Whether you are Christian, Muslim, atheist / agnostic, Hindu, or any other confession, Vipassana will suit you. There is nothing to do with religion here, except if you think that religion must be about spirituality first. It is all about spirituality, mind health, and happiness. That’s what seduced me, when I decided – in a short-notice trip to India – to sign up for my first course. I knew very little about meditation and I was happy to go to a centre that was not an ashram (since I’m pretty agnostic and very scientific, even if I’m quite open to learning what’s good in any tradition).
Vipassana is an ancient and secular technique.
Vipassana is a millenary technique, born in India 2500 years ago, and believed to have been fine-tuned by one of the most famous enlightened persons that history can remember: Siddhārtha Gautama (a.k.a “the” Buddha – but only one “buddha” amongst the thousands of other enlightened persons that the world raised and will continue to raise). So if it comes from Buddha, how could it be secular – will you ask? Buddha was not a religious person. He did not want to create any organized religion, he only wanted to liberate people from their sufferings. He always insisted on the importance of his teaching, which is a mindful practice, back-upped with a philosophy. Only knowing the philosophy will not help you as much as practicing and living it. That’s why the practice of meditation is the most important part of his teaching. Remember that you’ll be working. I myself chose this course because the 10-days full format was a guarantee for me to really learn and practice something, because from my former small experience, I knew that a few hours was not enough for me to learn.
Vipassana is aimed to explore your inner truth, by two complementary techniques.
In a Vipassana course, you will be taught two things. The first is the mastery of the mind, which is necessary to practice the second, the strict Vipassana technique. If you know about mindfulness, I understand that Vipassana is a deep form of mindfulness.
First technique: Anapana, to train mastery of the mind.
Mastery of the mind is the aim of all meditation practices (at least for formal and short (1) exercises, excepting guided meditations – in my point of view, which are like learning to walk with someone always holding your hand. You don’t really learn, or very slowly). Meditation is about training your mind, by focusing your concentration on an “object of meditation”. While other techniques will make you concentrate on some external object (like an image, a sound, music, etc.), or some artificial internal object, created on purpose for your meditation (your forced breath, a mantra that you will repeat, some visualizations, or moving your body by walking, dancing or whatever), Vipassana gets you concentrated on your body “as it is”. No artificial objects to fix your attention. It is essential in the technique and it has two objectives: training your attention better, observing your inner self better, with no bias or interferences.
So, strictly speaking, you will be practicing Anapana, the meditation on your in-and-out breathing. And while you will try to master your mind, by keeping your attention on your mere breathing, you will quickly realize that your mind is very wild. It will keep jumping from one thought to another, one emotion to another; you will just not be able to stop it. That’s called the wild mind or the monkey mind, always jumping from one branch to another. You will learn that you cannot control your mind, but you can prevent your mind from controlling you! You will learn that your mind is like a beast, an elephant or a tiger: while savage, it is very dangerous; once tamed, it is very powerful and helpful. Your mind can be very dangerous to yourself, but also very powerful to you and the others. You will learn to tame this animal, and that you need compassion for it, because you cannot force it. You will need patience, and hard regular work.
The practice of equanimity is about continuously letting go your negativities, and feeding your wisdom.
After three days of taming your mind, you will enter the strict Vipassana technique, which is based on meditating on your body sensations, “as they are”. This technique is supposed to make you dive into your inner truth (one of the many meanings of “Dhamma”). You will then struggle against your 5 enemies or obstacles: craving, aversion, agitation, laziness, and doubts. You will learn to observe all your mind negative reactions and how it causes all the sufferings within you. You will practice equanimity: the art of keeping your mind composure equal, whatever happens around you (from Latin: æquus “even, equal” + animus “mind, spirit, soul”). Then, by not feeding any longer your negativities and your bad reactions to the world, they will step by step diminish; you will be eradicating the roots of your suffering.
That’s a general idea in Buddhism philosophy: you have all kind of seeds natively within you: seeds of compassion and of intolerance, of love and of hate, of patience and of agitation, of action and of laziness… the more you water, the more you feed a seed, the more it will grow as a tree, it will grow infinitely. Stop feeding it, and the tree will slowly become smaller, and smaller, until it eventually dies. The bigger the tree, the more time and effort you will have to put in not feeding it. And feed the good seeds instead. The smaller they are, the more time you will need to make nice big trees of them. Just begin, and then never give up, and you will always improve, you are bound to succeed.
Also keep in mind that it may be kind of hard to understand without having practiced it, in the same way that you cannot explain a color to somebody who has never seen it. So don’t read too much about meditation, find some course and practice.
(1) We can distinguish 3 “levels of exercises” in meditation: “formal practices”, “short practices”, and… life itself, but mindfully (further explanations in Chistophe André’s book « Looking at Mindfulness: 25 Ways to Live in the Moment Through Art »)