A conversation about Vipassana Meditation

Dare to look inside

It’s an honor for me to have Maryia as a guest on my blog today. Not only is she an avid yogini and my teacher trainer, but she’s also an experienced practitioner of Vipassana meditation. Having heard about it a lot, I was curious what she had to tell from her own experience. Read on and learn more about this interesting topic.

Dear Maryia, let’s start with the basics. What does Vipassana actually mean, what is behind this term?

The term is in Pali, which is kind of a daughter language of Sanskrit. Historically, it is somewhat younger. Pali was actually even a spoken language at the time of Buddha. So it is the language that Buddha spoke. I am referring to the last historical Buddha, the prince Siddhartha Gautama, who was later given the title Buddha.

In Pali, “Vi” means clear, and “Passana” means to see. Put together, this term therefore means “to see clearly”. It is also translated as “insight meditation”.

So the aim of the meditation is already somewhat hidden in the name?

Yes, the name is basically a kind of description.

We are supposed to gain insight. Insight into what exactly?

Ultimately, it’s about seeing yourself clearly, as you really are and not as you would like to see yourself. Sometimes we think we are ideal, but then realize that we are not always at our best.

In everyday life, we like to say “yes, but that’s only because of external influences”. For example, you’re only scared because a dog has barked; or you’re only angry because it’s someone else’s fault.

During meditation, however, you realize that these so-called obstacles are on the inside – and you learn to overcome them.

Later, when the dog barks, you are less afraid, and even later perhaps you’re not afraid at all.

However, this is not behavioral therapy, but a natural result of inner insight. Something changes inside through the mindfulness that is practiced during meditation.

And the insight goes beyond yourself. You also gain a deeper understanding of the nature of all things.

Meditation as a path to more insight and deeper understanding

This insight sounds very desirable. How does meditation try to achieve it?

Vipassana is an umbrella term for several techniques. So we are not talking about “the” Vipassana – you can find different techniques, traditions and lineages under the term.

The foundation, however, is the Buddha’s teaching, which is based on mindfulness. You achieve introspection through mindfulness. This word is used excessively nowadays – but what I mean by it, in the sense of the Buddhist teachings, is the original Pali term “Sati”. This means something like “remembering”. It means to be aware of what is happening.

In one of the Buddha’s teachings, the Satipatthana Sutta, he mentions four areas in which this “remembering” can be developed:

The body – what body position am I in right now?

Feelings – pleasant, unpleasant, neutral – overall.

Mind – inner activity, for example thinking, planning, analyzing.

Objects of the mind, for example states of dislike or resistance, fear, anxiety.

The inner obstacles that I just mentioned belong to the group of mental objects that you can describe in more complex terms than just pleasant or unpleasant. You can develop mindfulness for them.

Develop mindfulness – not only for the breath

What does that mean exactly?

When I am sitting, I know – I remember – I am sitting. Or if I have an unpleasant feeling in my leg, I know – this is an unpleasant feeling. Or I think about what the weather will be like – that’s thinking at first, but then I might worry that it might rain and I might fall ill.

The transition from thinking to worrying is already a transition from mind to mental object.

Then there is a second very well-known discourse, the Anapanasati Sutta. Anapana is practically breathing in and breathing out, i.e. developing mindfulness in relation to the breath. This is why observing the breath plays a role in most Vipassana traditions, because we always have the breath “with us”. The body too, but the breath has a certain rhythmic change.

If there is a feeling in the leg, we could lose ourselves in speculation about where it comes from and thus no longer be present. Anapanasati therefore means training mindfulness of the breath.

Can you say a bit more about the different traditions?

There are some teachers from the East and the West alike, some ordained monks, some lay people, so many teachers who call their practice Vipassana and others who perhaps don’t have much to do with the traditions of Theravada Buddhism. This is the oldest Buddhist current, also known as Southern Buddhism.

Nowadays we find it in Thailand and Burma, for example, while Mahayana is present in China and Japan. This is a different direction, but is also based on the teachings of the Buddha. And then there is Tibetan Buddhism, which originated from Mahayana and is linked to the Tibetan tradition.

Regardless of where you studied or what background you have, someone may call their practice Vipassana – this is not a protected term. It is therefore always a good idea to find out what is behind it.

There are techniques that do not have precise instructions on how to practice. This is then quite open, such as “observe your breath and everything you can perceive” or “walk slowly and observe your steps” and there are techniques that define everything relatively precisely.

I personally have been practicing in the tradition of the Most Venerable Phra Ajahn Tong Sirimangalo since 2006. He was a very highly respected monk in Thailand who left this world in 2019. His teacher, when he was young, was a well-known Burmese master in Burma.

He defined this original idea more precisely and developed it into his technique and Ajahn Tong modified it even further. His technique is quite precisely defined. There are three exercises that are always performed one after the other and naming is also used, which is not the case with every Vipassana exercise. In this case, it is a tool for developing mindfulness.

Listening inside, defining what you feel

Is this usually guided or rather silent meditation?

These three exercises are explained to you in detail at the beginning and then you practice for yourself and, depending on the setting in which the whole thing takes place – just one evening or a whole course – you also have regular discussions with the teacher who is present on site.

This practice has the advantage that you are always accompanied and can always consult and check in with a person who is present.

How did you discover Vipassana?

A very good friend of mine did a course and told me about it. Then another friend said, “that’s interesting, I’ll do it too” and then I thought I’d give it a try as well.

And then you realized that it was something for you?

Yes, it’s been 17 years now and I have to say I’ve done it very consistently over the years. At least when I was still childless, I did three intensive courses a year, and even now I try to keep at it. The great thing is that you can also practice the technique in everyday life, not just on retreats – you can also talk to the teachers on the phone. This is a relief for many situations in life, for example when you have a small child (laughs).

Before that, I had actually imagined meditation differently. I thought it was just mental calm, that everything was beautiful and peaceful, and of course that’s something special. But I realized that Vipassana is different. You see things in yourself that you might not want to see – so not everything is beautiful and peaceful – but I felt the effect.

Situations that used to challenge me a lot in everyday life have naturally improved without me having to tweak anything.

You come back after a retreat and bosses, partners, landlords are the same, everything has stayed the same – but I feel better, I can cope better. That was the incentive for me to keep going and do more courses.

You are then with yourself and simply want to get better, and not just superficially, but from the ground up. That’s hard work. It’s tempting to say “one wipe with a feather duster is enough”, but one “full wash with detergent” is of course much cleaner (laughs).

A retreat is probably like a “full wash”. Can you tell us about how it works?

A retreat is indeed recommended for the “full wash”, even if you can also try out Vipassana in an evening.

In the tradition of Venerable Ajahn Tong, the first basic course lasts 15 days and the subsequent ones 10 days, in a meditation center, because there is on-site guidance and the whole process is designed to allow you to concentrate on the matter at hand.

It’s basically a vacation, but very different. At the beginning, everything is explained to you in detail, then you start with the exercises for yourself, and there are always discussions. There are two meals a day, there are always breaks between the meditation sessions. You don’t do much else, you don’t use your cell phone, you don’t read books, you just fully immerse yourself in the experience.

Retreat – a time just for you

So you shouldn’t plan it in such a way that you explore the place in the meantime?

No, I would do that before or after. It’s really important for the effect to get fully involved. Of course, it’s unfamiliar, especially the first time, so it can be good to do a short introduction beforehand.

To what extent does the type of meditation you practice differ from the meditations that readers may have already tried?

In yoga we tend to think of it as concentration and focus, in some traditions, meditation can also be dynamic, connected to nature or sound; there is such a wide range of what we call meditation.

I would say that if meditating with mindfulness appeals to you, then follow your intuition and try it out, but come with an open mind. Forget everything you’ve ever heard or done, because every method and tradition is somewhat different. Get fully involved for the chosen period of time and then you’ll see if it’s for you.

Ready for some contemplation?

If you’ve now got the desire to try it out, what would be your tip for someone who has never come into contact with Vipassana before but has been inspired by your words?

Of course I would be very happy about that!

We are very fortunate in Germany. The main monastery of the tradition is in Thailand, but we don’t have to fly there because we have two meditation centers in Germany that belong to this tradition.

On November 26, the director of one of these centers will give an introduction at our Yoga Vidya Center Frankfurt. She has been connected to our center for a long time and was with us for the first time in 2007.

This is an evening where you can get an introduction from her, ask her questions and have your own first experience. The event is on a donation basis, as is customary in all Vipassana traditions.

On December 12, there will also be a Vipassana evening at our yoga center with Venerable Phra Ajahn Ofer Adi, a Buddhist monk and meditation teacher who has been practicing Vipassana since 1989.

Who would you recommend Vipassana to?

Everyone! (laughs) I think everyone can benefit from it, but you shouldn’t do it with the idea that everything is just nice. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to gain insight for themselves.

Are there people you would not recommend it to or even contraindications?

Not exactly, but in the case of psychological problems or addiction, it would be important to clarify this with the teacher beforehand and to be completely open about it. If it really wasn’t suitable for you, you would get an appropriate answer.

Is there a guideline on how often you should practice?

Not officially, but like any other practice, it works best when it is part of everyday life. Ideally, if you manage to do it every day – maybe even just 10 minutes – you start to feel the benefits. But once a month is still better than nothing at all. Just make the most of the free time you have.

Thank you so much, dear Maryia!

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