18 March 2015

Vipassana Meditation

A silent 10-day crash course in Buddha’s own technique.


Global Vipassana Pagoda, Mumbai by Flickr user Abhishek Thakur

On my last day in Mumbai, India, I randomly visited the Global Pagoda, a gigantic structure (the largest of its kind) still under construction, rising like a giant spaceship over the wetlands north of the city. Expecting ostentation, I found a surprisingly secular take on a promise otherwise reserved only for religion, paraphrased: We want to end suffering by teaching everyone a technique to avoid the ups and downs of every day life. Oh, and we’ll do so for free.

This was the technique the original Gotama Buddha introduced 2500 years ago, that has become almost lost to traditional Buddhism but is now spreading out again all over India as a secular technique from Burma, where it had remained unchanged. An influential ex-businessman called S.N. Goenka got this ball rolling anew. Thinking this suspicious, I left India the next day, but over past two years have met so many people who had done the free ten day introduction and had obviously not become seduced by some crazy sect, I’ve been wanting to give it a try.

I just got back from ten days of silent meditation at the California Vipassana Centre. The centre helped everyone organise rideshares out to the sierras, and I was picked up in the middle of silicon valley by some really nice co-meditators, similarly ill-prepared (zero experience) and not knowing what to expect. Upon arrival, men and women were ushered each to their separate quarters on the hill-side campus, and we handed off our phones, laptops, books and pens. Two hours later we were swearing to be silent and not leave for ten days (“to give the technique a fair trial”) in the main meditation hall at the top of the hill. 50 men, 50 women, all separate on small blue mats and cushions in a grid on the floor. Avoiding eye contact and negotiating our way out of our separate-sex exits somewhat akwardly without words, we headed off to our quarters (I had a little solo room) and turned off the lights at 9:30 PM as requested, in preparation for an early start tomorrow morning.


Then it began. Life here consists of a daily, unchanging rhythm. At 4:30 AM every day we rose and at 9:30 PM we turned out the lights. The most important components of your life were the 60 and 90-minute meditation sits. Two delicious and incredibly varied vegan meals nourished you (breakfast and lunch, no dinner). A rest period of one hour at lunch was very welcome. Ten minutes to ask any question of the teacher was always on everyone’s minds (the only time you could talk). But the highlight of everyone’s day was without a doubt a one hour video every evening of the hilarious 1991 lecture series given by the main pusher himself, the guru/teacher Goenka (the only time you got any external input).

Meditation was broken into 90 minute solo sittings and 60-minute group sittings. A short audio clip of the teacher was played back at the beginning to tell you what to focus on. The first three days you were learning how to focus the mind:

I remember my father telling when I was small me that a form of meditation entailed you focussing all your attention on your upper lip to feel your breath. I thought my anatomy must be different, as there was no way I could feel any breath no matter how hard I tried. Yet, all it took was 20 hours of trying. My senses progressed over the first three days and grew so sharp and I could feel both the cool intaking air passing by the upper lip in an unfocussed stream as well as the warm exhaled air plain as day.

For three days, your mind was still worrying about the outside world, and spinning out of control. I don’t know if it was the focussing or the input-starvation, but after that, it quietened down.

Despite eating as nutritionists tell you to for probably the first time in my life (fibre in the morning, veg and fruit for lunch and only tea in the evening), my body craved exercise. Break time after lunch was one of the things I looked forward to most. The main route consisted of a circuit around the beautiful grounds, full of wild deer, birds and the winter Californian landscape. Since everyone was dying for movement and no one could talk, this led to jailhouse like scenes: men walking vigorously around in circles, avoiding eye contact and giving each other space. Very peculiar.


Where you sit, day in day out. Ladies on the right, men on the left.

What is the technique? Everything revolves around being aware of sensations on your body caused by external influences (anger in your stomach, pain in your foot, etc), but remaining completely equanimous to these sensations.

Equanimity (Latin: æquanimitas having an even mind; aequus even animus mind/soul) is a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.

Nothing new so far, but the innovation here is to be a practical technique, applicable when things get rough — a purely intellectual understanding of the thinking behind it does not do it justice. You train your inner lizard-brain and beat some sense into it, by spending hours practicing not reacting to the physical sensations on your body: the pleasant buzz of coffee, or the bone cracking numbness in your legs. Numbness? When on day four we got an introduction to the actual technique, at the same time the 60-minute sittings got the difficulty cranked up: they became “sittings of strong determination”. This meant that instead of moving around to stay comfortable, you had to stay completely still for the whole hour, fighting the gut reaction to move when your limbs go to sleep with the aforementioned determination. Very tough. In fact, the only way you could stand this ordeal was to be completely non-reactive to the tension in your legs. As soon as you reacted to it you’d notice how numb your legs were and automatically uncross them.

How do you learn? The whole progression was led by the daily evening discourses just before bed time. This was the only input you had in a day, so it was eagerly awaited by everyone. Ten “discourses” were filmed when Goenka held an English course in LA in 1991, and were played back on two tvs in the meditation hall (one screen for the girls, one for the guys). He is funny, charming, and very old. He spoon feeds you the information you need every day on precisely the right day. Amazing how everyone goes through pretty much exactly the same process, give or take a day. Two stories particularly stuck out to me under the literally hundreds he told in the total of ten hours of talks on theory, philosophy and technique, and they constantly underline what you are doing.

One is the simple simile that a just as a Burmese water buffalo is way more useful to you trained vs. wild, so is your mind more useful trained vs. wild.

Second is a story about two brothers. When their enlightened father dies, he leaves them two rings. One diamond, one a simple silver band. the older brother immediately claims the diamond, thinking it more valuable. The younger brother is content with the silver ring. They go on with their lives, and the younger brother realises that the silver band has four words engraved on the inner surface: “This Will Also Change”. So now in the beautiful north-indian spring, the older brother is in an euphoric mood, while the younger brother enjoys it, but understands that this will also pass. So when seasons turns to summer and then to Autumn and Winter, the older brother’s thoughts tumble from euphoric heights into a foul mood and eventually into depression, while the younger brother again understands that this, again, will change. The younger brother has Vipassana: Understanding that there are so many good and bad influences in your life, that it is not worth reacting to the every day noise, which in turn enables you to act.


So why go through all of this? Two anecdotes to give you an idea: There’s a saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”. But the funny things is that when you have no external influence for ten days, only “small stuff” remains. And you begin to unconsciously react to this small stuff in your normal patterns. You begin to project your normal everyday behaviour onto your small world. My example is that one lunch break, I was sitting in beautiful sunshine, sipping a cup of tea, looking out over the Californian Sierras, but absolutely seething inside. I had not been able to get a straight answer out of the teachers for the past 8 days, and had had enough. I was questioning what I was doing here, questioning their competency, furiously questioning how I was every going to learn the technique with these incompetent fools leading the course. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: It may be their fault for not giving me a straight answer (if he even was), but it was completely my fault for being so bummed out about it and messing up my break in the beautiful sunshine — for reacting! That evening, my questions were of course answered in the teacher’s video, which is why he’s been blowing me off, and I had yet again experienced the exact lesson I was supposed to learn that day, taught myself so to speak, on an every day situation.

The second thing happened later on that day. Randomly, two wild dogs were passing over the grounds. They were pretty out of control, barking and snarling at everything. Unfortunately, they got between me and the group. I like dogs, but when they are this wild it is not fun. I can feel this panic, fear and anger in my stomach, but suddenly the nine days of training kick in, and I hear a voice in my head “be aware of the sensations in your body, remain equanimous to the sensations”. I stay completely clear-headed, look at the one dog that is closer to me, and he looks back. Then the funniest thing happens — the dog realises that I’m not nervous, and simply moves on. I’m left stunned but absolutely level-headed. A wonderful feeling.


On day ten the silence is lifted, and you realise all your co-meditators went through the exact same trials and tribulations in their heads as you did. Funny what ten days with yourself can teach you. They recommend you continue to practice it in morning and evening for a while to come, but I have heard that it is hard to keep up long-term. I would definitely recommend the course if you have ten days to spare (and hey, it’s free so if you don’t want to donate, you don’t have to), and this is one of those things where an intellectual understanding simply does no justice — you need to feel it in your bones for it to be useful.