Practicing Vipassana is sweeter inside than outside

- through Fabrice Groult

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There is an atmosphere of mystery and sometimes even apprehension around Vipassana meditation retreats. However, these completely free ten-day residential stays, which allow you to learn and practice an ancestral technique from the Theravada tradition disseminated for fifty years by SN Goenka throughout the world, are so popular that obtaining a place there is no is not easy. We do not come to Vipassana by chance. For all those I was able to interview on the last day (because the first ten live in absolute silence), their presence is the result of a considered intention, even if nearly half of the participants live their first experience here “ serious” of meditation.

stripping oneself of one's identity

Having just arrived one evening in November at the refectory of a holiday center transformed for the occasion into a registration office, Patrick, who welcomes newcomers, gives me a reassuring smile, assigns me bed B in room 21 and asks me to put my values ​​(including my mobile phone) for the duration of the retreat in a small canvas bag, the number of which he reports on a register before depositing it in a box that he will lock in the safe .

What strikes me first is the rigorous discipline and the methodical organization of the stay supported by a team of volunteers, all former students and volunteers. No detail is neglected to allow a total availability of our spirit to the learning of the technique. Between waking up at 4 a.m. and going to bed at 21 p.m. after the last meditation of the day (and the last gong), our daily schedule – we are a hundred participants – covers nearly twelve hours of collective practice. or individually spaced out by two short but copious vegetarian meals, the last of which is taken before noon, and a few periods of rest.

No contact with the outside world. No contact either with people of the opposite sex. Women and men, separated upon arrival, stay in separate buildings and only meet in the Dhamma Hall – the meditation room – of which they each occupy one half. Tobacco, alcohol, reading, sport and even writing are prohibited. You share your room with three or four comrades with whom it is recommended not to exchange glances, and the toilets with the whole group. Even the space devoted to walks in the garden is limited and marked out with stakes.

An austere process and disconcerting codes

Learning the method leaves no room for daydreaming or dispersal of the mind. Before starting our first session, everyone is asked to give up the time of the retreat any other form of meditation that they could already practice to give the technique a chance. Vipassana. Then we start to get into a rhythm that upsets our physical and mental habits. Throughout the day, collective meditations are split into one-hour modules. In the evening, teaching and practical guides are provided in audio support by the founder himself, S. N. Goenka, disappeared in 2013. Each of the two sub-groups, men and women, is assigned a referent teacher of their gender who opens, monitors and closes each practice and to whom it is possible to ask questions to help us better understand and to progress better. But not more. The fourth day marks the entry into the heart of the Vipassana technique. The rhythm suddenly changes. Many of our questions concern the fear of no longer being able to follow, of losing the thread and the teacher reassures us as much as he re-motivates us. All the more necessary since to reinforce the exercise, we are now asked to practice “firm determination” by respecting strict immobility, eyes closed, for the entire hour that each guided session lasts.

Under this austere prism, Vipassana may seem closer to military service than a personal development vacation. So if not for the “exoticism” of withdrawing from the world and the possible benefits induced by this strict discipline, where does the secret of Vipassana's success lie?

In its legitimacy?

History has it that the tradition of Vipassana practice dates back to the Buddha. In a few centuries, this technique that Siddhartha would have taught himself during the last thirty-five years of his earthly life spread throughout South-East Asia, then was lost almost everywhere in its original form. Except in Burma, where the transmission from master to disciple would have continued until our days. Born in Burma in 1924 and of Indian origin, Goenka discovered and learned the technique for fourteen years from U Bha Khin, then brought it back to India in 1969, where he in turn taught it to tens of thousands of students. before broadcasting it around the world from 1982 through the association.

In its universal approach?

From the first group session and throughout the retreat, the emphasis is on the non-sectarian nature of the teaching provided. While drawing its source and the scope of its philosophical message from a pure Buddhist tradition that is never evaded, students are reminded that it is in no way a question of making them adopt a religion or suggesting that they believe in any divine subject, any more than asking them to accept intellectually a message from a holy book or the word of a prophet.

The only commitment we have to make is to accept for the duration of the retreat to learn and practice with will and awareness the Vipassana meditation technique, the benefits of which each trainee will be able to experience and evaluate for himself day after day.

Despite everyone's verbal promise to stay for the entire ten days planned there, when I returned from lunch on the sixth day, my roommate's blanket and pillow were folded and put away at the end of his bed and his cupboard. emptied of its contents. Sign that he left the scene and ended his experiment without anyone trying to hold him back. During the stay, five other participants will imitate him.

In the effectiveness of experience?

Forty years of undisputed success suggests that the most compelling thing about the Vipassana method is the technique itself. Like any form of meditation, Vipassana trains us in the careful observation of our mental patterns. The goal, as always, is to gradually manage to dissect and reprogram our instinctive event/reaction pairs that lead to suffering and poison our relationship with ourselves and, by extension, with others.

Under this austere prism, Vipassana may seem closer to military service than a personal development vacation. So if not for the “exoticism” of withdrawing from the world and the possible benefits induced by this strict discipline, where does the secret of Vipassana's success lie?

The singularity of this ancestral meditation is that it unfolds the logic of the chain of causalities between events and reactions in a clear and innovative way by introducing a key mediator which serves as a support for any practice: bodily sensations.

Whether painful or pleasurable, the sequential and systematic sensory observation of these sensations throughout our entire body in perfect equanimity (at least, that is the goal of the exercise) provides immediate benefits and projects a horizon of progress which seems almost unlimited.

Continue otherwise

The bouquet of emotions and joys of the last day of the retreat completes the reward for my diligence. What to do with this word whose use is suddenly returned to me and this mobile phone that I hesitate so much to turn on again after having thought myself a little while ago incapable of doing without it? I can finally know the first name of my table neighbor and my roommate, congratulate them for holding on, smile at them and laugh together.

On the morning of day 11, on the way to the station dominated by the Vercors massif already crowned with snow at the end of autumn, contrasting feelings occupy my mind. The satisfaction of “having done it” is opposed by a certain nostalgia that the experience is already behind me and the vision of the immense mountain that I still have to climb to overcome my emotional mechanics. The task of a lifetime. Several perhaps?

Fortunately, the French branch of the association organizes nearly thirty retreats a year in France in its center located in Burgundy, near Auxerre. Other Vipassana centers are active in almost all European countries, but also in the American and Asian continents. Former students make up nearly half of the population of retreats, to deepen their practice or as volunteer servants.
Vipassana will see me again.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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