I recently got back from a Vipassana meditation course. For those of you who don’t know, Vipassana is a meditation practise in the Buddhist tradition that is all about perceiving the true nature of reality. Supposedly it’s been passed down by word of mouth in an unbroken line since the Buddha himself, over two and a half thousand years ago. There’s various centres all over the world and the courses are all free, being completely funded by donations from people who found the practise useful, which I think is pretty neat. The course has been greatly condensed for the benefit of us spiritually impotent Westerners and is supposed to last 10 days. I lasted 3. Why? Read on!
I suppose some background information is essential. I’m a twenty year old Irish student who has spent the last year of his life suffering from an infuriatingly debilitating blood pressure problem. I had to defer a year of college and move back home with my family. Since then I’ve radically changed my diet and have been exercising as often as my body will allow. Everything’s an uphill struggle but I’m getting by and have seen some great improvements. I wasn’t naive enough to think that this course would be some kind of miracle cure, but being in a situation where I’m constantly forced to confront my own limitations I thought it may be able to rid me of some uncomfortable negativity.
So what does the course involve? Basically you rise at 4 am and meditate for 10 hours a day, breaking up the monotony with simple vegetarian meals (which are amazing by the way). The real kicker is that there is absolutely zero communication allowed. Total separation of men and women, no shouting, speaking, groaning, moaning, yawning, eye contact, arm contact, nada, zilch, nothing. I didn’t really have a problem with this in theory, I was caught up with the novelty of it all. I felt like I was Bruce Wayne training his mind for some epic bat-shaped contingency plan.
I even got goosebumps when our initial instruction turned out to be, “focus on your breathing.” That’s it. No explanations or reasons. It was like something Mr. Miyagi would say. I was excited. I was sure a sudden spark would come to me and the gruelling ten hour débâcles would turn into beautiful enlightening sessions of samurai-like tranquillity.
I guess a lot of it came down to my totally unrealistic expectations. From the brief conversations I had with my fellow meditators when I arrived, I figured that pretty much all of them were regularly meditating already. My previous experience with meditating had boiled down to a couple of childish experiments when I went through my Samurai Jack obsession period.
I was also nervous that I’d get a mighty case of the head-dizzys as it was my first real adventure since my life got flipped turned upside down. But at the same time I thought chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool would be enough to calm my symptoms for the duration of the 10 days. Much to my surprise it wasn’t my sickness that caused me to throw in the towel but largely my intellectual debate with the Buddha.
At first I was on board with the minimalist approach. After the first day I was in a huge amount of physical pain just from having to sit in a rigid position for so long but the evening’s discourse really put me at ease. The lectures are given by S.N. Goenke, and he’s quite entertaining, although I was a little peeved that we were given our connecting-with-nature instructions through a DVD player. He explained how the body reacts to these sort of situations, “Oh my leg hurts, my back hurts”. I was reassured by the soothing wisdom, delivered in the thickest Indian accent you could possibly imagine. You really got the feeling this guy was one step ahead of you. “Patiently, persistently, diligently. You are bound to be successful. Bound to be successful.” He sounded like Yoda. He even looked a bit like him. And whenever I played pretend Star Wars, I was always the Jedi. I mean, Han was cool and all, but I’m just saying, when it comes to D&D I’m still going Lawful Good. Geek referencing aside, I was pumped after the first day. Bound to be successful.
So the second day rolls around and it’s tough. I’m right on the brink of leaving. I decide that I’ll soldier through until the next discourse, get Goenke to shine some wisdom at me so I could be reassured into continuing the journey. Here’s where the problems cropped up. We learned a lot about the life of the Buddha, and how to treat others. “Sinful action” was described as any action that harms another human being. We were told that if you meditated in this style, you could understand that there’s an intangible law of nature that frowns on sinful behaviour. Simply put, when you connect with this unexplainable sensation, you realise you shouldn’t hurt people. Right. I’m sorry but anyone with a basic understanding of moral science could arrive at a more nuanced and frankly better personal moral system. I firmly believe that our morals should be fundamentally informed by scientific reasoning. Our behaviour shouldn’t be governed by invisible deities or naturalistic impulses, we should be intellectually informed and rationally deduce our personal moralities using logic. It might be well and good to say “hurting others is unnatural and if you meditate on this you will find it to be true”, but the Golden Rule (don’t treat others how you would not like to be treated) has been around for almost as long as humans have. We find written examples of it going back to Confuscius and beyond. It doesn’t really help with complicated moral dilemmas.
The more I listened to this man speak the more I began to dislike him. He spoke extensively about helping people and treating them with kindness but really he was just a guy sitting alone in a room thinking about helping people. I started to think he was a hypocrite. As he spoke, slowly gesticulating with his hand, his fat mouth slowly droning out vague nonsense and his thin legs crossed flaccidly under his static posture. I couldn’t get this image out of my head. Eventually I began questioning every aspect of the course. The silence and separation, everything, it was all done so we could close ourselves off from outside influences. The idea is that Enlightenment must be achieved entirely within your own mind. Slowly the Western-Philosopher in me began to question even this simple premise. I started to think: you can’t be enlightened in a vacuum. You need to have some amount of knowledge to begin with, so it’s not really a true starting position. I mean, the Buddha goes and cuts himself off from the world and spends many insular years in solitude trying to find the answer to all things, but he’s still using the knowledge that he learned before. He grew up and learned and ingested information like anyone else, and what he succeeded in doing was managing this knowledge very efficiently. But he didn’t really learn anything new. When you think about it, one very simple limitation to the course is that you need to understand language. I don’t mean a specific language I mean you need to be able to understand the instructions necessary to begin meditating. The result of countless hours of meditation may be outside of our ability to vocalise but the journey itself can only be walked if you are able to communicate with other people. It requires knowledge. My suggestion is that a better use of your time might be just… well, getting more knowledge in the first place. I think it will probably hold you in better stead.
So no, I couldn’t finish the course. I folded, threw down my cards and went home to read books and stuff. And I don’t regret it. I know I didn’t really give it a chance, and maybe there was some deep revelation right around the corner, but I’m happy trying to find that wisdom for myself. Did I get anything out of the course? Well funnily enough I did learn the value of meditation. It was during one of Goenke’s talks when he was saying that vocalisation and visualisation will certainly make your mind sharper, keener and able to concentrate more effectively, but it won’t help you to see the true nature of reality so we won’t be doing them. Well, to be honest I was kind of excited by the prospect so I’ve been doing some Zen meditation and some other random stuff I found on the interwebs and I’ve been seeing good results. So there you have it, Vipassana helped me to learn about other kinds of meditation that I find more effective. Thanks for reading!
As a post script, here’s a funny story that happened on my last day shortly before I left.
So there I was in the canteen, standing in the queue to wash the delph I had used for my lunch. In front of me was a hardened looking man with a shaved head. He was holding a similar tray and assortment of plates and cutlery waiting to wash up at the cleaning station. From the corner of my eye I noticed one of the other meditators who struck me as a bit out of place. He walked with a sort of inner city swagger and I never saw him without his hood up. He shuffled past and as he went by the man in front of me I saw him slyly drop a leather pouch like what you would hold a bank card in with a 20 euro note clearly protruding from the side. To his credit he did this without breaking our vow of non-communication as not even the slightest nod or wink was given. Cautiously and deliberately the-man-in-front took the sleeve (without looking at it) and nonchalantly placed it in his pocket. My heart started to quicken. I looked around. Nobody had seen. As you may have guessed by reading the previous part of this post, my obsession with pop culture made me very excited. I was like Phillip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes or, say it ain’t so, the Dark Knight himself. Giddy with my own fantasy but disappointed at my obvious inability to translate any of it to real life I carried on with my day.
Later, I was seated outside the meditation hall waiting to have a talk with the head hauncho about getting the hell out of Dodge. Just outside the hall was one of the resident’s rooms. At the sound of footsteps my head turned out of habit and I saw the-man-in-front-at-the-queue walk into the room. With a twitch he turned around to check for potential investigators. Like a pro I turned my head and brought my hand in front of my face. It was like I was invisible. Through a gap in my fingers I had skilfully created I saw him close the door behind him, leaving it open just a fraction. Hmm… I pondered. Not half a minute later the Hooded Ruffian came barrelling down the hallway. His head shimmied from side to side and he looked nervous. He made his way to the resident’s room and confidently pushed open the door and entered, leaving the door to swing closed behind him. I was interested 1) that he didn’t knock and 2) that he didn’t check inside before entering. It was almost as if he wanted to get out of the hallway quickly. Hmmm… I thought some more. Not 15 seconds later! the hooded man cautiously opened the door and looked left and right down the hallway like crossing a road. He let out a smirk and exited the room with his usual swagger. He caught my eye on the way past and I nervously threw my gaze to the ground. When I looked back up I saw that there had been no alteration made to the hooded man’s trajectory and he had now gone out of my field of vision past the corner on my right. I sat outside the hall for another 10 odd minutes before being called into the hall. I didn’t see the man-in-front come out during that time.
So what happened then? Well, I went home. Sorry the story doesn’t have a very interesting end but I thought it would be nice to share my detective adventure and also my obsessive compulsive tendencies. As for what transpired in that room, I can only say that it was too short for a blowjob. My best guess is that they were cultivating weaponised Enlightenment which they stored in special canisters and sold on the black market. The serum is then sold to private military organisations who use it as a form of chemical warfare, forcing opposing troops to connect with Nature’s hidden law of pacifism on a deep spiritual level. The artificial connection is temporary but lasts for long enough so that a special forces unit can intercept the enemy stronghold and wreak bloody havoc on the “hippied” troopers. The spec ops unit, calling themselves the “Darwinians”, vow to spread the true face of Nature, that sinister visage that says but one thing, “survival of the fittest.”
That or, you know, they were just doing a dope deal.