I’ve just finished a ten day vipassana meditation course at Dhamma Dippa in Herefordshire. Vipassana is the meditation technique taught by Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as the Buddha and a meditation practice by this name is used throughout Theravada Buddhism. (Zazen is the equivalent in Zen Buddhism.) This particular variant is one said to have been preserved unchanged in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and handed down by Sayagyi U Ba Khin to S N Goenka, who took the technique back to India and has since established a worldwide network of meditation centres. These centres use a set of sound recordings and video presentations of Goenka, ensuring that it continues to be taught consistently. Unfortunately, now that Goenka is dead this may have the unintended consequence of turning the organisation into a sort of cult of Goenka.
The massage courses I attended in Thailand included instruction in vipassana meditation in the evenings. We had an hour sitting each morning either in the little temple on the hill above the village, or sitting out in the open if one preferred. One of my teachers was offering a seven day retreat in Hungary this past summer, but the invitation came too late for me to be able to change my plans so I looked around and found this alternative.
The course follows the format and protocol of a 10 day Buddhist retreat. (Details here.) This means agreeing to a set of ‘precepts’ which includes ‘noble silence’ for nine of the ten days. In addition to not speaking this means making no eye contact or communicating by gesture with anyone other than the course leaders and the assistant teacher. Complete celibacy is required and the site is divided into one half for men and the other for women. The sexes sit on separate sides of the meditation hall. The schedule starts with the wake up gong at 04:00 each day and one is expected to start meditating by 04:30.
Breakfast and lunch are served, but no food after midday. As a concession students taking the course for the first time are permitted some fruit with tea at 17:00. I found however, that the food was adequate. In fact I never took the option of the fruit in the afternoon break, and not once during the ten days did I feel hungry.
About ten hours of meditation are expected each day, and lights out is at 21:30. Students are expected to lock their mobile phones and computers in lockers at reception and take no reading or writing materials with them.
If this all sounds pretty grim that’s because it is. A fair number of people can’t hack it, and leave either on the second or fifth day. For the first three and a half days the meditation exercise is to focus attention on one’s natural breathing, and particularly to notice the sensation of the breath in the nose. This is refined down to a smaller and smaller area. After a day of this some people realise that they just can’t cope with the complete social isolation, painstakingly trying to train their attention and sensitivity. Whilst a chair was offered at sign-up, most people chose to sit on the floor, only to realise that this gets quite uncomfortable if you’re not used to it.
On the fourth day the true vipassana training starts. This involves moving the now finely honed focus of attention around the body in various ways. By this time one has started to become so sensitive that the subtle tingling of the skin caused by inactive nerves can be felt. At the same time one is asked to remain perfectly still for three of the one hour sittings each day. This turns an uncomfortable position into absolute torture and unsurprisingly another batch of people decide they can’t hack it. At mealtimes people sit staring blankly into space, wondering how they are going to get through the next session.
So what’s the point of all this? Well, the theory is that one should train oneself to treat both the pain, the irritating itches and the pleasurable subtle sensations of the body with equanimity. Both arise, last for some time but then ultimately pass away. An early lesson is that whilst a given ache might be unpleasant, if you become tense in reaction to it or in anticipation of it getting worse, that tension will create even greater pain in the muscles that you tense. Very soon the entire body turns into a symphony of self-induced pain. Whereas, if one just sits with the original pain and accepts it for what it is at least you just have that to put up with.
The Buddha’s teaching was that it is the reaction to pleasant or unpleasant sensations which causes suffering, rather than the sensations themselves. If we simply observe the sensations of our body and do not react we will not create misery. The word vipassana means ‘seeing things as they are.’ Furthermore, we can carry this over into our lives. He taught that it is not the actual words of an insult which cause us to react with violence – it is our reaction to the sensation of a bruised ego. Moreover, each time we react in a subconscious way this creates a stored behaviour pattern which will condemn us to repeat it over and over.
If we can simply observe the sensation for what it is, and treat it with equanimity, then we will not get angry. Such reactive anger, like the tension of the anticipation of pain, only makes the situation worse for ourselves. In all cases it is our subliminal aversion to unpleasant sensations in the body, or our craving of pleasant ones which makes us unhappy. Such sensations will come and go – none of them last for ever. So how much better not to react to them but treat them all equally, and thus retain the balance of the mind?
All of this I’m OK with. My main issue with the way the teaching is presented is that it is supposedly ‘scientific’ because you are experimenting and experiencing the truth of it for yourself. This is tosh. Science does not invite anyone to come to a conclusion based on a sample size of one. Science proposes a theory, gathers a statistically significant sample of data in an impartial manner, and then invites peer reviews of the conclusions drawn. Thousands of people witnessed the sun rising in the east and setting in the west and worked on the basis that the sun went round the earth for a long long time until Copernicus suggested that it might be otherwise.
The course is also supposed to be non-religious. Hinduism uses a belief in reincarnation to provide a neat explanation for tragedies like infant deformity or early death. Each time we do something bad or good this influences our karma and if we have a stock of bad karma this will be carried forward into the next life. This was the prevalent view in India at the time of the Buddha and his teaching incorporates it. Goenka teaches this in his evening discourses as though it were fact. I’m sorry, but this is about belief and not fact. Admittedly, at the end of the course he says that one should take what one can accept from it and leave the rest. I personally feel that it would have been far more credible to teach these mythological aspects of the theoretical basis for the technique as background rather than as facts we are later told we can ignore.
Having said that, the evening discourses are good. Goenka is humorous, eloquent and the talks are structured to fit with the progress of learning the technique.
On the final full day of the course, after the morning meditation, instruction in a new technique is given. This is metta bhavena, or loving-kindness meditation. I thought that this was too rushed and I’ve had a better explanation of how to do it from my Thai massage instructors in Thailand. What is more, instead of leaving a period of silence for people to develop a feeling of love and goodwill to all, recordings of Goenka’s chanting in Pali are played. (I don’t much like his chanting, so this was a further exercise in equanimity for me rather than an opportunity to feel unconditional love for all beings.) Nevertheless the change of focus from the difficulty of focusing on one’s own internal state to an outward-looking state was dramatic. It brought more than a few people to tears. After this, noble silence is broken and we discovered that despite not knowing each other, or ever having spoken, we had bonded into a supportive community.
Finally able to look others in the face it became impossible not to just stare into each others’ eyes as we shared our experiences of the course. The remaining meditation sessions of the day seem light and easy to bear. Following breakfast the next morning the course is over. We all pitch in with cleaning duties and then people start to drift away.
So, the question I’ve been asked most: did you like it, would you recommend it and would you do it again? Well, it’s not supposed to be something you like. I don’t like going to the dentist either but I do repeat that. I did the course to deepen my existing meditation practice, and it certainly did that. If for some reason I felt that I wanted a refresher I might well do it again. I would recommend it for anyone I think is mentally strong enough to complete it. It gives you a tool which you can use to help you in your life. It encourages you to live a moral life, to control your mind, to develop wisdom and understanding of yourself and others, to be compassionate and loving and that, in any circumstance, you can be happy.