By Eva Cheng (Weibo: 7plus2plus1)
At the end of 2012 (December 19-30), right before the rumoured Armageddon of the world, I participated in a ten-day long Vipassana meditation course. It was ten days of no talking, reading or writing, ten days of waking up at 4am and sleeping at 930pm. Day after day, I realized that a gray fog was slowly being lifted in front of my eyes. The world was gradually becoming clearer and more colourful. I have been “out” for a month now, and noticeably many of my habits and views have changed completely by 180-degrees. The bad habit of procrastination suddenly disappeared; I now often feel that life is more worth living and more meaningful.
Many of my friends have asked me a lot of questions about Vipassana, so I put down here answers to a few common ones as well as some of my own thoughts, as a record and reference for those who are interested. Different people could have very different experiences and I look forward to hearing others’ stories too!
Why did I join the meditation course?
Most of my previous holidays were spent climbing mountains and diving into the ocean, I was a restless adventurer. Places like Mount Blanc of France, Mount Fuji of Japan, Kota Kinabalu of Malaysia, Mount Kilimanjaro of Africa, travelling alone in South America, diving, etc… For somebody like me who would get bored lying on the beach, the idea of a meditation course where I sit still for 10 days was beyond imagination.
This is how it started. I first learnt of Viapassana from an article on the Financial Times about a year ago. I had been interested in going for a long time but never found the time until the later 2012, when I developed heart pains after a few sleepless nights of stressful work. I did multiple check ups including an over-night monitoring in the hospital, but the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. After that, I decided to give Vipassana a try, my boss was supportive and gave me 10 days of blackberry-free holiday!!
So what is Vipassana?
Vipassana is one of the meditation techniques from 2500 years ago in India. There are now more than 100 meditation centres over the world, including most major cities. I applied for ones in India, HK and Taiwan, they were all full, and luckily a spot became available in a centre in Taiwan. Vipassana means “see things as they are”.
When people talk about meditation, we usually think of somebody sitting there and thinking about some profound ideas or trying not to think of anything at all. In fact it is neither. Vipassana is a technique, a training method. It is not a religion, although the technique was discovered by Buddha. One does not need to be of any particular religion or hold any belief to practise the technique. Although you can’t see it from the outset, it is no different from going to the gym, like a technique to train your muscles.
For example, we always talk about ‘mind and body’, actually training of the mind is similar to that of the body. If somebody is physically weak, then he could join a course at a gym to train his muscles everyday, and a week later he will most likely notice that he became stronger, can now lift heavier things, maybe even starting to develop abs and biceps. It is the same with the mind, it too can be trained and become stronger, be able to do things it couldn’t do before, resist the temptation it could not before.
The final goal is to allow us to see things as they are, to see the truth and fundamental intrinsic properties of things, allow people to live a happy, peaceful and efficient life, to attain the wisdom to understand the true nature of everything in the world. By the way, the method does not try to persuade you to become a monk at all, quite the opposite, it helps you to become more efficient and more concentrated when conducting your worldly business, and be happier and more peaceful while doing so. For example the teacher of the current teacher, U Ba Khin, was the accounting minister of Burma, he was so efficient that he was at one time the head of 4 government departments. Apparently he didn’t need much time when visiting each of these ministries, but when he leaves, nothing was left unfinished. It was attributable to the fact that he was able to clearly see the true nature of things and very quickly make the right decision, plus the fact that he was able to achieve high concentration.
Another similarity between meditation and body building is the need for continuous exercise. It is not a kind of realization where you stop after you understand it. If you stop going to the gym after seeing a couple of muscles becoming visible, then they will gradually disappear.
What is the course about? What did you do everyday?
This is a 10-day course, 9 ½ days (except for the last half a day), you are not allowed to contact anybody, no mobile, no blackberry, get up at 4:00am and lights out at 9:30. You meditate for 12 hours a day, sleep for six and half-hours, and use the remaining five and a half hours to eat, relax, wash up, taking walks around the centre. It is 10 days of “moble silence”, so you can’t talk to others or communicate in any other way through eye or body contact. The food is prepared by volunteers and is all vegetarian. At breakfasts and lunches, a variety of dishes are offered which are very delicious. Old Students need to comply with the “no food after noon” requirement, so they can not eat dinners, but new students can have some porridge and fruits.
This ten-day course is completely free of charge. All related costs are supported by monetary donations from old students and as well as those who donate their time to become volunteers. Those who have not participated in the course are not allowed to donate. The idea here is to let those and only those who have participated and actually benefited from the experience to support and allow others to have the same experience. New students can only attend the course thanks to donations from others, this way they would feel grateful and not expect this and that because however much money they paid. The donation amount is completely voluntary, and you don’t have to donate at all. Nevertheless, I personally donated 2-3 times the amount I thought I might donate before attending the course, hoping to give more people the opportunity to experience Vipassana.
Every night, there is a one-hour discourse, you can watch the daily video recording of Mr. Goenka made in the California centre some time ago. Those who don’t understand English can listen to recordings in Chinese and other languages. Watching the video was the my happiest time of the day, the video covered history of Vipassana and some theories behind the technique. Mr. Goenka is like a lovely, caring grandpa and also really funny. He told many interesting stories and made the audience laugh.
A bit more about Mr. Goenka’s story. He was a very successful Indian businessman living in Burma, and he was first introduced to Vipassana because he had severe migraines that no doctor could cure. At the time, the pure Vipassana technique had been lost everywhere except in Burma. Mr. Goenka learnt the technique there for 14 years before he brought it back to India – the birthplace of Vipassana, and thereafter spread it around the world.
How has the course changed me?
Here is a list of the actual changes that happened to me.
Thanks to a stronger mind, I could more easily bring to action the things I wanted to do, and now rarely experience the internal struggle between the two voices in my head (although it has not yet completed stopped)
- I used to set my alarm for 9am every morning and then snooze for at least half an hour before actually getting up; after the course, I now get up at 7am every day without hardly any snoozing time
- I used to feel sleepy about 80% of the days, even if I sleep a lot during the weekend; now I feel that my head is clear almost everyday
- I used to dislike coldness a lot, for example it was really suffering whenever I didn’t wear enough cloth or just got out of bed or shower in the winter; now these things don’t bother me at all, as if what needed to be done is automatically done by my subconscious
- I used to have average to severe procrastination, especially during university, when I often waited past midnight to do the homework and felt exhausted the next day, and I even saw a psychiatrist back then. Maybe it sounds unbelievable, but my procrastination is almost completely gone. I now plan the things that need to be done and then eagerly complete them (I know many people may think that it’s impossible or exaggerated…. I don’t want to sound disingenuous but it is what actually happened)
- I used to be easily addicted to things, have an obsessive personality. For example, when I like certain type of chocolate, I would eat it until I can no longer look at it; now I can easily stop eating whatever after I make a decision to do so
- Murakami Haruki said “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. I used to get very upset when I receive a ‘staffing’ at work and I knew that it would mean another sleepless night or a work weekend; now I can take the staffing peacefully and make a start on it right away, without all the psychological suffering.
In addition, as the heart becomes gradually purified, life becomes more interesting, worth living and happy. Still going to the same place for work everyday, yet everything seems more colourful. When something funny happens, I would laugh for a long time, and feel that my whole body is laughing and shaking. I also now no longer quarrel with others. Before the course, if a taxi driver happened to take a longer route, I couldn’t help but pointing it out and making a fuss. Now I do this less often, and realized a few times that the taxi drivers actually really weren’t familiar with the area and didn’t do it on purpose, or it was due to some miscommunication, and I would be happy not to have caused other people unhappiness. At the same time, I noticed that people around me, friends and strangers alike, have become friendlier and kinder towards me, not sure if it’s because I look more friendly now to them.
You may think the above is some kind of propaganda, but I promise that they are all based on my own experiences, and included only a few selected examples. Of course different people will experience the course differently, some people may not have all the issues I had mentioned above, then the result of the course may seem less obvious for them. It’s just like going to the gym, some people look completely different after a few months, while others look the same, some may look stronger, while others look more energetic, it all depends on the individual’s body situation and commitment to the training. Nevertheless, going to the gym for some exercise should be beneficial overall.
So how exactly do you train?
The practice of Vipassana consists of two steps, the first 3 days are for step one which is “Master your mind”, the remaining 7 days are for step two which is “Purify your mind”. I will briefly explain the two steps at a conceptual level, in terms of actual technique to practice, I will just mention day 1 and will not say anything at this stage for the rest of the days, because if you hadn’t completed day 1, then it is meaningless to learn the technique of later days. It is like learning how to build a valuation model, if you hadn’t learnt the basics of modelling, then it is useless if the teacher starts to teach you about how to construct different cases/scenarios and how to do sensitivity analysis. Nevertheless, during the course, you will be told very clear and exact technique, you do not need to use your imagination or hope for some kind of enlightenment, all you need to do is follow the technique.
Step one: Master your mind
Before we can master our mind, the mind behaves like an untamed horse, running here and there as it wills. When we ride this horse, we have no choice but to be taken by it to random places, we can not achieve things that we want to achieve efficiently. After we master mind though, the horse becomes an extension of you the rider and can help you achieve your goals. It becomes a productive partner, and you become the master of the horse – your own mind.
I think we all have the experience of being mastered by our mind instead of mastering it? We can not control our own desire, thoughts, ideas, for example when we decide to eat less to lose weight, we still can’t resist eating delicious food when we see it, and then feel guilty afterwards; or when we plan to watch 1 episode of a TV drama, and end up watching more until 4am, then regret it the next day; or when we are working and suddenly want to check Weibo, and then we naturally go and check it…. (these are all experiences of my own)
Some research indicated that the common trait of successful people is their ability of self-control, putting plans to action. It is actually very hard to do. I believe many people have made up their mind to change something, but then end up not achieving the results they wanted? When we were growing up, we learnt many ways of training our body, but never a way to train our mind and make it stronger. So the first step of Vipassana is to train to control your mind.
I won’t be going into too much detail of actual technique, but as an example, the task for day 1 is to observer your own natural breath, which nostril the air comes in and out. That’s it. Easy isn’t it? Not at all! When you first start it, your mind wonders off after a couple of breathes! You drag it back and after another couple of breathes, it wonders off again!! It improves in the afternoon, you can concentrate better, and when you reach the 10th day you could keep your mind concentrated almost completely, thereby mastering your mind and let it help us to do the things we need to do. Just like that, when I came ‘out’ I was pleasantly surprised that my procrastination had been cured!!
Step Two: Purify your mind
Once we know how to master our mind, then we start to control our mind and purify our mind. Purification of the mind again sounds very weird, actually it’s similar to modern psychology and Freud. It is a way to control your subconscious. Here are two examples:
My classmate A tells me that, hey, Eva, I really don’t like you. If I can’t control my conscious mind, I may start staying similar things to him, calling him names and may even start hitting him. If I could control my conscious mind, then I will be able to stay silent. However, it still can’t control my subconscious mind. The unhappiness is actually pushed down to the subconscious level, so that when I see A next time, maybe my conscious mind hasn’t realized anything yet, but my subconscious mind has already started making me feel uncomfortable and annoyed, and start feeling aversion towards this person, and I may start quarrelling with him without knowing why.
Another example is that some couples are very happy when they first get together, even some small bickering here and there seem normal, but every little argument had planted a seed of aversion in the subconscious mind. After a longer period of time, it may become that one person’s subconscious mind is upset as soon as he/she sees the other person, which would result in a breakup.
The technique of Vipassana helps to gradually access one’s subconscious, proactively control the subconscious, and stop planting negative seeds in it. Once you stop planting new bad seeds, the old seeds of pain and suffering will start surfacing in the subconscious mind and get eradicated. Mr. Goenka said since the beginning that this 10-day course is like an operation on the mind, it takes out a lot of bad stuff, and afterwards one’s body and mind both feel lighter.
This is not to say that we should not proactively address issues, but that when your mind is at peace, you can deal with the issues more objectively and efficiently. Many times we say awful things when we are angry, and then regret it afterwards and not know how we came to say those things, this is because our actions were controlled by our subconscious, and can not stay clear and objective. Once we can control our subconscious mind and remain equanimous, we will be able to see the solutions to problems much more easily.
We can apply this technique in work as well as personal life, make us enjoy our jobs more and become better at finding solutions to problems. Relationship between couples improves as they can remain afresh in each other’s mind without the impurities, every encounter becomes a first sight. We will become the skii expert of living, no longer afraid of the black slope and can skii down in a breeze.
What are some of the particularly interesting sensations during the training?
As this training touches your mind and subconscious, many interesting things would happen indeed. I wrote down some interesting personal experiences, but this really depends on the individual, what you experience may be completely different.
- On the second night, I dreamt of a really funny stand-up comedy show, in my dream I thought it was the funniest show ever! I started laughing and eventually woke myself up with laughter. I asked my roommate after the course about it, and she said I laughed for about a minute, initially was loud, then became giggling probably after I woke up
- Apparently on the same night, somebody else was crying in the other room
- You are allowed to ask questions to the teach every night, a male student said there were scratch marks appearing on his body and he didn’t know why, and he wanted to take off his clothes to show the teacher. The teach said there was no need, all reactions are normal
- Training may lead you to a complete dissolution state, your whole body becomes a field of vibrations and no longer in solid state, like a piece a cloud. This is a great feeling, but it is key not to develop a craving for this sensation, because everything changes, this sensation will disappear, and reappear. Many people said they couldn’t help but cry during the course, this may be because some impurities are leaving the subconscious and is quite common. This kind of crying doesn’t make you feel sad, it’s actually an enjoyable discharge of tears. On the night of day 8, while I was taking a walk and at that moment realized how I wanted to live my life and saw more clearly the direction and meaning of life, I quietly shed a lot of tears. There was no sadness though, actually felt very good.
That is enough for now. Highly recommend those who are interested to have a go. There is information on the official website about centres in over 100 centres. The Chinese website has information about centres that offer Chinese courses, including Malaysia, China, India, Canada, Taiwan, US and Singapore
In Greater China there are Taiwan, HK and Taiwan centres. Taiwan has two, one in Taichung, very accessible, in a farm, but need to share with 4-5 people (was not an issue for me at all, very comfortable); Another one in Liu Gui, a new centre, a bit more difficult to get to, but only two students to share a room. The one in HK is very small, bunker beds apparently, but they are building a new and much bigger one. There are two in Fujian, China and one in Northeasten part of China, opened not long ago.
Some advice for those attending: centres in Greater China fill up fast, especially the three in mainland China, so register as early as possible. If English is an issue, you should go where your native language is spoken (eg. Mandarin, Cantonese), don’t underestimate the importance of language. If you know English, it is highly recommended that you watch the discourse video every evening in English, it is much more fun than the translated recording.
Global site: http://www.dhamma.org
Chinese website: http://www.chinese.dhamma.org, you find there some basic description and timetable for Chinese courses. You can also search for Taiwan Vipassana, they have more detailed information about the courses there.
The FT article which first introduced me to Vipassana: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/a5e3476e-2a36-11e1-8f04-00144feabdc0.html
If any questions, welcome to contact me (Weibo: 7plus2plus1), I will try my best to reply. Also, if anybody in HK who have done the course, feel free to get in touch and compare notes!
4:00 early morning wake up bell
4:30-6:30 meditation in the meditation hall or in your own room
6:30-8:00 breakfast and rest
8:00-9:00 meditation in the meditation hall
9:00-11:00 meditation in meditation hall or your own room, as per teacher’s instruction
12:00-1:00 Rest (and individual Q&A with assistant teachers)
1:00-2:30 meditation in the meditation hall or your own room
2:30-3:30 meditation in meditation hall
3:30-5:00 meditation in meditation hall or your own room, as per teacher’s instruction
6:00-7:00 meditation in meditation hall
7:00-8:30 discourse by Mr. Goenka (watch video or listen to audio tapes)
8:30-9:00 meditation in meditation hall, teacher teaches techniques for the next day
9:00-9:30 Q&A with assistant teachers, or go to bed
9:30 lights out