Vipassana Meditation: Does the old adage “no pain, no gain” ring true?

3 Feb 2020, 9:00AM

The vast majority of us will try to avoid pain at all costs. Whether it’s physical or emotional, pain is a very unpleasant, uncomfortable feeling that can be scary, stressful, depressing or even debilitating. When we inevitably experience it, we want it to stop – immediately! But when we continually attempt to avoid this innate part of the human experiencewe’re actually perpetuating more pain for ourselves. This is what my experience with Vipassana meditation explored. 

I recently attended a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. Perhaps retreat is the wrong word to use, since it conjures up ideas of relaxation, kicking back in contemplation, perhaps a massage or two Let me burst that bubble. This highly regimented meditation course is in fact an intensive bootcamp for the mind – or as I thought of it, mind training “baptism by fire”. 

Vipassana, meaning “insight” or “clear-seeing”, is an awareness of things as they really are. It’s one of the oldest Buddhist meditation practices. During the 10-day retreat based on this practice, with guidance by teacher S N Goenka, meditators cultivate awareness by concentrating their mind on the feeling of sensations as they rise and fall in their body. The purpose of this internal investigation is to cut through the illusions of the mind and develop a sense of balance in the face of whatever is present, ultimately to achieve peace and harmony, happiness and freedom. Sounds nice, right? 

Somewhat naïvely, I didn’t actually know the finer details of the course when I signed up to it. I’d booked months earlier and only thought to review the daily programme on the morning I was due to depart. As I noted the 4am wake up gong with the last class ending at 9pm, then counted (and re-counted) the 12 hours of meditation daily, I was suddenly apprehensive. This is what I had signed up for?! I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I had no idea just how much and in what way. 

Yet, on arriving at the Centre based in lush bushland with kangaroos mingling alongside meditators, I felt like I’d been transported to a tranquil garden of Eden. Over 40 men and 40 women came to sit the course over 10 days. The grounds, dining hall and accommodation are divided by gender, with 80 meditators congregating on two separate sides of the meditation hall daily. 

Of the 10 days, I found the first full day the most challenging. And day 3. And day 7. Oh, and days 8, 9 – and even 10. They don’t call it a “serious undertaking” for nothing. But it was the initial day that was most shocking to my system. 

Coming together for meditation that first day, a cacophony of sound filled the hall during every sitting – sneezing, sniffling, sobbing, shuffling, snoring, sighing, crying, coughingcracking body parts… This isn’t Zen in the slightestI thought to myself. How is anyone to achieve enlightenment in these conditions? 

Add to this, the Centre was undergoing some construction activities which happened to be taking place right outside the meditation hall. Just as we’d be settling in to search for inner peace, the sweet sounds of a metal bandsaw would come screeching through the serenity. When it wasn’t doing my head in it was almost comical; all the noise seemed like a perfectly orchestrated part of the program, meant to challenge us to let go of our preferences and work even harder to find balance amongst the chaos. 

Yet late that first afternoon, I found myself falling asleep up the back of the class, mouth hanging open, only to be jolted awake by a booming baritone voice chanting over the sound system. By the end of the day I was experiencing so much tension in my upper body and I’d developed a headache that gave me overwhelming nausea to the point that I thought I’d surely be sick. 

In the evening, I discovered one key aspect of the stay that my dear friends who’d previously attended failed to mention. Spoiler alert! There’s no dinner. New students receive some fruit and tea, with old students only taking tea. Immediately I was made aware of how very attached I am to my food and my three square meals a day. 

So, with day one scarred into my memory and heading to bed with a headache and a hungry belly, my mind kicked into overdrive and I certainly fantasied about leaving. What have I gotten myself into? 9 more days of this? Maybe I’m not cut out for it after all? But you’re encouraged to see the course through and that’s what I set out to do. Fortunately, I found it did get easier. Or at least, my mind and body adjusted to it. But not without walking through the fire first. 

The silent aspect of the stay is the least of your worries. You’re kept so busy with an intensive meditation program between 4am to 9pm that there’s little time to sit around chit-chatting, even if it were permitted. As we began to clock up the hours sitting in meditation, the physical discomfort in the hall was palpable. 

For 3 sittings a day, aptly titled “sittings of strong determination”, we were directed not to open our eyes or change our posture during the hour-long meditations. Any niggling physical discomforts became full blown burning aches and searing pains. Yet we were encouraged to continue to sit through it; to use the pain to practice cultivating equanimity with our physical sensations, whether unpleasant or pleasant, knowing that this too shall pass. Admittedly, this approach took me by surprise. Is this a meditation on pain, I wondered? 

Meditators began building elaborate cushion fortresses to support their bodies through the daily sittings or sought out alternative supports like kneeling stools (which set my knees on fire). After the long and often gruelling sessions, meditators would be rolling off their cushion towers trying to find their way to their feet, despite their bung knee or bad back. 

Everyone’s experience in meditation is deeply personal, but there was one thing we evidently all had in common – pain. Whilst we were explicitly told not to torture ourselves with pain (it’s important to be discerning and interpret what feels dangerous versus what feels like manageable discomfort), I certainly wondered how many people hobbled out of there having done physical damage in the name of spiritual gain.  

Despite the physically demanding nature of the technique, the premise of the practice is actually about the mentality behind the physical experience. When we feel pain and discomfort, our mind naturally wants to judge it and ruminate on it – thinking about how bad it is and how we want it to go away. We create a cloud of negative thoughts that can exacerbate the painadding fuel to the fire of our suffering. 

Through the practice of Vipassana, you bring awareness to the physical sensations in your body, whilst not entertaining your thoughts about them, regardless of whether they feel pleasant or unpleasant. Instead, getting curious about what you’re feeling – the location, shape and intensity of the sensation – rather than dwelling on how good or bad your mind thinks something is. This is the beginning of building a more objective relationship to the present moment and observing our pain and discomfort gives us the opportunity to practice this. 

Out in the real world, this can help us to maintain a sense of calmness amongst the chaos, so that we’re not reacting blindly when things don’t go our way or feel good like we think they should. Rather than creating more internal tension, we begin to embrace the full richness of our life. 

If you have any concerns about physical pain but are interested in attending a Vipassana meditation course, please see your healthcare practitioner.

-- Lauren, Marketing at Bio Concepts