dream

Vipassana

So I'm back from Vipassana.

Vipassana, for the unaware, is an Eastern philosophy about meditation and self-awareness. I heard about the ten-day "introductory" course from a couple of different (in every sense of the word) friends, was intrigued when I learned

a) It didn't cost anything
b) It lasted ten days - ten fully catered days
c) Part of the course was the "noble silence" - during the 10 days, you don't talk to anyone. No gestures, no eye contact, nothing. No pen or paper, either - as a writer, I knew this would be the biggest challenge.
d) It's not touted as a religious thing - the website (and, I discovered first-hand, the course) makes a big deal about how "non-sectarian" it is.

At the end of last year I put together a children's pilot, Help, and nearly killed myself in the process. Before I started on creative endeavours again, I decided to have a few months off - when the earliest course I could book was for the end of January/the start of February, I decided to end my time off by doing the Vipassana course.

I've had a dozen or so directions for this coming year bouncing around in my head, and I decided to use the ten-day course (when I knew my imagination would be going bonkers) to solidify my plans, so when I stepped out on the 11th day I could commit to some goals for the coming year.

On Australia day, I caught a train and then a bus and then got picked up from the bus stop by the Vipassana people. On the bus I'd quickly found two or three others doing the same course, and got talking to one of them - she was returning for the second or third time, and it was good chatting to her about the experience.

The lady who drove us to the site practically shrieked when she saw me - "WHAT have you DONE to your HAIR??". During the drive, she asked a lot of questions, and expressed concern that they wouldn't let me in. "It's so DISTRACTING!"

I glanced over to the bus-lady, and she shook her head. The hair was never brought up again - none of the other campers had a problem with it, none of the teachers had a problem with it, random-lady-with-car was the only one who said anything.

We arrived by 3:30, filled out the forms (particularly amusing I thought was one committing to the ten days, which warned it could be "extremely dangerous" to leave early. I was discussing this with some of the others, and they all shared my skepticism. "I guess it's a trade between complete honesty and selling their product," one guy eloquently put it. "They want to scare you a little, to make sure you stay for the whole ten days, get the full experience."

We ate that night (one thing that everyone who goes on Vipassana will tell you is that the food is marvellous. They're not wrong) and then sat down for the first meditation. A tape of a slow-speaking Indian man was played - he went over the 5 rules we agreed to follow (don't steal, kill, lie, have any sexual activity, or have any intoxicants. Considering the last one, I was genuinely surprised to discover that they offered tea and coffee for the duration of the course.)

After the five rules were explained, we went to the meditation hall, and learned how to meditate.

I went into the course blind - except for bits and pieces that my friends had told me, and the little information on the website, I had no idea what to expect. I've never meditated in my life - not due to a deliberate aversion, it had just never really come up. I was talking to a Buddhist friend about the course, and he said that maybe I should start with, you know, 15 minutes of meditation before jumping in to a 10-day course.

So when I speak about meditation, I only know the Vipassana method. It would be annoying to type out "meditation as taught during the first few days of the 10-day Vipassana course", so whenever I say "meditation", that's how you should read it.

Meditation (see previous paragraph) consists of sitting into a darkened, breeze-less room with your eyes shut, silence all around, focussing entirely on your breathing. Not forcing it, just observing your natural respiration, not allowing your mind to wander or drift, or think about anything else.

It's incredibly tricky, at first. I'd have breathed in and out no more than twice, when my mind was wandering, skipping around from topic to topic, reflecting, thinking, concentrating on everything except for breathing, and not noticing that I was distracted for 5-10 minutes at a time.

The next day was more of the same - wake up at 4am, meditate for 2 hours, breakfast (again - delicious), rest for an hour, meditate for 3 more, lunch (less delicious, but still nice), rest for an hour, meditate for 3 hours, dinner (two pieces of fruit and as much tea as you can drink), meditate for 2 hours, watch an instructional video (on how to meditate) and then meditate for another hour before bed-time.

The rest part was the bit that confused me the most. There really wasn't anything else to do other than sit and think, and so I'd spend my rest-time either sitting and thinking (which I was essentially doing during meditation time) or napping.

The second day I ran into two problems - the first is that I'm not a "sitting on the floor" kind of guy. All through primary school, I had a note that said I could sit up on a chair instead of on the floor, and so my back never really grew the muscles. The only way I could get comfortable was to sit in a sort of hunched position, or (when meditation in the hall was optional) by sitting on my bed with my back against a pillow.

The other problem is that meditation, it turns out, is the exact technique that I use to get to sleep at night. So I was spending many and many hours a day sitting in a comfortable room, breathing in the same way that I use to get to sleep. Add to this the fact that my superpower is the ability to sleep anywhere, through anything, and you've got trouble.

Both the first and second days, I probably spent as much time sleeping as I did meditating.

As a result, the third night, I had a lot of trouble sleeping. I woke up around 11pm, and couldn't get back to sleep until 2 or maybe 3am.

I should point out that at this point, I was having a ball. I had pretty much unlimited sleeping and thinking time (two of my favourite activities in the world) and the "Noble Silence" thing wasn't bothering me at all - being less than a metre away from someone at all times seemed to fulfil my extrovert needs, even if I couldn't speak to them. And I love a challenge, so discovering that I was incapable of focussing my mind for more than 10 seconds at a time meant that I was actually leaping out of bed in the morning looking forward to meditation-time.

By the afternoon of the second day, I was well-rested, and completely on top of the whole "meditation" thing. I was able to focus my mind on breathing for 15, 20 minutes at a time. The one time I timed it I got to 15 minutes without a problem, and was only interrupted by a sneeze - which I then immediately recovered from, and meditated for another ten minutes or so before distraction.

The videos each night were, as someone had told me they would be, interesting and entertaining. S. N. Goenka, the founder of modern vipassana, is a great speaker. I've studied my fair share of public speaking in my time, and religion (and the people touting it) is one of my obsessions, so I noticed a few of the tricks he was using, but he was still a thoroughly engaging man to listen to.

I particularly enjoyed the video on the second night - just as I was starting to get bored with meditation (having picked it up pretty quickly) he added a second challenge, focussing not on the breath, but the touch of the breath on the upper lip, and then beyond that - focussing on the tiny sensations in that area unrelated to breath. Any tinglings, throbbings, pulsings, etc.

Now, if your counting skills aren't up to scratch, let me tell you now - I didn't make it through the full ten days. It came as a huge surprise to me when I realised I couldn't complete the course. I was actually considering staying for the extra week, just because I knew people would pin it on the Noble Silence, or the lack of internet.

But at the end of February last year, I vowed that I would never again stick anything out just for the sake of testing my endurance - I lived on the streets for a month, I think I've well and truly proven myself on that front.

The reason for me leaving came during the Day 3 video. All throughout the videos, Goenka kept referring to Vipassana as non-sectarian, which I was all in favour of, and "highly scientific". The first I could get behind (although he talked about Buddha a bit too much for something to be truly non-sectarian in my mind) but the second I was starting to have my doubts about.

Each video slowly drifted from topic to topic. Goenka has a deep, sonorous voice which is quite pleasant to listen to, and you could safely get lost in your own thoughts for a few minutes without any risk of losing track of what he was talking about. The first night's video was particularly remarkable, as he listed a number of course experiences that I suspect everyone in the hall had thought was unique to them.

So when I heard him making some bizarre claims, I thought I must have tuned out, and missed the context. I started listening intently.

Quarks, if you don't know, are basically what protons and neutrons are made of. Here is a brief song that in no way helps explain them, but is quite catchy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PJjpwC1aaU#t=2m

There are (as the song covers) 6 types of quarks: up, down, strange, charm, top and bottom. These quarks make up everything (again, as adequately explained by the song) we know exists. For more information, visit your local wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarks

You'll notice that the 6 different types of quarks, when counted, add up to 6. That is, there are 6 types of quark, a number which is exactly equal to 6, and definitely not equal to, say, 8.

That's not what Goenka explained. Admittedly, he used very vague terms (he never used the term "quark") but he definitely said that Western science discovered what the teachings of Buddha had said for many hundreds of years - that matter was made up of 8 different types of energy (four of them being "earth, wind, fire and water") and that it had taken Western science many generations and all kinds of complicated machinery to catch up with what Eastern philosophy already knew.

Now, a few minutes research leads me to this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eightfold_Way_(physics) - named by the man who discovered Quarks after a Buddhist teaching, this is clearly what Goenka was referring to. Except while on the course, with no access to science books or the internet, I had no way of doing those few minutes research. And, importantly, neither did anyone else on the course.

One of my absolute pet peeves is pseudoscience. You'll probably have noticed that I link to a different Christian or Mormon "scientific proof of God" page every few weeks - I don't have these stored up, a big database of them that I pull out every week or two. It's something that's so regularly on my mind that I'm constantly finding and sharing new links. It really, really annoys me when people take science and twist it to
a) be misleading
b) serve a non-scientific agenda.

If Goenka wanted to say "the man who discovered quarks named it after a Buddhist teaching", that would have been fine. I'd question the relevance of it, especially in an environment where no one can independently back it up, but fine, go for it. But to claim that Buddha was aware of scientific principles many millennia before the rest of the world, without any kind of technology or...you know, process, that gets my goat.

He then (as if I wasn't already fuming) followed this up with a revelation. Eastern philosophy was laughing at the idea that this silly Westerner gets a Nobel Prize for "proving" something that they've known for generations, but few years later, they found he can't cope! He's descended into misery, and it's only through applying Vipassana to his new-found scientific knowledge that he can find inner peace.

Now, that may be true. The only piece of information claiming a link that I can find is from a piece published by the Dhamma Times, so you know, take that as you will. But I was really insulted by the insinuation that the only way scientists can deal with the overwhelming complexity of our universe is by turning to spirituality. It all seemed so...patronising. "Science? Ah yes, they've finally caught up...and now they have to get us to rescue them from misery when they do."

He went on.

As well as the fact that our basic matter is made up of 8 fundamental particles (false), as predicted by Buddha (also false), including "earth, fire, wind and water" (unbelievably false), we learned that matter is constantly blinking in and out of existence, up to a trillion times a second. I'm going to be honest - I know nothing about it. Again, let's take this to be true.

The whole point of the meditation so far, the entire point of vipassana, was to reach a point of such understanding of your body that you could feel yourself blinking in and out of existence, that you could feel your body being reconstructed trillions of time per second. And through that awareness of your own transient nature, that's how you manage to lose all of your fears and worries, your cravings and your aversions, and truly become one with yourself.

Had they framed this in philosophical terms, I think I would have been okay with it. Had they said "you will feel like..." and then described what I wrote above, that's something I could reasonably have been interested in working towards. But he followed this up with a triumphant "and THAT is why Vipassana is the most scientific of all the everything ever." (not an exact quote) Because it causes us to have the ability to feel our own bodies blinking in and out of existence. In ten days time, they're going to teach us to do something that we can't reliably measure using the most advanced scientific instruments.

One of the 5 rules that you have to keep is honesty, not speaking a lie. It seemed a bit weird, considering that we're not speaking at all, but fine, that's one of the rules.

Having learned what I'd learned, I felt that just by being there I was being dishonest. I had no confidence in the end goal that we were working towards, I had lost all my like in and trust of Goenka. Pseudoscience is, if I had to describe myself in such terms, one of the things in the world that I am most opposed to, and I couldn't stand to continue sitting in a room as it was being fed to 49 people around me. I feel dirty just thinking about it.

So after the meeting, I spoke to the manager. I told him I wanted to leave - he was extremely polite, kind even (it's surely not something new) and arranged a meeting with the "teacher". I expressed my opinion to her, and she was anything but polite.

"You want to leave because of science? But leaving is the least scientific thing you can do! If you truly want to explore this scientifically, stay for the rest of the process, see what we're talking about before you dismiss it."

I was being as polite and respectful as I could, and I really didn't want to get into an argument with her, so I explained that I felt dishonest, and that I didn't and couldn't believe in the process. "But you haven't seen it in full yet! We're just getting started!"

I didn't want to discuss it any further (in that setting, anyway - I'd be happy to debate when she's not sitting above me, surrounded by her followers (the old-timers; all the newbies had left) and wearing robes. I'd be happy to debate when I have some confirmed details behind me, not just a feeling that something is wrong and no way of fact-checking.) So I told her I wasn't going to change my mind, and she said I should leave.

Amusingly, I had to sign another form, stating that I was leaving "against their advice." I somehow fail to see how learning to focus on my breath for 3 days is going to cause damage by leaving too early.

That night I didn't get a lot of sleep - my head was buzzing, and I'd asked for a pen and a piece of paper to make some notes. Four hours later, I was still writing, and it was around 2 or 3am that I finally drifted off.

They woke me at 6 (I had been moved to a special room off the camp-site. Once you're not involved, I think they're worried about your negative energy affecting the others) and they brought my food to me. (despite everyone at that point being in the meditation hall, up the opposite end to the kitchen) They dropped me off at the bus stop, and then let me know that the first bus was at 9:30am.

Great. Thanks for that, guys.

Let this be known now - I may disagree with you on religion, on politics, on the matter of basic human rights. But I will always try as hard as I can to be decent. And, if it's in my power to do otherwise, I will not drop you off at a bus stop (I had to negotiate for even that - they were going to ask me to walk until they saw my bags) and then tell you that the first bus is 3 and a half hours away. I think that's...well, it's not something that gives me faith in your positive nature, that's for sure.

I ended up hitchhiking a ride to the station (which was both something I'd never done before and completely uneventful), and I've been home since this morning, trying to work out what to do with this bonus week of my life. I was going to stay off Engraved Paint, until I noticed that it hadn't been updated since Friday, so I've been back on there once more.

My sister is doing my videos for the rest of the week, and I've got my next few shifts off, so I'm not really sure what I'm going to do with myself for a week. If it didn't cost money, I'd fly up to Brisbane and visit Gavin or something.

My poor housemate was excited by the prospect of having the house to himself for a week. When I arrived home, he said that the thing that surprised him most was that I was surprised. "They're a cult. What did you expect? I'm only disappointed for you."

I honestly went in with the highest expectations, willing to put up with all the various hardships, willing to try something new. I just got off the phone with my mate who's done it. "So you couldn't handle it?" he asked, and when I tried to explain that no, that wasn't it at all, he said "There's not really any other explanation I think I'm going to accept."

Provide me a week of meditation, a week of no contact with other humans, a week of excellent food in the middle of nowhere. It's a challenge I'm definitely up to - it's quite similar to my month on the streets, except with better and more reliable food. But I'm not prepared to sit there and watch people spout pseudo-science. It's not who I am. It's not the challenge that I signed on for.

I definitely got a lot out of it. I'm charged and full of direction for the year ahead, for one. I know a lot more about Buddhism (not just what we did on the course; I've spent most of the day reading about it.) I discovered the perfect breakfast, I mentally did some work on a screenplay that's been giving me trouble. I've learned how to meditate, and that I quite enjoy it. I've learned that I've grown out of endurance challenges for endurance's sake. I learned how to do a deep-voiced Indian accent.

And I feel that I've come out of it with a better sense of my own integrity and character, and a deeper understanding of what's important to me, and what I refuse to put up with. And that's something I think I can be proud of.

(repost from Facebook. It's weird that Facebook is the first place I go to for blogging these days.)
Strange coincidence - my best friend just came back from his second Vipassana sit. He enjoys it, and uses the time to sort things out.

I went to a course in what was called "Raja Yoga" (quotes because Raja Yoga is described in many Hindu texts, but this was something different). They taught you to meditate with your eyes open. It was interesting to do, and even enjoyable. They started and ended each class with silent meditation.

The problem? In between the silent meditations were meditations with a cassette tape of someone telling you about how to meditate as well as live lectures. After the introductory sessions, the cassettes became more programming-oriented and less about meditation. It was revealed that Shiva was the only God, and he sits in the middle of this huge section of space that all souls are drawn to. As they spent more time telling me what to believe, I soured on the experience and told them I no longer wished to attend.

Nobody tells me what to believe in. I agree completely; you have to be true to yourself.
It's interesting that Buddhism teaches the eight-fold path and the eightfold way is a scientific term.

I liked this post, it was a good story.

This made me think of the meetings I've been to for Network 21 (Amway). The first 1 or 2 I went because my mother had signed up. Then, a few years later, just after highschool ended, a friend ask me if I wanted to accompany her to a "financial seminar". So I went along, thinking it would be about how to achieve your financial goals, and the economics behind success. It turned out to be a bloody Network 21 meeting! They're another cult. It's like they preach psuedo-business. It angered me that I'd let myself get pulled into such an environment, again, and that I'd been tricked by my friend (I wonder if she had been told not to mention details when inviting friends). After the meeting, we were speaking to a few people my friend had met. I'd voiced my skepticism, and got mocked for it. I was asked what I was studying at uni, and that was insulted also.

I know exactly what you're talking about when people, once they realise you're skeptical or have doubts or are just too smart to believe their bullshit, start to insult you and be rude to you, trying to make you feel bad, like it's your fault, like it's unfathomable why people can't see their way. And it's true, like your mate, there are some people who can't understand why other people won't be involved in such things.

Just thinking about that night at the Network 21 meeting gets me riled up.
Reading your story also aggravated me a little, that these people can't see what they're doing. It's so sad. If they kept it simple and weren't trying to make money, they might actually be able to teach people how to achieve enlightenment. But I wonder if enlightenment is even what they're trying to pursue themselves.

If someone really wanted to spend time meditating, they could do it at home (albeit with more distractions and less-good food than at a location in the middle of nowhere).

I've studied Buddhism a little bit, and in its un-extremist form, it wouldn't try to patronise science or scientists, and it wouldn't try to convert people, especially not by being dicks to them.
Oh my god, I had EXACTLY the same experience with a "friend" who invited me to a "business seminar" that turned out to be freaking Century 21.

Peter - I never did write the second half of my Vipassana experience down. Like you, I was bothered by the religion that started slipping into the "non-secretarian" videos, which is a shame, because Goenka was marvellously entertaining to watch. I stayed the full ten days anyway, because I'd said I would, and I wanted to get the full experience before I made judgement. The funny thing was, after about the fourth day, the meditation DID start to do something to me. Some crazy internal stuff happened to me on that camp; it absolutely shook me to the core. But I came away knowing that Vipassana as a lifestyle isn't for me, nevertheless. At the same time, I'm really glad I had the experience and stayed the ten days. For about a fortnight afterwards I felt the most encompassing sense of peace with myself and the world. For that alone, I wouldn't mind going again - but I wish they could tone down the religion and just focus on the benefits of mindfulness instead.
PS
I can't believe you actually had a note for school saying you could sit on a chair hahaaha! Reminds me of the "NO NAP!" label my mother wrote on my kindergarten back pack because if I napped I wouldn't sleep in the night.

I also hate sitting on the floor, it pains my legs. Wish I had a note in school.
I went to a Network 21 meeting once. Someone wanted my friend to sign up; my friend was pretty interested in it but wasn't sure. She wanted me to come along to just check it out & possibly sign up with her.

I had a fantastic evening documenting on a notepad every single marketing tactic, pressure inducement, logical fallacy & outright lie I saw. At one point my friend nearly lost it when I sketched a copy of their current slide & added a few lines to highlight the pyramid shape. I don't think you're meant to have fun at those but I had a blast. :D Needless to say, my friend was very thankful I was there to point out how dodgy it was.

(My favourite one was the dozens of people who claimed to be earning over $500k a year, bragging to me about how the program made them rich & what an extravagant life they live. While they're holding a bad knockoff handbag, wearing fake jewellery & wearing a cheap, untailored suit)
I went to one of those once. Anything that focusses on how rich you can get by signing up other people is scary.
This entry was very, erm, enlightening. And fascinating.

And I'm with you: give me all of that with no programming, and I'd be happy. But the "science" would shit me as well, especially if there's no way to confirm it.

Kudos to you for trying something different, though, and knowing when to get out, and still learning from the experience.
Sitting down for long periods is really hard. That's why they invented yoga, so they could sit down for a long time and focus on prayer instead of the pain in their legs.

Yoga, too, has its share of cult-like objects, and given that my girlfriend jumps on every new kind of yoga that comes out I get exposed to a fair few of them. They often have useful things to learn, too (which is why my girlfriend leaps at the chance, she's not stupid, just eager), which makes it all the more annoying, since I have to actually pay attention to the morass of "everyone else is doing it wrong and has been doing it wrong for centuries, but our guru (a 30-year-old guy from America (not that there's anything wrong with Americans, lovely people, knew an American once)) knows the secrets of the universe" in order to find out the useful bits. At least you had meditation figured out before you hit that difficulty!
This was an interesting post. I've considered doing a vipassana myself, but have never had the time to commit to such an enterprise... and like you've found, I have an aversion to cultish behaviour.

I'd just like to say, as a Buddhist myself (and a scientist, ex-science educator and current medical student) that the behaviour you experienced is not true to what I would consider the essence of Buddhism itself. The thing that drew me to Buddhism over a decade ago was a very simple tenet: ehipassiko. The Buddha himself said to question everything, even what he himself said, and to discard anything that did not hold with your own perceptions of the world. It's this little Pali word, ehipassiko, that allows me to not be conflicted in my beliefs.

I hope your view of meditation and Buddhism isn't tainted by this experience.
I'll be honest. My first thought: "Wait, you shouldn't be online & posting yet. Something's wrong, were you kicked out? No it doesn't seem like you to be forcibly removed. Neither does it seem like you to quit something early without a reason. Was there an accident?"

The pseudoscience would have annoyed me as well, especially when it was billed as being so much otherwise. I always get nervous when people claim something as a fact without any verifiable proof. Good to hear you stuck to your guns though & got out of there.

Also, welcome to a February of no zany ideas! :D
My congratulations and condlences. Glad you got what you could from it.
I'm glad that you have the strength of mind and self to not get caught.

I know that I should get together with others and strengthen my own spirituality, but I hate having to filter everything through my bullshite meter.