Developing a proper meditation practice to a high degree is believed by Buddhists to allow a total escape from the cycles of craving and aversion that most of us spend a lot of time in. This is the release known variously as Nibanna, Nirvana, the Unconditioned, etc. Whether or not you believe such a pinnacle exists or is reachable (I’m skeptical), this shouldn’t deter you from harnessing the benefits of meditation practice, which have a lot of scientific research backing their positive effects.
The course taught Vipassana (Insight/Wisdom) meditation, as passed down in the Burmese tradition. The 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, within S.N. Goenka’s school, is one of the most accessible intensive introductions to a serious meditation practice that is available in many locations all over the world. It’s primarily taught by video tape discourses of the late S.N. Goenka. I found his dhamma instruction to be spectacular. Goenka is wise and is a skilled speaker and coach. Subjectively to me, he seems to have made very high achievements in hacking his mind with meditation.
The meditation technique taught is a body-scanning technique that simultaneously stresses developing sensitivity to bodily sensations and developing equanimity towards these sensations. As sensations come up, either pleasant or unpleasant, you are supposed to diligently notice them, and remain equanimous. I.e. don’t either like or dislike them, even if they are painful or pleasurable, just notice them, as if you were a third party. This promotes disidentification of yourself with your body/sensations, and helps to dissolve the ego and starts eradicating the seeds of craving and aversion.
Interested in meditation? Should you give a 10-Day Vipassana retreat a try? Well. . .I believe that nearly everyone in the world can benefit enormously from a meditation practice. If you are able to recognize that happiness and suffering are not merely deterministic functions of our environment, but more fundamentally of our reactions (especially mental attitudes towards) the stimuli which we encounter, then it should be relatively uncontroversial that some mental training could result in learning how to adopt more favorable mental states that are more robust to the ups and downs of life.
That being said, training in this technique for 10 days is tiring and monotonous, hence requires intrinsic motivation (a lot of patience and persistence) to make progress in. I don’t think it would be a good idea for most people interested in meditation to jump into a 10-day intensive course like this, unless perhaps you are already a very patient introvert. Even in that case, you would probably be better served developing a meditation practice first and getting used to sitting and keeping your mind on task for at least 30 minutes at a time. At that point, you will at least perceive the benefits of improved concentration in your life, and possibly additional benefits of the practice. This will give you some motivation for completing something like a 10-day retreat.
There are a few curiosities about this supposedly “non-sectarian” approach to meditation instruction. The first thing to note is that it’s firmly within the Buddhist traditions of morality, so it’s not really purely secular. Reincarnation is even mentioned several times as factual. The course does not foster an open attitude of comparing the technique taught to other techniques, and strongly discourages you from mixing in any others during the course. This and a few other aspects, like the imposed vegetarianism, make Goenka’s Vipassana school resemble a cult. But not the dangerous or idiotic kind. Most of their beliefs and practices do seem sensible, and do seem to result in improvement of mental capacities and outlook. Chalk the rest up as mere cultural baggage that you have to accept to get some solid instruction.
A word to the wise – Bring ample cushions/blankets/seats for sitting, and don’t hesitate to ask for a chair if your discomfort starts seriously interfering with your ability to concentrate! One of the skills that you develop will be to better maintain your concentration through distractions like pain, but biting off more than you can chew is counter-productive.
Vipassana meditation was a somewhat new technique for me, although I had some experience with body scanning in the past. I could feel the technique working, and my concentration and equanimity improving throughout. However, I missed the blissful states (Jhanas) that I was able to achieve in the past using breath meditation. Blissing out is discouraged in Vipassana, because it entails embracing a pleasurable sensation, which can lead to craving for that sensation, and cessation of progress. However, some Buddhist schools have a different approach, and see bliss for beginning and intermediate meditators as desirable, because it strengthens the desire to meditate, which can keep you practicing, and building your concentration skills, which will serve you well down the line. Eventually, they also agree that any attachment to this bliss must be abandoned to reach an advanced level.
I also found that my old techniques were more effective for me at going deeper into the subconscious mind more quickly, improving my concentration and discernment. I personally would never exclude every other form of mental practice in favor of a particular one. The world is a rich place full of many paths to hacking your mind, and to believe that there isn’t complementarity amongst them is very closed-minded and unscientific. I won’t be making Vipassana the sole basis of my practice, but I still learned a lot, and found the experience to be interesting, even trippy at times. I think it’s made a valuable contribution to my overall practice, and will benefit me in the long-term.
P.S. – Vipassana Hawaii now accepts bitcoin
Written instructions for breath meditation
Another written instruction for breath meditation