If you’ve felt called to do a Vipassana course, I heartily encourage you to give it a go! The courses fill up very fast, so you need to book way in advance. Here’s my Vipassana write up that featured in Om Magazine to either inspire you or put you off completely! I’ve included the full feature below, just in case you don’t have a magnifying glass to hand to read from the photo…
The thought of spending 10 days meditating under a strict vow of silence is enough to send most people running for the nearest loudest rock gig. Yet, despite the bracing thought of it, every week thousands of devotees flock to Vipassana meditation centres across the world, silently striving for a slice of the enlightenment pie.
Meaning ‘to see things as they really are’, Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Originally taught 2,500 years ago by Gautama Buddha, it works on eliminating the three causes of unhappiness: craving, resistance and disillusion. Although developed by Buddha, Vipassana is not limited to Buddhists. Nor is it a religion or sect. It’s open to everyone regardless of race, community or religion, working on the premise that we all suffer from the same fundamental issues associated with the human condition.
A 10-day Vipassana course offers you a window through which you can witness the transient nature of your physical and emotional sensations while remaining completely detached from them. Whether the experience is painful (as it is after sitting in one spot for hours without moving a muscle) or pleasurable (as it is once you learn to transcend the pain), there emerges a profound understanding that all experience is transitory and will, at some point, end. Vipassana’s key phrase is the Pali word ‘anicha’, which translates as ‘all that arises will also pass’; a handy pearl of wisdom to take beyond your meditation practice and into every day life.
The 10 commandments
A Vipassana course is certainly no walk in the park. If you’re after a gentle retreat in the countryside, then this 10-day regime is probably not for you. The process of purification is not an easy one and the programme requires a good dose of dedication to get through it.
You’re required to stay for the entire 10-day duration of the course. Vipassana is compared to surgery on the mind, so quitting before the process is complete can open you up to more issues than you had to begin with. Even if, halfway through, you feel that you can’t cope with the rigorous demands of the course, you must plough on. Needless to say, people with psychiatric disorders are discouraged from attending.
Apart from this rule, there are other strict guidelines to follow, the vow of noble silence being the most definitive one. Noble silence is to be observed for the duration of the course until the morning of the last day. That means no sign language, written notes or gestures between students, which proves challenging especially as many are required to share a bedroom with a fellow student. You can speak to the teacher or members of staff, but even these interactions should be kept to a minimum. The aim is to encourage a sense of solitude. Learning not to smile at someone when you open the door for them, or grimace at your roommate when the 4am wake-up gong sounds, is a deep lesson in self-restraint.
Apart from speaking, other no-nos are snacks, mobile phones, laptops, or any kind of musical, reading and writing materials. These are all left in the lockers outside the centre. Sexual activity is also frowned upon and clothing must be suitably modest. Men and women are separated into different areas of the centre and meditation hall to help keep distraction to a minimum.
Taming the mind
On the evening of the day of arrival, the vow of silence kicks in and you are allocated your space in the meditation hall. Meditation is done sitting on the floor with a cushion and blanket. If you suffer from back issues, you can sit on a chair or lean against a wall.
Once installed in your space, the course begins. Through a mixture of guided sessions and self-practice, you meditate your way, sometimes painfully, sometimes joyfully, through the next 10 days. During the first stage of the course, you develop mastery over your mind through Anapana meditation. Here, you watch your breath, focusing acutely on the sensations on the skin of your upper lip beneath your nostrils. After three painstaking days of this, your mind is acutely focused. In fact, it’s at its wits’ end with your upper lip and is desperate to think about something else!
Time to move on to Vipassana, which is where you move your focus on a journey around your body. You must be completely still when practicing Vipassana, even if you are in agonising pain from sitting in the same position for so long. After a while of listening to your mind wailing and thrashing about, you begin to learn that the cramp that arises in your leg or shoulder is a physical manifestation of mental samskaras, or impurities, which are encouraged to the surface through the process of meditation. It’s a bit like removing a deeply lodged splinter.
Gradually, as the experience of Vipassana deepens, and you release more and more of these splinters, you start to experience your body as a tingling vibration made up of pure energy. But not so fast! Get attached to this delicious tingly feeling, and you’re back to square one with a neck spasm or a toe that’s screaming in agony.
The final day
Finally, on day 10 (I know, it’s hard to imagine you could make it this far), you learn Metta, which is the meditation of loving kindness. Here the purity that you developed during the course is beamed out to the world. Your mind is now like a clear pool, and while it would be ambitious to expect all the splinters to have been removed, it is fair to say that a good many have bitten the dust. It’s a wonderful feeling that does make the previous 10 days totally worthwhile.
A Vipassana course is challenging to say the least, but if you are looking to develop your spiritual practice, this experience is pretty groundbreaking. Not only will it help your ability to meditate, but it will guide you to a profound recognition of your true nature. And did I mention it was donation based, so available to you whatever your means? Worth 10 days of sitting still and being quiet, I’d say.
There is a strict routine to adhere to on a Vipassana course, which allows your mind to focus on the main task at hand: meditation.
4:00am Day begins with a morning wake-up gong
4:30-6:30 Meditate in your room or in the meditation hall
6:30am Breakfast is served; oats, teas, stewed and fresh fruit, toast and rice cakes
8:00am Group meditation in the hall, guided by a voice recording of Goenkaji, Vipassana’s leading teacher
9:00am Meditate in your room or in the meditation hall
11:00am Lunch time; always veggie, and if you’re lucky there’s dessert too. Tea and water also available
12:00noon Sleep, walk in the grounds, or talk to the teacher
1:00-5:00pm Group meditation in the hall or in your room
5:00pm Tea break; fruit and tea for first-timers
6:00pm Group meditation in the hall
7:00pm Watch a video of the Vipassana teachings
8:15pm Group meditation in the hall
The UK’s Vipassana centre, Dhamma Dipa in Hereford, has the unofficial reputation for being the best in the world. And the amazing thing about it is that the courses are offered on a donation basis, so everyone regardless of income can benefit from these teachings.
There are a variety of courses on offer, including the 10-day general course for beginners and old students, executive courses for enlightened businesses and courses for children and young people. There are also 20-day and 30-day courses for the most diligent devotee. Check out the website for more.