I first heard about Vipassana from a friend of mine who did it in Ethiopia last year. It is a 10-day silent retreat where you learn the form of meditation Buddha practised. In a nutshell, you hand in all electronic devices and surrender yourself, and your upkeep to the process for the 10 days. You do not speak to anyone and you have set meal times and meditation times marked by a gong. You live the life of a monk or nun – no sex, no intoxicants, do not lie, do not kill and remain silent. Every evening for about an hour, you watch a video of SN Goenka telling you more about the meditation technique. There is no chanting, no mantras and you do not convert to a religion or sect.
So when I heard about it, I thought: “Wow! To shut up for 10 days? Me? How?” I loved the idea of meditating and had actually tried learning with Oprah and Deepak Chopra online, but it wasn’t working for me. Meditation teaches you to still your brain and focus on one thing. Depending on the technique you are using, it could be your breath, a word, or a mantra.
In attempting this singular focus, you get to observe your mind as it flits from one thought to another, resulting in a myriad of feelings. From shopping lists to 20-year-old conversations, and dreams you have for your future, you find that your brain is really very entertaining. As you keep bringing it back to your one focus, you train your brain to concentrate and actually think one thought through to the end. You also get to see how your emotions, which are responses to your thoughts, are yanked all over the place as your thoughts jump like a monkey from branch to branch.
There are many books extolling the benefits of meditation – from higher levels of concentration, decreased blood pressure and overall improved health and quality of life. So, if you are interested, get your hands on one or several. Or you could just sign up for Vipassana which incidentally is absolutely free. So free in fact that only students who have finished the course can make donations.
The process is gruelling and during the first few days, the schedule feels punitive. You get up at 4am, start meditating at 4.30am and keep it up for 12 hours, with two meals and a tea break in between. There is no dinner and you can’t even exercise. By taking away your creature comforts and placing you in a situation where there is only yourself to deal with – talk to, listen to and think about – the meditation forces you to accept yourself on a very deep level. Not as you would like yourself to be, or as you wish you were, but as you really are. Your cravings, your annoyances, what you have become and what you haven’t… it is all there. The Vipassana method encourages you to look at that and accept it as it is without judgement.
I recommend it to any and everyone. After all, almost all philosophers agree that knowledge and acceptance of oneself is the beginning of wisdom. Next week I’ll tell you more about my personal results, let me try the method out in the real world first.