Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Vipassana 10 day Meditation Retreat

After watching a film about introducing meditation to a prison in India in the 90s, I was deeply moved and decided to sign up to a 10 day retreat being offered. I have been meditating for some years, and welcomed the opportunity to spend 10 days in silent retreat, focussed entirely on sitting and meditating, with all physical needs taken care of. The reality was rather different. It turned out instead that this was a method to encourage people to become devotees of Vipassana, a Buddhist meditation technique taught by a Mr Goenca.

I was quite nervous turning up to the venue, not knowing what to expect. But the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. I was camping and had somehow lost all my tent pegs, but the assistant teacher willingly lent me some. Men and women were in separate groups. We had a light supper and then went to meditate in the hall, each given a specific place with cushions. The 'teacher' sat on a raised dais in front. After about an hour we were suddenly assaulted aurally, with no warning by Mr Goenca's 'chanting', a weird dirge-like wailing, in a foreign language, ending in an extended gutteral outbreath. We were asked to confirm our commitment to certain precepts, including not to kill anything during these 10 days, not to make contact with other participants, and our intention to stay to the end. There was a feeling of surveillance. If people slouched against the wall, or pointed their feet 'towards the teacher', they were reprimanded. The atmosphere was changing to one where fear predominated rather than joy, and I was beginning to have my doubts as to whether this was the right place for me.

The next day the atmosphere became more tense, and we were introduced to some breath exercises, focussing on the nose area. I had no wish to learn a new technique, having already sampled several different methods, and found that I could practice without using any particular technique. There were rules about not taking food to your room and the feeling of being constantly monitored and I decided to leave. I told the assistant who suggested I have an interview with the teacher, which she would arrange. However before that could happen, I had an experience of the technique suddenly 'happening to me', without my effort, and I took this as a sign that maybe I should stay and check this out.

I carried on, enjoying doing my own meditation and occasionally trying to follow the instructions given by Mr Goenca, which were basically developing a sort of body mindfulness in order to counteract what he saw as the misery of this world, affirming that this was the original view of Buddha which has been misinterpreted. It seems that the aim of much meditation is to relieve the suffering which is seen as a product of the mind, rather than to connect with the infinite which in my experience brings true freedom. I used to think that all humans are looking for the same thing. But I doubt that following the pain brings you to the same place as following the joy. I see the misery of this world as an illusion, a veil through which we are challenged to realise the beauty of creation.

Meditation which considers the individual as totally responsible for suffering, also neglects the social factors which pressure people to behave and feel in certain ways. Social structures and social hierarchies, like this Vipassana school, discourage people from challenging the staus quo. Mr Goenca's attitude was - since you can do nothing about this misery the best you can do is avoid it by developing an 'equanimous' mind. As an activist it is tragic to me to see this passivity being taught. (Buddha himself being a prince, could presumably have done much to change the structure which allowed so many to live in poverty) Meditation and activism may at first appear contradictory, but in fact they support each other. (See Andrew Harvey's Sacred Activism.)

I stayed and watched my resistance build until my 'wild mind' stampeded through all thought of compromise. In my first interview with the teacher she managed to persuade me to continue. But the next session my rebellious spirit refused to let my eyes close. (We were supposed to sit for one hour without moving hands or legs and without opening eyes in order to train ourselves to develop an 'equanimous' mind towards the discomfort). So I had a final interview and agreed to leave with as little disturbance as possible. It was the 8th day morning, I packed my tent and left during the morning meditation, feeling tremendous relief as I drove out of the gate.

In many ways it would have been easier to stay. I did not find the regime harsh. The food was good and the setting peaceful. We were looked after with dedication and all needs taken care of. I even began to get used to the wailing chanting of Mr Goenca. But this traditional way of teaching, ie put aside any reservations you may have and trust me to know what you need, does not support people to develop their own authenticity. It encourages dependency and infantilisation. It is part of a hierarchical tradition which I believe does not serve the needs of this age. Many masters say: don't trust me, trust your experience, but then leave no room to question what they say. It is a way of learning which I espoused at a time when I was desperate in my life, and certainly it helped me at the time, but I stayed dependent on it longer than I needed. And I now think there are ways of acquiring knowledge and experience which don't demand that loyalty to one method or master, or that subjugation of self which is required, predicated on an analysis which divides being into mind, body, soul. Supporting individuals to explore for themselves from an early age, using whatever knowledge is available would help counteract this tendency.

I have written this is in the public domain because I believe Vipassana methods could be more open in letting people know what they are signing up to, especially by being more transparent about Mr Goenca's role. Certainly it is all there on the net if you look.