My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Imagine going to a meditation center and living by the following rules:
1. You may not have access to any reading materials.
2. You may not have access to any writing materials.
3. You must leave behind cell phones, tablets, laptops, watches, radios, and other portable electronic devices.
4. While there will be other people around, you are only allowed to talk to your instructor/mentor, and mustn’t acknowledge or interact with others. You will scarcely hear a voice unless you are in meeting with your teacher or listening to the taped lessons in the evening.
5. You will be segregated from the other sex. They will have separate living and meditation spaces.
6. You will eat only the vegetarian meals provided by the center.
7. You will spend your days mostly in meditation—meditation of a rigorously prescribed nature.
8. You have to live by these rules for ten straight days. You are strongly discouraged from attending if you don’t believe yourself capable completing of all ten days.
Could you do it? If your response is, “Sure I can, piece of cake,” you are either an exceptional person or a little deluded. And it’s probably more likely you are like the person who imagines they will be a hero in a bank robbery or mugging, but who ends up catatonically cowering in a puddle of their own piddle. Maybe it shouldn’t be a tough proposition, but it is.
The ten days described are the basic course offered at Vipassana meditation centers around the globe. Except your travel costs, there’s no cost to attend, and you aren’t even allowed to tip the staff–though you can make a donation at the end of the course to assist others. If you happen to be near a center, there’s nothing but will and 10 consecutive days of freedom to keep one from taking the course.
The Equanimous Mind charts Manish Chopra’s personal experience with the course. I bought the book because I intend to attend the course myself, and I craved insight into what the experience is like.
For those who are unfamiliar with Vipassana meditation, it’s nominally a Buddhist method, but practitioners are quick to point out that it’s actually areligious. One need not be Buddhist to attend. One could be a Hindu, a Methodist, or an atheist and get the same value from attendance. Adherents believe that this is the meditation method that Buddha himself taught. For those who thought this sounded awfully cult-like when I described it above, in many ways it’s the antithesis of a cult. There is no central guru to worship. The closest thing to the overarching guru, S.N. Goenka, passed away last year. You don’t have to join a group or swear allegiance. And not only don’t you surrender your life-savings, you don’t have to surrender one, thin dime to have the experience.
Chopra doesn’t write at all about the background of Vipassana, nor much about its philosophy or method. Instead, this book is a retelling of Chopra’s personal experience with the camp. There are many books that deal with those aforementioned topics, and so it’s no loss that this book doesn’t. It does give the reader a first-hand look at what it’s like to live in the camp and what prolonged meditation is like, and thus meets a valuable niche in lending comfort to those who are considering the course–but who are leery of what they will go through.
It’s remarkable that the author had the detailed recollections necessary to construct an entire book. The organization of the book chapters is by day, and so there are ten core chapters. (This is a good way to arrange it as there is apparently some universality to experience day-by-day. Not only are people being taught the same methods, but it seems most people who quit do so on days two or six—indicating many people hit “walls” at the same point.) One will remember that notebooks and writing utensils are prohibited. The last chapter informs the reader that Chopra began frantically outlining the book on his way home. It’s surprising that an entire book sprang from memory. The author does claim that the clarity gained through the course improved his memory.
One can’t help but wonder what the book would have read like if it had been compiled day-by-day as a journal. In other words, how much was the book was framed by the euphoria of just having completed the course? Chopra does mention some low points of the course, but, overall, the picture he paints is rosy. It may be that his experience was just overwhelmingly positive, or he could have been on a high from completing something quite difficult.
Chopra suggests that by the end he had greater mental clarity, decreased vice, increased mental capacity, and was living an idyllic life. I don’t want to sound like I’m treating the account as suspect, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that Chopra is being blatantly dishonest. However, I worry that Chopra might have oversold the course. It almost reads like he’s been imbued with superpowers (mental, not physical–think Professor Xavier, not superman) at the end of the book. (He doesn’t suggest anything magical, but the claims are pretty impressive.) Maybe this is genuinely his experience, but it sounds a little too good to be true.
I’d definitely recommend this book for people who are considering taking the course. I’m not sure it would be of much interest to a more general reader. As I indicated, one isn’t going to learn a lot about the philosophy or history of Vipassana. One does learn a little about the methods from Chopra’s description, but it is fairly cursory. There is a fair amount of mundane information that people interested in the course will love to know (e.g. what kind of food was served and what it’s like to have to sit through one’s body aches), but which will be less than thrilling for someone who has no interest in taking the course.