Please be warned: this is a lengthy post (3000 words), but it contains all the fears and joys of my experience of the ten-day Vipassana meditation course at Dhamma Dipa. I hope you find it valuable.
How I felt at Dhamma Dipa: A Summary.
Ten days of renunciation, renunciation of all the things I listed here, some I was glad to be rid of, some I was uncomfortable without. The purpose of the renunciation was to clear space for meditation, for the serious hard work of meditation, living the life of a monk for ten days. All my basic needs were comfortably covered, but I found that I was still not content. Food, water and shelter were not sufficient for me. What could I possibly still need after my basic needs were covered? I craved stimulation. I found I craved three big stimulations: mental, physical (including sexual) and social. I suppose there are other stimulations, such as psychotic and spiritual, but I do not covet these stimulations in the ‘outside world’ so I did not miss them at Dhamma Dipa.
Social and physical stimulation are expressly forbidden on the ten-day course and punished with expulsion (after warnings) so I could only indulge in mental stimulation. This is the last thing that another person can control. Physical and social activity can be observed, monitored and punished. But no one can observe my mind without pinning me down and sticking electrodes onto my skull. So I found solace from the boredom in my own mind. The evening discourses at Dhamma Dipa were the only brain-food that my poor mind found in the outside world so I turned inwards, naturally enough, and found that my internal world was a vast, unexplored territory. I spent hours and hours when I should have been meditating just going over small areas of this territory, discovering, rediscovering. The course was well worth attending just for this precious opportunity for self-exploration, even if I found the meditation hard going.
So why did I find the meditation at Dhamma Dipa hard going?
1) The physical pain was unexpectedly hard.
2) I’m not used to doing one thing repetitively for up to twelve hours a day.
3) I don’t like being told what to do and particularly when I’ve got to do it.
4) I was not ready for the hard work and mental focus that meditation demands. My mind was much more eager to explore itself.
5) I found certain aspects of the Vipassana meditation technique contradictory, confusing and frightening.
Now, numbers 1) – 4) are all about me. It would be unfair to judge Vipassana for these personal limitations. However, number 5) is more serious; an ideological barrier is more significant than a physical or even a mental barrier.
So what did I find objectionable about the technique at Dhamma Dipa?
1) False scientific claims.
2) Rites, rituals and holy men.
4) Fear of brain-washing.
1) The technique was repeatedly described as ‘scientific, rational and logical.‘ It was not. There were elements that had their own internal logic, correct, but the premises they were founded on were neither scientific nor rational. For example, the idea that the pains or sensations of pleasure that you feel in the body are ‘Sankharas bubbling up to the surface,‘ and that by simply observing them and not reacting they would ‘pass away,‘ and not trouble you again is absurd. Equally the idea that these Sankharas are the fuel that is required for mind and matter to ‘push the life force into the next life‘ is absurd. I need not explain why this is not scientific or even rational. It is prima facie absurd.
Unfortunately for logic, reason and science, there was a text-book religious escape clause built into the Vipassana technique: if you don’t agree with any of the theory, that doesn’t matter – ignore it, forget it, pay no attention. If the meditation works for you, that’s fine, and you might find that after meditating for longer you realise that these elements of the theory are in fact the truth also. I suppose anyone who puts a serious amount of time into something is going to believe more and more. I would suggest that the more ‘Christian’ you become, the more rational the raising of Lazarus becomes.
2) The method was also held up as free from all dogma, rite and ritual and yet, at the end of every meditation sitting, there would be the repetition of the phrase ‘Bhavatu sabba mangalam,‘ to which the response was ‘Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu,‘ and then a little bow (if you wanted). The teacher assured us that these were merely kind words of encouragement and that the response was simply thanking the teacher for his teaching. Fine. But why in this language, the dead language of Gautama the Buddha? Why not in my language? It reminded me of the Catholic church, with mass called in Latin. The sittings also start and frequently end with some chanting, also in Pali, this language I don’t understand. If this isn’t ritual, I don’t know what is. Metta meditation, which takes place at the end of a sitting of Vipassana and involves filling the mind and body with thoughts and feelings of goodwill for all beings, struck me simply as prayer: ‘May all beings share in my happiness.‘ Furthermore, at the end of the discourses, the teacher raises his hand and speaks some words of what I can only call blessing. It looks like he’s Jesus or something. I was not impressed; in fact I was scared.
3) Some aspects of the egocentricity in the technique were positive, like the belief that you should focus on changing your perception of the outside world rather than trying to force other people to change. But the egocentricity went further. We were urged to spread our experience of dhamma, the law of nature, to other people. This was essentially a call to proselytise on behalf of the Vipassana technique, which is the only true course to knowledge of dhamma and real enlightenment. We were urged to use our knowledge of dhamma for the good of the world. I found this frightening. Perhaps I am a moral relativist, but I find it hard to guarantee my good judgement in all cases, even if I were an enlightened being. The technique seemed to breed the sort of arrogance you see in religions: I know I’m right, let me help you to better yourself by teaching you my wonderful technique.
A development of this egocentricity was the idea of intentionality. According to Gautama the Buddha, intention of action is everything. If the mind is pure (ensured by following the sila, five moral precepts) then the action will be pure, even if it turns out to be a wrong or harmful action. Only from an impure mind can impure actions follow. In other words, honest mistakes happen, but it doesn’t matter too much, you can make up for them. Flip this around and you could say that unintentionally good actions from an impure mind are also mistakes and shouldn’t be counted as good.
Unfortunately, I disagree entirely. I happen to believe that hypocrisy is fine. We are all hypocrites (except perhaps Gautama the Buddha) – there’s no getting away from that, so why not fake it until we make it? I would argue that, as long as the action is good, the intention scarcely makes a difference. If the action is bad then a good intention only ameliorates things for the victim, doesn’t it? It’s mitigation in your defence and doesn’t necessarily lead to forgiveness and restitution.
For all we know, the intentions of Hitler may have been good. Surely every human on the planet believes in their own right action, we all feel sure our intentions are good. But the actions of Hitler were, by general consensus, bad. His (hypothetical) good intentions do not make the suffering of the victims any more bearable. Similarly, no one actually cares if the intentions are bad, as long as the actions are good. I could do something solely for my own personal gain and only inadvertently do endless good to others. I don’t believe that makes my action bad.
But perhaps Gautama the Buddha would say that your good action with bad intent would make you feel bad, that it would make you miserable. In other words, that, while intention might not matter from the perspective of the victim of the action, it does from the perspective of the perpetrator. But I would argue that good intentions only ameliorate the situation for the perpetrator also. If you are the one who pulls the lever that kills six people when you thought that it would save them, you are still overwhelmed with remorse, you go over and over the action again and again trying to work out if you could have done anything. Everyone may well say that there is nothing you could have done, that it wasn’t your fault – but still you killed six people. If you have bad intentions behind good actions then you might feel like a fraud, but good intentions behind bad actions might make you feel like an idiot, a blunderer.
4) We were asked, not only to renounce physical comforts, mental props and all kinds of things, but it seemed we were also asked to leave our brains at the door. We were told that ‘In order to give the technique a fair trial,’ we should give ourselves entirely to the method, to work hard and to focus for ten days solid. After the ten days we would be free again, we could throw it all in the garbage can if we wanted. But to give up your mind for even ten days is a huge commitment. I’m pretty sure I could make anyone believe in the power of writing if they gave themselves to me for ten days and worked on nothing but writing for twelve hours a day. It’s nothing to do with the wonder of writing (or plumbing or painting or accountancy, all of which would benefit from 120 hours hard practice), it’s to do with the sheer time commitment by the student.
This ten-day commitment at Dhamma Dipa was then coupled with a further commitment to continue to practise at home for two hours a day for a year. Again, if you do anything two hours a day for a year, you’ll sure as hell believe in it! You’d get good. The more you invest in something, the more your clever brain will squeeze out of it and, crucially, the more the brain will ascribe value to the activity. Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I’m not saying it is a good thing. It is just a fact. Vipassana doesn’t seem to do anything particularly harmful to its students or to the people around the student. It’s hard to disagree with the ethics of Vipassana (although I’ll try, later) and equanimity seems a pretty harmless life-goal (if a little dull). But why should I help spread this particular meme?
Unfortunately the Vipassana meme can also be addictive, ironic as it is supposedly about freeing the mind and the body from craving. My room-mate at Dhamma Dipa was addicted to meditation. I know this because he told me. He was upset on the last night that it was all over, another person in the hall was in tears. A co-meditator warned me about meditation becoming an ego trip, as it had become for him some years previously. Several people commented that either people go once and then never again or they get really into it. A young guy told me that you need a girlfriend who is into it otherwise they don’t understand when you don’t react to their love or their anger – they think you don’t love them.
Isn’t this the meme multiplying itself very successfully? But does this addiction matter if it makes people happy? There is an element of truth in the idea that happiness comes from simply committing to a life philosophy or a life goal. We see it all the time in people who have found Jesus (sorry to pick on Christianity, I use it only because it is the predominant background religion in the UK and my use is illustrative).
Perhaps it’s just that I don’t want to commit to a life philosophy; I enjoy learning as I go, trying new things, building my own system. That is the game of life for me. I don’t believe in any after-life, therefore I have no need for any system of getting there (or not getting there). All I need is something that will make me happy here and now and that will make other people happy (which seems to be what makes me happy). I am perfectly willing to concede that this purpose could well be served by Vipassana, but I prefer the liberality of my own vision. There are plenty of people in the world who share my ideas, including students of Vipassana. The main advantage (some could see it as a disadvantage – it involves thinking) is that I’m open to change, Vipassana isn’t.
5) I don’t like the inflexibility of Vipassana. The first precept, for example, is: ‘To abstain from killing any being.‘ This translates (in real terms: no human likes killing things) into vegetarianism (and not squishing bugs). But really, science has moved on. Plants are no longer the dumb biomass that people thought 2,500 years ago. They are sentient beings just like you and I. The moral justification for vegetarianism on these grounds is shot to flames. So too, therefore, is this precept, but they aren’t about to change it, are they? Of course not: the five precepts are fundamental and immutable.
I’m not saying that you can’t justify vegetarianism on moral or ethical grounds, just not on these moral grounds. You could, for example, argue that vegetarianism is the least disruptive diet to the ecology of the planet, given our current farming methods and our current population. Fine (but note that these conditions on the ethical rectitude of vegetarianism are subject to change), but you cannot justify it on the grounds of the immorality of killing any beings. It is this inflexibility that leads to dogma and unthinking. That is what scares me. And of course, once you’ve opened up this precept to examination, then all kinds of questions raise themselves, real questions that people have been facing up to for millennia, such as: when is killing acceptable?
So what did I like about the method at Dhamma Dipa?
You may have got the impression that, from a theoretical point of view, this ten-day course was a complete waste of my time. Fine: I may have learnt a lot about my own mind, but I could have done that without the Vipassana education on top, couldn’t I? Yes, but I must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There were a plenty of theoretical points that I did appreciate in Vipassana and several very important lessons that I learnt, more ammunition in my arsenal against the demons, devils and dragons that we face in life.
1) Everything is changing. One can witness this by observing sensations on the body, by observing the feelings of pain or pleasure that arise and then pass away after some time. But the idea goes much much deeper than sensations on the body. Every situation we face, every being on the planet, every molecule is in a state of constant flux. This concept helps to develop equanimity, which can help you combat stress, help you make better decisions or simply make you happier. For example, if you have money problems, then understand that this is just a situation and that it will change over time. Sometimes you will have money, sometimes you won’t. You can then use this equanimity to develop a calm and logical plan for saving money or for earning more – or for deciding that money isn’t important to you.
2) It is the sensations that we feel on the body that provoke disgust or pleasure and that lead to our reactions of aversion or clinging. Understand that it is not the object out there in the world that causes your reaction, but the patterns of the mind that interpret how your body feels. With this in mind, it is much easier to resist the temptation to buy that videophone that you know will only cause you pain when it breaks or when it is stolen, that you know will only cause you to spend hours on Facebook when you should be working, that you know will only take you further away from real social interactions with the people you love. Equally it makes the thought of cleaning the toilet a much happier prospect: that disgusting stain on the bowl is simply that. It need not provoke aversion; perhaps it is something to be enjoyed instead. Enjoy it for what it is: just another object in the world, like a deer in the snow or that scene in There’s Something About Mary or a kiss from a lover – nothing to feel aversion towards or craving for.
3) Hard, hard work is the secret to success. The teacher had a mantra that is a great foundation for everything we do in life: ‘Work diligently, patiently and persistently, and continuously. You are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.’ It is not about sitting around and waiting for enlightenment (or whatever); it is about getting off (or on) your arse and doing some hard bloody work. We all think we’re perfect so the first step is to realise that isn’t true and to work hard at being better.
One more thing…
If you liked this post, you’ll almost certainly enjoy my newsletter. You can check out the most recent issue here Or subscribe below: