Wednesday, November 3

Living a monastic life for 10 days

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.


Sujith said...


Rebirth is a touchy subject - I happened to be reflecting on this a couple of days ago. My ramblings on this (admittedly, a tad confused) are here:

Now, before blindly rejecting anything, I always ask myself - What do I know ? Do I know the 'Cosmic Plan' ? Can Evil and God be ever reconciled somehow without descending into a maze of speculations (Adi Sankara ...) ? I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a Buddhist though I do have a certain amount of bias for the non-speculative clarity that his doctrine has. For that matter, when Nietzsche asks 'Have I have been understood ?', I nod and say, 'Yep'. And he died insane. :)

Anyway, I found it interesting to read about your experience. Funny enough, I came across this post when I was trawling through planet debian. :)


Gintautas Miliauskas said...

The problem with rebirth is that it assumes a soul, something that is has an identity, but is not physical. Identity of a mind is decided by its memories; but it is a basic fact that all memories are stored in the physical structure of neurons in the brain. Therefore, when the brain disintegrates, the mind is lost together with it.

Sujith said...

Buddhism has no concept of soul - this is the primary differentiating idea with Hinduism and Abrahamic religions. To search for a 'soul' or a 'self' - be it eternal or non-eternal, is a fundamental delusion in the Buddhist doctrine.

Science can explain the 'how', but can it explain the 'why' ? Can it explain why people make the decisions they do ? Apparently not, and this is where philisophy comes in. Schopenhauer's Will to Live, Nietzsche's Will to Power and all the other myriad systems that have been concocted have one purpose - to explain ethics/morality. And in my opinion, morality is beyond science.

As regards rebirth, am still ambivalent.
I don't subscribe to the concept yet.
It does seem like ancient dogma - but if people can suspend their reasoning capacity to believe in heaven, hell, The Apocalypse ... Well. :)

Gintautas Miliauskas said...

I know very well the claim that Buddhism supposedly has no concept of soul - but in fact it does have such a concept implicitly, because the concept of rebirth depends on it: if there is no soul, what is the entity which reincarnates?

Sujith said...

I had the same quesion and as an answer, I can only quote from the Visudimagga:

Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found.
The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there.

No first beginning of existence can be seen.
No doer can be found, nor one that reaps the fruits.
And twelve fold empty is the cycle of rebirth,
And steadily the wheel of life rolls on and on.

And please don't view my posts as rabid evangelization of Buddhism. The last thing that I would want is someone to force his view on me. :)

Ben Finney said...

Thanks very much for detailing your skeptical concerns with the ideology behind the course. It's very useful to see someone who is open to the possibility of consciousness-altering meditation, without entangling it with superstition.

I have been looking for a meditation course that could be satisfactory without swallowing the unreasonable dogma, and your description convinces me that Vipassana could be what I'm looking for.

I've found a Vipassana retreat in my state and will look into trying to arrange the time to do it.

Thank you for your encouragement!

Gintautas Miliauskas said...

Ben, good to hear! I had enough material for 10 posts like this one in my head but no time to write it all up properly, so I was not very satisfied with this post, but it looks like it has served a purpose well. It will sure be interesting to hear your take on this when you get back.

David Jones said...

I'm always wondering, how did the monks manage to live contentedly away from the civilization. I sometimes want to try it out myself even if just a week or two.

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