Vipassana Meditation and Well Being
It is said that most if not all people who attend meditation retreats have undergone their fair share of suffering.
This certainly applied to me when attending my first Vipassana meditation course over the Christmas of 2008; I was looking for an end to this suffering, having come to the realisation that the various recreational drugs I had been using (and more often abusing) to appease it were in the long term making it worse. These were pushing the problems back – just a temporary fix – my main problems then probably having been anger, frustration and alienation from the world.
I had done a period of my life homeless and lost good friends, many gone too early from poverty and drugs, and from my teenage years suffered mental illness (many labels ranging from anxiety and depression to possible bipolar or schizophrenia). My experience of prescribed drugs over all these years was that they had only ever done more harm than good with their nasty side effects. Vipassana offered ‘a straightforward, practical way to achieve real peace of mind and thus to lead a happy, useful life’.
As soon as I heard about it (originally from a youtube video, then further researching it online) this was appealing. Translated, the word means ‘to see things as they really are’. And it was free – with donations in money or service only accepted on completion of a ten day course. (The courses all around the world run by volunteers.)
Does it really work?
For me personally, practising Vipassana these years since then (sitting and serving
several ten day courses at the UK’s main centre Dhamma Dipa in Hereford during
this time) has vastly improved my mental health (better than anything else I have
tried), and whilst maintaining daily sittings at home, has maintained my peace of
mind. It has also helped sort out long term cannabis dependence (and an online poker
playing problem also) by showing that addiction to these or anything is craving to
physical sensations, not accepting the reality as it is.
“My experience of prescribed drugs over all these years was that they had only ever done more harm than good with their nasty side effects.
Vipassana offered ‘a straightforward, practical way to achieve real peace of mind and thus to lead a happy, useful life’.”
Something I have found in my own experience is that when staying mindful and equanimous accepting the reality as it is, the bad stuff passes away quicker for not lingering in aversion or clinging.
This is not to say that unfavourable things won’t still happen, but in seeing that all is
impermanent and ever changing, one learns to deal wisely with the ups and downs of
life, without drowning in the lows or getting overly-elated in the highs. The practice
does not change the sometimes crazy and erratic nature of life, but moulds our
relationship to it in such a way that we can stay connected to peace, love and
happiness no matter how rough the terrain may be. While the teaching comes from
Gautama the Buddha, anyone can practice this without having to be a Buddhist.
In order to maintain this practice I have come to realise through try, fail and try
again experience that keeping a clear mind present in the now is essential, so have
massively reduced my use of all intoxicants in favour of this – and for long periods
back in day to day life have done none at all – although not yet given them all up
completely. (When I do indulge I am now using, not abusing. For pleasure and to aid
creativity. No longer to self medicate.) I have seen Vipassana improve the lives of
any, including those who still continue to use mindfulness altering substances
outside of the courses and those who have quit them entirely. However with the
foundation of the practice being sila (morality), the worst danger is that one not in
control of their faculties (not here and now, but out of their mind) may do harm to
self and others whilst under the influence. (Not keeping a clear mind not keeping
control of one’s behaviour.)
At a Vipassana camp there is no risk of this as for the time there all use of
intoxicants has to be suspended. It is the same regarding communication between
fellow students and also with the outside world. A vow of silence (for nine days of
the ten) is taken and all phones, laptops etc are handed in. I was pretty anxious about
all this prior to sitting my first course, particularly about ten days with no nicotine,
but on asking about whether OK to use patches, was told I wouldn’t need them (not
that anyone is searched or anything when asked to put anything other than clothes,
toiletries and other essentials into a locker on arrival). So I opted to go it without
them and was totally fine on that front – too much other stuff to deal with – and by the
end of the full ten days there didn’t crave a smoke at all. Likewise each subsequent
course and spell of serving there, I’ve often gone long durations of not smoking
So what happens at a retreat?
All the rules and the timetable on a Vipassana course are vital for giving the
technique a fair trial. You are your own master again afterwards, but while you are
there you are both the scientist and the patient undergoing a deep operation on the
mind. And it’s one with no anaesthetic in which you are required to observe the
reality as it is (both pleasant and unpleasant sensations) and to not react. For the first
three days focus is on the breath – to gain samadhi (concentration) and for the
remaining seven it is on these ever changing sensations that one is normally
unconscious – and unconsciously reacting – to. Watching whatever may arise (be they
gross or subtle sensations) to see them pass away. To observe, and ‘not’ react to them
here, is where one develops panna (insight). Some still see meditation as navel gazing
but this is no walk in the park. One has to pass through many ‘storms’ in order to learn
how to keep still through them. Vipassana courses are more of a spiritual bootcamp
than a peaceful retreat. They are very hard work, but you are rewarded with real
peace during and by the end of the nine gruelling days of having to face one’s true
nature. Day ten involves getting the balm after the deep operation (in the form of a
final ‘metta’ meditation – willing for self and all to be happy) and to talk again after
nine days of silence, before going back into the world the next day.
When back in this world, Vipassana for me and many others has served as a tool
to steer us through the difficult times, keep us mindful of ourselves and actions, and
help us develop a sense of what and how we can contribute and participate in our
communities and our world. It is an art of living born out of direct experience of
impermanence, automatically generating compassion for all beings suffering under
the same to be freed from this and spurring lifestyle changes and actions towards that.
(A small example in my case, getting involved helping with a local anarchists’ response to homelessness problem vegan soup and food run.)
Within me anyway, strengthening the wish – and personal action towards – “May all beings be happy, peaceful and liberated”, starting from within, and then doing what I can to emanate it outwards. Inner peace towards a better world.
For more info:
And in relation to drug dependence…
A forum discussion on ‘Buddist led recovery’:
My video collection on the subject:
A really great 10 minute video on the subject which gives a great insight into the process.