Recently I attended a 10-day Vipassana course at Dhamma Pattana, Global Vipassana Foundation at Gorai in Mumbai from 7 to 17 May 2019.
Myth: Vipassana is all about maintaining total silence, which includes verbal, written, eye contact and gestures or say not communicating in any way.
Truth: Vipassana teaches you to know yourself, experientially. Which means seeing things as they really are.
Here I am sharing my detailed experience with you about my 10-day course. This involves flow of experiences, seemingly unbearable knee and thigh pain, finding out what type of people really meditate, becoming enlightened and much more.
What is Vipassana anyway? How does it work? What’s the point of it? And why would anyone do it?
But first, Vipassana is one of the world’s most popular meditation techniques. It was supposedly taught by Buddha himself in India more than 25 centuries ago.
Today, the technique of Vipassana is taught in a 10-day courses all over the world in over 200 centres. The courses are completely free of charge. All expenses are met by donations from old students – people who went through a course before, experienced the benefits, and wish to give others the opportunity to benefit as well. The organization is non-sectarian and welcomes people from all faiths and backgrounds.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body (matter), which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
The one’s thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations become clear, when one relates to present day scientific laws. It was known to Buddha 25 centuries ago that all humans are made of cells. Each cell has hundreds of atoms. About 99% of our body is made up of atoms of Hydrogen (H), Nitrogen (N), Carbon (C) and Oxygen (O). Carbon atoms are vibrating in place. The electrons in it are negatively charged and move from one atom to another. Each atom thus has fuzzy edges. These negative energies or miseries appear as sensations on our body. Through direct experience of sensations, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood.
Acharya Satya Narayanji Goenka, (1924-2013) the organization’s founder, is also the main teacher of the technique. The instructions are through audio and video recordings taken from some of his previous courses.
Although Indian by descent, Acharya Goenka, was born and raised in Burma (Myanmar). While living there he had the good fortune to learn Vipassana from his teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin who was at the time a high Government official. After receiving training from his teacher for fourteen years, Acharya Goenka settled in India and began teaching Vipassana in 1969.
Why I chose to attend this course?
I want to give you an understanding of why I chose to go through this in the first place. People go on such courses for numerous different reasons. For me, the main reason was the proven scientific track record of meditation. According to books and articles I’ve read on the topic, some of those benefits include:
- Improved immune function, decreased inflammation, many other improved health markers.
- Increased positive emotions, decreased negative emotions, more happiness.
- Improved relationship increases in social connection, less feelings of loneliness.
- Improved focus and attention, memory, creative thinking.
- Improved self-control, emotion regulation, concentration, introspection.
I am convinced that – at least at this point in my life – meditation is one of the best uses of my time. Anything that helps me rack up more hours of meditation is interesting to me, hence going to a course made a lot of sense. One hundred hours of meditation in ten days?
The Sadhaks (meditators / students) should adhere to the following rules:
- Noble silence.Students must observe noble silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. This means any form of communication with fellow meditators – whether by gestures, written notes, eye contact, or sign language – is prohibited. (You can talk to teachers or course managers regarding problems related to the technique, food, accommodation, etc.)
- No rites, rituals, or other religious ceremonies.
- No mixing of techniques.All other forms of meditation, healing, or spiritual practice should be suspended. You’re not allowed to mix any other practices with Vipassana.
- Separation of Women and Men.
- No smoking, drinking and sex.
- Clothing should be comfortable, simple, and modest.
- No phone, no internet, no outside contacts.Outside communication – including phone calls, letters, and visitors – is not allowed during the course. Smartphones and other electronic devices must be deposited with the management until day ten.
- Stay on the compound.
- No music, no reading, no writing.
The rules may sound a bit strict and draconic in the beginning. After the course, however, “I realize that all of them make total sense and are simply there to make life easier for the students and giving a fair trial to this technique”. I had no trouble following the rules, though I did do some walking from time to time. As long as you don’t distract your fellow meditators, I guess it’s fine.
The same timetable is used on all courses all over the world. Here’s what it looks like:
We got woken by a gong at 4 am every morning. We then had thirty minutes until the first meditation. We meditated for nearly 11 hrs each day with breaks for breakfast, lunch with rest and evening tea.
Breakfast break was an hour long. The food consisted of a variety of vegetarian foods. The rest of the time I used for taking a shower and then walking until the gong signalled the next meditation.
Group meditation in the hall. For these three one-hour long meditations, everyone had to be in the hall. After day four, these meditations become sittings of strong determination (adhishthan / अधिष्ठान).
Lunch break was two hours long. The food was pretty good, usually consisting of a combination of rice/chapati with vegetables and dal/curry. Green salad was always available, too. Plus, there was even dessert such as pudding or curd. After lunch, I followed the same routine on most days: napping for 40-60 minutes and then walking until the gong signalled the next meditation. During lunch break, there was also the possibility to schedule interviews with the meditation teachers to clarify any doubts regarding techniques and instructions for meditation.
The evening tea break or the last meal of the day, offered a combination of lime juice, tea, and a snack (kurmura). After eating, I went outside for a walk until the next meditation started. I’m well aware of the health benefits of fasting and decided to limit my eating window to breakfast and lunch.
Every evening after the last one-hour group meditation, there were so-called Dhamma talks – video discourses by Acharya S.N. Goenka explaining some of the theory and benefits of the technique. In many ways, these discourses were the highlight of my days. The talks were fun, humorous, interesting, and inspiring. They lifted my spirits and motivated me to keep going the next day. You can find many of these discourses on YouTube.
After the discourse, there was a short break followed by approximately thirty more minutes of meditation in the hall. After that last session, there was the opportunity to stay in the hall and ask questions or clear doubts with our Teacher/Guide. I never stayed and instead went straight to bed. Thankfully, I never had any trouble falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night.
That’s what a typical day looked like. Around ten hours of meditation. Two real meals. Never felt hungry or craving for food beyond this. A shower. A nap. Lots of walking and stretching in-between meditation sessions. A highly entertaining and charismatic dhamma talk. Sleep. Repeat.
Registering for the Course and Preparation
You see, Vipassana courses are popular. Much more popular than I thought. Registration to 10-day courses usually opens three months before the course starts and it’s not uncommon that courses fill up within a few days of opening up registration. And it’s not that these courses take place 3 times per month. It’s more like one course every 4-6 weeks.
After getting accepted to the course, it was time for preparation. Having read about meditation, mindfulness, and spirituality for the previous two decades, I felt like I was prepared well enough. Not to mention that I had been meditating on a regular basis for over four decades now. Now I feel that mindfulness is a mini by-product of Vipassana.
My First Meditation
I sat down on my cushions, tried to find a comfortable sitting position, and started meditating. My nerves calmed down after a few minutes, allowing me to concentrate on the technique. Things went surprisingly well. I did what I was supposed to do and brought back my attention to the object of concentration every time my mind had wandered.
After about ten minutes, my early enthusiasm started fading and the madness began. It turns out that my mind and body were not delighted to sit in meditation for such long periods of time and started revolting. The body signalled its unhappiness through pain, aches, and discomfort. The mind through restlessness and agitation.
To cut long story short, those were two of the longest hours of my entire life. The madness just didn’t seem to come to an end. I had to change my posture approximately every 5 minutes. I just couldn’t sit still for longer than that, constantly giving in to the pain of my body and the restless nature of my mind. I was always wondering, “How long is this going to take? This is impossible! There’s no way two hours aren’t over yet.”
During and after that exhausting experience, thoughts of agony and despair were rushing through my mind: “This was just the beginning… just the first meditation… just a taste of what’s to come…! Okay, maybe things weren’t as bad as I make it sound. Thanks to reading and practicing meditation in the past, I knew exactly how to handle such distressing thoughts. Just observe them with detachment and accept that they’re there. No need to freak out. No need to question everything. I also consulted my Teacher.
The cool thing I realized was that I had much more self-discipline, vigour, and strength than I expected. As you get pushed to the outer edges of your limits, you find that the reserves are there. It’s like they say, we are capable of so much more than we think.
On days 2-4, things slowly improved. I was much better at dealing with pain, discomfort, and restlessness. I could now easily sit in a posture for 10-15 minutes, which allowed me to practice a lot more calmly and with more concentration. During group meditations, I sometimes took a minute or two to look at my fellow meditators (साधक) through the corner of my eyes. This was helpful because it made me realize that they were struggling just as much as I was.
Strong Determination & Flow of Practice
You see, during the first three and a half days, we only practiced Anapana, a breath awareness meditation to prepare our minds and bodies for the real deal. I enjoyed learning about the actual Vipassana technique and was looking forward to practicing. On Day 4, we got introduced to the practice of adhishthana or strong determination sittings: sitting for one hour with strong determination not to change posture or open the eyes. In other words, we were not allowed to change posture or open our eyes for an entire hour.
After about thirty minutes, the pain really started getting to me. My knees and thighs were just killing me. To say that I was shaking, and trembling would be an understatement. Luckily, I was well-prepared for dealing with such setbacks. Instead of drowning myself in guilt, I chose to treat myself with warmth, understanding, and compassion. I consoled myself, picked myself back up, and resolved to do better tomorrow.
The key for me was to stay equanimous (समता भाव) to both the pain and my thoughts during the meditation. Instead of fighting with myself, resisting the pain, and getting angry (द्वेष भाव) at whatever thoughts my mind was producing, I just kept reminding myself to stay detached (राग भाव) and non-reactive (संखारा भाव) to whatever was happening. I kept telling myself, “this, too, will pass.”, (impermanent). No matter how excruciating the pain felt, I just kept bringing my attention back to the meditation. No matter what excuse my mind was trying to convince me of, I just kept bringing my attention back to the meditation.
Then, I made a great discovery. The more equanimous I stayed, the weaker the pain became. I don’t know if the pain actually got weaker or if I was just less bothered by it. Whatever the case, this it worked.
From Noble Silence to Noble Chattering
After the strong determination sittings from 4:30 am to 9 pm, the noble silence got lifted on Day-10 and we were finally able to talk to each other. The mobiles were returned. The discussions were interesting and joyous. I was at loss of voice when I called up my wife to say Hi. Everyone was uplifted, positive, and in a great mood. In the beginning, it was all about sharing one’s experiences and struggles before the topics changed to real life matters such as entrepreneurship, politics, spirituality, and so on.
I was really surprised to meet so many successful, and like-minded people at the course, including two Faujis, one serving and one veteran.
Would I do it again?
Absolutely! My experience was very positive. Not only did I grow a sense of pride and accomplishment in myself, I also learned a lot of other valuable lessons that will benefit me in my growth as a person. On top of that, I met some great people, some of which I am still in contact to this day.
I also enjoyed many other aspects of the course. The timetable and rules make a lot of sense in the aftermath – they create a calm and peaceful atmosphere very supportive of meditation. The evening discourses were very informative. Even the food was surprisingly good.
I am very happy with my Vipassana course. I probably will continue to do a few more courses in the future.
Would I recommend it to others?
Yes, but… While I think a Vipassana course would be beneficial for anyone, I believe that timing is important. You do need a certain amount of self-discipline and/or interest in the topic of meditation before going on a course. Otherwise you’ll probably leave after a few days.
If you want to take the course, see the official website, https://www.dhamma.org/en/courses/search , find the nearest centre, and follow the instructions.
And if you have any further questions or want to share your own experiences, please leave a comment below.