It had been on my bucket list for some time. I thought it preferable to fulfill it while I was still in India since this is where the current movement started. How it ended up being completed during the last hectic and intense month of my year adventure in South Asia, I cannot say. Now I take up the next challenge to write about it in 1000 words or less…
I live alone. I don’t have radio, television, or such devices. I rarely talk on the phone – phobia. But I do go online every day. I’m a word person, so to give up words for 10 days: not to speak to anyone, not to read, not to write, and the only major daily activity being sitting in silent meditation, could be a challenge.
Maybe I would meet something inside me I did not know about, some dark truth I was covering up with language? I trusted myself enough to brave this deeper encounter. I was open to it and gave myself into it fully.
Vipassana means “seeing things as they really are.” The introduction to the Technique says, “It is a process of self purification by self-observation.” The history starts with Gautama, the Buddha, but was lost to most after several centuries, except in Burma. Meanwhile, Buddhism as a sect, a religion with large numbers of followers, took off. The promise was that 2500 years after the life and death of the Buddha, the true “Way” would return and spread. Coincidentally, that is when the teacher S.N. Goenka returned to India from Burma and the current Vipassana Meditation Retreat phenomenon began.
It has spread and offers to thousands each year an experience of deep meditation in a secluded retreat center open to anyone who makes the commitment to follow the few requirements. Among which is noble silence. The other requirement is to follow the schedule. Wake up gong at 4 a.m. leads to the first of several daily meditation sessions that last throughout the day and evening with lights out at 9:30. Worked for me, a morning person.
So let me say up front: if you follow the routine, it will deliver. What it delivers and what one will choose to do with it is another matter. Since my retreat is barely over, and I am now closing up my apartment for my final return to the US, I cannot say I know what will become of what I learned, and I want to give a fair chance for the change created to thrive. Well, let’s be honest, the philosophy behind the method is the impermanence of things in the first place. So change is inevitable.
Still I attended as myself: a critical religious studies professor (retired), a Muslim believer (and devotee,) and a human being, coincidentally woman, African-American and both politically and spiritually contentious. Since Vipassana is considered a universal remedy for universal problems having nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism it can be freely practiced by any one, and all are welcome. Not only are all welcome, no one has to pay to attend. In fact, I did not.
The fact is, I did not pay. That is one major indicator of how much I was changed by what I experienced. The introduction to the Vipassana method is about actual embodied experience of its goals: equanimity in the face of life’s vicissitudes. While it is a technique, it is based upon a way of life. That way of life is espoused in all Buddhism but it is just as easy in the current iterations of Buddhism for people to live at odds with the deepest principles and postulates of the system (don’t I know that with Muslims and Islam?!)
The main idea is—all life is suffering. We suffer because we have desires, aversions and illusions. This 10 day retreat offers an experience of being in touch with our self at an intimate and biological level to know firsthand where our desires, aversions and illusions reside within us and cause suffering, or misery. As a consequence of the misery we feel, we also tend to deflect outward to others so they too feel miserable. You know, misery loves company. The result, of course, is global devastation, hate, crimes, violations of every sort to friend and foe alike.
The first three days of the ten day retreat is spent only on paying attention to the breath. I was familiar with this level but not at the intensity it was taught. I had no clue where it would go after that—which was the challenging part for me. After this, we learned exactly how to focus our minds and then put the mind to work, again at the inner most level of the self, as embodied. By that I mean, we were taught how to do a sweep of our entire body continuously using the focused mind we had been taught to develop during the first three days.
The next six days were re-iterations of that body-sweep with the goal that we could experience for ourselves what lies within. Somewhere between the ninth day and the conclusion of the course, we were allowed to speak but not until we were introduced to the last part of a three part method. At the point of this third level I simply lost coordination. I was supposed to go from inner awareness to global and unconditional compassion and I have to say my system hit a snag.
It did not help that I had asked the in-residence teacher/guru what was the difference between giving through duty and giving through love and compassion. His answer was that the grand guru would elucidate that in the next discourse and at the third level of the practice. Unfortunately, I got it in principle but not in practice. I did get that giving from duty was not the deepest level of giving, which is giving through love and compassion. Since I did not realize this third level I felt I would taint any gift I gave upon completion of the course, since I could only see to do so out of duty.
It was a marvelous experience and I appreciated what I learned well enough not to give a tainted gift.
I look forward to continuing the work and returning in the future for a follow up course. I am putting my efforts behind making it a success.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.