In 2009 I completed a 10-day Vipassana meditation course in Nepal. Also known as insight meditation or “clear seeing,” Vipassana originates in India from the teachings of the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. Over the years it has been diluted and modified in other parts of the world, but has been practiced in its pure form in Myanmar. The Myanmar version as taught by S.N. Goenka, which is the style I practiced, has spread globally in recent years thanks to the positive results reported from the practice and its easy accessibility. It’s open to people of all races and religions and provided on a donation basis.
Don’t mistake Vipassana for an easy course where you’ll be chanting blissful mantras or visualizing a white light enveloping your body. In fact, the mixing of any other style of meditation with this form of Vipassana is strictly forbidden as it will dilute or even eliminate the benefits. The point of this meditation is not to escape your pains and elicit temporary blissful feelings, but to accept them with equanimity.
The meditation centres on experiencing reasonable pain and learning to be detached from it, eventually transcending the pain and developing a high level of awareness. Once you’ve signed up for and get started with the meditation practice, you have to complete the full course. It’s incredibly hard to leave the course no matter how much begging you do (many people want to leave after a few days!). The teachers want you to experience the benefits and this requires sticking with it for the full 10 days.
You’re asked not to torture yourself if you’re in a lot of pain, and to keep things reasonable. It’s a scientific method that encourages you to be aware of your physical cravings (for a more comfortable position) and aversions (pain, itchiness, numbness, irritations with those around you) and to be completely detached on an emotional level. By working on transcending these fleeting sensations, mastery over your mind will be transferred to the rest of your life and you’ll reduce your cravings and aversions.
And it worked for me. OK, not a miracle cure for everything, but some things definitely improved. With continued practice who knows how much one can grow.
Days 1-3 – Anapana breathing (focusing on the air going in and out your nostrils, experiencing all the finer sensations)
Day 4-10 – Vipassana (doing a body scan starting with your head all the way down to your toes, feeling as many sensations as possible on every part of your body. Students first start with a surface scan and more advanced students also work on feeling sensations on the inside of the body)
4 a.m. – Wake up bell
4:30 – 6:30 a.m. – Meditation
6:30 – 8 a.m. – Breakfast and rest (most of us would crawl back into bed)
8 – 9 a.m. – Meditation (from day 5 you’re asked to try not to move your arms, legs or open your eyes for a full hour, this is when the true Vipassana starts and you work hard to transcend pain)
9 a.m – 11 a.m. – Meditation
11 a.m. – 1 p.m. – Lunch and rest (again, crawl back to bed—usually in agonizing pain)
1 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. – Meditation
2:30 – 3:30 p.m. – Meditation (no moving for an hour)
3:30 – 5 p.m. – Meditation
5 – 6 p.m. – Light snack/dinner
6 – 7 p.m. – Meditation (no moving for an hour)
7 – 8:30 p.m. – Daily discourse (S.N Goenka’s teachings are by video in which he relates spiritual principles through teachings and oftentimes comical stories)
8:30 – 9 p.m. – Meditation
9:30 p.m. – Sleep, lights out
To help focus on your inner experience, you’re asked not to speak to anyone for the entire retreat, not to look at anyone and not to use gestures to communicate. If you have any concerns, there are plenty of volunteers ready to assist. Most of us cracked by Day 9 and started secretly talking. We missed sharing our feelings, having them validated, assessing whether our pain/reactions were normal. Noble silence was quite nice on some days because I don’t think I felt like talking to anyone anyway. I was extremely moody!
Incredibly good vegetarian food… and not because we were hungry (two real meals a day with only a light snack in the evening). Most of us had constipation during the course due to the lack of movement. We would go for small walks from time to time, but generally we did one of three things: sleep, meditate or eat.
Chairs were available for people who could not sit cross legged. I sat in a carefully engineered cross-legged position with five small pillows strategically placed around my hips, knees and ankles. Whenever I could, I would alternate kneeling, half kneeling and probably about 27 other positions I discovered during my hours of meditating to relieve the pain. This isn’t recommended as you’re bound to get pain in a new position within 10 minutes, so it’s best to stick with one position, sit through the pain and then it will disappear by the fifth or sixth day.
HOW TO BECOME MISERABLE:
Any trigger outside of yourself that makes you angry, upset, fearful—what someone said, what someone did. The aversions experienced during meditation might be feeling angry with the person next to you for sneezing, finding a certain smell irritating or finding your discomfort bothering you.
My aversions: I try not to be ethnocentric, yet it took me time to get used to the Nepali style of openly coughing, sneezing, burping, spitting very often and very loudly (most people clear their throats as if to expel stomach bile incredibly loudly, and not just by the grannies either, lots of young people cleanse their system by spitting in this audible way). The meditation hall smelled like garbage on the hot days as the there was a garbage deposit area nearby.
The things that we need, that control us, that we obsess over, that we must have or we don’t have peace of mind.
My cravings: Chocolate, Vancouver, family, success in career, control over my environment (I had none externally, all I could do was work on controlling what was going on inside)
Perceiving others as we think they are and not as they really are, perceiving life as we think it is, but not as it really is, projecting our own issues onto the way we see others.
My delusions: Sometimes I would get a bit paranoid about some of the girls we were sharing dorms with. They did not have the friendliest faces/glares/mannerisms, and I thought they were staring me down in an impolite way, so I would stare back! This fed my delusion by creating a negative reaction in them, which maybe did not even exist in the first place.
HOW TO BECOME LIBERATED:
Despite all the pain, itchiness and discomfort felt while sitting like a Buddha statue, you don’t let your emotions/mind react and fall out of balance, you are detached from what is happening. You scan your body, recognize a painful spot or itchy patch and move on to the next part of your body. Your mind should stay balanced.
My equanimity: I typically have a high pain tolerance in the short term, but with long-term pain, I break down and cry for my mommy… I was able to establish good equanimity for about 20 minutes at a time, but rarely for a full hour.
Impermanence of EVERYthing
By keeping the same posture and sitting with the discomfort, you realize that after a few minutes most of these pains go away. Sure they come back, but then they go away again. Most things rise and fall with their own rhythm. Same with the annoying coughs, spitting, sneezing we heard during the meditation. Everything changes with time and so doesn’t require such a strong reaction from our part, just observation and awareness.
My impermanence: I’ve known impermanence prior to Vipassana, yet I never truly experienced it as readily as I did by having to bear through pain and aversions (I could not escape!) and watch them melt away too.
Day by day replay… my thoughts and feelings
Day 0: I’m so psyched to be here, I’m not expecting any huge revelations, but small ones surely. I can’t wait for noble silence to start! I wonder what this place will look like when that happens? How will I manage not to look anyone in the eye? The evening meal of bananas will leave me starving overnight, oy!
Day 1: Not as bad as I thought, the two-hour sessions feel like an eternity, but I think I can get through this, nine days of this… oy! All this coughing/spitting/sneezing is a bit annoying. Why is everyone here so sick. I’ll stop bringing my watch to meditation hall, it’s stretching everything out even more.
Days 2-3: I’m having the most vivid dreams of my life, my mind is so still that I can remember all the details, but the dreams are so frightening for some reason… I can’t wait for this pain to go away, my back is killing me, I’m an occupational therapist for gods sake, I promote stretching, ergonomic positions and pain management. This goes against everything I’ve been taught on what is good for the body. Gosh, I hope the pain goes away by tomorrow, I can’t wait to crawl into bed. I wish I could use my Tiger Balm/pain meds, but as they said I fear that will make the pain dull and then I won’t be able to transcend it properly, wow some people here look a bit agitated, glad I’m OK on that front. (Agitation came later!)
Days 4-6: Getting over the hump, we’re getting there. Why is the pain still there? OK, it’s not as intense, but I thought it would be fully gone by now, man all these pillows under my knees are a bit embarrassing, but I don’t think I could sit here for 10 hours a day otherwise… oh man, my cravings for chocolate are amplified, this meditation is having the opposite effect, I feel like I’m failing… instead of letting go of my cravings, I want them even more! (Later on) wow, my first time not moving for one hour, wow what an accomplishment, I’m proud of that.
Day 7-8: I’m slowly starting to get this and see the benefits. I’m reacting less to others. I’m realizing I have control over my cravings… phew, I’m not so weak after all. Still, I can’t wait for this to be OVER.
Day 9: Get me out of here, I’m so tired of this. So bored of scanning my own body… gosh what will be the first thing I do on Day 11 when I’m set free? I just need to get through every hour and focus on right now or I’ll go crazy. Oh my mind is tired, I’ll let it wander where it likes for a little while. Later on I nearly lost my mind by letting it go wherever it liked for a few hours and got very paranoid.
Day 10: I lost some valuable time yesterday and got out of balance, but I’ll make the most out of it today. Oh it’s so good to talk, I have so much to say. I’m talking so slowly, carefully and truthfully… wow, it’s been a while.
Day 11: I’m a bit scared to leave this place and face the real world, but I’m also totally ready. I’m grateful for this experience even if I feel I didn’t perform as well as I would have liked. I hope I can keep up this practice, this is just the tip of the iceberg, there’s so much I need to work on… that I WANT to work on.
“May you all be happy and peaceful.”
To book a Vipassana course, visit http://www.dhamma.org
What was your experience with Vipassana? Are you sitting on the fence thinking about doing a course? If so, what’s holding you back? Post your thoughts on Vipassana below…