Who doesn’t like a treat? But even better than a treat is a retreat; and that’s what I just came back from . . . a 10-day meditation retreat at Yosemite. I felt somewhat like Prince Siddhartha Gotama must have felt when he sat down under a tree 2500 years ago, experienced vipassana, and became the Buddha. I know I didn’t become a Buddha, but I do feel like I experienced some vipassana, some insight or enlightenment.
As said by S. N. Goenka, the re-discoverer of this ancient vipassana method of meditation, “The technique of vipassana is a simple, practical way to achieve real peace of mind and to lead a happy, useful life; vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’, through self-observation.” A part of seeing things or better, feeling things as they really are (some things are so small they can’t be seen) includes becoming sensitive to the ever-changing, constantly dying and birthing of kalapas, those tiny microscopic particles that make up the basic units of matter and come into and out of existence many thousands of times per second. Feeling them leads to discovering and hopefully eliminating, or at least lessening, one’s own sangkaras, those nagging desires for things to satisfy one’s senses or to get rid of the things one doesn’t like or want. Sangkaras are what really cause all of our problems in this life: we don’t get all the things we want, we don’t want all the things we get, and we think life is all about satisfying those desires.
Goenka, who is Burmese but now lives in India, has established vipassana meditation centers all over the world, with many in the United States and several in California. I attended the one offered at North Fork at Yosemite, a beautiful pristine place where between meditation sessions one is further treated to deer and squirrels playing among the fragrant pines and beautiful dark red-barked manzanitas.
Morning meditation begins at four o’clock in the meditation hall with a hundred other meditators, continues until breakfast time at six-thirty, begins again at eight, lunch at eleven (the last meal of the day, except for a tea and fruit break in the evening), meditation again at one and continuing with a few breaks until the evening meditation sessions and Goenka’s televised discourse and short meditation, which ends each day; lights out at nine-thirty. In all, one meditates for about 10 hours each day.
Sounds tough, doesn’t it? Well, it really isn’t. You get used to it quite quickly, and after the second or third day you’re right in the swing, enjoying the good food and comfortable accommodations, and no longer concerned over the fact that for 10 days you can’t talk to anyone except for brief question and answer periods with the teacher . . . and I do mean brief. In even less time you are used to the fact that there are no televisions, radios, cell phones, reading or writing materials, cameras, or anything else that might take your attention off meditating and discovering your true self. I loved every minute of it. Well, maybe not every minute, but the whole experience was absolutely invigorating and unforgettable. Believe it or not, I can’t wait to do it again.
Meditation sessions are either in the Meditation hall or in your own room or dorm. Men and women are always separated, except during meditations in the hall, where the men are on one side and the women on the other. Never any contact with anyone, not even eye-contact. Meditation cushions are provided, or you can choose a chair, if you like. The food is wholesome, tasty, plentiful and all vegetarian.
For years I had been reading and hearing about vipassana meditation. I’ve recommended it to my students, read William Hart’s “The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation: As Taught By S. N. Goenka,” which is available in paperback: click here
if you want to order a copy. The Vipassana method embodies the essence of the teaching of the Buddha. It is an extraordinary simple path to self-awareness that can be successfully applied by anyone. It is non-religious, non-sectarian, logical and beneficial to everyone.
Vipassana is unlike any other form of meditation. The Goenka method is unique, as is Goenka, himself . . . a charismatic, entertaining and enlightened guru, who looks more like a banker than a Buddhism teacher. His meditation centers are his gifts to all of us. And I do mean gifts; the 10-day experience, meditation, discourses, room and board, it’s all free. You can make a donation at the end if you want, but there’s no hard sell, no intimidation. Donations help defray costs and enable the course to be offered to all, regardless of their financial situation.