There are some meditation retreats that cater to people who want a smooth entrance, i.e.: Shambhala where, to my surprise, during a Dathun (month long retreat) [editor’s note: more info about Dathuns here], meditators were able to have sex (provided they first “confessed”), smoke (in designated areas) and eat meat. Not that there is anything wrong with that, when I took this retreat in Colorado a few years ago that was exactly what I needed, a gentle introduction.
One time I tried visiting the Transcendental Meditation place in New York City, but nobody would talk to me unless I paid an amount whose exactitude escapes my memory but that was north of 1000 dollars, not for me. Then I also tried other Buddhist traditions which titillated me with rituals and chants, and I liked them.
I suppose however, that it gets to a point when one wants to get into “hard core meditation”, into a serious, strong practice, and for that I have not found anything more effective than Vipassana where the whole focus is placed on practice, consider the 15 reasons why I like it:
1.- It means seeing thing as they are
That is what Vipassana means. At first sight it may not mean much, but a few days of silence can trigger within our minds all sorts of reactions. For me it starts with how hungry I am and continues with how I should have replied in a much more forceful way to some random past conversation. It takes time to even notice that I have not been in the moment for a while, that I have not been paying attention to what is happening right now, to what is.
2- It is based on direct instructions from the Buddha
This is what the main Vipassana teacher, S.N. Goenka, claims. When I asked if this is really true to a very senior teacher and scholar in NYC he disagreed. There are as many theories about what the Buddha taught as there are teachers, traditions, and lineages. I suppose the technique needs to be experienced firsthand. I have to say that the lack of fluff (see point three), makes me wonder and, at least in my mind, adds validity to the claim.
3-There is no fluff
There is no mantra, japa, chanting, breathing techniques or anything involved. The introductory 10-day course starts with three days
of just breathing and focusing on the tip of the nose, a technique used with the aim of achieving concentration.
Three days may sound like a long time but it is not when you realize how difficult it is to just sit and pay attention to the in/out flow of air. It is a massive task. The remaining 7 days are dedicated entirely to scanning the body or observing sensations as one mentally runs through it, then when sensations arise, which they inevitably do, remaining in equanimity.
The purpose of this “remaining in equanimity” is to clear up the rivers of reactions we have created in our mind in association to common sensations. It is a brilliant way of decreasing our neurosis, it simply works. Then again, it is one thing to write about it, and another to sit and observe as I get angry with my dead mother for something she did 25 years ago and decide to stay quiet instead of reaching out for the refrigerator in search for any chocolate that will ease the pain.
4- Meditation and very basic body needs are the only activities allowed
A Mexican friend of mine described what happens at a Vipassana meditation retreat in four steps: 1-you eat, 2-you sleep, 3-you poo, 4-you meditate. He may have used a stronger way for “poo” . There is nothing else to do.
The focus and space created by the amazing volunteers that provide service is very effective. People are even advised to bring enough clothes so that laundry can be minimized and the focus completely directed towards meditation. All cell phones, I-touches, I-pads, books, journals and papers are surrendered at the beginning of the course, hence limiting distractions.
5- Men and women are separated
In the meditation hall men sit on the right and women on the left and they never mingle. Dorms as well as dining halls are separated and silence is observed throughout. This allows for all the sexual tension to vanish. Also, a strict code of conduct and dress is in effect at all times, and I found that this allowed me to relax, to wear comfortable clothes and not think about how I looked, but rather go within.
There is a lot that we hold on to whenever we know that we will be interacting with the opposite sex. Being free from these details allows for a new kind of space. I am not sure how this works for people who are gay; I suppose it would be interesting to hear what their thoughts are.
In an ideal Vipassana center (not all of them are that advanced) every student would have their own room and their own meditation “cell”. Yeap! A cell: a tiny room, big enough only to put the cushion and close the door, with no windows, totally isolated. That is what a cell is.
I was fortunate enough to experience one in Massachussetts on my last retreat and I have to say they are very good to provide all the right conditions for deep, serious concentration.
7-Brutal schedule and no yoga, whatsoever
This is the part I don’t like so much, I am an ashtangi (practice Ashtanga yoga) which means I do yoga every day six times a week for 1.5 hours, at a minimum. So, no yoga whatsoever was not a proposition I enjoyed, but there is something to be said for cutting out on all activities and just focusing on meditation. I will not say that I was able to stay cool and never strike a triangle or a quick sun salute upon waking up, what can I say? I am not perfect.
On my second meditation retreat however I was a bit stronger at keeping up with the schedule, and I suppose that just as with the practice of yoga, meditation also has a “build-up” curve. Maybe next time I go I will be able to follow the strict schedule in its entirety, rather than perhaps, as I confess I did sometimes, take a nap after lunch. When I say the schedule is brutal I am not joking, see for yourself at the bottom of this link.
8-Food is good, but not great
Food is served after morning meditation and at noon. It is healthy, but not great. One of the administrators of the course I was in told me that this was purposely so, that way students would be nurtured but not get attached to the food. She also said that the people doing service need to check on their own agendas if they felt like making food more “tasty”, for example, to see if they would be trying to “please” or “get attention from the practitioners”. I thought that this was a very good point, a thoughtful one.
Old students (people who have already attended an intro 10 day course) are not allowed to have dinner, other than tea with no sugar or milk. Dinner for first time students is very light, and this ends up helping with meditation, the less digestive work the higher the states that one can achieve.
After the initial 10 day retreat some students in my course had amazing realizations. One woman I talked to on the dining hall -when we were finally allowed to speak again- mentioned that she saw herself disappear and merge with the rest of the meditators, she actually had the experience of dissolving, how cool is that!. I wish I had such experiences, but I did not.
Oh, and as a disclaimer, these are not ideas we should get attached to, but I suppose it made me realize the power of the course.
10- The lectures increase in depth as the days go by
The lectures at the end of each day are very well crafted, they help in going deeper, in understanding the purpose of what one is doing and in keeping up the spirits. S.N. Goenka delivers these talks by video. Videos/DVDs are also available in many other languages allowing for multi-language participation. An administrator in the Massachussetts center told us that for example, the course they run in Korean language only gets filled every time.
Goenka’s teachings are completely rational, they make sense. I had never heard a meditation teacher go as deep as he does, for example in the exact instructions, nor did I ever felt them resonate so truthfully within me.
8-It is free
Well, not really, at the end of a course there is a suggested donation and a speech that goes with it so people are educated on how much it cost to maintain a center, which is not cheap. I believe that effective teachers should always be paid for their services, because they are adding value to others, and the amount we pay reflects how much we care and appreciate the instructions.
However, nobody is turned down from a course and their marketing line on this is that they do not charge because spreading the truth should be free. I think this is a wonderful opportunity for any person truly interested in meditation to take advantage of.
Volunteers work the courses and keep coming back to all the centers they have throughout the world. That has to mean something. To me it means that the teachings work.
11- You surrender as a monk would
The other side of the coin of not paying is that the “power” trip is taken away, you or me are just become like monks, we did not pay so we do not have “rights”, we are attempting to let go of the ego and by being fed, taken care of, and dedicating life to just meditation we are given a taste of what renunciation may be like.
12- Teachers are always available
Every course has a main teacher and interviews can be scheduled. There is ample opportunity to ask questions, to inquire and make sure one is using the time efficiently.
13-It is the only school to teach the upper four limbs of yoga
I have not found a school anywhere that teaches the upper four limbs of yoga: sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation and Samadhi in as a systematical way as they do. Vipassana courses offer an opportunity for just that, incredible! The sense withdrawal happens automatically as all news, screens, journals, opposite sex and speech go, we are in silence, there is no way but in.
The concentration depends on the effort put by every one of the participants during the first half of the course, where the emphasis is put on just observing the flow of air at the nostrils, then the meditation part is thought in the second part of the course. Samadhi (deep concentration? Enlightenment? All-encompassing peace), well that comes by grace and by work, by sitting and by working on it. It takes two to tango.
14- It has a “maintenance” program
After leaving the course people are instructed on how to maintain their practice. This might be sometimes not possible depending on the stage of life one is at, for example, for a married couple with children it could potentially be difficult to up-keep an hour meditation routine both in the morning and in the afternoon, but for those who can it certainly leaves them with the tools and the preparation to continue the practice.
I have noticed that since I started taking their courses my own meditation practice has become steadier and that slowly I am building it up.
15- There are centers everywhere
In spite of being run and built solely on donations their centers keep on spreading and these days they can be found everywhere. Here is the website www.dhamma.org
Looking at books on the Vipassana experience on Amazon I have noticed that some people get really strong reactions to the idea of the course or the course itself. The bigger the neurosis one has to deal with the harder a course like this might be.
Going to these is always a challenge to me, it is not “easy“, far from it.