The first time I’ve heard about Vipassana meditation was about two years ago and since then it was on my bucket list. I always wanted to do something mentally challenging and this sounded like one of those things that will either ‘make you or break you’. Vipassana is a 10 day silent meditation course which promises to free you from all your past negative experiences or as they say to ‘purify your mind’. We all have some emotional baggage and 10 days of my life didn’t sound like a huge sacrifice in exchange for a ‘peace of mind’. Well…
Before anyone decides to take a Vipassana course, I think it’s important to understand one thing – it isn’t a retreat. You won’t be sleeping on a comfy bed in a 5 star hotel and you won’t be eating quinoa for lunch. It has its rules which you have to abide by and they make up a big part of the whole ‘Vipassana experience’.
I undertook my Vipassana course in Thailand, 6 hours bus drive from Bangkok. I was in a middle of the jungle. There was nothing else around other than nature. No noise. Nothing. I have to say it was a perfect environment for a meditation course. And just to make this even more ‘prison like’ we all promised not to leave the centre for the next 10 days. No matter what. Well, it’s not like you could run away, anyways.
The centre was split into two areas – men and women. Yes, we were separated. Even the outside area, where we were allowed to go for short walks, was marked with signs such as ‘women area ends here’. We only saw the opposite sex during group meditations but even then they used to sit on the other side of the meditation hall. Yes, I know, it does sound like a prison.
Within the first few hours we locked away everything we owned – wallets, passports, laptops, phones, kindles, books, notebooks and pens. Everything. We were not allowed to do anything other than sleep, eat and meditate. Weirdly enough this made me feel like a heavy weight was lifted off my shoulders. I no longer cared about material belongings. I didn’t need to keep an eye on them or worry that they will be stolen. I didn’t have to feel guilty that I didn’t reply to my friends’ messages or I didn’t look as skinny as those perfect Instagram girls. It made me feel free. Though soon staring at the ceiling and hand washing my underwear became my favourite activities. It’s almost funny how easily you can be entertained when you don’t have your phone.
A big part of Vipassana meditation is the so called ‘noble silence’. It means you are not allowed to use gestures, talk or look at another student. No communication. The only time you are allowed to talk is if you are spoken to by your teacher or you need to speak to the management team.
As you probably gathered by now, this meditation course, contrary to others, also doesn’t allocate any chores to its students. This means that another distraction was eliminated from our lives and we didn’t need to worry about food. However, even the meals were served to a very strict schedule.
Breakfast at 6.30am and lunch at 11am. And that’s pretty much it. I assume this is because Vipassana came from Buddhism and they believe that a monk’s stomach is like a lotus. It opens up with the sunrise and closes around midday. So here we were, living like monks. (Though new students were allowed to have a tea break at 5pm and also have some light snacks like biscuits or a toast)
The timings were also pretty harsh. The first gong used to go off at 4am and we were discharged at 9pm. All the group and individual meditations added up to 11 hours a day. Yes, that’s not a typo. 11 hours a day.
I have no idea how anyone managed to do this because I definitely didn’t. I cheated. I used to miss a 4.30am – 6.30am meditation and an hour’s individual meditation after lunch. These hours were dedicated to sleep (or staring at the ceiling). I still racked up good 7 hours of meditation every day. That’s a full working day spent meditating.
Why such rules?
I know these rules seem a bit harsh or even ridiculous but… they were created for a reason. They were created so that you have no distractions in life and can focus on meditating. Or (what I’ve experienced) if you get bored of being there then well… there’s nothing else to do other than meditate, so you are basically forced to do it. And yes, this is where the magic starts.
The philosophy and the meditation technique
I think at first I was very fascinated by Vipassana simply because it was so similar to Stoicism and Buddhism. It believes that everything in life is temporary. And I have to say my rational mind cannot argue with this statement. I can’t come up even with one example of permanence in life. (Please tell me if you do). In a nutshell, Vipassana teaches you how to experience this impermanence with your own body. As a result, you rewire your brain and learn to live in the moment.
Vipassana teaching also says that all the misery and negativity in life is caused by our cravings (for pleasant sensations, pleasant experiences or in general ‘the brighter future’) and our evulsions (from unpleasant sensations or unpleasant experiences). According to them, all cravings and evulsions, first of all, are felt in our bodies and are created by our subconscious mind. Once our brain learns to ignore these sensations, you free yourself from all the negativity. In addition to this, they say that past traumas, reactions and experiences (or as they call them ‘sangkharas’) can build up in our bodies, though, once you stop generating them and you reach a balanced mind, this stock of sangharas will also clear up. Your mind will then be ‘fully purified’.
What does it actually look like in practice? Those who have ever meditated are probably familiar with a body scan technique. So vipassana is basically a body scan. A very sensitive and prolonged body scan. 11 hours of body scan. Vipassana teaches you to feel the slightest and the strongests sensations in your body and at the same time completely ignore them. Whilst meditating you might start feeling an itch or a severe pain or tightness somewhere in your body. It doesn’t matter whether the sensation is pleasant or unpleasant you are not allowed to move or somehow else get rid of that feeling. You have to accept the situation as it is. Don’t give it any mental power and just carry on scanning your body. This is how you train your mind to stop reacting to sensations.
How does it transfer to a real life? Very simple. Once you rewire your brain to stop reacting to pleasant and unpleasant sensations in your body, you will eventually stop reacting to good or bad things that happen in your life. Your mind becomes balanced. It cannot be shaken by anything.
What made me question it?
I will have to admit I gave it a good go. Well, for about 6 days. And it really took me through an emotional rollercoaster. Some hours I wanted to cry, some hours I was angry, some made me feel lethargic and some were a pure bliss. And yes, not days but hours. And there was no surprise here. At the end of the day that’s what they drill into your head ‘everything is temporary and everything constantly changes’. However, even though my mind was committed to this, my body was running a different course.
About a month before I went to Vipassana I spent a couple of days in a Cambodian hospital with two different infections. I carried on with my travels but I think my body didn’t fully recover. On day 3, I started feeling like one of my infections was coming back. Half of my body was in pain. I couldn’t sleep or eat, and I constantly felt dizzy. On day 5, I went to talk to the manager; I wanted to see a doctor. The problem was that the closest hospital was in Bangkok. Yes, 6 hours drive away. Why doesn’t this surprise me? On a plus side, two of the assistant teachers could help me. One was a doctor and another one was a nurse. So I was sent to consult with them.
They didn’t particularly question my condition. How bad was the pain, how long I was feeling it, what were the symptoms. They straight away gave me a diagnosis. ‘It’s your sanghkaras leaving your body’. They say that your stock of sangkharas leaves your body through pain and apparently these were mine. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. I am sure psychologists would say that any past traumas should be somehow relived or visualised in order for them to leave you forever. Right? This just didn’t make any sense. I mean, I didn’t even know which part of my life or past traumas my body was getting rid of, so how can I trust this? And even if this is true, how will I know when my mind is FINALLY purified?
I had to choose whether I want to leave the course and go to the hospital or whether I want to stay. To be honest, the pain used to go away when I was meditating and if it came back I literally just ‘meditated it away’. I learnt to ignore it and not to think about the future. I started living in the moment. I decided to stay, even if that meant that I’m taking a risk of getting very very ill.
It’s been over a week since I left the centre and the thing is, I still don’t know whether it was the best thing I’ve ever experienced or the most brainwashing I’ve ever come across. I left the course feeling very sceptical. I didn’t believe some bits of its philosophy. I probably still don’t. However, my infection cleared up pretty much as soon as I left the course and it felt like something has changed. I just couldn’t place my finger on it.
I got back to Bangkok, probably one of the busiest cities in Thailand, and to be honest things that used to bother me 2 or 3 weeks ago no longer had an effect on me. It felt like my anxieties, my hatred, and my negativity somehow disappeared or at least were diminished. And I didn’t feel it at a so called ‘intellectual level’. I didn’t have to tell myself ‘don’t worry about this’, it came somewhere from within. I assume it was my subconscious mind. I felt like no situation in life could destroy that peace and mental clarity.
I don’t know how long this is going to last. I don’t know whether I will continue meditating or whether I will ever do another Vipassana course. However I know that I wouldn’t mind living in that peace for the rest of my life.