In August 2018, I spent 10 days on a silent retreat in the Vipassana tradition in the foothills of the Hex River Mountains in Worcester, South Africa. A friend told me about the retreat, and since I was leaving my job to figure out my next steps in life I thought I would dive right in, never having meditated before. I suppose sometimes it’s best to not know what you’re getting yourself in for.
What is Vipassana and how does it work?
Vipassana is an ancient technique of meditation, rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and preserved through a direct lineage of teachers. ‘Vipassana’ is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘insight’ – more specifically, seeing things as they really are.
Buddhism 101 states that life is suffering, and that we suffer because we crave positive experiences and loathe / avert negative experiences. These experiences are either past or future states in which we find ourselves lost in thought. Through regular usage, the neural pathways become ingrained in our mind in the same way that skiiers “carve paths” on a ski slope. Taking foward the analogy, as the skiing day progresses, the tracks on the slope become deeper and it’s difficult to get out of them without hitting a massive mogul. We either need a fresh layer of snow or a way to recognise the paths before skiing straight in, or else we become trapped in those ruts.
Vipassana seeks to break that circuitry. The literal translation of Vipassana is ‘insight’, and the key insight that breaks the chain is ‘annica’ – everything is impermanent (the direct translation of annica is ‘impermanence’). It is about gaining mindfulness of our thoughts and recognising them as appearances in consciousness, arising and passing away. This allows us to break our attachment from these thoughts, either positive or negative. The explanations provided at the retreat were not the most scientific, and that’s probably reflected in my perhaps oversimplified explanation. .
A more practical foothold can be found in comparison to CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). In this therapy, one identifies the negative thought and what triggered that thought. You write these down, along with the rationale for the negative reaction. You then think of an alternative, positive reaction that is of better service to your wellbeing. This whole process serves to break the unconscious neural pathways that are the source of your mental discomfort. Vipassana targets the exact same neural paths, but in a much more physical (and dare I say intense) way. Personally I felt that CBT was a bit like mental gymnastics, which can all go wrong very quickly whilst in the middle of your backflip. Vipassana is a very slow, deliberate process with plenty of margin for error, because you have hours and hours and more hours after that.
And those hours seem to never end. It is an incredibly taxing 10 days - silence is taken to its extremes. You cannot read, write, or exercise. You eat facing a wall. You are told to look down when passing others to avoid making eye contact with anyone. The retreat is essentially free (you can make a voluntary donation afterwards according to your own volition), but don’t let that fool you; you for it with your pain :) And you realise how crazy the treadmill of consciousness is, spitting out one thought after the other (and admittedly counting down the days). It’s not an experience that I would recommend lightly.
What did I learn?
I realised during the course of the retreat that I am (was?) more encumbered by my aversions than my cravings. I am averse to situtations not going my way. I was constantly fighting situations in my thought life. I had built up resentment throughout my life from a very young age, and it’s been a great relief to be in the ‘letting go’ phase. On the other side of the equation, I definitely have a good craving or two. I still struggle with the notion of letting go of cravings completely. They are the lifeblood of passion, and I want to live a life of passion, enjoying the fleeting viscitudes of amazing people and moments. I guess I’ll pay the small price of the down moments for that.
Two further words encapsulate the Vipassana tradition for me – ‘equanimity’ and ‘awareness’. True, before the retreat I had never heard ‘equanimity’ used in a sentence, and definitely not its adjective form ‘equanamous’. But Goenka, the founder of the worldwide Dhamma foundation which hosts the retreats, uses both of them liberally. In his own estimation, if there is any ‘goal’ of meditation, it is to develop equanimity – a balanced mind that rolls with the ebbs and flows of life, because let’s face it, life is hard.
The retreat was definitely a worthwhile enterprise. I thought I would never go back, but I’m planning my next retreat and have ambitions to do one every couple of years. (I also had ambitions to do yoga every day but that is burning on the heap of broken dreams, but hey, no harm in dreaming)
Even if that doesn’t come to fruition, it has at least planted the seed for a regular meditation practice in my life, although not the ambitious 2 hours per day recommended by Goenka. 10 minutes every day is a great place to start. I can highly recommend Sam Harris’ Waking Up app. It’s not exactly the Vipassana technique, but the premise is similar. Sam’s teaching about ‘consciousness and its contents’ are poignant and insightful. He has a PhD in Neuroscience and Philosophy and has spent over two years cumulatively on silent retreat, so he’s well placed as a teacher. His no nonsense view point is a welsome step away from the ‘woo’ associated with the world of the esoteric. Or just register for a retreat. It will be tough, but dare I say it will change the way that you think. Or at least the way that you think about your thoughts.