In this part of my report on Vipassana, I’m focusing on religion. Talking to friends about the course, it is easy to see the apprehension of others in deciding whether or not Vipassana is for them. Most conventionally religious individuals are unsure of trying such a practice, not wanting to interfere with their beliefs or other daily religious practice.
The Vipassana website describes the practice in full. Here is the first paragraph to give you an idea. Check out the site to read more about the history:
“Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.”
Emphasis should be made on the term “non-sectarian”. The roots of this practice have been passed down from Buddha…. But let’s be clear for those who may not know. Buddha is not a God. A Buddha is a human-being who has reached enlightenment. Gautama was not the first nor the last man to achieve this feat. There are branches of Buddhism that promote God/deity worship and types of meditation that have been adapted from the pure Vipassana practice to include prayer, chanting, objects of visual focus and mental markers to focus the mind. Vipassana is none of these things. It is the plain and simple physical practice of meditation without such distractions, allowing observation of one’s own body and thoughts.
Vipassana centers do not expect you to convert to Buddhism or denounce your current faith to practice, and they don’t turn away anyone because of faith. But they do ask you to put aside religious practice of any kind when you come to the center in order to experience the benefits of Vipassana, as well as not to distract others. If your mind is distracted with prayer, worship and faith, you will never fully experience the benefits of the course. On completion of the course, teachers help those with faiths to incorporate their new found practice in a way that isn’t counterproductive.
Goenka also is very clear at the end of the course to mention that it is not imperative for you to believe in everything he has taught during the course. It is for you to take away the parts of the teachings that resonate and work for you. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to dive into the deeper teachings. There’s no pressure or commitment, no obligation whatsoever … but in giving the course a fair trial, I found that 99% of the teachings have given me the tools I need to evolve my mind/brain continually from now on. I can’t express how valuable the course has been to me personally, and to my partner.
Vipassana’s Strict Rules:
The rules are in place to help you and everyone else reach their fullest potential on the course. You can find a full list of the rules on the Vipassana site including special vows called Precepts that one must commit to at the start of the course, but in short, here are some of the bigger rules from my perspective:
- You MUST stay the full 10 days.
- You must put aside all religious practices & prayer for the 10 days.
- You must not wear religious paraphernalia.
- You must not lie, steal, kill or engage in sexual misconduct during your stay.
- Men and women must remain separated at all times, and have their own sides of the center to conduct practice, eat, walk, etc. A male and female teacher is assigned for each.
- Students must wear modest and comfortable clothing. No revealing or tight fitting garments, including shorts, leggings or tank tops.
- No talking, no physical contact, no eye contact with any individual during your time at the center. You can only talk to the teacher during set interview times to ask short and on topic questions about the practice. You can also talk to the male or female manager that presides over the residences for the course should there be any issues.
- No phones, internet, writing, reading, drawing, taking photos, listening or playing music. Emergency contact info is available for you to be reached by loved ones while you’re there.
- You must eat the vegetarian cuisine provided and only eat during set meal times at 6.30am and 11am. A snack of fruit and tea is given at 5pm for new students, but old student repeating the course are encouraged to forego this extra snack. The only exceptions are for medical necessity.
As a grown adult, some of these rules seem a little extreme, but about half way through the course I started appreciating how important they were to allowing everyone to focus without distraction. Silence and being left to one’s own thoughts really forces you to address your feelings without reacting to them. Having no entertainment to distract my mind, I was able to focus 100% on being present and experiencing my emotions as they happened, observe them in silence, and understand myself.
On the last day, we were allowed to talk to everyone, and immediately meditation sessions became much more challenging to get into. My mind became filled with thoughts and emotions about conversations I had just had and what they meant in terms of my present and past. Just interacting with people provided a distraction large enough to split my focus during meditation that I know I would not have been able to get past earlier in my training.
In the final installment of this three-part report, I will talk more about my experience, and specifically the 29 Palms location I attended.
In short though, if the rules of Vipassana concern you, I urge you to consider that the course is only ten days long, and there’s nothing you can’t be without for 10 days that isn’t provided on the course. God and your church will still be there when you’re done. Your job, worries, family and friends will all still be there in 10 days, but you’ll just be better at dealing with them when you get done.
If money or time are an issue, consider doing Vipassana instead of going on vacation. For my partner and I, the course gave us a refresh that no cruise or tropical vacation has ever done. Not only did it recharge us, but it gave us the tools to continually top up that charge indefinitely. The course was free and donating at the end isn’t required. There isn’t even a weird uncomfortable request for donations leaving you feeling like a douche at the end. They spend more time encouraging you to come back and get more benefits than they do on trying to get you to donate. There’s no catch, no further commitment, no expectation of further involvement or obligation.
Vipassana has been a life saver for me. I had begun to think there was nothing out there that was truly altruistic, gave tangible results and could make an actual difference in my life. I can’t express to you how thankful I am to have found Vipassana and to also have discovered it with my partner. Finding this technique together has been so much easier to maintain than it would have been if only one of us had taken the course. We are able to discuss our experience and thoughts about it all and support each other in keeping up our daily meditation. It means a lot to our relationship to have been able to share the experience together.
Vipassana works well if everyone in the family practices it. The course encourages families and couples to do the courses together, even though they separate men, women and children. Children actually have their own special course separate of the adult course. At the end of the course I spoke to several participants who told me they had done the course many times before, some of them as children. It seems that with each time you take the course, you get something new out of it, no matter how far down the path of enlightenment you are.