This is my vipassana story, or as I remember it, boot camp for the mind, body and soul.
For many years I considered the idea of attending a vipassana retreat. For those of you who don’t know – a vipassana is a silent retreat. It can be different lengths, I chose a 10 day, rather than 30days! Many people repeat this experience and they are held all around the world.
You sit in meditation for most of the day, 11 hours in fact! Focus is on the breath for the initial 3 days, then on the sensations in the body for the rest of the ten days.
Before I left on this adventure, many people commented on how difficult they thought it would be to be silent for a whole 10 days. I thought that would be a challenge, but one I was up for.
Along with my regular meditation practice, I often have periods of silence in my life. I drive without the radio on; I work around the house without television, radio or music, or chatting to anyone. I actually enjoy those periods, so coping with silence wasn’t a concern I had, even though leaving all technology and reading materials behind did raise some interest in me.
Little did I know, that vipassana is code for boot camp for the mind, body and soul. Silence is the easy part.
Silence is a major part of the process. The teaching says it’s about not getting distracted by conversations. You know how you might go over and over in your mind what was said, while you are supposed to be focused on your meditation.
We know that conversations often get repeated in our minds – “why did I say that?” “What did they mean when they said ……..?” “I think they are ………..” “I wish I had said …………” because that is what minds do.
However the silence in vipassana has a bigger impact. Silence means that without external input, your mind is left to ‘chat’ with itself, and chat it does! Mind wandering into forgotten memories or preparing for the challenges of the unknown future.
In my daily meditation practice I have noticed my mind wandering is usually future-focused. Ideas of what I can do with teaching mindfulness in my classes pass in and out of my meditating mind quite often. This didn’t happen in vipassana. My mind somehow wanted to go back. Go back and resolve past issues, ones I thought I had long laid to rest, but quickly realised I probably hadn’t.
The teaching of the vipassana focuses on impermanence, everything changes. Nothing in our bodies are solid – breath, blood, muscles, organs, even bones are constantly changing, and so too are our thoughts. Focus on the body teaches the mind about impermanence – everything is changing.
Hanging on to a thought as if it is forever is quickly dismissed – impermanence – everything changes – and I have changed since that past incident. Time to move on and let it go.
The biggest challenge, at least for me, wasn’t coping with the silence, it was the pressure on the body. At the end of our 10 days noble silence others had said they found getting up at 4am ready to sit at 4.30am each day a huge challenge. So much so they even had a nap during the lunchtime rest break. I managed the early rises easily, for me it was the body.
Due to a recent foot injury, I had been unable to maintain my yoga practice and so my body was stiffer than usual. I think though, not as stiff and inflexible as many of my contemporaries. However sitting in meditation for about 11 hours a day for 10 days is excruciatingly painful, and yet pain in the knees, back, buttocks, and in my case, foot, would come and go – impermanence!
I would sit and pain would arise. I would notice it, want to move to relieve it , as we all do, but stick to the process of vipassana, and at the end of the sitting the pain would have dissolved somewhere along the way – impermanence!
This is a curiosity. The power of honing attention, of noticing without getting hooked into having to change anything, to sit with self-compassion and strong determination, enabled me to somehow cope with both body pain and emotional pain – impermanence.
In the end, my practice is undoubtedly stronger and my mind more flexible, generous and compassionate.
As a psychologist I did have trouble with parts of the teaching of the theory and philosophy of vipassana. I was challenged by some of the beliefs and talking with the assistant teacher unfortunately didn’t allay my professional concerns.
I would strongly advise anyone to consider why they are attracted to or going on their first vipassana. I would also urge anyone who has symptoms of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder to speak to a professional before starting your vipassana journey.
Given that the teaching is all done on pre-recorded CDs and DVDs, because the master Goenka passed away in 2013, for me it was impossible to really gain a good insight into the fundamental ethos or hope any feedback may change the language used or approach.
I know that attending the vipassana has positively changed the lives of many people. I know that my life has also been changed in positive ways through this experience as well. However I would be alarmed if someone who is quite psychologically fragile saw this retreat as a means of getting to the bottom of their difficulties, considering there was no professional help available.
For me, I will continue to learn more about Buddhist psychology and hopefully I can reconcile my concerns in time. For now I will continue my practice, maybe not the recommended 1hr morning and night, but nevertheless I will continue to develop my understanding of meditation, after all no matter how long you have been practicing, we are all beginners.
The concept of impermanence has always been central to my belief system and my psychological practice; I now have a more physical and emotional experience of it.
Here is a link from mindful.org on what you may need to consider before you attend any meditation retreat.