I started learning meditation techniques in 1972, and have been doing daily meditation since about 2004. I regularly taught meditation to my clients, to their great benefit. However, I’d never received formal instruction.
Now that I am retired from my counselling psychological practice, I have fewer outside obligations, so at last I could find a sufficient stretch of time to attend a retreat and learn. Over the years, I’d often driven past the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Woori Yallock, near where I live, so enrolled for a 10 day course. I really thought I was going to learn meditation, but matters turned out very differently, and very much better.
One-sentence summary: Vipassana was like my hip replacement surgery — a lot to go through, but with immense benefits.
• When I was 21, I had a transcendental experience: I sat for many hours of a night in pouring rain, without discomfort, unaware of the passage of time. Then I didn’t have another one for 50 years. On day 7 of the course I experienced being a weightless golden glow, so beautiful that afterward I cried with joy. All my life, I have been emotionally undemonstrative, so this is more remarkable for me than for most other people. I had another, less intense experience the same day. On day 8, I had 3 such experiences, one so overpowering that I needed to seek the teacher’s help. On day 9, there were two more, simply peaceful and uplifting.
• All my life, I have carried a lot of trauma. Some were dealt with through hypnosis in 2007, but the work I did on myself during these 10 days has been far more beneficial. It amounts to a personality change, though we’re to see how durable and robust. Spontaneously processing past suffering is part of the theoretically predicted benefits of Vipassana. To sum it up, what has been in my head, an intellectual, deliberate behaviour pattern, has moved to my heart and guts. This is immensely satisfying.
• I am more aware of physical sensations of all kinds. When driving home, I felt the air from the ventilator on my hand as if the fan was on, but the fan was off. Vision seems brighter, clearer. Sounds, even ordinary sounds, have beauty in them. At the same time, I can focus my attention better, so distractions have less effect and are easier to keep in the background.
• I developed an ability to block out pain as a young man. Now, instead, I can stay aware of pain, observe it, and yet be unaffected by it. One side effect I’ve observed after a day at home is that I am able to do more repetitions of power exercises.
• Perhaps most important, I feel I have learned a tool for moving toward spiritual growth.
Other nice things:
• The food was wonderful, tasty, varied, nutritious, and in abundance.
• The location is in a beautiful setting with lovely views. Despite the drought, there were plants and animals to be enjoyed.
• Although there was firmness about fitting into a set of rules, some of them undeclared until broken, we were treated with kindness, respect, decency and caring. I particularly developed an admiration for the teacher, Jamie Edwards. (Officially, Goenka was the teacher and Mr and Mrs Edwards the Assistant Teachers, but I think I learned more from Jamie than from Goenka.)
• Boredom. A major source of frustration was due to my pre-existing competence in mindfulness meditation. For much of the first 3 days, I was bored out of my mind. We were taught to focus on the breathing in the first session of instruction, then had to practice the skill for a total of 9 hours in various sessions, then a small change in technique was introduced, which had to be practiced for 9 hours… In fact, I noticed that some students needed all this time (and more), and in group instruction one needs to go with the slowest. Typically, I competently performed the task after 10 minutes, and felt no more need for practice after 2 hours. Since everything is (rightly) organised to eliminate all potentially distracting activities, I had nothing to do but meditate, or walk a little, or think about something else. And with no way of writing my thoughts down, I could do only so much useful work on other things like the novel I am writing at the moment.
• The teaching emphasises that Vipassana is based on a universal truth, a law of nature that applies to all people in all situations. Why then do we need so many Pali words? (Pali is to Buddhism what Latin is to Roman Catholicism.) A universal truth should be just as easy to explain in any language, including English.
• During the first few days in particular, I had a strong negative reaction to the chanting. This eased toward the end, but even on the last day, I merely treated it with acceptance and tolerance. We were told, time and again, that this activity is not religious but applies to people of any faith or no faith at all. Extended recitals from the Buddhist “scriptures” contradict this. However, to be fair, many others seemed to enjoy the chanting.
On day 3, my teacher, Jamie Edwards, permitted me to go ahead and experiment, and after this things improved. I found myself anticipating exercises introduced a day or two later, and others not in the course (or perhaps typically achieved in longer, more advanced courses).
Since my situation is clearly unusual, my experience may not be a good guide for people not already competent in meditation. All the same, I can make some general points that will help others to decide whether to do a Vipassana course, and to get the most out of it if they do.
The whole experience is very cleverly organised to maximise the chances of making major habit changes in a few days:
• Although there is generous allowance of free time, it can’t be spent on any customary activity such as chatting (Noble Silence prohibits even nonverbal communication), watching TV (no electronic devices allowed), reading, writing (no books or writing materials), or vigorous exercise (brisk walking is the maximum permissible). So, there is nothing to do but the work you came for.
• As in recruit training or boot camp, normal routine is as strongly disrupted as possible. You are awakened at 4 am, lights out at 9:30 pm; lunch is at 11 am, and evening meal is a couple of pieces of fruit (not even that for “old students”); men and women are separated except for sitting for formal meditation in the same hall; all activities are to a strict timetable. This is one of the reasons several reports on the internet refer to it as a “cult.” In fact, all the changes can be justified in terms of speeding up the learning experience, and also, amount to a mimicry of life in a monastic order.
• You are challenged to go through a pain barrier. This is not unique to Vipassana, but is part of most mindfulness meditation practices, and has remarkably liberating and empowering effects. You become stronger and more confident by meeting a major physical challenge. This then improves your ability to deal with the mental exercises.
For me, the high point of every day except day 7 was the Discourse from Goenka. On day 7 it started with a commercial, which I found off-putting, then mostly repeated content from previous days. But the other Discourses were inspiring, entertaining and illuminating. Together, they describe a highly moral value system, and are largely in accord with my understanding of what modern science tells us about our universe.
We live at a time when humanity has a real, calculable probability of self-induced extinction. The only thing with a hope of reversing this idiocy is culture change, away from greed and aggression; to compassion, cooperation, simplicity, decency. This is the message of my book Ascending Spiral, and it is Goenka’s message. There is a beautiful Shintoist saying: “There are many mountains to God, and many paths up each mountain.” Ascending Spiral and Vipassana are two paths up the same mountain.