For most persons, taking a vacation break from one’s regular work schedule means an opportunity to travel to new places to enjoy scenery, people and experiences. For others it is also an opportunity to do something exciting or just relax and disconnect from the ever-present pressures of work and family responsibilities.
But what if you had the opportunity to do something radically different, like taking ten days off to learn a healing technique that can sharpen and purify the mind, while helping you to free yourself from a lot of mental impurities that you might not realize are buried deep within your mind, resulting in miseries that negatively affect your life, and by extension, others with whom you interact? Would you try it?
That’s what I just did two months ago when I attended a Vipassana Meditation at the Southwest Vipassana Meditation Center in Kaufman, Texas. I joined about 70 men and 40 women from all walks of life, including business executives, professors, artists, computer programmers, college students, military veterans, teachers, attorneys, psychologists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and retired persons. This was my seventh such course spanning over the past 17 years. My first course in 2002 and all previous ones were done at the Dhama Dara center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
Vipassana Meditation course centers such as these are located all over the world, including in various parts of the U.S.A, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and Australia. These courses are offered on a regular basis, with spaces usually being filled around five months in advance of course date. There is no charge for participating in this course; the cost for room and meals are mainly covered by participant donations.
This scientific mental training technique is called Vipassana, which means “Insight” or “seeing clearly” into the true nature of reality. Vipassana is known to be one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques, dating over 2,500 years, when it was rediscovered by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The aim of this non-religious, non-sectarian technique is the total eradication of mental impurities.
As described by the organization’s website, dhamma.org, Vipassana “focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.”
For the entire duration of the ten days of this Vipassana Meditation retreat, each participant is committed to observe a strict code of discipline. One of these codes is called Noble Silence, which means no talking for the entire ten days of the retreat. Any form of communication with others is prohibited. Music, reading, writing, phones and other devices, eye contact, and contact with participants and the outside world are also not permitted. My mom has coined her own description to family members about my being out of touch during these courses as, “He’s gone to do his thing.”
The only opportunity one gets to talk to fellow participants is just after arrival and settling in before the course starts or if one wants to consult briefly with the assistant teacher about the technique or housekeeping matters. Noble Silence ends on the last day of the retreat as the participants prepare to return home. However, both the first day of arrival and last day or departure are not counted as part of the ten days.
The code of discipline that Vipassana meditators are also required to take include abstaining from killing any being, stealing, telling lies, slander, abusive language, intoxicants and sexual misconduct. Essentially, while the code is designed to restrain immoral actions and promote integrity of speech, action and livelihood, the ultimate purpose goes beyond ethics. These abstentions nurture self-purification and harmony at several levels, including psychological, social, emotional and karmic. That is why this training in moral discipline forms an integral part of the foundation for Vipassana Meditation practice.
The ten-day retreat maintains a very strict schedule. When the wake up bell rings at 4 a.m. each morning, all participants are expected to begin meditation from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m. in the meditation hall, meditation cells, or in their rooms. Aside from breakfast break (6:30 a.m. – 8:00 a.m.), lunch break (11:00 a.m. to 12noon) and tea break for new students (5:00-6:00 p.m.) all students spend the entire day in one-hour guided group meditation sessions in the meditation hall. This is followed by individual meditation practice in the private rooms of participants or in meditation cells in the pagoda before returning to the main hall for more guided practice. At the end of each day, from 7:00 to 8:15 p.m. the students all listen to a discourse by the teacher before a final group meditation to close the day at 9:00 p.m. Lights are out for bedtime at 9:30 each night, to enable rest for all by the 4 a.m. start of the next day.
All meals during the course follow a strict vegetarian diet. For senior students, as myself, no food is eaten after the lunch at noon until breakfast the following day. This cleansing intermittent fasting also strengthens one’s practice.
The guided practice and teaching throughout the ten days are designed to develop some mastery over the mind. Firstly one learns the technique called Anapana, which involves the fixed attention on the sensation of breathing. Following this, one learns the Vipassana technique. This includes observing sensations as they arise throughout the body, understanding the nature of these sensations, and developing equanimity by learning not to react to them. The final technique that one learns is the meditation of loving kindness or goodwill towards all beings.
All these steps take one into a journey to the depths of the mind and to deeper awareness of self. As the practice deepens, one learns to clearly see the fickle nature of the untamed mind, constantly reacting to the clouded lack of awareness, the illusions, emotional triggers, and a self that has been conditioned by various past experiences that produce and recycle the same old habit patterns of the mind.
Through direct mind-body experience that comes from self-observation in silence and solitude, one begins to see clearly how one’s thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations, can either produce suffering to self and others, or free one from miseries. It is why the side effects of the practice, when done properly, include healing of several physical and mental maladies, as many involved in the practice of meditation and mindfulness can report.
My own interest in meditation sparked around 1984 when Fr. Tenant Wright, a Jesuit priest, showed me a few techniques. He had recently returned from an extended visit to Zen monasteries in Japan. Back then, as a high school religious studies teacher in PG, I was searching for a deeper understanding of life beyond what I had learned socially, culturally, religiously, academically or otherwise. Such search during my younger years in the 1980s led me to spending a few weeks during two summers with the monks at Santa Familia Benedictine monastery in the Cayo District. I used to also participate in religious retreats by priests and nuns, and delved into religious books of various faiths. But I felt there was more.
My follow-up university studies in Eastern Psychology in the late 1980s provided a new perspective of life from a non-sectarian viewpoint about the foundations of human well-being:- mentally, emotionally, and physically. In short, everything —whether wholesome or unwholesome— starts with the mind. All those maladies in our society today – the greed, corruption, anger, hatred, lies, gossip, abuse, crime, violence— are rooted in the mind with habits often passed from generation to generation. Individual and collective societal problems don’t just occur at random. They are born from thoughts recycled from the mind. We each have a responsibility to cleanse this.
These negativities are manifestations of the urgent need to heal the mind’s state, beyond worn out external and detached academic approaches that have shown persistent failure. To borrow from Einstein, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The very few Belizeans who have participated in Vipassana courses can vouch that such practice, including its code of discipline, have made a profound difference in their personal lives, especially if they continue daily practice beyond the course.
So many others with whom I interact following these courses reported that they gained profound new insights for their own well-being. A veteran soldier I met shared about his intense suffering from PTSD following his term in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his deep level healing from meditation practice in ways he was not able to obtain from other interventions. A business manager shared that the deeper insights he gained about his own miserable former self, resulted in his making personal decisions to eliminate his toxic-stress habits which negatively affected his employees. A senior university student expressed how glad he was that his parents insisted that he attended a Vipassana course. It gave him more clarity about the direction he wanted for his life. A recovering drug addict cried deeply as he shared how it became clear to him through his own self-observation that his abuse of his wife and children was rooted in his own inability to forgive his childhood abuse by his alcoholic father. He vowed to let go, nurture his deeper peace and forgiveness of himself and seek forgiveness of all those whom he has hurt.
The more one looks within, the more one sees the root level cause of one’s thoughts, feelings and actions. One begins to see life far differently with fresh, new, wholesome eyes that are more focused on what really matters through this short journey of life. One begins to realize that each verbal and physical action has consequences that can affect one positively or negatively for life and through generations. One understands the importance of equanimity through the ups and downs of life.
Personally, I would strongly recommend that Ministers of Government consider attending the special 10-day Executive Course. This course is uniquely designed for heads of corporations and government officials worldwide. I would also recommend the ten-day course for principals of schools, attorneys and judges, police officers, nurses, counselors, psychiatrists, and others. When one gets into the depths of the mind for purification, it becomes a basis of transforming society. Starting with self is important. When the mind is transformed, all is transformed.
As our highly esteemed, world-renowned, Burmese Indian teacher of Vipassana Meditation, S. N. Goenka explained, “The thing that hurts you the most in life is your own untamed mind. The thing that can help you the most in life is a disciplined mind. When the wild mind is untamed, it can be very harmful. If we learn to tame our minds, then it can help us by reducing our suffering and misery.” For more information about the Vipassana Meditation and course schedules, check the website dhamma.org.