Vipassana is really hard.
For those who don’t know what I’m referring to Vipassana is a meditation technique expounded by Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as The Buddha, 2500 years ago in India. It is outlined most famously in a text called the Sattipathana Sutta and lays out a rigorous, almost scientific method of self-examination in the service of the lofty ambition of eradicating human misery.
Buddhism was practically extinguished in India after the Turkish conquests of the 12th century. It was kept alive by small communities in the Himalayas and of course had by then spread all over Asia. Interest in Buddhism in India was reignited in the early 20th century by the efforts of a group called the Mahabodhi society and then by the exodus of Tibetan religious leaders from their homeland into India in the 1950’s and 60’s. Over the years Buddhism began to gain some prominence within The Dalit community, the so-called “untouchable” caste, with it’s emphasis on compassion and equality. But to this day it still remains a small minority of the overall religious picture of India.
In 1976, a man named S.N. Goenka, a Burmese-born Indian, began to set up meditation centres in India. Goenka was a longtime student of a Burmese Buddhist master named Sayagi U Ba Khin, and promoted his version of Vipassana, which he claimed was the closest surviving technique to the original teachings of the Buddha. He laid it out in a uniquely non-sectarian fashion, intended to appeal to people of all religions, as well as non-religious people, and presented it as a rational, scientific process to relieve the suffering arrived at through the processes of craving and aversion. Today there are over 300 of these Vipassana centres all over the world, including close to 100 in India and it is enjoying an unprecedented surge in popularity, with some of the centres capable of housing hundreds of meditators at a time. Most of the spots in these centres are filled well in advance, some with long waiting lists. Clearly, there is a hunger in society for what Vipassana offers, which is astonishing, because this particular version of Vipassana is really, really hard.
A Goenka-style Vipassana retreat requires all participates to undergo a 10 day course in which they are taught the technique very slowly and methodically. While undertaking the course the students are closed off from all contact with the outside world. All electronic devices are turned in. There are no books allowed. No music. No writing implements. The only things they are allowed to keep with them are basically clothes, bedding, toiletries and necessary medications.
All the students take a vow of silence for the ten days. All communication between the students is strictly forbidden including gestures and notes, even eye contact is discouraged. Only 2 real meals are served, none of them after noon. New students can have some fruit in the evening, but old students are to eat nothing after lunch. The morning bell rings at 4am and the first meditation sitting begins at 4:30. There are a total of 10 1/2 hours of the day allocated to meditation. Technically only 3 of these are strictly compulsory (as in they won’t let you leave,) but none of them really feel optional and it’s expected that you honour the schedule. The meditation itself requires a great deal of alertness, attentiveness and self-control and is both physically and mentally draining. It’s hard. But people persevere and continue coming back because of how well it works.
I completed my first 10 day course seven years ago at a time when my mental health was not in great shape. It was instrumental in my recovery. In the intervening years between then and now I have had, along with my yoga practice, a fairly consistent Buddhist meditation practice in which I’ve trained, in a casual way, with a few different disciplines. But it wasn’t until now that I decided to go back in, at one of the oldest centres, in Bodh Gaya, a couple miles from the place where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. Though I had a fairly consistent practice, I hadn’t meditated for more then an hour in a day in a long while.
Turns out meditating for 1 hour a day is alot easier then meditating for 10 1/2 hours a day.
This sounds like an obvious statement, but part of what I mean is that it’s even easier to access a meditative state in an hour sitting then in a day of constant meditation, especially at first. If you’re meditating for an hour you set aside the time, sit down, relax, focus, try not think, do the technique, get real peaceful, or if you don’t get real peaceful you sort of sit with that and be alright with it and don’t worry too much about stuff you can deal with later, no problems.
When you’re meditating all day your mind starts to rebel almost immediately, especially if in the intervening time it has had nothing to occupy it. All of the contents of your mind immediately come to the surface and you start to become intimately aware of the way your mind extrudes thoughts. Some will come and possess your attention for a while. Some will flicker by in waves without you picking them out for analysis. Some will arise seemingly at random; an image, concept, a face or some kind of cultural icon exposed to you years ago will suddenly appear in your mind apropos of nothing. Some will present themselves as problems to be solved or puzzles to work out. Your familiar obsessions will occupy you with great presence only to suddenly be subsumed by other, more banal ones, and occasionally some voice of volitional will might appear through the murk and remind you that you’re supposed to be meditating and you’ll realize that you’ve been daydreaming, or obsessing, or immersed in nostalgia or dread for over half an hour and then you recommit to the practice for maybe 10 minutes (probably less) before your back starts to slouch and the carnival comes back to town.
For those of us who spend alot of time practicing things like yoga it can become very easy to get attached to the unusual or altered states of consciousness that occasionally arise when you commit to a deep practice. Feelings of profound peace, awareness and energy occasionally appear and they can be quite exciting, especially for those of us who were initially exposed to the possibility of altering our consciousness through the use of mind-expanding drugs. But it’s easy to become attached to these states, revelatory though they may sometimes be. The most important thing that Vipassana teaches you is that the process of awakening is not about producing peak experiences, it’s about bringing a sense of awareness, equanimity and, ultimately, acceptance to all of your experiences. The game becomes not so much to improve the short bursts of transcendence that are peppered throughout life, but to improve mundane things like standing in line at the bank, or sitting in traffic, or going to the dentist. It’s to raise our baseline awareness, so we can be calm, kind and responsible even when things are boring, or frustrating, or painful, and in a 10 day Vipassana retreat, things will often be boring, frustrating and painful. Things will also occasionally be peaceful in a way that’s hard to put into words. Your awareness will become subtle and sensitive in ways that would seem mystical if they weren’t so somehow familiar, and you will get to know the way your mind works very, very intimately.
On my retreat I had to face the fact that despite all of my progress in improving my mental health and learning about my self through yoga and philosophy I still have alot of deep rooted anger, guilt and fear that in many ways dictates the patterns of my life. I still have alot of sensual desire that, though I’ve learned to repress it in ways that are healthy in grossly physical terms, still occupies my mind far more constantly then I’m comfortable with. I learned that I pathologically interpret sensations of love as pain and that alot of my strategies to renounce attachment have merely replaced indulgence with uptightness rather then letting go. And on the deepest level I’ve had to face the reality that most of my problems emanate from a fear of death that is entirely resistant to whatever beliefs I may intellectually hold about reincarnation or consciousness because my mind is simply not identified with the part of my being that I hold to be eternal. I have alot of work to do.
And so now, this is what my yoga becomes. Because yoga is not about stretching your body. Its about stretching the boundaries of equanimity, fearlessness and compassion throughout your whole life. Of mastering what many spiritual masters have dubbed “the art of living.” To be honest I’m not sure I’m up to the task of this sort of mastery, but I’ll keep stumbling down the path in one way or another, because what else is there to do?
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam