Dr Stephanie Minchin is a Clinical Psychologist in the NHS and a Yoga Teacher with weekly yoga classes in Hackney (@theyogapsychologist)
Silence as soul food
Vipassana (as taught by S.N. Goenka) is “one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques” and means “to see things as they really are”. The code of discipline defines Vipassana as a process of “mental purification”, a technique to “eradicate suffering”, to be practiced as an “art of living”.
Vipassana is for everyone; it is not a religious doctrine and it welcomes all people from of all walks of life.
As a Yoga Teacher and a Clinical Psychologist, I’ve dabbled with mediation and mindfulness for over 4 years. I had remained curious about Vipassana but had perhaps been too fearful of a silent meditation course. My apprehensions and anxieties about the course led me to question not whether I could stay silent for the duration, but worry about what might arise in 10 days of sitting with myself and how I might survive in a world more suited for Hare Krishnas? It was this fear, uncertainty, self-curiosity and mental challenge that led me to give it a go.
Joining a Vipassana meditation course
Upon arrival to the stunning Hertfordshire countryside I was welcomed by warm and friendly Vipassana volunteers, and 150 other meditators. I was among good company – the room was a beautiful array of human diversity that resembled more Glastonbury-goers than mindful monks, which was a huge relief! The silence started that evening: no phones; no reading; no writing; no talking. Purely, eat, sleep, meditate. I very quickly learnt that this was hard work, and not a holiday in silence nor the idyllic city escape!
The daily schedule consisted of a 4am wake bell, a 10 hour programme of meditation sessions, and evening video lectures from by S.N. Goenka to support the learning of the meditation skill. The lectures served to review the day, acknowledge the introspective questions that may arise, offer reassurance, validate your experience and offer a lovely ‘cinema-club’ treat to the end of the day. Vipassana teachers and servers were available on tap for 1:1s and support any difficulties that occurred for individuals. Regular breaks in the programme allowed for mindful moments and exploration in the wooded grounds. Very quickly the senses were heightened. Listening, seeing and noticing every colour and every finite detail that mother nature has to offer. Pure bliss.
For the first three days my ‘monkey mind’ was playing ping-pong between my breath and negative thinking cycles of rumination and contemplation, unravelling many life questions. As I gradually discovered the inner silence, my mind found the stillness with the focus of my breath. Throughout the 10 days there were highs and lows, moments of peace and moments of questioning, yet overall the process was both enlightening and liberating. It felt restorative, like going ‘back-to-basics’, without distraction, just purely being.
Breaking the silence felt a little strange and overwhelming. However, it was an incredible experience to talk with the other mediators; feeling affiliated and connected that you had survived and shared the 10 days together, as an incredible individual journey alongside one another.
Returning to city life following Vipassana required some adjustment, yet I felt an overall glow in my wellbeing. A sense of calm that is readily vacuumed in our chaotic busy lifestyles. I am now more aware of my breath, my physical sensations, and the present moment.
What I learned from Vipassana
So what did I learn from Vipassana beyond the new skill in meditation? One of the core values I have learnt is acceptance; to accept the present moment for how it is, not how I want it to be. This has taught me to manage both cravings and aversions in life, and sit through discomfort and uncertainty.
Now daily Vipassana practice is an essential part of my morning routine. It grounds me for the day ahead, brings clarity to my mind and enhances my focus for the day ahead. With Vipassana, I am supported to be more calm and connected, with myself and others.
I encourage everybody to try Vipassana. For those of you who think it is all just weird zen chat then I urge you to go on a journey of self-discovery. Welcome the challenge and see where it may take you. You may just be beautifully surprised by what you are capable of and by what you learn, about yourself, and the world around you.
Vipassana meditation is recognised internationally with courses offered worldwide. There is no cost for the course; donations are accepted only after course completion.