“The basis of any healthy, harmonious society is always the healthy and harmonious individuals who populate it. Only if each individual has a pure, peaceful mind can we expect peace in society.” S.N. Goenka
Vipassana 10 Day Meditation Course for Executives
Dhamma Padhāna, Herefordshire, UK
The very first time I had heard of Vipassana was from an Singaporean-born guy whom I met at Plum Village. He is someone whose life history I really want to document, for my epic Singaporean diaspora novel (to be released never, ha). Booted out of The Chinese High School in the 1970s because his Mandarin didn’t make the cut, he flew to London, decided the whole hippy thing was cool, became one, did the whole squatting thing at Piccadilly Circus, did a whole bunch of epic stuff which I don’t know about / have forgotten, and settled down in the French countryside. He sells natural swimming pools. Yes, basically a pond in your house which you can swim in. No, I have not tried one before. Dude, if you’re reading this, I’m still waiting for the invite.
Anyway, he was telling me about this meditation technique where they basically confine you for 10 days, you can’t communicate to any other students, not even make eye contact, and where you have to meditate for hours at a time without moving a single muscle. There and then, I knew I had to do it. He also mentioned a particular experience which he had, in his moments of wracking pain from keeping still, where he experienced an extremely pleasurable waves of sensations throughout the body. I have since learned that there is actually a name for this sense of dissolution.
So what is Vipassana? The official website describes it well here. The executive course is only slightly different from the normal 10 day courses in that they play some recordings of Q&A sessions with S.N. Goenka (the modern-day leading teacher of the Vipassana technique, and really, the guy behind the entire set-up), and that we had single rooms, which is a luxury that the normal courses don’t have. Dhamma Padhāna is a beautiful course center, everything is new and clean, and clearly built with ecological principles in mind. Truly a world-class facility.
It was a pleasant surprise as I had no idea what to expect, because with these type of things, there can be very rudimentary living conditions. I was even thinking of bringing my own toilet paper! Vipassana courses are run completely free, even for accommodation and meals, funded by donations by students who have completed a 10 day course. This ensures that the technique is free from commercialism and that meditators are not ‘customers’, a mindset which can be a big impediment to learning the technique. I’m especially prone to this, if I were being charged for the course I would be constantly thinking if I was being overcharged or not, is this some kind of cult that’s trying to fleece money from me, etc. Goenka, you are a brilliant man. Old students who have completed the course come back to volunteer as servers, who support the meditators with meals, gong ringing, and lots of other admin stuff. Meditators being their own bedsheets / duvet covers, and clean up their own rooms.
So, I was glad when Day 0 finally came as I had been looking forward to getting away from the ‘real world’ for quite some time, given that there were big changes in my life and I needed to ‘digest’ all that had happened. Getting to the center was easier than I expected, I took a direct train from London to Hereford, and shared a taxi to the center from the Hereford bus station with some other meditators. They also have a rideshare board, but I didn’t manage to find a ride from London to the center. Check-in was straightforward, there are some declarations to make, eg. medical / mental / special needs, etc. Also, you are formally introduced to ‘the rules’, as my friend had told me about before – absolutely no communication (which is called Noble Silence), no eye contact, no gestures, no physical contact (even with the cats!), no books, no phones, no movement outside course boundaries. Men and women are totally segregated for the 10 days, we have our own areas for sleeping and eating, however group meditation is done in the hall with men in one half and women in the other. Also, we were reminded once again of the commitment we had to give to the technique for 10 days. In one of his discourses, Goenka likens the 10 days to a deep mental surgery, where we are trying to remove the impurities in our minds that cause our suffering. He says leaving an operation mid-way is probably not a good idea. I’ve got a mixed opinion on this, because I think that if you truly know what you are doing, you are mentally and spiritually stable, and you know that Vipassana is not for you, then I don’t think leaving is an issue. However, I think for the majority of spiritual aspirants, ‘giving up’ only reinforces the ego‘s (ACIM’s ego, not Freud’s Ego) strength and symbolises a lack of discipline and willpower. Personally, I never thought that I would have problems with staying the entire 10 days, as I was a) already job-free and didn’t have a ‘time scarcity’ mentality, and b) I don’t have an issue with lack of discipline. What I did have some difficulty with was the fact that we had to give up all other spiritual practices / techniques during the 10 days, as they could ‘interfere’ with Vipassana. I won’t go into too much detail about my background now (I will at some other point), but I practice a combination of mindfulness training (à la Eckhart Tolle / Thich Nhat Han) and lessons from ‘A Course in Miracles’. There was some initial resistance about this, as I didn’t see how either could be bad in any way. I gave this problem to the Holy Spirit / my Higher Self (HS) and I seemed to get the message that it was fine to go with Vipassana for 10 days. I later found out that I didn’t really have to ignore or put the HS on ‘silent’ mode, because I later came to see that the Dhamma IS the HS! Now I am sure some people will disagree with me on this, but in my mind there is no doubt. Wikipedia defines Dhamma as ‘the teachings of the Buddha which lead to enlightenment’ or ‘The Universal law of nature’. I would further go to say that the Dhamma is a natural force or presence which leads us to the Ultimate Truth. The Foundation (the ‘governing body’ of ACIM, if you will) defines the Holy Spirit in this way:
‘the Third Person of the Trinity Who is metaphorically described in the Course as God’s Answer to the separation; the Communication Link between God and His separated Sons, bridging the gap between the Mind of Christ and our split mind; the memory of God and His Son we took with us into our dream; the One Who sees our illusions (perception), leading us through them to the truth (knowledge); the Voice for God Who speaks for Him and for our real Self, reminding us of the Identity we forgot; also referred to as Bridge, Comforter, Guide, Mediator, Teacher, and Translator.’
As A Course in Miracles says: “words are but symbols of symbols. They are thus twice removed from reality” (M-21.1:9-10). It’s all semantics, call it whatever you want – the Holy Spirit, the Higher Self, the Dhamma, your intuition, the God-Force, the Magic Elevator (ok I made that up), it doesn’t change what it actually is! You can call an apple an apple, or une pomme, or 一个苹果, it doesn’t change a thing about the apple itself! And guess what, neither does the apple really care what you call it.
The course was about 25 meditators in total, and we had some time to chat before Noble Silence commenced at about 8pm on Day 0. To give you a flavor, amongst us we had: a lawyer, an art-dealer, a life coach, an engineer, a medical researcher, consultants and managers.
I could immediately tell that some of these people were in pretty senior positions, you always know by the way they speak and carry themselves. I was pleasantly surprised to see Paul (the life coach), who is a friend I met at Plum Village in 2008, and had to put our catching-up in the storeroom for 10 days, given that we met 5 mins before Noble Silence started. Paul does a variety of things, including executive / leadership coaching and business management consultancy, and I shamelessly plug his services here.
The timetable is the same every day, as below:
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room–Lights out
Personally, I found that waking up at 4am was counter-productive to my practice, as I would struggle through the first 2 hour slot and try to catch up on sleep after a quick breakfast. I would still be sleepy for the 8am group meditation. I decided that I would skip the first 2 hour personal meditation and wake at 6:30am instead, which worked much better for me when I started doing that in Day 3. I was surprisingly fine with the fact that there was no dinner either – in my army days I did a jungle survival course in Brunei that involved living off the land for a week, I didn’t really bother making good traps or eating weird plants so I didn’t really eat anything for a week. I think I lost about 5kg then. Ladies, if you want quick results, you know what to do. I’m kidding, please don’t send hate mail.
The actual Vipassana technique was not actually taught until Day 4. Day 1-3 was spent ‘laying the foundation’ for Vipassana via another another technique called Anapana, which is basically focusing on your breath and sensations above the lip / nasal area. I’d done similar breathing attention practice with the mindfulness training, so it came fairly naturally to me. One big difference between ‘mindful’ breathing is that it tends to be controlled and there is awareness. Anapana is awareness of the natural, uncontrolled breath. One only controls breathing in Anapana to aid in awareness, ie. if you temporarily lose that awareness and you find it difficult to regain it. Goenka calls this a ‘hard breath’. 99.99% of all breaths we take in life are with no awareness and no control. OK, now I really want to draw a 2×2 matrix diagram, but I don’t know how to in WordPress. Someone enlighten me please? He also mentions that the breath is unique in terms of bodily function, because it is first of all controlled by the unconscious (ie. the ‘base’ level of breathing which is regulated by the brainstem), but it obviously can also be conciously controlled. Anapana further develops into being aware of sensations within the nostril, feeling the difference in warmth with in / out breaths, and sensations around the nasal area.
I won’t go too much in detail about Vipassana because I think in such things, too much information can be a bad thing – if you want to learn it, the best thing obviously is to go for a 10 day course! I will try to explain my view on it though. Vipassana is basically about both being aware and equanimous with bodily sensations . The word ‘equanimous’ is drilled over and over again during the course. So what exactly is equanimity? Wikipedia defines it as ‘the unattached awareness of one’s experience as a result of perceiving the impermanence of momentary reality. It is a peace of mind and abiding calmness that cannot be shaken by any grade of either fortunate or unfortunate circumstance.’ I think that’s an excellent definition, and to me, it’s largely about being free of judgment and reaction. The awareness of these sensations on throughout the entire body improves as one goes along the path of Vipassana, and is a method of bringing the unconscious mind to the surface, allowing the impurities of the mind to be removed naturally. This is because the mind and the body are inextricably linked by what Goenka calls the ‘mind-matter phemonenon’. A large part of why meditation works is because like the body, the mind will heal itself automatically when given rest. It’s as simple as that.
A key part of the Vipassana meditation was the sittings of Adhiṭṭhāna, or ‘Strong Determination’. Now this, is the tough bit. You have to sit for an hour without changing your posture, scratching, fidgeting, in other words – absolutely no moving at all. I can’t help but be reminded of doing footdrill in my army days, standing like a statue on the parade square. I also think of Paul Atredies in ‘Dune’ where he’s being tested with the Gom Jabbar by the Bene Gesserit. I managed to do this on the evening session on day 4, and it was an awesome experience for me. I have done a fair bit of meditation before, but had never gone that far in terms of self-control and determination. It was also a big barrier for me which I had broken through, because I had previously thought it was impossible. It was a bit like the 4 minute mile if you will. During Strong Determination, my ego really kicked up a big fuss, screaming and shouting that I would get deep vein thrombosis, be carried out on a stretcher, etc, which is all nonsense of course. You really have to look at it as a concerned parent would do with a petulant child. You can’t give in because you know it’s in the child’s best interests.
Vipassana and ACIM have similar but not identical methods in order to reach the ‘Ultimate Reality’ or God. I am fully aware that there is a lot more to both techniques / philosophies, but I will attempt to summarize the methods nonetheless.
In truth, we are already one with Ultimate Reality / God, we just don’t realize it. Vipassana uses the body as a ‘canvas’ or a ‘classroom’ to represent the fictitious, mind-constructed reality (ie. the dream, or Maya). One removes obstacles to experiencing Ultimate Reality by means of seeing and experiencing bodily sensations with perfect equanimity. By being non-reactive and being the ‘silent witness’, one eliminates saṅkhāras, which are mental patternings which exist in our unconscious, the real roots of suffering. I would think of saṅkhāras as mental conditioning – we see this in our daily lives as the mental imprinting that causes instinctive reaction. For example, someone cuts you off in traffic and you instantly feel the anger and frustration arise. One can intellectualize why getting angry is justified, eg. he’s a horrible driver, it puts other people in danger, etc, but the fact is that a large reason of the anger arising is because of the very same reaction that we had when a similar incident happened! If we are not aware of this arising and stop the stimuli-reaction interaction, the mental conditioning / patterning only becomes stronger. On a societal level, I think this really ties in with the Problem-Reaction-Solution / The Hegelian Dialectic model that David Icke talks about. I have no comment on any of the other things he rants about, but in this instance, I think he has it spot on. We all need to take a deep breath when things happen, and really examine the root of the problem. Why did it happen? Who is behind it? Is the phenomenon ‘real’? Don’t just take someone else’s opinion, investigate. Look at it from all points of view.
ACIM, in my opinion, is a better philosophy / method for enlightenment. ACIM uses the Maya itself to undo the Maya. Whenever something transgresses against our minds, eg. your boss is being a a-hole at work, ACIM teaches us to forgive them, not in the traditional ‘I am a better person than you’ kind of forgiveness, but ‘quantum forgiveness’ (as Gary Renard puts it) in the context of your boss not being separate from you, and is yet another figure in the dream that is trying to reinforce the concept of separation, which is what the ego wants. As we practice ACIM’s brand of forgiveness with understanding of the theoretical framework of ACIM, we gradually ‘peel off layers of the onion’ until we come to realization that God / Love is all that is, ie. enlightenment. I can think of several reasons of why ACIM is better system but chiefly, it is a) more practical (because it is rooted in ‘real life’), b) less painful (no long sittings of Strong Determination *shudder*).
This being said, I love Vipassana and the 10 days had a tremendous effect on me. The sense of natural peace and happiness I experienced for the few days after the retreat was incredible. It was crystal clear to me whenever my ego popped up and I had the resources to be equanimous with it. For me, Vipassana is another condiment in my kitchen, another tool in my toolbox. As I was discussing with another meditator on Day 10, Vipassana and ACIM are both incredibly effective and powerful methods of spiritual development. It’s a bit like needing to go from London to Hereford and choosing between a BMW and a Mercedes when everybody else is walking!
In summary (I know it’s been a long post :)), I would recommend Vipassana to anybody who can make the 10 day commitment. I had a very meaningful experience and I could definitely see the benefits in my day-to-day life after. I’m really glad to have met some awesome people while doing it as well. It’s a non-sectarian meditation technique that works, it’s completely free, and you don’t need to worship anything or anybody. That being said, I advise doing some meditation first, and you should be able to sit properly for at least half an hour. I think a lot of discomfort with the sitting postures can be eliminated with proper flexibility, and knowing what kind of meditation set-up works for you, eg. kneeling, sitting, stool, cushion, etc. If you are interested in going for a 10 day course, you can find out more here.