The past three years we had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Eastern spiritual traditions to understand the nature of the mind better. As a result we have gained deeper knowledge and wisdom, we have learned to cultivate a calm mind and increase our levels of happiness. What we have learned has become a day-to-day practice that soon becomes much more than adding mental training tools to one’s routine; it turns into an entire lifestyle, a new perception of life and the world.
In January 2016 we dipped our toes into Vipassana, a powerful meditation technique to purify the mind that we had known about for years but didn’t have yet the opportunity to experience. Thanks to the wonderful and mysterious workings of the Universe, we found ourselves in Myanmar, the place where this technique has been preserved intact from generations to generations. We joined the Dhamma Joti Center in Yangon to start a 10 day silent meditation course and — and wow! — the experience left us speechless, literally ;)
Throughout this article, we’d like to share our impressions on this particular form of Vipassana, a technique that we now consider to be a precious tool for those in the search of peace of mind and sustainable happiness.
One of the most prominent promoters of Vipassana was S.N. Goenka born in Myanmar (called Burma then) to a rich religious Indian family. He was a successful businessman with little happiness in his life and strong migraine problems. Unable to be treated by good doctors in Europe and the U.S., Goenka heard about a man who could help him heal his ailing body. But Sayagyi U Ba Khin, the man in question, refused to take Goenka under his wing and told him Vipassana was not a cure to health or physical issues but an art of living that brings real happiness and real harmony. Desperate to do anything to get better, Goenka wanted to try nevertheless and insisted on learning by him.
Goenka’s life was forever changed by the technique. Not only did he heal from the inside out but went on to become one of Sayagyi U Ba Khin’s most devoted students. Upon his teacher’s passing away, Goenka promised to keep on spreading the technique even beyond his own physical death, so to keep the legacy alive, Goenka trained thousands of teachers around the world to continue the work.
How the center and the course work
Goenka’s Vipassana courses consist of a basic ten day silent meditation course. We meditated cross legged for about 11 hours per day; we woke up at 4am every day and ate two meals a day only, one at 6:30am and the other one at 11am. Once the course started, we had to stay within the confines of the center, which was small and secluded; verbal, written or body language were not allowed between participants and only very limited with the course teachers. Other activities such as exercise, reading and writing, listening to music were to be suspended and Noble Silence was to be maintained rigorously throughout the course.
There was a solid structure and a very well thought out organization on how the course was conducted; the meditation sessions weren’t just sit down, look pretty, don’t talk and don’t move. We had guidance mostly through Goenka’s audio and video tapes from previous courses, and short meetings with the teachers every other day or when they saw it fit to check our progress or answer any questions that arose on the way.
The Dhamma Joti Center where we were — as well as all other centers that teach Goenka’s method — operates in a way that makes the Vipassana technique genuine and accessible to all: All of the courses are free of charge. They will not demand a cent from you, not even for lodging or the food you receive (the teachers and servers are not on a pay roll either). Your being there has been sponsored by the person before you so at the end of the course if you make a donation (and you should, no matter how small it may be) you will be sponsoring the person who will take your seat in the next course; it’s like a pay it forward system really.
We were motivated but little did we know we were in for the roller coaster ride of the month.
This 10 day silent meditation course was challenging for many different reasons: sitting long hours without much time to stretch, spending all afternoon and evening without food, remaining still during the hot afternoons and so on. But by far the biggest challenge was the chatter of the mind. Although we both had slightly different journeys, we agreed that sometimes we found ourselves in places of darkness and light, sinking at the bottom of the ocean or soaring to the skies. Nevertheless, we found the technique to be an effective method for purifying the mind from factors that cause distress and pain. It does not invoke the help of a god, spirit or any other external power, but relies on one’s efforts. It mostly focuses on teaching how to remain calm and equanimous no matter how pleasant or unpleasant a situation may be. Oftentimes, Vipassana meditators are people who are not rocked by the extremes the world may present; they have learned how to step back and watch, to take action when is needed and accept what can’t be changed. They approach life with its periods of happiness and non-happiness mindfully because they know it will pass, it is the law of impermanence (or anicca in the ancient language of Pali).
Goenka’s technique focuses on understanding the principles of impermanence at the actual level and not just at an intellectual one: the course is 95% about practice, 5% theory. It challenges meditators to explore the depths of the mind by means of bodily sensations; for instance, at some point during the course we were asked to meditate for one hour every morning, afternoon and evening without moving our legs, arms or opening our eyes no matter what while maintaining perfect equanimity of mind. During that period of time, we were not to be swept away by cravings (wanting the session to end) or aversion (wanting any pain to go away and a pleasant sensation to come.) When the knees began to feel pain, we had to play the role of a neutral witness. One is able to do this seemingly daunting task thanks to the breath, mindful observation of the sensations in the body and the mind, and of course individual efforts. We were training to feel grounded on the idea that reacting is meaningless as the difficult moments won’t last. It was our experience that it is very liberating to just watch sensations, feelings and emotions and not react.
One of the things we realized is that much of our miseries come from within, from the way we perceive our problems and react to them. According to Vipassana, one should be able to step back from a situation, watch whatever is going on (emotions, sensations, etc) and only then consciously and calmly work accordingly. Instead, we constantly rush to the outer world to fix the problem and find pleasant experiences, but this only gives us the illusion of long-lasting happiness. Ironically, the true well-being we’re looking for so much is already within, it’s just hidden in a busy and cluttered mind.
Much of the suffering we experience can be summarized in the simple idea that we will never achieve perpetual peace and harmony on the planet until we begin exploring what’s inside: knowing ourselves in depth, understanding how the mind works and practicing methods to keep it in check. During Vipassana, one can experience a deep peace of mind to the point that one can realize that everything — including what we call “our self” — is only made of subatomic particles that are constantly arising and passing away. This understanding irreversibly changes the patterns in the mind as the practitioners open themselves to a broader reality: we don’t exist as isolated entities separated from the whole, only as one pure, infinite and immortal Presence that encompasses everything in the Universe.
Upon completion of the course, we left the Dhamma Joti center with a calm, peaceful and open mind, and a clear and reaffirmed sense of the path we want to keep walking and how to go about it. We suspect that this course has not only benefited ourselves, but will also directly or indirectly reach our loved ones and all the beings we have yet to come in contact with. We highly encourage you to give it a serious try. Check if there is a center close to where you live in this worldwide list of centers that follow Goenka’s method.
Thomas & Ruth
WEARECO 🌿 | Founders