I loved the intensity of the courses, the challenge. While I was terrified to do them, for me it felt like climbing Everest. The adventure, the discovery, the insights… I was willing to endure anything to win through and learn more about myself.
I didn’t realise that inner adventures and insights are not the same as waking up to the truth. I’ve had to wait 21 years to begin to see that.
I taught children’s vipassana courses, was on trusts, encouraged lots of people to site 10 day retreats, and ran introductions to promote the courses - all with the aim of getting people to “look within, and get the same benefits I was getting”.
Each time I went on a 10 day or 45 day Goenka retreat I had extraordinary experiences:
- * My body would dissolve into a mass of vibrating sensations
* Pain would become irrelevant, I could sit and watch it come and go
* I could become so concentrated that I could keep my mind focused for hours
* Swirling blue lights, nimitas would transfix and awe me
* I would hear other worldly sounds, strange sounds from no-where while sitting as my mind got stiller and stiller
* So altered were my perceptions that I even saw other beings after a long retreat in India, it was like looking into other dimensions
But through all of this I lost sight of something at the heart of Buddha's teachings:
- * Critical thinking
* An understanding that this was my journey, and no one else’s
The Buddha is said to have said “Be a lamp unto yourself”.
I lost “ownership” of my mind. I didn’t realise this until after I was shaken up by some power conversations by other meditators, who questioned me about whether the technique was really working for me.
Here were the results I was being forced to look at after all those years:
- * My mind wandered as much as ever, constantly rolling, I found it nearly impossible to control
* I still had many anxieties, many fears of other people
* I had stayed in a horrendous marriage for 14 years, primarily to keep looking good to the Vipassana community
* Clinging onto belief structures out pure faith, not seeing any concrete results in my day to day life
Had any of those courses REALLY worked for me?
When I say worked for me, here’s what I would say would be an ideal:
- * An autonomous thinker, able to access anything in my life on my terms, rejecting them if they didn’t work for me
* Able to make clear decisions, choosing courses of action that would work for me, and put me in a better position in life
* A calm, confident, happy, sense of lightness within - not taking things too seriously
But never during my intensive involvement with this organisation (cult) did I ever feel like that… EXCEPT for immediately after my first course.
What impressed me so much with Goenka was that that WAS my experience immediately after I finished my first course. And yet, each time I went back for more, I eventually got more involved in their organisations.
I bought into the promise of community, belonging, position and advancement… Yes, enlightenment became a career, and I had a clear roadmap. The only problem was, I was depressed, anxious and miserable, but I was convinced it was because I wasn’t using the technique right.
And all I needed to do was… another course.
You know what the advice always when difficulties came up in life? Sit another 10 day course.
The (sad) thing is… I still love Geonka's Vipassana. I still feel immense devotion to it. I still believe somewhere that when my meditation is off, I need to get back there for another course.
That voice is not as loud as it used to be, but it’s still there.
Is it the left overs from being entrenched in cult thinking? I think so.
Perhaps it wasn't setup to be a cult, but I can tell you that most (not all) people I see and know in them treat them like cults, and the relationships in them typically spiral towards that kind of behaviour and judgement.
I thought I was a searcher for the truth all those years, when in fact I was clinging onto a life raft, convincing myself that even if it wasn’t working as I’d hoped, it was the best out there, that it would get me to the other shore… some day.
And yet in all those years I never thought to:
- * Research the tradition online
* Never looked up others opinions in forums
* Read widely about other methods
* Sought out new teachers
My commitment to the cause was absolute.
And yet it doesn’t take much to discover online that there are as many voices praising Vipassana as there are criticising it's methods. That there many who seriously question it's training methods.
And that doesn’t even begin to examine scholarly research that shows the Buddha never taught that we carried around a huge stockpile of sankharas that needed to be eradicated, never said that we had to accumulate huge quantities of paramis - and that these were essential for liberation. It’s not in his teachings. And yet this concept is at the very core of Goenkas teachings. It’s why everyone is going off to do long course retreats.
If I look at why I used to sit, it came from the Vipassana text book, it can sound kind of crazy if you’re not involved - and this was actually the basis of my day to day life for 20 years:
- * to extinguish my “self” and achieve nibbana, a state free from suffering
* I would achieve nibbana by eradicating a stock pile of acculturated reactions, called sankharas, accumulated over this lifetime, plus an uncountable number of lifetimes before, each life filled with a huge pile of reactions
* once all the sankharas were gone, I would automatically achieve nibbana and be forever free of this never ending series of births and deaths each filled un ending suffering and misery
* I would eradicate these sankharas through training my mind to not to react to sensations on my body
* I would do this by keeping my mind equanimous, non-reactive and aware of the changing nature of my sensations
and my method of doing this would be a continual scanning of my bodies sensations from head to feet and from feet to head, and remaining aware of their changing nature, and equanimous to them
* I would do this for a minimum of 2 hours every day, 1 hour morning, 1 hour evening
* plus a yearly retreat, minim 10 days, ideally 30-60 days, aimed at training my mind to be equanimous and aware of my body sensations while being aware of their forever changing nature, ideally getting down to the sub atomic analysis of them
* to help win my goal of nibbana, not only would I have to eradicate all the huge backlog of sankharas, but it would also be necessary to accumulate a huge store house of merits, called paramis. Once I’d collected the necessary amount of these paramis, plus eradicated all my sankharas I would achieve nibbana, and be free from suffering
* I would also go and serve on courses helping others to meditate to develop (get) these paramis and to further eradicate these sankharas
the minimum amount of time for this to happen would be 10 big bangs / big crunches, that is to say, the creation and destruction of the entire universe would have to happen a minimum of 10 times (or more) and during this vast span of countless billions and billions of years, I would be at work building my paramis, and eradicating my sankharas
* I had no idea where I was in this process, either the beginning, middle or end
* I would work diligently to alter my kamma so to not go down into the lower hell realms of misery after death, but rather to either stay a human, or go into the heavenly realms, but not too high so as to lose a body completely
* I’d also sit to develop compassion towards myself and others
* And finally to live a happier, more balanced, wise, and powerful life
What have I really been doing, if you consider I’ve never had any direct experience of sankharas, paramis, nibbana, kamma, merits, heavens or hells?
It was like playing a video game, shooting off sankharas, accumulating paramis - but you never knew the score, and you had to just keep playing in order to win a victory that you might never see.
You might think I’m crazy, but here’s what I would get out of doing these amazing courses:
- * A deep sense of inner contact with myself
* A strong sense of stability in my mind
* A calm, quiet, peaceful mind
* Immense clarity, fast decision making
* A greater sense of purpose in the world
* Immense confidence
* Such lightness and happiness, even in the problems of life
* A huge amount of patience with problems
* Much more compassion towards others facing problems
* More love for the world and people I would meet
That’s why, with so many positives…
It took me a long time to wake up to this fact - that with Vipassana their primary focus is to keep growing, they have no direct interest in my person liberation or freedom.
It is the maintenance of the organisation first, and your enlightenment second.
And that is dangerous.
I want to wake up, not help expand a movement. But while I was involved, I didn’t care too much for where I was going, I was buying into martyrdom, it was all about the greater good. It was about expansion.
This organisation would rather eject me than truly assist me if I rocked their boat. Let alone if I transgressed their rules, questioned the basis for their teachings, or did something like get divorced.
Some of almost seems funny to me… the strong beliefs I had (have). They filled up my mind and took over my inner world. And while they are at once amusing, I’ve based real world decisions on them, like:
- * Whether to get married, they gave me the idea to do it - but I hated it
* Whether to have children, again, they gave me the idea - and I never was able to fully enjoy it, as I only ever wanted to get away and meditate for the full 18 years
* Who to associate with, who to have has friends
* Who to choose for a romantic partner
* And if they weren’t aligned with my beliefs, to either move them in that direction, or work towards the relationship leaving, preferably with them leaving me, so I didn’t look bad
Never once in my life before joining the Vipassana organisation had I ever thought about wanting to get married or have children, and now that I’ve left, I’ll never do those things again. Now that I’m free, I wish to stay free.
I think it’s also possible that the meditating gave me the ability to stay in such a bad marriage. Because my levels of patience/compassion were so much higher, so I was able to live with someone who was extremely abusive to me and our daughter.
Of course, the most striking part, is that she was also a dedicated Vipassana meditator, doing long courses, teaching children's courses. She might have been excessively abusive with anger and insults, but allowed it all to happen. I created the whole situation. She never wanted marriage or chidden, it was me, with my high flying Vipassana ideals that pusher her in that direction - and she blamed me for it for the entire marriage.
I stayed in this 14 year marriage out of fear of being rejected by the Vipassana community. I wanted to be able to keep doing their long courses. For so many years I had been just like any of them.
- * Looking down my nose at those other poor people who weren’t meditating yet.
* And especially at those who were practising another tradition.
* But the worst was if people in our tradition left, went to another tradition, or broke up their marriage. Those things were sacrilege.
And so when it came time for me to finally accept my truth, I knew what was coming. And it did. I was ostracised. I lost my position of respect in the community.
I left what had consumed all of my twenties, and most of my thirties.
And ever since, I’ve felt adrift spiritually. Kind of in no mans land.
That was 4 years ago.
Thankfully I had the sense to focus on raising our daughter, I eventually became the full time parent, and didn’t go on any retreats, but focused on her. She needed a strong loving home after everything she’d been through.
But I kept up the sitting, every day.
I was also so grateful to come across a remarkable psychotherapist who I worked with each week for the 3 years during this time. She helped me understand my schizoid nature, and how it people with this type of structure that tend to be heavily into meditation. So I learned why I was driven to meditate, and how it was actually helping me cope and find my place in the world. Now when I go to meditation centres, I see that most people have this same characteristic, they are driven by the same reasons as myself, they typically don't know it.
Last year another meditation teacher challenged me to stop sitting. He said I hadn’t experience what it was like to not sit, that I wasn’t facing what was lieing beneath my drive to meditate. I lasted 3 days. And every day I felt fidgety, and just wanted to get back onto the cushion.
- * So even after all of that, I’m still driven to sit every day for 2 hours. I love meditating, I love that quiet connection I get with myself at the beginning and end of each day.
* I still scan my body for sensations, and observe my breath.
* I would still recommend Vipassana to people, do it once, or for a short while, but don’t get involved.
* I still think about when I would do another course.
Perhaps I still have that feeling of someone watching me, accessing what I’m doing. Judging and accessing.
Perhaps I’m driven by the “high” these courses produce, the altered state of consciousness, and I just can’t get enough of being in such a “zen” state. Am I addicted?
Am I not free, even in my own mind? I’m scared that I’m not.
And yet I say that all I want is freedom.
How can something I love doing so much, meditating, keep me in bondage?
Has this tradition helped me? Or am I stuck in a web of my own making?
I feel forever grateful to Goenka and vipassana… it got me started, but I think I’ve spent my life clinging onto dead wood.