Vipassana: Intensive Meditation and Silent Retreat by amina wadud

Amina Wadud 2 I am Muslim, by choice, practice and vocation

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. 



Categories: General, Ritual

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11 replies

  1. Thank you Amina, I enjoyed your post. Doing and giving out of duty and/or compassion has always been a source of conflict with me. Could one not do both? I get that that giving out of love and compassion is the ‘greater’ way, but sometimes it is necessary to do and give out of plain and simple duty.

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  2. I really enjoy your essays Amina, but I must add (having done 2 Vipassana courses myself) a small point on giving. To the letter you are correct. However as a very wealthy (in their eyes, and in the majority of fact – professor, retirement, travel) to not give – in order that Vipassana may continue to be there for others – is to miss the point. I’m with you on Islam, frequently reckoned to be one when I was married to a Muslim, but the Christian story of the widow’s mite is an exemplary one, and a teaching which is far reaching. You may be tainted by the giving, but the receiver is not. Nor is Vipassana tainted from your money. I hope you won’t allow the taint to stain your heart; parsimony is not part of the Islam I know.

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  3. Thanks for assessing (incorrectly) my wealth. I knew before I went that donations were meant to be given so the next person could experience the retreat.

    It may be too personal for me to say, that I had a major response to that last day and last level which showed in very “gross” (not subtle, as the teaching distinguishes) signs over the left side of my body starting near my left eye and going down to below my rib on that side.

    I was both physically averted and philosophically averted. As a single parent to five children (and the basis of my question to the resident guru) I give from love and compassion but I OFTEN give from duty.

    In my tradition, that is not only okay, it is recommended.. we are told to “vie with one another in the doing of good deeds” and even in the giving of charity.

    Something got stuck in me with on that lesson of Anapana and I have not moved beyond it.

    I did have the pleasure of accompanying the resident teacher for the 6 hour train ride to Jaipur so I asked again in a different more specific way. I will be working on what I have learned even in terms of this glitch.

    I see some issues in my life work against systemic oppression that does not hold completely to the idea that one can resolve such systemic oppression merely by realizing life is impermanent or by addressing it with equanimity. Something more substantive is called for.

    Still within me, there is room for growth even against a recognized enemy.

    If it helps you at all I had already contacted them after I departed to make a donation, which I do out of duty and make no bones about it, despite what I learned of the higher calling to give with compassion and love.

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  4. Hi Amina,

    I will be interested to hear how your thoughts on this evolve.

    I must say that I agree with your — so far — conclusion that realizing that life is impermanent and dealing with life with equanimity are not enough.

    For me impermanent or as I would prefer to say finite life that ends in death is the one I care about. I want to ease suffering and increase joy in the body, relationships, community, and society, for myself and others.

    Rita Gross has taught me that it is important to recognize anger and its causes and then to transform it into creative response and action. If this is what equanimity means, then I am for it. If equanimity means not caring about changing the things we can change, I am not for it.

    IThis is why I say I am a kind of a Buddhist. Hard experience has taught me to look at the world from a less egocentric and desire-centric point of view. Desire for what I cannot have has been the cause of much of my personal suffering. Openness to the beauty of the world beyond my personal desires has opened me to greater love and compassion.

    But, I still want to change the world. And I still want to do what I can to change the material conditions and structures of unequal distribution of weath, etc. that increase suffering beyond that which is an intrinisic part of life.

    Your friend, Carol

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    • Thanks Carol my friend.

      It was the systemic oppressions that I felt inadequately addressed by a method that only focuses upon our “reactions” to life vicissitudes.

      I don’t think it was meant to condone such systems provided one faces them with equanimity, but I also don’t think a good attitude is all that would be needed for something like the holocaust, american slavery, apartheid, etc. etc. We also needed a clear stance against oppression.

      My challenge is not to be so angry when tenacious oppressions exist, so that my contributions can be more out of love and compassion and less out of duty towards the oppressed.

      As I said, I’m working on it.

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  5. I really appreciate your writing about something that is not resolved yet!

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  6. On Vipassana as “seeing things as they really are.” There is a strange Buddhist expression, but really a very lovable one, it says: “If you see the Buddha, kill him.” Why? because our true nature is Buddha nature — we are ourselves radiant with the sheer goodness and the light-filled essence of all being. To see Buddha as something or someone separate from the self, that’s an illusion.

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  7. Amina, I do identify with your comments about giving. Living in a fairly well to do region, I am besieged by organizations wanting money. And I sometimes give out of duty, not love. And I often say No. When I do give from duty, I find myself avoiding contact with that organization, so in the long run they benefit from neither my money nor my participation. When I say No, I can still participate in the organization’s activities because I know I will always have more opportunities to give from my heart. This whole giving thing certainly helps me clarify where my heart is.

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  8. What a wonderful experience. It might be inetersting if some of this wisdom was adapted and brought into our Ramadan experience…….?…..

    Both suffering and blessings are gateways to spirituality (compassion and mercy)
    Quran surah 2 verses 155-157
    155. Be sure we shall test you with something of fear. of hunger, some loss in goods, lives and the fruits (of your toil), But give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere,-
    156. who say, when afflicted with calamity: “To God we belong and to him is our return”:-
    157. They are those on whom (Descend) blessings from their Lord, and Mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.
    These verses seem to combine the Buddhist teachings of impermanence (of suffering) with Tawheed/God…..and the idea that “life” (to live life) itself is a journey to God.

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