I have now completed my 4th sitting of silence, and second 10-day vipassana meditation course as taught by S.N Goenka.
I realise I have not written much about the experiences (except that my second sitting inspired me to start my book so I can’t really say that). There is good reason though. As much as I have been bursting at the seams to share the experiences with anyone who would listen, I also know, as most vipassana practitioners do, that I have to tread very carefully in talking about it to those who’ve never sat one. That’s not because it’s some secret cult or because of any feeling of superiority or measurement of worth. It is simply because it is impossible for 2 people to have the same experience and the last thing we want to do is set any expectations.
It is difficult to talk about our experience without planting that seed, so most of us will opt for “it was life-changing, profound, amazing, transformative” and leave it at that. Hoping strongly that it (and our changed behaviour) would be enough to inspire the listener to go for it themselves. But that is a dream. (Unless you’re Stas, who went within 2 months of me going).
It is a tough sell without more detail, especially to the ever-sceptical westerner. So here’s to giving “a little more detail” a try.
For many years I would hear about vipassana and think “Nope. Not for me. I already spend like 85% of my life in silence and I greatly prefer not speaking to people, so it would be a holiday—but of no real benefit for me”. I was very wrong. Even after my yoga teacher training in India, a few students went straight into vipassana and at the moment of finding out I had solidified my stance: they definitely needed it. Not me.
Again, I was wrong.
But as I spoke about in this post, when “it” hits, it hits hard. The time came when I knew I needed to go. There was not a tinsel of doubt or hesitation. So I went. And I learned very quickly that it is not at all about the silence. It’s about the meditation. Silence is just a tool to help you stay with yourself—because it is a deeply personal journey that no one else can take for you. You can be taken to the water, but only you decide if you will drink. Only you know how it tastes and feels on your tongue when you do.
So what’s in the water?
The purpose of vipassana meditation is to help you see things as they really are so you can free yourself from the misery and turmoil of your mind, rather than just constantly distract yourself from it with sensory pleasures. It has universal application because the human mind works mostly the same in all of us, and we all struggle to master ourselves and our thoughts. Vipassana is a tool, or technique if you will, that can lead you to mastery. There is nothing mystical or magical about it. It has no religion or dogma or scripture and there are no prerequisites or ceremonies or rituals of any kind. It is open to all and the aim is to simply make you a more peaceful and happier human being, and by default more filled with compassion and loving-kindness. That is the short version.
It works by your own efforts and dedication only. No one else can do the work for you. You cannot pray for it. You cannot bribe your God with dāna or tithes. You do not get there by chanting or reciting the hail Mary 12 times or by confessing to your priest or by fasting for 40 days. These are all fine and wonderful if they help you to live a moral life. But they have no place in vipassana. You are asked to put aside all religious/spiritual practices and relics to give a fair and pure trial to the technique by itself. There’s no writing (eep!), no reading, communication of any kind, devices, or even exercise or yoga allowed. No distractions. Just you sitting with yourself (literally) from 4:30 a.m to 9 p.m. every day for a little more than 10 days.
You meditate not by thinking or contemplating (as some wrongly assume) but by observing or focusing on whatever that particular meditation style says to focus on. In this case, it’s your body. The meditation simply teaches you how to be aware of the sensations in your body and train yourself to not react to them. Through this, you are reprogramming your mind-body connection, which is in constant communication without your awareness, so that you can eventually change your habits of mind.
As you can imagine, this is neither a fast nor easy effort, as the two have been in a relationship your whole life. It can take just as long, and a whole lot more awareness, to cut that chord, depending on how much you work on it. And for most people, simple awareness is the first step. First, we have to develop an awareness of our bodies. We have to be able to recognise when a change is happening, and then to also understand that change is constant. That no sensation lasts forever. Surely we all know that on an intellectual level, but very few of us have sat with the experience of it. Even fewer, without reacting to it.
Now, I want to pause here and make a point about what it really means to “not react”, especially to all my spiritual friends on the path of “good vibes only” and “life is always amazing”. Love you guys, and I know you mean well, but life is full of misery. To deny that, and pretend we can just smile our way out of difficulty is to spit in the face of the millions of innocent children and not-so-innocent adults who die or suffer from horrific conditions daily. We don’t need to pretty things up to be peaceful and joyful and certainly not to be compassionate. We also do not become this by ignoring unpleasant sensations/feelings, wishing them away, hiding them as bad, or pretending they don’t exist. This is not what Buddha meant when he taught of non-reaction. In fact what he meant, was that we should be aware of the sensation in our body first. Before the mind-consciousness gets a hold of it and reacts. And not only do we not do that by ignoring it, but we actually pay very close attention to it. We observe it closely. We examine it. We sit down and have tea with it. We look at it objectively. Objectively. The objectivity is the non-reaction. If we have already gone to the source of the sensation or feeling, before the mind, we are able to stop the pattern of thoughts, which are what create suffering and misery for us and others and at worst, unwholesome action.
Example: there’s a sensation. The mind labels it sadness. The thoughts come. “I’m sad. I’m upset I feel sad. I shouldn’t. What’s wrong with me? I hate feeling like this. I wish I never have to feel it again. He/she/it isn’t worth it. I thought I overcame this. It’s his/hers/its fault I feel this way. I don’t like him/her/it.” And on and on it can go forever. It multiplies your misery and sets the pattern to repeat the next time there’s a similar sensation.
This is a reaction.
Vipassana Response: there’s a sensation. You focus on the breath. The feeling. Notice it. Observe it. It passes without a single thought attached. Nothing is multiplied. You are calm and equanimous to take whatever action from a place of reason if action needs to be taken. **Vipassana does not encourage inaction. It just discourages blind action.
Another example. This time with what one may call a pleasant or “positive” sensation. The mind labels it happiness. Thoughts come. “Oh, this is wonderful. It feels so great. Why can’t I feel this forever/more often/longer (Impossible)? I deserve this. I hope he/she/it never goes away or changes (impossible again). This is happening because I’m amazing and I deserve it. Anyone who messes it up for me would really upset me. I don’t know what I would do if it’s taken away.” Again, it’s endless and can go any number of ways. All of which leads to misery because everything is impermanent. Both pleasant and unpleasant sensations have the same nature, yet we react to them very differently.
It is that cycle we try to break when we observe. It is not about saying “Oh no, sadness is bad. Let me shove it away and slap a love and light band-aid over it until I no longer feel it.” It never was. Nor is it about seeing sadness and suffering with it because “it’s just part of life” and then creating more misery for yourself and others around you.
The middle path. Always.
Do you know how sadness begins? Anger? Fear? Excitement? Love? Happiness? With sensation. All of them. You feel sadness in your chest. Anger speeds up your blood pressure. Fear changes your breathing pattern. Excitement tickles your belly. Love flutters your heart. Happiness tingles all over. If you learn to recognise bodily sensations and treat them simply as natural phenomena which will always come and go, you will break the cycle of misery for yourself. It does not mean the sensations of whatever named emotion will no longer come. It just means it will no longer be regarded as pleasant or unpleasant and the myriad of thoughts that follow will cease. Anger will no longer lead to hatred. Love will no longer lead to passion or jealousy or craving. The sensation will come and you will enjoy or endure it objectively, both times knowing it will pass and that’s it. You do not become an unfeeling robot who doesn’t enjoy life. Neither do you become judgmental of others who suffer or crave. Isn’t it so that we enjoy things a lot more when we are present with them? Doesn’t knowing full and well that it won’t last make you appreciate and revel in it a little bit more? Or make you spend less time investing in the negativity?
This is the idea. Little by little, your response changes. You respond instead of reacting. Until eventually, you observe. And you act only when necessary, but always with compassion. Always understanding your role in all of it.
Of course, this takes time and a lot of work. Goenka Ji doesn’t wave a magic wand and then suddenly you become a perfect human being. The changes are subtle, over time. It’s taking 10 minutes to anger instead of 8. It’s cursing out a bad driver 4 times instead of 5. It’s feeling sad with only 1 self-deprecating thought instead of 3. It’s guiding one cockroach safely outside instead of killing it (still working on this with mosquitoes. I’m not perfect. And I still think they’re bioengineered weapons). It’s feeling only compassion for someone who is insulting you. It’s arguing for only half an hour instead of 2.
If I had not come back for this second sitting, I may have overlooked a lot of the progress I’ve made. I might have thought of it as circumstantial or thought I must be suppressing again. But sitting with my misery these last 11 days has shown me otherwise. Not only have I become a lot more joyful and peaceful in my own being, but I can say without a doubt that this is the best version of me that has ever existed.
I definitely understood the assignment. And like me, there were some 70 other students who sat through the course all the way to the end. Like this, there are centres all over the world where another 50, 60, 70, 100 people gather twice a month to do the same, with the pure goal of becoming a better person. This is the greatest gift and it fills me up so much to know that there are people from all walks of life, and all backgrounds, who are taking 12 days out of their lives to dedicate to this challenging but rewarding practice. It is creating a new fleet of humans who are full of joy and compassion and understanding and who, through that, learn how to live and serve with love.
May you be one of them too. May you be liberated. May you find real peace and harmony and happiness.
If you’re interested in finding a centre near you, check the website Dhamma.org. There are centres on all liveable continents. It is always free of charge, 2 meals a day and housing included. You may give a donation only at the end if you wish you pay it forward for the next student, but only if it’s with pure intention. May you be brave.