We have always been told not to come out of bad habits and deeds and perform wholesome actions all our lives. Those are very abstract guidelines. The technique of vipassana is to help us identify the difference between the two in the practical level, so one can distinguish between those two and be aware of the actions that one performs in day to day life.
Getting in for the first time:
Personally, I have always been fan of pranayama and yoga since I was a kid. When I first heard about a meditation session that lets me sit for 10 days without external communication, I thought it would be a nice experiment for me to see how much “worldly” attachment I had in me.
I was 18 when I first wanted to try Vipassana. To register for the meditation center in Kathmandu, locals are asked to go to registration desk in-person.
So, I went to the registration desk with a few of my friends to register for a course at Dhamma Shringa in Kathmandu, Nepal.
The people in the registration desk assumed we were some high school kids trying to have 10 days of vacation in middle of jungle, thinking the session to be a “retreat” of some form.
They were right. All the preconceptions about developing a power of mystic using meditation prevailed in our minds.
So, they told us to come back later. The lady at the registration desk went further and said that I had a long life ahead of me and I should come back after six months or a year.
The first rejection made me want to goto the course even more. I persisted, came back, this time by alone after about a couple of weeks. Finally I was asked to read the brochure with all the code of conducts and the five precepts one had to undertake during the course. I was interviewed to check if I had memorized all of them.
I had to prove I was really serious about doing it before they took me in for the course.
I think that was a unique experience for me because I haven’t come across a single person who had to go through all the hassle before getting accepted.
The first 10 days:
The management had managed rideshare for everyone who participated in the course. I was really excited to meet new people and talk about what they thought of it and if they had any prior experience of the technique.
By the time we reached the centre, I totally forgot that I was about to be put in an uncomfortable situation with no external communication whatsoever. I just had this feeling that it would be nice to be around these people for next 10 days.
I found many people who had attended more than one course. I thought, If there wasn’t anything fun in the process, they surely wouldn’t have been back. I consoled myself with these thoughts, whenever I had a doubt about what I was about to do.
There was an orientation program at the evening before start of the course, where you are reminded of all the code of conducts and are asked if you are determined to observe them scrupulously for the next 10 days. This is when I had second thoughts about going back.
But then, I didn’t have a vehicle with me and there was no public transport from the location. So, I decided to stay.
The first day, one is asked to observe respiration as it comes and and as it goes out. For a couple of hours, I thought, “hey, I’m meditating. This is cool”.
And then the thoughts start coming in. And they would be so intense that I would fantasize a situation for a long time. The thoughts had no pattern at all, and I felt pretty bad about my incapability to concentrate even for a couple of minutes.
Then I realized, meditating was one of the task that look seemingly easy (you just sit and do nothing), but in reality, is an extremely difficult task.
At the end of each day, discourse is given by the teacher S.N. Goenka. In recorded tapes from 1991, He typically answers all the FAQs of the students that arise in a particular day.
It was amazing to see the problems and questions that arises in students of 2017 is same as the questions and problems in students of 1991.
The first day, he says that the human mind is “monkey mind”, jumping from one branch to the other without any pattern, and this is normal for a non-meditator. This and everything he said that night was very relatable with the experience I had that day.
On the first day, one typically has thoughts about events in past few days or weeks. Starting second day, the thoughts started becoming more intense. Now, they start bringing emotions in the body level. For e.g. If I thought someone did something bad to me, I would remember every single detail that the person did. Not only that, I would make up a scenario, where the person does the same thing to me in the future and I devise a plan that would be a perfect revenge against the oppressor.
These thoughts would be so intense sometimes that I would vehemently move my hands or legs unknowingly. I can only imagine my mental state at those times.
On the fourth day, the actual technique of Vipassana is taught. When the teacher tells you that all the things one did for 4 days were just preparing for the Vipassana, I knew I had to go through something worse.
You are asked to sit for 3 hours a day without opening your hands, legs and eyes after that so that one can have strong determination to practice the technique. After 30 minutes, all I could feel was my legs hurting. As time passed by I began to realize my mind multiplied the pain by making it feel more severe because of the habit pattern of the mind which didn’t want the body and mind to be still.
On sixth day, it felt like I was a little depressed. I sometimes thought that all this was a bad idea. I kept thinking why I had to undergo this torture, when I could have just relaxed back at home.
It was so hard for me to accept that I was carrying so many negative thoughts unconsciously.
As days after days passed, the thoughts started becoming less violent and I started feeling lighter. Or maybe the idea that I get to return home soon made me feel elated.
On the 10th day, noble silence is broken and meditators are allowed to speak to each other. I am yet to meet a single person who wasn’t glad that they participated. My feelings were no different. I was glad I made it through.
I have always met very interesting people in the 10th day: professors, soldiers, vets, therapists, yoga teachers, engineers, doctors , you name it. And people with all kinds of background, be it religion-wise, profession-wise or ethnicity-wise, have found the process extremely helpful in dealing with everyday situations.
The next two 10 days were very similar except that I felt more comfortable sitting long hours and I began to realize most of the pain/suffering were created by my mind and were not because of external reasons.
The last 10 days:
My fourth 10 days were in North Folk, California in Dhamma Mahayana. This was a very different experience compared to my first 3-10 day sits.
The set-up was very lax compared to the center in Nepal. In Dhamma sharing, the servers would constantly check to see if someone was meditating or not. I think this was particularly helpful for me as a new student because I might have spent my days sleeping instead of serving the purpose of staying there for 10 days.
The North folk center provides a single room for every meditator, has a larger area, and management is more relaxed. For people who are determined to give this path a fair trial and those who have decided to walk on this path find it much easier in this center.
Also, North folk has individual cells, which Nepal’s center lacked at the time. The pagoda cells are very dark and (almost) soundproof rooms. Those were perfect for serious meditations as there were very little external distractions. One could hear the sound of silence, see through the darkness and be in the moment inside those rooms.
To sum up, logistics is the least of your concern, thanks to all the servers and volunteers. The biggest trouble one has to deal with is his own mind.
One of the best parts of Vipassana is that every kind of facility that a meditator receives in the course is because of some volunteer or donor decides to help without expecting anything in return. This helps keep the technique free from commercialization and being changed in unintended ways.
One feels so grateful towards all the servers who gave up their 10 days just to serve the students, so they could meditate without having to worry about all the logistics.
Even better, there is no paywall for anyone to attend the course. At the end of 10 days, the meditators can donate any amount at their will, if they think the technique has benefited them and they would like to help one other person learn the same technique with purest of intentions.
According to the teacher, 10 days is the least amount of time one has to spare to learn the technique properly and apply in his life.
- The first thing one has to do is take an oath to take the five precepts, including:
- Not to kill.
- Not to steal.
- Not to tell lies.
- Not to engage in sexual misconduct.
- Refrain from intoxicants.
The environment is such, one hardly gets a chance to break one of these precepts unless one is determined to do so. One is asked to not speak for 9 days, so he can’t lie. Complete sex segregation is maintained for the entirety of the course and taking in any valuables, books, diaries, external food is prohibited inside the boundary of the course.
2. After that, one practices concentration for 3 days. This is to make the mind sharp so that one can practice vipassana.
3. Vipassana is given on the fourth day and for the next 5 days, one has to practice the same technique with a slightly different variation each day. The students are asked to refrain from teaching other people because there is a number of things that could go wrong. So, rather than looking up the methodology online or reading a book about it, I highly recommend you take one of the courses.
The technique is a process of mental purification by removing impurities and defilements in our minds. In the world of computers, It is like formatting your primary operating system and installing a new one. Every junk programs and files you had is removed and you have a fresh OS with much better speed and reliability.
Coming out of the session, I feel like I have been able to make decisions more quickly and I have more time to work on important things in my life as I begin to differentiate between distractions and meaningful work.
I am planning to do one 10 days sit every year and do an hour-long sit every day to continue my practice. I think the technique has helped me come out of nervousness and fear. The technique has also given me an optimistic attitude towards life in general. I now try to ‘respond’ to most situations in my life instead of ‘reacting’ to them.