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On The Vipassana Trail, A Journey Within

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In Goa four years ago, an Indian with a shaved head first told me about Vipassana. Clutching a vodka tonic and a cigarette, he talked enthusiastically about his annual 10-day retreat of silence and meditation. He was a bit vague as to the meaning it had for his spiritual and mental development -- I think he was in a hurry to get to a nightclub.

The idea stayed with me though, and in India last year I met people without vodka tonics and cigarettes who also urged me to do Vipassana, saying they really felt the benefits. It certainly seemed to bond people. Enrol in a course run by dhamma.org they urged, and eventually I did, in Penang, Malaysia, early in 2013.

The course they recommended was the technique taught by SN Goenka. These courses are open to anyone, with centers all over the world. There is no charge -- students pay what they can afford to donate, or you can volunteer to serve on another course.

Vipassana means "seeing things as they really are." One of India's most ancient meditation techniques, it was lost, then rediscovered by Gautama Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. After a few centuries it was lost again, to survive only in Myanmar (Burma) where Goenka, an Indian businessman, learnt the technique and brought it back to India.

Learning this method begins with sitting cross-legged and observing the breath. Awareness is sharpened and then the student begins to observe the changing nature of body and mind, experiencing the "universal truth" of impermanence. According to the literature, "Vipassana eliminates the three causes of all unhappiness: craving, aversion and ignorance."

In its highest forms, Vipassana aims for spiritual goals of "total liberation and full enlightenment." Naturally, this requires some effort. Our daily program encompassed rising at 4 a.m., consuming our two vegetarian meals by noon, with a tea break and maybe a little fruit in the afternoon, along with 10 hours of a meditation practice and instruction a day.

No phones, no internet, no talking and endless meditation. It's not everyone's idea of a vacation, and it's not a holiday. It is though an opportunity for what I call a detox of the brain. Without TV and internet you realize how much junk is floating around in your mind.

A retreat like this clears out the consciousness, like a health farm detox might clear out the large intestine. (As you are eating plenty of vegetables, mostly the physical self motors along quite nicely.) Vipassana works by "eroding conditioned responses." But it's not all serious. Goenka smiles a lot, and urged us to "be happy in all situations."

Sila, or moral conduct, is a foundation of the practice. New students must abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and abstain from all intoxicants (alcohol, drugs, tobacco), while observing Noble Silence.

At the course I did in Penang we had a teacher, but by using recordings and DVDs we followed the course as if Goenka, now almost 90, were teaching it himself. His recordings started the meditation sessions, we followed his instructions and in the evening there was "discourse," or a lecture from Goenka where he reviewed the day and told stories to illustrate principles we needed to understand.

I thought I wasn't new to Vipassana, as three years ago I did a 10-day course at a monastery outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. At Wat Ram Poeng they offer Vipassana, or the "insight meditation technique" for mental development and "to prepare a path to a better, peaceful life through clear understanding about oneself" irrespective of religion. It is open to anyone and payment again is by donation, though it may be necessary to pay to borrow some white clothing.

As the Abbott said to us: "It is hard ... we are all dirty inside and we need a clean. We must learn to live in the moment and learn to observe." Eat less, sleep less, talk less and make more effort, was the general directive. It was rewarding: With my mind purged of 40 kinds of crap, I thought about things that had been buried for years, I learnt I could meditate for 10 hours a day, and I developed some minor mastery over the emotions.

Staying in a monastery was interesting too, especially taking part in a procession for Buddha's birthday and helping to clean up after a colossal thunderstorm while the monks zipped around with chainsaws. A Chinese monk, a former racing car driver who knew what it was to feel like an outsider, was assigned to make sure we were OK.

But apparently it wasn't true Vipassana. As Goenka explained in one of his nightly lectures, the technique disappeared everywhere except in Burma. Having spent a month there and visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, said to the oldest in the world and one of the great Buddhist pilgrimage sites, I recognized how important Buddhism is to the Burmese.

It is important to note that the course uses the teachings of Buddha, but is not about becoming Buddhist. Even at the monastery, the emphasis was on meditation -- your own inner journey -- rather than Buddhism.

Goenka explained that the mental habit of reaction, sankhara, is one of the causes of suffering, as craving or aversion leads to attachment. Part of the technique is monitoring sensations in the body without reaction which has a purifying effect. Vipassana is taught as a practical way of alleviating misery, that can become the basis of an "art of living."

Anyone hoping to take either course is emailed a thorough description of what is expected. In Malaysia, instead of having my own room and bathroom as I did in Thailand, I stayed in a dormitory with 15 other people, which manifested its own challenges, as I'll describe in part two of this story.

Organizers say the 10-day course is the minimum -- it provides an essential introduction and foundation for the technique, which can take a lifetime to perfect. It's not a quick fix, and I was probably not a particularly good student. But while as I'm not as disciplined as I would like to be with meditating, I do feel calmer and more focused when I do it.

A Vipassana course is travel of a very personal kind, as it is above all a journey with the self, which may or may not involve conventional travel. If you love travel of all types, you can, as I did, combine both.

Read on for part two of my experience.