I attended a 10 days meditation course at the Vipassana Center in Switzerland in November 2018. This was my first event of the sort. I dabbled in meditation with the Headspace app for the past 18 months but never made it past the 10mn a day mark.
I had a paragliding accident in May this year which lead me to spend 3 weeks at the hospital and with multiple surgeries on my foot and then shoulder. Attending a Vipassana retreat had been on the yearly to do list for 2018 but the accident compelled me to sign up as I felt I could really benefit from a tool to calm my mind and help me be less attached.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago. It was taught by him as a technique aiming for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation. According to its practitioners, it can end all suffering. Let that sink in… End. All. Suffering. If it’s not a fantastic promise, I don’t know what is!
Many centers across the world now teach this technique, often using recordings of S. N. Goenka to guide meditators combined with the support of teachers. New students should start with a 10 days course to learn and give a fair shot to the practice. After completion, they have access to shorter and longer courses for further development.
The course structure
Before anything, the meditator has to agree to respect the 8 precepts for the 10 days of the course:
- abstain from killing any being
- abstain from stealing
- abstain from all sexual activity
- abstain from telling lies
- abstain from all intoxicants
- abstain from eating after midday (new students can have milk and fruits at 5pm)
- abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations
- abstain from using high or luxurious beds
After room attribution and locking up of phones, computers, books and writing material, the Noble Silence starts. It means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow student, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited. One can speak with the teacher for clarifications regarding the technique or with the manager if there are any issues related to food, accommodation, health, etc. Those interactions should be kept at a minimum for the students to feel like they are working in isolation. Additionally, men and women are completely segregated (except in the main meditation hall) and there should be no physical contact. All those rules and set up are here to prevent distractions and get the mind to focus on the self-observation technique.
Every day follows the same schedule:
4:00 am Morning wake-up gong 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 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 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
Have you noticed the 11 hours of meditation every day? Looks like much but it’s necessary to learn the technique properly.
Sooo what is this meditation technique?
Over the course of 10 days, the practitioners actually learn 3 techniques:
Anapana: breath observation
DAY 1 Observe the breath going in and going out DAY 2 Observe the sensation of the breath on the area between nostrils and upper lip DAY 3 Observe the sensation of your breath right outside the nostrils
Written like this, it actually sounds like an underwhelming warm-up for 3 days of 11 hours of meditation each. Well, it’s not.
When doing it, the mind starts to wander. One breath, two breath… and whoop it’s starting to think about this and that. You bring it back gently. One breath, two breath, three breath… and it’s gone again. One breath, two breath… you start feeling sleepy, doze off and your head falling wakes you up. One breath, two breath, three breath, four breath… and you notice that you are visualizing the area and remember that you should only observe the sensation. One breath, two breath… and now you are actually saying IN, OUT in your mind every time the breath passes through… you remember it should only be about observing the sensation. You go back at it: One breath, two breath, three breath… etc.
Vipassana: sensations observations
DAY 4 Learn the technique: observe your sensations on your body from head to feet, scanning one part of the body after the other. Stop and examine every sensation. DAY 5 Practice the technique, observe sensations from head to feet on smaller areas at a time. DAY 6 Go from head to feet and feet to head, one area of the body at the time. DAY 7 Go from head to feet and feet to head, scan several parts at once symmetrically (for example both arms at the same time). DAY 8 Go from head to feet and feet to head, do the free flow (kind of like water being poured on you) if you experience only subtle sensations. Keep examining each part separately every couple of rounds. DAY 9 Go from head to feet and feet to head observing the sensations IN your body (not just on it).
The schedule of day 4 is a bit different to accommodate for the teaching of the new technique and detailed instructions but overall, you keep at it for 11 hours a day. One new thing is Sitting with Strong Determination. From now on, you sit without moving your legs, hands and eyes during each group sitting in the meditation hall (3 times 1 hour per day). Oh boy, that’s not easy. You can’t check your watch anymore, those hours could last 5, you wouldn’t be able to tell. And the pain starts to creep in. First 30 minutes are ok usually but then it gets tricky. But, as the technique instructs, you observe the sensations. Pain is a sensation too. Where does it start, where does it end, what is its shape, its color, where is its center, is it warm, cold, throbbing, itching? Of course, your mind wanders to this and that. You bring it back kindly where you were, and start again. For the first couple of days, you might only experience gross sensations but as time passes, you will be able to observe some more subtle one. Your mind will wander less often, sitting without moving will become less hard, you will feel like you progress.
Metta: Sending love and kindness
DAY 10 Learn how to send love and kindness to the universe for a couple of minutes at the end of each meditation.
Great, but how does it work?
How does observing your breath and sensations make all the suffering end?Fair question. Here is how I understood it from the explanations contained in the discourses and my questions to the teacher.
Everything that has happened in your life so far generated some kind of reactions, impressions or marks. Those marks (sankara) can be thought of 3 types:
- Like marking the water with a wooden stick: 2 seconds later, the mark is no longer visible
- Like marking sand with a wooden stick: after a while, the wind, water, rain dissipate the mark
- Like carving a rock: it takes a very long time to erase that mark
The purpose of getting rid of as many stimulations as possible during the course is to limit the creation of new marks. The method explains that once you stop creating new marks, the old ones will resurface as sensations (for example a chill, an itch, a tingle, the touch of your clothes on your skin, heat, perspiration, coolness, dryness, pain, discomfort, pulsating, throbbing, …etc.).
The only common factor with all the sensations is that they are impermanent and won’t last (anicca). Your job is “just” to observe them without reacting (equanimity). Eventually, the sensation will disappear and the mark associated along with it will disappear as well as your non-reactive observation of its impermanence kind of disabled it.
By practicing long enough, all the old marks will have come to the surface. Living while observing your sensations will ultimately prevent you from creating new marks. You will be free of suffering.
The purpose of the 10 days sequence of the is to train your mind. First, you learn how to sit without moving too much. You get better at staying focused on the task at hand without losing your mind to random ideas. You fine-tune your perception of sensations, like increasing the sensitivity of a measuring device. As time goes by, your equanimity improves for both pleasant and unpleasant sensations and the concept that nothing is permanent becomes more ingrained in your mind.
Some things were hard
As you imagine, this is no walk in the park. I was lucky enough to have a relatively pleasant experience, probably due to the fact I’ve been doing some personal development and yoga for a while now. However, it was not always smooth.
What I missed the most
- Being alone. We were 80 people at the center (meditating in the hall together) and 5 people in my room with shared showers and bathrooms. Since I live alone and enjoy spending time like that, never being on my own was a struggle, especially since I couldn't even communicate with the people around me. I felt it had all the disadvantages of being with people without the benefits.
- Physical touch. Being a sensitive person with a bit of an animal side, I really struggled to spend 10 days without a good hug. I understand the need for the setup but that was hard.
- Laughing. Life is funny. If you look close enough, there are always occasions to laugh or smile at the idiosyncrasy of some situations. Having to keep all the jokes that came to my mind to myself was difficult (probably for the better since they surely were not all good ones haha).
- Writing. So many things came to my mind during those 10 days. I felt I reached conclusions for some issues I had, got many new ideas for my business, had numerous reflections about life and my relationships. Not having an outlet for them (writing) meant they kept circling my brain. I sometimes felt the overload prevented new ideas to come to life.
- Music. It has such revealing capabilities for my emotional landscape and I find it so beautiful that being away from it was quite sad.
The sleep (or lack of)
I went to the retreat a little bit expecting to get some quality sleep in. That didn’t happen. For the first 3 days, I often fell asleep during the meditations so it messed up my rhythm. On Day 2 and 3, I started having very vivid dreams related to the sci-fi book I was reading before arriving. Woke up in sweat, not knowing where I was, certain I was being chased by aliens. Couldn’t go back to sleep afterward. From Day 4, I laid awake in my bed until midnight at least, not feeling tired and usually woke up at 3.30am, feeling weirdly rested. Apparently, needing less sleep can be a side-effect of meditation… Combine that with my lovely but sniffling, sneezing, sleep-speaking and snoring roommates, you get the picture!
Since all stimuli were removed from the environment, my mind quickly took it upon itself to provide me with stimuli of its own, relying heavily on:
- Blaring old pop songs loudly in my head
- Inventing a whole life for each participant
- Endlessly reinventing intrigues of books I read, sometimes decades ago
- Listing all the friends who could benefit from Vipassana and why
- Wondering about the next meal menu
- Counting any random thing I could see
- Making terrible jokes about anything and everything
- … etc.
Thankfully, I rarely beat myself up when I lost touch with the exercises and didn’t have too strong sensations, releasing heavy emotions.
Each of us has a different life experience, family, upbringing, struggles, etc. You can never know what’s going on in people’s mind and should always remain compassionate (especially when in doubt). During a Vipassana retreat, the method leads to old marks resurfacing. That can be heavy trauma for some individuals and it’s painful. In the meditation hall, I would sometimes hear people cry and generally, people looked like they were having a tough time. Being highly sensitive to others’ emotional states, I found it challenging not to absorb too much of what was being released. Thankfully, I was sitting on the far end of the hall and only had one person behind me, but still, it was hard.
On the morning of Day 10 after the Metta meditation teaching session, the Noble Silence ends. I went out of the room, feeling slightly giddy at the prospect of speaking to some of my fellow meditators. Reaching the dining hall, I started feeling uneasy and after two steps in, I had to go cry uncontrollably in the bathroom for a solid 5 minutes. I couldn’t understand why but was feeling overwhelmed. After calming down, I gave it a second shot, reached the middle of the dining hall this time but felt again like crying. Going outside for some fresh air, I saw a bunch of ladies experiencing what looked like a similar reaction to mine. It felt good to do some rounds of the garden and I eventually went back in, this time able to have a quiet chat with some people. Retrospectively, I think my reaction was somehow due to the increased amount of brain stimuli I experienced after 10 days of limited input.
Any pro tips?
There were a bunch of items and behaviors that made my experiences significantly better than what it would have been without. There is the list:
Cushions: Take as many as you need to be comfortable. Be as inventive and as unique as you can be in your setup. Watch older students, they often have good tricks.
Watch: Since you have no phone, this piece of equipment might be your most prized possession while in Vipassana. Not because it’s fancy but because it will be the one telling you there’re only 7 minutes left in this meditation session!
Earplugs: Depending on the center you go to, you might share a room. Earplugs will block out most of the noise made from your roommates (yay!) but might also prevent you from hearing the gong (crap…), leading you to be scolded by the manager cause you’re late.
Easy to put on shoes: Go outside as much and as often as you can. It provides fresh air, a change of scenery, a bit of physical exercise and some distractions. To be able to catch your fix quickly, make sure your shoes are appropriate for the weather and quick to put on and remove. Also, get good slippers, you’ll spend quite some time wearing them.
Watch the stars: During the 10 days, I ended up thinking about myself a bit too much for my taste. Often engrossed in my own stories or sensations and without external distractions, it’s easy to forget there is a whole world outside. After meditating for one hour between 4.30am and 5.30am, I quickly took the habit of going out to check the stars every morning. I was wonderfully refreshing to get reminded that we are so small in this gigantic universe. I remembered that nothing really matters in the end and saw quite some shooting stars!
This too shall pass: There were times where I lost patience, where my neighbor coughing every 2 minutes (literally!) really got on my nerves, where Goenka’s singing irritated me prodigiously, … When I caught myself in such a state, I’d remember that it will pass eventually. It was always one less second to endure before the end, one less cough, one less song. If I could bear it just now during the present moment, then it will be fine.
Will I do it again?
Yes. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn this technique. It’s an amazingly powerful tool and the world would be a better place if everyone practiced. However, I won’t attend another course right away as I am clearly still digesting this experience (wrote the article one week after the course ending). I really look forward to getting the chance to deepen my practice and hope to offer the possibility to learn to other people.
One of the great thing with Vipassana is that anyone can go take a 10 days course for free. It works because participants donate according to their means after the course to offer other individuals the opportunity to learn the practice in a sheltered environment with great conditions. Since the method is not associated with any religion or sect, literally everyone can go and learn it without threatening their existing spiritual practice. If it sounds appealing, go sign up to a course!
How would I summarize Vipassana?
- Observe your sensations.
- Accept what is.
- Understand nothing is permanent.
- Repeat always, forever.
- May all beings be happy -