(Irish Eyes, October 1998)
by Alison Benney
Enlightenment first. Breakfast second. And no chitchat. That was the order of the day at the Vipassana Center in Burgundy where I recently survived almost two weeks of hardcore Buddhist meditation. My friends were concerned about pernicious sects and brainwashing schemes: I had to commit to spending 10 days on-site without any worldly distractions. That meant no speaking, reading, writing, communicating with the outside world or - gasp - exercising.
Sounds like an easy life: a spiritual Club "Med" tucked away amidst green rolling hills, fresh clean air and a night sky sparkling with stars, especially beautiful viewed at 4am, at which time the wakeup gong got us out of bed and straggling to the meditation hall. By 4:30am all participants were seated cross-legged and striving to concentrate, to direct the mind in paths other than the break in two hours for breakfast.
But it's not just a matter of sitting around for 11 hours each day. This is tough discipline, a bootcamp for change-oriented meditation. The Vipassana (or "insight") technique demands results. As teacher H.N. Goenke explained in his nightly video discourses, "Other philosophies and meditation techniques also recommend sila (morality), samadhi (concentration) and panna (wisdom), and this is all very good. But Vipassana is the only technique, the original practice handed down by Buddha 2,500 years ago, that lets you put self-awareness and change into practice."
I'm not much for the philosophy that the art of living is to prepare for dying, and the idea of reincarnation still seems ambiguously optimistic. What I did appreciate was the attitude that sharing these techniques excludes payment for them, a freely distributed gift of wisdom. The system has thrived solely on donations since Goenkaji revived the practice in India in 1969. Since then, a network of 43 Vipassana centers around the world have been started up - built, financed and organised totally by volunteers.
The technique claims to help relieve misery through the attitude of non-attachment, that is, "no craving or aversion towards any sensation, whether material, emotional or mental, knowing that all things are anicca, or impermanent." By deeply concentrating on the body's sensations and viewing with equanimity the multiple pains that arise - on all three levels - one learns to know oneself and, by extension, how to deal calmly with the vicissitudes of daily life. In other words, to "be here now."
The meditation guidance and instructions were given in both English and French, but that didn't make it any easier. In fact, 10 of the 90 participants left the course early, within the first few days. Even the returning students admitted that emotions of frustration, boredom and restlessness vied with stronger feelings of curiosity, satisfaction, excitement and, yes, bliss.
The practice of Noble Silence, in fact, turned out to be the easy part, once we got used to blocking the automatic courtesies. Living in dormitory style, it's even a relief to keep one's thoughts to oneself, to avoid idle chatter at lunch and that too-perky voice at dawn. On the other hand, it would have been helpful to get some tips on how to achieve a less painful Lotus position. The women around me in the meditation hall were hard-put not to giggle as each day I added another cushion to my throne of knee- and derriere-protective padding.
The Center itself was a microcosm for the teachings, making it easy to follow the five precepts. Nobody lied because we were all silent. No killing meant we dined on delicious vegetarian buffets and weren't supposed to kill those moths that slept on the shower curtains. No stealing - well, there we were on our honor, as with the no-intoxicants rule. And, guarding against sexual misconduct, the men were separated from the women for the entire period.
Pacing the half-acre garden area honed my appreciation for noticing micro-changes. This refining of the senses also applied to learning to deal with heightened human frailties. The woman snorting behind me in the meditation hall couldn't really have been making more noise than my heavy breathing, and I had to beat down that sensation of MY banana each morning while lining up for breakfast. This in addition to trying to be less greedy at meals since there was only a tea-and-fruit break between lunch at noon and bedtime at 9:30pm.
When the 10th day arrived and it finally came time to break silence, we all experienced a surprisingly emotional moment. I felt like running and hiding in bed. Others tarried in the meditation hall. The first words came out softly and with the feeling of something precious both lost and gained. It was exhausting to talk, and a bit shocking to touch, even to the slightest pat of a hand on the shoulder.
But after an afternoon and evening of returning to social discourse, it became clear that we'd experienced a perceptible change in composure. We came away with a sense of heightened awareness, a feeling of serenity, with an insightful technique to both de-stress and purify our lives. So that the morning of our departure, when the chatterbox down the hall started perkily singing in the shower at 4am, I could calmly say to myself, anicca. This too will pass. And it did.
For more information, call the Centre Vipassana, tel: 03.86.45.75.14; or consult the Vipassana web page at www.dhamma.org.