So picture this. You are living in basic accommodation for ten days with a roommate you are not allowed to speak to or look at, a bell is rung every morning at 4am at which point you have to get up and go and meditate for hours on end either in a room full of people you cannot converse with, or in a tiny cell without a proper window, you are not allowed to do any exercise, you can’t leave the complex in which you are living at any point whatsoever, books, phones, computers, and any form of distraction is banned and you must abide by a strict vegetarian diet. Sounds like fun eh? Welcome to Vipassana…
I’m trapped! Argh!
The first time I heard about Vipassana was in India, and my first thoughts upon hearing about it were “who in their right mind would purposefully put themselves through something like that!?”. For those of you who aren’t aware, Vipassana is a ten day meditation course where you are not allowed to speak to anyone, but not just that – you aren’t even allowed to look at anyone. The food is basic and is all vegetarian and you are not allowed to eat in the evenings (although on my course, new students were provided with an evening meal). You aren’t allowed any phones, computers, laptops, books or any distractions whatsoever. If you can’t stand your own company then you probably won’t have the best time… This ain’t no holiday! It all sounded a bit too intense for me.
Skip forward a month or two and I meet a girl who has just finished a ten day course. She seemed a little distant but I wasn’t sure if it was from the meditation or whether she just thought I was an annoying twat and wanted to give me the brush off. Probably the latter.
A few weeks later a friend of mine leaves to cross from West to East India, to go and do the same course. 4 hours in and he decides that it is not for him. He makes up an excuse that he had just come down from 30 days of meditation in the mountains and it was too intense at that present time and so they let him go. Haha, hilarious.
Skip forward another month. I am in Pokhara in Nepal. It is New Year’s Eve and I meet a couple of other travellers who have also done the course. When I first heard about Vipassana, I pretty much just assumed that it was for the more ‘hippie’ type of traveller. The type of traveller that wears the same clothes for days, has an armful of bracelets and beads, has dreadlocks, smokes a load of weed, and lives in a tent on a mountaintop. How ignorant of me! I’m not sure if these people even exist in reality. Haha. But no these people who I meet that have completed the course are just regular people like me. If that is to say that I can be classed as ‘regular’? Probably not.
The more I hear about this course, the more I actually start to develop an urge to experience it for myself.
Skip forward another month or two and I am in China in a small water town outside of Shanghai. I have just signed up for a ten day meditation course in Myanmar/Burma where I can’t speak or look at anyone. It is called Vipassana and this is how it went…
At the point of sign up I had never even meditated before. And I had definitely never kept my mouth shut for ten consecutive days. That’s 240 hours of silence!!! Oh God… What was I getting myself into!?
In Thailand a week or so before my course, my friend gives me a crash course in meditation and, quite frankly, I’m rubbish at it. “Am I meant to be feeling something right now, cos nothing is happening…?”. And this was in a temple full of monks during one of their daily Buddhist ceremonies. If I can’t feel anything with this spiritual energy flowing through the room then I’ve got no chance of connecting with my inner self I think. Aren’t I meant to be floating outside my body or something? Well it’s not working. All I can think about is how my back hurts and I’m hungry. And I’m sure that’s not what’s supposed to happen!
Skip forward a week and I arrive in my new home for ten days of silence and meditation! I am in Yangon in Myanmar, not too far from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. I share a room with a really nice Bulgarian guy who speaks about 2000 languages (maybe a bit of an exaggeration. It was probably more like 1000). The accommodation is basic but still not too bad. And it is pretty strange living with someone that you are not allowed to speak to or look at…imagine that! On the first day we arrive (day 0) we are allowed to talk to each other. I meet another guy from the US and one from the Netherlands who have already completed the course in the past…they are known as old students. We are the only western males on the course. The rest is a mix of Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese and probably some other Asian nationalities as well. I make friends with a monk who at the end of the course reveals that he hates Burmese music and instead loves the music of Hannah Montana, Miley Cyrus and De La Soul….random!
Here is my roommate outside our place…not too shabby eh!? I think we got the best accommodation as we were westerners.
As we get talking about what we want to get out of this course it suddenly dawns upon me – I have absolutely no idea why I signed up for this course, I have no idea what I am expecting to get out of the meditation and I actually have no idea what any of it really involves! Whoops. This is so me. I seem to just sign up for things because they sound interesting, fun or in this case like a crazy experience. I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing. I travel mainly to experience new things and this was definitely something new to me so “let’s flippin’ ‘ave it!” I think. What ‘it’ is I don’t actually know but I am soon to find out!
So that evening we learn exactly what Vipassana is all about and we start our first meditation session. And that means that the silence has begun. Shhhhh, no talking! This place was all of a sudden quieter than an abandoned library in a ghost town.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS VIPASSANA ALL ABOUT?
Let us consult Wikipedia:
Vipassanā (Pāli) in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality, namely as the Three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and the realisation of non-self.
Vipassanā-meditation is a modern Theravada practice, reintroduced by Ledi Sayadaw and Mogok Sayadaw and popularized by Mahasi Sayadaw, S. N. Goenka and the Vipassana movement, in which mindfulness of breathing and of thoughts, feelings and actions are being used to gain insight in the true nature of reality. Due to the popularity of Vipassanā-meditation, the mindfulness of breathing has gained further popularity in the west as mindfulness.
Henepola Gunaratana defined Vipassanā as:
“Looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct and separate, and piercing all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing”
Got it? Good.
I soon learn that I am going to have to get up at 4am each morning and will pretty much be meditating all day until 9:30pm. The longest continuous meditation sessions were two and a half hours straight. Now imagine sitting crossed-legged, straight backed for that amount of time with no break. Go on, try it for yourself. Even ten minutes is a struggle! So when we are told to focus and ‘ignore the pain’, it’s a case of ‘easier said than done’!
I find my mind often wandering. When my mind did wander, I was usually dancing in my head or thinking about food… And, well, fantasising about all the things I wasn’t allowed to do during the course. I couldn’t wait to get out and treat myself to an ice cream, or some frozen yogurt, or some Haribo or CHOCOLATE….God, I’m hungry.
But the course taught me to ignore my cravings and I guess as time went on I did kind of learn to ignore many of these thoughts and just accept where I was.
The first four days were the hardest I think. I felt exhausted and at this point, ten days away may as well have been ten years. It felt like the time would never be up.
As I am meditating I think to myself, I’m really not feeling many of these ‘vibrations’ I am meant to be experiencing passing through my body. I look around and everyone is perfectly still, with perfect posture and appearing fully concentrated. It is clear that I am the ONLY one in this room full of people who is just not getting it. And am I the only one who is hunched over with back ache worse than a pregnant mother who’s been standing on the tube train for 45 minutes because all of the seated passengers are too scared to offer her a seat in case she is just fat instead? It seems so! They all look so focused. Oh damn I forgot, I’m not meant to be looking at anyone right now. My eyes should be shut. Oh what’s that noise? Sounds like there’s a bird’s nest in the window frame (there actually was), I’d better open my eyes and check it out. Hmmmm, I wonder what will be served for lunch today…? I can’t wait to listen to music again. I think I’ve forgotten what it is like to be amongst people in the outside world. How will I integrate myself back into society? I will be branded an outcast! And it’s only day 3. Will this never end? I wonder what I will do first when I get out of here. I’ve probably got like 100 new emails waiting for me. My friends probably all think I’m dead. Actually, they probably haven’t even noticed. And so on. And so on…
At the end of each day, we would have a de-briefing session where we would watch a guy on a DVD talk about what we were supposed to be getting out of the whole experience. He was quite a good story teller and this was probably my favourite part of each day – the point where I was allowed to sit in a chair and watch TV. Well you can tell I was really learning a lot from this experience! Haha. The only downside about watching this guy was that he kept telling me just how miserable my life was and how the only way out was to practice Vipassana….well excuse me mate, but I am actually really enjoying my life!
But on a more serious note, I can genuinely see how Vipassana can be a real benefit for those who complete the course and then go on to practice meditation regularly. Because if you want to feel the long term benefits, you really do have to continue to meditate every single day. I knew that I wasn’t going to do this. So I probably took the whole thing a little less seriously than I could have. It is about bringing an end to the misery in your life and leading you on the path to enlightenment or ‘Dhamma’. You must let go of your issues and just accept that everything is constantly changing and therefore you can’t hang on to any grudges or cravings that you have. Because cravings just lead to a life of misery. So the goal is liberation from all of this misery that I am apparently experiencing. Makes sense.
In the past I had done a couple of courses which were all about life coaching and aim for a similar end goal as Vipassana. But whereas that was looking within yourself and tearing apart all of your past issues and what-not in a more severe manner, this course was more of a slow process, looking within yourself and ‘observing’. Screw that, I can’t be arsed with the wait! So whilst meditating I actually thought a lot about my past experiences with that course and I feel as though I truly benefitted in that way. Completely not what I was supposed to be getting out of the course (they even say you should not mix any other techniques as the meditation will not work), but regardless I felt as though I actually did leave the place a different person. And how can you not… Ten days with nothing but your own thoughts is bound to bring about some kind of change.
When we were finally able to speak again, I learn that I wasn’t the only one who was having difficulty getting the whole thing. Pretty much everyone has wandering thoughts and trouble with the technique. Even the veterans. You are supposed to be able to experience a constant flow of vibrations through your body when you master the first part of the technique. Well there was a guy there on his tenth course and he still hadn’t got it. So if he has trouble, then there’s no bloody hope for me!
It’s funny, every time I go to write a new blog post on here I think “right, I’ll keep this one short”. But then I just go blabbing on and on and it just gets out of control! Sorry about that one.
So in conclusion, I’m never going to be a great advert for the benefits one can achieve through the Vipassana meditation course! But I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to look deeper within themselves. The course is not focused on religion and instead works upon the principles of ‘science’. Well that’s fair enough to say, but when you are trying to concentrate on the vibrations running through your body and some old dude is chanting the words of Buddha in the Pali language, I couldn’t help thinking “isn’t this supposed to be a science-based method? Is this chanting really necessary?”. It was quite off putting at times.
Right so I’m off to speak to and look at people freely, just because I can. If anyone has any further questions about the course and is interested in doing it themselves then shoot me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are a few more pictures from the Vipassana centre where I did my course…(taken after the course had ended obviously!):
Lovely trees in the centre grounds!
The monk next door’s clothing hanging out to dry.
This was where we were able to walk around for ‘exercise’. This involved walking around like zombies, head down attempting to avoid eye contact with each other. Bizarre.
It’s a puppy! Everyone loves puppies!
The gates to the centre which we were not allowed to pass through!