Some of you may be thinking, “Why would anyone do this to themselves?”
Ten days of silence, of potentially painful meditation, of giving up most material attachments, modern comforts and luxuries…
I was drawn to silent meditation as a means of self-growth, liberation, healing and refuge. I entered Vipassana seeking:
• A mental and physical reset.
• A break from human relationships – misunderstandings, miscommunications, assumptions, judgments and tensions -and the hectic pace of life.
• A period of simplicity, serenity, calm, peace and focus.
• To heal, by resting physically and mentally. To get caught up on sleep and feel truly well rested.
• To take refuge from anxiety, stress, agitation, irritation, impatience and feeling annoyed and break my habits of feeling anxious, annoyed, frustrated and impatient.
• To liberate myself from suffering for my own personal relief and so that I can truly be of service in helping to liberate others from suffering.
• To gain mental clarity.
• To deprogram my mind and dismantle the patriarchy, racism and biases within me. To break the pattern of over-sexualizing women in my mind, often seeing women sexually first rather than for their many other qualities.
• To hone in my vision for life, service and using my life and service to the highest benefit of life and Earth.
• To become more mindful and present in my interactions with Earth and my community of humans, plants, animals and all life.
• To find calmness, balance and completeness within to bring to all my relationships to make life more wonderful for myself and all who I interact with and to be of highest service to Earth, humanity and our plant and animal relatives.
• To find contentment within, so I don’t need anyone else or anything else, which will allow me to bring my highest self to serve.
Of course, one could not possibly achieve all this in 10 days of silence. This is a lifetime of work and even that may not be enough time. Some would call what I am speaking of enlightenment or spiritual liberation. Enlightenment does not come easy.
However, I see enlightenment not as a destination, but as something we can become more of with each day of practice.
In Vipassana I found all that I was seeking. It has been a month since I have returned and I can say confidently that there is life before Vipassana and life after Vipassana.
Vipassana helped me to develop the skills of:
• being equanimous – to observe sensations and stimulus without reacting and with the acknowledgment of impermanence. We create our suffering and misery in our reaction to what happens. It is not what happens to us that creates our suffering and misery. To take home the practices of equanimity and the understanding of impermanence from Vipassana and to practice it in daily life is to become liberated.
• self-discipline – working patiently, persistently and diligently.
• overcoming my “addiction to cravings”. I learned that my unwholesome relationships to food, sleep, productivity, sexual desires and the computer stem from a deeper “addiction to craving”.
• tuning in to my senses and connecting more deeply with self.
• liberation from suffering.
• mindfulness and presence.
• oneness with Earth.
• purifying my mind.
• releasing tension.
On day one I entered the longest meditation of my life. I did not go into Vipassana as a meditator. In the sense of sitting in meditation, I had never meditated for more than fifteen minutes at a time. I meditated five hours in the first day.
By day two I was feeling less anxiety, frustration, annoyance, than I had in a long time. I realized that all these feelings are inside of me. They are not created by anything else. I pondered why they are there and what is the source inside me.
By day three when I heard a stimulus – whether during meditation or not – that could be my source of suffering, I thought to myself, “And so it is. No matter.”
When I lost my focus and began drifting into thoughts, I did not get frustrated, annoyed or irritated. Rather I said internally, “My mind has wandered. And so it is” or simply “No matter”. This is the practice of equanimity. After all, I had only begun meditation. How could I expect it to go without struggle?
Although meditation was quite challenging, I was elated with my ability to be silent, eat mindfully, walk mindfully and release tension in my body consistently.
I found a pen on day three and started writing notes on scraps of paper I found. In Vipassana, there is no reading books or writing. This was a guideline I did not follow. I could have gone deeper into purification and the present, but I chose to stay on the surface level in this sense. I also brought a spool of thread and needle and I sewed the holes and rips in my clothes. I found this to be very healing, yet it was not in the deepest alignment with the practice of Vipassana. I accepted that I was there not to solely practice Vipassana. Although I had some concern that perhaps I was taking the much desired space from someone who would practice more diligently than I would, I also felt confident that the growth I would gain from the ten days would be in service and alignment with the Vipassana mission.
In Vipassana, we learn to observe even our pain without reacting to it. I even found myself becoming grateful for my pain, because I found it to be an opportunity for growth. Quite literally, pain facilitated the practice of Vipassana because pain is easy to sense, and the whole practice is around scouring our body for sensations.
Goenka said so many times to practice patiently, persistently, diligently and continuously. This is a simple formula to learn and grow each day. To be in practice is to grow, even when the practice is not going as well as we’d like. In meditation we practiced being alert, being very attentive and being aware. In every meditation, we purified our mind a little bit more and a little bit more. With each meditation, we pulled out the impurities and replaced them with a more wholesome being.
On day 4 I found that I was still having much difficulty in focusing during meditation. However, my thought distractions were much more pure. I was having fewer thoughts about sex, fewer anxious thoughts and less useless garbage thoughts. The thoughts I was having were more present moment thoughts and visions for service and the future. I found that I was very present in the here, as well as with my vision living in service and purposefully. The outside world day-to-day life barely existed in my mind. I was feeling very little attachment to any of it. I started to really see how I had been so distracted and lacking discipline the last two years. It became clear to me that I had not been doing the work as diligently as I’d like, so how could I expect to get the results I wanted? I knew on day four that I had entered a new chapter in commitment, diligence and dedication.
In the afternoon meditation something happened to me. I moved like never before. So slowly and diligently. I tuned into all the sounds and simply observed. I heard Earth like I had never heard Earth before.
In the evening I was feeling elation and joy. I was feeling hopeful and so full of inspiration. It was so obvious that I was breaking through, both in the physical practice and in the being that would leave this Vipassana retreat. I began to sit through the pain and discomfort with relative ease. I experienced one of the biggest breakthroughs that I had in years for my vision of how I can be of service and how I can live in deep alignment. My mind filled with inspiration and breakthroughs. I could not resist writing them down.
On day five it was clear to me that my mind was being purified.
One of my greatest hopes of this Vipassana was to bask in ten days of silence. To me that means not vocalizing a single word. On day five, the assistant teacher asked to speak to me. I tried to refrain from speaking because I thought that was assumed as an option. I hadn’t read otherwise on any of the information they sent. At the teacher’s request, I spoke to him. It was required from a space of wanting to be able to check in with each of us, to make sure that we are doing okay and to help us in the process. I spoke with the teacher a few times in the days ahead and remained silent at all other times.
My greatest struggle probably came in days six through eight. I had finished my writing for the most part and I was done sewing my clothes. So the distractions were mostly gone, but I was so eager to return to my life of service, that I struggled to focus on meditation. I continued to learn and grow. There’s the thought that I could have gotten more out of the practice, however, I am at peace knowing that I gained more from my ten days than I ever hoped or imagined.
One month later, I can say that the purity I learned to foster during Vipassana has largely remained. I remain in clarity. I have removed the distractions. I have honed in my vision to live in service to Earth, humanity and all our relatives. I will continue to practice Vipassana, likely returning for retreats every few years (maybe less, maybe more or maybe never returning).
I will incorporate Vipassana as one of my central tenants of being the change I wish to see and one of my central resources that I share for others to become the change they wish to see.
Because I know that some people look to me for guidance, I would not feel complete if I did not share the areas of Vipassana that are not in alignment for me. I chose not to focus on these aspects during my retreat so as to not be distracted and as Goenka recommended, I took the parts of Vipassana that served me and I left the parts that did not. I accept Vipassana as a path to enlightenment, and even ultimate enlightenment as the Buddha describes it. I truly believe in this. I also believe that this is one form of enlightenment, perhaps the only ultimate enlightenment, but just one form of many. What I love so deeply about Vipassana is that it is universal, accessible, practical, logical and rational. Vipassana teaches the universal truths of impermanence and suffering. It is not a religious belief. It is not about ritual. There is no god, no rules or requirements. It is not a religion. It is the teachings of Buddha, but not Buddhism, which is a religion that Buddha did not create. The belief is that we can all be Buddha. There is no belief of “good or bad” or “right or wrong”. It is a non-dogmatic practice.
Vipassana is so in alignment for me. Where it is not in alignment is that I perceive the practice as saying that non-killing and vegetarianism are essential to achieve ultimate enlightenment. I have a wholehearted belief that Indigenous people who live closely to the land and kill animals can be deeply enlightened. I believe in regenerative, closed-loop systems that support human life and all life to the highest degree, in which humans eat animals. Feel free to read my article on this more here.
I took some issue with the fact that the majority, if not all, the food served was from the global, industrial food system which is one of the most exploitative and oppressive systems on Earth. There was an incredible amount of killing and suffering to put the food on our plates, even though it was all vegetarian. I understand that the organization is operating on a donation basis and on a budget. However, this element of their design does not meet my needs for integrity and awareness.
In entering a Vipassana retreat, one is required to commit to 10 days of no intoxicants. This is completely in alignment for me. However, it seems that there is no room in their philosophy for plant and fungi medicines such as marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, San Pedro, ayahuasca and so on. I believe these plant and fungi medicines to be some of the greatest allies to humanity and to be great contributors to the enlightenment of humanity.
One of the central doctrines of Vipassana is that it is not dogmatic, yet I perceive dogma in their teachings on killing, plant medicines as well as past life and future lives. It seems to me that the teaching speaks of past life and future life as a fact. Not in the sense that we die, return to Earth and our bodies come back as the life of soil, insects, plants, animals, etc. But in the sense that we have defined human lives that we have lived prior to this one and that we have defined human lives to continue living after this one. This seems like a belief system that has some dogma to it.
Of less importance, I want to acknowledge that Goenka said “good” and “bad” quite frequently. This is duality, and Vipassana is based in a non-dualistic teaching. That being said, I think that Goenka probably used “good” and “bad” language because he knew that people would understand him more easily that way, not because he believed in “good” and “bad”.
All that said, I hold no feelings of resentment, disappointment or suspicion with Vipassana. I will gladly return and lovingly support this vision. Perhaps I do hold some feelings of guardedness or withdrawal at the prospect of sharing Vipassana with others. This comes from my desire for integrity, as I want to avoid playing a role in spreading the few beliefs of Vipassana that I shared that are not in alignment for me.
I am grateful to have had this opportunity and grateful to share it with each of you. I envision sharing moments of connection and compassion with many of you in the years ahead.
I did my Vipassana December 28th, 2022 to January 8th, 2023 at the Dhamma Patāpa Meditation Center in Jessup, Georgia. As taught by S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Visit the Dhamma Vipassana Meditation website to learn more.
Here I have shared information from the Dhamma website:
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art of Living. For those who are not familiar with Vipassana Meditation, an Introduction to Vipassana by Mr. Goenka and related videos and Questions & Answers about Vipassana are available.
Courses and Cost
The technique of Vipassana Meditation is taught at ten-day residential courses during which participants learn the basics of the method, and practice sufficiently to experience its beneficial results. There are no charges for the courses – not even to cover the cost of food and accommodations. All expenses are met by donations from people who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana, wish to give others the opportunity to also benefit.
What Vipassana is:
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.
Vipassana meditation aims at the highest spiritual goals of total liberation and full enlightenment. Its purpose is never simply to cure physical disease. However, as a by-product of mental purification, many psychosomatic diseases are eradicated. In fact, Vipassana eliminates the three causes of all unhappiness: craving, aversion and ignorance. With continued practice, the meditation releases the tensions developed in everyday life, opening the knots tied by the old habit of reacting in an unbalanced way to pleasant and unpleasant situations.
Although Vipassana was developed as a technique by the Buddha, its practice is not limited to Buddhists. There is absolutely no question of conversion. The technique works on the simple basis that all human beings share the same problems and a technique which can eradicate these problems will have a universal application.
Courses are given in numerous Meditation Centers and at Non-Center course locations at rented sites. Each location has its own schedule of courses. In most cases, an application for admission to these courses can be completed online at this website. There are many Vipassana Centers throughout the world, in India and elsewhere in Asia/Pacific, in North America, in Latin America, in Europe, in Australia/New Zealand, in the Middle East and in Africa. Ten-day non-center courses are frequently held at many locations outside of Centers as they are arranged by local students of Vipassana in those areas. An alphabetical list of worldwide course locations is available as well as a geographical interface of course locations worldwide and in India and Nepal.
Meditation and Self-discipline
Ten days is certainly a very short time in which to penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and learn how to eradicate the complexes lying there. Continuity of the practice in seclusion is the secret of this technique’s success. Rules and regulations have been developed keeping this practical aspect in mind. They are not primarily for the benefit of the teacher or the course management, nor are they negative expressions of tradition, orthodoxy or blind faith in some organized religion. Rather, they are based on the practical experience of thousands of meditators over the years and are both scientific and rational. Abiding by the rules creates a very conducive atmosphere for meditation; breaking them pollutes it.
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:
to abstain from killing any being;
to abstain from stealing;
to abstain from all sexual activity;
to abstain from telling lies;
to abstain from all intoxicants.
There are three additional precepts which old students (that is, those who have completed a course with S.N. Goenka or one of his assistant teachers) are expected to follow during the course:
to abstain from eating after midday;
to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations;
to abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
Old students will observe the sixth precept by having tea without milk or fruit juice at the 5 p.m. break, whereas new student may have tea with milk and some fruit. The teacher may excuse an old student from observing this precept for health reasons. The seventh and eighth precepts will be observed by all.
Acceptance of the Teacher and the Technique
Students must declare themselves willing to comply fully and for the duration of the course with the teacher’s guidance and instructions. That is, to observe the discipline and to meditate exactly as the teacher asks, without ignoring any part of the instructions, nor adding anything to them. This acceptance should be one of discrimination and understanding, not blind submission. Only with an attitude of trust can a student work diligently and thoroughly. Such confidence in the teacher and the technique is essential for success in meditation.
Other Techniques, Rites, and Forms of Worship
During the course, it is absolutely essential that all forms of prayer, worship, or religious ceremony — fasting, burning incense, counting beads, reciting mantras, singing and dancing, etc. — be discontinued. All other meditation techniques and healing or spiritual practices should also be suspended. This is not to condemn any other technique or practice, but to give a fair trial to the technique of Vipassana in its purity.
Students are strongly advised that deliberately mixing other techniques of meditation with Vipassana will impede and even reverse their progress. Despite repeated warnings by the teacher, there have been cases in the past where students have intentionally mixed this technique with a ritual or another practice, and have done themselves a great disservice. Any doubts or confusion which may arise should always be clarified by meeting with the teacher.
Interviews With the Teacher
The teacher is available to meet students privately between 12 Noon and 1:00 p.m. Questions may also be asked in public between 9:00 and 9:30 p.m. in the meditation hall. The interview and question times are for clarifying the technique and for questions arising from the evening discourses.
All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited.
Students may, however, speak with the teacher whenever necessary and they may approach the management with any problems related to food, accommodation, health, etc. But even these contacts should be kept to a minimum. Students should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation.
Yoga and Physical Exercise
Although physical yoga and other exercises are compatible with Vipassana, they should be suspended during the course because proper secluded facilities are not available at the course site. Jogging is also not permitted. Students may exercise during rest periods by walking in the designated areas.
It is not possible to satisfy the special food preferences and requirements of all the meditators. Students are therefore kindly requested to make do with the simple vegetarian meals provided. The course management endeavors to prepare a balanced, wholesome menu suitable for meditation. If any students have been prescribed a special diet because of ill-health, they should inform the management at the time of application. Fasting is not permitted.
Dress should be simple, modest, and comfortable. Tight, transparent, revealing, or otherwise striking clothing (such as shorts, short skirts, tights and leggings, sleeveless or skimpy tops) should not be worn. Sunbathing and partial nudity are not permitted. This is important in order to minimize distraction to others.
According to the tradition of pure Vipassana, courses are run solely on a donation basis. Donations are accepted only from those who have completed at least one ten-day course with S.N. Goenka or one of his assisting teachers. Someone taking the course for the first time may give a donation on the last day of the course or any time thereafter.
In this way, courses are supported by those who have realized for themselves the benefits of the practice. Wishing to share these benefits with others, one gives a donation according to one’s means and volition. Such donations are the only source of funding for a course in this tradition around the world. There is no wealthy foundation or individual sponsoring them. Neither the teachers nor the organizers receive any kind of payment for their service. Thus, the spread of Vipassana is carried out with purity of purpose, free from any commercialism.
Whether a donation is large or small, it should be given with the wish to help others: ‘The course I have taken has been paid for through the generosity of past students; now let me give something towards the cost of a future course, so that others may also benefit by this technique’.
To clarify the spirit behind the discipline and rules, they may be summarized as follows:
Take great care that your actions do not disturb anyone. Take no notice of distractions caused by others.
It may be that a student cannot understand the practical reasons for one or several of the above rules. Rather than allow negativity and doubt to develop, immediate clarification should be sought from the teacher.
It is only by taking a disciplined approach and by making maximum effort that a student can fully grasp the practice and benefit from it. The emphasis during the course is on work. A golden rule is to meditate as if one were alone, with one’s mind turned inward, ignoring any inconveniences and distractions that one may encounter.
Finally, students should note that their progress in Vipassana depends solely on their own good qualities and personal development and on five factors: earnest efforts, confidence, sincerity, health and wisdom.
May the above information help you to obtain maximum benefit from your meditation course. We are happy to have the opportunity to serve, and wish you peace and harmony from your experience of Vipassana.
The Course Timetable
The following timetable for the course has been designed to maintain the continuity of practice. For best results, students are advised to follow it as closely as possible.
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
12 noon-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