Vipassana Meditation, a Skeptic’s Opinion.

in health •  last year

This is the original unmodified version of my article published in The Kathmandu Post a few months back, detailing my experience with Vipassana Meditation at a centre in the outskirts of the Nepali capital Kathmandu. I have posted it here for greater visibility and because I wasn't entirely satisfied with a few edits they made.

The virtue of mastering one’s own mind has oft been considered crucial to a satisfactory and productive life. For many, this has entailed some form of meditation or the other, seeking a more “balanced” outlook towards life — an existence less affected by what one’s mind perceives as giddying highs or gruelling lows, against the backdrop of an impartial reality. With the onslaught of the internet, cellphones, social media updates and notifications galore, the fluctuations in one’s experience seem even more amplified. While all these stimuli eat away at our ever shrinking attention span and feed into our endless thirst for instant gratification, one cannot help but question if our mind is really prepared to handle all this. If yes, then at what cost? Such thoughts eventually drove me to a Vipassana Meditation centre, on the outskirts of Kathmandu valley, for a 10 day beginner course.

Would it work?

Brought up in a household fairly educated in science, with a science background myself, I have to admit that I carried my fair share of apprehensions. Would they insist on persistently alluding to concepts that I personally relegated to the category of vague metaphorical constructs at best (the soul?) and outright falsehoods at worst (sentient deities?) – some previous experience with meditation, from other sources, had my expectations coloured. While I was fully committed and kept an open mind, I only wanted some quiet for a few days and hoped that they would just train us in some good old meditation techniques. That would be the beginning and the end of the amount of dogma I was willing to tolerate. As I later found out, I was not disappointed. 


The Beginning

The practice of Vipassana is touted to be descendant from the teachings of Siddartha Gautama. Allegedly preserved in its pristine form in only Burma, it was reintroduced to India and all over the world in the late 20th century by guru SN Goenka, a man afflicted with severe migraine headaches in his earlier years who, after countless failed treatments, found solace in meditation. While it’s a tall order fitting the entire experience onto a couple sentences, we start with a couple days of focusing on our breath, and later, the area around the nose where the breath is felt — a small part first to focus and sharpen the mind, Goenka insists through the guided audio. The first couple days give us the tools necessary to begin Vipassana proper starting day 4. 

The Teaching

Vipassana is all about focusing on one’s bodily sensations. From head to toe and the other way round, we shift focus part by part, patiently and persistently. Whatever sensation manifests within any body part is that moment’s reality, to be accepted as it is. The key is to neither crave any seemingly pleasant sensation, nor be averse to an unpleasant one — the buzzword for this being “equanimity”. Observing one’s own sensations, vipassana meditation seeks to break, or at least put a damper on one’s old habit pattern of knee-jerk reaction to stimuli. This observation is not just limited to physical sensations but also emotional, for they too create a corresponding feeling within the reality of one’s body — a couple times I observed myself panic for no apparent reason, my chest feeling funny as a result. I get intense leg pains from the cross-legged posture, and backache due to 12 hours of sitting a day, which I accept as yet another test to develop this faculty of equanimity. As they've said, pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. 

The Result

Attentive to sensations all over, we gradually tune the mind to pick up on what it generally leaves out. Midway through the course, with longer spans of focus, I discover more than a dozen pulsations on my face that I never knew existed! For a few moments, I was buddha, or so I thought. Towards the end, I began feeling buzzing vibrations along the arterial pulsations on my hands and feet — it’s weird to feel your arteries pulsing from the inside. It’s amazing, temporary as it may be, to not be bothered by excruciating pain somewhere in your body as you focus elsewhere. The power of the mind — the cause and the cure of all suffering lay herein, and I felt like I was beginning to understand, be it for only a few moments here and there. 

Different for everyone

The course requires one to observe strict “Noble Silence”, which means no talking. Practically it’s as if you’re there all by yourself, which is entirely in the interests of the meditator — to help reduce unnecessary thoughts and prevent colouring one’s expectations by someone else's opinion. The assumption is that as with all things subjective, this experience too, is unique for everyone and beyond comparison. 


Challenging for everyone

Many seemed to struggle with the requirements. For some, no dinner might have been challenging. For others, observing strict silence might have been an ordeal. For almost everyone the leg or back pain was an issue, but for some it was no-go. A couple people left the course within the first few days, while the rest of us strengthened our resolve. Some also struggled with certain hypothetical constructs that detracted them from the practice, based on discussions after the silence ended. For me, anything disagreeable from the gurus and I paid cursory ear service and nothing else. Many beliefs central to buddhism, such as reincarnation were and are unacceptable to me, but I reminded myself to not let such inconveniences mar my meditative experience. I was indeed very glad that the practice didn’t explicitly require that I believe in the ideology. 

For good health

Being acutely aware of medical practice here, where adequate counselling, therapy and meditation were seldom, if ever, integrated to manage disease and the focus lay very much on whatever seemed a quicker fix, which mostly led to more and more drugs; I was curious about trends in the developed countries. At the end of the Silence, I asked people from Europe and the Americas, what they thought of meditation as a tool for maintaining good health and managing disease. While some saw more spirituality in it than medicine, many accepted that it could be a more regular part of healthcare, as over-diagnosis and overprescription were becoming major social burdens. Some said that practitioners in their country were already doing similar work — exercise and meditation prescribed to a friend for anxiety, someone shared. Almost everyone agreed that, to an extent, medically approved meditation techniques devoid of deemed sectarian opinion and unproven hypotheses, with regionalisation for mass approval, could be an important part of preventing and managing health issues. 


Supplement, not replacement

Upon discovering that I came from the medical fraternity, a fellow meditator confided in me about his mental health and substance abuse issues, seeking my counsel. Congratulating him for having chosen this constructive outlet, I encouraged him to continue based on the positive results he’d experienced himself, reiterating that this, however, shouldn't be at the expense of his prescriptions – meditation, in most cases, could be a part of holistic medical practice, but more standardisation and definitive comparative studies would be necessary before one could confidently prescribe it as a replacement care approach for many ailments. 

A life of meditation

Going back to “normal life”, it might take some time to re-adjust and it could be a while before one perceives any lasting positive change. I personally feel that I've become a bit more mindful of my thoughts and sensations. Regardless, it’s pertinent to acknowledge that any benefits realised then could as easily wane away if the practice isn’t continued in some form — after all, we are a function of our habits. 

Closing thoughts

While Vipassana came closest to what I had in mind for an ideal meditative practice, and I will probably do it again, I cannot help but think that it can and should be developed further and taken to more people, if need be, in a form they will more readily accept. The science is near indisputable and a lot of research has already gone into meditation — countless mental health issues, substance abuse, inflammatory conditions, and cardiovascular diseases can be managed by meditation, commonly as adjuncts and sometimes, perhaps, in their entirety. All that is on top of the benefits to one’s social relationships. Classically, health has been defined as complete physical, mental and social well-being of an individual or a group, and as I discovered, meditation seems to help in all those areas. 


Pictures from Pixabay: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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Nice article. A very powerful practice indeed. I did a Vipassana retreat about 25yrs ago; quite challenging but very rewarding.


Thanks! Yeah... meditation in general and in its simplest form is quite powerful and Vipassana maybe even more so. I think that if it reached more people it would do immense good -- meditation in any form. There's too much stimulus in the regular world these days. There's gotta be a way for everyone to wind down and appreciate the finer details.