Saturday 2 March 2013

Reflections on Meditation Boot Camp

For some context, before the course, I wrote some reflections on my rationale for attending the course and expectations here...

Two weeks ago, I completed my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course, as taught by S.N. Goenka. It was an experience of struggle, discipline, attention and work; peace, equanimity, joy, beauty and goodwill; critical thinking, insight, wisdom, and inspiration. It was an intensive exercise in attention and equanimity. It was not only thought-provoking, but a catalyst for action. Now that I've had a bit of time to reflect more objectively on the experience, I wanted to elaborate more on the theory and describe how it relates to my experience, lessons I learned and issues to consider. In the end, I think this course has a lot to offer to just about anyone, and that one is able to choose what they want to gain from this course based on what resonates with them.

Dhamma 101: Some More Theory
Vipassana isn't just any old meditation or relaxation technique. There are plenty of those out there that don't require a 10-day intensive course to learn. Instead, it is a practical technique that carries the noble and ambitious goal of liberation from suffering and misery. Thus, we were not just taught how to meditate, Vipassana-style. We were taught an entire philosophy (well, at least the tip of the iceberg of that philosophy), a system of ethics, an Art of Living - Dhamma, the ethical teachings of Gottama the Buddha.

From my understanding, these teachings aim to provide an answer to the question, "How should I live?". The bottom line is to live a life that is good for oneself and good for others, by performing "wholesome" actions that contribute to others' peace and harmony, and by avoiding "unwholesome" actions that disturb or harm others' peace and harmony. This benefits the individual too, as it is believed that it is a Law of Nature that any action that helps others also helps oneself, while any action that harms others also harms oneself. Dhamma basically teaches you to live more peacefully and harmoniously, by developing morality (sīla), mastery of the mind (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā).

Vipassana meditation is seen as the most wholesome action possible, as it involves mastering and purifying the mind, which is the progenitor of all actions. It is argued that one cannot perform an action that harms others without first generating a "defilement" in the mind which makes one miserable; nor can one perform an action that helps others without generating loving, compassionate thoughts. The process of "purification" involves eradicating negativities in the form of cravings and aversions to break down the barrier of ignorance and create the conditions and space for peace, love and compassion.

Vipassana aims to purify the mind through the understanding of certain Laws of Nature that comes from direct personal experience of the impermanency of all phenomena, including the self. It provides training in equanimity, a non-judgemental, non-reactive attitude, to eradicate the habitual responses of blind reactions (saṅkhāra). As we experience sensations on our skin and within our body arise and fade away, as well as our attention, mood and thoughts, we gain insight into the idea that everything is annica ("a-nee-cha"), impermanent. We then learn that the only rational response is to remain equanimous, to accept what is already here, instead of spending energy clinging onto (craving), or hating (aversion), something that is transient and beyond our control, whether it be emotions, physical sensations, objects, or people. We should see and observe experiences objectively, "as it is", yathā-bhūta, instead of constantly comparing what is already here with what we would like it to be and therefore intensifying our objective pain. It is the mental negativity generated by dukkah (most commonly translated as suffering or misery, but perhaps more accurately interpreted as a general "unsatisfactoriness" or imperfectness, or really any unpleasant mental state that the average person feels when things don't go our way) that results in harmful actions and the perpetuation of suffering.

Importantly, it is all well and good to understand and agree with this philosophy if you decide that it makes sense intellectually, logically and rationally, but the emphasis is on the understanding that comes from actual action and lived experience. It is one thing to say, "I guess this makes sense" and another to feel, "This really works. I really understand the nature of reality and of my mind". You can't simply understand a philosophy and from then on decide, "Right, that's it, I'm going to let go of all my cravings and aversions and only live in the present and be happy now!" We are taught that you actually have to do the work. No one else can do it for you - that's like being prescribed medication and asking someone else to take it for you.

Thus, there is a huge emphasis on personal responsibility. If we have to do the work, then we are the only ones who can save ourselves, who can open up the gates to the "Kingdom of Heaven" within. As Goenkaji puts it, Buddhism may seem a pessimistic philosophy: there's suffering and misery everywhere; in birth, in death, in love, when things we like don't happen to us, when things we don't like happen to's endless. However, it's optimistic and realistic in teaching a practical remedy for this existential condition. It's a "workist" philosophy, not believing in miracles or prayers, but in discipline and hard work. We find that we are 100% responsible for our own happiness or misery, and that nothing external can "make" us feel a certain way; an insight that has some congruence with modern-day psychological thought. The onus is on you.

Finally, the system is very results-oriented. Although the Buddha may have taught concepts such as Karma, past lives and future lives, and Goenkaji occasionally mentions these in passing, he also notes that you do not have to believe in these ideas to experience the benefits of Vipassana meditation, as it gives results "right here, right now, in this present life...why not just focus on this present life, it's already here!" Also, we are asked only to accept the practice if we see it actually making a difference in our day-to-day lives, in the form of better awareness, wellbeing, equanimity and compassion. It is not supposed to be a rite or a ritual, but a practice that has practical effects. It is a system that teaches one to avoid blind faith, and to engage in a personal process of truth-realisation and self-realisation.

That was Dhamma in a nutshell, in the words of a beginner. I hope it makes some sense, but again, the only way to really understand this philosophy is to experience it for yourself.

My personal experience
Firstly, it's important to note that everyone has different experiences, from which days they find most difficult, to experiences with sleep, energy, sensations and moods...From what I heard on the last day, though, it seems like the one thing that unites our experiences is that everyone finds it difficult, most people gain an increased sense of wellbeing and goodwill for others afterwards, and a lot of people gain some insight into "laws of nature" and ways of living. 

There's no doubt that this was one of the hardest 10 days of my life. However, it wasn't what I wasn't allowed to do (e.g. talk, make eye contact with people, read, write) that made the experience difficult, but instead, the sheer effort of trying to concentrate for nearly 11 hours a day, to try and maintain a mindset of equanimous awareness.

Anyhow, here are some key experiences from each day, along with how it relates to some of the theory. I followed the no-writing rule until Day 10 so a lot of this is based on somewhat distant memories now.

Day 0: 
My first impression upon arrival was that the place basically radiated serenity. I registered, and signed an agreement that I would not leave for 10 days. I was assigned a room with 2 other girls (although most accommodation was single-rooms). When I got to my room, it was slightly awkward as I wasn't sure if we were still allowed to talk, so I averted eye-contact with my room-mate until she broke the silence, since the course didn't officially start until 8pm.

We were served a light dinner at 6pm, and had the opportunity to chat to some of the other students (of the same sex) over dinner. This was followed by an introductory talk about the course. After a break, the gong rang for 8pm, the  official start of the course. We headed to the meditation hall.

The assistant teachers at the front of the room introduced themselves, then pressed the play button for Goenkaji's introduction. I can't quite remember what he said here, but it would have included some rationale for the technique, and an emphasis on working hard. We also had to verbally agree to "surrender ourselves to the technique", as it were. That was a bit weird, but you know, I wanted to give the technique a fair trial, so I went along with it. Finally, we were given instructions for our first meditation technique, anapana. In MBSR terms, this was a specific version of "Mindfulness of the Breath". We were instructed to pay full attention to our breath at the area at the entrance to our nostrils and just inside.

At some point, Goenkaji started chanting. I had been somewhat prepared for this as I'd read a few blog posts that had mentioned this aspect. However, I still found the strange and unfamiliar sounds rather amusing. My shoulders were shaking from resisting the urge to laugh. However, I got over that by day 2, and started to appreciate the good intentions of the chants - if you get a chance to look at the book of translations for the chants, you can see that it's all about peace, goodwill, ethics, the messages that we're being taught, basically.

Days 1-3: Anapana
It was relatively easy waking up on the first morning. I jumped out of bed as soon as the gong rang at 4am, flicked the lightswitch on, felt slightly guilty about making my two roommates wake up immediately too, woops. It was bizarre going outside and seeing that it was still pitch-black, with stars twinkling away in the sky. It was quite literally the middle of the night, before sunrise, before the birds.

In the meditation hall, we continued with Anapana. The point of Anapana was to sharpen our minds and build concentration in preparation for Vipassana. While concentrating the mind is not the final goal, which is freedom from suffering, it is a helpful and necessary prerequisite. Also, it was an introduction to the mind-body connection, as we found that the breath changes in response to mental states. It was also an introduction to the nature of the mind, to find that it has a habit of wandering, as well as bringing us back to the present reality, the only moment in which we are really living - the breath is an essential part of our present reality.

My mind was particularly restless that first day. I had a multitude of things on my mind: an important meeting I had coming up, a job application I was waiting to hear back from, starting university again, choir week the week after. Worries, planning, more worries, more planning, hope, excitement. Anything that wasn't the breath. 

In one of the discourses later that week, we were given an analogy that explained the mindset of equanimous awareness we needed to adopt. Equanimity and awareness are like two wings of a bird. They must be the same size, otherwise the bird cannot fly. There must be a real balance between attention and letting go. If you're too equanimous about your experience without applying attention, you tend to feel way too laid-back, sleepy, drowsy, unaware. However, if you're not equanimous enough but are attentive, you know what's going on, but tend to react to your experience with liking, disliking, agitation, generate emotions, thoughts and mental tension. If you have neither equanimity nor awareness, you get a general sense of agitation and distraction. That latter condition was me for the first two days. Neither of the two wings of the bird were there - the bird was too heavy for its wings, metaphorically speaking. My attention was low, as was my acceptance and non-reactivity to that low attention.

By the second half of a 2 hour session, low attention and awareness meant that I would resolve to myself, "Ok, Jessie, keep your attention on the breath for just a minute without the mind wandering..." Yet, a few seconds later, I would find myself wandering away again. And again. And again. Except, really, it didn't feel like wandering. It was like my mind was a puppy and the thought a bone. As soon as a thought arose, the puppy would simply run away with the bone and it would be awhile before its owner, the meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), consciousness or awareness, even realised it was missing. It was fascinating and humbling. I thought that since I had been practicing mindfulness since October, i would have slightly better attention. However, I had only ever practiced for 30 minutes at the longest, and still with a somewhat wandering mind a lot of the time.  Here, most of our sessions were 1-2 hours long: 4.30-6.30am, 1-2.30pm, 2.30-3.30pm, 3.30-5pm, 6-7pm, 8.15-9pm. I was unprepared in that sense. However, mindfulness practice helped me to bring in some helpful, mindful attitudes to increase the equanimity just a bit. I thought back to an analogy I had learned, about mindfulness being like training a puppy. You ask the puppy to stay, and he keeps running away, wanting to play or escape. However, every time, you bring the puppy back to that spot and try again, and again, and again. Importantly, this is done with kindness and laughter, but firmness. Instead of yelling, "Useless puppy!" and dumping it back on the spot vehemently, you laugh, observe what's actually happened, "Oh, the puppy's moved again", pick it up, and place it back on that spot gently but firmly. It's a compassionate, practical mindset. After all, it appears that it is the nature of the mind to wander, and seems to be the case even for those who have meditated for years. All we can really expect is some improvement, and as I learned later, this "progress" is non-linear, and never consistent...

One other thing I found difficult was paying attention to the breath while not controlling it. After all, this was not some kind of breathing exercise - it was about observing what's here, without trying to control or change it. It was particularly challenging for me, being a classically trained soprano, as singing is very much about breath control. However, in the end it did seem to be about letting go and just accepting the natural flow of the breath, as vague as that sounds.

On the second day, my mind still wandered a lot, and I was wondering when, or if ever, it would calm down. We received the added instruction of noticing whether the breath was passing through our left nostril or our right nostril, or both nostrils, and simply letting it be, whatever nostril it was passing through, without trying to change anything. We were also instructed to take a few deeper, more intentional breaths, if we lost touch with the very subtle sensation of the natural breath.

It was always interesting to look at the expressions of other people during breaks. People would often look spaced out, dazed, sometimes with a huge smile on their face, sometimes a little half-smile, sometimes just plain pissed off and miserable. I wondered what they were all experiencing.

On Day 3, we were asked to observe sensations (anything that one feels at the physical level) in the triangle below the nostrils and above the upper lip. I found it bemusing and interesting that as soon as that instruction was given, I immediately noticed a tingling, tickling sensation in that area. It was so interesting to think that those sensations had always been there, but that they were noticeable only when I chose to focus my attention in that way. I noticed an improvement in my ability to keep my attention on the breath that morning.

Throughout these three days, and every so often in the following few days, I noticed that memories from the distant past were being brought up to the consciousness. Events and happenings that I hadn't thought of for years, and that had no particular relevance to the present, were suddenly appearing, seemingly out of nowhere. It did seem to provide some support to Goenkaji's description of this process being a deep psychological operation.

I also still had one particular song I've been working on stuck in my head, basically all the time.

Day 4: Vipassana Day 
We spent half the day on Anapana, before a two-hour Vipassana instruction session in the afternoon. We were instructed to now bring that awareness we had been cultivating over the past 3.5 days to the rest of our body, by moving our awareness from the top of our head to the tips of the toes, part by part. We were to observe sensations on the back of the scalp, the face, the right arm, the left arm, the front part of the torso, the back part of the torso, the right leg, the left leg, inch by inch, although initially our attention may only permit us to notice sensations in large regions. In MBSR-terms, this was basically a specific version of the Body Scan.

Initially, I felt a lot of sensations on my face in particular. Sometimes it felt like there were droplets of water crawling down my face, and usually when I was particularly deep in meditation, I would feel like there was a constant pressure, like someone was actually pushing against the middle of my forehead. I also felt the air against my arms and legs, but there were a lot of "blind spots", spots where I couldn't feel any sensations, on my scalp, neck, and torso.

I remember feeling completely exhausted after that first instructional session. It took a tremendous amount of mental resources to keep my attention moving, but in a specific, focused way.

In terms of songs in my head, for some strange reason, I noticed during lunch that I had "Friday" (yes, Rebecca Black) blasting in my head, despite not having heard the song for over a year. It was strange indeed. I also still had the previous song stuck in my head most of the time.

Day 5: Adhiṭṭhāna
This was the first full day of Vipassana. The sensations I felt were still relatively infrequent, with plenty of blind spots. What was important about this day was that we began adhiṭṭhāna, sittings of strong determination. For three hours each day from day 5 onwards, we were to try our best to sit for each of these group sittings, 8-9am, 2.30-3.30pm, 6-7pm, without changing our posture in any way.

To put the extent of this challenge into context, there was a lot of discomfort involved. Sitting cross-legged for 1-2 hours at a time didn't necessarily result in dead legs, but often resulted in burning sensations around the knees, the ankles, the hamstrings and quadriceps, the back...thus, I had been changing my posture every 20-30 minutes or so in the first few days. A particularly good example of what adhiṭṭhāna involved was my roommate's experience. She told me later that in the first adhiṭṭhāna sitting, she had chosen a kinda weird posture that she had to hold for that hour, and didn't move despite tears streaming down her face from intense pain. It's important to note that no one was forcing you to stay in position, and that Goenkaji states that you not there to torture yourself - it's simply a test of self-determination.

What I learned from these sittings was that a little bit (or even a lot) of pain and discomfort wouldn't kill me. In fact, meeting these sensations face-on, and observing them objectively, helped me to understand anicca again, in that these sensations of "pain" would arise, stay for awhile, and then pass away. It was a more nuanced approach to pain - it was often there in the final 15 minutes or so, but it wasn't permanent. It made me think about how this could relate to chronic pain, and how pain tolerance is probably much about equanimity, which can be worked on...

I think it was on this day that we were given the additional instruction to move our attention in both directions, from the top of the head to the tips of the toes, and from the tips of the toes to the top of the head.

The song I initially had stuck in my head was gradually replaced by Goenkaji's chanting in my head. It was at least more focusing and relevant, I guess.

Day 6: A difficult one.
Goenkaji had warned us that day 2 and day 6 would be two of the hardest days. For me, day 6 was particularly difficult. I don't remember exactly what it was that made it so, but it was probably a combination of low attention and high the last sitting of the afternoon, I chose to meditate in my room for the first time, and really wasn't very focused. I was desperate to write, having learned so much over the past few days, and worried about forgetting all these insights. A little bit of screaming wouldn't have gone astray either...or singing...or some form of expression. Anything but more meditating! The peace of this idyllic environment for meditation was only really disturbed by my own mental struggles.

I tried to remember Goenka's semi-hypnotic "Work diligently, diligently……work patiently and persistently…", anicca, and yathā-bhūta. Ironically, I realised on day 10 that there actually was a pen in the bathroom that I could have used, and I did have paper from my shuttle-bus confirmation email. But that was ok. What I learned from day 6 was that this sensation of extreme frustration was also came and it went. Eventually. By that evening, if I can recall. I didn't find either of the evening sittings difficult in general, mostly because the first was only 1 hour, and the second was only 45 minutes and preceded by an inspirational discourse.

It may have been on this day that we were encouraged to "sweep" the sensations freely through as many body parts as possible, if we were feeling a free flow of sensations. This was in the form of subtle vibrations on the skin, which I was feeling by day 6, but mainly on the face, arms, and legs. Eventually, the theory goes, as we became more experienced meditators, we will start feeling these vibrations within our bodies too, without a single blind spot. We should be able to "spot test" any area of our body, and feel an immediate sensation in that area. In the end, we may even be able to sweep sensations up and down our spinal cord. Well, that sounds pretty cool, but it seems a loooong way away! 

The point of feeling these sensations is to gain a further understanding of anicca. Sensations you feel are constantly in flux. You may feel a certain pattern of sensations in one sitting, which change in the next. You may feel strong sensations in one sitting, and weak, blind spots in the next. However, on a "higher" level, we were supposed to realise that we, too, are made up of "subatomic particles", to dissolve the notion of solidarity and therefore of the "I"; an agelessness (anattā). After all, it is the idea of "I" and "my" that generates a lot of dukkah. Having my beliefs threatened, my possessions damaged, my partner running off with someone else...these situations all generate a lot of discomfort, to say the least. However, while I do agree that the concept of personal identity is arbitrary (e.g. Parfit 2007, see also this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry), I'm not so convinced that the realisation of anicca necessarily helps us to let go of our egos. Sometimes, no matter how much we rationally know something, even through experience, it doesn't translate into practice. For all practical purposes, a concept of "we" does seem to exist. For now, I'm personally more convinced that the benefits of the technique come from the training in equanimity. 

Day 7: Anicca
After a particularly difficult 2-hour dawn meditation session where I felt completely distracted, unfocused, sleepy and restless, I was pretty dispirited. What had happened to my "progress"? And then, at breakfast, I had an epiphany: anicca. Everything is impermanent, ephemeral, transient...the weather, mental states and thoughts, sounds, the crunchiness of my toast...even (and especially) attention and equanimity. It comes and goes. With this realisation, every moment is precious, fragile. Every moment matters, every moment is a moment to be fully experienced right here, right now. Thus, when I have a more distracted session, I shouldn't crave for the feeling of a "good" meditation session, nor feel disappointed or depressed about my distraction, but just accept as it happens.

In the discourse that evening, we were told that our breaks would no longer be breaks. In line with the principle that "Continuity of practice is the secret of success", we were to maintain awareness of sensations on our body or of our breath whenever possible, whilst eating, walking, lying in bed...Permanent mindfulness. Actually, I found it strange that this was brought in so late in the course, and I had actually asked the assistant teacher about this issue on day 2, I think. However, perhaps Goenkaji thought that it would be too difficult for us to maintain so much awareness so early on, and that we first needed to build the discipline and attention? I mean, sometimes you just want to give your mind a break...

By this day, I was able to sit for about 1 hour, 15 minutes without uncrossing my legs.

Day 8: Equanimity
I found that my sensations seemed to have plateaued. However, I was ok with that - my equanimity was consistently increasing, and as Goenkaji often said, the measure of progress in our meditation is equanimity, not the sensations we feel. Over this course, I really developed an understanding of equanimity. It involves being non-judgemental, not liking or disliking, non-reactive, balanced, accepting of experiences. It's a way of saying, "I don't mind". It is an impartial attitude, but it is not cold, detached or indifferent. Instead, it involves embracing your present experience with open arms; with warmth and perhaps even kindness and compassion.

Furthermore, it seems paradoxical, but sometimes you need to be equanimous about equanimity itself…instead of being agitated about not feeling equanimous (craving for equanimity), sometimes we have to fully let go and release, and balance that with the other wing of awareness and attention.

Day 9: Focus 
I felt that my focus peaked on this day. The sensations were particularly strong and I had a good balance of awareness and equanimity. I managed to get a free flow of vibrations on most parts of my skin, inch-by-inch. I haven't had that experience since.

Day 10: The breaking of the silence, mettā and the beauty of nature
This was a really important day, helping us to adjust to the idea of "returning to civilisation", as it were. 

Firstly, though, I had to get through another sleep-deprived 2-hour morning session, another 1 hour adhiṭṭhāna sitting and instructions for mettā.

This was actually beautiful. Mettā is a "loving-kindness" meditation, to help us cultivate feelings of love, compassion and goodwill for all beings. One aspect of Dhamma is that when you feel this peaceful and harmonious within, you want everyone to be able to experience that sense sense of peace. Pure minds really do create the conditions for compassion. It was like a prayer for happiness. We shared love and goodwill and wishes for every being to be happy, peaceful and harmonious, whether family, close friends, acquaintances, people you may not get along with, those who have hurt you in the past and those whom you have hurt, loving them all, unconditionally. I felt so much compassion and emotion I was literally in tears, and stayed in the meditation hall for quite some time.

It is important to note that you can only share mettā if you are yourself feeling peaceful and harmonious - after all, you can't really give others what you don't have yourself.

Finally, around 9.40am that morning, we were allowed to talk and "socialise", even with members of the opposite sex. We had quite a few hours of free time to share our experiences on that day, with "only" about 5 hours of meditation instead of the usual 10+.

It was strange getting back into talking. In fact, I had to wait for someone else to talk to me first. It was weird to hear the sound of my own voice, and I noticed that I slowed down and talked a bit more deliberately.

I also noticed that memories from and thoughts about that day, such as the conversations I'd had and the people I'd me, arose during my later meditations.

There were really positive vibes from everyone. I didn't notice anyone that looked unhappy or who had not liked the course (although these people do exist).

The discourse that evening discussed the 10 values (renunciation, morality, effort, tolerance, truthfulness, strong determination, wisdom, equanimity, selfless love, generosity) that we were supposed to have developed during the course, and beyond, if we choose to follow this path. They made sense, but I again found the timing strange, that he only explained this on the last full day, instead of establishing them near the start of the course.

At night, some of us went out and saw the glowworms on the walking trail. They looked like stars in the sky. We realised once again, anicca, anicca, as they glowed and faded and came back again. When we got out of the trail and looked at the night sky, it was incredible, and made me think about the universe and how beautiful and fragile life and nature was. It was such a clear night, and the stars were scattered everywhere.

Day 11: The End
The course ended after a final meditation and discourse around 4.45am. The theme of this last discourse was about the importance of practice, using an analogy of the mind as a plant. The baby plant needs to be watered, morning & evening. Once it's been watered for years it grows into a strong tree with firm roots, that requires less maintenance. Continuity of practice is always important, but it is most important early on. After all, it's easy to come back from a retreat/camp/personal development course feeling all motivated and pumped and even transformed, but these effects will only last with practice.

After breakfast and a brief clean-up, there was also an optional movie at 8.30am, about the implementation of Vipassana meditation in prisons in India. It was incredibly inspirational to see how the technique, with its emphasis on compassion, had transformed these angry, resentful prisoners into remorseful, compassionate and peaceful people with a renewed sense of purpose and personal responsibility.

The shuttle bus left at around 9.30am. Everyone was incredibly happy, with a huge sense of goodwill going around, and when I asked the driver if he noticed that people were happier when they left than when they arrived, he said something the the effect of, "Of course! You've been torturing yourselves for the past 10 days!" Hahahaha. It was also exciting for everyone when we managed to get phone reception after about 10-15 minutes of driving.

Some thoughts on...
The Code of (Self-) Discipline

One thing that became apparent right away was that no one was there to make sure you didn't "break the rules" (unless you were being very obvious and disturbing others). No one will search your bags to make sure you didn't bring reading/writing materials for example. The Code is set out for your benefit, to minimise distractions for yourself and for others, and to create the best possible conditions for meditation. You have to choose to follow the rules to get the full benefits.

For example, the rationale for the Noble Silence became quite clear as the course went on, and especially on the day that the silence was broken. The silence allowed for an undisturbed environment, and the chance to cultivate the feeling that you're working by yourself, because after all, it's a personal journey. By not being able to talk to others, there were no social tensions or anxieties. Also, instead of comparing your experience with those of others and worrying if it happened to be different, you were able to just focus on your experience. Finally, by not discussing the technique or theory with others, it gave you a chance to reflect on these ideas yourself, to think for yourself, without being influenced by the doubts or enthusiasm of others.

In general, this whole course was a continuous exercise in self-discipline. It wouldn't have been difficult to escape from the meditation hall at say, 5am to go back to bed, or to crawl back into bed if you were meditating in your own room. During most sittings, you were free to come and go and move around as necessary, and it could be tempting to go for a wander or something instead of trying to meditate with as much attention as possible. It was very much a self-driven journey.

Sleep and the 4am starts
I thought that waking up at 4am every morning would get easier each day, but actually, it was easiest on the first day, and went downhill from then onwards. The temptation to sleep in grew day by day. By Day 11, I was groaning and really did not want to wake up, but obviously I did.

I'm happy to say that I never succumbed to the temptation to sleep in! I basically made sure I dragged myself to the meditation hall and stayed there for the morning meditation, instead of choosing to meditate in my own room.

I wondered if I was a bit sleep-deprived at times. I'm used to sleeping about 8 hours a night, and we were getting about 6.5 hours a night here. Although apparently meditation is restful for the mind, so meditators theoretically can get by with less sleep, I think that only comes once you've reached a certain stage. For the most part, I felt fine during the day, but I was also taking 1-2 naps most days, during breaks. Furthermore, I found that I was able to to dream a couple of times in great detail, even in a 15-minute nap, without really feeling like I had "fallen asleep" - it was almost like vivid daydreaming.

I also found that my dreams were especially vivid. I even had a couple of somewhat-lucid dreams, where you realise that you're dreaming and can control the direction of your dream, which I'd only experienced a couple of times in the past.

Finally, this isn't particularly related to dreams, but at one stage as I was lying in bed for a nap, I saw a particularly vivid image of a small cottage in a green field. I've never been particularly good at visualising or conjuring up mental imagery, but I remember this picture being particularly clear and colourful. That was interesting.

I don't really recall being bored as such during the course. The closest emotion would have been frustration instead of boredom. The task at hand, concentrating with perfect equanimity, was simply too difficult to be boring! Boredom happens when one finds something too easy, frustration happens when a task is difficult and one has to strain to keep going at it. I think it's a bit like strength training, where the greatest gains come from discomfort, and especially making through the struggles of the last few excruciating reps, in this case, usually the last 10-15 minutes of a one-hour sitting. 

It's funny to think that at the start of October 2012, I had struggled with boredom and an inability to calm a scattered mind during even 10 minutes of meditation. And just four months on, during this course, I was able to sit and meditate for over 10 hours each day towards the end of the course with relative equanimity, and an increased ability to keep the attention on the object of attention, allowing thoughts to remain in the background without being overly-distracting.

The people
There were far more travellers & foreigners than Kiwis. I met people from Germany, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, America, Canada, France and China. I found myself inspired by the courage, independence and spontaneity of the backpackers, many on working holidays, travelling the world by themselves.

It was definitely a very diverse bunch, but what I believe we all had in common was an open-mindedness to explore our minds and new ideas, the grit to make it through the 10 days, and the willingness to improve ourselves.

It was so easy to talk to just about anyone on the last day. We shared some really interesting discussions about our experiences, ideas and philosophies.

At 18, I was the youngest there, but only by a couple of years. There were about 10 girls under 25 I think, and many under 40, and a few in the older age ranges. There were more women than men, approximately 2:1 actually.

The Discourses
Goenkaji was an inspirational teacher. He taught with such wisdom, compassion and even humour. He also tended to know what we were thinking on certain days.

I sometimes found the discourses hard to follow, but generally picked up the key points. Here are some of the teachings I found most interesting:

Thoughts are very important. Words and actions are the projections of thoughts. If mind precedes all phenomena, it makes sense to work towards having peaceful minds. The mind is a wild animal - you need to tame it to use its strength in constructive, not destructive ways.

You can't expect to plant the same seeds and expect different results. If something hasn't worked in the past, it's irrational to repeat your previous actions, whether physical, verbal or mental, and expect the outcome to be different. Be scientific about it - experiment and be open to change.

Actions matter more than beliefs. I share with Goenkaji a cynicism towards what I call "fake religiosity". This is a situation where people claim to be devotees of a certain God or saintly person, and follow a series of rites and rituals, without attempting to develop any of the qualities of the person they're devoted to, such as compassion, in the real world. For example, I have relatives in China who apparently "believe in the Buddha", and go and give offerings and burn incense when they want the Buddha to help them with something in life. However, these same people don't meditate to balance their minds, they don't donate to charities despite being in the financial position to do so, and don't seem to care about suffering in the world, which is a cornerstone of Buddhism...What use are rites and rituals if they don't apply to real life? It's irrational to expect miracles when you haven't planted the appropriate seeds. Instead, Goenkaji argues that the best way to show your devotion to a saintly person is to try as best as you can to adopt their qualities that you revere, not just recite their name, pray to them or worship them without doing anything in your life to try and be kind, compassionate, wise, etc. Basically, there is nothing wrong with holding religious beliefs, as long as you let it make a difference in real life, helping you to be a better person, rather than being a series of rites and rituals and blind faith.

Some gifts don't need to be received. Goenkaji told us a story of a man who was extremely angry at the Buddha, as his children had stopped performing their religious rites and rituals and instead started meditating, focusing on their breath. He was yelling at the Buddha for ages, when the Buddha asked him to answer just one question: "What happens when someone tries to give you a gift, and you don't receive it?" The man replied, "The gift stays with the person who's trying to give it to you, of course". Basically, the Buddha explained that the man's anger was like a gift that he wasn't it stays with the man! A great insight, I think. If you choose not to react and rise to someone getting angry at you, and instead remain calm and compassionate, you are less likely to let that anger contaminate your mind - the anger stays with the angry person (but hopefully it will dissolve with compassion).

Action vs reaction. Meditation isn't about becoming some kind of vegetable. It's about cultivating a balanced mind, so that one can make conscious, useful and creative decisions, choosing to take the right actions with a calm and focused mind.

True happiness is the ability to keep the balance of one's mind in spite of all the vicissitudes of life. It's easy to be "happy" when life is going well. The real test of your real capacity for happiness, however, is to see if you can ride the waves, ebbs and flows of life with balance, composure and grace, even when external circumstances seriously try to shake you. It is this day-to-day equanimity, this balanced mind, that keeps us happy, and that we should aim to develop.

One thing that I found really inspirational and humbling was the fact that this entire operation is completely donation-based. Furthermore, they don't take donations from just anyone - only Old Students (who have completed at least one 10-day course) are allowed to give money and to give their time as servers. I mean, what sort of charity/non-profit organisation refuses to take donations from anyone?

The rationale is that this preserves the integrity and the purity of the Dhamma. The fact that donations from Old Students alone allow hundreds of courses to be run world-wide, provides a real testimony to the efficacy of the technique. It is in line with mettā, as people who benefit from the technique make donations of money and time with the volition of giving another student the chance to benefit from the technique.

I was especially inspired by the servers, who gave up 10 days of their own life to cook and clean for us, so that we could focus on just meditating. One of them was about my age (19), and always served with a smile.

Thinking for yourself

I think it's important to be open-minded and ready to challenge your beliefs when you undertake something like this. It's about giving the technique a fair trial, and seeing if you resonate with some of the associated values. At the same time, I think it's important to reflect critically on your beliefs, and the role that your worldview plays in your life, your relationships and the impact on the world around you.

One of the things I liked best about the philosophy behind this technique, is that you are encouraged to think for yourself. Goenkaji asks us to only accept the technique if:
  1. You've thought about it and it makes logical sense to you, and
  2. You've seen it make a positive difference in your life, and
  3. It doesn't harm others.
After all this, he also suggests that if there are aspects of the Dhamma that you don't accept, you can still pick out these "black stones" without rejecting the entire technique - basically, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I quite like this idea of cherry-picking (although I don't think that's necessarily what Goenkaji meant - he does say quite a few times, to choose one path that works for you and stick with it). I haven't "converted to Buddhism", nor do I intend to ever really label myself or identify with any particular political manifesto, religious group, or any other worldview. I see no need to label myself in a way that excludes other ideas. I prefer to adopt ideas that resonate with me, no matter what tradition they come from, as I'm simply not convinced that any particular doctrine carries the "absolute truth" in life, as life is too subjective and complicated for such reductionism. Also, I am acutely aware that what works for me may not work for someone else, so there is not only one path to happiness. However, having said all this, I do feel that a lot of the teachings in Dhamma do resonate with me, so there is much yet to be explored here on this path, and also many paradoxes and questions to work through and think about.

In my honest opinion, I think you can decide what role Vipassana plays in your life. It can be anything from simply training in attention, equanimity and stress reduction (valuable tools in themselves), to a whole new way of life. It really depends on your own values and your own goals.

I'm not yet sure what role Vipassana will play in my life. So far, two weeks on, I have noticed positive changes in my life (greatly improved equanimity and awareness, emotional stability), so I'd like to stick with this practice for awhile at least, and see where it takes me, or to be more precise, which directions I take on it. Thus, I think it is a practice that I will keep up, although perhaps not for the recommended 2 hours a day! I'd like to keep doing the 10 day retreat every year or every couple of years, a few 1-day courses here and there, and to serve as well. 

After all, what could be more important than cultivating a balanced mind? The mind influences your subjective well-being, functioning and performance, relationships with people, meaning in life, happiness, and physical health. I am not aiming for some Ultimate Enlightenment, but simply for a more balanced mind, and a more compassionate, mindful way of living.

Try it for yourself
Remember the key point that this is a personal journey, and that you are the only one who can do the work. So don't just think about it - try it for yourself. More information and a schedule of courses are available on the website.

Quit-proofing yourself 
You may be tempted to quit, especially on days 2 and 6. People do quit, and it's a shame to have sacrificed quite a few days of your life to learn this technique and to not actually learn it properly. I think it's helpful to have some systems in place to make it less likely that you will quit...
  1. Know what you're getting yourself into. Do your research...a Google search of something along the lines of "10 day Vipassana course experience review" will bring up plenty of information.
  2. Publicly announce it to the world - post a Facebook status, a blog post, tell your friends and family. It really helps to have people expecting you to complete it, challenging you to do so, supporting you, and maybe even doubting your ability to finish the course (and strengthening your resolve to prove them wrong!).
  3. Have no transport options. It makes it much more difficult to leave if you have no way of getting home.
  4. Or, if you're driving, offer a ride to someone. If you've offered someone a ride back, you are less likely to run away at the thought of leaving someone stranded.
  5. Make a bet. Consider depositing a substantial amount of money with a friend or family member. If you complete the course, they give it back to you, if you quit, you lose that money. It's some incentive to follow through!
  6. Remember that you're only here for 10 days, and if you're already here, you may as well make the most of the experience.
Good luck! May you, and all beings be happy. :)

I'm interested in your thoughts...
Do any of the Dhamma teachings I've described conflict with your personal values, beliefs or faith?

What do you think the hardest thing would be for you if you sat this course?

Are you personally interested in cultivating a more balanced mind?


  1. Sounds like you had a very enlightening time there, Jessie.

    In a very interesting way the philosophies highlighted above really resonates with Mary's violin philosophy. (esp, with those in the 'discourse' section), although I am quite certain that Mary isn't really into meditation etc. Maybe is shows the universal truth of these facts and how there isn't one specific thought/belief system that arrive at these conclusions. (Apologies at the clumsiness of my expression, I have ceased to attempt to speak proper English after my A-Level English exam)

    Really interested in learning more about meditation etc. Would you be able to recommend some good books for me to read? It will obviously have to be quite introductory, preferably quite analytical/critical?

    An Ran

  2. Hey An Ran! Thanks for being my first commenter :P

    Honestly, if you want to learn more about meditation, you should just do the course. There is no better way to learn than to be in an intensive, focused environment where you can just do it!! Especially since you now (kinda) have some freedom & the flexibility of time before you start uni again.

    However, if you're looking for some relevant reading, I would highly recommend anything by Jon Kabat-Zinn (ok, so I haven't yet read them, but they are very high on my reading list and his contribution to bringing mindfulness to Western medicine has been incredible), such as Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever you go, there you are. Also, Happiness by Matthieu Ricard has a lot of valuable information on happiness and some meditation instructions. You can also go look up some guided meditations on Youtube.

    I haven't really read books on meditation as such. It's definitely a very practical, personal and experiential concept to learn.