In this essay, I share with you my experience with the 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat, including what the program consists of, what a typical day looks like, and my takeaway from this experience. What I learned and experienced was greatly expanding and valuable for my being, my mind, and my life.
In the fall of 2010, I embarked on a new journey, through a new and different kind of experience than one would normally encounter in our noisy and chaotic world. I retreated into the silence of a Vipassana Meditation Course. Before I left for this experience, I wrote an article explaining more about the theory and history of Vipassana Meditation. In order for what I share in this essay to make the most sense, I recommend you read that article first, before continuing on with this one.
Choosing a Vipassana Meditation Program
Typically, people learn about this meditation style and/or program from a friend, family member, or coworker. Some people do their own research on various meditation techniques and come across this, or upon studying various parts of Eastern traditions and philosophies become exposed to it. The Vipassana technique is completely non-sectarian, nondenominational, and continues to draw and attract people in the hundreds of thousands each year, from all over the world. It is also being taught to kids, teens and in prisons.
When we first learn about the Vipassana meditation, usually there is something within us that has desired or become ready for such an experience. At this point we have a choice, if it is something that resonates with us on a deeper level, to take part in and experience the Vipassana meditation technique.
Although courses last from 1 to 60 or more days, all new students start with a 10 day course. This is the minimum needed to grasp the foundations of the technique, and yet not too much to be overwhelming.
If we would like to learn more or prepare to go, we need to visit the dhamma.org site. There we will find all sorts of information that is pertinent to making a choice about this program, including locations and times that it may be available. There are locations all over the world and courses every few days or weeks throughout the year.
Keep in mind that for a 10-day program, you need to book off 12 days, as arrival at the course is on day 0, and departure takes place on day 12, with 10 uninterrupted days for practice in between.
A Day in the Life of a Vipassana Course Meditator
A Vipassana program meditator begins their day at 4am with a wake up bell. The first meditation session is at 4:30am and can be done in the group meditation hall or your own room until 6:30am. At 6:30am there is breakfast and a break which lasts until 8am.
At 8am there is a group meditation for all in the meditation hall. All group meditations start with an opening from the assistant teachers that provide guidelines for that session’s meditation technique. From 9am to 11am meditation continues in the hall or in one’s room, according to teacher’s instructions. From 11am to 1pm there is lunch and a break/rest period. This is also a time when one can have an interview with their assistant teacher to address any questions.
At 1pm a personal meditation session starts again, and at 2:30pm there is another 1 hour group meditation session in the hall. From 3:30pm to 5pm, meditation continues in the hall or one’s own room, according to instructions. At 5pm there is a tea and fruit break and rest until 6pm.
At 6pm there is a final group meditation for all in the hall, followed by a video discourse (lecture) featuring the main teacher S.N. Goenka. This lasts over an hour and is followed by a group meditation until 9pm. Students are then allowed to ask their assistant teachers questions or retire for the night. Lights out are at 10pm.
During the course, complete noble silence is in effect. Also, the men and women are segregated, having their own separate residences, entry points, walking, and dining areas. The only time that men and women come together is in the meditation hall, where men sit on one side and women on the other, but there is no wall or screen in between.
There is no reading or writing material, no cell phones or any other kind of devices allowed in the program. Students are asked to check-in their car keys as well (if applicable). Accommodation is simple, modest, but comfortable and meals are provided during the stay, with a full breakfast and lunch. In the afternoon/evening there is tea and fruit for a partial fasting. All food is vegetarian, to coincide with the principle and precept one abides while in the course of peace and compassion for all beings (i.e. no killing).
Reflections From My First Vipassana Meditation Course
It has been 4 days now since I have been back from my first Vipassana meditation course. It seems that I have so much to share about this experience, and more comes forth each day, but I will aim to condense this review to be of most practical value for you.
To begin with, let me first start by saying that a Vipassana Meditation Course is in no way a retreat, vacation, or holiday of any kind. This is a 10-day period of hard work, where a strong mind, motivation, and determination is needed to get through each day. While it may be nice to be away from all technology, obligations, chores, and such, which I greatly enjoyed, we have to be clear that this is a period of intense work. Additionally, not having anything with you, aside from your clothes and toiletries, or anyone to talk with, leaves one with little to do other than work on the meditation technique or attend to the musings of one’s mind.
Vipassana meditation is a type of mindfulness meditation, so it is not meant to be the kind of meditation where you engage in active contemplation or relaxation, or connecting with your Spirit guides, channelling, or any other metaphysical stuff. It is in fact, the most grounded experience one may ever have, as it forces you to truly look at the mind and matter you are experiencing as yourself, and connect with reality as it really is via your body and its sensations. The best way to describe the experience is to relate it to what happens when we have an intense physical workout, where we need to focus and push through various personal boundaries and limitations. Vipassana is like that, except for your mind; it gives us a very intensive mental workout. It is all about purifying the mind and starting to take control, mastery over one’s mind.
Its first amazing, positive, and powerful benefit is that it shows us that we truly are slaves to our mind. Not only are we not our mind, but our mind controls us and often in very undesirable ways. With Vipassana we start to take back control. We learn to stop being so reactive and take on a calmer, more balanced, conscious, and objective approach to all things.
The Practice of Noble Silence
The 10 days of the course are spent in silence. While one will hear the voice of others, namely the teachers, it is very possible to not hear one’s own voice for the entire period. In my previous article about Vipassana, I thought that the 10 days of silence may be intimidating. That didn’t turn out to be the case for me; the silence was extremely welcome. It allows each being, whether on their own or in a group setting, to just be. No one is talking to prove something, to argue something, to exaggerate something, to share something, to create any kind of drama, or our of boredom. We just are — experiencing the pureness of our existence. It was so beautiful, calming and delicious!
The Daily Routine
In terms of the routine, for someone who almost never wakes up earlier than 8am these days, the 4am wake up was interesting, to say the least. It quickly shows one how the mind craves certain habits, patterns, and comforts. The good news is that I can be a morning person and have great energy levels no matter when I wake up, not needing coffee or other stimulants, so that turned out not to be so bad, especially after a few days of getting used to it. There were opportunities to nap during breaks, so that was a nice way of balancing things out also.
As for the meditation routine, I definitely found it very challenging. On the first day, one is just getting used to it all, so I found it was fine. On the second and third day it really started to sink in for me as to what I was in for. Where most people find day 2 and 6 very challenging, I found days 4 through 6 quite challenging. There came regular moments where the last thing I wanted to do was meditate more. I had had enough. But there was no way I was going anywhere, for two reasons really. For starters, I made a commitment to myself to stay to the end no matter what (yes, some people drop out of the course on various days). Secondly, I went with my husband and would not want to ruin his experience by needing to leave, as we came with one car and home was over 3 hours away. In the end, it all worked out and you really have to go moment to moment, or else it can get very daunting.
The routine also made me learn a lot about myself. While I generally speaking like organized routine, this structure was much too confining for me. I am too much a free spirit these days and live based on inner nudges as to what feels most right in any given moment. However, this type of environment was essential if I was going to do this, as I would definitely not have meditated for 10 hours a day or woke up at 4am outside of this course, in the comfort of my home. So even though I didn’t “enjoy” it, a mandatory enforcement was needed, and I think it holds true for most of us.
Accommodations and Daily Living
In terms of day-to-day life, the accommodations were very comfortable and clean. The food was fabulous! In fact, I cannot say enough good things about it. This is coming from someone who follows a 100% whole-food, plant-based healthytarian lifestyle. I am not a fan of eating out, as it never comes close to the quality with which I eat at home, so to find high quality plant-based cuisine outside of our home is a real gem. For the duration of the program, we were not just served vegetarian food (easily vegan), but real, wholesome vegan food that was both optimally healthy and delicious. It was truly better than any restaurant that I could have gone to. The organization around the entire dining experience was pristine and my utmost gratitude goes out to all who made the food, served it, and helped us have a wonderful experience.
Gained Benefits from Vipassana
Vipassana is based on the understanding of the Law of Nature that governs all life: the nature of all things as impermanent. It takes us to the root of all of our suffering and helps us liberate ourselves from it. For us to acknowledge and gain this perspective alone is priceless, and why I highly, highly recommend this course for everyone, assuming you are up for the challenge.
This meditation technique, if done properly allows us to:
- attain more clarity of the mind, than perhaps ever before
- attain more focus of the mind, than perhaps ever before
- learn how to focus our mind effectively
- dissolve physical pain
- understand and feel the nature of all suffering/misery
- see reality as it really is, not as we think it is
- move beyond personalizing all things
- detach from “I”, “Me” and “Mine”
- stay equanimous about things and detached from outcomes
- be less reactive to all situations in our life and more objective about things
- experience the process of liberation and enlightenment
Ultimately, each person’s experience will be unique and very different given their past conditioning and current needs. I did not walk away from this experience a totally new or different person. There were no fireworks or magical fairies coming to greet me, and no white lights or out of body experiences. If one desires that, they need to look elsewhere. To the outside observer, even to me at this moment, everything seems almost disappointingly the same, but deep down I know it isn’t. I walked away from it a more expanded and liberated person, and even less reactive to whatever may happen in the physical world around me than I already was.
I experienced many highly introspective moments, valuable reflections, and insights during the course. I think it will take weeks to process them all. However, while others walked in tense and stressed and walked out more elated, happy, or deeply moved, I did not experience that. I walked in happy and walked out “happy that it was over”. I feel this was thanks to the work I have been doing over the past 5 years, upon having a deep spiritual awakening. Prior to my Vipassana experience, I dealt with, healed and came to understand and transcend almost all of my human suffering and trauma of this lifetime. I have been fortunate to access and live today with a deep sense of inner-peace and joy. Of course there is yet work to be done, as there always is. Life is continually evolving, as are we, and I am grateful for this experience strengthening my inner convictions of who I am, why I am, and how to navigate this reality. There are layers upon layers lurking in our subconscious minds that are not conducive to our overall wellbeing and sense of peace and joy. This is where Vipassana, or mindfulness meditation, provides one of the best ways to continue our journeys of healing, expansion, and evolution.
I am also super grateful to this experience for providing me with a platform to learn more about myself and the contents of my mind, and for giving me an extremely valuable opportunity to experience an extended period of silence and meditation, that would most likely not have happened otherwise. The insight I gained will be applied in my life and generously shared with all, as I continue with my current life experience on this planet.
So what might this experience mean for you? I can tell you that it is impossible to know or predict what the outcome or feeling about this experience may be for any other. It is an experience that will push our boundaries in ways that many of us have never experienced, and will thus bring out all sorts of things from within us. I can tell you with certainty, however, that whatever expectations you may have of what it will or won’t do for you, or how it will or will not be, it will challenge all these ideas and take you to completely new levels of your being.
Thank you so much for sharing in my experience.
To find a course in your area, check out Dhamma.org
To learn more about Vipassana, check out Vipassana Research Institute