Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Vipassana and Montessori

It is hard to put life changing experiences into words sometimes. When I try, it feels like I'm devaluing the experience somehow, or am not making it justice by defining it. But with the intention of sharing what was one of the most important events of my life, I will try!

The spiritual preparation of the teacher has been on my mind since taking Montessori training in 2003. The idea that you have to work on yourself first so that you can fulfill the more important aspects of education (modeling character, love of life and learning) has been an aspect of Montessori training that really appeals to me. At the refresher course last February, which was on the topic of Observation, the parts related to self observation really fundamentally impacted me and I've been thinking about them ever since.

Spring Break was coming up, and instead of staying home to file all the children's finished work that is bulging out of their individual folders, I decided to enroll in a meditation course. I went to North Fork in California for a 10 day Vipassana course. I have to say that before the course, my experience with meditation was very limited- basically sitting for short periods trying to keep my mind free of thoughts. And I'd never attended any kind of silence retreat, or meditation program in the past. All of it was new to me.

I heard about Vipassana from the wife of a friend of a friend (= very randomly), she mentioned it during a hike we went on, and for some reason the name stuck. She described it as a silent retreat where you get to know your mind very well, and you learn a technique for how to observe it without reacting. She said it helped her cultivate mindfulness in her life. Sounded like something that could be very useful for work (and life!).

I researched it when I got home, and found that the course is a serious, pragmatic, and non sectarian introduction to the very ancient technique of meditation called Vipassana, which means "to see things as they really are". These kinds of phrases on the website called my attention:

"This direct experience of our own inner reality, this technique of self-observation, is what is called Vipassana meditation."

"Whenever negativity arises in the mind, just observe it, face it."

"Those who regularly practice Vipassana become more sensitive to the sufferings of others, and do their utmost to relieve suffering in whatever way they can—not with any agitation, but with a mind full of love, compassion and equanimity. "

It sounded very complimentary to the idea of spiritual preparation of the teacher described by Montessori:

"The training of the teacher who is to help life is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character; it is a preparation of the spirit. "

"It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it. "

"In their dealings with children adults do not become egotistic but egocentric. They look upon everything pertaining to a child's soul from their own point of view and, consequently, their misapprehensions increase. "

Many aspects of the course are easily associated with ideas commonly used in Montessori...

Work through the Senses

The technique taught revolves on the observation of sensations on the body. That means that during meditation, instead of imagining or visualizing anything, you are just observing what you feel on your own skin without judging it. Tie in to Montessori: "There is nothing in the intellect which was not first in some way in the senses", and senses being explorers of the world, open the way to knowledge." By practicing equanimity when you observe the sensations (at a very refined level), this is practice for observing outside occurrences and likewise remaining equanimous.

The Prepared Environment

The environment in which the course is taught includes physical and mental aspects. The location for the course was a beautiful campus on the outskirts of Yosemite National Park. It included a peaceful little lake, mountains all around, a little orchard, and lots of wildlife. Men and women were in separate living quarters and only met for group meditation. And the mental aspects of the environment included taking a vow of Noble Silence (of speech, and mind) and following a rigorous schedule that included about 10 hours of meditation per day. All of it is designed to really facilitate the work (self observation) and deep concentration necessary of each participant so that they may really benefit from the course. It is a perfectly prepared environment conducive to that work.

Concentration and Individual Work

Meditating involves cultivating a deep concentration and presence. When you are doing it for 10 hours a day, after a few days the mindfulness spreads to all of your activities. You begin to observe yourself when walking, eating, and even when trying to go to sleep. The emphasis on the transformative powers of concentration reminded me not only of Montessori, but of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, "Flow" where he talks about "how to live life as a work of art, rather than as a chaotic response to external events..." All of your mind energy is focused on the internal occurrences, rather than on what is happening outside. Through silence, and lack of any type of communication with people around you, it becomes an extremely independent work.

It is stressed during the evening discourses (more about that later) about how only you, yourself, can do the work conducive to your own development. I remember thinking a lot about the phrase "You have to walk your own path", and in retrospect it reminds me of how I think about children at school needing to make their own choices, and how their development is also exclusively dependent on them doing things themselves. The teacher, Goenka (more on him later), also stresses that we should only accept an idea or teaching after we've experienced it for ourselves. He suggests, contrary to the popular parent reaction or teacher attitude of "because I said so", that independent experience of the benefits of a practice are necessary before adopting it.

Development of Character

One of the contextual aspects of the course which was very striking to me is that everyone and everything involved in the creation of the course is funded through donations from participants who have completed the course. It is free of charge to anyone who wants to apply. At a physical level, every meal (and they are delicious and varied fresh meals), the dormitories (which are simple but clean, heated, include hot water), the meditation hall, the natural grounds, this is very impressive. But the part that was inspirational was that all the people working there were also serving as volunteers. Even the assistant teachers and managers are not remunerated for their work. The generosity and care shown by the staff is moving. All the people that manage the course really make it clear that they are there to help you succeed. The atmosphere that this kind of attitude generates moves one to feel impelled to mirror it in ones own life. It is easy to understand the concept of giving at an intellectual level, but to see it and experience it in practice all around you is very touching- and it definitely creates a momentum!

Of course, this type of deep introspection can be very painful at times, frustrating, and emotional. And the body is not used to sitting for such long hours in general, and you do experience a degree of physical pain. Assistant teachers are available every day to answer questions regarding your practice, and managers are there to help with alternatives when there is difficulty with the sitting. Another one of the main precepts underlined in the course is the law of impermanence. Understanding that all of it, the mental pain, physical pain, and even the experience at the course itself will pass is an important part of the work. You really get to experience the truth of that statement in all kinds of ways, and begin to take real respite in that fact.

The discourses given at the end of the day (the only form of media that you are exposed during the 10 days) are the most helpful guides to the personal experience one is having. They are imparted by S.N. Goenka, the leading worldwide teacher of Vipassana meditation. He is an excellent speaker and his lectures are delivered in a manner that is very logical, clear, and with humor (which is so necessary when you are dealing with so much mentally and physically). He also introduces the concept of "Dhamma", which is a term that has no sectarian connotation, but means "a path to enlightenment." It can be seen like a method that includes the teachings of Buddha, laws of nature applied to the human experience, and as a support to the work one is trying to cultivate through meditating. Goenka is an inspiring and wonderful teacher.

Of course, I am sharing all of this as my own particular experience of the course, and other people may have internalized it in a completely different way. I read many reviews of the course before I signed up, and some of them were very negative (though mostly from people who didn't complete the course, and thus missed out on really seeing the whole picture of it), and some of them were extremely positive. It is stated time and time again, that one must complete the 10 days in order to get a complete idea about the technique- and I found that to be very true personally! In order to give the experience a full trial, it is not possible to do only part of the course- it really all comes together in the end.

Emerging from the course, immediate results I see are:

- Increased mindfulness about myself and others. I am more aware of my actions, words, and intentions.

- More patience with myself and others. Patient with mistakes, with things happening outside of me.

- Less restlessness and anxiousness. My life has slowed down quite a bit, and I have cut down on a lot of activity that I was doing in the past as a form of distraction from the mental distress.

- Increased desire to serve others without needing anything in return. I am becoming more aware of other people's needs.

- More balance in my emotional responses. I am feeling less extremes in my emotional life.

In order to continue to benefit from the course, it is recommended to the participants to continue to practice daily. Quickly I found the times I sit to meditate at the beginning and end of the day to be necessary for my wellbeing (just as before, and still, I find at least an hour of physical exercise a day are necessary for me to feel good).

I am so grateful that this kind of opportunity is available to anyone who wants to experience it, and recommend this course to anyone really, but especially as an extension or manifestation of the spiritual preparation of the Montessori teacher.

Here is the course website:

PS. Coincidentally, the assistant teacher to the course I took in North Fork, Karen Donovan, is also an Elementary Montessori teacher. When I asked her questions about the practice during the interviews, not knowing about her background but her knowing about mine, she tailored her responses and framed them in ideas about child development, which made so much sense to me!


Laura said...

Thank you for your post susanne. I have many questions, but don't know where to begin. My first is a practical concern -- taking ten days "off". I've never taken a trip of that length ever...Also, in my experience with workshops and conferences and training sessions, there's a short period of enthusiasm, but then after a while we go back to our old patterns. We return to our old ways of thinking and reacting. What kinds of follow up is there to keep you on track after you return to your own environment?

Susanne said...

Hello Laura,

Thanks for commenting! I was able to take 10 days off from school by taking the course during our Spring Break at school (plus two more days), but it is offered all over the world really, and at many different times of the year in each location. If you were interested, you can look up the locations and schedules on the website. It does absolutely take support from friends and family to be able to leave for that period of time though, especially if you have children.

The follow up on the course that is recommended is 2 hours of daily practice (one in the evening, one in the morning) and taking a course every year. I've only been back for a week, and it takes some figuring out how to incorporate the two hours in the day (if you are over-scheduled like me, it takes some cutting out of not priority work from your life).

The course is supposed to be intensive enough that during the ten days you really break with some of your mental habits. Continuing to practice at home (at least for me) has allowed me to continue to experience a lot of the peace that I felt during the course, at home.

I'd be happy to answer any questions that I can.

Warm regards,


Yasuyo said...

Dear Susanne,
Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful experience. After reading your post, I'm so sure that I'd like to join the course this year in Japan! I'll see when I can get 10 days off...

10 hours of sitting in a day sounds really a lot to me. How did you actally cope with the pain you had? Do you recommend me to do some preparation for the course?

Susanne said...

Hi Yasuyo!

Yes... the sitting so many long hours. The course staff really know that it is not a normal thing, so if you are in too much pain they help you by suggesting different postures for sitting or they offer you back support (jack chair, or a chair, or to sit against the wall). But there is always a level of discomfort... It is part of the process, to observe the pains as they come and recognize that they also will pass...

There is really no preparation that you can do for the course other than to REALLY commit in your mind that NO MATTER WHAT you will stay the 10 days.

Hope to write to you soon with some definite plans about coming to see you :) Much love to you,


Olivia De Jesus said...

Oh, Susanne,

I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful it was to read this post (as Goenka would say, "dhamma works" : ) I have been practicing for a little over a year now and it has certainly changed my life, so much so that I am now considering a slight change in careers. I have been working as a music teacher for the past 6 years or so and am very intrigued by the idea of training to become a Montessori teacher. Besides getting to observe classes during my masters program and helping a friend to place her son in a Montessori school, I was lucky enough to go to Montessori schools until I was 7 and have nothing but fond memories of that time in my life. I have a feeling that growing up in a Montessori environment engrained in me a "seeker's spirit," which I have no doubt led me to Vipassana. So, all of that being said, I would be interested to hear/read more about the relationship between Vipassana and Montessori in your life. Your post shows very clearly that they support each other in many ways. Are you still practicing? If so, do you feel like it has supported your teaching?

I am under contract for one more year at a school in Argentina and then will probably take a year off, taking 6 months to volunteer/sit at centers (I hope) and then hoping to start Montessori training in the second half of the year. Any guidance/experience you are willing to share would be greatly appreciated!

With metta,

Susanne said...

Dear Olivia,

Your comment comes on the eve prior to departing for my fourth Vipassana experience. Tomorrow I travel to Georgia to sit again for 1O days. The last time I sat the course was in 2O1O, but I have served the course twice since. I am very much looking forward to another immersion in the wonderful Dhamma!

It is easy to see how the course can inspire change, and just as enthusiastically as I recommend taking Vipassana courses, Montessori training is probably the other learning experience that has most influenced my life. I cannot recommend it more! I think it is now possible to take AMI training in Argentina, and this is the best training that you could get. There may be other more economically feasible, or shorter training courses out there, but from my experience, AMI training really is life changing and prepares the path for you. What is unique about AMI I think is that it really takes seriously what Dr. Montessori considered to be a spiritual preparation of the adult.

The question of whether and how Vipassana supports my work is a very large one, and I could write about that for hours. Suffice to say, it has become inextricable from the way I see my life.

If there is anything I can help you with, feel free to email me. I would love to hear about where all of this takes you!

Metta back to you!


Olivia De Jesus said...

Thank you for the thorough, heartfelt and speedy response and best wishes for a prosperous sit! I will certainly be in touch. Thanks again!