I had heard about the Vipassana meditation course from various people but all I knew about it was that you have to stay silent for 10 days. Without any other knowledge of the course, the restraint on speech had had me entertain thoughts of giving it a try. Sam Harris’s recent book “Waking up” strongly recommended Vipassana as a good entry into meditation and spirituality for the non-believer. His endorsement finally made me register. For the uninitiated, Vipassana is a 11 day residential meditation course that’s offered free of charge and hopes to introduce you to Dhamma (laws of Nature as taught by the Buddha). You have to agree to live like an ascetic - sleeping on a one-inch mattress laid out on a stone bench, eating only two meals a day, and not speaking - actually not even making eye contact - with the co-meditators for the entire duration of the course. Here I try to chronicle my experience as answers to questions I had before I went there.
Are the days long?
You wake up at 4 AM, meditate on your haunches for a total of 11 hours in the day. In some of those slots you are challenged to not change your posture for a full hour. The last twenty minutes of such a session feel like eons. So yes, the days are awfully long but you get to experience the paradox of long days - although each waking hour feels incredibly drawn out the 10 days seem to just whizz by.
How hard is it to not speak for 10 days? Why is this restraint there anyway?
One of the conditions of the course is that you observe Noble Silence or Arya mouna. Not only do you not speak with anybody, you avoid all sorts of communication including hand gestures or eye contact. You have to deposit your mobile phone in a safe locker. You are not allowed to even carry reading or writing material with you. The idea is to not let anything distract your mind in the pursuit of the various stages of revelation in this technique. Surprisingly, though, I found this restraint very comfortable (once and for all answering the question whether I am an introvert or an extrovert).
Why is the course free?
Historically, one of the conditions to learn Vipassana was renunciation. Hence, nobody paid to do this course and the center has tried to keep that tradition. But it serves other purposes, for instance, it suspends the sense of entitlement that comes with paying for something.
Is it compatible with Atheism?
Buddhism is often described as atheistic because Buddha deemed the belief in god irrelevant to the pursuit of enlightenment. So it wasn’t a surprise that this course was free of all mentions of god or any of the modern day proxies for him, such as, “Energy” or “Life force” or “Something greater than us”.
Do I have to make some uncomfortable leaps of faith?
The course is surprisingly non-sectarian. There’s not an idol of Buddha to be seen anywhere, nor do they insist on any silly rites or rituals. There’s no hero worship of the founder of the center either. However, there are some cringe-worthy explanations for observations you make during your meditation. For instance, the second phase of the meditation involves a heightened state of alertness that makes it effortless to explore the body and mind. The teacher builds some incredulous bridges of “mind-matter interactions” that would make any rational being squirm.
What’s the teacher like?
On the first day you are asked to sit in the meditating posture and close your eyes, and then you are greeted by a voice from a speaker singing shlokas in Pali, in a tune that seems to have liberated itself from all shackles of scales and rhythm. You later learn that the voice belongs to Sri. S.N Goenka, the founder of the center that runs these courses, Dhamma paphulla. Most of the course is taught by this gentleman through recorded audio. There are even discourses every evening that are video recordings from a past course. This portly, genial, and rather humorous, gentleman is the real teacher of the course. The teacher who guides you in person sticks to merely telling you when to take your breaks.
What are the takeaways?
The course promises nothing less than the complete understanding of the law of nature. But my takeaways, much less lofty than pledged, were very satisfying. When you sit through painful stiffness in your limbs and back for hours on end, and train to view them with equanimity (doesn’t happen till the seventh day) the pain miraculously disappears. The mindfulness that you develop before you can reach that stage is exhilarating. Of course, it’s frustrating that you can’t summon that feeling at will, and even when you do, the teacher reminds you not to crave or relish it (equanimity, sigh!). Whether you get the experience of equanimity, or those heightened states of awareness, or those stretches of time when your mind is completely in control, just the 10 days plugged out of civilization is bloody liberating.