and my back hurts. My only 3 sources of joy are:
- the few scarce minutes of sun between afternoon meditations
- the nightly 1.5 hour “Dhamma discourse” videos – the teacher is funny
- the wonderful vegetarian food
My sole source of entertainment: Girl 1 row in front and 1 seat to the left. She has a whole pile of cushions and keeps trying to wiggle into comfort like a nestling bird. She also always has an incredulous expression on her face.
My source of inspiration: Girl 1 row in front and 4 seats to the left. Whenever I look at her, she is sitting very straight, (apparently) in deep meditation. No slacking.
Day 6 – Vipassana meditation
Still don’t know what I’m doing here. It’s miserable and I want to cry. I would honestly have left this morning if it wasn’t for my pride as well as my love and respect for the cousin who ordered me to take the course. Aliya, I was kind of mad at you by this time <3
Day 7 – Vipassana meditation
I think I can see where this is going, and maybe, just maybe, I might like it.
Day 8 – Vipassana meditation
I do like it.
Day 9 – Vipassana meditation
Everyone should do a Vipassana.
Day 10 – Metta Bhavana meditation
We can talk today – yay! Hoarse voices.
Day 11 – Metta Bhavana meditation
I cried after today’s final metta (loving-kindness) meditation. Sobbed. Because I realised my childhood dream was actually valid after being told my whole life it wasn’t.
We have a tradition that when your eyelash comes off, you blow it off the palm of your hand and make a secret wish. As a child, my wish was always “I wish for everyone in the world to be happy.” Whenever I expressed this wish to anyone, it would be criticised as silly, impossible, too idealistic, impractical – so I slowly learned to keep it to myself and suppress it. The big, bad world has no place for such unrealistic dreams if you want to survive. To make it, you need to develop a mean face, tough skin, and hard attitude.
During the metta meditation, we were guided to send out good, loving vibrations, wishing peace, harmony and happiness for all beings. Suddenly something clicked and joy started spreading from my chest through all my veins. Tears formed as I realised my lifelong dream since childhood was valid and it was not only OK, but a good thing, to wish joy for each and every living being.
Men are much noisier meditators than women. They fart, burp, cough, sneeze, grunt, sigh and make strange sounds with surprisingly high volume and frequency! I ended up really appreciating the segregation of the sexes 😉
The meditation chant was in the ancient Pali language but I kept hearing 2 things that made me chuckle. One was “panya,” which means “rat” in Swahili. The other was “gay protection.”
Much to my delight, I soon realised that Vipassana is the ultimate Buddhist practice, and during the course learnt the core of Buddhist philosophy and principles. I have been meaning to explore Buddhism for years. Note that it was constantly emphasized that Vipassana is for everyone, not just Buddhists.
Now that the course is over…
I was surprised to notice some positive changes in my mentality after the course. I’ve been feeling quite chilled out, and even the noisy city streets of Jaipur didn’t stress me out. My feelings towards others are much more positive and loving. Rather than getting irritated with people who do annoying things, I’m either merely raising my eyebrows without anger, or actually feeling love and fondness for them! When I got a horrible bout of the stomach runs, I didn’t mind at all, knowing it would pass with time. I have a general presence of mind, experiencing the moment fully without worrying about the past or future. I am feeling a lot of love and goodwill towards all people around me.
It was definitely worth it, and I do think almost everyone would greatly benefit from doing a Vipassana, as would society at large – imagine a world where people feel love and compassion for all others, and do not experience suffering due to being rid of all craving and aversion. The mind-shift change starts within each individual and effects radiate through all they interact with. Note that the course has no cost – you are free to give a donation at the end. Check out a location near you here.
Vipassana’s theoretical teachings are pretty much the same as a lot of such life-improving and/or spiritual teachings – but the reason Vipassana rocks is that it forces you to experience first-hand these teachings so that you actually understand how to apply them to your life.
Of course, I don’t buy every single aspect of the Vipassana as it is taught in its “pure and pristine form.” For example, the teachings presume a soul lives through many lives and carries karma through. I would love to believe that karma will follow people beyond death, but cannot accept or reject (yet) that concept without proof. Also, I did not appreciate the subtle marketing of Vipassana over other forms of meditation. Yes it is wonderful, and I noticed without being constantly reminded. Finally, being a positivity addict, even if I’m not allowed to “crave,” I would still like to heartily enjoy every present moment – which perhaps is allowed by Vipassana, but the emphasis is on eradication of suffering.
In conclusion, I think a combination of the anicca concept of impermanence from Vipassana coupled with Eckhart Tolle’s power of now makes the perfect cocktail. Remembering that every unpleasant incident will blow over, one can avoid aversion. Remembering that every pleasant situation will end at some point, once can avoid attachment and craving. Observing the sensations on the body that arise from pleasant and unpleasant scenarios, while maintaining a balanced mind without preference, allows one to master the mind and remain peaceful. These are Vipassana teachings. On the other hand, keeping one’s mind in the now and appreciating every aspect of the present moment can lead to endless joy. While in the now, observing the mind’s running thoughts and feelings as proposed by Tolle is, I believe, a similar practice to Vipassana’s method of observing physical sensations on the body – it just chooses the a different sense to observe (Vipassana teaching also mentions the existence of thoughts and feelings as the 6th sense).
My Plan for Change
Help me out friends! Please remind me if you see me slacking in my minor commitments:
- Keep a balanced mind in all situations, remembering anicca (impermanence). For example, nipping in the bud anger, worry, tension, disappointment, sadness, passion, desire (craving), hatred (aversion). This is where I could definitely use some help! If you see me getting hot-headed or freaking out about something, just whisper to me “anicca” or “impermanence” or “constant change.”
- Power of Now – keep the mind in the present as much as is practical, observing sensations from the 6 senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell, taste, and thoughts & feelings)
- Meditate at least once a day from 5:30-6:30am, and if possible, again in the evening
- Freely feel love and compassion for all beings indiscriminately
Bhavatu sabba mangalam
May you and all beings experience real peace, real harmony, real happiness