A few months ago, while traveling in Pokhara, Nepal and Jailsamer, India, I met two women, at some point in our new friendships, each one chatted with me about “ Vipassana Meditation”. For many years, I have heard the words, “Vipassana Meditation” without understanding which form of meditation this was. Feeling determined and curious, I looked at my calendar, with six more weeks left in Nepal, I decided to sign up for the course.
There were three locations to choose from in Nepal, but decided to have a full Buddhist pilgrimage experience and attend the course in Lumbini – the birthplace of Lord Buddha. My approach these days has been to be an “empty vessel”, filled up by whatever new experiences came my way. No expectations and no prejudice other then it would be physically challenging to sit for ten days, ten hours each day and to observe a vow of noble silence for the duration of the course.
Some general information about the course from http://www.dhamma.org/en/about/vipassana
What Vipassana is
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion
- It is a technique that will eradicate suffering.
- It is a method of mental purification, which allows one to face life’s tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.
- It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society.
The Code of Discipline
The foundation of the practice is sīla — moral conduct. Sīla provides a basis for the development of samādhi — concentration of mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through paññā — the wisdom of insight.
All who attend a Vipassana course must conscientiously undertake the following five precepts for the duration of the course
The Course Timetable
4:00 am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm Meditate in the hall or in your own room according to the teacher’s instructions
5:00-6:00 pm Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm Question time in the hall
9:30 pm Retire to your own room—Lights out
The playing of musical instruments, radios, etc. is not permitted. No reading or writing materials should be brought to the course. Students should not distract themselves by taking notes. The restriction on reading and writing is to emphasize the strictly practical nature of this meditation.
The Vipassana Itinerary – Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable!
During the course you will spend approximately
- 30 hrs eating – Vegetarian regional cuisine prepared by former students who serve as volunteers. Some observations regarding the quality, if the food was prepared with love you could taste it, if not you could taste that too. For the first three days of our course, the food was very bland, no texture and hastily prepared. The volunteer who prepared it was leaving and passed this feeling along.
Students have a tendency to overeat, in part because there are no meals served after 11 am - you are only given fruit as a snack or other snack items. Overeating is detrimental and not complimentary to a rigid meditation schedule - one just can’t sit comfortably or risks dozing off during a meditation sessions. I found that by eating less, even if only eating twice a day, you could optimize your meditation experience.
- 75 hrs sleeping – There were no luxury beds. You slept on a 2-3 inch mat under a mosquito net, this is quite normal in monasteries or ahrams, all part of the practice of self-discipline. Light were out by 9:30 pm. In Nepal, we often had no electricity due to 16hrs a day load-shedding schedule. I found myself sleeping easily and experiencing vivid dreams and occasionally lucid dreams which has not occurred in a long while.
- 110 hrs of meditation – All students are assigned a seat in the meditation hall — I was assigned C1, front row center. We were allowed use as many mats/ pillows as necessary and could sit in any position that gave us the most comfort, however; after you sit ten hours a day is there anything you experience but discomfort. During the sessions everyone was required to keep their eyes closed and not disturb others. This was not adhered to. People were belching, passing gas, yawning, and making any and all audible sounds imaginable, yet not speaking.
Once you closed your eyes the fun started. We were all instructed to focus on the small triangle area of around nose, paying attention to any sensations and our natural breath for three days. Can you guess what happens next?
- Sleep - completely check out and not present
- *Being Present - focused on your natural breath
- Monkey mind – your mind wanders and wanders, enters the past, moves into the future, unable to maintain its focus on good things or bad, and the voice in your head just keeps going on and on about something
The first day, I was guilty of sleeping and not being present - completely checked out. The next day, I committed to doing better and had mixed success. I would allow my mind to wander and quickly got tired of my lack of focus and was able to remain present.
Just where does the mind wander?
By the third day, I could focus on my breathing and experienced flashes of images. My mind was wandering to pleasurable experiences, such as cooking with friends and laughter, but then it shifted and began to consider the importance of love without attachment, generosity, compassion and empathy and how these are all we need to live a happy life.
As the days continued, I began connecting more dots and objectively observe my past behavior patterns. In Buddhism, they teach there are three poisons; ignorance, aversion and attachment. I have spent a lot of time on understanding the mental afflictions related to attachment - attachment to people, things, my own ideas, and how these are a source of suffering. Some how, all these years, I managed to ignore ignorance and aversion? I have always known that “I” was responsible for my own suffering, but didn’t recognize that my aversion allowed me to ignorantly create attachment, and that aversion to pain creates cravings for pleasure (attachment).
When your mind quiets you are left with the reality of what is.
On the fourth day, we began to observe sensations on our body – this is Vipassana. I could feel the sensations outside my body and inside . I felt my heart beating, and a flow of energy moving through out my body (vibrations, pulsating, muscles twitching, buzzing, colors) – this lasted about 20 minutes. I entered this course as an empty vessel, this 20 minute experience gave me evidence 1) there is something to meditation 2) we are all energy – not our mind, nor our body, but if we are neither, then what are we?
At this moment, I was happy to have banked many years of advanced Buddhist discourse. The meditation showed me at an experiential level what the discourse taught my mind.
You can read a manual on brain surgery, but that won’t make you a successful brain surgeon.
By the fifth day, I was feeling distracted by the sounds, people, generally annoyed because I found myself wanting to chase that feeling – just a tiny bit. Many people dropped out of the course on this day and most of our distracters departed.
“Good to have mastery of speech, good to have physical mastery but one who has mastery of his mind is a warrior of real courage”
I found myself feeling invincible by day six. I have worked ten ++ years on mind mastery via various Buddhist training. The years of discourse and the week of meditation allowed me to solidify all this training.
There are many life experiences that will teach you about the law of impermanence; a divorce, a death, flowers blooming in spring, but not concisely as this experience. ALL things pass. One more time… ALL things pass. Good. Bad. EVERYTHING. The discomfort you feel sitting for ten hours, gone. The ten days of silence, gone; and that feeling of elation, gone. Our job is to learn to observe, not react emotionally to these events or to crave - chasing that pleasurable “high”.
What does sitting on the floor 110 hrs with your eyes closed teach you?
Meditators are like snow flakes, each unique and different. Your experience will be reflective of where you find yourself, how much previous mental training you have, and previous Vipassana meditation experience - no two will be exactly the same.
Benefits of this course
There are many benefits from long-term continued meditation, but these are my observations from this specific course. Many seem obvious, because they are, but more difficult to consistently apply to your daily life and practice.
- Mind management which contributes to mind mastery
- Mental fortitude
- Silencing the mind (mental chatter)
- Mind/body detachment
- Learning to be PRESENT
- Self discipline
- Greater appreciation for silence and nature
- You don’t need to speak or react to things, you can just accept them as they are
- Getting beyond social constructs
- Understanding what time feels like
Would I recommend this?
It has been almost three weeks, and I am still meditating, at least two - three hours a day. I feel happier (I was generally pretty happy), more compassionate and extremely slow to anger. I have more energy and mental clarity. So, would I recommend this? Yes, absolutely! Regardless of where you find yourself. If you are a beginner or intermediate student of meditation, you will positively benefit from this time invested in yourself - there is always something to learn or fine tune.
Metta to you all!