Vipassana means to see things as they really are.
I spent ten days over Christmas and New Year on a hilltop in North Norfolk with fifty other women sitting in silence and learning the particular Vipassana meditation technique SN Goenka’s organisation teaches.
The silence was surprisingly easy. I was less good at the no eye contact; it’s hard to totally disconnect from your fellow humans when you’re sharing space.
The first three days were about settling into a new routine (up at 4:00, bland breakfast, bland lunch, hours and hours of sitting meditation, evening tea and fruit, an evening ‘discourse’ DVD of Goenka explaining the practice and philosophy) and allowing both body and mind to adjust to the task at hand.
On day four we started Vipassana proper. This meant we moved from observing our breath as it went in and out of our nostrils, or “nose-trills” as Goenke likes to call them, to observing all bodily sensations as we scanned from head to toe. At this point I cracked. The big reveal, the start of real Vipassana, was a glorified body scan introduced in a 90 minute meditation! I was furious with myself. Had I really driven all this way and committed all this time for this? I stomped back to my shared room after the session and swore loudly, thinking I was alone. A delicate cough from the corner informed me that I was not.
I stuck it out and each day an additional bit of guidance in the discourses and a deeper commitment to the practice started to pay off. Some days were better than others. I completely lost focus on day 7. With time running out on day 9 I booked to see the teacher to ask a question on the technique and that helped.
Boredom was my worst enemy. There is nothing to do but meditate. No books, nothing to write on, no talking, no exercise. The complete lack of stimulus meant I had to get on with both the meditation and the thoughts in my head or get angry and frustrated. It’s a form of benign brain washing. The discourses proved humorous, wise, helpful and wacky in equal measures. The entire course is taught by audio and video of SN Goenka. You become very familiar with every nuance of the man’s voice as he chants and speaks at you several times a day. The chanting was often very slow, tuneless and faintly comic. On the first day there were several girls shaking with suppressed laughter.
The theory goes that by observing your bodily sensations and learning to respond to them without aversion or craving, you are training your subconscious to respond a little more evenly to events, rather than reacting in habitual and often unhelpful ways. This makes sense to me. Whether those ten days have made a small difference to my responses is hard to tell. I hope so. It was hard work.
On the last afternoon of the last day we were released from Noble Silence. We eagerly compared notes and laughed about aspects of our experience. Responses varied hugely from “I wouldn’t recommend this to my worst enemy” to “I now know how to make moral decisions” and one girl described how a severe physical condition has started to get better for the first time in years. There were tears.
I think I had expected some kind of baptism of fire. What I actually found was something more subtle and just as valuable. It was a very real type of resilience and confidence that I have the tools and resources for my own salvation.