10 day silent Vipassana Meditation in Kyoto

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So many friends have asked how it was and I haven’t been able to find the right words or way to articulate it properly, so here’s my attempt to summarise how I felt about the whole thing. I found that the experience is very personal, like cancer or any form of suffering or grief, we all find the strength in ourselves to limp and crawl through adversity in our own way.

There is no right or wrong way. Everyone was expecting me to come out all zen and enlightened, but the truth is I felt worse for wear right after camp. I wouldn’t call it a retreat, it’s more like a bootcamp! It’s been a week and I’m just starting to balance out my psychological and emotional state post Vipassana. So, I don’t actually have an opinion about whether one should try Vipassana, and my advice would be, do it, commit to finishing those 10 days and have your own opinion about it.

I personally find mindfulness meditation, progeny of the old Vipassana meditation more accessible and self compassionate.

Vipassana in Pali means to “see things as they are”. And my main takeaway and premise of this meditation exercise is:

  1. View everything with equanimity. One of the Dharma talks, the late guru Goenka mentions an example of taking a position of sitting on the bench by the river bank and watching the river flow – with the garbage, with the strong current, with calm smooth waters. Just spectate, but don’t participate in any of it. Viewing your own emotional and mental upheaval without judgement – be equanimous. It makes perfect sense on how it can reduce suffering, but incredibly difficult to separate yourself from the upheaval of emotional/psychological avalanche.
  2. Cravings – the want and desire for things, situations that feel good. This creates misery when circumstance don’t make it happen.
  3. Aversion – Wanting things/people/situation to be different or your version of ideal, intense resistance to the present moment (of pain, suffering, hunger or whatever doesn’t fit your ideal desired outcome). I am very familiar with this and understand the cycle of self-induced mental suffering.

Their explanation of what Vipassana is:

  • It is a technique that will eradicate suffering.
  • It is a method of mental purification which allows one to face life’s tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.
  • It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society.IMG_3183

Here was our schedule:

4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12 noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break (fruit and a cup of tea)
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out

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The Good

I liked that it’s an act of free will – you can leave anytime you want. I was in a 8 bunk bed room and 2 ladies in my room left on the 4th day morning. It’s run purely by donations and you pay it forward for the next intake. They don’t take your money if you didn’t complete the course.

If you don’t accept certain things, guru Goenka tells you to set that aside but continue to practice the technique to meditate, accept and take what you can, and what you have yet to understand/accept/reconcile, set it aside first. They don’t force you to swallow the pill of blind following.

The amazing fresh air in the Kyoto forest and waking up before day break where the birds are chirping madly before sunrise – this is when the trees release the most oxygen. It’s so good for the cells rejuvenation in the body.

In learning to cope with chronic pain, I’ve been very interested in the neuro-body connection and how pain is perceived and how trauma affects how we behave and the pain signals our body sends or creates. Neuroscientist/Physiotherapist Lori Moseley wrote two books Painful Yarns and Explain Pain. Here’s a brilliant TedMed talk he did about mind-body connection – and Vipassana meditation really connected the dots for me sitting to meditate 10 hours a day 10 days straight without distraction.


It’s truly an exercise at retraining mind patterns, which is liberating and so fascinating at the same time.

One example I often think about is how someone with multiple gun shot wounds can be running for his life during the war, compared to an accident with a single gunshot wound, someone is completely paralysed, the mind is such a wonderful thing and mastery of it/retraining thought patterns can provide solutions to so many ailments we face.

By day 5, I could sit 2 hours without shifting positions – observing the numbness and pins and needles in my legs and that too passed. The cycle of change, that everything is impermanent. “Annicca” 

I love the idea that mastering the art of dying = mastering the art of living.

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The Bad

I’m not a practising buddhist but have read books on buddhism. I found that Vipassana lacked compassion. We only had maybe an hour of Metta in the 100 hours of meditation. There were people bawling their eyes out (presumably from “eradicating their past misery”) but got no comfort at all.

Human beings are social beings and because of the Noble Silence (silence of body, mind and spirit – no communication or contact with anyone) we had to keep to ourselves. I think those crying their eyes out would have appreciated a hug. I find the forced isolation mind boggling and not very healthy.

Compassion was one of the main teachings of Buddha. And I think compassion begins with one self. Self kindness and self compassion, which I am still in the process of learning, so the code of discipline came across as really harsh, undoing everything I’ve learnt about being kind to myself.

Our assistant teacher slept through all the meditations sessions. I thought I was the only one cheating opening my eyes at some point waiting for the gong. Seemed like everyone knew she was sleeping. She also wasn’t very helpful or constructive answering questions. It just felt like she didn’t want to be there, and she didn’t have the aura of an enlightened person – the kind of vibes you get just watching videos of Dalai Lama.

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The Things I cannot reconcile

Guru Goenka repeatedly says that Vipassana meditation is secular, but the delivery of the messaging comes across as cultish. As a marketing person:

Idea/ideology + charismatic Indian guru + great testimonials + vulnerable critical mass of lost people looking for meaning in life = success marketing formula

There was a Vipassana miracle, one of the Japanese guys who had neuro surgery as a child couldn’t feel his left arm for 23 years and for the first time had sensations return. I’d like not to be cynical – what if he was planted in the audience like most inspirational conferences/circus/shows? I’d give them the benefit of the doubt.

I also didn’t understand why we are still playing cassette tapes from 1991 and watching videos of Goenka during our Dharma talks. Isn’t the whole point of training assistant teachers to empower them to teach and share. The irony of “no ego” in any of this, and the constant preaching that “everything is changing”, but we’re still hanging on to the late Goenka teachings in casssette tapes and VHS video converted to mp4 files to learn about meditation.

There is much talk about misery and if you don’t continue to meditate you build on your saṅkhāras paving the path to a more miserable life. And the only way to achieve better karma and dharma is to serve and convert as many people as possible, spreading the word of Vipassana to eradicate suffering and misery in the world – that’s a little simplistic view of life isn’t it?

The preaching also comes across subtly as a threat. I think service, giving and generosity should come from the heart, it should not be conditional. Coming from a place of fear and the desire to collect more good karma points (which is then craving?). The intent is not pure, but comes from the desire to live a less miserable life by adhering to a strict list of Goenka’s teachings.

One of the best and most objective reviews I’ve read is from someone who spent 4 years as a buddhist monk and have done several Vipassana courses, with Goenka himself. I enjoyed his views as well as suggestions moving forward since Goenka’s passing. I also loved how he said the 10 day course was a relaxing holiday compared to the years he spent in the Thai monastery!

 

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