It was back in 2001, still living in London, when I subscribed to a correspondence course on Buddhism by The Buddhist Society. Each week on the post I got a booklet explaining some of the basic concepts of Buddhism and its history. It wasn’t very deep; it was just an introductory course. Back then, I hardly knew anything about Buddhism, but when I had read something about it (or about meditation) somehow it resonated with me.
One of the lessons was about vipassana meditation and encouraged me to start practicing by just sitting and concentrating on my breathing. I remember one weekday morning when I had to wait home for a delivery that I used the waiting time to sit on my reading armchair and do my first meditation session. Forty minutes later the bell rang. I stop following my breathing to open the door, get the delivery and immediately leave home to go to the office. On the platform waiting for the Central London train was a stunning woman, tall and beautiful. The first thing it came to my mind was to talk to her, even though then I used to be a bit shy when talking to strangers. I got onto the same carriage as her and sat where I could see her face. The only thing on my mind during the 20-minute journey was to invite her for a coffee.
I waited until we got off the train at Victoria Station to approach her in the lobby before she got lost in the crowd. With surprising confidence I said hello to her, apologized for stopping her somehow abruptly, told her I found her very beautiful and asked her if she would like to have a coffee with me. She felt surprised, thanked me for my compliment, and replied she had a boyfriend. We chatted amicably for a little while before I continued on my way to work. I’m sure I showed the courage to approach the stunning woman as a result of my brief meditation session.
As determination was not my forte, it’s not surprising I didn’t do much meditation after that day. Not even that morning’s positive experience was enough motivation for me to sit down to meditate regularly. It took me several years to be able to do so.
In 2009, living in New York City, I quit my senior role at a financial software firm to backpack through Asia for a year. Apart from exploring extensively a continent almost unknown to me, I intended to use the long journey to become a writer and photographer. Besides, with so much time available, I also wanted to take up meditation seriously. I started meditating by myself, mostly for 30-40 minutes, concentrating on my breathing. The idea was to practice a bit before booking myself into a 10-day vipassana course organized by S.N. Goenka, whose 168 centers span all over the world.
I tried to do it in Thailand but all courses were fully booked several weeks in advance. Luckily, I got a place in the only center the organization has in Malaysia. Goenka’s initiation courses are all 10-day duration because that length is needed to mentally disconnect from daily life, learn the meditation technique and deepen in it so as to truly experience its benefits. The courses are structured the same way in all the centers and can be done in many languages. Hence, if someone is traveling with plenty of time, it’s relatively easy to find a center where to attend one.
The basic rules of the course are:
– Not talking is allowed except to the teacher at specific times.
– No reading or writing materials; no phones, computers and any other electronic device that facilitates your mind getting distracted.
– Only vegetarian food is available.
– Strict timetable:
- 4am: Wake-up
- 4:30-6:30am: Meditation
- 6:30-8am: Breakfast
- 8-11am: Meditation
- 11am-1pm: Lunch
- 1-5pm: Meditation
- 5-6pm: Tea
- 6-7pm: Meditation
- 7-8:30pm: Video Lesson
- 8:30-9pm: Meditation
- 9:30pm-4am: Sleep
The vipassana meditation technique taught is fairly simple: students start by concentrating on their breathing as the air is inhaled and exhaled through the nostrils, following first with the sensations felt in the nostrils, and later in the mustache area. On day four, once a minimum ability and sensitivity is achieved, students start practicing vipassana fully by concentrating on their body sensations. To do so, the body is scanned from the top of the head to the tip of the toes in small areas. This way students’ concentration is enhanced as is their bodies’ sensitivity. The objectives of vipassana are:
– Improve concentration
– Learn that each emotion is linked to a physical sensation
– Experience that only the present exists and can be lived
– Understand that everything is impermanent; all body discomforts and pains pass away as do all pleasures too
– Comprehend that the ego is the mind’s useless mental construction
Ten days of silence meditating over 10 hours a day are hard, both physically and mentally. While some days your back pain seems an obstacle impossible to overcome, others you feel light as a feather. There are moments of exhaustion and others of sheer lightness. The emotional rollercoaster is very intense, and very personal too, but above all, it encapsulates beautifully what life is: a long sequence of moments, painful or joyful, that we have to take as they come, experience, and learn from them to be ready for the next one. Our ego is as impermanent as all our emotions, as it’s just a momentary snapshot of ourselves.
As Buddhism has been saying for a long time, it’s our clinging to our desires, as well as our aversion to our suffering, that get us stuck, unable to move along to the next moment we are in, wasting our lives stupidly in unimportant things.
After the first 10-day course I attended a 3-day course the following year, also in Malaysia, and a second 10-day course in Massachusetts in 2011, once my long journey through Asia had ended. Since then I’ve been practicing vipassana, sometimes daily, others occasionally (although since I became a father a year ago my little boy is my new vipassana moment).
I’ve met people who vehemently said they would never be able to survive a 10-day retreat to, later on, be courageous enough to go to one and don’t regret it at all. It’s one of those once-in-a-life-time experiences that many might not be prepared to do it twice but nobody ultimately regrets. The reason being that each person who attends one experiences something unique, impossible to live anywhere else and to explain with words. This kind of unique, intense and deep experience is able to point us to new directions and to open possibilities they seem inaccessible beforehand.