An exploration of Vipassana experiences and learnings
As the year 2016 neared its close, my mother and I decided to head to the Blue Mountains for a ten-day retreat at the Vipassana Meditation Centre at Blackheath. Having undertaken a course twice before, I was well aware of the rigours of this form of meditation – the 4am wake up gong, twelve hours of sitting on the floor, two meals a day (the last at 11am), no phone, books or TV, and no coffee. It would be a challenge for my 74-year-old mother, who was doing it for the first time, but anyone drawn to this path feels this deep inexplicable urge to do it anyway. As Vidhi, a first time student said, “One does not find Vipassana, Vipassana finds you.”
As each day melded into another, with an unflagging routine of seated meditation and deep silence, the restlessness of our minds and stillness of our bodies, made both revolt. This made most of us want to run away by Day Two. However, we soon realised that it is this silence that provides a shield and makes the journey into our inner self possible. In our day to day lives, where our senses are assaulted by sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touch, this becomes difficult. Slowly, we are introduced to the Vipassana technique of meditation; the very technique through which Gautama Buddha discovered his way to nirvana or liberation.
For over 2500 years, Vipassana remained taught in its pristine form only by a few in Burma, and it was from there that SN Goenka brought the method to India again. The Blackheath Centre, started in 1983, is the oldest Vipassana centre in Australia. Every year, thousands of students learn the technique in its beautiful bush settings, conducive for deep introspection.
Vipassana means seeing things ‘as it is’ (yatha bhootha). The technique is a practical means to sharpen your awareness, maintain equanimity and realise that everything is impermanent (anichya). This is learnt by observing our breath and the sensations within the framework of our body. A complete explanation of the technique fails as words are woefully inadequate to describe one’s experience and each experience is unique. I spoke to a few students, some first-timers and some more experienced, at the end of the course to capture some of these experiences.
For Ramana who was doing Vipassana for the third time, this course was special as with him was his wife, Revathi, doing the course for the first time. The centre rules impose strict segregation between the sexes and any physical, visual or auditory contact between students, but just knowing that Ramana was there made Revathi feel less intimidated by the experience.
“I recall feeling much lighter and more peaceful after the earlier courses, but I did not maintain the practice and soon relapsed into old thought patterns” said Ramana.
The struggle of sitting on the floor for extended periods of time is a challenge for most meditators. Controlling the ‘monkey mind’ is another. It jumps from one tree of thought to another, and reining it in to observe breaths and sensations is a tough ask. With persistence, and with the progress of each day, most meditators realise that this isn’t impossible.
“Even though there was discomfort in sitting on the floor with legs crossed, I somehow managed to distance myself from it and acquire the position of a silent observer,” Revathi said.
This is exactly the aim of Vipassana – to learn to calmly observe the ups and downs of life, without reacting.
First timer Vanita described her experience as “incredible”. She says that she feels a much calmer and controlled person now and came to terms with some deep emotional issues.
Renuka had done the course once before in India, but this time around she took the opportunity to serve on the course. There is no charge for Vipassana courses, which run purely on donations by past students. One can also donate time by serving on courses. She took the first course to learn to deal with some stressful situations in her work life.
“It was the best decision made,” Renuka recollected. “During my course I realised that the only hindrance to being the grandest vision of myself was me. We often blame external situations and people.”
From her experience she affirmed, “To observe the reality as it is and not tweak it to see it the way I want to is a game changer. I reckon everyone should attend this course at least once.”
Phong, a young man from a Vietnamese Buddhist background, was a bit disillusioned by the ritualistic practices of various form of Buddhism. When some friends suggested trying the secular, non-sectarian practice of Vipassana, he decided to attend this course.
“I will come back again, probably as a server on a course or volunteer at the centre,” he said after his unforgettable experience.
Mabel had come with her daughter, Priscilla, both for the first time. Her main hurdles during the 10-day course were the physical pain, doubts about the technique and her ability, homesickness and losing weight.
“It was much more challenging than I expected,” she said. However, the evening discourses, group sittings, surroundings and the environment of the centre, and atmosphere of compassion and generosity, impressed Mabel and she intends to keep up the practice.
Vidhi learnt about Vipassana through her friend who took the course after a major personal tragedy. “She came out a much calmer, positive person and couldn’t wait to go back,” Vidhi said. Describing her own experience as “gruelling”, she said, “It breaks all myths you have about your body and mind. It challenges your mind to stop running. It challenges your body to stop resisting. The moment the mind is still and matter is experienced in motion within, the essence of ‘impermanence’ emerges, and thereby the answers to all questions.”
Learning Vipassana is described as ‘experiential’ wisdom or bhavana-maya panya, that is, something learnt from one’s own experience, as opposed to wisdom acquired by hearing or reading the words of others (suta-maya panya) or that acquired from by thinking (chinta-maya panya).
If you wish to take this path or want to learn more, head to www.bhumi.dhamma.org.