What is Vipassana?
A buddhist meditation technique to assist with seeing things as they really are. The aim is to remove mental impurities, this in turn provides full liberation (a state of Nirvana) and the highest levels of happiness.
Its remarkable that the technique still remains in its purest form as taught by Buddha more than 2500 years ago, this has resulted from an uninterrupted chain of teachers. The teachings of today are still provided by the late S.N. Goenka (the man who took vipassana to the world) using video and audio tapes.
I don't think any of my friends were surprised when I told them that I was going to undertake a 10 day vipassana course, it's not uncommon for me to take things to more extreme end of the spectrum.
While I'd read a few books on buddhism and the technique of vipassana the concept of a 10 day immersion was completely foreign to me. It was during my recent yoga teacher training that I'd come to learn about the presence of these Vipassana centres and the introductory 10 day course. After chatting to a few who had undertaken the course previously I was left with the feeling that I couldn't not go and experience this for myself, after all I certainly had time on my hands.
South India was my next step and coincidently (or not) a course was on offer at a small centre called Dhamma Ketana around 10km from Chengannur. After discovering this I filled out the application and it was a done deal. It would be a significant increase in my daily meditation which was 30mins a day at best, but at least with meditation the risk of physical injury due to poor preparation is virtually non existent, therefore no excuses.
The Daily Agenda looks like this:
4am Wake Up
4.30 - 6.30am Meditation
6.30 - 7.15am Breakfast
8.00 - 9.00am Group sitting (sounds lovely, but its code for seated meditation)
9.00 - 11.00am Meditation
11.00 - 11.45am Lunch
12.00 - 12.30pm Question Time
1.00 - 2.30pm Meditation
2.30 - 3.30pm Group sitting
3.30 - 5.00pm Meditation
5.00 - 6.00pm Dinner (generally milk tea and fruit)
6.00 - 7.00pm Group sitting
7.00 - 8.30pm Discourse (lecture on technique - again seated)
8.30 - 9.00pm Meditation
9.00 - 9.30pm Question time
9.30pm Lights out
Repeat x 10
In summary thats 10.5 hrs of seated meditation per day with an average sit time of 1.3hrs per session, plus the 1.5hrs of sitting for the discourse. The 3 x 1hr group sittings were like challenge sets from Day 4 - one of the primary goals was to stay completely still despite the discomfort.
It was apparent from the moment I arrived that I was in rural India, the centre is however located in the state of Kerala which is comparatively wealthy when compared to the rest of the country, I was surprised by the nice houses on large blocks with fancy cars. The facility itself was very basic, we were in dorm style accomodation with very thin mattresses to sleep on. Toilet paper was a luxury item that needed to be purchased and there was no laundry service - ordering take out obviously wasn't going to be an option.
All our phones, computers, books and other valuables were surrendered. Its also requested that all physical activity be suspended for the 10 days other than short walks on the goat track which totalled around 100m. Noble silence is observed for the first 9.5 days which essentially means no talking or communication of non verbal means. Males and females are completely separated for the duration with the exception of sharing the meditation hall. All thats required is to eat, sleep and meditate with some occasional clothes washing.
The first three days are about observing respiration focusing attention on a small area between the nose and upper lip to sharpen the mind (called apana). It was pretty clear from Day 1 that focusing my easily distracted, over active monkey mind was going to be a significant challenge.
For a few months now I've been pretty aware of my strong attachment to food, this was one of the attractions of Vipassana for me, all control over what and when I ate would be surrended.
I was so amazed to observe the sheer depth of this craving and attachment to food that I've been carrying for a really long time now, for the first 2-3 days my mind was in food craving overdrive.
From Day 3 the sharpening of the mind had really started to physically manifest, colours were brighter, I was noticing the finer details of trees, butterfly's etc and was also feeling sensations I'm normally not tuned into. At one stage I'd registered that the slightest breeze on my face was keeping me awake as I tried to sleep. I also began to observe a shift in mindset in relation to food, I'd managed to convince myself that I wasn't going to starve to death and that just one serving per meal would be enough. It really helped having the older students around who were not eating after lunch and were clearly hungry but not dying......
I really started to slow down when I ate, after all this was the most exciting part of the day, you want to make it last. My food pinnacle occurred on Day 8, not completely removed from attachment I woke up thinking about how much I'd love it if we were given chapati for breakfast and to my delight it arrived, I was filled with gratitude. Then at lunch, something new, a basic birayani with vegetables. I was so overwhelmed by how amazing this was that it took me a good 30mins to eat it, really savouring every small mouthful, this sensation alone brought with it tears of joy.
Food had always been a delight and comfort for me but I'd never experienced it like this before. If my changed perspective on food was the only learning I took from the course then this alone would be enough to justify it 1000 times over.
Day 4 (christmas eve) was a real highlight, this was when we commenced the technique of Vipassana, observing the sensations in the body. I was having a bit too much fun with it that evening, while scanning through the body my mind chatter went a bit like this....
Hello celestial head, I'm here to check in, any sightings of Santa and his reindeers yet? Nope, okay, how about sensations, are we experiencing any sensations up there?
Trapezius yep sensations, Rhomboids yes paining, Shoulder blades yes paining, Lats still paining...okay we clearly have some back discomfort going on, hold strong, anicca, anicca, anicca (impermanence), this is all temporary and will pass, do not move...
Hello pelvis, what have we got at your end of town...we got nothing, all systems down, just numbness all the way through to the toes...
Okay celestial head...
The fun pretty much ended there, after that hyperactive playful meditation, it all became hard serious work again.
From speaking to others, I understand that these courses are often undertaken in heavily controlled conditions (I.e. constant comfortable climate, virtually silent rooms/cells etc). This was certainly not the case in this small vipassana centre. The temperate variability was a real challenge, mornings were cold and the afternoons were really really hot, this was escalated as we were required to dress very conservatively. Over the Christmas period there was around 3 days where I could've sworn the nearby mosque was playing their top 100 prayer calls for the year on repeat, the hindi temple would also chime in a few times each day. We shared the grounds with huge cobras (thankfully I only came across the skin they'd left behind) and on occasions geckos crawling up the arm would be confused for bodily sensations. All of these external distractions made it that much harder to focus, but I love that this was part of the experience.
Day 6 was the lowest of lows, apparently its common for this day to be really hard. I could not get comfortable, I was tired and my right side rib area was really, really sore. I'd done some damage around 10 days earlier surfing in Bali but figured it would heal with rest, it seemed to be getting worse sleeping on the hard bed and sitting all day. My mind wouldn't focus and all I could think about was the discomfort and how hard everything was. That night I spoke to the teacher about the pain in my ribs, it was playing havoc with my mind, I was hoping to source something to bring the swelling/inflammation down. While they were reluctant to provide any medicine (like voltaren) next morning they gave me some herbal oil and a pot of hot water for a heat pack. It didn't improve but my mindset did, just from the very act of applying some form of treatment. Day 7 was a much better day and at this point I began to realise that this whole experience was also going to pass.
On Day 9 just before lunch silence was broken and phones etc were returned. This was a real shock to the system, funnily enough I found myself really overwhelmed and instantly sought solitude by going on a short walk down the goat track. It was a feeling of such relief and achievement having made it through but I also sensed that I still had a lot to process. It was great to finally meet all those people that I'd been with 24 hours a day for the last 9 days, it's a really strange feeling sharing such a journey with people you've never met, you sense the struggles of one another and somehow connect without having spoken a single word. We shared our experiences and had a great laugh joking about the forts that people had built up with cushions and those things that had happened during the course which we couldn't share previously.
While I probably spent only 50% of the time actually meditating and the rest of the time planning/contemplating my future it was such an incredibly rewarding experience, watching the mind for that duration of time can be really insightful. I certainly experienced moments and thoughts of absolute clarity and was able to observe patterns in my mind which I could dissect to gain further understanding. Even now a week later its funny to see how I clung so tightly to ideas (like this tattoo which I convinced myself that i really needed to get) which now have little to no place/importance. It's a nice little reminder that everything comes to pass.
I'd highly recommend anyone with the time and an interest to consider undertaking the 10 day intro course, they happen all over the world and it's donation based so you pay what you can afford on completion of the program. Further details can be seen here:
If I were to do it again (which I can see happening in the future) I wouldn't go without the following items, I suppose you could say that this was my survival kit:
I will close this blog with a quote from the great man himself (Goenka):
"We cannot live in the past; it is gone. Nor can we live in the future; it is forever beyond our grasp. We can live only in the present. If we are unaware of our present actions, we are condemned to repeating the mistakes of the past and can never succeed in attaining our dreams for the future".
Mandy Habener (Dumas)