Think you could quit talking for a full 10 days? Enter, Vipassana. Find out everything you need to know about this meditation technique.
How many minutes could you spend without blagging about what’s going on in your head? If you think that’s hard, consider keeping it zipped for more than a week. That’s the code of practice demanded by Vipassana – the brand of insight meditation having a moment in the chatterbox West.
While it sounds near impossible (especially when you consider that you’re not even allowed to write your thoughts down), proponents report perspective that changes life as they know it.
It’s certainly struck a chord in Australia, where seven such centres aim to impart the technique of Vipassana (meaning ‘to see things as they really are’) through a specific form of mindfulness meditation. The only way to learn the technique of Vipassana is through a 10-day course, which students can then continue practising ‘on the outside’ (that is, in everyday life).
Vipassana is a form of mindfulness meditation. And while its links to Buddhism suggest spiritual or even religious undertones, it actually started out as a sort of early psychology geared to figuring out how human beings work. “It simply developed in the early years, 2,500 years ago, as a sophisticated understanding of how the mind works and how to understand what causes emotional suffering or angst and how to alleviate that,” says clinical psychologist and director at theMindfulness Centre Liana Taylor.
“There’s an idea that all our problems originate from outside; that something bad happens to you and therefore you become miserable, but that’s not actually the case,” says Judith Shaw, an assistant teacher at the Dhamma Aloka Vipassana meditation centre.
The purpose of the 10-day course therefore serves as an introductory method to sever ties with the illusion of controlling or being emotionally attached to the outer world. “We can’t always control what happens to us, but we all have the ability to control our own minds and break this habit of blind reaction,” Shaw says. The idea is to learn to find a place of calm despite phenomenal circumstance.
Clinical psychologist at The Happiness Institute Dr Paula Watkins has attended eight courses. “When we practise mindfulness meditation, we pay attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental, non-reactive, curious and open attitude,” she says. Mindfulness meditation therefore encourages relaxation and exercises the mind to prepare for negative patterns of thinking. “Meditation is beneficial simply because it reduces stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. However, in addition to relaxation, meditation also trains the mind in certain ways that appear to be very helpful for us in terms of coping with today’s stressors, pressures and distractions.”
After her first Vipassana course, in her early 20s, Dr Watkins arrived at the airport to fly home and had her senses overwhelmed by the noise, activity, colours and smells of the phenomenal world. “After that I became very conscious of what I fed my mind. I got rid of my television and I’ve never looked back! For me, meditation immersions such as Vipassana are like gymnasiums for the mind and spirit. I go there to train hard,” she says.
Like other meditation styles, Vipassana can amplify suffering and re-open wounds and is not a proxy for psychiatric or psychological treatment. “If you’ve had recent, as in the previous two years, history with depression, you probably don’t want to go on a 10-day Vipassana retreat,” Taylor says. “The kind of negative thoughts that come with depression get a bit habituated in the neural pathways of the brain, so when you meditate, those neural pathways get quite activated and you really see them. It takes a certain level of strength, I think, to be able to sit with those for a few days until they soften and all the other things come out.”