Last week I began a Vipassana course at a little meditation center up in the hills outside of Kathmandu. Ten days of what they refer to as noble silence. That means no talking, no writing, no reading, no eye contact, no music, etc. You are permitted to talk with a teacher every day at specific times, and you’re allowed pull a helper aside and whisper for assistance if needed (like if you need diarrhea medication or something, as was the case with me).
You pay nothing to try Vipassana. It’s donation based. If you complete the ten-day course and feel you benefited from it, you can pay whatever you like.
There were approximately seventy other people there with me, a good mix of Eastern and Western, male and female. Beginning at 4:30 every morning in the main hall, we spent about twelve hours each day learning and practicing the Vipassana meditation technique. The goal is to sharpen your mind, to raise your awareness, to know yourself better.
I quit the course in the middle of day three.
Pain and Authority
Two main reasons I quit Vipassana: the physical pain and the submission to authority. Both became too much for me.
I entered the course with the understanding that I’d be allowed sit and meditate in whatever position was comfortable for me. This proved false. I was not allowed to sit with my back against a wall and my legs outstretched, or in a chair. Everyone had to meditate in their designated spot in the open floor of the meditation hall. We were provided with cushions and were allowed to use blankets. They even gave me a little wooden stool and suggested I try adopting a kneeling posture, which was the most comfortable I found.
But not comfortable enough, unfortunately. The longest I was able to stay put in one position was an hour and fifteen minutes. I was quite proud of the self-discipline I mustered to do that, even though my knees and ankles were throbbing and I felt close to passing out as I tried to stand up afterwards.
I knew going into the course that I was terribly inflexible. I’ve been doing a daily stretching routine for over eighteen months now and I still can’t touch my toes from a sitting position. I’ve never been able to sit cross-legged. I simply don’t bend that way.
I met with two different teachers several times and explained my situation. They both told me that the pain was natural, and that it would subside. I didn’t believe them. We were supposed to be focusing on the flow of respiration, but either through shifting my posture every few minutes, or staying still and trying to endure the pain, I was finding it increasingly difficult to do so as the course progressed.
The other thing that began to bother me were all the rules. Yes, those same rules we were reminded of several times before the course began, and which I’d willingly agreed to abide by for the duration of the course. I figured I could do it, no big deal.
What I underestimated though was just how much I’d gotten used to doing my own thing ever since I quit my job and started living on my own terms almost two years ago.
In that time it seems I’ve developed a bit of an issue with authority.
After leaving the course I was thinking about how I always submitted to authority when I was in younger. In school, I rarely put a foot wrong. I was terrified of breaking the rules and getting in trouble. My high school had a demerit and detention system. You’d get a demerit for something like “going on the duck”, which was what we called skipping class. Four demerits equaled detention, meaning you’d have to come into school on Saturday morning for a few hours for supervised study.
Six years I was in that school and I never even got a demerit.
It dawned on me that these past two years of my life have very much been my rebellion. I was tired of living well-behaved, following all the rules, not offending anyone. Abandoning that mentality, that way of life, has been a process, and it’s still on-going. I feel I’ve come a long way — I like myself and enjoy my life a lot more nowadays — but I still have a ways to go.
In hindsight, it wasn’t a great time for me to try submit to a bevy of rules and external discipline for ten days.
It was on the morning of the third day that I decided to quit, accepting that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my physical well-being and submit to external authority for another week. That flash of decision was the sole moment of peace I experienced the whole time I was there.
Once decided, I had to go tell one of the teachers, so he could give me “permission” to leave. Even though I knew he couldn’t insist on my staying, my rebellious side kind of hoped he would, just so I’d have no choice but to loudly break the rules and have them kick me out. I imagined myself standing up in the middle of everyone, mid-meditation, and busting out my best Bonnie Tyler.
Fresh from the fight, fresh from the fiiiigggghhhhttttt…
Instead the teacher and I just had a chat and he tried to convince me to stay and I kept insisting that I wanted to leave. After a few minutes he saw that my mind was made up and he relented.
There was one thing he said during that chat though that I found quite ridiculous. I told him (once again) about the physical pain I was experiencing while meditating, and he told me that such pain was simply the physical manifestation of my mental defilements (anger, hatred, etc.). If that was the case, I asked him, then were all the people who were more flexible than I and who could thus sit comfortably in the lotus position or similar for extended periods of time without experiencing much discomfort… were all those people simply less mentally defiled than my wretched self?
I couldn’t help but think that there must be an abundance of murderers and rapists in Asian prisons who grew up ensconced cross-legged and who could kick my ass in a sit-still contest.
I can’t quite recall the teacher’s response to that question of mine, but I remember thinking that it wasn’t a very satisfactory one.
I went back to my room after that and waited for the next meditation session to start. I’d been asked to make my departure out of sight of the other students.
At the office near the front gate, I was given back my money/passport/phone and asked to sign a few forms. Right before I left, they crossed my name off a list on the wall. I saw that only one other student had exited before me. I assumed it was the girl we’d all heard crying outside the meditation hall the previous day, and that she didn’t walk out that front gate smiling quite like I did.
In Defense of Vipassana
I hope none of the above sounds like an attack on or disapproval of Vipassana. It was recommended to me by several friends and I know it’s helped millions of people around the world.
I’m glad I tried it and in a strange way I appreciate Vipassana even more having given it a shot. Three things in particular that resonated with me…
- I liked how they taught us to recognize different levels of awareness, via the breath. We were instructed to focus all our attention on the flow of respiration through the nostrils. Gradually we were guided to become aware of the fact that the breath usually flows more through one nostril than the other, that you can feel the gentle touch of respiration against the skin of the nostrils, and that the air you breathe in is cooler than the air you breathe out. All of these sensations are present all of the time, but most of us are never aware of them. The larger lesson, of course, is that there are different levels of awareness in all walks of life, and just because you don’t experience or acknowledge something doesn’t mean it’s not happening right in front of your face.
- It’s donation based. So if it doesn’t work out and you leave early like I did, no big deal. They actually refuse to take donations from anyone who fails to complete the course.
- The course is completely secular. They emphasized this quite a few times, and insisted that students give up any religious practices for the duration of the course so the Vipassana meditation technique would receive a fair, uncompromised trial.
So maybe Vipassana is for you. Look into it, give it some consideration. Might be just what you need.
But it wasn’t for me. I think I would have been able to stick it out and complete the course, but I couldn’t imagine the payoff being worth it. Not at this point in my life. I decided there were many other things I’d rather do with my time.
Man, felt so good to wake the morning after I quit, captain of my own fate once again, not having to get up to the sound of a bell rung by others.
The resistance lives on 😉
UPDATE: Four quality articles by other bloggers who stuck out full 10-day Vipassana courses and reported on their experience. Read them here: