Silence, benevolence, intensity - my adventure into Vipassana

| 14th September 2018
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HUGH ROSE reflects on the lasting effects of his time at a Vipassana meditation retreat

I cannot forget the kernel of stillness unearthed during those 10 days, and knowing that it is possible to live with this underpinning my every waking moment has made me ambitious.

I’m not shy about my age. I am often asked, mostly in bars, and once recently when I stopped to buy petrol at a motorway services.

But faced with the question "How old are you?" I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t bring myself to break the silence which had become a companion. “Ravi. My name. Ravi. English not so good. How old?”

“24. Ah god, I’ve gone and done it. I’m 24. My voice rang out pre-pubescently in the heat haze, several tones higher than I remembered it to be, which perhaps explained the look of mild disbelief which flickered across the portly man’s face.

'Noble silence'

Moments later, however, it creased into a smile and I looked away over his shoulder, a little abashed.

Across the courtyard, other faces were split in similar imitations of joy, a mob of grins with human bodies of all shapes and sizes attached.

I did not know so much as their names, but with each felt a deeply rooted connection. My love towards them could have been upheld by a decade of intimate friendship.

We had undergone a lot together in the past nine days. A lot of nothing. At times, too much nothing. And all that nothing had produced in us a kind of alchemy, transforming a ragbag crew of cautious strangers into the most open and joyful of communities. 

Enrolling on a Vipassana meditation retreat is not unlike sentencing yourself to a short period in a low-security prison. Sexes are segregated, and communication with the outside world severed.

Leaving the premises is forbidden, and recreational activity restricted to walking round a smallish compound during defined periods. And all this in the name of blissful happiness.

A recommended 10 hours sitting meditation per day is encouraged, during which you should continually scan the entirety of your body like some overly zealous airport security official, heeding close attention to the sensations that arise.

Not dissimilar to playing ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ over and over again in slow-motion and total silence.

Indeed, the entire course is conducted in ‘Noble Silence’ up until the morning of the last full day, meaning that no communication is permitted, be it speech, gesturing or eye contact. Reading materials, writing, exercise or any form of pastime are all likewise prohibited. You are not even allowed to wash your plate after eating.

The effect of several days of this routine can’t be said to have been pleasant – far from it.

With nothing to occupy it, my mind went into a sort of frenzied overdrive, dredging up memories, congenial or otherwise, drifting off into outlandish fantasies, conjecturing wild outcomes, and generally playing every trick in the book in order to avoid being still.

Mental workout

Not that this hadn’t happened before, but perhaps because there was so little else for this hyperactivity to blend into, it was exhausting. A non-consensual mental workout on an endless treadmill of thought.

As someone conditioned from birth to equate inertia with laziness and productivity with progress, inactivity was a difficult hurdle to clear. I have been busy most of my life, and now I could not be. One day I stripped bare and moisturized my entire body twice over. Just for something to do.

I don’t remember exactly when things shifted. I just know that they did.

If in some misspent hour of youth you watched Looney Tunes, it was a bit like the scene where the coyote runs off the cliff edge and keeps going for a while despite there now being no solid ground beneath him, before falling into the abyss below (if not, insert another – probably better – analogy).

Once deprived of stimulus, the mind keeps churning on what is left in the tank for a time, and like a petrol engine, burns the last morsel of fuel fiercest of all before petering out altogether. 

Boundless love

The resultant state is curious, cumulative, and not evident from any kind of external observation. Rather than a cessation of thought, it is a detachment from it that emerges, a capacity to step out of the flow of mental traffic and watch it from a quiet pavement.

It is a relaxation of the muscles of craving and of aversion that cause us to expend so much energy in the pursuit of certain outcomes and the avoidance of others. It is a willingness to be peaceful with the current state of things, to laughingly meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.

And what arises in the absence of all else can only be described as a pervasive sense of calm, of joy, and of boundless love. 

Time to do a spot of myth busting. What I have written above sounds dangerously close to condoning apathy, as if meditation leads to blithe acceptance of all possible actions or states. Surely someone advanced in meditation could not also enjoy themselves, have preferences, or take strong action against certain outcomes?

This is a common trope levelled at practitioners, and misses a crucial but subtle distinction. It is not desire which becomes eroded through quieting the mind, but rather attachment to the upshot of that desire.

Benevolent engagement

A seasoned meditator might still do their utmost to influence an outcome, but would not undergo the same mental anguish if that outcome did not occur as someone in thrall to their mind. Instead they would quickly regain calm equilibrium, reassess, and adjust their efforts accordingly.

Similarly, meditation is not an isolating or self-centred practice. Conversely it increases our ability to engage benevolently in the world without the mind interfering with bias or judgement. Indeed, many Vipassana heavyweights could fill annals with altruistic acts committed during their lifetime. 

This all takes considerable practice, and certainly does not always resemble my own mental state. But I know it to be possible, having touched it with the lightest of strokes. I understand now that Vipassana – the original strain of Buddhism which Siddhartha Gotama developed in northern India – has nothing to do with religion, a label that has been clumsily slapped on it for centuries.

It is a mental technique, a carefully applied psychological science aimed at releasing us from mental binds, and thus, from suffering. There is no faith required, which is why many Buddhists also devoutly follow a religion without there being a clash of any sort.

It is a purely empirical exercise, much like going to the gym to get fit, to practise a way of being – hence meditation is commonly referred to as a practice – where each act becomes one of love and intimacy with all things. 

Enlightened thought

If that sounds far-fetched, that’s because it is. This pre-mental state, often termed “enlightenment”, is fiendishly tricky to achieve because the mind is like a despotic government: supremely powerful, and not at all willing to be overthrown.

The mind creates the illusion of thought as reality to perpetuate its own dominance. The trick of thought is to externalise meaning, to convince us that it’s what’s out there that defines us.

However, there is an important difference between fiendishly tricky and laughably idealistic. Meditation is a tool to chip away at this apparent reality.  Just as we can accept that our clothes do not sum us up (though the mind is inclined to receive any comment about an item we are wearing as if it does, hence we feel good when someone compliments our trousers), we can further grasp that the same is true for our physical body, our opinions, feelings and thoughts.

With exploration, it becomes more and more difficult to isolate any defined sense of self. Identity becomes a constantly changing and thus meaningless concept, and the only reality we are left with is the absolute unshakeable truth of what we find under our noses at a given moment.

Both Eastern and Western schools of thought have arrived at this conclusion using the diametrically opposed methodologies of science and spiritually. The Buddhist term “annica”, meaning constant change (and thus no concrete reality) strikes a remarkable chord with Einstein’s proclamation that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

'Healthy discernment'

As a stalwart empiricist and pragmatist, the central appeal of the technique is its practicality.

I tend to approach spiritual traditions with what I hope is a healthy discernment, wary of the ease with which they can lose sight of meaning in deference to ritual, ceremony, and jargon.

I have witnessed spirituality being used as a vehicle to provide an identity, sometimes to vulnerable or isolated people. For me, as soon as style becomes more important than substance, alarm bells start ringing.

It's a huge relief then, that meditation requires next to no particulars: you don’t have to wear distinctive clothing, enter a special building or practise in a certain position. The centre was completely devoid of symbolism or iconography – no shaved heads or smiling statues of chubby Buddhas adorning the gardens. The whole place was decidedly neutral in atmosphere.

For it is not the tone that matters. It is the work – the practice. Trying to achieve an enlightened state without this is like trying to learn to swim by reading lots of books about swimming.

'Greedy for peace'

Coming back into the world, the pull of busyness has been as strong as ever.

The mind is eager to regain its sovereign rule and re-establish the belief that reality is external, that we can draw and measure meaning from what we see outside. But having stripped back to the bare bones of daily activity, I have stretched my capacity for nothingness and set a benchmark which, even as the cogs of life start whirring again, I do not forget.

I cannot forget the kernel of stillness unearthed during those 10 days, and knowing that it is possible to live with this underpinning my every waking moment has made me ambitious. I am greedy for peace. 

As such, I continue to meditate. Beforehand, it never seems as if I have time, and afterwards, as if I have all the time in the world. It is a curious thing, but having sat for an hour the day feels more spacious, despite the “lost” time. I get more done and enjoy doing it more. This is the paradox neatly phrased in the adage “If you don’t have time to sit for 10 minutes, sit for an hour”. 

'Deliberate intensity'

In the original Pali, Vipassana means ‘to observe things as they really are’. This is a far cry to achieve in 10 short days, but that is not the course’s intention.

Instead, it is to ingrain the technique and habit strongly enough that it might withstand modern life’s circus of noise and colour vying for our attention.

There are no short cuts to happiness, no quick fixes or magic beans – this is made abundantly clear from the get-go. But the course’s deliberate intensity is enough to give you the faintest glimpse of the possible rewards should you continue to practise.

And thanks to the efforts of S. N. Goenka, who set up over 100 course centres across the world, you don’t have to put yourself behind bars in order to try. Crime burdens the taxpayer and would probably result in a fair whack of bad karma.

Vipassana does neither, is free to attend, and might just do what it says on the tin. In any case, I would recommend prising the thing open to have a look. There’s nothing magic about the beans inside, but they may still change your life.

This Author

Hugh Rose is a writer, facilitator, performance poet and storyteller based in Bristol. He runs workshops on the transformative power of stories both personally and politically, writes for The Hedge, and performs regularly at festivals and other spoken word events.

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