As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
It was when I looked at the daily meditation schedule that I wondered if I was in over my head.
I was at a Vipassana centre in the Swedish countryside, for a ten-day meditation retreat. The schedule was posted on the wall: 10 hours of sitting meditation every day between 4:30 am and 9:30 pm. On top of that, no talking, no phones, no internet, no booze, no books, no writing. Why were we doing this to ourselves?
Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation that developed in east Asia and then spread across the world in the last 30 years, largely thanks to the work of a Burmese businessman-turned-guru called S.N. Goenka. He learned the course from a Burmese monastic lineage, and then offered it to laypeople in a ten-day course from his centre in India. His courses attracted many western backpackers in the 70s, some of whom went on to be leading figures in western Buddhism like Jack Kornfield and Ram Dass. They brought Vipassana back to the US, where it inspired ‘mindfulness’ – a secular, non-Buddhist technique designed for wellbeing and relaxation (as opposed to liberation from the ego). In the last few years, there’s been an enormous global boom in mindfulness – mindful therapies, mindful coaches, mindfulness apps, mindful eating, mindful knitting, mindful colouring, you name it. But advanced practitioners insist that, if you really want to make progress in your practice, you need to go on a retreat.
There were about 60 of us, 30 men and 30 women, who slept in two different halls and gathered several times a day in the ‘dharma hall’. Each of us had our own mat and cushions – over the ten days people constructed elaborate cushion-castles to try and make themselves comfortable. The monastery is in a small compound, with a wood at the back. When not meditating, people wandered aimlessly in the courtyard like lobotomised patients; or walked in the wood; or stared at trees, at the moon, through the fence at the road outside. Really, there was nothing at all to do except meditate. Your mat and cushions were where it all happened. It was a gateway to heaven, or to hell.
Pretty much the only sound you heard, apart from the gong announcing meals, or the squawk of geese, was the voice of S.N. Goenka, despite the fact he’d died in 2013. The entire course is based on audio recordings and videos of him, made in the 90s, so you get to know his face and voice well. He is, or was, a cheerful Burmese businessman, well-covered, slightly gassy, with a deep baritone that vibrates when he chants at the beginning and end of every meditation. Every evening, you watch a video of a dharma talk by him. Other than that, there is an ‘assistant teacher’ who lives at the centre, who checks on the students’ progress and, if asked anything, usually responds with “keep trying”.
So what is Vipassana? The ghost of Goenka told us it’s based on three things, all of which are necessary. First, sila, or morality – we all vowed not to lie, drink, eat meat, or talk during the 10 days. He insisted you could do meditation without worrying about ‘right living’, but it wouldn’t really liberate you from the ego. Secondly, samadhi, or concentration. For the first three days of the course, we trained our attention by focusing on our breath for a day, and then on our nose for a day, and then on our upper lip for a day. We were told to notice any sensations, however subtle, in our upper lip. There may seem to be better ways to spend ten hours, but actually, after the first day, my mind settled down. I managed to get to the end of an hour-long session without being too distracted, and I started to notice the sensations on my lip.
The last of the three components is prajña, or wisdom. On day four, we were taught the Vipassana technique proper. It basically involves scanning your body from top to toe, and then toe to top. You are told to observe any sensations with equanimity, reminding yourself that, whether it is ‘subtle’ or ‘gross’, pleasant or painful, it is subject to the eternal law of anicca, or impermanence. It has no permanent existence – it changes, it transforms. Therefore there’s no point being overly attached to pleasant sensations, or overly averse to painful ones. The practice is designed to liberate us from our ego habits of attachment and aversion at a very deep level – at the level of the ‘physical unconscious’. “This will make a deep incision in your unconscious,” Goenka told us, warning us it might be painful and difficult.
Personally, I found the course almost unbearably painful. I’d decided, foolishly, to sit cross-legged, even though I rarely sit in that posture and am quite stiff. We were encouraged to try not to move at all for the hour-long sessions. My legs would quickly go to sleep, which was quite painful but bearable, and then the pain would begin to build in the knees, thighs, and buttocks at about the 30-minute mark. By 45 minutes it was absolutely excruciating. One time I managed to get to the hour mark without unfolding my legs, but I thought I’d be sick from the pain and exertion. And then, on day seven, something shifted. It was about 45 minutes in, I was in agony once again, I was reminding myself that the sensation was impermanent, and then it was literally as if light dawned within me. The solid ache in my thigh and the stabbing pain in my knee dissolved, a wave of cool vibrations rippled through my body, and suddenly I felt great, and knew I could easily stay sitting for an hour or more. After that, I still had difficult sessions, but it was a lot easier – it was like the quality of my attention had improved, and this changed the quality of my physical experience.
What did I learn from the course? I learned to what extent our mind and emotions are connected to our bodies and physical sensations, despite the fact that a lot of psychotherapy (like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) completely ignores the body. I learnt we’re often unconscious of the automatic habits of craving, or stress, or defensiveness that we carry around in our bodies. I learned we can transform our physical experience by bringing attention and equanimity to our bodies.
I spoke to some of the other participants at the end of the course. For most of them, it was an extraordinary experience. Some felt a sort of blissful rapture. One man had suddenly found himself in a space of brilliant expansive light. Jack Kornfield did a study in 1979, which found that 40 per cent of students on a two-week retreat reported experiences of bliss or rapture. We were warned not to get attached to the rapture, but to preserve our equanimity. But many also reported difficult experiences, particularly the return of repressed memories and emotions. My roommate, for example, said he’d felt “almost psychotic” when anxiety from his adolescence suddenly flooded back. For some participants, this type of retreat can bring a lot of subconscious material to the surface. That can be really difficult. One participant said to the assistant teacher in a quavering voice, “I thought meditation was meant to be relaxing!” Not really. It was designed to liberate you from your ego.
I went home, wondering how to integrate my experiences, how to live. We were told that, if we want to keep practising Vipassana, we should practise two hours a day and forego meat and alcohol. There is little follow-up, and not much Vipassana community beyond the retreats. It proved difficult to stick to the routine back in the world – in the following months, my practice went from two hours, to one hour, to 30 minutes, to 15 minutes. And the quality of my attention got worse and worse. Can one really practise serious meditation outside of a monastery, I wondered? I also worried about those who have difficult experiences after retreats. I started seeing a therapist after the retreat, not because I was unwell, but because I think it’s safer to have expert support if you’re on what is actually quite a dangerous journey. But I’ll definitely go on other retreats, perhaps slightly less hardcore ones, where you can talk, read, and practise walking meditation.
From the ‘Argentina’ edition of Womankind – you can buy a copy from our online store.