Sap’s rising, Easter is in the air and I’m going meditating. I don’t know what the Universal Credit rules are regarding holiday breaks where one has no internet access, but I’ll inform my coach tomorrow that my relentless work search shall temporarily cease. I imagine they will suspend payment which, since UC is worth a tenner and change a day to me, will add about a hundred quid to the cost of the 10 day retreat.
I’ve written before about my powerful experience of Vipassana meditation, when I sat my first course at Dhamma Dipa. The piece was actually commissioned for propaganda purposes as an account of how I, as a meditator, had survived near death in India. What I actually delivered was a psycho-dramatic account of events that led up to My Vipassana Initiation, like a pustule coming to a head, to be squeezed out over ten days of strict silence with up to ten hours of meditation each day.
I got fully onboard with Vipassana and served at the Centre for six months as ‘Kitchen Coordinator’. I sat my second course within a few months of my first, during which I received some guidance from the Assistant Teacher (A.T.) that blew my chattering mind. He told me to treat it like a telly I wasn’t watching, or trivial background muzak that was distracting, not interesting. “Ignore it,” he told me, “and get on with your meditation.”
This revelation, that the running commentary in my mind is not necessarily me, combined with an effective technique that enables one to directly experience anicca, as sensation, kept me entrained in that school for seven years. These days, if asked, I would say, ‘go back to the breath;’ keep striving for unified consciousness before attempting insight meditation. But then, I no longer sit with Goenka; the piece commissioned from me at the end of 2014 was actually a farewell note.
Vipassana, Goenka-style, had served me well and seen me through the most challenging times, although it might also be argued that it led me into them, too. Vipassana was my purpose for visiting Bodh-Gaya six years ago. I meditated in the temple complex, yards from the shrine, where Gautama achieved his enlightenment 2,500 years ago, only hours before I received a massive electric shock in the shower of my newly-built hotel room.
Among many consequences, I went blind with cataracts. For three months, I couldn’t see my hand if I held it in front of my nose. The local Buddhists, a couple of streets away, were most helpful. Every day, early, a young initiate I’ll call Toby knocked on my door and led me to their shrine room for morning meditation. Seeing how still I sat, Toby asked me about Vipassana and I advised him to gen up on the web site and sign up for a course, if he liked.
A while later, the subject came up again. Toby told me, he had looked at the web site, but he had also asked advice. He did not say who from, but I suppose they were robed. Toby was told, spiritual education is only valid in a religious context. What Goenka teaches is Buddhism, but he’s not Buddhist and so is not qualified to teach. Vipassana is, correctly, a Theravada Buddhist meditation practice and, if my young friend wanted to learn it, he should go to Thailand and sit with monks. ‘Ri-ight,’ I thought to myself, ‘religious people say, this is a Cosa Nostra!’
It would not be right to criticise Goenka, after all that he taught me. I won’t go into the details of what led me to conclude that my time as his student was over. Ultimately, I did not belong in that sangha. Eventually, I remembered another Vipassana teacher, from the same Burmese school as Goenka, who had split with him. That is where I now sit, at Splatts House in Heddington, Wilts.
Some three years after my exchange with the young man who led me to practice Dhamma every morning while I was blind, I sat my first course under the aegis of Mother Sayamagyi. She was rarely glimpsed then and passed away in January, but her benevolent presence was very much felt throughout the centre and I trust it still is. The courses are conducted by Roger Bischoff. His opening words are, “We have come here together to practise the Theravada Buddhist meditation of Vipassana.” Doh!