"The technique of Vipassana Meditation is taught at ten-day residential courses during which participants learn the basics of the method, and practice sufficiently to experience its beneficial results. There are no charges for the courses - not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. All expenses are met by donations from people who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana, wish to give others the opportunity to also benefit." - Discription taken from the Dhamma website.
I first heard about the Dhamma course sometime in 2016 through a podcast (not sure which one exactly but think it was a Tim Ferriss podcast). I was fascinated that people dedicating 10 days to silence and meditation.
During the 10-day course, you commit to a “noble silence”. No communication with any of the other participants for the duration of the course. Even gestures or looking into the eyes of another student is discouraged.
In an age where we are bombarded with emails, notifications, messages and social media, the idea of being off the grid was intriguing.
Before taking the Vipassana course, I can’t recall going more than a weekend without using a phone or laptop.
“Good start genius!”
I attended the Vipassana course at the Dhamma center in Klaten, Indonesia (Dec 22nd, 2018 to Jan 2nd, 2019). Due to some poor planning, I arrived late. There are two Dhamma centers in Java I was heading for the wrong one. 500km away! I diverted course and managed to make it early on the 23rd, missing the first morning’s session which wasn’t too much of an issue.
Each center is laid out differently. At Dhamma Klaten, the rooms are set up dormitory style but some centers offer small private rooms. We slept on thin mattresses on the floor with only a sheet for cover. It was humid at night so, most of the time, I kicked the sheet off only to cover up in the middle of the night after being devoured by mosquitoes!
The schedule was pretty intense. Wake up at 04:00 to start meditating at 04:30 and then only finishing up at 21:00. Lights out at 22:00. You do get an hour of rest after breakfast and another hour or so after lunch. I found this just right to recharge the batteries and make it through the day.
This was a typical daily schedule which only changes on the 10th day.
04:00 — wake up, freshen up
04:30–06:00 — Meditate in the hall or in your room on your own without the teacher. You are to practice any instructions given from the night before.
06:00–08:00 — Breakfast and then rest.
08:00–09:00 — First mandatory session meditation in the hall with the teacher giving instruction at the start of the session. These are also times when you’re encouraged to remain still without moving for the full hour. A true battle of mind over matter as your legs are in pain from sitting for hours.
09:00–11:00 — After a brief 5-minute break, back to the hall to practice for another 2 hours. During this time you can take breaks as you choose and even retire to your room to meditate or rest.
11:00–13:00 — Lunch and rest.
13:00–14:30 — Meditation practice in your room or in the hall.
14:30–15:30 — Second mandatory session meditation in the hall with the teacher giving instruction at the start of the session.
15:30–17:00 — After a brief 5-minute break, back to the hall to practice for another 2 hours. During this time you can take breaks as you choose and even retire to your room to meditate or rest.
17:00–18:00 — Dinner and rest.
18:00–19:00 — Third mandatory session meditation in the hall with the teacher giving instruction at the start of the session.
19:00–20:00/20:30 — After a 5-minute break you sit down for a discourse. A one and a half hour video talk from Mr. S.N. Goenka.
From whenever the discourse ends to 21:00 — Meditate in the hall.
21:00–22:00 — Head back to the room, shower and get ready for bed.
Vipassana (to see things as they are) is a pure form of meditation from India dating back some 2500 years.
For the first few days, you focus on the breath, the area around the nostrils and upper lip. You’re taught to focus ONLY on the breath. No counting or mantras, just observe the breath. You also have to ignore any sensations outside of this area of focus. Pain, irritation, itchy sensations, whatever the feeling is it must be ignored.
If you feel a sensation inside the area of focus, you’re to observe it with equanimity. This is tough at first, especially when you want to scratch an itch! But with practice, you learn every sensation reaches a climax before eventually fading away. You also focus on staying with the breath.
Your mind is consumed by inner dialogue or distraction for the first few days. For me, it was anger, frustration or replaying negative experiences from the past. Some people experience a heightened sense of emotion or crying uncontrollably for the first few days. Vipassana brings all your misery and negativity to the surface so that you’re able to observe and let it go.
The secret is to recognize when this happens and gently (without judgment or frustration) bring your focus back to the breath, upper lip and nostrils.
As the course progresses, you move on from the upper lip and nostrils and begin to focus on the entire body scanning from head to feet and back again. You complete this over and over, paying attention to every inch of your body. If you come across a part of the body where you observe a sensation (pain, itchiness, tingling, etc), you are to observe it until it passes.
The going is tough. You constantly lose focus and the mind wonders. You get uncomfortable and your legs cramp. At times the pain from sitting is so intense it’s almost unbearable.
Your legs, glutes and back muscles ache constantly from sitting in one position for long periods of time. But you learn to be patient with yourself.
You learn to be persistent. To work diligently using the techniques you have been taught. The pain never goes away completely, but your mind becomes stronger, and you’re able to control your reaction to the sensations.
By practicing vipassana, you learn everything in life, good and bad, comes and goes. How to react to what happens, both negative and positive, is up to you. You must learn to control how you react, not how the world must treat you.
What Vipassana Taught Me
I came out of the 10-day course confused. I didn’t know how I felt. It was a weird feeling.
I soon came to realize the feeling was a heightened self-awareness. My ego had been stripped away and I felt a weird vulnerability.
Over time, we build a wall of ego. A layer of bullshit we surround our insecurities so that others won’t discover where our weaknesses lie. A defense mechanism.
But the truth is we’re only lying to ourselves. Most people can see through that wall of bullshit and bravado.
The only way to overcome your weaknesses and insecurities is to expose them, observe and let go.
Vipassana teaches you to apply this way of thinking to all areas of your life. Both good and bad emotions, situations and relationships should be treated with equanimity. Without craving or aversion.
For me, the biggest take away is you are responsible for how you feel in every scenario. No one makes you feel anything.
You choose to be annoyed or upset because of someone else. It’s your responsibility to manage your feelings and emotions.
You are responsible for what happens in your life. If you fuck up, own it, learn and move on. If it wasn’t your fault. Even less time should be spent dwelling on the matter. Move on. Time spent dwelling on or reacting to negativity is the time you could have spent on self-improvement, doing something you enjoy or spending time and being present with loved ones.
We don’t have long on this planet. Spend that time wisely spreading as much love and positivity as you can. Even to those who you perceive to be “the enemy”.
I must admit. I have not kept up with my meditation of late. I have many excuses but the truth is I just haven’t tried hard enough. I’ll be working on that over the coming weeks and months to get back into a better routine.
I’m also considering attending another 10-day silent retreat sometime this year. People who have been to more than one 10-day retreat have expressed how different each time is and you learn something new every time.
If you are thinking of attending a Vipassana retreat, I recommend only going through the Dhamma programme. They have locations around the world and the courses are free. Accommodation and meals (all vegan) are included.
There is an opportunity to make a voluntary donation at the end of the course. However, there is no obligation to do so.