Vipassana (Insight) Meditation
Updated: Oct 29, 2019
Ok..... This is the intro into my experience in attending a 10 days Vipassana Mediation course. It's a long post, I would recommend reading this without distraction, so switch off the world and take some time for yourself. You may find this of great interest and value.
First something about the training:
The idea is that you surrender and immerse yourself in a 10 days beginners meditation course and follow the steps and procedures as instructed. The course is free. Your training is paid by donations of previous students. There is no commercial aspect to this and this is not for profit. Only ex-students can donate if they see value in the course and want other people to experience this.
I love this concept as it safeguards the purity of the teaching without commerce, profit or sales pitch. This is a course in which you invest in yourself and for yourself.
In return, you promise to stay for the full 10 days, no matter how hard you think it is a) to not talk for 10 days, b) not have access to your phone, news, books or even pen and paper, c) vegetarian food which all comes from donations and d) the relative simple (but clean) living environment.
This is probably as close you will come to live like a monk or non. You do not have the beg for your food but realise that also the simple vegetarian food is paid for by donations.
You will go through a 10 days strict meditation training. The day starts at 4am with a wake up gong and lights are out at 10pm. In short, you meditate for about 10 hours everyday, spread over some hours where you are allowed to meditate in your room (or honestly sometimes catch up on a nap) and the other hours where you meditate in the hall where you receive step by step guidance on how to meditate.
A simple buffet style breakfast is served at 6.30am and lunch is provided at 11.30am. You are served a light snack at 5.30pm which is the last meal of the day. As most of the day is sitting down in meditation, you will find that you are not very hungry. The light vegetarian food we enjoyed in Thailand was great.
The first day of not talking and not making eye contact makes for a weird scene around the buffet table as all participants shuffle around trying to avoid one another. It reminded me from a scene of the living dead where every one moves slowly in circles. As bizarre as this may seem on day 1, you soon will get into a new habit where all participants find their own place.
Vipassana is 2500 years old and it is the meditation technique which led the historical (first) Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Nepalese prince) to enlightenment at a relative young age. And although it is about his road to enlightenment, Vipassana is not to be taken as a religious exercise. To the contrary, the Vipassana training welcomes any religion and seeks not to convert or mess with anyone’s believe system. It focuses on three things, 1) Living a Righteous life, 2) Focus the Mind and 3) Create your Wisdom.
No religion would be against you following a course which focuses the mind on these three topics. As an aside, the Buddha in his purity, shared the Vipassana technique to help others. Enlightenment is not sectarian or secular. The course stresses this. The moment we create an -ism (including Buddhism) it goes exactly against the teachings. It deeply resonated with me as I happen to believe in many of the Buddha’s teachings but I have a problem the moment we turn it in to an -ism. The course shed great insight on this aspect and presents the teachings of a happy (enlightened) life of the Buddha through his teachings, free from ‘ism’, praying, chanting, worship or any religious aspect. It is the purity of the technique and its philosophy which is central to the training, aiming to create a happy and balanced (equanimous) mind.
The premise is that many people are unhappy (and 2500 years ago this was not any different from today). Siddhartha was born a rich Nepalese prince who saw the misery outside of his palace. He understood his life as a prince did not fulfil him. One day he set out on his journey which ultimately resulting in him finding the 'middle path'. His moment of reaching enlightenment came while being in Vipassana meditation setting him free from aversion, craving and attachment while feeling true compassion for the world around him.
Generally, I have been a positive happy Chappy for most of my life but of course, I am far from enlightenment. I do crave certain minimum living standards, crave certain foods, dislike certain people, love people conditionally (except my kids for who I realised I have true compassionate and unconditional love) and I like certain things to ‘go my way’. I surely pressed my objectives too hard at times in the past and surely must have upset and even insulted others in order to achieve my objectives. And without a doubt my ego has more than once driven my decisions, good and bad. I am however very seldom angry or sad and I dont throw tantrums (anymore!). And with time, I figured out that ego is overrated and learned to live my life for me and not for the court of public opinion. And yes, the joy from doing good for others is much longer lasting then anything else I experienced. Having been in leadership roles for the past 17 years probably made me realise that things do go wrong in various degrees and that anger and stress have never positively changed the situation in business or in private life. But a calm and clear mind normally does. Vipassana provided me additional tools to improve my self awareness, and my understanding on how to create/maintain an equanimous (balanced and happy) mind. And that is what would help all of us to create much longer lasting satisfaction in life.
Allow me to break this down in a few different topics.
This course does not address religion for good reason. Everybody can learn this technique and it does not conflict with any believe system. This is not about Buddhism or any other ‘ism’ for that matter but the technique does come from the first Buddha and in the evening dissertation, this will of course feature to an extent.
The first 4.5 days are basic meditation training of Ana Pana. It teaches you to focus and observe your breathing. It is all about pure observation. There are no mantras or breathing exercises and there is no chanting (other than the taped chanting from Goenka wishing you well).
That was in and of itself fascinating at first as my mind (and probably 90% of the participants) kept wondering off...... And there lies the first great learning...... Do you really control your mind and thoughts? My mind was more like a monkey in the jungle swinging randomly from tree to tree or from thought to thought.
So how well do we really control our mind and thoughts and how conscious are we about the way we react to everything that comes our way in a normal day? Ana Pana was a great tool to calm the mind and learn to deliberately focus and observe as to what is going on in your mind and body! And remember, because you do not talk to others, you spend a lot of time with yourself. It is paramount that you consciously focus and take control over your mind as otherwise this becomes a really long 10 days......
For those that have meditation experience, it is stressed to not practice and mix the techniques. This is most likely a very different way of meditation relative to others. This is not about controlled or heavy breathing exercise, repeating of mantras or imagining a sunny beach. It is purely training to consciously observe what is happening with your body, starting with observing (not controlling or manipulating) your breathing. It sounds simple and in 4 days you get pretty good at this. And as simple as it sounds, it is not easy but this is the foundation of what comes next.
After 4.5 days you switch to Vipassana (introspection or insight) meditation. It is still about observation but no longer limited to just your breathing but all about what is going on all around your body. The training expands to observe the sensation you have from your head to toe. And that is not easy on day 4 or day 5, 6, 7.... but with practice and perseverance many people ‘get it’ at some point before the end of 10 days.
One of the very good reasons for not talking is that everybody will have difference experiences, set backs and breakthroughs at different times. ‘Comparing’ with others not only breaks the concentration you build up over the days, but also creates stress and anxiety if someone has a fantastic meditation experience where you may have only experienced pain from sitting in the lotus position. So realise that every day is different and that you take the day as it comes.
And yes, you will experience pain. I was convinced that I would be the first person who injured himself by just sitting down and meditate! And yes, you will ask yourself why you enrolled or worse, you may want to quit. But rest assured, there is a moment where the concentration/observation on the pain makes the pain go away. There will be a moment where you will feel and realise/experience, let’s say, new things and new sensations.
Persevere! Your mind is capable of so much more and the learning to interact between my conscious mind and body was fascinating. Everybody can do this as long as you practice diligently. I wont describe what I experienced day by day or how I felt as the whole essence is that we all experience this differently. You cannot go to this training with expectations that on day X you feel this and on day Y you experience that. The essence is to observe what goes with your mind and body and it will come in its own good time. Afterwards you can of course compare notes with others but it is essential to not do so beforehand.
Only on day 10, you are allowed to talk with your fellow participants after the early morning session. Some people really desire this. Personally, I did not really feel the need to talk to anyone beyond the polite small talk. Other people were sharing life stories and comparing notes what happened on what day during the training. Many experienced insightful and break through moments in understanding how we react in a certain circumstances and how we can take conscious control over what and how we feel. The objective is to understand where unhappiness comes from and what to do about it. The real learning is to control what you feel and what you think. It creates ‘mindfulness’.
One will not be enlightened in 10 days but yes, this made perfect sense to me and it was logical to follow. But no matter what, it is clear that you will bump into yourself more than once..... And you will likely experience some serious emotional moments of memories or gain greater insight about your past and your feelings. And all of this without talking and without a therapist! But yes, you may well be moved in moments of realisation and greater awareness.
Overall, I write about this because I can totally recommend this to anyone at any age. You are not too young and never too old.
Let’s talk in more details.......
What is the Objective:
So what is great about locking yourself into 10 days of silence, completely isolated from the world, with so-so food, making very long days? In short, Vipassana technique aims to create an equanimous (balanced, centered and happy) mind. Not by an intellectual or spiritual conversation, not by worship of something or someone, but by teaching you a meditation technique which connects your conscious mind, the unconscious mind and your body (referred to as the physical structure). The creation of awareness and conscious thought combined with connection between mind, unconscious mind and physical structure are the foundation to find happiness. It advocates to not believe anything unless experienced by yourself, including Vipassana itself. Only your experiences create your wisdom.
So the 10 days are largely devoted to the meditation technique itself although every evening from 7pm to 8.30pm you listen (and view on a video screen) the teachings associated with Vipassana. The lessons come from a video recording of S.N. Goenka, a Burmese merchant who himself got introduced to Vipassana by seemingly random chance but who learned from one of the masters of Vipassana in Burma. The story of Goenka, and that of his teacher and how Vipassana was preserved in Burma for 2500 years is in itself a fascinating story which you will hear about if you attend. Amazing story telling in the evening and something I every day looked forward to.
So the theory of the technique goes something like this:
Every moment we are awake, we bombard our five senses (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling) with information and stimuli. On top of this, our mind/brain is racing all the time wanting to be entertained. The Buddha figured out that the sequence of events of incoming stimulus is processed as follows:
- Conscious mind receives information (simply a form of ‘acknowledge receipt’)
- Perception (identifies and values the incoming information)
- Sensation (as a results from your perception you label everything with a neutral, a pleasant or an unpleasant sensation)
- Reaction (you want the pleasant sensation to stay or the bad sensation to stop resulting in your unconscious mind the creation of a craving or an aversion)
This sequence is really important to understand as your unconscious mind is constantly at work categorising what is going on around you and labelling ‘neutral, craving, aversion’ all day long. The more cravings you have created or the more aversions you have developed, are the root cause of your unhappiness. Not be able to fulfil a craving or having the mind controlled by aversions from prior memories, people or circumstances, create unhappiness. Your body reacts to these sensations. The easiest for us to understand is the feeling of stress as example. This is a reaction in the body created in response to what happened to you in the day. Your unconscious mind plays this out on your body in the form of stress.
Vipassana teaches you how to break the cycle going forward of creating cravings or aversions and instead learn to life consciously in the ‘now’. It teaches you to understand that everything is impermanent. This is a universal law. The universe is in constant change, as is the planet, as is your body as is everything that happens to you. Nothing and nobody is permanent. So there is healthy doses of learning about living in the ‘now’ and to prevent the creation of more cravings and aversions which are the root cause of your unhappiness.
Secondly, the meditation technique aims to rid your body and unconscious mind of prior craving and aversions you have developed over your life time and for those who believe in reincarnation, all those cravings and aversions you have developed and carry around from prior lifetimes (Karma). Your unconscious mind is like a c:Drive or even a ‘Dark Web’, where all your cravings, aversions and desires are stored but where they also play out in the form of giving signals to your physical structure (itch, pain, tickle, pleasure) and mind (desire, aversion, addiction. resentment). As mentioned, the meditation technique connects the conscious mind, unconscious mind and the physical structure and digs out the old cravings and aversions. These cravings and aversions are called Sankara. You learn to observe the sensations in your body and feel how your unconscious mind constantly projects Sankaras on your body. The training aims to teach you to stop creating new Sankaras and the meditation focusses how to get rid the old ones we carry around on our c:drive. This is a (long) journey and enlightenment clearly does not come easy. But you have to start somewhere and a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step or in this case with a 10 day training course!
I believe in this. The interaction between mental health and a healthy body are scientifically proven. Having a healthy life style but feeling miserable still creates illness. I am therefore happy to belief the reverse, that having the connection and balance between mind, unconscious mind and physical structure prevents illness. Nice side effect of being happy too, free of cravings and free of the anger, the dislikes, and despairs I created in my life time(s)!
A little deeper still......
A balanced mind comes from:
A) Morality (Sila)
B) Concentration (Samadhi)
C) Wisdom (Panna)
Morality starts with Five Precepts
1) No Killing
2) No Stealing
3) No lying
4) No sexual misconduct
5) No use of intoxicants
a) Right effort
b) Right awareness
c) Right focus
1) Received Wisdom; blind faith of following someone or something
2) Intellectual wisdom; considered, examined, rationalised and intellectually accepted but not experienced
3) Experiential wisdom; Yours from experience. The Vipassana (insight) way.
The ten days teach and explain these concepts in greater details in the evening dissertations. As I said above, I always looked forward to the evening sessions. Although some of the principles I have been exposed to during the many years living in Asia, it was still good hearing them again in conjunction of the meditation technique. But also to hear new ways of thinking or new ways of linking different thoughts. The teachings encourage you to believe nothing, including Vipassana, unless you experienced it. Only through experience do you create ‘your wisdom’.
Vipassana stresses heavily on experiential wisdom and at times the teacher is quite critical on certain forms of worship and all forms of blind faith in any religion. Going to church asking for forgiveness only to leave the church and repeat your bad behaviour will not lead to happiness. Praying for sweet peaches when you saw bitter tea seeds is not going to turn the bitter tea into sweet peaches. Going to Vipassana and hoping that Buddha provides you a short cut to Nirvana is not going to happen. This is all about you and it is your road to happiness. There are no short cuts but what the Buddha has done is to share his experience to happiness and to point out the road he followed of Sila, Samadhi and Panna. By truly practicing this and following this path will happiness and enlightenment come. There is nothing wrong with worshipping ‘your God’ or 'your Messiah as long as you seek to replicate the good attributes of the God/Messiah you worship and to really practice it. Too many people don’t practice what they preach, making what ever they preach a rather hypocritical affair. Vipassana teaches that a happy and balanced mind comes from a moral life, with focus and experienced wisdom. This can be experienced in conjunction with any religion or non religion.
The key is to have the conscious mind truly calm, pure and focussed. All thoughts are the work of the surface level of the mind. They may be intelligent thoughts but they are not necessarily the wisest. This surface mind still works accordingly to the person’s will and it is limited in its ability. So the trick is to not have the analytical mind dictate what is going on during these 10 days but to have it solely focussed to observe on the physical sensations which manifest itself. This is the only way the deepest part of the mind can do its work. After the 10 days you can analyse what you experienced from you inner self but during the training don’t overthink or analyse. Just let it come and focus on the technique.
As an aside and more to my personal point of view of life, I believe those that being a Buddhist is a 'way of life', not a religion. In its purity of enlightenment, I believe there are no Gods to worship and miracles to pray for. You are solely responsible for your approach to life, actions and happiness. No one has ever become happy by leading a life of violence, betrayal, lies, addiction or holding on to resentment etc. Don't misunderstand what I write here. I know of people who have suffered and endured far more horrific situations then I have. I am sure that they did not choose to experience these misfortunes voluntarily. I would not know what effort it requires to let go of deep rooted resentment this may have created. I do however think that Vipassana could provided a tool for all people with all challenges on how to stop living in the past and to learn to live in the 'now'. Your happiness will have to come from being mindful on how you approach the day, every day. And more importantly, how to navigate life in days of great desire, craving or adversity. I believe no one died for our sins, no one can provide us a shortcut to happiness or Nirvana. We walk the roads we chose. And we all know that walking the right road is not the easiest road nor is it free from misfortune. But from a personal experience it has always worked for me that doing the right thing, no matter how difficult, sooner or later paid back in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. And the older I get (dare I say wiser), the more thankful and humbled I feel for all the experiences I was bestowed with, good and bad. There are events which shaped me forever, bright and dark, from the birth of my beautiful kids, my divorce of their great mother, to having to reduce the workforce by hundreds of people in one of my assignments, just to name a few. From doubling a company's market share with great success and reward, to the realisation of the large hole my parents left in my life after their demise. My increased conscious realisation of these and many other moments, profoundly shaped who I am today. And that results in me consciously strive daily to become a better version of me. No book or teacher in the world could teach you that as they can only show you the path; You need to experience it and walk it.
So Yes! Do invest in yourself! What is 10 days in a life time? So many people think that investing 10 days in yourself is too much time. Really? “I can’t be away for 10 days’ or “I cannot be 10 days without my phone/partner/boss/children etc’. Make space in your cluttered schedule for 10 days Vipassana. Go in with an open mind-set to learn about yourself. Not about preaching by others, but you learning about your mind, body and soul. Vipassana is a technique and skill set you will be grateful for. The rest is seriously up to you and you alone. Wishing you much happiness and good karma.
Ah, one more thing……
So chose well where you want to go for your 10 days as there are many Vipassana centres in the world. Sharon and I both went (at different times) to Kanchanaburi Thailand. I am a very picky eater but I love Thai food. Generally this was a clever train of thoughts. However, it was also 38 degrees every afternoon and with just a fan (no airco) this was a hot location. Funnily, after three days it did no longer bother me. Goes to show what you are capable of. I heard from others that some locations are ‘more basic’. Nepal, as example, was let’s say, very very basic. In Thailand you have a basic room with (western) toilet, shower and electric fan. A pretty hard bed, some sheets and a blanket (bring your own towel/soap and maybe sleeping bag). But locations vary so check it out and keep in mind the time of the year (hot or cold). Secondly, in Thailand we had little pillows available at the entrance of the meditation hall. Some soft and others hard. Use these as they assist in reducing discomfort under your knees or touch points when sitting cross legged. And if unbearable to sit for hours (back pain), there are wooden seats (without legs) which provide some back support if really needed. You need to ask the teacher for this as these are not readily handed out. But prepared to suffer and feel discomfort. While meditating, these pains and discomforts disappear with the right concentration.
I did this in April 2019. Now, October 2019, I use the lessons learned in everyday life…… I realise that:
- Unhappiness comes from envy by comparing to those with more money, higher status or perceived better life.
- Unhappiness comes from feeling to have to compete with my peers, win a game, an argument, a job title or any of that nature.
- Happiness does not come from feeling contempt to those beneath or to gloat in our perceived success.
Instead happiness comes when you can rejoice in someone else’s success and say ‘good for him/her’. And if you want to achieve the same, use is it as a motivator, not as envy. I feel compassion for those who are not as fortunate as I am. Helping others is incredibly fulfilling. I learn to do so without expecting a return, a plaque or even a 'thank you'. It feels good to just do it because I can and it is the right thing to do. And when talking about doing the right thing, I love the phrase in one of my business trainings: “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.” Words to live by.
I may not meditate 2 hours per day as the teacher suggested, but I have acquired some meaningful and serious skillsets. My approach to stress and conflict is so much more calm and constructive. But more importantly for me, the mindset by which I approach life has changed. Not by an epiphany one day to the next, but gradually with time. Material, status and ego are all far less important motivators than before and I can truly say I appreciate other things much more than before such as harmonious relationships, a good conversation, a beautiful smile and being of assistance to others. Loving Sharon through thick and thin and making sure I am ‘in the moment’ more, such as when speaking/writing to my children and (hopefully) being a better dad to them. Of course I still love to work for good money and I enjoy a room with a view. I love a glass of wine (or two) and marvel at fast cars which I will never possess. I can get upset losing a squash match when not playing my best. But it makes no real impact on my mood. I laugh about myself when thinking ‘wrongly’. Upon reflection I can truly say that my perspective is calmer, centred and no longer focussed on living for the court of public opinion, winning an argument or counting dollars. The best thing of taking a year off work is having the time to reflect and study oneself. It made me aware that a calm equanimous mind is priceless….. (and healthier too). I leave you with the very wise words of a very successful investment banker. He was asked what is a good investment. His reply surprised the listeners: “A good night sleep.”
And there you have it….. Most people blame their unhappiness, stress and subsequent sleepless nights on lack of time, bad bosses, too much work, 24/7 media, politics, climate change, accident, past abuse or trauma, illness, lack of money etc.
I am blessed having been exposed to Vipassana, re-valued my priorities and learn to focus my mind to where I want it to go as opposed to my uncontrolled mind leading me into stressful thoughts or destructive behaviour…… There are no short cuts….. It is your road to walk and that takes a life long of learning. But don’t forget to every now and then enjoy the view and please don’t take yourself too serious.