Some of the most useful lessons I’ve ever learned were taught to me by a dead man. He had passed away some years already before he came into my life, but goodness, did he come into my life. I still vividly remember the pain I went through during my time as his apprentice. The terribly lengthy boredom. The frustration. The silence… I thought I would never, ever want him as my mentor again, but to tell you the truth… I might be ready for another round!
So, who is this man?
His name is Satya Narayan Goenka. A Burmese-Indian teacher of Vipassana meditation. Vipassana means “seeing things as they really are” and the goal is to purify the mind and eliminate negativities that make us miserable. This meditation technique goes back two and a half thousand years to the Buddha. However, you don’t need to convert to Buddhism to practice Vipassana, nor has it anything to do with any other religion or philosophy.
I tried to learn how to meditate – in vain
Anyone, regardless of background, can learn the basics of Vipassana, during a ten-day residential course at one of the more than 200 meditation centers worldwide. As Mr. Goenka insisted that meditation must never become a business to maintain its purity, there are no charges for these courses – not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. All expenses are met by donations by former apprentices who experienced the benefits of Vipassana and wish to give others the opportunity to also benefit from it.
And it was exactly in one of these Vipassana meditation centers where Mr. Goenka became my mentor. Because after having tried to learn how to meditate by myself for many years in vain, I had decided to join a ten-day Vipassana course in Sri Lanka.
Ten-and-a-half hours of meditation a day
Every night, during a 1 ½ hour discourse on tape, Mr. Goenka would explain me and my fellow students about the Vipassana technique. He had such a friendly face. He was so soft-spoken. Calm. Wise. Funny. And overall: a very welcome distraction after just having meditated for 10 ½ hours.
Ten-and-a-half hours? Yes, 10 ½ hours. Of meditation. A day. 10 days in a row. That is 10 ½ hours with your eyes closed trying to clear your mind. 10 ½ hours of sitting until you do not know how to do it anymore. Your ass, your knees, your neck, your back, your legs, everything hurts, is stiff and cracks.
An interesting detail is that it’s an important part of this meditation technique, to stay in the same position for as long as possible – without even moving a toe. While practicing Vipassana, you move through the body in sections, paying attention to the various sensations that arise, without reacting to them. Even if it’s pain or other discomfort. By “objectively observing” these sensations, you will find that they pass away after a while. The idea is that by learning to observe yourself this way, you can teach yourself to keep the balance of your mind, whenever a difficult situation arises in life.
Speaking, reading and writing are prohibited
For thos of you who thought that meditation is just sitting and relaxing with your eyes closed, I’m sorry, I have to disappoint you. Meditation is hard work. And the Vipassana retreats are strict. Speaking or any other contact – even eye contact – is prohibited. Reading or writing is prohibited. All your personal belongings, such as your phone, books and pens are taken from you upon arrival at the retreat, and locked into a large steel box. All Vipassana centers are very sober and neutral. It’s back to basic. In a hardcore way. And last but not least: you follow an exhausting schedule of concentration and meditation sessions from 4am to 9pm. Ten long, long days. It was a tough undertaking. But it was worth it.
Slowly becoming loony from meditating
So what did Mr. Goenka and his meditation retreat do for me? Well, first of all: I’ve learned how to meditate! Nothing of that handy dandy meditation that I had tried before, but serious shit with energy flows through your body that give you the feeling of a “body sweep”.
The first time I felt this, on day 5, I just thought: “OK, this is my imagination. The dullness of trying to meditate for 10 ½ hours has taken over my brains and I’m slowly starting to become loony.” But then I managed again. And again. And no, I was not going mental, I had just practiced on it for 105 hours!
Run away to a beautiful Sri Lankan beach
I was so proud of myself. And not only because I had finally learned how to meditate, but also because I sat through that long and difficult 10 days, without running away to a beautiful Sri Lankan beach instead. I would be a Vipassana practitioner forever, I was sure.
However, back to normal life, with work, travel, study, sports, social life… my Vipassana sessions gradually reverted back into the handy-dandy-on-the-run-5-minute-morning-meditations. And Mr. Goenka faded into oblivion.
We find it hard to take time for ourselves
Until coronavirus made us all step out of this rat race we call life. Quarantine made me reflect on how we find it hard to really take time for ourselves. Isn’t it interesting that we travel to the end of the world and explore other cultures, but don’t take time to discover our own deeper self?
So I decided to pick up Vipassana again. I am enjoying it to the fullest and I am even considering to be Mr. Goenka’s apprentice again. Who would have ever thought that? Not me, believe me.
Dear Mr. Goenka, may he rest in peace. He did so much good work in this world and left behind a huge legacy, the technique of Vipassana, available more widely than ever before to people around the world. And to end with his very own words: “May all beings find real peace, real harmony, real happiness.”
Note: after having spent 10 days in the retreat in 2017, I finally went to that beautiful Sri Lankan beach. Happy to be able to write again after so many days, I wrote this more in-depth blog, about my Vipassana experience. Read & enjoy!
‘Vipassana meditation, the art of living’ by William Hart