All I knew about Vipassana was this:
A 10-day meditation course at an isolated retreat. You are expected to avoid any contact - verbal or otherwise, and remain within a small area of the course site. You are not allowed to speak, read, listen to music, or write, and have to spend at least 10 hours of your day, from 4:30 am to 9:00 pm, in total silence, meditating.
In short, a complete withdrawal from the external world.
In return, Vipassana promises to free you from all dissatisfactions, any anger or vicious craving, through the experience of the unseen truth beyond our sensory perception (Vipassana means “Insight” in one of India‘s ancient languages).
Originally taught by the Buddha himself, 25 centuries ago, the technique simply relies on observing the impermanent nature of our world while meditating. The primary idea behind this is that our mind is conditioned on an unconscious level, causing us to react to external events with no ability to control it.
Anyway, I’m quite a happy person in my daily life and actually like the external world, but my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give Vipassana a try. Part of me was simply intrigued by the actual experience, even more than the results it promised.
My first Vipassana attempt - India
Vipassana centers are located all around the world, but it felt right to choose one in India, the origin country of this meditation technique, so just before I left Australia, I registered for a course in the small mountain town of Dharamkot.
After checking in and handing over all my electronic devices, I took a first look at the centre. It was not as depressing as I thought – small cottages surrounded by tall pine trees gave it a peaceful and tranquil feel.
I was given an “apartment” number, which was actually a tiny room in a big tent with 20 beds. There was hardly any light and a foul smell emanated from the plastic walls and ground.
I sat on my new bed –it was hard like concrete. I’ve had worse, I thought, trying to encourage myself.
Silence was to be imposed in few hours, so I socialized as much as I could with my fellow “prisoners” and went for one last cake in the coffee shop outside the centre.
There were only 2 meals a day during the course, a small breakfast and a basic lunch. Ouch! I love my dinners. Guess this will be another challenge for my active stomach and strong appetite…
The course officially began the next day at 4:00 am. A loud gong broke the silence and we headed to a dark hall. A tape-recorded voice was telling us to focus on our breath and nothing else. For the whole day that’s the only thing we do…
I realized how hard this simple task was. I couldn’t focus on my breath for more than 2 minutes without switching to some past image. One thought led to another in an unrelated manner. It’s like having a cable TV inside my head with someone else holding the remote control.
On the second day, we’re told to do the same and keep focusing on our breath in the nostril area. My mind was protesting loudly inside:
I tried to go beyond my mind; it’s a constant fight, but at some point I managed to keep my focus on one single area for almost half an hour. I’m impressed, but exhausted.
This meditation thing is not a mental relaxation technique and it’s extremely intense. There were no free associations (which are usually my favorite part of meditation). Everyone around me looked very weak (and depressed, I must say).
Apparently, spending time in our skulls while sitting with closed eyes can be a hard workout.
The third day began with a new task: observing sensation in our bodies as deep as we can without reacting to it. At this stage, I was excited by any task that was not related to breathing.
Vipassana theory says that every unconscious thought creates physical sensation in our body and by observing it without reacting, we liberate ourselves from conditioning and attachments. I gave it a try.
At first, I was able to perceive sensations in some parts of my body, but in my second meditation, I felt it all over my body. Vibrations were rising and falling with great rapidity. Every part of my body was constantly on the move.
The impermanent nature of my own form is something that I was well aware of before the start of the journey, but experiencing it myself provided a deeper level learning.
I also realized that I hadn’t moved for an hour and was focused the whole time on the present moment. I was in total control of my mind. The remote control was in my hand.
During the next meditation, I experienced something that I had never experienced before. While focusing on my body’s sensations, I suddenly felt that my body was starting to disappear. I couldn’t sense where I ended and the dark space around me began. “I” and my ego had just been evaporated and the essence of Buddha’s teaching revealed in its full colors.
I felt totally exhausted by mid-day. My body was weak and during the break I felt very sick. A new food poisoning became worse. I crashed on my bed shivering. By the end of the day, I had a high fever and I spent the night with nightmares and cold sweat.
Day 4 began and I was unable to move out of my bed. I felt very hungry as well, unable to eat the course’s food. I realized that I was not going to survive this without proper food and vitamins. I also realized that the only thing holding me together was the pride in saying that I had finished 10 days. My ego in its true light. I decided to call it off and get better in the outside world.
My second attempt - Israel, 2016
A few years later, while being in Israel, I felt pulled to give Vipassana another try. This time, I had years of meditation experience behind me and felt mentally prepared for the challenge ahead.
It was a cold December day, just before christmas, when I entered the retreat center. “What a difference!” I remember thinking to myself. Everything was new and shiny. My shared room - an actual room and not a tent like in India - had its own shower cubicle and upon entering it, I felt immediately more confident and optimistic; “I can do this,” I whispered aloud.
It all went pretty well in the first couple of days but on the 3rd day I got really sick with the flu. That was the exact day I got sick in India during my first vipassana attempt. Coincidence? ...or perhaps fate?
On top of that, I began having a new lower back pain that wouldn't go away no matter particular stretching I did.
Once again, like on the 3rd day in India, I felt absolutely miserable.
The thought of quitting constantly creeped up throughout the entire third day. By evening time, when my headaches and lower back pain increased, I was sure I’m going to quit the next day.
That night I had a lucid dream. It was so real that upon awakening I felt an immediate surge of energy rise up in me. “One more day” I quietly said to myself. “I can do this… I can do this”.
With every ounce of determination I got, I walked slowly to the big meditation hall and sat down in total silence. I closed my eyes and darkness enveloped me. Within a few minutes I felt subtle vibrations all through my upper body as I became equanimous to my back pain and flu symptoms.
A realization suddenly dawned on me - Vipassana meditation might not cure my body pains but I can certainly meditate through them and see them as they really are: transitory manifestations. In fact, these pains provided an opportunity to practice mental equilibrium which is the primary idea behind Vipassana.
And with that simple realization, I felt free again. I no longer focused on my pain and instead went into the depths of my soul, mind, and body for 10 days straight.
It was still hard, extremely hard. There was not even a single day that the thought of quitting didn't run through my mind. But as Charlie Chaplin once said, Nothing in life is permanent, not even one's troubles.
Thoughts, feelings, pains, and even our solid body, are all impermanent. Through mindfulness and specifically vipassana meditation, we start understanding the true nature of the entire universe. We realize that everything changes, everything is impermanent. All of existence, without exception, is transient. All things, whether material or mental, are objects in a continuous change of condition, subject to obliteration.
And this, in my opinion, is the magic behind Vipassana. A 10-day immersion allows you to understand the impermanent nature of things and their non-stop change, not only on the intellectual level but, more importantly, on the experiential level.
By the 5th-6th day I was fairly healthy again. Some body pains still did not go away, but mentally I was in a total different place. I knew that I will not only just make it but also excel in my practice.
At around the halfway of the course, my focus and attention span increased and I was able to meditate for more than an hour without moving even once. I would sit like a rock and absorbed myself totally in the present moment.
As each day passed, I became increasingly impatient and was hungry for social interaction, for human contact, for reading and writing, for breaking the daily routine…
On the 10th and final day, when the noble silence was over, I finally could interact with the other participants as normal human being once again. It was like awaking from a deep coma. Everyone smiled and chatted with a level of peace and exhilaration.
Later on, I received my mobile device, which was deposited with the management until the course ended, and cautiously pressed the start button.. Hundreds of emails and dozens of messages were waiting for me.
I turned my mobile off and smiled. Welcome to the 21st century...
My Vipassana experience - Q & A
I got a few questions before and after my Vipassana experience, so I decided to summarize it in a Q&A manner.
Q: What is Vipassana?
A: In short, Vipassana is a meditation technique that aims to eradicate suffering through mental purification.
Q: What did you personally experience?
A: Two things mainly: 1) That our body is mostly space and 2) that everything within us - mental or phyiscal - moves and changes with great rapidity.
Q: Why is it important to experience this?
A: The above basically means that 1) “I” is an invention of our mind and we are all just a stream of consciousness connected to everyone else; and that 2) everything changes – body, emotions, and sensations. Nothing is impermanent.
Q: OK – and why is this important?
A: 1) It makes you think how much fakeness is created on the surface level (ego, identity, etc.) Taking control over our mind from time to time can be nice. 2) We should also remind ourselves that everything is impermanent, our body, our things, our emotions. It reduces attachments and materialism right away. 3)Last but not least, we are all connected, and this means quite a lot…
Q: Are you going to do a Vipassana 10-day course again?
A: Maybe. I suppose only time and my body will tell. Vipassana is definitely rewarding and overall I’m satisfied that I went through the challenging process; however, it’s quite extreme. Even for me. Perhaps the true nature of reality is hidden from our own eyes and the only way to see it is through Vipassana meditation, but I still prefer to live my life out there – not only inside. Saying that, I’m definitely, going adopt the Vipassana’s Meditation techniques in my daily life.
Q: So, you’re willing to miss enlightenment?
A: If Vipassana is the only way to become enlightened, which is something I don't believe, then I guess I am. Of all the realizations I’ve learned through Vipassana, perhaps the most beneficial one for me was that I’m actually OK with a few humanly highs and lows, some reactions, and perhaps some apologies as a result of them. I’m not going to dedicate my life for total eradication of reactivity. I accept this.
Q: What other types of meditation are you going to adopt, if any?
A: Short, unplanned sessions of meditation during the day seem to work very well for my lifestyle. Meditation is merely a tool to live our lives in a more fruitful and purposeful way. The end goal is not the meditation itself so much as the practice of keeping a meditative state throughout the day – to be more present, more peaceful, more aligned. While we eat, speak, rest, and so forth.
Q: Would you recommend trying a 10-day Vipassana course?
A: My Vipassana experience was my experience. I believe every person’s is unique. If, after reading this, something inside of you got intrigued, then you might want to give it a try.
Q: What are some of the main claimed benefits of Vipassana?
A: Four studies were conducted in 2001 and 2002 on randomly selected State Government officials from a wide spectrum of ages, educational backgrounds, length of service, and nature of duties. Quantitative and qualitative data was gathered and analysed. Here are some of the findings regarding the impact of Vipassana meditation in different aspects of their lives:
- Improved self-awareness (98.4%)
- Improved mental health by reducing anger, stress, tension, anxiety, intolerance and irritation (98.1%)
- Improved family life and interpersonal relations (96.1%)
- Improved efficiency and productivity (93.6%).
- Benefits in maintaining optimism and equilibrium in adverse situations (97.9%)
Q: What are the main rules and regulations?
A: - Noble Silence must be observed. No physical or verbal contact whatsoever is allowed.
- No reading or writing materials should be brought to the course.
- It's also not permitted to play any musical instruments, radios, etc.
- No drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, or other intoxicants are allowed.
- Religious Objects, Crystals, Talismans, etc. shouldn't be brought to the course.
- Yoga and other exercises should be suspended during the course.
- You have to remain within the course boundaries throughout the entire period (10 days).
Q: How does a typical vipassana day look like ?
A: The following timetable for the course has been adopted by every Goenka center around the world. For locations and more details check dhamma.org
4:00 am - Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am - Meditation session
6:30-8:00 am - Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am - Group meditation session
9:00-11:00 am - Meditation session
11:00-12:00 noon - Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm - Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm - Meditation session
2:30-3:30 pm - Group meditation session
3:30-5:00 pm - Meditation session
5:00-6:00 pm - Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm - Group meditation session
7:00-8:15 pm - Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm - Group meditation session
9:00-9:30 pm - Question time in the hall
9:30 pm - Rest
The following quote by Victor Frankel might sum it all up:
Be happy 🙂
* Photo by Lisa Tully