My Experience with 10 day Vipassana Meditation: Part 1

I recently took a 10 day Vipassana meditation course. I had it on my bucketlist after reading “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright last year. This series of posts is meant to provide insights into my experience and learnings from doing the course. They will be useful to those who are planning to take it for the first time. 

This post will cover some basic theory, background and my goals for taking the course. The second post will cover my learnings/observations and tips for first-timers taking the course. The third post will cover some of the things I am skeptical about and for which more investigation is required. 

Overall, I had a very positive experience and think that the 10 days were well spent. The bulk of the course focuses on Vipassana Meditation and it is an amazing technique that is taught with the seriousness it deserves. 

Theory behind Vipassana 

The theory behind Vipassana is simple (and scientifically accurate) 

  • The mind works as follows
    1. Cognizing: Internal and external objects and events are recognized through our 6 sense doors (eye, ear, skin, nose, taste and mind/thought consciousness) Notice that mind is rightly characterized as external as we have little control over thoughts that emerge within us from time to time. 
    2. Perception, Evaluation and Sensation: These objects are perceived and understood by the mind based on past experiences and based on our evaluation, affective sensations are sent to the body (pleasing or non-pleasing) Whatever happens upto this point is automatic and you have little control over this process. 
    3. Reaction/Formation: The sensations are felt both consciously and unconsciously and we generate a heap of actions to respond to the sensations – either get more of the pleasing ones or get away from the non-pleasing ones. This is something we have control over and a place where we can make changes through Vipassana meditation. 
    4. Consciousness: This heap of actions taken based on sensations produces the feeling of consciousness of “I” that is responding to the sensations. This cycle goes on endlessly throughout our life as we are always exposed to the external and internal world through our sense doors. 
  • The sensations can induce craving/clinging or aversion if allowed a free rein on our lives (like human Pavlovian dogs)   
  • The way to free ourselves of craving is to deeply understand these sensations and their nature of impermanence (aniccha), stop identifying with them and reacting to them blindly, observe them dispassionately and remain equanimous to them. 
  • If we keep on doing this, new reactions will not be generated while the stock of old ones (generated through previous actions) will rise to the surface and be eventually eliminated. This is the foundational logic of Vipassana meditation.

If you want to know more about affective sensations and the body-brain connection, I recommend the book “How Emotions are Made”    

What do you gain from it? 

  1. Equanimity: Practicing Vipassana properly and continuously will allow you to free yourself from the hold that the hedonic machinery has on you. It will pull you away from the near constant state of unsatisfactoriness that most humans find themselves in – which requires them to keep identifying with and submitting to the sensations in the body inducing craving and aversion. The “reactive” part of your brain will get weaker over time and you will be able to take more purposeful action.  
  2. Perceptive Boost: Since the technique involves observing sensations created in your body, you will gradually increase your perceptive powers to recognize increasingly subtler sensations and observe the interplay between mind and matter (I did experience this personally in last 3-4 days) The chief teacher Mr. Goenka also says that with a sharp enough mind, you will eventually be able to perceive something that transcends both mind and matter. This is the experience of enlightenment which can take a lot of effort to reach. You may also be able to grasp the true nature of the world and the self (essenceless and non-self) rather than “apparent reality” around you and inside you. The “cognizing” part of your brain will become stronger and you will start seeing reality in less distorted ways. 
  3. Compassion and Kindness: I am not sure how it works but practicing this makes you more compassionate towards others and less likely to experience anger, fear e.t.c (which are considered as defilements of the mind in Buddhist theory). I did experience a slightly altered perception of many events from the past where I had been wronged and would react with anger and distress. This seems to be a subjective experience though and could have been due to other factors. 
  4. Better Quality of Life: Just like any other type of meditation, the practice requires a concentrated mind so you will get all the mundane benefits as well which include clarity of thought, calmness, mental resilience which should impact all aspects of your life including work, relationships e.t.c 

My personal goals before taking the course 

When I decided to go for the 10 day course, I felt it was going to be a big investment of my time. Therefore, I had high expectations from it. “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright is about how modern science and evolutionary psychology is finding a lot of Buddhist theory to be fundamentally correct (eg: the concept that the self does not exist and that external objects have no essence). Meditation was a tool to experientially grasp these realities instead of just understanding them at an intellectual level. 

Even though Buddhism had a flourishing tradition of philosophy and logic, it is fundamentally a experiential tradition where you are encouraged to see the truth yourself through meditation (samadhi, panya) and wholesome actions (sila). Intellectually, I know that I am seeing a distorted sense of self and the world but it was not possible to change my perception just by me trying to will it. Meditation practice is a necessary tool to see things clearly, as they are.

I did not really achieve these goals in the 10 day course but I am still happy for having been introduced to this technique which I can use to make progress on these goals in the future. 

The next post will cover some of my learnings and observations from when I was actually doing the 10 day course   

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