For beginners I think it’s absolutely okay to think of Vipassana as the meditation where you just sit there with your eyes closed. There are no mantras, there are no hand positions. You don’t have to shuffle around the room like they do at zen centers, or bow to a cup of tea. There are no special outfits. After a sitting, someone gives a talk, but you can leave, or you can listen and think, “wow, that person is a genius,” and tell them after and they won’t really respond because that sort of praise is supposed to mean nothing to them, or you can just go home and make fun of them to whoever will listen. It’s up to you.
Reason #1 to fear meditation: You are going to die
I have heard people say they are scared to meditate, and they definitely should be. For starters, a lot of people that meditate are old. You can’t go to a Vipassana sitting and pretend you’re never going to have white hair, or ear hair, or a face like an apple doll. No, the Vipassana experience offers an abundance of evidence that the Grim Reaper is not only coming for you, but that you will one day await his arrival in red wool socks and corduroys, while breathing out of your mouth.
You will also fall asleep in a chair while you are meditating and land on the floor, where – because though you are old you have learned something here – you will simply continue meditating. (That’s happened three times since I started “sitting.” A different person every time. It’s not indicative of an illness or a problem. It’s just something that happens, that could happen to you!)
Reason #2 to fear meditation: People are jerks
A lot of people start meditating because they’re peaceful people drawn to peace. But the other thing to be scared about with meditation is that some people – people like me, for example – do it because they’re jerks, and meditating doesn’t cure them of that immediately, or even quickly, or, really, ever. And because these sittings are scheduled, that means a whole lot of these people arriving in the same place at the same time and sometimes having tiny skirmishes (that they can then fume over while they meditate).
For example, I arrived late to sit Monday night, and a woman came in right behind me. The center where I go has a large foyer and then a separate room – rather enormous by country standards – where we sit. The woman was new, and as we quickly removed our coats and shoes in the foyer she whispered to me, “Can we just go into the other room? Even though they started?” and I nodded and smiled reassuringly.
But there was another woman sitting in the foyer – whom, I hasten to add, had not been addressed – and she frowned shook her head. “It’s disruptive,” she said. Now, I know what disruptive means, and yes, technically, entering two minutes into the meditation is disruptive. But as far as I can tell it fits under that all-important category of “not a big deal.”
The new woman looked at me and then at the naysaying woman, and then helplessly back at me. I wasn’t going to stand here and argue for possession of her soul, so I just shrugged and said, “I’m going in.” The naysayer shrugged too, but whereas my shrug was like, “Might as well,” hers was more like, “Okay, go ahead and be a horrible person while I stay here holding down the saint fort.”
I know this isn’t the point of this story, but you know how I knew I was right? Because just as I was walking in late, a regular came in too, through another door. And then, five minutes later, a dude fell out of his chair – and that, my friends, was disruptive.
“Okay, go ahead and be a horrible person while I stay here holding down the saint fort.”
Now of course, coming late was my fault and falling out of a chair wasn’t his fault – but the point is, there will periodically be someone at meditation trying to show you that they are a better person than you are. And in my case, they will all be right. But I never let them get in the way of my “path.”
Reason #3 to fear meditation: The sounds
The last thing that you should be very afraid of at meditation is the sounds. It is so quiet, and it is often after dinner, and you can hear the tiniest burps and people’s small intestines squirting things into their large intestines (or however that works). You can practically hear people secreting insulin.
Last time I went, the woman to the left of me unzipped her purse, unwrapped some kind of container of newfangled, tiny mints, opened them, poured herself a large handful (at this point I had opened my eyes and was staring at her, because I just wanted to see what kind of person does this) poured them into her mouth, and re-zipped her purse.
As she went to town on the mints I could hear every movement of her tongue, the mints clacking against her front teeth, the slightly lower-pitched sound of them clacking against her molars, her saliva making its minty way down her throat. At first, I wanted to kill her, but by the time she was done, it occurred to me that I could probably have drawn a photorealist portrait of the inside of her mouth, and that made me feel less hostile.
It occurred to me that I could probably have drawn a photorealist portrait of the inside of her mouth, and that made me feel less hostile.
So yes, anyone considering meditation should know these are all worthy things to be afraid of. But you don’t have to worry about being good at meditating, or even liking it. The point is really just to do nothing for awhile. After you get used to it, or maybe even before, you will likely find sitting in a silent room with strangers to be as much of a bodily thrill – and cheaper, and no next-day suicidal ideation – as being on Ecstasy. It is funny that Vipassana means “to see things as they really are,” because we have this idea that reality is so corrupting, and sitting in Vipassana meditation feels so pure and innocent. It makes me wonder if I should maybe give reality more credit?