For the food blog that earthleng.com is not, it is also not a travel blog. But I’ve completed a 10-day Vipassana meditation course during my extended travels and that has been a great experience. It also brought up valuable concepts which I identify with.
Vipassana emphasises awareness and the principle of “seeing things for what they really are; not what they appear to be”. That our minds have been conditioned to react to sensations caused by external factors with either a “craving” or an “aversion”. I think that many of our wasteful and harmful acts stems from exactly that – we ‘crave’ pretty things, so we expend resources on packaging and advertising to make something look pretty and desirable; we are ‘adverse’ to inconveniences, so we use disposables.
It is quite different from some meditation techniques which could involve regulating your breath, or focusing on beautiful and happy thoughts. Vipassana strips these away and makes one focus on introspective awareness and maintaining/developing equanimity independent of environmental factors.
It is a challenging course (evident from the number of “no”s listed below):
- Waking up at 4am each day (and sleeping at 9.30pm)
- 8 sessions of meditation per day – 1-1.5hr each
- No talking and no eye or physical contact with other students
- No exercise, only walking within the compound
- Not being able to exit the compound
- No contact with the outside world – mobile phones etc are locked away
- No reading or writing materials – trust me, the desire to pen your thoughts is immense if you live only in your own head for ten days straight.
- Vegetarian meals
Yet, this list is by no means complete because “challenging” is subjective and the same conditions can affect individuals differently. What I found challenging revealed so much more about the person I am and the way my mind worked than the situation itself.I was told by an ex student that the first two days would be extremely challenging. But it could not have been more understated. Every day proved challenging in my experience.
Having stated the challenges, here are some strong reasons for taking up a ten-day Vipassana course:
- Sharpen your mind – Repeated conditioning of the mind to focus on just one thing – the breath – really does wonders. By the second day of my meditation, I could literally see clearer and hear better. The Equanimous Mind is a book written by Manish Chopra, a Senior Partner at McKinsey, about how Vipassana has positively influenced his personal and professional life.
- Alleviate intense emotions – Anger, fear, anxiety are all negative emotions that upset the balance of our minds – they make us unhappy and we want to keep them at bay. (Vipassana) Meditation helps us with that. Yet, what we fail to realise is also the misery caused by positive emotions. Something makes us feel good or happy, we inevitably develop a craving for more of what makes us happy. And when we don’t, feelings of disappointment set in. The practice is not meant to make us emotionless beings but, rather, more aware and at peace with circumstances and emotions. I guess the ability to watch sorrow as sorrow manifests itself and watch happiness as happiness manifests itself is a beautiful thing and a first step to building a strong and equanimous mind despite the vissicitudes of life.
- Experience one’s physical and mental state – Our physical form can be mysterious. We learn about our bodies through science and biology. But what about thoughts and how they are formed? What exactly are ‘stress-induced’ ailments? Is stress not just a mental state and without form? How can it affect our physical health? I think I had a fun meta-physical experience through this meditation and it has helped me experience the abstract. If you geek out on such meta-physical concepts, one strong reason to try Vipassana would be to physically experience some of what is theorised.
- Discover the teachings of Buddha – Vipassana is strictly non-religious, as are the teachings of Buddha. There is no ‘almighty-being’ one worships, simply moral concepts and a journey in the pursuit of the ‘truth’, which some may call ‘enlightenment’. I view it as a perspective of working towards happiness and cultivation of inner peace.
Or you’ve simply:
- wondered how it would be like to live a monk’s life
- wondered if you could keep your mouth shut for 9 days (you are allowed to speak on the tenth day)
- got a sadistic mind to torture your mind and body for ten days
Despite these strict rules, there really isn’t a disciplinarian going around with a stick, ready to strike at anyone caught flouting them – it is all a part of self-discipline and a consideration for others.
I found the experience to be very authentic, especially for English speakers. The entire course is conducted through audio and video recordings of the main teacher, S.N. Goenka. So you hear him guide you through your meditation sessions and watch him as he conducts a discourse every evening. I loved those 45 minute sessions in which he shares his personal experience and anecdotes alongside Vipassana concepts and techniques with a genuine sense of humour. It is almost as if you’ve work the whole day just to hear him speak (the only person who is going to be speaking to you for the entire day), and he makes you laugh. And you hear other students laughing with you – an elixir of life.
Here’s an inspiring video about how Vipassana was being taught in a prison in India and how that has transformed the minds and therefore, lives, of the inmates.