About a month ago, at the end of August, I finished a 10-day Vipassana meditation course. This was probably one of the more extreme activities I have ever participated in, and it's well worth a blog post.
I found out about the course in a ridiculously trivial way, by following a link in a Reddit comment (I wonder if I could track down that comment...). The website referenced by the comment contained (almost) no new-agey mumbo-jumbo and looked legit in general. I also appreciated the fact that this was a relatively serious and intensive course, which should be enough to form a reasonably founded opinion on meditation in general. When learning sporadically, in small bits, it is hard to say whether the material itself is no good, or you just do not understand it yet and need to study more; I was quite skeptical towards the practice, but wanted to give it fair trial. I was quite impressed that there was a course available in Lithuania, a few hours by train from where I live. Finally, the course was free (by tradition Vipassana is taught without monetary compensation). I went ahead and signed up for a standard introductory 10-day course.
Vipassana (also called insight meditation) is a meditation technique allegedly coming back from Gautama Buddha himself (well, all the traditions like to claim that origin...). It has been experiencing a renaissance, partly due to an organization set up by a meditation teacher S. N. Goenka which has founded meditation centers all over the world.
The essence of Vipassana is a method of teaching your mind to act instead of merely reacting to outside stimuli such as pain, anger of other people or hardships. The technique provided is to monitor your sensations, watch them with equanimity and suspend any reaction, and slowly it sinks in that all things are temporary and you can choose what to react to and how. That's the basic idea; I don't want to go deep into exposition of Vipassana as there is plenty of information about that (also at the same time the information is almost useless because you have to experience it to really understand it). Instead, I will sure some of the more personal remarks and experiences.
The course took place in an cottage near Kretinga, housing around 50 people. The living conditions were absolutely great, and this would have been a true holiday if not for the regime and the rules. The day would start very early, at 4 AM (ending at around 9:30 PM), and we'd do about 12 hours of meditation in total inbetween, with occasional breaks, but the most gruesome part is that no communication at all was allowed with anyone except the manager of the camp (and the teacher during a specified time). That gets to you after a few days, but still, there are people around you, so it's bearable; on the other side, the senses (touch, smell) become very acute. The food was taken care of by volunteers (students who have finished the course), and I could say it was quite good actually. The goal, of course, was to keep the environment from interfering with meditation, and I think it was done very well.
The presentation of the actual technique also did not disappoint. Each day a new step would be introduced, with the whole day to practice before moving on. Looking back, the pacing worked well. Every day in the evening there were lectures on theory. They were somewhat informative, but also sometimes annoyingly primitive and verbose. The little mistakes, holes in logic and slight doses of mumbo-jumbo almost drove me nuts by the middle of the course, until I learned not to react to them. Despite the shortcomings of presentation, the simplicity and lucidity of the practice and lightness of theoretical baggage really appealed to me. The whole organisation in general gave the impression of complete transparency, with no strings attached, no financial interests in play and no agitation for further involvement.
While there are many meditation techniques, I am happy that I've gone with Vipassana in particular for one reason: Vipassana meditation uses no artificial tools to help you concentrate, such as mantras, visualisations, counting, etc. Such methods make concentration much easier, but they also create a dependence on the methods themselves. I appreciate the purity of Vipassana in this regard.
Not everything in the practice is roses though. First, a particular worldview supported by Vipassana is presented as "scientific" and supposedly "the right way to live", and if even if you don't agree, "the truth" of Vipassana will become obvious to you with time. This is a distinctive mark of ideologies. The thing that makes everything break is the reincarnation, which is generally assumed as true, even if it's not shoved down the student's throat. Every rationalization of a world view has a "white lie" (usually related to the concept of eternity somehow) at the core, and in this context reincarnation is it. Given what we know now about the relationship between the mind and the body, reincarnation is absolutely ridiculous and completely untenable, and that breaks all "moral" reasoning for practicing meditation as opposed to doing something else. I'm not the first to bring up this problem, there's plenty of material about it online.
The second slippery idea is that the concept of "negative happiness" is central in Vipassana, that is: happiness is defined as lack of suffering. This point is not that unreasonable actually, from personal experience I could indeed call the state of non-suffering happiness, but there is definitely something missing when compared to the state of mind when I'm truly, positively happy. Whether you consider that something important or not, it's definitely there.
Third, Vipassana suggests that it is only you who is at fault when your inner state is disturbed; the world affects you as much as you let it, and in order to find happiness you should learn to control the "interface" rather than the outside world, which will usually not behave as you want. This may be correct, but sometimes it could just be easier to fix the world rather than change yourself, and I have the suspicion that it this is much more frequently the case in the modern world compared to the pre-modern environment. (This is one of the points which break when reincarnation is rejected, as with reincarnation you have the whole eternity to fix yourself.)
While the complaints are serious, they do not mean complete rejection of Vipassana but rather integration among the various other techniques available. The actual meditation technique is still great for gaining and maintaining mental composure, reducing anxiety and improving well-being. Now, if I could only get used to meditating regularly...
If you have the chance, I highly recommend you try out an introductory 10-day course. There is little to lose and a lot to gain. And if you do go ahead, I have two hints. First, do not even think about leaving the course before it's over. Any hardships are temporary and will be overcome quickly. Second, use the time with the teacher, those interactions were very helpful to me. Also, given the "noble silence", talking to someone once in a while will not hurt.