Vipassana is a ten day silent meditation retreat. The teaching is based on ancient principles, designed to bring awareness to the present moment through noticing the breath and the constantly changing reality through observing subtle and gross bodily sensations. Vipassana is not tied with any religion or dogma, it is a universal concept that does not discriminate based on religion or race. The center operates on a voluntary basis, the food is provided, and cooked by volunteer chefs, the teachers are not paid, and the course itself costs nothing for participants. Students are invited to leave a contribution donation at the completion of the course.
Ten days, no talking, no exercise, no eye contact, no reading, no writing, no music, no meals after midday except a piece of fruit for new students. All physical and mental distractions are removed. Allowing for complete inner analysis. The consistent daily schedule goes something like this: Wake up bell at 4am, meditation in the hall or your room 4:30-6:30, at 6:30 its breakfast, porridge, condiments, yoghurt, muesli, prunes, bread and spreads. 8-9 is a compulsory group mediation. 9-11 meditation in the hall or your own room. 11-1 is lunch which is a generous standard buffet selection. 1-2:30 meditate in the hall or your own room. 2:30-3:30 group meditation. 3:30-5 mediate. 5-6 tea break and fruit for new students. 6-7 compulsory group sit. 7-8 is the discourse where the teacher explains the technique. 8-9 meditation. At 9pm students are invited to ask questions relating to their practice otherwise they may retire to bed.
I arrived in the afternoon on day 0. Here was a chance to verbally meet fellow participants and share our intentions for the coming experience. A brief opportunity to speak to the fellow students before the journey. We were served a delicious pumpkin soup, conversing for the last time before a vow of silence for ten days. No more talking was allowed after the evening meditation. My legs ached and mind wandered during the hour long sitting. It was little preparation for the coming 12 hours per day. At 9:00pm the session concluded and it was time for bed.
By lunch time on day 1, 11am, it suddenly occurred to me that I had been meditating for four hours already. It feels like this day will never end. I’ve had a consistent meditation practice in my daily life for a while now. My experience so far with mediation, up to this point, was of bliss, calm, alertness, clarity, and relaxation. Its An excellent start to the day or preparation for sleep. I was expecting something similar with vipassana. I am usually able to quieten the mind fairly quickly. But with such relentless and consistent attention on the mind, hours and hours of stillness, thoughts were spinning uncontrollably in my head, loud and constant. The silent retreat was anything but silent. There is pain in my body, and a direction from the teacher to focus on nothing but the breath coming in and out of the nostrils. I ate a big lunch to compensate for the long wait until breakfast, which is 18 hours away.
During the lunch break I walked the same small track which runs up the hill and through the forest, about three thousand times. I discovered that walking slowly was better, to avoid awkwardly overtaking other restless students. Another lunchtime activity involved staring intently at a tree, the ants walking up the tree, or watching birds go about their daily lives collecting food or sticks. These animals take little notice of the human, who is voluntarily inflicting social isolation, physical pain, abstinence from stimulation and bodily sustenance, in order to achieve presence, and operate consciously in the world. The birds and the ants achieve this mastery state simply by being.
Finally day 1 ends at 9pm. 12 hours of seated, upright meditation. The area assigned to me in the hall was now littered with cushions and props as I experimented different seated postures in an attempt to ease the physical pain. Im not able to cross my legs on the floor so I mediate with knees folded either side of me, a cushion supporting each knee and one for my toes to rest on.
I went to bed wide awake. My mind racing and alert. I feel asleep and woke a few hours later by a screeching alarm clock. I immediately sat up and smashed at the snooze button. The alarm clock I was using had been unintentionally set for midnight by accident. It wasn’t until after the retreat that I was able to finally apologies to the other students for the disruption, and for them to discover what all the banging was about.
Goenka is the name of the teacher, his distinct indian accent can be heard prior to, and at the completion of each meditation session via speakers chanting a repetitive song that is simultaneously soothing and annoying. He appears on a projector screen of an evening for a group discourse explaining about the technique, why its beneficial and tips on how to get the most benefit. I loved these talks, Goenka explains relatable experiences, humorous observations, and is able to articulate clearly the aims and goals of the practice in an easily understandable way, and he is able to clearly and accurately interpret the teachings of the Buddha.
On day 1 we are instructed to Focus on the breath coming in and out of the nostrils. Focus on the breath, awareness of the breath, this will quieten the mind, he says, In and out, in and out, focus on the breath, all day, nothing else.
Day 2 the technique doesn’t change except to focus also on the area around the nostrils, below the nostrils, above the upper lip, a triangular section of the body that the breath touches briefly, if you breath hard enough. Breath in, breath out, in, out, in ,out, focus on the breath. This is the technique to quiet the mind but my mind is anything but quiet. I cant focus on the breath due to the incessant thoughts dominating the space. Im becoming frustrated and disappointed at my inability to calm the noise until Goenka appears on the screen and describes in almost perfect detail what im experiencing. He says its perfectly normal to go days of constant mental noise. In the evening I am feeling alert and don’t fall asleep until around 12.30am. The gong is struck just three and half hours later, I drag my tired self to the showers for a cold shower, and present a little more alert to the meditation hall at 4.30 to begin day 3.
At lunch time I notice two empty bedrooms, with sheets taken off the bed and personal belongings removed. The knowledge that two students have gone home is disrupting. A tempting thought is to follow suit, and end the torture. At the lunch break as im dong the daily laps of the centre perimeter I catch a glimpse of my van sitting in the car park. I could jump in that and leave today. How easy it could be. Its not a thought I entertain for very long though, Im as stubborn as hell and will see this through to the end there is no chance of me leaving the retreat.
Another difficult night sleep. This time an unexpected itching sensation in my toes. Unbeknownst to me, the seated position I have chosen to adopt has cut the circulation to my toes. They are swollen, throbbing, full of blisters and tender to touch. Inside the warm sleeping bag, they pulsate, itch and cause tremendous irritation. This is a terrible concern and I’m devastated at the prospect of ending the practice due to itchy feet! How on earth will I fall asleep with the distraction in my toes. I think I managed 2-3 hours until the gong goes off.
Day 4 is vipassana technique day. At 4pm vipassana is given via video recording, Im excited to move away from the repetitive breath technique, Noticing the area around the nostrils, in, out, in, out, im looking forward to the change of technique today. Vipassana technique, in my opinion, is simple yet profound. Vipassana aims to bring awareness to subtle, and not so subtle, sensations as they arise on the body. As you pass your awareness gradually over each part of the body, from head to toe, toe to head, notice the sensation that is present on each particular part of the body. If a sensation is there, feel that sensation, notice it there but don’t judge the particular sensation as being good, or bad, just notice it and understand the temporary nature of the feeling. It will rise and pass, as everything does. Noticing bodily sensations brings awareness to the present moment and allows you to accept reality as it is, not as you want it to be, to acknowledge the changing inevitability of each moment, without needing to attach to the thoughts or feelings as they come.
When we attach ourselves to a particular sensation, it leads to suffering. If we experience a negative sensation, whether it be a negative thought, a pain in the body, or perhaps an external unwanted stimulation, we become tense, and averse to the feeling that is present. We want to get rid of the feeling. This reaction compounds the negative feeling, multiplying it and multiplying it, making it worse and worse with every reaction. If, instead of reacting this way, we just observe the negative feeling without judgement or label, we allow it to be felt, and it will pass away, as is the nature of every moment, arising and passing. Therefore, it is not necessarily the negative things in life that cause our suffering, more our reactions to them that make it so.
When we experience a pleasant thought or sensation, we crave to have that more often, this craving leads to suffering. If we are craving a pleasant sensation that is not there, we become averse, and tense, to what is present. The blissful, joyous moment has passed away, we want it back but its not there, we crave to have more of these temporary, wonderful experiences, but because they don’t last we are forced to suffer in the absence of the positive feeling. If instead of craving the pleasant sensations and just feel them in the moment, allow them to pass away, we open more opportunity to feel whatever comes up in each moment. Clinging to a past experience because we want more of it does not allow the present nature of the moment to be felt.
The fact we are sitting for extremely long duration is the perfect setting to practice the technique. During such long and uncomfortable conditions, Negative sensations frequently arise in the body and the aversion to these feelings certainly does intensify the feeling. Thoughts come and go and when I attached myself to them I felt them becoming more intense, until applying the technique, just observe, then they will pass naturally away. Sometimes, a very pleasant, light, flow will pass over the body, this feeling was rare in my experience but it did occur and almost immediately upon passing I craved it back, this lead to suffering. Once I was able to let go of the craving it would come back, or maybe it wouldn’t, the key was to remove craving and aversion, and observe reality as it is, not as you want it be.
I had surrounded myself with cushions and pillows but there was very little relief from the pain. My toes were in a terribly bad condition, each session the circulation would be cut, leading to blisters forming, redness, swollen, and tender to touch. I found half a tub of body lotion hidden in the male shower room under the sink. It was a gift from heaven. I rubbed the lotion on at 9.15pm and fell straight asleep until the gong at 4.
Day 5 I felt like I’d had the best sleep of my life. The technique continued by observing sensations in the body, scanning from head to toe, from toe to head, noticing what arises from moment to moment. Thanks to the magic body lotion, My toes were now at a manageable, less irritated condition. Ironically, during the group discourse, Goenka spoke of a way to deal with sleepless nights. He not surprisingly, advises to meditate. If you’re in a meditative state, it’s basically the same as sleeping, the body will get the rest it needs simply by meditating, again, it’s the reaction we have when we wake up, look at the clock and decide based on the time spent asleep, that it is not enough, it’s this reaction that leads to suffering. If you can’t fall asleep just lay there, notice bodily sensations arise and pass without judgement, you will fall asleep eventually, or be rested regardless.
By day 6 came I was looking forward to the meditation. As the day wore on the legs grew more and more aching and tired but I knew this experience was having a positive effect, I could feel it. As Goenka says, it is a tremendous opportunity, to be in a wonderful centre in beautiful nature, exploring the workings of the mind, with no distraction. A path towards liberation from the mind. To enjoy real happiness and peace.
Observe sensations, from head to feet, from feet to head. Head to feet, feet to head. Up and down, up and down, all day, every day, 12 hours a day. Fuck!
On day 8 I felt like I made the most progress. Everything suddenly made sense on day 8, I was able to let go into the practice, and get a deeper understanding of the practice on an experiential level. Everything that had been explained via the evening discourse was making sense. I felt a control over the mind that I had never before experienced. My mind was calm, and clear, thoughts came but were not invasive. Sensations in the body were easier to observe, and appeared more often over more parts of the body. At times my mind was clear of thought and there was a calm emptiness, I felt an ability to explore the mind and feel in control over it, rather than be dominated by random invasive thoughts.
I experienced clear visions from the past. I saw images in my mind as clear as though my eyes were open. Some of these images were confronting and traumatic, but Most of the time it was a visual of something I would never have expected to come up, random events of the past, some from childhood, others from adolescence and adulthood. I was able to observe these images with a new calm attitude of non attachment. I don’t know why some of them appeared but I think that by applying the detachment method, seeing it as it is, helped to dissolve past memories that wanted to be recognized.
Over the remaining days I craved more of what I experienced on day 8. I couldn’t replicate the events of day 8 because I was trying to replicate them. I experienced profound insight on day 8 because I was in the moment, surrendered, and not expecting anything to happen. The paradox among many paradoxes of life is that this is when the greatest experiences happen, when we let go of expectation and just allow the experience to unfold in the moment.
On the final day I would not have been disappointed to stay longer. I was feeling comfortable now and could understand why the monks live the way they do. We walk around 24 hours a day carrying a mind that we give very little regard or attention to. The long days and many hours of stillness was a beautiful way to better understand this sometimes torturous mind. Momentum was building from my meditation practice, the first few days was confusion, then gaining deeper understanding of the practice, applying the practice, experimenting with it, getting comfortable with it and experiencing the benefits. Over time the pain in the body was subsiding, the mind was quiet, and under control.
On the final day, after the final meditation, I looked into the eyes of the man id sat next to on the course and we exploded in a trembling explosion of words and expression. It was impossible to articulate what each other were experiencing but it was clear to see that it had a profound impact on us both. We hadn’t formally been introduced, or even met eye contact previously, but felt we had known each other intimately from this experience. Shaun, said that although he tried not to judge, he could accurately predict the enormous quantities of food that would appear on my plate at every meal siting, and he’d wonder how such a small frame could accumulate so much. He also kindly asked the teacher if he could leave a back roll outside my door, Shaun was front and centre to my constantly readjusting seated position.
Liberation of the mind is what Goenka continually promised during his daily speeches, with consistent practice, determination, and patience this goal can certainly be achieved. A ten day vipassana will not liberate the mind but it will provide the tools, and the path to do so. This experience exceeded my open expectations and opened me up to the vast potential of the human mind. This course I recommend to everyone who possess a mind in a human body, its simply an experience not to be missed. Removal of physical and mental distractions is rare and simply not possible for the vast majority of human incarnation. As difficult as it is to remove ten days from a busy schedule, and dedicate them to what is for the most part, physical and mental torture, it is a practice and teaching that will last a lifetime, and will ultimately be the greatest gift you can give to yourself.
May all beings be happy.
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