A Vipassana Experience

            In July 2004, I partook in a campaign of nonviolent action that is unique in comparison to others; this campaign was a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat. Though it was set in the beautiful Kaukapakapa Valley in the forests of northern New Zealand, a woodlands paradise, the retreat was by no means a period of relaxation. The course was rigorous and demanding. Meditation itself is not a simple task; long periods of meditation can challenge the tenacity of a person’s will. To provide the reader with an idea of the discipline necessary to undertake this venture, the daily timetable for the course is as follows:

4:00 a.m. – Morning wake up bell

4:30-6:30 a.m. – Meditation in hall or own room

6:30-8:00 a.m. – Breakfast break

8:00-9:00 a.m. – Group meditation in hall

9:00-11:00 a.m. – Meditation in hall or own room

11:00-12:00 p.m. – Lunch

12:00-1:00 p.m. – Rest and interviews with the teacher, if necessary

1:00-2:30 p.m. – Meditate in hall or own room

2:30-3:30 p.m. – Group meditation in hall

3:30-5:00 p.m.- Meditation in hall or own room

5:00-6:00 p.m.- Tea break

6:00-7:00 p.m. – Group meditation in hall

7:00-8:15 p.m. – Teacher Discourse

8:15-9:00 p.m. – Group meditation

9:00-9:30 p.m. – Question period

9:30 p.m. – Retire, lights out

The word “vipassana” literally translates from Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures, to mean insight, or clarity. My major motivation for joining this campaign of non-violent action was, in fact, that I was seeking both insight and clarity. Before being allowed to participate in the course, all practitioners had to consent to taking five moral precepts for the duration of the course, and these are as follows:

To abstain from killing any living creature

To abstain from stealing

To abstain from sexual activity

To abstain from telling lies

To abstain from the use of intoxicants

Taking a vow of silence is a powerful form of nonviolence training. No less a champion of non-violent behaviour than Mahatma Gandhi himself advocated takingperiodic vows of silence.  At the retreat, all participants took a vow of noble silence for ten days. Noble silence implies silence of body, speech, and gesture. The exception was that we were allowed to speak with the meditation teacher regarding our practice, or with the manager of the centre regarding our stay.

I realized how much energy is used up in speaking, and how much idle speech is commonly used in day-to-day life, and of this idle speech, much is slanderous in nature. How many times per day does the average person back-bite another? By practicing mindful awareness, we can observe our speech in circumstances when we are upset or simply not present to the moment, and refrain from using harmful speech once we resume life in everyday society.

There were three different meditation techniques that were taught during the retreat, and these are Anapana-Sati, Vipassana, and Metta-Bhavana. Each of the three methods are directly related to non-violent behaviour; however, it is the practice of Metta which has the most obvious connection; therefore, I will describe the other two briefly and then go into further detail in describing the Metta practice.

Each of these names derives from the original Pali. “Anapana-Sati” translates to awareness of breathing, “Vipassana” means to have insight, as mentioned earlier, and “Metta” means to cultivate loving kindness. Before describing the practices, I must iterate that I am conveying my personal experience, and this does not represent the views of the host organization.

Anapana-Sati is a practice where one observes the breath as it enters and exits the nostrils when thoughts enter the mind. Practicing Anapana-Sati develops one-pointed concentration, and this is central to right action. While, in this particular technique of Vipassana, one is sweeping the body, in order to be aware of sensations arising and passing through the body.

Metta-Bhavana is a beautiful practice that is used to develop universal compassion towards all beings. In Metta practice, a person begins by visualizing him or herself in a happy state, and mindfully repeating “may I be happy” in unison with the breath. The person sends love and goodwill towards themselves. The principle of starting the practice by sending love to ourselves is foundational to Metta, for how can a person who does not love themselves love anyone else?

Next, the practitioner of Metta sends goodwill towards one who is dear to them; usually a close relative or friend is the usual place for the Metta to follow. After sending positive energy to this person, the practitioner allows the Metta to flow to the next person, either another close relative or friend, or the practitioner proceeds to the next step in the process, which is to send these same loving thoughts to a person towards whom one is emotionally neutral. This could be a store clerk or librarian, or anyone else towards whom one has neither great feelings of affinity nor animosity.

After sending positive vibrations to the people towards whom one is emotionally neutral, the next step is to send these same positive vibrations to people towards whom one may feel negative emotions such as anger, fear, hatred, or jealousy. By sending the same thoughts of love and benevolence towards people with whom one has feelings of negativity, the Metta practitioner develops a deep wellspring of compassion. One may, then, finish with one’s own self again, thereby, bringing the process full circle. It is this characteristic of universal compassion that is central to the non-violent reform of society as a whole.

My personal experience with Metta at this retreat was that it affirmed the compassion in my heart, and, for months to come, I was less likely to be hostile in my behaviour towards others, and also myself, in general. The effects of even a single round of Metta practice can be truly remarkable. While the meditation practices were the focus of the retreat, the evenings also consisted of a teacher discourse, where a lecture of the international teacher of the organization, S.N. Goenka, would be shown. Goenka’s message to the world is one that promotes morality and non-violent conduct, and he is a noble embodiment of the bodhisattva ideal.

On the final day of the course, a documentary of the implementation of the Vipassana meditation course into the Indian prison system was shown. The uplifting film was entitled “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana”. The ten-day course was first offered at Tihar jail, outside of New Delhi, one of the worst prisons in all of India.  The warden at Tihar was an energetic woman named Kiran Bedi, and it was largely through her efforts that Vipassana was brought to Tihar. S.N. Goenka, himself, and many of his acolytes offered the course.

For the duration of the ten days, the teachers lived on the prison grounds with their students, demonstrating trust and humaneness towards these hardened criminals. Not all inmates were able to participate as a certain screening process took place to ascertain each prisoner’s eligibility; however, the criteria of the screening process remained unknown to the viewer. The video documents the change in attitudes of the prisoners who underwent the Vipassana program by interviewing many of them afterwards, as well as the teachers who conducted the course.

            The ten-day Vipassana meditation course is now offered prominently throughout North America, Asia, Australia, and Europe. The personal outcome of this campaign of non-violent action for me was that it set my sails on a new course in life. Through this experience, I was able to enter the depths of my own being and develop further levels of compassion. Attending a Vipassana retreat is a must for any person who seriously wishes to cultivate non-violent behaviour in their lives.

For information on Vipassana courses and retreats offered worldwide, visit:www.dhamma.org

“Vipissana Meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka” Vipassana Meditation. N.p. n.d. Web. 10 May. 2011

Doing Time, Doing Vipassana. Dir. Eilona Ariel & Ayelet Menahemi. Perf. Kiran Bedi. Karuna Films, 1997. DVD.