“As soon as we pay attention to our breath, as we breathe in, these three things—body, breath, and mind—come together.”
– Thích Nhất Hạnh
Earlier this year, I completed my third Vipassanā (“insight meditation”) retreat, which was re-discovered by Siddhārtha Gautama (i.e. Buddha) over 2500 years ago.
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing this blog ever since I first experienced this form of meditation in 2016. What held me back from writing about it all this while is that practitioners are often dissuaded from sharing their personal experiences with each other, as it leads to comparisons and having pre-set expectations of the outcome and benefits of this form of meditation.
My intention behind finally writing this blog is to simply highlight some of the basic tenets of Vipassanā, with the aim of clearing popular misconceptions about this form of meditation (most people think it revolves around being silent for 10 days, but are unsure about the why behind it and what else it entails), without delving into the details of what I personally experienced.
Since I know that there are several people in my network who are curious about this meditation technique but not yet motivated enough try it out for themselves, I figured it would be useful to share why I see value in it and why others might too.
More About Vipassanā
Vipassanā in Pali means “insight” or “seeing deeply”. The practice of Vipassanā meditation revolves around training the mind to observe reality as it is and not as we wish it to be. It is a meditation technique that Siddhārtha Gautama mastered over time and found to be the most effective in eradicating all kinds of suffering in the world (he is believed to have tested several techniques before reaching this conclusion).
The introductory Vipassanā course is typically a 10-day silent meditation retreat that doesn’t allow any form of communication during the duration of the course. This means that you can’t read, write, speak or communicate in any form (including through sign language, eye contact or music) during the course. The intention behind this is to enable you to focus all attention and energy on learning the technique, given that most of us have little control over our minds and thoughts (the extent of which becomes apparent once you start practicing Vipassanā).
However, these are just the finer (and less significant) aspects of the practice.
I’ve shared practical information about the course in particular towards the end of the blog, so for now, I’m moving on to the more important aspects of Vipassanā meditation, and what the technique seeks to achieve.
Turning the Unconscious Into the Conscious
“The mind spends most of the time lost in fantasies and illusions, reliving pleasant or unpleasant experiences and anticipating the future with eagerness or fear. While lost in such cravings or aversions, we are unaware of what is happening now, what we are doing now.”
– S. N. Goenka
Raise your hand if you relate to this!
Our mind is its own master and tends to wander in a hundred different directions at any given point in time. It’s no surprise, then, that being fully conscious and focused on the present moment is harder than we imagine it to be.
For example, when was the last time you were aware of your natural breath? The sensation of air entering and exiting your nostrils? We’re so caught up with the noise in our mind (and our surroundings) that we fail to notice something as basic as the sensation of our own breath that keeps us alive! Now imagine how many other things around us we might be overlooking in the same way…
While many meditation techniques help in improving ones concentration and calming the mind, they don’t enable us to reach the depths of the unconscious mind and tackle our thoughts, emotions and mental defilements at the root.
Vipassanā, as a technique, focuses exactly on this, aimed at digging out deep-rooted “saṅkhāras” or mental dispositions that we have collected (and multiplied) over the years.
To put it more simply, the majority of our problems and insecurities as adults stem from our childhood. As time passes, we assume we have dealt with all our experiences, emotions, insecurities, and baggage. However, more often than not, we just shove them to the back of our mind until they’re temporarily forgotten and replaced with new woes. We keep collecting more and more of these negative emotions or saṅkhāras as we navigate through life — until the negative energy we’ve amassed over time starts taking a toll on our physical and mental health.
However, in order to deal with our saṅkhāras, we first need to be aware of our reality — our natural breath, our thoughts, the various sensations within our body.
Vipassanā meditation helps train our mind to become more aware of our thoughts and emotions, moving them from the unconscious to the conscious level of the mind. Once aware of their presence, we can proceed with processing them with equanimity, without any judgment, craving or aversion towards them — but observing and accepting them for what they are.
Experiencing the Interaction of Mind & Matter
“Anything that arises in the mind will manifest itself as a sensation on the body; if you observe this sensation you are observing both the mind as well as matter.”
– S.N. Goenka
Have you ever thought about how our mind and the rest of our body interact with each other on a daily basis?
Biology classes in school aside, I certainly hadn’t thought about it until I attended my first Vipassanā course. As articulated eloquently by Jay Shetty in this brilliant video, the only thing that stays with us from the moment we’re born until the moment we die is our breath — and every emotion in life is experienced with a change in our breath!
The technique of Vipassanā meditation brings us closer to our inner being by making us aware of our natural breath, and in turn, using it as a tool to witness the interaction of mind and matter. By using our breath to sharpen our concentration, we gradually become aware of the various sensations within our body that we otherwise don’t notice (think of the billions of atoms buzzing around inside our bodies, yet we don’t feel a thing!).
The sensations we feel during the course of meditation may be positive or negative, but the idea is to observe them for what they are and not how we’d like them to be.
As we become more and more aware of these sensations within our body, our mind and consciousness also get sharpened, and we’re able to experience reality and truth in the outside world more mindfully and objectively.
Changing the Habit Patterns of the Mind
“Real wisdom is recognizing and accepting that every experience is impermanent. With this insight, you will not be overwhelmed by ups and downs. And when you are able to maintain an inner balance, you can choose to act in ways that will create happiness for you and for others. Living each moment happily with an equanimous mind, you will surely progress toward the ultimate goal of liberation from all suffering.”
– S. N. Goenka
Whether you’re new to meditation or have been practicing any other form of meditation, having control over one’s mind is no easy feat (not even for monks!).
Our mind tends to form its own habit patterns, often breeding and multiplying negativity even before we realize it. Almost every kind of suffering has its roots in some kind of craving or aversion, and we become so entangled in these that it’s hard to break the cycle.
When we start becoming conscious of the various sensations within our body through the practice of Vipassanā meditation, the idea is to observe them with equanimity. Irrespective of whether they cause us pleasure or pain, we don’t react to them with any kind of craving or aversion, rather, train our minds to acknowledge the impermanent nature of all sensations, because whatever sensation we might be feeling, good or bad, will eventually pass.
Breaking the existing habit patterns of the mind enables us to view reality in the external world with equanimity as well, understanding and accepting the impermanent nature of the universe, and responding to situations objectively, rather than reacting impulsively.
The fact is that no matter how many self-help books you read, intellectual discussions you have, or know what you should be doing/ thinking/ feeling, in practice, it’s hard to shift away from how your mind is habituated to react to situations.
Changing age-old habits and behaviour requires conscious effort, particularly at the unconscious/root level of the mind, and Vipassanā helps us do this.
The idea is to train our mind to understand and accept the impermanent nature of the universe, and once we embrace it, we’re less likely to hold onto the past or crave for the future, rather live more fully in the present (the only thing we really have).
Developing Compassion Towards All Beings
The realization that pretty much every human being in the world is suffering in some way or the other is humbling, each person having accumulated saṅkhāras of their own over time and merely prisoners of their own cravings and aversions.
In Buddhism, it is also believed that there’s no permanent “self”. We are a different person every second. Further, we are one with the universe and everything (and everyone) is interrelated and interconnected. Nothing exists in isolation; there is no “us” and “them”.
A core component of the practice of Vipassanā is, thus, to develop “mettā“, that is, goodwill and compassion towards all beings, in the process, helping us purify our own minds.
It is with this intention that I decided to write this blog. My experience with Vipassanā meditation has changed my entire approach to life, and although I have a long way to go, the impact of this practice on my being so far is significant. One of the ways to express my gratitude and further embed the above ideas in my own mind was to share it with more people through this blog. Hopefully, I’ve done justice to it (to the best of my abilities).
I’ll end with a line that has stayed with me-
“Without learning the art of living, one cannot master the art of dying”.
– S.N. Goenka quoting Gautama Buddha
(Disclaimer: I’m by no means an expert on this practice or topic, so please consume the contents of this post keeping that in mind.)
I have done Vipassanā meditation courses taught by S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin at his centers in Igatpuri (Maharashtra), Jaipur (Rajasthan) and Alur (Karnataka). More information about the centers (including international ones) and course dates can be found here.
There’s a well-thought-out schedule that is to be followed by all participants of the course (including waking up at 4 AM, following the meditation schedule and rules, and the set meal routines), all of which have a certain logic behind them (and also appear harder to follow than they really are). More about the Code of Discipline during the course here.
The instructions and ‘Dhamma Talks’ at all the centers are through audio and video recordings of S.N. Goenka, and so, the quality of the course is uniform across centers (there are Teaching Assistants for clarifications and guidance if needed, although I personally found the recordings more than sufficient). The infrastructural facilities may vary based on the location.
While shorter-term courses are useful for regular practitioners, for those who wish to get back to the practice after a long gap, I would recommend doing another 10-day course in order to obtain the desired results (short term courses tend to be too short to spark long term behavioural change).
All Vipassanā centers set up by S.N. Goenka are extremely basic (but comfortable) so don’t expect a fancy ashram. The idea is to retain focus on the practice and not attract/distract participants with aesthetics or spend money on unnecessary infrastructure.
My first foray into Buddhism was actually some brilliant books I read that changed my perception about the religion (which can appear very complicated and overwhelming at the onset, depending on the traditions you’re exposed to) and also piqued my interest about its practical application in life.
I’m sharing a few recommendations below, although this list is by no means comprehensive and only gives a taste of the core principles. I’ve deliberately listed books that vary in style and content as different articulations work for different people.
Do note that reading about Buddhism and Mindfulness comes nowhere close to experiencing the theory in practice (which is the actual work, and hard) so I would highly recommend attending a 10-day introductory Vipassanā course first, before delving into literature.
- What Makes You Not A Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
- The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise by Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Old Path White Clouds by Thích Nhất Hạnh
- At Home in the World by Thích Nhất Hạnh
- The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer
If you’ve read any good books on Vipassanā, Mindfulness or Buddhism that you’d like to recommend, drop a comment below!
If you have any further questions, feel free to reach out to me either through the comments or via my social media handles 🙂