I just returned from a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat at the California Vipassana Center (CVC), in the style of S.N. Goenka. For 10 days, I took a vow of silence, meditating for 10 hours each day, starting my first daily meditation at 4.30am and ending the last at 9pm. It was without doubt the most formative experience for me this year. Why? Please read on.
The concept: an Art of Living
Vipassana is a meditation technique rediscovered by the Buddha 2500 years ago. The technique was developed as “a universal remedy for universal ills”. Does that sound a little lofty? Let me explain.
Your mind has a habit to respond to external objects with craving or aversion. These cravings and aversions create suffering. For example, when you see a delicious pastry while standing in line at the coffee shop, but a customer ahead of you orders the last one, you suffer. When you miss the bus and are condemned to wait for the next one, while feeling miserable about the cold weather, you suffer.
Vipassana is a technique to unlearn these cravings and aversions, by accepting reality as it is. In Vipassana, you use the mind to observe sensations on the body without reacting to them. If, after sitting cross-legged for half an hour, you feel pain in your right thigh, you do not respond by moving your leg. Rather, you objectively observe, “Ah, I sense pain in my upper right leg”, and investigate the sensation further (e.g., do you feel heat, pulsation, or perspiration?) in equanimity, without moving your leg.
By training the mind to not automatically respond to sensations, but to observe them in equanimity, you can unlearn the habit that causes human suffering.These 10-day courses are meant to establish and deepen one’s daily practice. It certainly takes many years, if not lives, to fully liberate the mind. However, a steady daily practice can get you very far.
The technique: Mastery of the Mind and Equanimous Awareness
The first three days of the retreat are used to increase one’s awareness by focusing on the sensation of breath, using a technique called anapana breathing. On the first day, you focus on sensations in the entire area of the nose. You gradually reduce the area of focus to only the entrance to the nostrils, with the purpose of sharpening the mind’s ability to detect sensations.
Then, after you have trained the mind to notice sensations on an area the size of a few fingertips, you are introduced to the technique of Vipassana. Essentially, Vipassana consists of different ways of “scanning” your body for different sensations, and observing these sensations in equanimity.
The first days of practicing Vipassana you will notice only gross sensations, such as a pain in the upper leg, or the movement of your lungs due to incoming or outgoing breath. Within a few days, your awareness sharpens to experience sensations on every tiny part of the body.
Ten days without speaking is a fantastic experience. Taking a vow of silence enables you not to focus any attention on others, which is where we normally spend most of our awareness. This creates a whole new reality. You can fully focus on the taste of your food, the touch of your feet on the ground, or the sensations on your skin. Silence becomes sacred.
The mind is incredibly active. Ten days without speaking does not feel like ten days of silence. Your mind is filled with internal monologue. Especially in the first days, hundreds of ideas pop up. And it’s not just the volume of ideas—the type of thoughts is fascinating, too. I had elaborate memories of my time as a teenager and student that I had not thought about for more than five or ten years.
Because you agree not to read or write during the course, you can’t write down any of your ideas. This is an interesting exercise in itself. In everyday life, I have developed a strong habit to capture every idea or to-do in a physical or virtual notebook. To respond in equanimity to these ideas, I had to let go of attachment, believing that the truly important ideas would come back to me at a later point. I had to remind myself that I came here to practice Vipassana, not to think about other things, and let the idea float away (by focusing my awareness on my breath of sensations).
Cultivating awareness and equanimity is possibly the most important path one can embark on. When “Noble Silence” was lifted on the 10th day of the course, my first long conversation was with Jerry, a businessman from Vancouver, Canada. Jerry told me that he participated in his first Vipassana retreat 42 years ago in India, and had done more than 60 retreats since. Jerry—a successful businessman, with a happy family, in good health—said that his daily Vipassana practice was the most important gift in his life.
I don’t think that Jerry’s statement was an exaggeration. Vipassana is part of the path of Dhamma. According to the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, Vipassana should be combined with a virtuous life (right speech, action, and livelihood) and increased awareness (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration). To me, it is only logical that committing to live a virtuous life, to further develop one’s awareness, and to continue to develop wisdom by equinamously observing the senses will have a profound impact on a human life.
The people who most inspire me—whether historic characters who I have learned about through books, or individuals who I have had the good fortune to become friends with—live a life of high morality. They practice selfless service. They realize they are flawed, and work on those flows. They actively work to reduce their sense of ego, self-importance. I think that Vipassana can help me cultivate these characteristics. That does not mean I think it’s the only way (I know people who find practical inspirations in many other techniques, religious and non-religious) or that it’s fully complete (for example, I think daily readings about virtuous exemplars may further benefit our compassion actions), but it is a technique that resonates with me now, that has clear merits, and that I can practice.
Taking a Vipassana course was not easy, but it was so worth the effort. In the last week and a half, I have been offered a concise view of the good life, and more uniquely, a specific path to develop that good life, step by step.
I look forward to grow on this path. I have committed to sitting twice a day for the next year, and I will sign up for a follow-up course in 2017 this week. Please let me know if you’re interested to join, or if you have any questions.
There is much more to share that I do not cover in the post above. For example, the retreat is made possible entirely by donations: teachers and all kitchen staff volunteer their time and expenses for lodging and meals are paid for by previous donations. This means that anyone, no matter what economic status, can join, which I found to be very refreshing. This is not a wealthy person’s escape.