Yes, you are right, full ten days with no technology, no reading or writing, no music, no exercising, no sex or alcohol and strict adherence to noble silence (no verbal or non-verbal communication). And no, I was not in a prison but in Vipassana.
I am here talking about Vipassana meditation retreat that I recently attended in Jaipur, Rajasthan. I am writing this for my friends & family, and others who are curious to hear about my Vipassana experience before they take their plunge.
Well, I understand the need for a feedback here when in the age of internet some people do not buy even a toothbrush without having read an online review. And over here we are talking about much more valuable – your time, 11 days’ commitment to a meditation retreat.
So, was it worth it? Was it good? Will I recommend it? For the answer you will have to read through this article and come up with you own answer. It is a long article but worth the read – you may just want to grab a cuppa before we start?.
Some context on where I come from…
People who have known me for many years are familiar with my enthusiasm for various aspects of religion and spirituality. From childhood to adulthood, I have been religious (in ritualistic way) been agnostic, been an atheist and been a believer again with an esoteric set of beliefs.
And all through these years, I have flirted with various aspects of religion and different paths of spirituality for years sometimes, often engaged in either studying, reading, belonging or just observing. My interest varied from organised religion such as Hinduism or Buddhism to spiritual beliefs propagated by modern day institutions. I’ve even once dipped my toe into Scientology (by pure accident) and more recently found myself taking an interest in reading about obscure philosophies like Tantra. In this last topic, my knowledge has, sadly, been theoretical rather than practical. 😊
Going through these experiences, I personally sometimes felt uncomfortable with the approach of some of the institutions that overtly focused on the ‘branding’ side of spirituality.
Being a marketer myself, I understand the role that branding plays in making spirituality more palatable to millennials. However, I felt there is risk that over commercialised approach may just dilute the real spiritual experience and reduce the spiritual centre down to a just another place for social gathering.
Having known very little about Vipassana, I approached it with (healthy) skepticism in my heart and mind. In my head, my goal was quite clear and it had nothing to do with spirituality.
All I expected was to learn about meditation and satisfy my curiosity about experiencing life in absolute silence. I wanted to learn and practice meditation and cut myself off from the world for a few days.
I had done very little research (very much unlike me) about the institution, its background, founding story, belief system etc. This did create a bit of anxiety but in some ways, which turned out to be a good thing because I had little idea of what to expect and could take the experience with an open mind.
So, what is Vipassana?
I will only briefly explore this topic because I am not an expert. This is my subjective understanding gleaned from my experience of Vipassana.
Vipassana is a technique that existed in India for thousands of years before it was lost to history. The technique was then re-discovered by Gautam Buddha about 2500 years ago.
I want to be clear at this point that Vipassana has nothing to do with the Buddhist religion and does not belong to Buddhism (or to any other religion). It is a practice that can equally benefit people of all faiths, people of doubt and even those who do not believe in God or religion altogether.
Vipassana helps to develop awareness and equanimity at a subconscious level. Equanimity is the alluring quality of being fully present and observant towards what is happening in this moment – both pleasant and unpleasant.
By establishing a deep connection between mind and body, Vipassana helps us win over our restlessness – bringing inner peace, calmness and compassion even when faced with adverse life conditions.
And Meditation is the tool that Vipassana uses to gain the mastery over mind and self.
The focus of the course is on experiential learning – how to do it – and does not spend much time on intellectual debates.
Vipassana course structure, experience & challenges
Vipassana is a 10-day residential course with a demanding daily schedule. It is definitely NOT a spiritual holiday that involves relaxation in form of singing and dancing and/or meditating to music or kirtan.
The course is FREE and runs on voluntary contribution by previous students. You can only donate if you have completed the course.
Below are the notes that will give you glimpse into my life over 10-days.
On Day Zero:
I arrived at the centre and went through the registration process. At the time of registration, I was asked to read and re-read the rules & regulations and the course itinerary that must be diligently followed by all participants during the 10 days’ course.
It is made clear that once the course starts, you are not allowed to leave mid-way. At the time, I thought such repeated reminders were a bit of an overkill. But after the course started, I soon understood why they had to repeatedly make the ‘No Leaving’ rule clear.
There were approximately 250 meditators, both men and women in almost equal numbers. The composition of students was quite diverse with people from all age groups, different locations in India and other nationals too. After pre-course briefing men and women were instructed to move into their respective zones and they do not meet again until the last day of the course.
Before heading to our rooms, all our valuables, gadget/electronic possessions, reading & writing material had to be handed over in the office and the rule of noble silence start from 8 pm on Day 0. I understood the reason for noble silence only when the silence broke on the last day of the course- but more on that later. 😊
The Course itinerary
The day starts early in the morning at 4 am ending late in the evening at 9 pm. The day is interspersed with small and big breaks in-between for breakfast, lunch, nap and walk in the afternoon. Most part of the day is devoted to mediation practice. Later in the evening there is a discourse by founder of Vipassana, Shri S N Goenka.
Meditation is the only tool that Vipassana uses to access the inner-consciousness. Not surprisingly, it sits at the core of the course. There is 10 hours of meditation each day supported by 90 min discourse in the evening that forms the theoretical base of the practical sessions in the course.
The course begins with spring cleaning of mind. We start by learning first Anapana meditation. Anapana means the observation of natural, normal respiration, as breath comes in and leaves our nostrils. To be clear, this is not pranayama or breathing exercise. Anapana helps to develop concentration of the mind and make it focussed which is important as one progresses towards practicing Vipassana. In that sense, it is the first step in the practice of Vipassana meditation.
The goal here is to gain some control over the mind, stabilise and train it to develop a sharp focus.
Some meditation sessions are guided and done in groups; a few are done in private either in your residential room or a dedicated private cell in a pagoda. The centre I attended had a pagoda and I was given a cell to practice meditation privately.
Evening Vipassana discourse
There is a 90-minute daily video discourse by Goenkaji. It helps students understand the connection between the underlying theory of Vipassana meditation, Philosophy and the practices learned during the day.
This time was my favourite time of the day. Not just because my legs and back get some rest time :), but also because:
- Listening to the discourse helped clarify any doubts that had arisen during the day. This saved follow-up time with teacher later in the evening
- Goenkaji is an excellent orator with a way of explaining even the most complex philosophical ideas in easy to understand language. I found his discourses very enjoyable and informative supported by excellent examples and metaphors, with a tinge of humour.
After a few times, some parts of the discourses can start to feel repetitive. However, I do appreciate that repetition is necessary to ensure complete understanding and retention of ideas.
Discourses are delivered in Hindi and English at most places and in other languages at different locations. I listened to them in Hindi and can’t really comment on the quality of those in other languages. If you do understand Hindi, I would recommend sticking to these because some of the finer nuances and examples are better understood. Because discourses are delivered in shudh (pure) heavily sanskritized Hindi some words may be difficult to understand. I personally love listening to pure Hindi and so Goenkaji’s language was music to my ears.
Goenkaji speaks good English and so most English listeners should not have problem understanding the discourses. I also gathered from my interaction with others that the English content is tailored to an international audience.
About Ashram accommodation and facilities
Dhamma thali is located on the outskirts of Jaipur city (approx. 40 mins taxi ride from the airport) and is nestled within idyllic hills on all sides.
Even though the centre is not too far from the city, the place has absolute tranquillity and has a certain divine feeling to it.
The place is designed keeping in mind the needs of meditators with clean communal drinking water and toilet facilities close to the mediation hall so that students do not have to walk to rooms during breaks.
In terms of general look & feel, the ashram has a very rustic appeal, like living in a small village. Walkways around the ashram had plants and trees growing on its side randomly. There were no manicured lawns or overt attempt to give it a modern look and I am glad things were kept natural as much possible.
Because to me this is where the magic happened. Every inch of the ashram was buzzing with vibrant wild life all through the day. As the day broke out in the morning, the place came alive with a very loud orchestra being played out by a variety of birds. And there is one bird nobody could miss – a very large group of peacocks wandering around the ashram compound all the time. It was also a common sight to see monkeys hopping around the ashram and squirrels scampering through the trees.
Watching wild life in action daily made me eagerly look forward to daily walk breaks as each day was a chance to see something new and know more about these animals.
Well, this was the only time I missed having my mobile camera to capture these lovely moments.
Accommodation & Food
Accommodation is very basic but clean. Rooms can be private or shared between two people. I was sharing my room but I and my roommate barely exchanged names before the noble silence rule came into force. We then barely noticed each other for next 10 days.
The food menu is likely to vary by location. However, the food served at all locations is simple vegetarian fare. Breakfast, lunch and a simple supper at 5 pm. At my centre, the breakfast and lunch menu was changed daily. It was a balanced, nutritious diet and on most days pleasant to my taste buds.
A very simple supper is served at 5 pm after which there is no dinner. As a person in habit of snacking until late night, I was worried about hearing this. But it turned out to be no big deal. The simple supper was enough to see me through the rest of the day.
Even on Day 1, I did not seem to notice dinner was missing. Neither did I feel the need to rush to breakfast the next day :).
I have heard people say that meditation reduces hunger. This is probably because a calm mind and body need much less energy. Well, now I know!
Is it tough? Any challenges that I faced?
Yes, it can be tough. If you follow the process just as prescribed during the course, it can test of your willpower and determination. But its nothing that your mind or body cannot handle.
It gets better with time and if you make it to the end of the course without breaking rules, it will be a rewarding experience giving big boost to your self-confidence knowing about the untapped potential and energies that is inside you.
So, here are some mental, emotional and physical challenges that I faced.
First is to mentally condition your mind to new way of life. One must quickly develop degree of self-discipline to go through daily itinerary. The gong goes off at 4 am jolting everyone out of bed to get ready for the first mediation session of the day. This can take a bit of time for people to get used to.
And well, if you did make it through getting up early, next thing is to get your mind ready for meditation.
Anybody whoever has ever tried meditation will know that the mind is very fleeting, very fickle going in all directions. It will dart around the past and into the future not staying at only place it supposed to, ‘present’. And so, the first mental challenge is to calm the mind and get it to focus.
As your mind calms down and goes in deep meditative state, this is when emotions could start playing up. In deep meditation, one can come face-to-face its own-self and long bottled-up emotions and anxieties that could come to the surface. These feelings could be anything – happy or sad feelings, past mistakes or regrets, fears, anything. It may not happen to everybody though.
However, to some it can be unsettling experience but is a necessary process to undergo for mental purification. Sometimes these emotions could manifest physically by way of fever, headaches, body ache etc. We are pre-warned that this is expected and passes off soon.
Personally, I was fine and had no trouble for the first 5 days. But just when I thought I was one of the lucky few, on the afternoon of the 5th day, I was hit with a hurricane of emotions and had to face my demons. It took me totally by surprise and knocked me off my feet for a while. It just can only be experienced and hard to articulate. I felt feverish and a bit of headache, but it had passed by next morning and then I felt a lot calmer.
Beating the mental and emotional foes, the next one around the corner waiting to challenge you is your own physical body. Doing 10 hours of mediation sitting cross legged (even after getting breaks) could be a big problem for many.
Adding to this misery, there are an hour-long sessions (3 times a day) when one cannot change posture, hand position or open one’s eyes. Most people can manage up to 20-30 mins somehow but after that every minute can feel like an hour. Your legs, body and back are aching and telling you to give up. As every minute passes, the agony increases and pain intensifies further after you draw your mind to the pain points.
And if you are like me who hate dentist and needles, then get ready for some real fun. I failed in my first attempt to maintain one sitting posture for 1 hour (I gave up at 40 mins). This upset me for rest of the day because I saw that as a personal failure (being upset is wrong and contrary to Vipassana teaching).
However, I was determined not give up after the failure and before start of second session, I made myself a promise to sit through the pain this time notwithstanding the consequences.
Well, I am happy to say that every for session after the first failed attempt, I managed to sit through to the entire hour for the 15 sessions that followed. I must admit, it was not easy and sheer agony in the beginning; it was only my willpower that got me through initially. This was an important event, because all my life until now I had tried avoiding physical and emotional pain. This time I was facing both and fighting it back has taken away those fears.
As I mentioned before, it can be roller coaster ride. There were moments when I felt impatient and wanted to run away. This is normal, and most people experience the same at different times, different reasons – boredom, missing family (who knows maybe even Facebook of Twitter), watsapp etc. But these moments and feelings are very temporary and with little determination, it passes off quickly and things get better.
So, the above were personal examples of challenges that I experienced. I am sure every meditator would have his/her unique story to share but everyone had common learning from it though.
Towards the end, most people will agree that facing these challenges was worth it; one learns a lesson through first-hand experience that anything is possible if we set your mind to any task in the world.
My final thoughts & Conclusion
At the start of this essay I talked about my disillusionment with spiritual experiments and enclaves. With little research done on Vipassana and its philosophy, I was playing blind here and so there was a lot of scepticism worrying if this will be repeat of similar experience I had in the past.
And well, all my concerns disappeared as soon as I walked through the gates. Why? I’ll explain.
- I found Vipassana different from its contemporaries in a sense that it offers no-frill, no-fuzz, non- sectarian spiritual and mediation lessons.
- It focuses on self-experience and how to do things. It avoids engaging in pointless intellectual debates on obvious virtues that only make you feel temporarily good but bring no real change.
- At the centre, I saw no picture of its founder, guru, god or any sort of self-branding. The entire focus was on the course work and nothing else.
- With no grand stage entrances or designer robes, Goenkaji (the founder) looked very much like our next-door Gupta and Sharma uncle in his simple kurta pyjama. There were no unnecessary distractions or over emphasis on image building.
- Overall, I was pleased to see Vipassana as an institution still has its message and teachings firmly at its core focusing on its valuable teachings.
- The idea of spending 10 days in total silence, cut off from the world’s infinite distractions and do nothing but try to meditate terrifies many people. With experience, I can say that we overestimate the power of gadgets, comforts and habits over our life. At no point during my stay I missed any of my gadgets, home comforts, felt hunger or felt the urge to talk or break any rules.
- The process and experience is indeed non-sectarian and compatible with all religious beliefs. There are no rituals to follow or any god/guru to pray (not even a photograph I could see in centre). Even atheists would love it as long they believe in the laws of nature.
- Vipassana focusses on helping align our life and bring it in harmony with the laws of nature – law of cause & effect and law of impermanence.
- Vipassana is not a silver bullet to all life’s problems. What it does is that it develops our inner-faculties helping us to establish an equanimous relation with all situations in life, good or bad. And this learning in turn goes a long way in improving the quality of life. I experienced it myself when I went through some intense physical and mental pain during the course.
- Many must have heard of concepts related to mindfulness & conscious living. Using meditation as a tool, Vipassana teaches us HOW to do it. Once fully learned, it can be a powerful experience helping develop a natural ability to start living mindfully without making conscious efforts
- My experience was very positive and I discovered things about myself that I never knew before. One of my goals was to learn meditation which I learned well. I glanced a distraction-free world which again was an experience to remember.
Would I do it again? Absolutely! And do I call this transforming? I hear many people saying it but I am not there yet. I must experience Vipassana fully and experience the change before calling it life changing. Whilst I do plan to commit myself to practice meditation, but there are is no plan of turning in to teetotaller celibate monk, at least not in near future 🙂
And finally, will I recommend Vipassana to others? I am tempted to say yes, very much. But a word of caution – even as I feel that Vipassana would be beneficial for anyone, I believe that timing, individual personality and the reason behind for somebody to take up something like this is important. Also, as a person, you do need a certain a bit of self-discipline and have an open mind to be able to fully grasp Vipassana philosophy and benefit from it.
I will say though, that anyone committing ten days with 10 hours of daily work is likely to walk back with at least something.
If you made it to the end of this article and are inspired to know more, some general info below will be helpful:
- If you want to take the course, click here to go to Vipassana website, choose your preferred centre, and follow the instructions.
- General research shows that people who took the course in a Western location report slightly higher levels of living comforts.
- Each centre is equipped differently; some offer each student a private room, others are shared rooms.
- Food is always simple and vegetarian, but likely to vary greatly depending on your location.
- Many centres, especially pagoda may get booked out months in advance; do your research and book your course early.
- If possible, choose to do Vipassana at the time of the year when weather is relatively cooler. With all activities happening mostly indoors, it will be nice to step out for breaks in a weather that is not too cold or hot for a nice walk.
Vipassana offers the most optimal distraction free environment and a real opportunity to learn, meditate and introspect. My good wishes to whoever is inspired with and chooses to experience Vipassana. Good luck and I hope you have the same joyful and fulfilling experience that I had.
I hope the above was useful. If you have any further questions or want to share your own experiences, please leave a comment below.