By Dr. Rohi Shetty
Modern life can be extremely stressful. The strain of dealing with multiple conflicting demands at work and home can be overwhelming. Each person copes with this stress differently. Some choose distractions such as TV and video games or self-destructive ways such as tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Others may need counseling or psychiatric therapy. However, more and more people are turning to meditation as an effective way of dealing with stress.
In response to this growing demand, a wide range of meditation courses are being offered worldwide. However, many people still feel uneasy about meditation and associate it with mysticism and esoteric cults. Among the various meditation techniques, Vipassana meditation is relatively unknown because it is taught in ten-day residential courses and is not actively publicized.
Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique of India, which was discovered and taught by the Buddha. Its present teacher, S. N. Goenka, learned it in Burma (Myanmar). After his return to India in 1969, he started teaching Vipassana to his family, friends and acquaintances until his death in September 2013. Now Vipassana courses are conducted in hundreds of meditation centers throughout the world by his assistants.
Vipassana has seven features that distinguish it from other meditation courses:
- No Fees are Charged for the Course
Vipassana is taught in ten-day residential courses but no fees are charged for the course. All expenses are sponsored by those who have already completed one or more Vipassana courses. At the end of the course, participants may give a donation to support future courses. One significant benefit of this policy is that you can do the course with a feeling of humility and gratitude.
- Based on an Ethical Foundation
During the course, participants have to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants and sexual activity. Ethical behavior is the foundation of the practice of Vipassana. An unethical deed is like hurling a stone into a lake; it causes turbulence. Whenever you act unethically, the mind loses its balance and becomes disturbed.
- Supported by the Practice of Noble Silence
During the first nine days of the course, participants are instructed to observe complete silence and to avoid any communication with fellow meditators. Noble silence means they do not communicate even by gestures. (However, participants may communicate with the meditation teacher about the meditation practice and with the center management about any material needs.) The silent and peaceful course environment helps participants to focus exclusively on the meditation practice. This protection from external distractions enables their minds to become progressively sharper and more sensitive.
- Present-Moment Awareness
On the first day, participants are instructed to focus their attention on the flow of incoming and outgoing breath, without allowing any distraction to break the chain of awareness. Course participants soon discover that this is not as easy as it appears. The mind is constantly distracted by past or future thoughts, memories, and fantasies. Each time this happens, they are instructed to smilingly bring their attention back to respiration without losing patience. Gradually, the Vipassana meditator-student learns to focus the mind on the reality of the present moment and to overcome the distractible nature of the mind.
- Seeing Things as They Really Are: Development of Insight
On the fourth day of the course, participants learn to systematically move their attention from head to feet, part by part, and to observe the reality manifesting itself in each part of the body. By the diligent practice of Vipassana, participants learn to develop awareness of the different sensations throughout the body and to observe them with equanimity by understanding their transient nature.
- Metta: Practice of Altruistic Kindness
On the tenth day, participants learn to share their hard-gained mental wealth of peace, harmony and happiness with all beings. Each participant understands by their experiences during the Vipassana course that they are the first victims of any mental negativity in their mind as well as the first beneficiary of positive mental feelings. They learn to develop and share their feelings of goodwill (metta) for all beings. Later, they also learn to develop other positive emotions such as compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness.
- Practical Application of Mindfulness in Daily Life
On the last day of the course, participants learn how to integrate this simple but effective meditation technique in everyday life. Whenever we are challenged by any person or event, the rhythm of the respiration changes; it becomes rapid or uneven. With practice, we learn to recognize this change in the rhythm of the breath and the resultant change in our mental balance. If we observe our breath for a few moments, it regains its natural rhythm, and as a result, our mind regains its balance. Gradually, we learn to use this method to deal with any stressful situation.
Main Benefits of Vipassana Meditation
The practice of Vipassana meditation enables us to apply two key principles in daily life:
- To be aware of the present moment without reacting negatively to it, and
- To accept complete responsibility for one’s present mental state without blaming anyone else.
Join the conversation:
Have you ever joined a Vipassana course meditation retreat?
What was your experience?
Let us know in the comments below.
(8 March 2017)