The man at the registration desk takes possession of my phone and valuables. “Do you have any questions?” he asks. I hesitate. I have too many to think of the right one. I have just voluntarily handed over my phone—that should occasion a question or two. But I’ve missed my chance. The man points at a map of the building: “You’ll be sleeping here,” he says.
I’m at a conference center tucked away in a remote village. The largely Christian settlement counts a few dozen houses and an apparently well-frequented church. The friend who dropped me off had trouble finding it—or rather his phone did. We took several wrong turns before the nondescript YMCA complex loomed up. I wonder whether the course organizers had a hand in obscuring themselves from Google Maps. It feels like the first cut in the umbilical chord of technology.
There are about a hundred of us, women in greater numbers than men. We’re gathered for a ten-day meditation course—specifically, to learn Vipassana as taught by S.N. Goenka. “Vipassana,” the website informs the aspiring student, is a “technique of self-observation.” This, I realize, should appeal in our narcissistic age. But ten days is a long time, even in the company of your favorite person.
The conference center feels like a hotel: worn carpet, wainscoted walls, themed rooms. Every door holds the name of a famous 19th-century painter. But the reproductions of Impressionist masterpieces have been taped off, and so have the windows. We are going into isolation. Sensory stimuli are reduced to a minimum. For ten days we are not to touch, speak, or make eye contact with each other, let alone read, write, have sex, or take drugs. Adhering to the code of discipline is the first step on the road to self-purification. Holding our tongues will keep us from telling lies. We are also told to stay clear of killing another being. That is fair enough as far as the vegetarian diet goes. But it’s more difficult with regard to the mosquitoes, which seem to be camped out in the YMCA dorms for the sole purpose of testing our resolve.
After registration a curtain comes down between the women and men. There is an opening ceremony during which we promise to suspend all forms of worship, to stop practicing yoga or other forms of meditation, and to do exactly as told. We then formally request the teacher to initiate us into the technique of Vipassana. All of this happens in Pali, the language of ancient India.
The course only begins the following day, but we are asked to start meditating then and there. I have never meditated in my life. On top of that I’m wearing jeans and a plaid shirt: not the most comfortable outfit. The instructions leave much to be desired. “Close your eyes, assume a comfortable position and focus on your breath. Don’t regulate it, just let it flow naturally.” I would like to ask the course organizers to elaborate, but I have just taken a vow of silence.
During the ceremony, the room has grown uncomfortably hot. There is heavy breathing, coughing, sneezing. The old students and assistant teachers at the front sit perfectly still, in stark contrast with the rest of us. Why can’t they open a window? I wonder. My t-shirt sticks to my back; I’m itchy; my knees ache. The meditation hall is stuffy and reeks of sweat. I have an irrepressible desire to go outside and drink in the evening air, to scratch myself in dark places. But something tells me it’ll get better.
As I try to bring my breathing into focus one last time, the high-pitched trill of a mosquito shatters my concentration. Momentarily my frustration gives way to anger. The conditions under which we’re expected to meditate are not what you would call a “good learning environment.” And to expose us, rookies, to a swarm of mosquitos feels more like an initiation than a serious educational bid. Grinding my teeth, I recall that the course hasn’t even begun yet.
At 4 a.m. the wake-up gong reverberates through the corridor. Ten minutes later another gong, crueler than the first, rings out. I take a quick shower and change into my sweatpants. With a woolen blanket wrapped around me I steal across the yard. The meditation hall lights up dimly against the black sky. To my surprise it’s already beginning to fill up. Aping the experienced meditators, I sit in a cross-legged position. I quickly realize it isn’t as comfortable as it looks. My loins, knees, and back ache and I keep having to change my position. Jealously I eye the people who have brought their own meditation stools. They look like little pews and seem naturally to drive the back into an upright position.
I repeat to myself the instructions we received the previous day. “Focus on your breath. Don’t regulate it, just let it flow naturally.” Without being able to pin down how or when it happens, my breath inevitably morphs into one of the myriad things rocking through my head. Sleeping in the sand in La Gomera. The pebble beach where I struck a rock diving. The rejoinder to an insult suffered years ago. Failed attempts at personal betterment and plans to do better this time. Yesterday’s caponata.
Beneath the thoughts, recollections, images, fantasies, it’s almost impossible to keep track of my breath. The mind chatters and spins yarn after inconclusive yarn. It wants to be anywhere but here—in this moment, in this place. The worst of the past exerts a morbid pull, and the bait of the future shimmers like a handsome mirage. It’s a revelation to find out how hard it is to be in one place.
We get up at four and bed down at nine thirty, practicing ten hours a day. There are three one-hour group sits, during which everybody is expected to be in the meditation hall. The remaining time we practice by ourselves, either in the hall or our rooms. This of course is the time to abscond and catch up on sleep. But few of us make use of that possibility. Not, I presume, because of the vows we took, but simply because we are determined to get a new skill under our belts. Ten days is a long time by any modern standard—that is why many of these courses are organized over the summer and winter holidays. It simply doesn’t make sense to skip an hour of meditation when you’ve had to put your whole life in brackets just to attend the course.
Instruction in Vipassana only begins on the fourth day. The first three we practice Anapana by observing our natural breath. It’s a technique designed to clear out the mental clutter. It does a remarkable job at it, but I wonder how much clutter there is. Progress is ambiguous when there’s so little of it. I go from ten seconds to twenty seconds to perhaps a minute of unflagging attentiveness. One of the assistant teachers tells me this is about average, but to me it feels diminutive.
By the third day of Anapana I feel like a Cubist painting. My head is somewhere to the right of my right knee, while my arms have drifted apart from my shoulders. I get a tingling sensation in my hands. The teacher says I should be getting this feeling where my breath touches my skin. Soon enough, the sensation spreads to my cheeks, chin, and finally the area above my upper lip. It feels like ants crawling, or cold sparks, or a feather grazing my skin. It’s a pleasant feeling and suddenly it becomes easier to stay focused.
The following day we begin Vipassana proper. The idea is to widen our attention from the tiny area above the upper lip to other areas of the body. Starting with the head, we scan individual body parts and observe the sensations they reveal. There are parts where I don’t feel anything, but there are also parts where, as soon as I direct my attention, a panoply of sensations light up. Some regions of the body don’t require any effort on my part at all. These are the ramified, clamoring aches in my knees and back. But the pain is far from the uniform throbbing mass it appears at first. The more I observe it, the more sensations I can distinguish. There is cold, heat, pulsation, constriction—and underneath it all the fluttery, tingling sensation I felt on my upper lip. The pain hasn’t disappeared, but it has become manageable.
Every night we watch a taped lecture by Vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka, who popularized the technique in India and the West. (He passed away in 2013.) From the start he makes it clear that these talks are not for our intellectual entertainment. But their entertainment value is high. Goenka is charismatic without being glib. As one might expect of a buddha (enlightened one), he explains his ideas with an admirable lightness of touch. History, theory, and metaphysics are set to the music of stories and anecdotes. When he speaks of his time in India, he slips into a familiar lilt that has the entire hall in stitches.
According to Goenka, Vipassana originated two and a half thousand years ago when Buddha discovered a way to bring home the idea of impermanence. At the time, spiritual leaders were united in their belief that suffering results from attachment in a world that is only a passing show. Buddha’s invention was to give his followers a handle on this idea. Vipassana turned something that was grasped at the intellectual level into a palpable experience. Around the same time, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put forth the idea of an ever-changing universe and came to be known as the “weeping philosopher.” Buddha, in contrast, considered it the seed of our liberation. Far from making us weep, the knowledge of impermanence should spread over us with a resplendent laugh.
If nothing escapes decay, if there is no salvation, no eternal life, then attachment to things, ideas, and people, including ourselves, inevitably results in suffering—so the Buddhist argument runs. But if it was enough to recite this maxim three times a day, we wouldn’t be sitting in a stuffy meditation hall. In Vipassana, the sensations that become apparent all over the body are observed for their passing nature. You turn your eye inward to get a glimpse of “impermanence in action.” With practice, the ego dissolves and is supplanted by an experience of continuous change. Even the pain, which initially seems to graft itself on to your skin, is transitory. By meticulously observing yourself—without casting judgment, without craving pleasant and wishing away unpleasant sensations—the knowledge of impermanence plants itself in the body. What you learn, in a word, is equanimity—not to invest yourself in something that will ultimately show you up.
Equanimity is the practical side to the grand, metaphysical claim of impermanence. By sitting with your eyes closed, observing the minutiae of private experience, you practice detachment. Whatever comes to pass will pass. The mosquito drawing blood, the distracting conversation you overhear on the train. Grief. Shame. Fear. The wheedling voice of the ego. Practiced meditators keep one eye turned inward all the time. They are constantly aware of the changes taking place in their bodies. A pleasant occurrence triggers a correspondingly pleasant sensation in the body. An unpleasant occurrence triggers an unpleasant sensation. Normally we react to these sensations by willing more or less of them. Meditation breaks this habit pattern by training you to refrain from willing anything at all. This should help the meditator remain even-tempered in the face of pain and pleasure alike.
Skeptics consistently single out this aspect of Vipassana. They worry that practicing mediation will turn them into ascetics, not to say zombies. Sure they want to learn how to keep their pain in check, but the intensity of emotion associated with pleasure is sacred. Their fear is that, with all this focus on balance and mindfulness, they will no longer be able to enjoy themselves.The point of the skeptic is that if you try to put words to what meditation teaches, you quickly end up with an incredibly archaic-sounding series. Fortitude, forbearance, temperance, equanimity… words that have lost their appeal under the cracked patina of age. They’re easily dismissed as Victorian prejudices, superstitions that led to a pandemic of neurosis and unhappiness. The times have advanced in the opposite direction. Self-denial has given way to self-identification. It’s about what you want. The healthy individual, unaffected by disorder, surrenders himself to the enjoyment of life. This idea, in its crudest form, takes pride of place among the regulative principles of our society. Life should be an unbroken chain of pleasurable experiences, and whoever dares to interrupt it incurs the wrath of the pleasure-police.
Equanimity, however, does not imply self-abnegation. You take the rough with the smooth, remaining aware that pleasure comes and goes and leaves an empty slot for other sensations to fill. If it’s followed by stress, anxiety or uncertainty, you’re in for a kind of “business cycle” of emotions, which, as we know, inevitably results in a crash. Meditation was designed to break the boom-bust cycle, to empower the individual at the expense of importunate and always fleeting sensations. This doesn’t result in a dulling down of sensations, but rather in a heightening of the senses. What changes is not that pleasure becomes less pointed—because you’re worried it might be slipping away—but that you’re more aware that you’re having a pleasurable sensation. Whether you decide unambiguously to indulge yourself is still up to you. But at least you’ve acquired the tools to make that decision; you’re no longer at the whim of whatever sensation crops up.
Over the past thirty years great strides have been made in scientifically documenting the benefits of meditation. This new field was pioneered by Francisco Varela, a Chilean neuroscientist and advanced meditator. Judging that science was unduly impoverishing itself by relying exclusively on a “third-person perspective,” he set up the Mind & Life Institute, which strives to introduce introspective methods into the study of the brain. This caught on in 2003 when the Dalai Lama visited MIT. With more than 1200 academics, journalist and practitioners in attendance and 1600 more on the waiting list, the conference made Buddhist insights palatable to a large and influential scientific audience.
Numerous studies have appeared since, varying in content, but most of them agreed on the health benefits of meditation. A literature review commissioned by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality concludes that meditation reduces “multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.” Another review states that the scientific literature largely underwrites the positive effects of meditation “on mental and physical well-being.” Roughly speaking those effects are: reduced anxiety, stress, depression, irritability, mood swings, and chronic pain. Lately there has been a strong focus on meditation and neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s capacity to rewire itself in response to training. One oft-cited study shows that meditation results in increased thickness of the cortex, that is to say, more gray matter. Although the exact physiological mechanisms by which meditators achieve these feats are still being researched, it’s clear that science has given meditation a legitimating nod. According to Harvard physician Herbert Benson, this has the potential to revolutionize self-care. It could wean millions of patients off medication and other costly therapies. Having come round to ancient Buddhist insights, cognitive science has absolved meditation of its status in the West as just another form of wishy-washy spiritualism.
At the end of the Second World War, the pan-European intellectual Arthur Koestler published an essay entitled “The Yogi and the Commissar” in which he distinguished between two theories of change: change from within and change from without. To illustrate his point he staged an encounter between a Soviet Commissar and a Yogi. The Commissar believes in the use of constraint and prohibition. He wants to change society by changing the political system. The Yogi, on the other hand, believes that change must come from within: it must be self-kindled and self-imposed. Koestler argued that society shows a predilection for either of these attitudes at different times in history. Having seen every form of European fascism from up close, Koestler had grown disillusioned with grand, utopian projects flung down from above. History, he said, was once again smiling on the Yogi.
Koestler didn’t propose that we all become yogis. His subject was society, not the individual. In the 19th century, rapid advances in science and technology inclined society in favor of “change from without.” After 20th-century fascism and the Soviet attempt at communism, both costing millions of lives, Koestler thought that the pendulum of history would swing back in favor of “change from within.” The two opposing theories of change, he argued, are “[u]nable to form a synthesis … they attract and repel each other in rhythmical intervals.”
In a book review in The New York Times published in 1945, F.O. Matthiessen counters that there is no need to accept Koestler’s “absolute separation between Change from Without and Change from Within” and that “in a potentially decent society … we have recourse to both.” He reproaches Koestler for looking to Eastern traditions while Christianity is perfectly capable of effecting the synthesis Koestler deems impossible. Rationalism and romanticism, logic and mysticism, can be sewn together in the tissue of Christ. I agree with Matthiessen, but what if we adopted a secular approach?
Recent thinking about power has done a lot to undermine the idea of a rigid distinction between “within” and “without.” Power is no longer conceived of as something you either have or don’t. It is no longer the purely negative power of constraint it was thought to be in Koestler’s day. One is neither the object nor the subject of power but, in varying degrees, both at the same time. And yet the problem laid out by Koestler hasn’t lost its relevance. Broadly speaking it is the question of the individual’s relation to society, and what he or she can do to change it. It’s related to issues about the efficacy and form of political organization, means of resistance, responsibility, and agency.
In Koestler’s essay, only the Commissar is directly and consciously implicated in a political project. Whereas the Commissar is interested in the relation between the individual and society, the Yogi is interested in “the relation between the individual and the universe.” Whereas the Commissar goes to work on the body politic, the Yogi goes to work on a mystical body, “attached to the all-one by an invisible umbilical cord.” But what if the Yogi’s body and the body politic are one and the same? What if, in other words, the human body is a site for the exercise of power—both positive and negative, both one’s own and that of others? In that case the Yogi’s project becomes eminently political. Being aware of the body not as one’s personal domain but as a site that constantly needs to be re-appropriated, it becomes possible to practice a kind of “politics of the self.”
Perhaps this is what Michel Foucault, a student of Zen Buddhism, had in mind when he applied the Greek political concept of parrhesia—speaking truth to power—to “the specific relations individuals have to themselves.” The goal, he says, is “to convince someone that he must take care of himself and of others; and this means that he must change his life.” (Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, 2001, p. 106) Meditation is a kind of parrhesia, a transformative practice, aimed at analyzing, disentangling, and ultimately changing the way we relate to ourselves. This relationship isn’t exclusively personal. It is fraught with societal imperatives and in this lies its political aspect. The way we treat ourselves is often determined by external factors. Most of the rules we follow, the goals we pursue, the desires we feel, are taught. Their authority comes from without, even though they speak to us from within. They feel like imperatives because they’ve been internalized and hardened over by habit. The first step in changing your life is to bracket and observe them. To silence the commands and injunctions, the fantasies, and create a space where you “must” do nothing. Meditation can be thought of as a way of laying claim to that space. You introduce a measure of distance between you and your craving, aching, clamoring body, the better to slip back into it. The result is a feeling of confidence and control. Unhappiness often comes from a feeling of powerlessness. Its symptom is inertia or involuntary motion. You either shut down or you’re swept along without caring. The answer might be to shut down more often—at your own leisure, in a quiet room, on a soft cushion.
On the tenth day of the course we achieve liberation. After the morning sit, the curtain comes up between the sexes and we’re allowed to speak again. Word-starved and tired, we pour into the sun-flooded garden. Smiles all around, curious stares. Having had nine days to observe my fellow meditators, I’ve formed detailed pictures of everyone. There’s the man with the ratty beard who looks as I imagine a character out of Dostoevsky would. There’s the bunny-whisperer who is never far from the white rabbit frolicking about the yard. There’s my snoring neighbor whose glottal condition kept me up night after night until I learned to ignore him. We’ve grown intimate through exposure, oblivious of each other’s names, occupations, or interests. Now is the time to fill out the blanks, but first: How did it go? I’m told about experiences of complete bodily dissolution, of leisurely jaunts through crania and abdominal cavities. For me, the pain, the coiled difficulty, wasn’t redeemed by the ecstasy of dissolution. I never achieved the “free flow” Goenka was talking about. My knees ached until the last gong and the seat of my sweatpants never left the ground. But a part of my mind feels larger than before, like a clearing in a forest. I can go there to take rest, to charge myself up.
Of course there are problems with Goenka’s teachings. To name one, the boomerang theory of morality (you reap what you sow) will only ring true if you believe in karma and reincarnation. In the lectures there is also a lot of talk about the universality of Vipassana. This conflicts with Goenka’s insistence that Vipassana is a tool, not a doctrine. A hammer is for hammering, whether you manage to hammer your way to the Truth or not. And in the hands of an artist a hammer might be transformed into an entirely different tool. Similarly, whether you believe that Vipassana is the scientific path to happiness it advertises itself to be is immaterial; you will have to find out for yourself. What is refreshing and important is that the practice takes center stage. Even if you throw most of the theory overboard, the technique will lead you to new insights. One of which is that more people should try it.