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What I think Buddha would say about Vipassana Meditation

Vipassana meditation critic

My introduction to Vipassana Meditation

I attended a 10-day S.N. Goenka Vipassana meditation retreat in the countryside of Victoria in late 2011.

I had been attracted to trying out a Vipassana course after three of the shiniest people I have met around the world told me they had completed a couple of these courses.  It seemed to be a common linking factor between these graceful beings and I wanted to see if I could learn something from it too.

I was not sure what to expect as even seasoned hippies told me that these 10-day courses are intense:  4am waking followed by 11 hours of seated, immobile meditation each day.  No speaking or communication of any sort.  No physical activity beyond gentle strolls around the property.  Men and women are kept in separate parts of the facility.

One inspiring woman I respect as a highly conscious soul even told me she felt too spiritually immature for such an intense course – she was frightened of what she would discover about herself.

But rather than dissuade me, it tweaked my curiosity.  So I booked a course and set off in September 2011 and completed a 10-day retreat.

My conclusion about Vipassana

Well, after more than 100 hours of seated meditation I discovered that Vipassana is not for me.  Many people have since told me that it also did not feel healthy to them.  However, just as many have raved about its effectiveness.  But before I can explain what I believe is lacking with Vipassana, I should explain what it is.

What is involved in Vipassana?

Some say it is important to not be familiar with the techniques of Vipassana without the proper guidance that can only be received on a course.  With that disclaimer, you read on at your own risk!

Day one deals with focusing on the sensation of breath at the entrance of the nostril.  That’s 11 hours spent observing that one sensation.  Day two deals with broadening the subject of concentration to involve the tiny area of skin between the nostril and top of the lip.  Day three and you get to focus on the physical sensations throughout the entire body.  Once you have mastered these techniques you are instructed how to scan the body from top to bottom, bottom to top, for areas of resistance and to simply observe that resistance, thereby releasing it.

As far as I can recall from the course, the idea works on the theory that we store emotional trauma and resistance in difference areas of our bodies.  According to Vipassana-fans, there is no feasible way to impartially observe our emotional pain since we are emotionally invested in it.  So the only way to genuinely release our inner-resistance and to achieve the state of acceptance of reality (which is the hallmark of conscious living) is to observe and accept areas of physical resistance, thereby releasing the corresponding emotional toxins and achieving a state of pure consciousness.

What it is about Vipassana that I object to

Recorded instructions were provided by spiritual guru S.N. Goenka – played on a television – to the group of mediators at the end of each day.  Goenka claims that this technique was the exact form of meditation employed by Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha and is the true path to Enlightenment.

Goenka also cautions against using any other type of meditation alongside Vipassana and states that a dedicated daily practice of two hour-long sessions is necessary to really maintain health of the conscious-state.

Well the technique did not work for me.  I experienced a few mind-blowing effects but nothing that got me to the states (or non-states) I have reached without these rigid and convoluted steps.

When I left the course I felt like I had escaped from a creepy cult (albeit a cult which does not make any money).  I also experienced a meditation-hangover involving a bright white light which would not disappear when I closed my eyes and lasted for three days after I left the course:  I felt like it fried my brain!  We are instructed that this scanning should ideally take place all day and ultimately all of the time, even when sleeping.  Unfortunately for me this worked a little too easily and I could not switch it off even when I wanted to for a couple of weeks.

If Buddha was alive today and attended one of these courses, I very much doubt he would sit in front of a television blindly absorbing everything Goenka says.  My bet is that Buddha would engage and disengage with Goenka’s words in accordance with his own evolved instinct.  After all, he found his own path, which is what we are all supposed to do.  Buddha would say (in a rather more compassionate way):  “stop blindly copying me you morons! Enlightenment is not found at the end of one set of instructions.  Listen to your own self”

I believe Enlightenment is a living art that unfolds within and it dances to a different song in each of us.  Buddha is not a god.  He was just a person, much like Jesus, who understood things in a very pure way and his story has been steeped in myth and parable.  A very shiny person in a world of less healthy people.  An inspiration.  That means that whilst the strict and harsh discipline of Vipassana is invaluably helpful to some people, it is also unhelpful to others who prefer to achieve the state of Meditation in other ways.

I suspect that its effectiveness depends in large part on the personality-type of the meditator.   I am a rebel by nature and this makes any kind of conformist activity feel torturous.  I also have found my own way to the state of meditation: I find that visualization is the most helpful precursor followed by the pure and simple sensation of letting go.  I feel myself letting go, then I feel the sensation of letting go.  Then I let go of that.  And I let go of that.  I continue until there is nothing to let go of.  Until I am let-go.  Until I am nothing.  Until I am.  And that’s what works for me.  It took about 10 years to really make that happen but now it is usually pretty simple to achieve that state.

The conclusion I have reached

Meditation is an unusually personal activity (or non-activity to be more precise) and there is no one “set” way to reach the state of meditation (or non-thought).  This means that whatever you find works for you is fantastic.  There is no good or bad meditation style.  If Vipassana gets you where you want or need to be then go for it.

I think the most important message I have is that you should form your own path through your own experience – and not from simply believing what you are told or what you read.  Live it for yourself.  Only then can your impression be true for you.

The reason I wanted to share my experience with Vipassana is not to dissuade people from trying it for themselves, but simply because I have frequently heard it applauded as a very important meditation technique and I think the detractors of this style are under-represented.

Whilst I disagree with some of the discourse, I think that the idea behind Vipassana meditation courses is very positive.  The courses are free and food and accommodation are provided as part of the course.  Donations are requested at the conclusion of the course – whatever you felt the course was worth to you and how much you can afford to pay at that moment of your life.  The facilitators are previous meditators who appreciated the value of the course who are volunteering their time and effort.  It’s a beautiful idea and I don’t mean to say that a lot of people haven’t had their lives changed for the better from the set-up.

Hey, my partner still loves Vipassana and is keen to go on his fourth course – he will just have to go on his own!

If you would like to try a 10-day Vipassana course for yourself, they are offered in most places around the world.  You can find the centre closest to you at their website:  http://www.dhamma.org/

Picture credit: Cornelia Kopp via Compfight

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