I attended my second 10-day Vipassana retreat at the beginning of October. It was exactly one year since my first one and thought it would be a good idea to share what it was like. I have found both courses challenging but so rewarding and feel they improved my meditation practice ten fold. Over the 10 days you sit for over 100 hours of meditation.
I am writing this post to give any of you who may be interested that extra nudge to go ahead and book a course. I feel the benefits are there for everyone to experience.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana means “to see things are they are”. It is one of the oldest meditation techniques believed to originate 2500 years ago by Gotama Buddha. The practice was revived by the recently deceased S.N. Goenka originally from Burma. There are now over 200 centers throughout the world.
The Vipassana technique trains you to experience the present moment exactly as it is through building awareness of your breathing and progressing to experiencing sensations throughout the body.
The course in not affiliated with any sect or religion of any sort. It does not try and push any beliefs on you. Goenka encourages you to experience his teachings and make your own mind up about whether you want to pursue the practice or not.
“All persons must be free to profess and follow their faith. In doing so, however, they must be careful not to neglect the practice of the essence of their religion, not to disturb others by their own religious practices, and not to condemn or belittle other faiths.” – S.N. Goenka
Course Rules and Timetable
All who attend a Vipassana course must undertake the following five precepts for the duration of the course:
- to abstain from killing any being;
- to abstain from stealing;
- to abstain from all sexual activity;
- to abstain from telling lies;
- to abstain from all intoxicants.
You must also avoid the following:
- No talking, eye contact, touching, or gestures towards other students
- Complete segregation between males and females
- No phones, no Internet
- No outside food, no books, no writing materials, no cameras
- No religious/superstitious symbols
- No yoga/jogging/exercise except walking
- No smoking, alcohol, or other drugs
We all signed a contract stating that we would stay for the entire 10 days. Goenka explains that the 10 days is a surgery of the mind. He states that it can be damaging to leave the course before it finishes just like leaving a physical surgery before the doctors have finished.
10 Day Schedule
I arrived at the center at about 3pm. I filled out the required paperwork and gave in all my belonging other than clothing and toiletries. I made some small talk with the other participants and went to the dorms. After sorting out my things I made my way to the dining hall for dinner.
It would be my last dinner for 10 days.
Noble silence commenced after dinner.
Days 1-3 – Developing awareness of the breath and sensations
The first 3 days were a shock to my body. 4 am wake ups took me a while to get used to and I spent most rest periods napping. The 4.30 – 6.30 a.m. block was most challenging for me as it was the longest block of solid meditation without a break. On top of that the last 30 minutes consisted of Goenka chanting in Pali which made it difficult to focus on meditating.
The teachings for these 3 days is putting focus on the area around your nose. You focus on the nostrils and feel the sensation of the air coming in and out of the nose. On day three we were told to become aware of any subtle sensations – heat, cold, air, tickles, itchiness.
I found the sitting okay for the first 3 days as anytime I experienced pain I would change my position.
Days 4 – 9 Vipassana and sitting of strong determination
The meditation hall
From day 4 onwards we were introduced to the official Vipassana technique. The first three days was an induction course which helped develop our concentration and awareness of sensations around the nose.
From day 4 we were taught body scanning. Body scanning teaches you to scan your body with a one inch circle moving from the head all the way to the feet. Goenka recommends each scan to last about 10 minutes. At each section you try and feel sensations of any sort.
The exact teachings are way beyond the scope of this article and require many hours of practice. If you are interested in more about the technique I recommend you attend a 10 day course.
This was also the start of 3 hour sessions called “sitting of strong determination”. One in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.
This was when the real fun started.
During each of these hours you are required to keep your eyes closed and keep your hands and feet in the same position. The theory behind this is to remain equanimous no matter how you feel. So while my knees, hips and back are burning with physical pain I should observe the pain with my mind but not get attached to the pain.
This was horrible!
Days 4,5 and 6 I tried so hard to stay calm and equanimous after 40 minutes I had to move. Tears were starting to come out with the pain.
Day 5 was the most challenging day of the retreat. I had been doing quite well up to this stage but my mind started getting the better of me. I started looking in envy at my zen like peers. None of them seemed to be going through any discomfort or pain. This along with not experiencing one enjoyable session made me question my reason for being there in the first place. There were so many things I could be doing now but I am living like a monk for 10 days!
Of course my mood changed. Thanks to Goenka’s evening talks full of wisdom and inspiration. The evening talk discussed how everything originates in the mind.
- You think it
- You verbalize it
- You act on it
My thoughts had been full of envy of other students and guilt because I hadn’t experienced one decent meditation session. Realising that it was my own thinking that was causing me to feel bad allowed me to change my thoughts and mood.
During the morning session of day 7 I finally sat for the full hour sitting. This is when I started to understand the teaching. Instead of averting the pain and wanting it to end I accepted it. I observed the different sensations around my hips and knees and moved on like a doctor examining a patient.
How many times do we avert bad sensations in life and crave good ones?
Realising that everything is impermanent allows us to be thankful for the good times and realize that the bad times will pass.
“The observation of the physical sensations without reaction during Vipassana meditation produces a remarkable effect. It causes the old stored-up past conditionings such as anger, hatred, ill-will, passion, etc. to come to the surface of the mind and manifest as sensations. Observation of these sensations without any reaction causes them to pass away, layer after layer. Your mind is then free of many of these old conditionings and can deal with experiences in the life without the color of past experiences.” – S.N. Goenka
Day 10 – The end of noble silence
The feeling of anticipation was similar to that which I used to get as a child the night before Christmas. We were allowed to speak after the morning sessions. After spending a bit of time alone I introduced myself to the other participants and we shared our stories. It was a great experience and interesting hearing about everyones experiences.
We also got dinner on day 10 which was awesome.
We woke at 4am and after a final talk and some chanting we had breakfast and parted ways.
Benefits of the retreat
There was a huge difference between my first and second 10 day retreat. The major benefits from the first course was the detox from the world. I realized how occupied my mind was all the time. I was always talking, reading, writing, listening to music or watching movies. I was always active in some way. Then all of a sudden there was silence. I found this incredibly challenging. I woke at 4 am thinking about how long the day ahead was going to be. It was emotionally draining and on two occasions I came close to leaving (day 3 and 7).
Then there was the long periods of sitting. I wasn’t used to sitting on the ground so the pain was unbearable at times and I found it difficult to complete a one hour meditation session without moving every 5 minutes.
My ego got my through the first retreat. I had told people I was doing it and couldn’t bare to say I didn’t complete it. People could leave this retreat if they wanted and about 30% of the people left before the end of the 10 days. The meditation hall was open with just a roof so there were also lots of insects crawling into my pants.
All in all thinking back it was challenging but so so rewarding. I learned more about myself in them 10 days than in my previous 25 years. I had 16 hours a day with no distractions to contemplate my life. No noise to distract me.
I found out so many parts that needed work and so many parts that made me thankful. I started appreciating all the amazing people and things in my life. At the end of the 10 days you could speak in front of everyone about your experience if you felt like it. I chose not to. It was the last thing I wanted to do after silence for 10 days.
This really wrapped up the retreat with even more insights. People I had perceived as calm and collected meditation experts shared how lost and difficult the experience was. This made me realize we are always comparing ourselves to others. Thinking how they have it all worked out. Taking life in their stride. After this I realized we are all facing the same daily struggles and anxieties.
The retreat I attended last week was much more beneficial for my meditation practice. The silence and isolation from the outside world no longer affected me. The sitting was still painful but on day 7 I managed to sit for an entire hour without needing to switch legs.
This quote was on display throughout the retreat
The ability to sit allowed me to deepen my practice. That being said my mind was still all over the place. 10 seconds of focus then 10 minutes later I realise I have been day dreaming. Back to my breath…15 minutes pass and I realize I’m day dreaming again. 1 minute of concentration….5 minutes and so the process went on again and again.
I find that I am constantly failing during meditation. Even though I constantly fail I still do it everyday. This habit has formed a positive foundation for other areas of my life and I feel I’m less afraid at trying new things since adopting this practice.