I had thought of a hundred different ways to start this blog. 10 hours a day in your own head, not talking to anyone, or looking at anyone, will give you that unique opportunity.
And I can’t remember a single one.
I’m writing this at 3am of what should be day 9 of my silent meditation course at the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Blackheath, NSW. You’re not allowed to bring writing material on the course – so yep, I came home early. In an act of spasmodic volition I broke my solemn pledge of staying the entire 10 days, the seriousness of which you only find out is not done lightly only when you actually have to do it yourself.
I had my eye on this particular course for at least a year, waiting for the right opportunity when my wife was going to be away for a similar amount of time. The practice of Vipassana reached my consciousness ever since Sam Harris mentioned it in one of his blog posts some years ago. My evolving experience both in practicing non-specific meditation and understanding the growing scientific evidence of its effectiveness I felt like I had to take it up a notch. Oh my, what a notch it was.
‘Staaart with a caaalmmm and quiiiet mmmiiind’ the baritone subcontinental voice bellowed soothingly over the meditation halls speakers, immediately inducing a sense of omnipresence. ‘Focus your attention entirely on the act of respiration, the flow passing out the nostrils, the flow passing into the nostrils, the sensation on the inside surface area of the nostrils, around the outer ring of the nostrils’ you get the picture. Not even 10 minutes in and my legs had gone past the numb stage and were starting to burn. My attention being 5% on the breath and 95% on the embarrassment of having to crawl out the hall at the end, and this was the evening of the induction day, not even the first full day…what had I got myself into.
I knew that I’d be meditating 10 hours a day, but I hadn’t internalised what that really meant. If I had, as most normal people probably would’ve, I doubt I would’ve signed up. But I’m glad I did because as vanilla as it sounds, I had a valuable experience.
For starters, you cannot fault the environment, service and facilities provided – at no cost (the centre runs off donations from old students who have completed the course). The centre is located on a beautiful bush block on the Blackheath plateau where everywhere you walk you’re surrounded by trees and it was a treat to frequently watch Humming birds and Kangaroos go about their business. The centre is run largely by kind and generous volunteers and the food was good. I enjoyed the experience of eating entirely vegan and even found the semi-fasting (dinner was just two pieces of fruit) somewhat of a nice change.
The early days were tough going but I could feel a significant improvement in my technique. The evening discourses that were given by video of the now recently deceased S.N. Goenka (the leader of the movement) were insightful, encouraging, interesting, convincing and even humorous at times. The number of very short bushwalks provided enough novelty, distraction and relaxation from the work (and it’s damn hard work) meditation required to keep me recharged. My lack of access to any normal stimulation and digital disconnection was really starting to make my internal perceptions sharper and even my vision seemed more vivid. Some of the visions I had when meditating (which aren’t the purpose of the technique) of alien landscapes were what I could only imagine a heavy dose of LSD might induce. They were mesmerising in the truest sense of the word. There’s much talk in the discourses about dissolving the boundaries of body and mind that in these visions I could be readily convinced I was witnessing activity at the cellular or even molecular level and that they weren’t alien landscapes at all. Another vivid experience was this feeling of my head’s boundaries dissolving away leading to a sensation of being simultaneously the size of the room and also the size of a pinhead and being able to explore both dimensions interchangeably at will. These experiences however were the narrow exception, not the rule.
I was doing mental air-punches and thinking of all the people I’d recommend it to, thinking of how it’s neatly filled a secular spiritual void in atheism, thinking I was on the path to liberation – to enlightenment!
The change came somewhere probably on day 6 where I had thoughts about leaving, which strangely they anticipate somehow. At least 3 other male students, of the 50 or so, had left by that time already and I had not only serious philosophical questions that needed answering but my performance, while good, was plateauing and the boredom was quickly becoming unbearable. I felt at this point I could take this home to continue to practice. By day six, time had started to warp and slow down to half speed. I was starting to have what can only be described as mild panics at thinking of the amount of time remaining. It was beginning to feel more like a prison than a retreat. We had be trained to dial into and observe our bodily sensations and I could feel waves of hot prickles at the thought of having to spend another 4 days on repeat when there was no sign of any distinct gear change on the horizon.
I talked to the manager (who was a first time volunteer and who also meditated with us) and the assistant teacher about my misgivings about the philosophy and my plateauing performance. While their attempts were genuine and heartfelt neither provided a convincing answer but it did provide enough pause for thought to come up with my own reason for staying which was that, this was a test, this is what the course is meant to push you into realising that it’s a test of one’s ability to resist, or more accurately ‘observe’ craving and become detached from it. I was even having smug conversations in my head about telling people ‘you don’t even know how close I came so close to walking out of here on day 6’. Well that feeling didn’t last long. Not even 24 hours later and halfway through my 5th hourly meditation of the day my thoughts had wandered for the 20th time that minute and I had what I call my spasmodic act of volition. I had to leave, now.
The boredom certainly didn’t help but it was the intellect that was being the most tortured. At risk of misrepresenting what the teaching of Vipassana is about, I’ll summarise my understanding of it in a nutshell. It goes something like this:
Human misery is caused by our reactions to our ‘cravings’ and ‘aversions’. When you crave something you are wishing for something that is not here now in the reality of the moment, thus innately leading to disappointment, depression and ultimately misery. Similarly it goes that for aversion that we are wishing something doesn’t happen that leads to fear, anger and again ultimately misery. The goal to being liberated from this habitual thought pattern is to detach yourself from cravings and aversions by simply observing them and understanding their intrinsic impermanent nature. The practice of Vipassana meditation where you observe bodily sensations is a technique to help you become more equanimous with not only your pleasant and unpleasant bodily sensations but by extension more importantly your own pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
I could understand this intellectually, even start to feel some of the truth at work and experiencing this truth is at the core of teaching, not just understanding it intellectually. By the end of my time I could sit cross legged for an hour without moving a centimetre, just observing tickles, aches, waves of wonderful free flowing energy and numerous other sensations.
But the model broke down when I tried to start thinking about how this could work in the real world, where you can’t be a monk dedicated to reaching nirvana but you have to earn a living. Much more importantly was how you still lived a joyful life where you wanted to do, well… anything! By day 7 it still hadn’t been explained to me what the difference was between ‘craving’ and ‘wanting’. Such a simple matter of definition that could’ve been broached very early in the course. Another word that need defining was ‘misery’. This is a powerful but also broad term and I felt that it was used so often and with so much hanging on it that it was remiss of them not to interrogate what this term meant. For instance, is being sad misery? Is being in grief misery? Is being repulsed being in misery? The answer to these affects whether I want to live this way of seeing the world. If Vipassana presents me with the blue pill to remove my ability to grieve, or feel melancholy (an underrated feeling to most), I’m not sure that’s even humanistic, let alone desirable.
On my informal exit interview, a haphazard, awkward affair where it felt slightly akin to being an apostate, I was told that in the final discourse session on the Sunday morning the teacher broached some of these issues. But the bag was packed and my inertia was carrying me out the door regardless, I had already mentally cashed in the reward of being home again. Such an important component to the teaching should be made centrally and early to keep people on the path but even if this was done I can’t see how any number of layers of subtle reasoning can make this model work and, somewhat sadly, I don’t feel much more appetite to explore this particular philosophy much further. For now.
Apart from some strangely unsettling vibes sneaking away from centre (as to not unsettle the other students), I have come away much more happy. That can’t be disputed. I feel calmer, more alert and open. Perhaps this is always going to happen when your day to day life is set in contrast with an unnatural state of being, but I do believe the practice of meditation has significant benefits and I’ll continue with a renewed vigor.
I suspect that many people I know would come away with similar observations and I’ve read a few experiences of others that roughly align to my own. I’m not intentionally trying to sound elitist by saying this, but I do believe with the focus on craving and aversion make the Vipassana centres real power of influence for good for people who have serious addictions or problems of systemic pain either of the mind or body. It’s less suited to those who are after engaging in free thought activity, academic experimentation or existentialism.
I’ve given it a good go, tried it on and worn it around for what seems much longer than just 8 days and it hasn’t neatly fulfilled the spiritual niche that I thought initially it might. It certainly proffered many truths I could relate to and will help me live more balanced and in tune with the moment, but for now I’ll happily come back to my home base – life is what you create of it.