I returned back from my first 10 day long silent Vipassana meditation retreat at Dhamma Salila in Dehradun, less than a week back. Going to the retreat was a very personal decision and I was skeptical about sharing my experience. Having returned from the meditation, I can see the practice translate into life and so I decided to share my experience in this post. In this post, I write about what Vipassana is, the code of discipline that we were required to follow, the techniques that were taught and the changes that I can already see in life, outside the Vipassana premises.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana literally means ‘to look in a special way’. It is the practice of becoming aware of sensations that arise in our body, as it interacts with the mind, by watching our natural breath. By noticing how impermanent all sensations (pleasant and unpleasant) are, one watches them arise and pass away without any feeling of attachment (raag)or aversion (dvesh). This helps one reach a state of purified mind and egolessness. Most people get swept away by waves of joy when the situation is favorable, and by waves of sorrow when the situation is unfavorable. Vipassana meditation is an extreme exercise in practicing equanimity.
Modern life is equipped with all sort of material conveniences but it can be quite stressful. Continuous bombardment of news and information, and continuous connectivity keeps one in a perpetual state of distraction. We are perhaps the least focused generation. In spite of a life that is a cakewalk in comparison to the lives of our ancestors, we are more anxious and depressed than ever. We have lost the ability to dive into the wisdom of nature that comes from staying close to it and by being healed by its soothing touch. In this age of instant gratification, we are unable to develop an equanimous mind and constantly crave for newer distractions. This creates a false idea of freedom when in reality we have become the slaves of our senses. Vipassana gives one the ideal environment where one can stay focused and dive deep into self, watching sensations as they arise and pass away, developing equanimity in the process. The ultimate aim is to purify the mind and attain liberation.
What is the criteria for joining Vipassana retreat?
It is free to join and you may donate if you wish to at the end of the course. All courses across the world are run by the donations made by former students. You can register for a course on dhamma website at your preferred location. There are multiple centres across the world. Book early as seats fill up fast.
Before joining, you surrender yourself to abide by the strict code of discipline, the five precepts of which are listed below:
1. abstain from killing any living being (mosquitoes, lizards, spiders etc.)
2. abstain from stealing
3. abstain from all sexual activity
4. abstain from telling lies ( including telling exaggerated tales about what you experienced)
5. abstain from all intoxicants.
You are required to follow noble silence ( no communication through eyes or signs) through the duration of the course.
You agree to not perform any other rituals for 10 days during which you surrender yourself. You are required to surrender your mobile phone, reading, writing and drawing material or any other object of distraction with the organizers at the beginning of the course. It is returned to you on day 10.
It is to your benefit to follow the code of discipline as it helps you progress quickly. Many participants later confessed that they had broken noble silence and wished they hadn’t, as it helped in meditating better.
What is the origin of Vipassana?
Vipassana is a technique that was rediscovered by Gautam Buddha 2600 years ago. It is believed that it was this practice that led him to enlightenment. A prince by birth, he was deeply moved by the all pervading nature of suffering. At the age of twenty nine, he renounced all worldly pleasure and set out in search of root of all misery and a way to eradicate it.
Having exhausted all extreme methods, including ones in which he put his body through harsh discipline, he sat down under the Bodhi tree with the firm determination that he will not move until he achieves enlightenment. On achieving enlightenment, he prescribed the middle way or the path of moderation to achieve enlightenment.
All our attachments are the root causes of all our sufferings. By eliminating attachments and practicing loving kindness towards all, one can achieve liberation. Our subconscious mind is inextricably linked with our bodily sensations. By becoming aware of this mind body connection, by the way of observing our sensations, we become aware of the impermanent nature of all things. This enables one to drop all attachments and aversions and achieve a pure mind.
What are the techniques that are taught?
On the day of arrival, all participants are allotted seat numbers where they are to sit for the remainder of the course. This seat would be our home for the duration of 10+ hours of mediation everyday for the next 10 days. Everyday, we listened to an hour and a half long discourses by our teacher, S.N. Goenka, who learnt the technique in Burma and propagated it in its pure form in India and he world. They motivated us to continue our practice. Personally, I felt calmer after the discourses and could mediate better in the short session after the discourse. The following techniques are taught during the duration of 10 days:
Anapana: You start with focusing on the triangular area of the nostrils through which the breath enters and leaves the body, the area of the upper lip below the nostrils and the nasal pathway until the nose bridge. The technique is used for focusing the mind. I found it impossible to focus my mind on my breath on the first day and my back ached. Parts on my back where I usually feel no pain also ached. Even my collar bones weighed me down. However, if you make it through the first day, it gets a little easier. By reminding the mind that it had drifted away, I could bring it back, albeit for a few moments, on the second day. My back pain began to ease. As I continued with the practice of Anapana, I felt my back got lighter as scales seemed to fall off, and painful knots eased. By the fourth day, my back felt very light and my spine had straightened. I could sit for a few minutes without continuously changing my position.
Vipassana: Much to my excitement, we were finally introduced to the technique of Vipassana on the afternoon of day 4. The technique involves scanning the surface of the body from the crown of head to the tips of the toes. In the beginning, I was only able to notice such gross sensations as pain or itch, or an absence of sensations in many parts of the body, but as I sat through the hours, carefully scanning my body, and as I my mind purified, I became more and more aware of the tiny sensations all over my body.
The pain and heaviness in my back returned many times. As we scan our bodies, the most important part is not to develop any attachment to the pleasant sensations, or any aversion or even impatience towards gross and unpleasant sensations. We have to impartially observe how all sensations, sooner or later, come to pass, and are thus impermanent (anichcha in Pali). Thus based on the principle of impermanence, we continue to develop our equanimity.
Sometimes, memories towards which we have strong emotions, may arise. Observe how your sensations change in wake of memories. I have a strong phobia of lizards and I could feel a change in sensations when I discovered that I was closed with a lizard in the shunyagrah (individual cells, allotted to first time practitioners on day 7 and day 8 for a couple of hours), I had it removed though. The sensations of fear which are different from that of relaxed state can be sensed. I felt the same with anger. The moment any aberration enters our mind, we become agitated or distressed.
Whenever the mind wanders, gently remind it to come back to the sensations, instead of dwelling on the past or the future.
One of the elements of Vipassana, introduced a couple of days into the practice is that of Anushthan or determination. For three group sittings of one hour each everyday, we determine to sit in a position of our choosing, without moving, keeping the back straight and eyes closed. It was then that I realized, it is no mean task to sit cross legged like Buddha, a tranquil smile playing upon his lips as he sits straight with his eyes closed. It is a result of intense and determined practice.
With practice, either during the course of 10 days or with sustained practice, you will eventually reach a state where you will be able to feel wave like sensations all through the body. this state is called ‘Bhang’. It is only after you reach this state that the aberrations in your subconscious will begin to come to surface. Do not judge your practice by the kind of sensations you get. The only parameter of judging the quality of meditation is by how equanimous you stayed during your practice.
Metta Bhavana or loving kindness: On the tenth day, we are taught the meditation of metta or loving kindness, where we send our heartfelt wishes of well being to all beings who inhabit the planet. Check for two conditions before starting the metta meditation. After Vipassana, relax your body and check if you are free of all unpleasant bodily sensations and check that your mind is free of all ill will towards all being. If these two conditions are fulfilled, proceed to send your good wishes to all beings. If you find it difficult to feel compassion towards all, start with sending it out to people you love.
After being taught Metta, we were allowed to break the vow of noble silence. I was keen on knowing other participants, who were all absoluely lovely people. At the same time I also missed the golden silence in which we had lived for the past 10 days.
Does Vipassana work?
The most common questions that are put after completion of a retreat are -Did you have an out of body/spiritual experience? Are you a completely changed person now that you have completed the retreat?
The answer to both the questions in my case is No. Every individual’s experience is unique and it is best not to compare.
I will however share my experience here. Since returning from the retreat, I can observe certain quantifiable changes.
1. I am less irritable and impatient. I stop to think before I act. As soon as I notice myself in a situation that is likely to trigger me, I bring my attention to my breath and sensations to observe any deviations from the normal state.
2. Some of the more drastic changes that I noticed are in my sleep pattern. I have always been an insomniac, and a light sleeper. I drift into sleep as soon as I lie down and stay asleep now. I have never been a morning person and always woke up groggy, with a headache, in the morning, but lately I have been able to wake up very early without much trouble.
3. My head feels clearer and calmer and I can focus better. There is no way that I could have written this long post in a single sitting otherwise.
4. My diet has considerably reduced and I no longer crave junk food as much either.
5. My senses became sharper. I could distinguish the calls of birds during my stay there.
6. Also being silent conserves a lot of energy but it is not so easy for me to stay quiet in the real world.
So far I have been able to practice an hour or two of Vipassana everyday. Being constantly aware is hard work and so is breaking old patterns. Sustained practice is important to continue reaping the benefits of this practice.
To find out if this meditation is suitable for you, I recommend listening to discourses by S.N Goenka, uploaded on YouTube. You can also give the guided meditation a try for a few days to see if it makes any difference. The ultimate decision, of course lies with you.
P.S: it is not a cult and no one is converted.