I’ve been trying to meditate on and off, sometimes making a successful 30 days in a row of 20 minutes per day, but never felt like I really reached the benefits I’d heard of. It was a paus for my brain, similar to a walk or a yoga session, but I always felt like there should be another level to it. Based on the fact that uncountable studies and examples point out the benefits of meditation, I wanted to put a serious effort into the exploration of mediation practice.
I like to do things in projects, go deeper into something with focus and determination for a while, and see where it takes me. To just add an hour of meditation per day and e.g. use on of the dozens of apps or classes that popped up due to the trendiness of meditation and mindfulness wouldn’t work for me. I chose Vipassana because it would allow me to focus solely on meditation practice for ten days, instead of a short break from reality it seemed to be about hard work, discipline and deep practice. The center I went to was the Dhamma Papida near Perth, in western Australia, and this is my experience.
As a new student, you must start with a ten days course, a seemingly long time considering the challenging schedule and regulations. The rules of Vipassana are strict. During those ten days you are not allowed to speak or in any other way communicate or interact with the other participants. No gestures or sign language, avoiding eye contact and absolutely no physical contact. You are also not allowed to bring any books or writing material, so there is no reading, writing and no listening to any kind of (your own choice of) audio. That is, no information in or out and as little expression as possible (the teachings of Vipassana and the actual course are exempt, of course, and so is necessary practical information), it is about you and your brain ONLY.
The days begin at 4 with a soft but persistent gong waking everyone up, and at 4:30 the two hours long morning meditation begins. We tumbled out of our dorm the first morning, threading slowly the hundred meters to the mediation hall. The room was dimly lit and I am pretty sure we all fought hard not to fall asleep on our cushions that first day. At 6:30 we welcomed the sound of the gong, letting us know that it was breakfast time. A filling and very yummy meal was served as the daylight chased the darkness away and the day began (for the rest of the world). On the first morning, I learned that the ”no intoxicants” regulation included coffee (I could have guessed, but that was an aspect I just didn’t think of). Having travelled with a heavy coffee drinker, my past months I’d had something like five cups per day of strong coffee. Bulging two cups of black tea, I tried to fight the headache that I knew might terror me later that day.
At 8 mediation starts again, and with two breaks, we meditate until 11 when it is time for lunch. Again, the food (vegetarian only) was amazing and filling. However, this is the last meal for the day except for some fruit and tea at five o’clock. The old students don’t even get this, but are to sustain on only lemon water or tea without milk when the rest of us were having our fruit. The point of the food regulation is that we meditate better when our belly is not full, and also to realise that it’s ok to not always be full, we can live on less and hunger is just another sensation (although I didn’t feel hungry at all just light and healthy, the volume of food was for me well suited for the slow paced routine at the center). Anyhow, the lunch break continues to 1 pm when meditation starts again and goes on to 5 pm, then we had the tea and fruit and a one hour break, and then meditated again between 6-7 pm. At 7 was one of the highlights of the day; the discourse. This was a one hour class showed on video, that included the learnings, principles and philosophies that comes with Vipassana. The day ended with a half hour meditation session, and at 9 pm most of us went to bed, exhausted.
The instructions of the first days’ meditation is to focus on your breath and how it feels in your nose. That’s it. The simplicity in itself felt futile. When our minds moved from the awareness of breathing to thoughts (as it does – all the time) we just brought it back. And that’s how it went, for hours. To pick up that coffee-thread again, the dreaded headache caught me in the afternoon of the first day and the last part of the day was really hard. To just focus on breathing for hours was a struggle and it felt like I was either thinking of my pain or was about to fall asleep pretty much all day, and I literally crashed in my bed and was deep asleep within five minutes that first night.
Luckily, the withdrawal from my coffee addiction didn’t last any longer, and my second day was way easier. The first three days we were only focusing on our breathing, narrowing it down on the third day to the sensation of breath on the skin below the nostrils. I don’t know if you did the math, but each day consisted of about ten hours of meditation, and to focus on that sensation ONLY for ten hours is difficult and utterly challenging. The purpose of this narrow focus is to sharpen the mind to experience the most subtle sensation anywhere on the body. The smaller the area, the sharper the mind. These days were a practice in the sensitivity required for Vipassana.
On the fourth day we were introduced to Vipassana meditation. Vipassana stems from buddhism, but is secular in its’ nature in modern days. The father of Vipassana is the late N.S. Goenka, who was raised in Myanmar and learned it there from the monks. Mr Goenka is the teacher at all the Vipassana retreats which are similar everywhere in the world, and recordings of him talking and/or chanting are opening and closing the meditation sessions, and he is also doing the one hour discourse where you get to watch him on video. Despite the seriousness of it all, Mr Goenka is surprisingly funny – and I think we laughed out loud (a joyous relief considering the silence and non-interaction the rest of the time) at least once every discourse. Despite so much of the teachings being on audio and video and not live, the course is vivid and Mr Goenka feels present. At each course there is also an assisting teacher, and this is the person who will give the students more personal guidance and who you go to for questions regarding your practice. The assisting teacher is sitting in front of the hall and is in every way active in the teachings. On this fourth day as the Vipassana was given, Mr Goenkas voice guided us to Vipassana; sequences of long body scans in a specific order.
In addition to the body scans, day four marked the start of the ”Sittings of strong determination” three times daily. They were one hour long each, during which we were not allowed to move. Any itching, pain or sleeping limbs were just to be observed when scanning that part of the body, “observe them impersonally and know that they are just temporary” were the instructions. An example of Vipassana practice would be that you are focusing on your shoulders when scanning the body, and suddenly you are experiencing pain in one knee. Your mind will wander to that knee, and beg you to move it as to ease the pain. Instead you are to move your focus back to the shoulders, knowing that the pain will pass, and only observe it when you are getting to your knees in your scanning procedure.
The first sitting of strong determination, or ”long hold” as I started calling it in my mind, relating to holding a position or weight for a longer time during body exercise, was a real struggle. I suspect none of us new students made it all the way through without shifting our bodies at least a little. However – to my surprise – they rapidly got easier. On the third session I was able to sit still for the full hour, and after that I managed every single time for the rest of the course. The struggle wasn’t physical, it was mental. Despite kind of knowing this already, it was a realisation in itself that the physical challenge was a piece of cake compared to the mental one.
Honestly, our minds are crazy! Constantly nagging, always bringing something up that we didn’t ask for. Going through things that we thought we already solved again and again, or just ”showing” us something meaningless, or thinking about what kind of food we are going to get next… In the beginning I had sessions when I could stay focused for twenty seconds maximum before my mind took away with me. It got better, but even at the end of the course the best I could manage was to be in the meditative, focused state for like ten minutes before I had to call my mind back from some random thought.
The work on improving my meditation practice took me a long way, with the realisation that there is a lot left to work on before I can actually meditate for even half an hour without getting interrupted by sudden uncontrolled thinking.
What about the silence? Before the course started, I thought that being silent and spending all this time not doing anything but thinking and meditating would be really hard. To my and many of my fellow students’ surprise, it wasn’t hard at all. It was actually enjoyable. However, I think that if entering Vipassana with anxiety or other mental challenges, it might get really hard – for most of us the silence was the easy part.
On that note, the noble silence is broken by lunchtime on the last day of the course, and a loud, loving chatter takes its’ place (only during the breaks though). Having a last day when we where allowed to talk and share our experiences was invaluable! I am not sure how I would have made it the first days in the ”real world” if I wouldn’t have had those conversations, sharing what we’d been through.
What are my biggest learnings then?
As I am writing this, only one day has passed since the course ended. I am sure more learnings will pop up as I reflect further, but here is what I see at this point:
The major one: my mind is kind. There was a time in my life when I couldn’t sleep at night due to anxiety, my head panicking and criticising and blaming and fearing out of control. A time when I had to distract myself to not think negative thoughts, and when lone time usually involved crying. Since then years have passed and I have been working a lot on myself. I was expecting that something hidden would pop up during my ten days alone in my own head, but it didn’t. I feel like I am seeing all of me, everything inside of me, clearly. And it is all good, calm and taken care of. I am treating myself with kindness, trust and love, and I am so grateful!
– Controlling the mind is a constant challenge. The work will never be over
– Training to stop reacting to it helps in tolerating pain
Being an old student of Vipassana, I am now welcome to join any one day, three days or ten days retreat or to volunteer at any center. There are Vipassana centers all around the world, same teachings but completely different settings (and food, they say). I will definitely do Vipassana again, just spending that time with myself was really developing and fruitful for my productivity coming out of the course. Although, I am not going to do another ten days course any time soon, I am afraid that might drive me a little bit crazy.
As Mr Goenka said: may all beings be happy
“Our honest and authentic conversations lead to me not being able to dim the light shining on my dreams and my truth anymore”