Health Corner: Vipassana Meditation
(Photo credit: Matt Nelson)
Note: “Health Corner” is a recurring feature on the Wide Island View, with tips and ideas being shared by different writers. If you have any tips on health-related topics – anything from physical exercise to nutrition to reducing stress, etc. – please get in touch with JET Life Editor, Matt Nelson, at matthew.nelson.j [at] gmail [dot] com. We’d love to hear what you have to say!
by Fiona Jenkins
You wake up at 4 am. You eat vegan food, and only before noon. The two pieces of fruit you can eat during the rest of the day are a treat. No drinking, flirting, touching, reading, listening to music, exercising (except walking), or even speaking for 10 days. Does that sound like heaven or hell, a prison or freedom?
One man’s prison is another man’s freedom; one man’s hell is another man’s – or in this case a woman’s – chance to experience a little piece of heaven. In 2005 I took my first course as a student of Vipassana meditation and I returned in 2006 as a volunteer working behind the scenes, mainly in the kitchen. Both experiences were amazing, and if you have 10 days to spare I highly recommend you do the same. I can describe my own experiences, but the only way to really know what it is like is to do it for yourself!
What is “Vipassana meditation”?
First – what it is not – it is not a cult or brainwashing, and it is certainly not a retreat from reality or a holiday! It is hard work, but extremely rewarding. According to the Vipassana website, Vipassana means “seeing things as they really are,” and it was taught in India more than 2500 years ago as a universal remedy for ills, an “Art of Living.” There is a wealth of information on the website www.dhamma.org, where I watched a video before going on my first course. I have to admit, I was quite apprehensive beforehand, but the speaker seemed so normal and made so much sense that it reassured my skeptical side.
Vipassana is a technique for training your mind, “self-transformation through self-observation.” You will be alone with your own mind for nine out of the 10 days. If that scares you, maybe you should ask yourself why. If you are prepared to look deeply into something for nine days, you can start to get to know it and how it works. I was worried that I would be bored. I certainly was not. I ended up finding that observing the sensations in a tiny part of my body for hours on end was absolutely fascinating! Ten days is both a long and a short time. I felt that I revisited every single room I had ever been in during my whole life. The longest conversation I had for nine days was with a cat that lived near the centre and obviously enjoyed the peaceful vibes! There was little talk during my time as a volunteer, just as much as was needed to get our jobs done. I have never before or since worked in such a harmonious environment. It was inspiring.
Students practicing Vipassana meditation at Dhamma Santi in Brazil (Photo credit: Luiza)
You can apply online for a course, which is free. At the end of the course you can make a donation in order for someone else to be able to benefit from the same teaching you have received. You can decide how much you think your experience was worth.
There are centres for learning the practice all over the world. In Japan there are centres in Kyoto and Chiba. When I was a volunteer in the UK centre we had some students whose first language was not English. They listened to the daily lessons in their own languages and I would imagine the same arrangements are in place everywhere. Basically, language is not a barrier to learning the technique; you can take a course wherever you are in the world. After your course, there are also groups where you can practice with other course graduates dotted around the world. I even tracked one down in an anonymous apartment in the suburbs of Moscow when I lived there!
At the centres in Kyoto and Chiba there are courses running regularly (one or two per month), but you should plan a couple of months in advance because the courses get booked up. You are sitting and meditating for about 10 hours a day. I took my courses in mild weather. I would imagine sitting a course in a Japanese summer or winter would add another dimension and challenge to the experience!
Students learning Vipassana meditation in Chiang Mai, Thailand (Photo credit: The Philosophy of Photography)
Pretty much any adult can attend, although the course is not recommended for people who have experienced bereavement recently, or for people with psychiatric problems or those addicted to drugs. Pregnant women are well supported and encouraged to attend. Children’s and teen’s courses are run in some places, but these do not follow the 10 days or the same rules. The technique taught to them is like a taster rather than the main course.
Why would you not want to know yourself better, how to live better, and how to be happier? If you feel that you cannot “spare” 10 days ask yourself why. There are 365 days in every year. In perspective, 10 days is a very short time, though many people don’t have a lot of work leave. If you are in a transitional period, perhaps between jobs, it may be a great opportunity to take the course and discover yourself.
If you are interested in finding out more, but are apprehensive, there is unfortunately no such thing as “Vipassana lite.” I am sorry, but you have to do the 10 days to learn the technique. However, if you are curious or just looking for an introduction to a form of relaxation, meditation, and mind-body training, yoga is a good start. For 10 minutes of guided relaxation at the beginning and end of each class, I highly recommend the yoga taught by a British couple, Carla and Andrew, in Hiroshima City. Class is held on Thursday nights from 6:30 to 7:30 and Sunday mornings from 10:30-11:30. They have both trained in Vipassana and bring their awareness of the technique to their yoga.