I just finished my second 10-day Vipassana meditation course in as many years yesterday. The first question I got from first time participants and non-participants was ‘how was it different this time?’. My answer is short and simple: It was less traumatic. Although after speaking to one of the servers at the course I recognize that this is very subjective for each individual, for him it was the other way around.
The thought occurred to me sometime during the ten days that it might be interesting for you to know more about this type of meditation retreat, especially if you’re thinking of the possibility to join one or if you’re just interested in meditation or personal development in general. So what I will do in this post is break down the general layout of the ten days and also provide links to more information about the meditation technique and the retreat.
It turns out that these types of meditation retreats are very popular, the courses are fully booked and you have to be early and register immediately when it opens up to get in. This course was focused on a specific nationality so I was put on the waiting list when registering and got my confirmation a month before the course started. There is no cost for registering and you are only allowed to donate money after you have been on a ten day course. All Vipassana centers are run solely on donations and charity which makes it possible for everyone to join a course.
We arrived to the meditation center in the afternoon on the day before the first day, registration closes at 6 pm and people start to drop in from noon and out. You fill out your registration form, hand over all of your valuables; cell phone, computers, wallet, books and writing material before you get your room assignment. First time students share rooms at this center while old students who have done at least one course get the luxury of their own small room. After dinner you come together in the meditation hall where instructions are given for what is expected of you during this ten day course and also what you shall practice when meditating the next day. The most important rule, the one that most people find difficult, is the rule about ‘noble silence’. This means that you shall not communicate with anyone, neither verbally nor non-verbally (this includes no eye contact, pointing etc), during the first nine days. An exception is made for the assistant teachers since you need to ask about the technique and the management that will help you with all your needs. On the tenth day the ‘noble silence’ is broken to easy transition back into the outside world.
For ten days the program was as follows (with exceptions for the fourth and tenth day): Wake up at 0400, meditation 0430-0630, breakfast 0630-0800, group meditation 0800-0900, meditation 0900-1100, lunch 1100-1200, rest/interviews with teacher 1200-1300, meditation 1300-1430, group meditation 1430-1530, meditation 1530-1700, afternoon tea 1700-1800, group meditation 1800-1900, discourse 1900-2000, meditation 2000-2100, lights out 2200. The group meditation sittings are mandatory in the hall whereas the other meditation sessions can be done either in the hall or in your own room. For me this meant that I did between 45-90 mins in the meditation hall and the rest in my room during these sessions depending on how my body and brain was doing in the different days.
In the first three days you will learn the meditation technique of anapana where you condition your brain and your thinking to focus firstly on your breath and later on the sensations in a small area. The first day might feel like the longest day of your life since you are without all the external stimuli that you are so used to having all around you. However the second day usually is the first big obstacle for most to get through. On the fourth day you will start learning the technique of vipassana which includes a grueling two hour sitting where you do not change your posture (unless absolutely necessary). Then the second big obstacle arises on day six where you doubt yourself and your ability to practice this technique before your doubts passes away and you realize that there are not that many days left.
You will find that arising and passing away, or anicca, will be front and center when you are practicing vipassana and a word that will most certainly stick to your brain. There is no point trying to explain the technique of vipassana since it’s something you need to experience yourself. However, the difference from mindfulness and meditation where you focus on a specific object as your breathing or a mantra to vipassana is that you don’t focus your thinking – you only observe without passing judgement. This will help you realize that everything is impermanent after observing your sensations change during and between meditation, sensations arising and passing away – anicca. There is only one thing that is for certain in the world and that is that everything is changing all the time.
What is very good with the vipassana meditation retreat is that it’s non-sectarian, meaning there is no organized religion, no cult or sect that forces you to follow certain rituals or do some specific chanting. The teaching is based in science and very rational, in other words; it makes sense. The teacher of the technique, the late S. N. Goenka is in addition quite funny in the video discourses held each evening with entertaining stories that reinforce the technique. These discourses are an explanation of what you have experienced during the day when practicing and answers all the questions that popped up in your brain during the day. Thereafter you will receive new instructions for the next day which you again practice during the day and that are explained during the discourse in the evening.
For anyone who is thinking about going to a ten day vipassana mediation course my recommendation is definitely to try it. What you will get out of it is impossible to guess, the individual differences are probably enormous. However, in the worst case scenario you get to challenge yourself by; being away from your family, friends and work, spending ten days without talking to anyone, being without your precious cellphone and staying off social media. And you know what, chances are that the world will still be there when your ten days are done…
For more information about vipassana, meditation centers and how to register: dhamma.org