As some of you would be aware, I recently participated in a ten-day Vipassana course in Blackheath, NSW. Going into it, I knew only what little information had been made available on their website, together with a couple of things that former participants had agreed to tell me, despite their unanimous insistence that it is better to go into these things blind. Anybody who shares this ridiculous belief and would rather not know in advance what happens at a Vipassana retreat is advised to stop reading, now. As for the rest of you, the following constitutes my review of the experience.
To start off, participants were encouraged to take a vow. The content of the vow was as follows:
• I will abstain from telling lies. This is actually very easy, given that
• I will abstain from any form of communication, including speech. This even included making eye contact with fellow participants, but did not include our relationship with the assistant teachers, with whom we were encouraged to meet privately every day and discuss our “progress”.
• I will abstain from killing anything. Unfortunately, this one did include the assistant teachers.
• I will abstain from having sexual intercourse with anybody. Apparantly, even if I refuse to make eye contact with them while we’re doing it, or speak to them afterwards.
• I will not take any intoxicants.
Had I have known that I was going to be given my own private room, I would most certainly have snuck in some reading material. A tractate or two of the Babylonian Talmud might have gone down nicely, together with Jastrow’s Talmudic dictionary, a nice Tanakh, some scholarship on Ezra/Nehemiah, and a book in which to write. But then, I probably would have also snuck in a bottle of scotch, so it’s good that I was expecting shared accommodation.
As a result, for ten days, in the bushland of Blackheath, I wandered in silence. For ten days, with neither phone, nor email, nor printed matter of any description, I sat in the bush and I walked through the trees. I observed a lizard hatching from an egg, an old bee grooming himself and dying, and life positively teeming all around me. As a long-time fan of Sir David Attenborough and his remarkable documentaries, it was a very pleasant surprise to discover just how much one can see, up close and personal, if only one takes the time to shut up and sit still.
For several hours on every one of those days, I also learned and practised a technique of meditation that practitioners ascribe to Siddhartha Gautama, and that they claim represents the essence of Buddhism. Professing it to constitute a universal doctrine that transcends faith and creed, they insist upon its applicability to every major religion and every minor sect. I respected their rules (with one exception: I took covert notes) and, despite finding the process almost unbearable, I lasted the full length of the course.
So, do I recommend it? Well, that all depends on what one means by “it”. The technique: absolutely. Simple and yet profound, it is a meditation that offers a number of advantages. The course that presented that technique, however, was so heavily laden with absolute garbage that it is impossible to know where the baby ends and the bathwater begins. Or, to bastardise a different metaphor, I would advise not only taking everything that they say with a pinch of salt, but also tossing it over your left shoulder as you walk out the gate at the end of the course. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.
Our daily schedule was as follows:
4:00 – wake up to the gentle sound of a gong outside the window.
4:05 – go back to sleep.
4:20 – wake up again to the gentle sound of a gong, and groan. Remind me why I signed up for this?
4:30 – stumble, bleary-eyed into the hall for a “sit”. Sit.
6:25 – the hall is filled with the noise of Pali chanting, projected through speakers that are mounted near the roof. Hallelujah: the first sit of the day has finished, and it is time for…
6:30 – breakfast! Cereal, oatmeal and toast aplenty. I had the toast, and I had it aplenty.
8:00 – the first compulsory sit of the day. One hour, crosslegged, don’t you move. Instructions come at the beginning of it, and develop as the course progresses.
9:00 – meditate for two hours, either in the hall or in your room. Or, of course, don’t. Wander the grounds at your leisure and pretend to focus on your breathing. On occasions, be asked to remain behind with either the new male students, new female students, old male students or old female students – depending, of course, on which of those categories you belong to. This is an opportunity to meet with the assistant teacher, even if you didn’t want to. Males and females were separated throughout the entire course, and the only time we ever crossed paths (if it could be called “crossing paths”) was on our way to…
11:00 – lunch! Oh, so much food! Completely vegetarian, but of such high quality that I didn’t think of meat or fish once. This is the luck of the draw, really, as the kitchen (indeed, the entire program) is staffed by volunteers.
2:30 – the second compulsory sit of the day. One hour, crosslegged, etc.
3:30 – meditate for an hour-and-a-half, or wander the grounds and curse yourself for not having brought that tractate.
5:00 – “dinner”. Two pieces of fruit (either of which might have been banana, apple, orange, mandarin, kiwifruit, watermelon or pineapple), and copious amounts of tea.
6:00 – the third compulsory sit. You know the deal.
7:00 – the absolute worst part of my day. For one hour, our esteemed teacher, S.N. Goenka, delivered (via DVD) his smiling yoda wisdom. I wanted to stab something.
8:00 – another one-hour sit, in which we could practise some of the material that we had just learnt, before utilising it properly the following morning.
9:00 – go to bed. Have the strangest and most vivid dreams ever. Freud would have loved me.
Staffed completely by volunteers, and offered for no fee whatsoever, I almost feel bad insulting the
guards staff who run the place. And yet, whether they were pacing the hall with clipboards in their hands, checking to see that nobody was extending their feet (this is apparantly an insult to the teacher in somebody’s country, somewhere), or bursting into my room at 5:00 one morning, on the one occasion that I was not on my meditation mat by 4:30, their tight-lipped grimaces belied the compassion that they feel for all sentient beings. So, to combat their fascistic love of timetables, I learned to stir at 4:00 only to turn on the light in my room, and go back to sleep until 6:20, thus creating the illusion that I was meditating in private. Where there’s a Buddhist will, there’s a Jewish way. I need my sleep.
And there, in a nutshell, is Vipassana. But of what substance is the kernel? Allow me now to mention some of the more insulting, insane, condescending or absurd elements of Goenka’s ridiculous philosophy. And who knows: maybe even insult a few people in the process.
By meditating upon the body, your mind will begin to uncover sensations of which it had previously been unaware.
Remember that old Zen koan? “If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around, does it make a noise?” This was probably more profound in the 14th century, when people didn’t know how sound travelled or how it was perceived. I don’t want to be obtuse, but isn’t it obvious that the answer is “no”? If there is nothing around that can perceive sound waves as sound, they remain merely vibrations in the air. So too when it comes to sensations on the body. While some sensations might possess a physical counterpart (such as a mosquito bite), sensation remains a strictly neurological phenomenon. Proof of this lies in the plethora of sensations that amputees continue to feel in limbs that have been long removed from their bodies, for unless the mind’s map of the body should change, the body’s physical contours are largely unimportant. This is even the case when there is a strong physical component to the itch/cramp/twitch, or whatever. All it takes is to be sufficiently distracted, and the sensation disappears. To suggest that it is still there, undetected, would be like saying that the tree made a crashing noise as it fell through the canopy, even though there was nothing around to have heard it.
If you spend long hours in meditation, your coarse mind becomes subtler and subtler, until the sensations that you notice are of a likewise subtler nature, and are felt throughout the entire body.
At first, I nicknamed Goenka the Subtler Rebbe, but only because, at first, he struck me as a friendly, pious fellow. By the time that I was sick of his bloated hypocrisy (I don’t like my own “religious leaders”; why would I like somebody else’s?), these sentiments came to grate significantly on my nerves. For a start, if you spend long hours in meditation, focusing in silence on your still, crosslegged body, you are going to hone your proprioception down to an absolute T. And as you do so, you will begin to psychosomatically generate subtle vibrations throughout those parts of your body that you can make yourself aware of. As you progress further, you will naturally get better and better at proprioceptively recognising every part of your anatomy, and you will consequently begin to do an even better job of generating sensations of a subtle nature throughout it. Every now and again you will get a screaming itch, but those are just the sensations that have a physical counterpart, screaming at you through the haze of your invented vibrations. Must we pretend that we are uncovering a deep truth about ourselves in the process? Cannot a cigar ever be a cigar?
The vibrations that you feel are just macro-representations of tiny subatomic particles called kalapas, which are coming into existence and passing away with great rapidity.
Schrödinger’s cat is now out definitely of the bag. The teacher is an idiot.
By training your mind to be aware of such sensations, you not only begin to recognise the impermance of your existence, but remain equanimous during times of negative emotion…
Ah! And it is here that I acknowledge the value of this meditative technique. Ignoring the bullshit with which it is encrusted, what we have here is the tiny gem that lies at the heart of Vipassana. Rather than succumb, let’s say, to anger, I can (ideally) become aware of the changes in my respiration that mark the onset of anger, and the sensations that my body produces when it is overcome by the emotion. By observing these phenomena dispassionately, I avoid the ill effects of the sensation altogether. In fact, I had already been practising this for a while, having encountered a variation of this on a Buddhist website, once upon a distant time:
Imagine that you are driving your car, and some bastard cuts in front of you. The nerve of this fellow! How infuriated you become! Intellectually, you know that you’ve no reason to be so irate, as you most probably committed whatever heinous act has just offended you twice in the last half hour yourself, but driving is a stressful activity and we are all prone to stress-induced irritation. But take a moment to observe your irritation. Behave as though you were writing a research paper on human psychology. Simply note that, in this situation, “there is anger”. Note, when somebody has offended you, that “there is hurt”. Indeed, for the whole gamut of negative human emotions (and excepting those times when grief genuinely overpowers the senses), one might get by with simple observation of the human condition, and prevent oneself from succumbing to the psychological tribulations that the moment might otherwise bring. With the right degree of training (focus on your respiration; attune yourself to sensations that your body generates under different conditions), you ideally work towards the stage at which you have nullified all negative emotion.
… and positive emotion.
Well that’s just stupid.
After all, happiness leads to craving, and craving leads to suffering.
Actually, it was “fear leads to suffering”: get it right. The whole notion that desire is really a craving for the feeling of desire itself is one of those ideas that sounds so profound when you haven’t had any sleep, when you’ve been meditating in silence for several hours a day, and when you are surrounded by other people who apparantly share the same view. And yet, if this is enlightenment, why is it only achieved by Buddhist monks and mumbling sycophants? Indeed, why would anybody want to remain equanimous during hours of genuine joy? So that you can wander the monastery of your mind like a lobotomised vegetable? Is life so difficult for you that you need to strip yourself down to the dispassionate core?
In this respect, the teachings of Buddha are universal. After all, suffering is universal.
Oy gevalt. Suffering? Universal? I come from the world’s greatest particularistic tradition, and I can personally vouch for the fact that the notion that anything is universal is not, in itself, a universal notion. But this is quibbling. After all, as Wesley famously told Buttercup, “Life is pain, highness. Anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something”. And yet, if Vipassana were universal, why the constant emphasis on leaving your religion at the door? Why is it impermissible for me to have, in mind, an image of a god or a goddess? Why am I not allowed to focus on the words of a scriptural mantra, or practise a religious tradition privately, within the comfort of my room? The fact that I was forbidden to bring tefillin or tzitzit, that I was forbidden to pray, and that my mantra (רבונו של עולם) was anathema to the Buddhist tradition was all fine by me. I don’t lay tefillin, I don’t wear tzitzit, I haven’t uttered a prayer since the last time I shocked a religious friend by thanking the sun for my lunch, and I’ve not meditated since 2002. But don’t sit there and tell me that by excluding proponents of major organised religions, Vipassana becomes universal. That’s a lie.
By becoming aware of this fact, and by practising equanimity, we can die with a smile, and the next host body for our mind will be one that is fated to experience comfort and bliss.
Say what? Just the technique, right? “No dogma at all”? Hilarious! That the same oblivion and decay that awaits my moribund flesh lies in store for every grinning Buddhist is a matter of fact. But if you want to believe that your mind will keep coming back until it attains some form of enlightenment, then that’s your psychosis. I would really prefer it if you kept it to yourself, or at least had the integrity to mention it in environments where your audience is allowed to speak. How am I supposed to empty my mind when you keep dumping nonsense into it?
Bhavatu Sabba Mangelam.
Ah, it must be 8:00 already. The discourse over, S.N. Goenka now belches out a strained Pali mantra (“May all beings have peace”, or something), and I have a sudden insight into what it would be like, training to be a Jedi under Jabba’s instruction. To my continued disappointment, a surprising number of people bleat, “Saddu Saddu Saddu”, which is the Pali equivalent of Amen, before bowing in the direction of his punchable form. Me, I just contented myself with leaning back and extending a foot.
And, of course, there was the usual sprinkling of nonsense about Buddhism being scientific, about how some Nobel prize-winning physicist has only recently come to the same conclusions as [insert name of religious leader; insert number] centuries ago, and about how all matter, all sensation and all emotion is comprised of the four basic elements: earth, fire, wind and water. That would have made studying for biology easier. But all this I can forgive.
You see, if I had brought reading material with me, distracting myself from their stupidity with my own stupidity (which is superior because it is mine), the whole business would have been a piece of cake. Given that the only information going into my head from the outside was the claptrap that I was being force-fed every evening, these ten days were more of a brainwashing experience than all of my months in yeshiva.
And yet, despite all of this garbage, all of the insulting dogma and all of the simpleminded stupidity, the ten days were a useful and rewarding break away from the busyness of existence. That I got to observe animals in ways never previously experienced was a real blessing. And although I thought that I was bored, I felt positively radiant when the whole experience was over: calmer than I have felt in a long time, with a greater appreciation for precisely what I have to do and how I need to go about doing it. That is not the result of Vipassana, so much as it is the result of my taking time away from the internet, my mobile phone, and speech. I have not maintained the meditation since I returned, and I truly cannot be bothered making any effort. But I have rediscovered the beauty and the efficacy of Jewish prayer, and I hope to blog more about this in the future.
In fact, while the whole experience was meant to enable me to separate myself from Judaism, I actually found that it has only cemented my connection even further. By stripping back the subconscious – at least, ostensibly – and getting to the id that underlies my bloated, monstrous ego, I thought that I might at least come to understand exactly where that identity ends and The Real Me begins. Turns out, however, that underneath my id was another yid all along.
In fact, it’s yidden all the way down.