Vipassana Meditation

Vipassana means to see things as they really are and it’s a type of meditation claimed to have been taught by Buddha in India thousands of years ago. There are Vipassana centres throughout the world offering courses including a venue in Drogheda, Louth. If you have not taken a course before are required to take a 10 day course. Those that have already taken at least one 10 day course are considered old students and can take other length courses including 1, 3 and 30 day courses. I decided to do a course on my recent trip to Nepal in Birgunj which is on the border with India. Anyone who knows me would have laughed at the thought of me attending a course but I am very glad I did. While I don’t fully ‘buy into it’ I do think it is very beneficial and will be doing further courses in the future.

Time Activity
4.00am Wake Up Bell
4.30am – 6.30am Morning Meditation
6.30am – 8.00am Breakfast Break
8.00am – 9.00am Meditation in Hall
9.00am – 11.00am Mediation
11.00am – 12.00pm Lunch Break
12.00pm – 1.00pm Break/Rest
1.00pm – 2.30pm Mediation
2.30pm – 3.30pm Meditation in hall
3.30pm – 5.00pm Meditation
5.00pm – 6.00pm Tea Break
6.00pm – 7.00pm Meditation in Hall
7.00pm – 8.15pm Teachers Discourse
8.15pm – 9.00pm Meditation in Hall
9.00pm – 9.30pm Question time

As you can see there is a lot of meditation. The course is completely silent and you are expected to maintain noble silence for the duration of the course. This means not communicating with anyone else whether its verbal or otherwise. This means no waving or making eye contact. The hardest thing I found was not being able to say thank you when someone served food to me. The course is hosted by an assistant teacher who sits at the top of the hall and is available if you have questions. The majority of the course is taught by S. N. Goenka through tape playings and evening videos.

First Three Days

The first three days is technically not Vipassana mediation but instead Anapana and is used to focus the mind. You are to concentrate on your breathing and the sensation of the air entering and leaving your nostrils. Slowly you expand the area of focus to include your upper lip and the exterior of the nose. It may seem silly spending 10+ hours a day focussing on breathing but I was shocked at how quickly your mind wonders. After the three days I did notice I was much better at focusing.

Vipassana

After the three days of Anapana it’s time to start with Vipassana proper. This involves being hyper aware of the sensations occurring in your body. While Anapana focuses on breathing Vipassana doesn’t, it concentrates on the vibrations that make up the body. On the first few days of practising Vipassana you start from the top of your head and concentrate on a small section of your forehead, wait until you feel a sensation in that part, then move to next section of your forehead. You continue this to cover your entire body. As the days go on you get more sensitive and can do sweeps across your body taking in all the sensations. The idea is to connect with your body and pay attention to the sensations within.

Sankaras

I’m going to explain the ‘theory’ behind the technique. It would be fair to say I don’t fully agree that the theory is true but I’ll outline it anyway. There are four parts of the mind which all act separately and deal with the output of the previous   perception -> cognition -> feeling -> reaction. The reaction section creates Sankaras or intentions which can be positive (craving) or negative (aversion). You do not want to crave anything nor be averse to anything but to understand that everything is changing. There is no point having an aversion to a itch as it is only temporary and to have negative feelings towards it is wasting energy. The same idea is you shouldn’t go out craving feelings you cannot control. When you feel a sensation you should just accept that the sensation exists and it will pass shortly. If you do generate sankaras they will multiple and you cannot be fully happy with sankaras. If when passing through your body you feel a tense part of the body you should focus on this tense part without judgement in order not to create more sankaras. By just focussing on the tenseness without judgement the sankaras will slowly be dissolved and the tenseness will disappear.

Teacher discourse

Each evening there is a video shown of S. N. Goenka who is the main teacher of Vipassana. He is quite charming character and I found his stories interesting. I would argue some of the things he said borders on religious while he maintains Vipassana is a secular technique. Some of the group seemed to idolise the guy which I believe goes against his teachings. Either way, its nice to have a video in the evenings to mix it up a bit. The stories are entertaining and all have a good point.

Food

All food is provided for you. You only get two full meals per day – breakfast and lunch so it’s important to eat as much as you can during these meals. Breakfast and Lunch tended to be various curries, dal, rice, potatoes, curd etc. The food was all vegetarian and extremely good. During my course Tea consisted of a cup of tea and puffed rice.  If we were lucky we’d get a mango as well.

What to bring

All you really need is clothes and potentially an alarm clock. While the centre had a bell I sometimes napped during lunch break and wouldn’t here the bell. You are not allowed mobile phones, laptops, books, pens/paper etc. If you do bring these to the centre they will keep it locked away in the office for the duration of the course. In the Birgunj centre in Nepal they also kept my passport during the course.

Cost

All Vipassana courses are completely free to attend and funded by donations. The expected donation amount varies depending on where you take the course – donations in the US would be expected to be higher than India to cover the increased costs. I was quite unsure how much to donate in Nepal, myself and another westerner donated $100 each. We have no idea if this was sufficient/too much but it felt right at the time.

Experience

I had no idea what to expect when I signed up for the course. I feel I learnt a lot from the meditation and wish I continued meditating for longer. I noticed I was much calmer and relaxed after the course and I continued meditating for an hour a day. Slowly, I stopped doing it quite so often until I finally stopped meditating. Since stopping I’ve noticed I’m more stressed and moody. I find great value in Vipassana meditation but don’t necessarily believe the Sankara theory. I would recommend people to go do a course with a completely open mind and not expect anything in particular. If you go in with expectations that this will help solve all your issues you won’t get much out of the course.

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