Meditation is often thought of as a religious practice, as certain meditation techniques involve the repetition of a mantra, which is similar to reciting a prayer. But there are other approaches that are totally non-religious and non-sectarian.
One of India’s oldest meditation techniques, Vipassana means ‘insight’ or ‘seeing clearly’. It invites us to focus on physical sensations: from obvious ones, like hot and cold, to subtler ones, such as vibration.
Mindfulness meditation, popularised in recent times as a stress-reduction method, stems from this ancient, pre-Buddhist practice.
When I first attended the 10-day course some years ago, I experienced directly what I’d known intellectually for a long time: that the mind can be our worst enemy and that, if left untamed, it can slowly destroy us. If this sounds extreme, think of emotions such as resentment and anger, generated by thoughts in the mind, and how damaging they can be to ourselves and others.
One of the advantages of the enforced silence on the course is that it makes you take the practice seriously: if you don’t, you go crazy!
When you don’t talk or write to anyone for several days (the use of electronic devices is not permitted and you can’t even read a book), you realise just how wild the mind is. When in conversation with someone else, we follow a more or less logical path, but when the dialogue is just in our head, it branches out all over the place with no logical sequence whatsoever. The ‘drunken monkey’, as they call it.
Another striking feature of the relentless mind chatter is that it’s very self-centred. During the first two days of the course, I was ashamed with myself at the self-absorbed nature of my thoughts. But on day 2, in one of the video lectures shown in the evenings, the witty late teacher, S. N. Goenka, explains that this is the very nature of the mind; it’s just how it works.
I finally understood what the concept of the mind and the ego being one and the same really meant. And I felt relieved that it wasn’t just me!
After 10 days of solid practice, you learn to feel the entire body vibrate, as the illusion of solidity dissolves.
Everything in the universe is made of vibrating energy, including our body, which is made of atoms in turn made of electromagnetic particles literally spinning in orbit.
Modern physics teaches us that atoms have no defined boundaries: when our hand touches the wall, there’s a point at which it is impossible to say whether a particular atom belongs to our hand or the wall.
The illusion of solidity is created by the limits of our senses: the human brain can only identify a limited range of sounds and colours interacting with our sense organs through energetic vibrations. Therefore our reality is based on our limited perception capabilities.
While on the retreat, I connected with nature in a way I’d probably never done before. By the end of the 10 days, I felt as though I’d been stripped of layer upon layer of the protective shield we all tend to build up over the years. In other words, I was more in touch with my true self.
Every mental/emotional state has a matching physical sensation; thus by focusing on the breath and the mind-body connection, we can learn to regulate our emotions, as well as not to act on cravings. After being an on-and-off smoker for two decades, for example, I was finally able to give up tobacco for good.
In a nutshell, Vipassana meditation is self-transformation through deep self-observation. It’s like packing in a year’s worth of coaching or therapy into 10 days!
Normally, we tend to identify with our inner talk. With increased awareness, however, we’re able to step back and observe it. The same thing happens with feelings: we catch ourselves feeling bored, frustrated or lonely. Rather than identifying with those feelings, we learn to see them as temporary, even while in the midst of them.
According to various studies, human beings think mostly the same thoughts day in day out. That is to say, our minds have a tendency to go round in circles! No wonder we’re plagued by anxiety, depression and all sorts of addictions, as many of these thoughts are driven by worry and fear. Fortunately, practices such as meditation can help us neutralise negative thoughts and rewire the brain, transforming our life and the lives of those around us.