How a free method of meditation that teaches an art to living could be our solace in a society caught up in seemingly endless uncertainty and negativity.
Disclaimer: This article is an honest and personal account of my experiences practicing Vipassana meditation, some history to the technique and what to expect when attending a course. I have grossly simplified many aspects of the meditation technique. I strongly advise not to attempt practicing based on this article alone. The best way to learn Vipassana is by attending a ten day course.
“Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu”.
It’s day nine. This enchanting chanting of a deep commanding voice escapes from the speakers in the hall, signifying the end of the meditation session. I open my eyes, slowly uncross my now numb legs after sitting completely still for an hour, and start to tremble uncontrollably. The tears begin. The trembling isn’t painful, nor the tears of pain or sadness. My body feels like it has just released a deep tension that I’ve probably been carrying around for a lifetime. As the entire hall breathes a collective sigh of relief that this session is over, I throw my meditation shawl over my head for a private moment. The gentle sounds of fabric brushing the carpet and joints clicking greet my ears as I come to.
Whilst observing my fellow meditators stretching in various yogic or sporting routines to get the blood flowing through their legs again, I think of the different ways I have gotten to know these strangers over the last nine days; the subtle cues given off through body language, tiny gestures here and there. It makes for an entertaining tenth day when you break your silence and find your preconceived notions of who these people are incredibly far from the truth.
Outside we wander for a ten minute break. I close my eyes and breath deeply as the soothing vibrations of the gong to signal the beginning of the next meditation session rings. Inside we wander and again we begin, as always, at the start.
Chances are you’ve probably heard of Vipassana if: 1. you’re a fan of that absolute galaxy brain of an author Yuval Noah Harari — who himself is a Vipassana assistant teacher, or 2: a family member or friend has attended a course and they cannot stop talking about how “amazing it is and you should go on the course also!” (of which, I am totally guilty of, hence the purpose of this article).
So, if you’re unfamiliar, what is Vipassana?
In the ancient Indian language of Pali (a language akin to Sanksrit), Vipassana means to see things as they are. It is a method of meditation that is free from cult gurus and sectarian beliefs. Anyone from any community, background, societal status or walk of life (I repeat and emphasise, anyone) can practice. Besides creativity and love, it is the purest thing I am aware of in this world. Herein lies its beauty.
Legend has it that Gautama Buddha practiced Vipassana to achieve enlightenment at the age of thirty five. He spent his remaining forty five years spreading the practice across ancient India up until his death in 400BCE. It was then the turn of Emperor Ashoka to spread the practice across his ancient Indian empire and beyond. Known as a violent and ruthless leader who then converted to Buddhism, Ashoka found great value in the practice, instructing two monks to travel outside of India to spread the practice. It found it’s way to Myanmar, and was here that Vipassana as it is taught today was preserved through a lineage of teachers. Notably, Sayagi U Ba Khin — appointed as Myanmar’s very first accountant general when the country gained independence in 1948 — taught the technique to Satya Narayan Goenka, who was widely considered responsible for spreading the Vipassana practice worldwide within the last eighty years.
All the monks and masters before, during and after the time of Buddha had the same thing in common with us today: they suffered. From loss, from pain, from hurt. What differs from us is they seriously practiced and applied Vipassana in their daily lives to come out of their sufferings.
Goenkaji (as he is lovingly referred to by old and new students alike) is now widely seen as one of the friendly faces of the Vipassana movement. When attending a course, the instructions and chantings are given throughout from his universally deep rumbling pre-recorded voice. A silhouette guiding you through ten days of silence, reflection and ultimately hard work that is filled with nothing but calm, love, discipline and support.
Once you arrive at any centre worldwide, you take a vow of noble silence, and take vows to not lie, kill, steal, be intoxicated or engage in sexual misconduct during your time there. These are all to strengthen your meditation practice. A gong is your guide for when to wake up, eat, meditate or sleep.
GONG: it’s 4am, time to meditate. Breakfast at 6.30am, meditate, lunch at 11am, meditate, meditate, meditate…and meditate some more. Lights out at 9.30pm. No dinner. Rinse, recycle and repeat for ten days. Ten hours each day are spent in meditation. Your phone is in a locker. No reading or writing materials are allowed. No laptop or TV. All this is to help your practice. A little dopamine detox if you wish.
On your first day, Goenkaji’s melodic cadence guides you through the first of three methods of meditation taught on the course: Anapana. Meaning inhalation and exhalation in Pali, it is essentially mindfulness of breathing, observation of your breath as it comes in and out naturally through the nostrils. You are encouraged to not alter how you breathe. The point is to observe your breath as it is, not how you would like it to be.
Very quickly you notice how absolutely chaotic and boring the mind is. Constantly flickering between scenarios from the past, to how things should or could be in the future. A total monkey mind as the Buddhist saying goes. After four and a half days of listening to this internal monotone monologue, it can get tedious and uncomfortable, yet on you keep with the practice. Anapana focuses the mind in preparation for the second method of meditation taught: Vipassana. If observing your breath for 10 hours a day wasn’t hard enough, now the real work begins.
Vipassana involves observing any sensations on the body. Heat, itching, cold, tickling, prickling, subtle vibrations, pain, any sensation. It all counts as long as you can feel it. Practicing this helps you gain insight into the true nature of reality — the theory being there are always sensations on the body that the unconscious mind reacts to. Whenever you register a taste, smell, touch, sight, sound or thought, the mind cognises at the unconscious level and a sensation on the body is created. The unconscious mind then reacts to this sensation — with aversion to the unpleasant, and craving for the pleasant. During your daily life, you’re generally unaware this is happening. Practicing Anapana however deepens your awareness, unlocking that faculty of the mind. Now you can feel these sensations and become aware of how you react to them.
Again, you observe the sensations as they are, not as you would like them to be. You train yourself to not react with aversion to the unpleasant sensations, or to crave the pleasant sensations. You just observe with equanimity. Sooner or later, you realise that these sensations are constantly changing. A pain in the back for example can turn into subtle tingling. It makes no sense therefore to be attached to sensations that are arising and passing away, constantly changing. Whatever experience manifests itself on the body in the present moment, you must accept it and not react. With this practice you are therefore slowly changing the old deep rooted habit pattern of the mind — that of blind reaction — which has been working this way since birth. This ties in well with the four Buddhist noble truths (of which you experience them all during the course): you experience suffering, the cause of suffering, the ending of suffering and the path that leads to the end of suffering.
Naturally through this process lots of emotions, thoughts and feelings come up. It can be quite intense. Thankfully, assistant teachers meditate with you in the hall. They are trained to lovingly and bluntly keep you grounded, on track with practicing and to clear up any confusions about the practice.
Every hard day of meditation is followed by a warm blanket of an evening discourse via a pre-recorded tape of Goenkaji sitting besides his wife Mataji. His beaming, deeply creased almost puppy-like featured face presents theory, funny anecdotes and little pearl drops of wisdom, helping you to understand Vipassana in context and deepen your practice.
One of the beauties of Vipassana: if you don’t agree with any of the theory that is taught? Good! It doesn’t really matter. The practice is what counts. You won’t be discredited or feel less of the benefits of the practice if you don’t agree with the theory. Another beauty? No need to convert to Buddhism. Vipassana is sect free, anyone from any community can practice. All that matters is the hard work put into it.
The tenth day has arrived. The centre has an excited atmosphere around it — because today you break your silence. Before this however, the third and final method of meditation is taught: Metta-Bhavana (loving-kindness) meditation. Throughout the ten days, Goenkaji refers to your time there as like performing a deep surgical operation on the mind to take out impurities. Metta-Bhavana serves as the balm on the wound. Although it may sound a tad extreme, I certainly felt like I had been sandpapered inside and out coming out of my most recent course, emotionally raw. Practicing love, compassion and sharing your meditation benefits with all beings serves as a beautiful and harmonious way to close out the course.
The centre blooms into new life as noble silence becomes noble talking. Everyone looks different, their faces lacking the tension they were carrying previously. Some seem bewildered by their experience. Mostly, people are lighter and happier. Calmer. Day ten truly highlights the strange beauty of people suffering together, united in our experience in bettering ourselves as people.
The true testament to how Vipassana has benefitted you comes when returning home. You notice things that bothered you before don’t as much or at all. You’re balanced, calmer, more at ease in yourself and your environment. You begin telling everyone that they would benefit from the ten days — a natural side effect of Vipassana. Any time something challenging arises, less time is spent dwelling on how to handle the situation. Negative emotions don’t last as long. You’re kinder to people in general.
Scouring the internet however there are stories of people who disliked their experience. I’m not going to say you must practice this, however I personally do think that everyone should try the course at least once in their lifetime with an open mind and heart. For me it has been nothing short of life changing and many others have also felt the same. As long as you don’t suffer from serious mental illness and are reasonably fit physically and mentally, you can practice this.
By 2022, the “mindfulness market” is expected to be worth a staggering $2 billion. Think about that for a second. Undoubtedly there are benefits to having wide scale access to important information on mental health and wellbeing. However I strongly feel that information which allows you to better yourself as a person shouldn’t be paid for. Everyone on the planet regardless of class or ethnicity deserves information on how to come out of suffering. Having to pay for it prices out the underprivileged, which is unacceptable.
That is why in 2015 when I was searching for a meditation course to attend, I chose this one: It is free. From 1969 when Goenkaji first taught Vipassana in India up until present day, the courses have always been (and always will be) free to all students. They run solely from the charity of old students who benefitted from the practice and wished for others to benefit also. The courses have servers who are the cooks, cleaners, maintainers of the centres and assistant teachers — all this work is done unpaid and is viewed as selfless service to others. For all intents and purposes, you live for ten days as a monk off of the charity of others. Whatever your beliefs, this must stand for something, and is why I think this teaching is one of the purest things in the world. It’s only goal is to help people become happier.
So, why do I think this could save the world? COVID-19, the climate crisis, an impending economic downturn, racism, police brutality. These are just some of the seemingly endless reasons. It is safe to assume that these past four years have been some of the most divisive, uncertain and scary times. Dealing with just one of these issues is tough enough, let alone all at the same time. We’ve seen a complete overhaul in how we think of ourselves as people, how our society works, how we interact with each other and our worth as individuals. These changes are scary, it can be hard to deal with.
The practice begins to reveal an important facet in how we conduct ourselves in society: reaction to unpleasant sensations are generally tied in with negative emotions. As we would normally want to rid ourselves of these emotions (i.e.: we crave for pleasant sensations), we sometimes try to do this by sharing our unhappiness with others. This manifests as the many forms of revenge. Making someone else feel bad however won’t make us feel better, because the first person to suffer in these situations is always yourself. Vipassana very clearly lifts the curtains up on how your behaviour has affected others in the past. This can be a bitter pill to swallow. But, this is the tool to use to learn how to treat your yourself and your community better. Society is built from individuals. If the individual changes, and lots of individuals change, society changes. It shows us how to conduct ourselves in the world in a balanced and harmonious way. With poise, free from blind reaction and ill-will to others. Just with love, compassion and understanding
We were never taught in school how to deal with life when it pours a ten tonne bucket of lemons over your head — we don’t have the recipe, tools or equipment to make and distribute that much lemonade. To me, Vipassana gives us those tools to make the lemonade, and enables us to share it with others without expectation of return.
This is why I believe Vipassana can change the world.
So that quote at the beginning?
“Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu.”
It was chanted at the end of every meditation session by Goenkaji. In Pali, it loosely translates to:
“May all beings be happy.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be happy.”
to which the meditators in the hall would reply:
“I agree, well said, I agree.”
I wish you the reader, a fulfilled, happy, meaningful and peaceful life.
For more info on Vipassana meditation visit:
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation. It…
by Arun Dhanjal