What is Vipassana
Vipassana is a Sanskrit word from ancient India meaning ‘to see things as they really are’ and this is the aim of the Vipassana meditation retreats. It’s a 10 day journey that will completely change your life but it is by no means easy. The course itself is donation-based and includes your accommodation and 2 vegetarian meals per day (No dinner!). Vipassana was originally a Buddhist teaching from 2500 years ago but has been adapted as a secular program that’s open to anybody. They only ask that you cease all other practices of religion, yoga and alternative meditation for the 10 days as to give fair trial to the Vipassana technique.
During this time you must abide by the very strict Vipassana Code of Conduct. One must abstain from killing, stealing, lying, all sexual activities and all forms of intoxicants as well as this you must follow the daily timetable. You must observe complete silence, and all forms of external stimulation including reading, writing, music and strenuous exercise. You’re basically left with meditation, eating, sleeping and showering from 4am-9:30pm for 10 days. Okay, so maybe retreat wasn’t the right word for it but it was on my Bucket List and being in India, I was committed now.
The Vipassana Centre and Accommodation
I did my course at the Bhopal Centre in Madhya Pradesh, India. The centre was situated 20 minutes out of town and the first thing you notice upon arrival is the absence of traffic and beeping horns, I instantly began to relax. The first step is to register and hand in our electronics for the 10 days – Goodbye phone, laptop, headphones, books and writing materials. My already light backpack now consisted of nothing more than clothes and toiletries.
We were assigned our rooms and from what I’d heard from friends who had completed the course elsewhere, you usually share a room with someone. I turned up to my room and noticed there was only one bed. Yes! Either I had my own room or Vipassana was going to be weird! It was a small fanned room with an attached bathroom (western toilet too, this place was ticking all the boxes).
Noble silence had begun and we were awoken at 4am by a bell with the implied message that we were to be in the Dhamma Hall for meditation by 4:30. The days consisted of 10 hours meditation and a 1 and a half hour lecture in the evening. In between sessions of meditation we had breakfast, lunch and some free time to shower and rest.
The first 3 days you spend focusing your attention on the sensations of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils, the idea of this is to sharpen your attention for the real part of the technique. Although we were sitting for well over 12 hours a day, the mental side of it was exhausting and I took every opportunity to sneak a nap.
On the second night I had started to question why on earth I was here. I remember lying in bed that night struggling to fall asleep, thinking I might be losing my mind. The revelation soon came that that was the point, you were meant to lose a part of your mind and ego.
On day 3 I was feeling more energised and started taking less and less naps during the day. I needed something to fill in my free time and decided to start exercising (only allowed inside your small room), I had a choice of push-ups and sit-ups. While doing sit-ups that afternoon I was laughing to myself that this was how I imagined prison to be, it was at this point I looked up at the wall and saw the numbers 1-10 on the wall with the first 4 crossed out, someone obviously hadn’t made it past day 4. This gave me a little bit of motivation and laughter and I made it a personal goal to see out the course not just for myself but also for the random stranger who hadn’t.
Day 4 brought a change of technique where we started to focus our attention on the natural sensations of our body, this was the actual practice of Vipassana and the technique we would use until the completion of the course. We learnt to observe all sensations as impermanent and to neither crave or develop aversion to the positive and negative sensations. The key here is to accept everything as it is. Through extended sessions of practising impermanence your old patterns of aversion and craving bubble to the surface and disappear layer by layer.
On Day 6 I had a few very profound and positive sessions of meditation that left me feeling euphoric and the next day when I walked into the 4:30am session I assumed I would instantly get back into this zone. I had forgotten the most important lesson – impermanence. I had developed a craving for the positive feelings and aversion for anything less and this stuck with me until Day 9 when I realised this. Day 9 was equally as profound as the earlier sessions but was also the last full day of meditation. I feel like I might not have made the most of days 7 and 8 because I hadn’t fully grasped the technique.
Our Vipassana group with our teacher.
The morning of Day 10, silence ended and that afternoon we received our phones and laptops. After chatting with the other students and trading experiences, I found the idea of long conversations a little arduous and retired to my room, I was hanging to listen to some music (first up was The Story So Far followed by Ben Howard). The next day we would return to the real world.
What I Gained from the Course
It’s going to be different for everyone but for me I left feeling much lighter, happier and completely stress-free. I feel much more positive when confronted with adverse situations. 3 months of travel in India had started to tire me out and these 10 days – probably the hardest 10 of my life – left me feeling reenergised and ready to take on the world again. I think if I was to do another course I would gain a lot more out of it as I now have a more complete understanding of the technique. What I found hard about the Course For the first 3 days it was definitely very challenging to sit still for so many hours. My knees and hips ached and most people limped away from the meditation hall very stiff. After a few days your body adjusts and then it’s just the mental side. It was frustrating to realise how little control you have over your brain, it’s nearly impossible to switch off your thoughts and while trying to still your mind for meditation your mind seems to wander constantly. I got extremely homesick and a couple of times I was ready to pack my bags, walk out the door and fly home.
I think I would have had an easier and more successful experience if I had taken the time to prepare myself properly for Vipassana instead I spent the week beforehand discovering Mumbai’s pubs and bars with a good mate from home. I would recommend trying to ease yourself into the experience. Try to meditate daily in a cross-legged position for at least 2 weeks before the course even if it’s only for 15 minutes. A couple of massages or yoga sessions leading up to it would also make the physical side of it much easier. Apart from that, the only advice I can offer is to surrender yourself to the experience and focus on the meditations session by session, forgetting about counting down days and forgetting about the positives or negatives of your previous sessions.
It might be difficult but it’s definitely worth it.