TL; DR> Vipassana is amazing, hard, but worth it. I would recommend it to everyone: my friends, family and enemies. It will teach you how to be more loving, compassionate, and stop perpetuating misery. <
For those of you who may not know, Vipassana is a meditation technique based on breathing and understanding the natural sensations of the body. The course I took was a 10 day course. Each day is the same exact schedule, so you get used to it pretty quickly. The first chart shows the aggregate of the four activities throughout the day. You can see, that you spend almost half of your day meditating. Interestingly, you only sleep a quarter of the day, but I never felt tired or sleepy.
The second chart is a schedule of your day. At the 12 o’clock position is actually 12am (midnight) and at the 6 o’clock position is 12pm (noon). When there is a change in activity, a bronze gong is rung to let everyone know. It sounds like this. At 4am, this is what you wake up to. Believe it or not, you don’t need an alarm clock. It’s not that it’s loud (which it isn’t), instead, your mind gets trained to recognize the sound. I guess kind of like Pavlov’s dog.
Vipassana is a combination of camping, meditation, and prison (in a good way). Before leaving for the camp, there are ride share boards that you can make contact with those who need a ride or willing to give one. I reached out to a few people on there, and two responded. I was going to drive for 2.5 hours, so might as well carpool. Brett, was like me, doing this for the first time not knowing what to expect. Owen (who had taken the course twice before) was going to serve. In Vipassana, no one gets paid to be there. It’s all volunteer based, even the course instructors and management. Servers are there to help the students, whether they are cooks in the kitchen, or getting blankets and other essentials people forgot to bring.
In these 10 days, everyone takes a vow of noble silence. No form of communication is allowed. No talking, reading, writing, or eye contact. Owen, Brett and I were talking about this in the car, and they mentioned that in the movie The Sting (1973), the inmates had a signal where they would scratch their nose as they passed by. During the course, this is the only thing we did. It was a tremendous help. By the 7th and 8th day, your mind is really breaking down, but for some reason this small action helped get through it.
When we arrived at the center, there is a check-in period where you surrender your phone, wallet, and other unnecessary things for safe keeping. You also get your accommodations. The camp is split in a men and women’s section. Women were all in a dormitory. Some dorms were singles, some doubles. At this center, there were three possibilities for men: tent, cabin, or a dorm. The tents had room for two people, while the cabins were for four people. Essentially, two cabins were back-to-back. A door on each end leading to two rooms with a dividing wall in between.
The tent and cabin residents all had to make use of the bathhouse. The dorms had their own shower and toilet. I was assigned a cabin, which was great. It did get cold at night even though it was June, but I brought my sleeping bag and an extra blanket.
There is a dining hall for men, and a separate one on the women’s side for them. The only time you would see the opposite sex is in the meditation hall. You have three group meditations in there throughout the day: 8-9am, 2:30-3:30pm, and 6-7pm. In the picture below, the meditation hall was already cleaned up, but normally we would have a big 1″ thick pillow in our assigned spot, and could use any of the additional types of cushions to help us sit. There is no particular pose that you have to do. Anything that is comfortable and that you can hold without having to switch positions. In the first few days, this was really tough, but you get better at it. By the end, I was holding a pose for 4 hours (split up by 1-2 five minute breaks).
The other times you get to either meditate in the meditation hall, your room, or your cell. Yes, it is called a “cell”, and certainly looks like one. This one was my cell: number 146.
In the cell, you can get some real deep meditation. There is a light switch in there, and with the lights off, some light still comes in from under the door. It is really nice and quiet. The cells are located in the pagoda, which is this really beautiful building. The top was made in Burma, and brought over at the end of last year. The top has these little dangling pieces that have a pleasant chime when the wind blows.
During the breaks, you are free to do as you wish. I liked to walk around. There are many trees, plants and insects that you could take a moment to look at and observe. I sat sometimes in this bench under the tree and thought about all those important aspects of life ( what am I doing? why am I here? ). Your mind will wander a lot when you’re in this kind of a confinement. Many deep thoughts will surface so you can deal with them.
I can’t say there is a predominant “type” of person who came to Vipassana. There were people of all races and walks of life. From the ex-military guy living in NYC with his pitbull terrier; the graduate student of fiction writing; the athlete; the biology major; the bartender from NH who’s going to hike the PCT; there was someone from every possible social group. The age range varied too. I’m in my early thirties, and I would say I was about the average age. There were some in their 20s to some in their 60s.
It is important to point out that Vipassana is not a religion. It never was, and never intends to be. Nor does it take place of your current religious beliefs, rites and rituals. S.N. Goenka (the teacher of this technique) doesn’t care about that. He wants to help you understand all this is governed by the laws of nature. There are conversations about religions in the discourses and how they relate.
The course starts with teaching you how to observe your natural breath. You look for physical sensations around your nose and upper lip. You have to train your conscious mind to listen and hear what your unconscious is doing and feeling. This is not easy. As Goenka puts it, this is very deep “brain surgery”.
As you get better at feeling sensations you start to narrow down your area of focus. This is to sharpen your mind and observation. By about day 3 you’re looking at only the small area of the upper lip. On day 4, you get to Vipassana meditation. You can’t do it before, because you need to understand how to do it properly. On day 5, I was excited to have my first truly relaxed meditative state. I caught the cold that was going around for day 6 and 7, but still kept up with the meditation. The rest of the days were spent practicing this Vipassana technique.
At the end of each day, there are discourses that you watch. Essentially, it’s Goenka giving explanations of particulars of the technique. They are light and often funny. He tells a bunch of stories that reinforce the ideas as well.
I’ve left out much of the details on purpose. You can’t be taught Vipassana without experiencing it. If you’re interested, you should really sign up for a course. In all honesty, it is only 10 days, which if we take the average human lifespan of 79 years, 10 days is merely 0.035% of your life. It’s nothing. The benefit of such a course will make your life better. Even if you don’t learn the technique, or you disagree with it, you will have spent 10 days training your back muscle to be strong. In our daily lives, we spend so much time sitting, that those muscles are woefully underdeveloped.
Even if you don’t develop strong back muscles, the food there is truly amazing. I was joking with my friends that I’d have to smuggle bacon in to the place to survive. I could not have been more wrong. I’ve had superb vegetarian chili, macaroni and cheese, and curry just to name a few dishes. They also make dairy free options. You get breakfast and lunch. Only tea was served at dinner. New students were offered some fruits, but after day 4, I decided to stick with tea only. I was never hungry but I lost about 2.5lbs. Not that I was trying to, but when you’re eating salads and other healthy foods, it just happens. It’s not for the lack of dessert, which you get for lunch. Not every day, but some days. Amazing apple crumble, some Indian rice+honey+raisins wrapped in a banana leaf, and other delicious options.
All that being said, Vipassana is a free course. You get to go, because someone before you paid it forward. So it is based on donation. They explain on the last day how to donate, but they stress that you should only donate if you want to donate. This model started back in India, a poor country, where advisers to Goenka were urging him to reconsider, because how could a poor person have the means to pay back free food, lodging, and education? Nevertheless, the system worked. People gave back more than what they took, which helped support larger courses, and eventually spread to other countries.