Can 10 days of silence and meditation teach you the art of living?

On the eve of his 50th birthday, Trevor White decided it was time to scratch an itch and go on a retreat. Will he discover the path to true enlightenment or will his knees snap trying?

Tuesday 16 November 2021 09:17
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<p>According to SN Goenka, Vipassana  is how the Buddha found his way to the top of the spiritual mountain </p>

According to SN Goenka, Vipassana is how the Buddha found his way to the top of the spiritual mountain

Two men are sitting at a bar. One reveals that his son has started meditating. The other says: “I suppose it’s better than sitting around doing nothing.” This hoary joke speaks to the cynicism about meditation among people who have never tried it. Such doubts are misplaced, as the evidence is clear that meditating is good for you. Long regarded as a valuable practise in Asia, it has lately been repackaged as mindfulness for the over-harried workers of the western world. From Jon Kabat Zinn to Headspace – an app with over two million subscribers – sitting around doing nothing has never been so fashionable.

One of the oldest routes to enlightenment is through Vipassana meditation. According to its promoter, SN Goenka, this is how the Buddha found his way to the top of the spiritual mountain. Goenka’s 10-day retreats are the stuff of legend, and, although he died in 2013, it seems appropriate to speak about him in the present tense, because his fans are determined to keep his spirit alive. Indeed, his voice is one of the only things students hear every day, and at night he provides the only amusement. If there were prizes for public speaking in a Vipassana course, Goenka would win every time, without once bothering to change his shtick.

A stern but charismatic frontman, Goenka is not above teasing his students. On day three, after sitting in the same position for a total of 30 hours, he announces that you are still in “kindergarten Vipassana”. Such jibes are unsettling, and perhaps that is deliberate. Is this a cult? I did not sign up for a 10-day Vipassana course to answer that question. I just wanted to scratch an itch. But the question refuses to go away, and I am not alone in asking it.

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