I tried a 10-day vipassana course recently during my yearly spiritual breaks. Having heard many conflicting opinions about the meditation programme, I decided to try it for myself to get a first-hand experience and decide for myself the worth or hype involved.
In Buddhist traditions, it is believed that the Buddha attained his condition of nibbana (Pali for nirvana) by following the meditation technique of vipassana. Over the time, almost all schools of Buddhism followed some version of vipassana though there may be considerable differences in the specifics of the techniques. In the popular 10-day vipassana course, the technique taught is the one popularised by SN Goenka — in the tradition of his Guru Sayagyi U Ba Khin.
Vipassana literally means “right vision”. It is believed that when the Buddha started his spiritual practices, after his failure to attain nibbana through earlier more torturous methods, he came up with or tried the means of vipassana. The primary USP of this technique is focusing on what really is, instead of things that the individual has not experienced yet. For example, gods, goddesses, mantras etc, may or may not be real, but the body certainly is. So the Vipassana meditation works essentially by keeping one’s attention focussed on the sensations on every part of the body and observing them without reacting, with the attitude of what in Buddhism is called annica – impermanence. Practically, as one keeps practising this, the sadhaka realises two types of sensations arise in his body, one that flows like a mild current over the body parts and is pleasurable, another of pain. A vital part of vipassana is to sit for long hours and practice, which initially results in severe pain in the knees and other parts. That is to be accepted as a part of the sadhana. One is encouraged to maintain a stoic indifference to the pain, even look at the pain without reaction till it subsides.
The certain spiritual idea behind this technique is that every kind of activity results in some psychological reaction inside us, which leaves an imprint on the physical body. In other words, the body is the storehouse of all karmic footprints from past lives till now, and even those karmas which may not fructify any time soon. Thus when pain arise — whatever maybe its immediate cause, say sitting for long hours during meditation — the ultimate reason is the existence of some negative karmas to be experienced by the individual at some point in future. Therefore, by training the mind to literally recognise the pain but indifferently — this is the hardest part — that is, without desiring that it stays or goes away, like recording the sensations on your own body with the same level of indifference with which a scientist observes the reactions of an organism under a microscope, the seeker eventually neutralises the very roots of the karmas that can generate rebirth.
They also believe that all other methods of sadhana, which may involve, say, invoking deities etc, are indirect and, while they may bring about chitta shuddi (purification) on a broader level, they are incapable of destroying the seeds of the karmas without which it is impossible to stop rebirth.
With great practice, eventually the seeker will realise the impermanence of every sensation on the body and then the impermanence of the body itself (not just an intellectual idea, but a realisation), and from that standpoint achieve even greater realisations about the world and the ultimate reality.
It is not surprising that this technique almost vanished from India because one may argue that the same results could be achieved in a less arduous manner by starting from a basic premise of belief in a supreme entity or the Self. And India has always been a deeply theistic country; so any technique created on the basis of agnosticism is always less likely to succeed.
Admittedly, Goenka got the idea and inspiration from observing his guru and other Buddhist monks. This kind of hardcore sadhana is quite in line with the way Buddhist monks practice. But the question remains whether this is useful for ordinary people. There are a significant number of people who come to do vipassana courses having heard about it a lot from others — people who are not in the habit of sitting for even ten minutes daily — and then find themselves suddenly having to sit for 10 hours at a stretch.
The first universal reaction to such a drastic change is increase in anger or depression. Of course, the videos of Goenka remind us that these are vikaras (distortions) of the mind released due to the practice of anapana (a breathing technique to be practiced during the initial days). Humbly, but firmly, I would disagree.
In any spiritual practice, there are two components: the sadhana itself and then the digestion of the energy generated by it. The second is, in fact, much more difficult than the first and typical results of ill-digested sadhana is an immediate excessive anger or lust or depression, etc. That is how the energy escapes from the mind-body adhara (base) and that is exactly what happens in a vipassana course initially for 90% of the people, barring those who are accustomed to sitting for very long hours on a regular basis.
This, however, is not a reflection or defect of the technique; this will be a case with any technique when practiced suddenly by those who are not in the habit of serious spiritual sadhana. Also, almost everyone likes the 11th day when the restrictions are removed. However, maybe this too has little to do with the vipassana technique, and is rather caused by a feeling of catharsis, a sense of freedom and release from the 10 days of strict restrictions and a half-empty stomach.
To be fair, these rules are not the exclusive domain of vipassana, but every serious sadhana needs such an atmosphere. Every year during the Navaratras, many people across northern India fast for 9 days; some even remain completely mauna (silent), all the while immersing themselves in the worship of Shakti. Silence, restrictions in food, brahmacharya (celibacy), etc are standard prerequisites for any sadhana to generate sufficient energy that can transform an individual. The Buddhist ethics or śīla, one of the three foundational practices of the faith, are broadly similar to the ethical aspects of Patanjali’s yoga and also most other methods of dharmic sadhana.
Is the exercise worth it?
Absolutely! For one, very few of us have the ability to stay completely undisturbed for 10 days, given the kind of hectic lives we lead in cities. This is a good change, a kind of detoxification from things which we take for granted, like our mobile phones and newspapers. And those who have never tried anything like this before, it is a new experience for sure, an intense new experience. It will help develop one’s will power if nothing else, which is fundamental for any serious sadhana. Lastly, from an astrological perspective, it can even help one overcome the adverse effect of Saturn by the self-imposed discipline and partially ascetic rules followed by participants. Overall, Goenka has created a very fine and praiseworthy movement.