Silence & sensations
Have you ever meditated before? If so, how often do you do it and for how long? Maybe you downloaded one of on those trendy “mindfulness” apps and you manage to put 15 minutes or so in here and there whenever you can wrench yourself away from the cat videos? Either way, I bet very few of you have ever managed to meditate for more than an hour.
Second question, what is the longest you have ever gone without speaking? A couple of hours when you’re alone at home after work maybe? In the case of the chronically lonely, it could even be a few days before that annoying sales call from Vodafone breaks the silence and shatters your solitude.
Well, imagine meditating pretty much non-stop for 10 days and in this time, not been able to speak a single word to anybody. Add to this a complete ban on phones and TV, on computers, music, reading and pretty much everything you have ever done to occupy your time.
It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Yep. So I knew I just had to try it for myself.
Vipassana in India
I first heard about “Vipassana” meditation courses in India during my first tentative trip in spring of 2016. Many travellers I met along the way told me about their recent experiences locked away in Ashrams and Monasteries meditating in silence for 10 whole days. My initial reaction was one of abject horror, it sounded awful and I wondered why anybody would put themselves through such an austere regime. Yet, time and time again I would hear how utterly rewarding, beneficial and even life-changing it had been.
Crucially, I was not only hearing this from the twee latter-day hippy types who scour India moving from one drum circle to the next. I was also hearing this from sensible people, sensible working class, British people like my friend Paulo who liked to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. If even he was extolling the virtues of this course then I accepted there must be something of merit in it. I made a mental note to check this out for myself at the next opportunity.
Fast forward 18 months and I found myself back in India. This time I was in the south of the country and I spent the winter months drinking with the new tech-elite in Bangalore, smoking with Israelis in Hampi and partying with absolutely everybody at Goa’s raging trance parties. As the New Year came around, I decided that the next box to tick on the great Indian experience list was to try this meditation thing for myself.
A box to tick?
I’ll be frank. I did go into my Vipassana purely for the experience. I was short of ideas as to how to pass my time in India so signed up purely as “something to do” following up on the notion I had had 18 months earlier. Prior to the course, I had never meditated before. I also didn’t consider myself to be in any particular personal, spiritual or emotional crisis and it did occur to me that maybe there was somebody else out there who may have been more deserving of the place on the course than I was (the courses do generally fill up and there are usually waiting lists).
But I also went into it with an open mind and a steely resolve to give it my very best shot. This meant I had no expectations, was able to give “fair trial” and see the experience for what it really was rather than what I wanted it to be. As it turned out, this is precisely what the Vipasanna course is all about but I didn’t know this yet as I had also made a point of not pre-educating myself about the exact nature of Vipasanna or the precise details of the course. On this point, if you are by any chance currently considering doing a Vipassana in India or anywhere else in the world, I wholly encourage you to stop reading this article immediately and just go ahead and book it (its free of charge after all). The experience is far too complex to readily sum up and I don’t want to taint your own experience with mine. I’ll even leave a space between this paragraph and the next so you don’t accidentally see any spoilers!
Still reading? Ok, let’s move on.
I found a course date that matched my availability in Kerala, India’s sleepy, serene, southernmost state. To take part in the course, one first has to fill out an online application which takes basic information such as age and nationality but also asks about mental health, use of intoxicants and wherever you have meditated before. No payment is required as the course if funded by donations from previous attendees. I filled the form out mostly honestly but did perhaps provide only an edited history of my drug experiences. A few days later I received an email confirming that my application had been approved on one condition; that I stop all intoxicants from now until the course start date in 6 weeks time. Now, this was prior to Christmas & New Year and I had a wedding to attend so I knew a total boycott of booze was going to be a tall order but I resolved to do my best anyway.
As the course date rolled around I felt very apprehensive. It gradually hit me what lay before me and already I began to doubt whether I could do it. This feeling of dread was only exacerbated when I read the pre-course material which set out the code of conduct and timetable. As well as the pre-mentioned ban on consumable culture, even sunbathing and exercising were out! How else was I was supposed to pass the time? Furthermore, I work out daily and get damned restless if I don’t unleash at least some energy and get my endorphin fix (masturbation was also banned in case you was going to suggest that as a substitute…). The timetable also looked absolutely punishing. Basically, it entailed waking up at 4am and then meditating for 9 hours with the sessions punctuated only by 2 and a half meals a day with a lecture in the evening. Holy shit!
School of silence
On the day of the course, I arrived at the centre near Chengannur in Kerala. The centre was not an Ashram or a Monastery but rather a complex of unassuming, single storey rectangular blocks set amidst some beautiful tropical forest. In fact, it resembled a Prisoner of War camp more than a retreat. The initial atmosphere was like freshers week at University as forms were handed out and attendees chatted to one another with a mixture of excitement and nerves. Despite the fact I had already completed the online application, I was required to fill out a further 3 forms which asked for more or less identical information (India takes overwhelming bureaucracy to dizzying heights) but one of the questions on one of the forms did stand apart from the usual roulette of name, phone number, and passport ID;
“Have you ever suffered any trauma?”
I pondered the question and agonized to best answer it. Trauma is a fundamental part of human existence and sooner or later it gets everybody in some way. I didn’t consider myself to have had an especially hard life and my first instinct was more or less to state this exactly. However, I decided to cast aside my flippancy and answer it from a place of honesty;
“Father died age 5. Girlfriend died age 28”.
That evening, after a simple vegetarian meal the course began. We were ushered into the meditation hall on the condition that once we entered, we be silent and remain silent for the next 10 days. The hall was filled with around 50 meditators all allocated their own cushion on which they were to spend over 100 hours squatting for the next week. I looked around and noticed that the male to female ratio was around 60/40 to the men as usually seems to be the case in India. More interestingly though, I noticed that most of the male meditators were local and spanned the age bracket from early 20’s to late 50’s. The females, on the other hand, were almost entirely westerners aged between 25 – 35.
After a few minutes the teacher entered. He was well over 6 feet tall, had a shaved head and wore all white. He took his position at the front of the hall, draped a shawl across his legs and prepared to deliver the very first session. He then did something I had absolutely not anticipated, he turned to an iPod set up on a table beside him and pressed play…
A voice came through the speakers which until now I hadn’t paid any mind to. I would soon learn it was the voice of the course creator and founder S.N. Goenka. Goenka introduced the basic premise of the course explaining in a very matter of fact terms how it would show us all the root of our deepest suffering and miseries and how to remove them. A shiver ran down my spine as the sheer gravity of the thought; I truly hadn’t expected this and wondered whether I was quite ready to go so deep and take myself apart?
Having made no prior inquiry as to the course details, I hadn’t appreciated that the entire course was made up of audio recordings and nightly videos of Goenka which appear to have been made sometime during the 1990’s. The teacher’s job, therefore, seemed to primarily consist of pressing play and pause several times a day. InitiallyI felt more than a little disappointed by this.
The first session was short and simple, we just had to observe our breath for 30 minutes before the voice of Goenka speaking from beyond the grave, sent us to bed at 9 pm.
Brutally wrenched from some deepest dream, I awoke with a start. The 4 am wake up gong (yes, a Goddamned gong!) was being sounded and it was time to begin. I felt totally disoriented. I have often stayed awake until and well-passed 4 am but seldom ever actually got up at this time. It was still dark and the night was absolutely still. Were they sure it was time to get up and not in fact 1 am?
What then followed was 2 hours of observing my breath followed by breakfast and a break before more meditating. The first day was hard. My mind was racing and I frequently forgot I was supposed to be observing my breath and instead ended up mentally replaying old Simpsons episodes, making up new daydreams and occasionally picturing my current girlfriend in her underwear (those thoughts were particularly problematic considering the aforementioned) ban on self-love…). After 5, 15 or 30 minutes I would catch myself not observing my breath and panic;
“Oh shit!” I thought, I”m not observing my breath! Now I’m gonna suffocate!!!!” Oh no phew, its ok I’m still breathing automatically. Hang on a minute, breathing is automatic? In that case why the hell am I sitting here observing it? In fact what the hell am I even doing here?”
And so went the first day. During that day on several occasions, I caught myself trying to talk myself into just bailing and leaving. But somehow, I realised that this voice wasn’t my truth. I also realised that often in life my first reaction was to simply run away, to throw a hissy fit like a 5-year-old and refuse to play anymore. I saw how in so many ways this had held me back all my life. Wow, already I had staged an epiphany! There and then I made a mental resolution that no matter how bad it got I was not going to leave early, and though the toddler in my head may rage and cry and kick and scream, he was not going to get his own way. I would soon learn, that this is the Vipasanna in practice.
Fairly soon I settled into a routine. During the meal and rest periods, I would walk around the grounds and then take naps to supplement the miserly 6 hours nightly sleep we were being permitted. During my walks, I observed other meditators. The noble silence we had undertaken entailed a complete ban on all communication including gestures and eye contact so we all walked up and down the dirt track with our heads bowed. The scene did have the feel of a walk around the prison yard and on numerous occasions I caught myself whistling the “Great Escape” theme tune (whistling or singing for that is not explicitly forbidden but I did make a point of making sure no one else could hear it). Despite the silence, though I observed the body language of my fellow meditators and pretty soon was able to discern with clarity exactly what was going on inside them on a given day and it was obvious that I was not the only one finding the course hard. It truly is amazing how fast the human being adapts and how much we can glean from non-verbal communication when we have to.
In the days leading up to the course, a traveller I met had quipped that after this I’d be ready for prison yet in many ways the routine here was far harder than in prison (although granted, even in India, at here least I felt safe from gang rape). At least in prison, you are can talk, read and watch TV whereas in Vipassana there is zero stimulation available to distract from the tedium.
The feel of breath
By the end of day 3, I was quite getting into it. We had gone from observing our breath to feeling it enter the nose to simply feeling sensation on the tiny area below the nostrils and above the top lip. I was amazed by how much my mind had quietened and I was able to go blank and get “into the zone” for God knows how long. I left meditation sessions feeling elated and calm and as I strolled around the “prison yard” I noticed that the trees and foliage had taken on a vibrancy and vivacity I had never seen before without the aid of psychedelic pharmaceuticals. The change in my feeling and perception was incredible. During my walks, I composed poems and songs in my head and felt a creativity flowing through me that had been absent in my life for several years. Alas, the downside was that without so much as a pen and paper, I had no actual outlet for this inspiration.
In these first days, I also managed to resolve a few complex decisions I had been toying with and re-evaluated my relationships with several friends and acquaintances with a concise clarity. I was also surprised by some old memories that came flooding back, long forgotten incidents and characters from childhood some of which had me laughing out loud. Somewhat inevitably I also thought about my late girlfriend. On the first day, the teacher had summoned me to see him during the midday question time and asked whether I was still sore about my losses. I explained that I felt I had recently obtained some kind of closure but that yes, I still felt sadness and regret. He explained that often during the first stage, meditators unleash a lot of pent-up grief so if I felt like crying I should do it but do it whilst observing my breath. But it wasn’t like that for me. Rather, for the first time in a long time, I was able to picture happy memories of us free of anguish and confusion. I also recalled a lot of forgotten memories from early in our relationship and then incidents over the years in which my behaviors and actions had gradually allowed that innocent love to sour. As I have recently started a new ‘serious relationship” I knew that these memories were coming back for a reason and I determined not to make the same mistakes again.
I’m not saying that the meditation was some kind of magic. It could simply be that the seclusion and digital detox empties the mind of all the static and excess information and allows it to think and express itself. Maybe one could get what I got simply be heading to a cabin in the woods without any WiFi for a weekend. Go ahead and try it.
The day of enlightenment
In case it was all getting a bit too easy, a change was coming and on day 4 we were finally introduced to the technique of Vipassana. Everything up until this point had been mere preparation giving us the basic skills needed to deal with Vipasanna itself much like learning to walk before one is able to run.
As the time to learn Vipasanna came, I felt pangs of trepidation. Finally, it was time for the suffering to come out. I had visions of intense shamanic ceremonies and images of the entire hall breaking down in tears like some mass trauma counseling session. But I was way off. The Vipassana session stated as usual with, the slow, soothing voice of Goenka telling us to “begin with a calm, balanced mind” and to observe the area below our nostrils and above our lip, observing any sensations we felt be they heat, itching or anything else. He then told us to shift our focus of attention to the top of our head and then to move it down the face and down the body one part at a time and so forth.
And that was it. Vipasanna is basically body scanning. Talk about an anti-climax right?
Well, no actually as I will explain.
As I soon came to learn, Vipasanna means “seeing things as they are” and is purportedly the meditation technique Buddha devised and used to achieve enlightenment. The technique is very simple and instructs meditators to mentally observe their own bodies piece by piece feeling every sensation. During these sessions, meditators observe all kinds of things ranging from nothing at all, cold, heat, sweat and pain. The idea is to simply observe all the sensations accepting them equally and not responding to any of them. If you feel an itch don’t scratch it, if your leg hurts don’t move it. Equally, if one feels a pleasant sensation such as heat or tingling one should not get attached to it and instead accept that that pleasure, like pain, is temporary, will soon pass and the only importance either truly have is the importance which we attach to them.
The idea of the mediation is essentially that you use your own body as a living metaphor and physical demonstration of this philosophy. By putting it in action, you, therefore, come to understand it not merely as an intellectual philosophy, but as an experiential reality. Its one thing to think something but quite another to actually know it.
The Hour of Pain
Does Vipassana meditation actually work though?
Well on day 5 another element was introduced to the sessions. We now had to sit through 3 of the daily sessions without moving for 1 hour. Prior to this I had been moving every 10 minutes or so as my back began to ache, my hips began to burn or my feet began to die from lack of blood. I shuddered at the thought of lasting 60 minutes. It was hard and on the first day, I failed miserably leaving my feeling utterly dejected. After 30 minutes, I was in sheer agony and just could not take it. When the gong sounded to end the session the relief (though silent) screamed with tangibility and meditators physically struggled to stand up to leave from strained legs. Throughout day 6 and 7 I saw despondent meditators pacing up and down the yard kicking stones in frustration.
By days 8 I had soldiered through the “hour of pain” quite a few times. It was true that if one got deep enough into the mediation the pain did somehow disappear as if by magic. However, aside from overcoming the pain, I hadn’t made any breakthroughs in days and was getting very bored at repeatedly scanning my own body. I was hurting for nothing. These were hard days and I was seriously pissed and longing for the course to end. Besides that, something else was also bothering me and stirring up a rising tide of resentment…
Dog eat dogma
The only real break from the eat, sleep, mediate wheel was the nighty discourses in which we were shown videos of Goenka delivering talks to a Vipassana group in California during the 90’s. In these nightly talks, Our would talk over the day, explain why we had done what we had done and what the philosophy behind it was. Whilst he was a great speaker, full of punchy anecdotes, effective parables and warm jokes, there was another, more irritating element to his teaching…
The premise of the Vipasanna course is that it is a completely secular, scientific technique that is free of rite, ritual, dogma and belief. Yet, every night in the discourses Goekna would casually and matter of factly mention “past life Karma”, minor miracles Buddha had performed as well as pseudo-scientific, debunked physical theories about all things being made from 4 elements. Whilst we never actually asked to accept this, it did nevertheless rile me a bit.
There was another, annoying, major element of the course which I have somehow failed to mention. Whilst there was ostensibly no rite or ritual in the course, we were nevertheless treated to around 1.5 hours a day of Goenka singing and chanting in ancient Hindi which to me is a rite and ritual by any other name. This made no sense to me, as nobody actually speaks the dead language it’s as redundant as making medieval Britons attend Catholic mass in Latin and as illogical as contemporary British Muslims praying in Arabic. We were also encouraged to respond to the (recorded) singing with a serious and pious retort of “Sayam, sayam, sayam” which may as well be Amen, Hallelujah or Allah-a-Akbar to me. Not only was the singing akin to religious mysticism, it was also hilariously ridiculous and reminded me of the madcap “Club Singer” round from 90’s British comedy show Shooting Stars.
Free my flow
However, another epiphany was afoot. On day 9 I once again had a wee little word with myself. This time, it wasn’t my inner tantruming toddler I faced but instead, my nonchalant adolescent self who had accepted that he had to finish the course, but vowed he would be damned if he was going to put anymore actual effort in. During the morning rest period, I resolved that I was going to return to the meditation with a renewed vigor and make the absolute most of whatever time was left rather than simply counting down the minutes. And guess what? The very next session I had a breakthrough.
Whilst I had spent the past few days wrestling with agony and repeatedly scanning my own body for traces of perspiration, Goenka had begun talking about “Free flow” and “Vibrations” which until now I hadn’t been feeling. When the breakthrough came it was immense, I felt waves of intense energy purring down my body from my head down to my feet and felt vibrations in every part of my being. According to Goenka and to Buddhism, this sensation and other sensations, are happening to all of us every single moment but we’re simply too distracted to realise it. Later that day I even felt the free flow whilst laying in bed. It was a cool experience but did make it kind of hard to sleep!
Famous first words
On day 10, the noble silence was lifted and we were permitted to talk to one another again. The first thing I said to my cellmate Max was “sorry for ignoring you all week dude!” It had indeed felt pretty odd to share intimate space with somebody and yet not even acknowledge them.
What followed over the remainder of the day was discussions about how far we had got with the Vipassana meditation, how much we had struggled and of course about the underlying philosophy of Buddhism which none of us accepted in its entirety. It was amazing to see how some of my co-meditators seemed to have had exactly the same experience and feeling like me. It was also amazing how closely bonded I suddenly felt with some people even though we had thus far even avoided all eye contact.
On day 11 we were released back into the world. The final discourse congratulated us on taking the first steps, urged us all to keep on meditating and to basically go forth and live a good life. Whether my silent meditation Vipassana course in India was actually beneficial though remains to be seen and the proof will be in the pudding. As I move through India I am guaranteed to encounter all manner of frustrations and I’m looking forward to seeing how I deal with them. Will I kick and scream in anger like the 5-year-old toddler, disengage like the surly adolescent or face the situation with calm acceptance of the higher me I discovered on days 1 and 9?
As I write, I am planning to continue with meditation as the benefits are now self-evident; I feel calm, alert and am needing sleep far less. Whether I would ever wish to repeat another Vipassana course? (as many old students do) I’m not so sure.
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam (I have no idea what this means but Goenka sang it rather a lot so it must be important).
May all beings be happy.