2 years ago (July 2017), I went for a 10-day Vipassana meditation course in India and left on the 6th day. In August this year, I went again and completed the course at a center in New Zealand. What started as a fun challenge ended up transforming my life in many ways as I developed a love-hate relationship with meditation. In this article, I’ll share why I left the course, why I went back and what I learned. This involves moments of intense revelations, binge-watching friends and breaking rules, fighting boredom, and much more!
But first, what exactly is Vipassana?
Vipassana, which means seeing things as they really are, is one of the world’s most popular meditation techniques. Discovered by Gautama Buddha, it is being taught for more than 2500 years as a universal remedy for all ills (i.e. an “Art of Living”).
In simple terms, it means learning how to control your mind. It is a way of self-transformation, an exploratory journey that, upon completion, results in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
How does the course work?
The technique of Vipassana is taught in 10-day courses all over the world. The principal teacher is Shri S.N. Goenka (Late). All the sessions are his Audio / Video recordings. There are centers all over the world and there is no charge – everything is provided free of cost. The organization is run by donations from old students. It is also non-sectarian and people from all faiths and backgrounds are welcome.
“The only conversion involved in Vipassana is from misery to happiness, from bondage to liberation.” – S.N. Goenka
A typical day at the center is a constant loop of EAT-SLEEP-MEDITATE x repeat. It might sound fun and easy, but trust me it’s not a retreat, it’s probably one of the hardest things you will do in your life.
Basic guidelines for the course:
- Noble silence- which means silence of body, speech, and mind. You are not allowed to speak or communicate in any form for 10 days. (except with the teacher/servers)
- No reading or writing. No digital devices, of course.
- Abstain from eating after mid-day. You get two meals; Breakfast at 6:30 and Lunch at 11, followed by tea with fruits at 5, all vegetarian (the meals are delicious).
- Meditate 10 hours a day for 10 days.
There are many other rules, which may sound a bit strict at first, but it’s only there to make life easier for the students.
Note: This post does not describe the teachings behind Vipassana. There were 11 discourses with lots of theories and stories, which is hard to document as we’re not allowed to write. Anyway, there is no substitute for attending the program, the learnings and benefits one will get from attending the program cannot be documented in a blog and must be experienced.
Why did I choose to go?
Before I dive deeper into my experiences of the course, I want to give you an understanding of why I chose to go in the first place. People go to such courses for various reasons. For me, I was just bored and wanted to do something new. My eyes were set on yoga and meditation, as these are known to keep our mind and body healthy and happy. I had the time, so I thought why not.
The yoga course I had planned to do was sold out and a friend recommended to check out Vipassana for meditation. I was instantly hooked after reading up on it. A technique to help you live a healthy, happy, successful and fulfilling life, I was sold.
It did sound like an intensive course, but I heard so many positive stories from people who did it in my network and from numerous blogs on the internet. To my naïve mind, all this sounded cool and I wanted it to experience it for myself. I found a center in a village near Ahmedabad ( Dhamma Pitha) and booked a course starting in two weeks (mid-July 2017; you need to book at least 2 months advance for popular centers, I was lucky to get a seat at such short notice). I bought some comfy clothes for meditation and headed to Ahmedabad for a life-changing journey.
Beginning of the struggles
I arrived at 3 PM at the center and settled in quite well. To my surprise, we were allotted single rooms with an ensuite bathroom. There was dinner in the evening followed by orientation, and then we retired to our rooms.
At 4 a.m., a gong went off multiple times and knocked me out of sleep. I got out of bed and hesitantly made my way to the meditation hall, found a comfortable posture and started meditating. For the first 15 minutes, I concentrated on the technique and brought back my attention to my breath every time my mind had wandered.
And slowly, my enthusiasm started fading. My mind and body were not used to meditating for such long periods of time and started revolting. The body started to ache, and the mind became restless.
I had to change my posture every 5 minutes, giving in to the pain and my agitated mind and wondering, “When will they hit the gong for breakfast?”. The only thing that I looked forward to daily, was breakfast and lunch and the chanting of S.N. Goenka, signaling the end of every meditation session.
My routine was constant through the first few days and I attended all the sittings until I didn’t.
Mental overload and breaking some rules
Everything looked good on the surface, but my mind was going crazy; so many thoughts and emotions rushing through while I desperately tried to meditate. The mind wanders, reaching into the deep-rooted memories, some pleasant, many unpleasant. Then it takes a leap into the future and wakes up the anxiety monster.
You might wonder, it’s normal to have such thoughts, happens every day to almost everybody. Well, in normal life we can either act on them or distract ourselves (by usually browsing Instagram or talking to a friend about it). I felt confined because I could not act on them.
The mind is like a wild elephant, that does not want to be tamed/controlled. It’s so strong and free-willed – roaming freely for so many years – suddenly trying to control it is a challenge.
In Vipassana, this is the battle across the ten days; dealing with your thoughts, keeping them aside and getting started again with a constant understanding of anitya, which means “nothing lasts, everything is in a constant state of change”.
I felt bummed I could not concentrate, so I ended up breaking some rules:
- I sneaked my laptop and a few books in my room. I didn’t plan to use them, but on the 4th day, when we were introduced to Vipassana, I lost all control. I fired up my laptop and started binging on a season of Friends.
- I saw a bunch of other kids in my living quarter enter my neighboring room together. Curious, I knocked and went in to find out that this was a daily routine. All of them looked serious with their practice, but I was proved wrong. And I ended up spending an hour gossiping with them.
And I Left
Having broken my noble silence and using my laptop, my meditation practice further deteriorated. I also felt like I am cheating the system and myself. Even if I finish the course, it won’t do me any good and I might never learn the technique. So, I decided to quit.
Our world is full of “quitter”-related sayings and rules, which leads people to do things they don’t want to do out of pride. The “don’t quit” voice in our heads keeps us to commitments we’re not getting anything out of, in turn making us more miserable. If something isn’t serving you any more or doesn’t appear to be worth the investment, quitting is the wiser choice.
I suppressed my ego and requested the teachers to let me leave. He let me go after persistent plea’s (you’re not allowed to leave so easily either). I called my brother to get my flight rescheduled and rushed out of the center.
Why I decided to go again?
It might sound absurd that I would want to go back after a mentally exhausting experience, but I did. I realize it now and I realized it that time as well that what I went through is “normal”. It is a part of the 10-day transformational process.
I also spoke to other friends who completed the course and they said they went through the same thing, and it gets easier after the point I left. Through watching more discourses on Youtube and my own practice, I realized its value and wanted to give it another go.
Another reason was that I just wanted to prove to myself that I can do it. But before I went, I decided to try a few different meditation practices.
When I came back to Sydney in August that year, I found a meditation center that runs weekend courses in the lush Blue Mountains region 1 hour away from Sydney run by Brahma Kumaris. Ironically, I found out that their HQ is in Rajasthan India (my home state) and I heard about them for the first time in Sydney.
Excitedly, I booked a weekend retreat and escaped to the center, my friends thinking I’m too crazy to do all this again. The meditation course there focused more on communication and sharing through words and even physically (hugs, eye gazing) and open-eyed meditation sessions. I went for another silent course with them in Illawara with a friend in December, where we barely remained silent.
Over the last 2 years, I tried many more techniques. I went for a few more sitting with BK’s, tried the Headspace App, Sam Harris’s Waking Up and random videos on YouTube for manifestation meditation. I did not commit myself to one technique completely, so I won’t say either is good or bad. They all helped me in different ways.
In January this year, I wrote in my diary to do a Vipassana course in Australia or NZ this year. I don’t know why I had the urge to do it in this part of the world even though India is the origin of the practice. Maybe it was the sheer beauty of the meditation centers here, or just that I wanted to see how its run here compared to India.
Booking the course
In February, I was speaking to my boss about my desire to do Vipassana again, and she had just returned after spending 1 month meditating in the Himalayas, so her vibe was very Zen. The only barrier to doing a course for many people is finding 11 days to spare. In our busy lives, it’s harder to take time out and ditch our responsibilities to go off-grid.
She said, just book the course and then when the time comes, you will make time to go for it, else, you will just keep talking about it. I followed her advice and found a course in August in New Zealand and booked it at the beginning of March. I thought I’d double it up as a travel opportunity and go backpacking in NZ after finishing the course.
In June, when the deadline was approaching to plan my trip, I booked a one-way ticket to Auckland. Then ensued a month-long wait for the flight over the pacific.
2 days before the course
I arrived in Auckland a couple of days before to get used to New Zealand weather and forget my responsibilities at work. It doesn’t take me long to feel at home in a new place, and I was comfortable after walking for a few hours in the city. Until now, I avoided thinking too much about the course. After reading about meditation, and mindfulness for the previous two years, I felt like I was prepared well enough
But as the thoughts of my past experience came to mind, I started to feel a bit uneasy. I battled through those feelings, took care of all errands and set on to the course.
Phase 1: Battling the first 6 days
I arrived at the center at 4 PM on 21st August. I was on a call with my sister and the networks suddenly dropped, there was no service at the facility. I checked myself in and went to my room.
I was allotted a 4-person dorm. I asked the course manager if he could get me a single room and he said he will look into it. An hour later, I met my roommate, Jack, a lovely guy from the UK and we set off for dinner. We could still talk until 8 PM, so I spoke to a few others and the conversations ranged from “where are you from?” to “so, why are you here?”. After our induction later that evening, we started our noble silence and went to sleep at 9 PM.
The first few days were challenging, yet fun. I already knew what to expect and remembered the breath observation technique (Anapana meditation) fairly, so I got comfortable quite quickly. My only challenge was finding an appropriate posture. Don’t let anyone tell you 10 cushions is a lot of cushions. Do whatever makes you comfortable.
Constant experiments with the cushions and seating style ensued. I was seated at the end of the room, so I had a bird’s eye view of everything.
After the tea break on the first day, the manager told me he can arrange a single room for me, but I refrained. I thought I’ll be more committed to the practice by seeing another person in the room, feeling a bit less lonely, and less likely to break any rules (I brought in a notebook and a novel in my bag, unintentionally).
It didn’t get easier as the days passed. Every day was a challenge, the mind kept roaming in the past or the future, failing to be present. I did manage to get in some prolonged focused meditation here and there, which kept me going.
On the 4th day, as it got harder, I thought to myself, “Why did I even come back here? How could I forget my experience from last time?”. But this time I was determined. The center was in a remote valley north of Auckland, with the nearest town being 15 miles away and no transport options, which means I could not leave even if I wanted to.
Evenings were a bit better than the morning. As the day would end, I would take a hot shower, followed by a 1-hour group meditation, and then the discourse by S.N. Goenka, which everyone enjoyed.
My days just consisted of sitting, walking, and thinking. Then trying not to think. Sit some more. Stretch. Obsess. Realize I’m obsessing. Sit again. Eat-in between and sleep a lot.
On the 5th day, I went to the assistant teacher and told him that I lasted 6 days the previous time, and the 6th day is upon us. It’s a new beginning for me from tomorrow, as I don’t know what to expect. I shared that my mornings are very slow and sad, and my mood gets better as we approach the tea break.
He responded calmly; this is what you’re here to learn, life is full of pleasant and unpleasant sensations. You like something and you get attached to it or develop hatred if you don’t. You must learn to remain equanimous, whatever the sensation.
He sent me off with some more positive words, making me feel better at that time, but miserable again after a few hours.
When meditation failed to tame the mind, I went walking in the bush for some peace. There was a beautiful 15 min trail, passing through a small waterfall, where everyone would walk many times a day. It was stormy weather for the first couple of days, and thankfully, the sun came out every other day after that. I realized how much influence weather has on our moods. The beauty of the center made it a little easier.
I would keep walking until I got bored. I even had a thinking spot where I could think without the pressure of meditating. Colorful flowers were starting to grow, birds chirping, and the glorious sun shining. At this moment, usually, I would realize how grateful I am to be here. My whole life would flash in front of my eyes. I imagined my childhood in Kota, a small city in India, and how lucky I was to be sitting in a remote valley in New Zealand learning a meditation technique that originated in India.
Phase 2: The Challenging end
As I said earlier, I won’t go in too much detail about the course, but here’s what happens briefly:
Day 1: Anapana Meditation (observing breath)
Day 2-3: Additions to Anapana, you focus on sensations around your nostrils and the upper lips
Day 4: Vipassana is being taught
Day 5-10: Continue practice Vipassana with additions every day
All the instructions are supported by detailed explanations. Most of your answers will be answered during the evening discourse, along with interesting stories from ancient India during Buddha’s time.
The evening discourse was the only mental stimulation we had during the day, so we certainly enjoyed listening to them. Goenka Ji also shared some funny stories when he spoke, much needed to break the tension in our heads.
I wouldn’t say it got easier after day 6, but it got better. I started counting backward and the days seemed to pass by faster. I learned how to control the pain and could last at least 45 minutes during the adhiṭṭhāna sittings (All 3 group sittings from Day 5 were sittings of strong determination. During these hours, the students attempt not to move at all, or at least to move as little as possible. Ideally, the position of the arms, hands, legs, and feet don’t change, and the eyes are kept closed the whole time).
I lost my focus on the 5th day last time, and this time it came up on the 8th day. I would meditate properly during the group meditation hours and for a little while on my own, but other times, I was in a different world.
On the 7th day, I asked Tony (course manager) if he could still get me a single room. I saw a person leave the course on day 4, so I knew there was an empty room. I told him I meditate better in my room and want my own space, but to be honest, I was losing my focus and I just had the urge to write and read my book. Doing it with the fear of my roommate coming in unexpectedly was tricky, so a single room would solve the problem.
The next day, Tony told me that the teacher advised not to switch rooms so late in the course, it would disrupt my flow. He advised me to meditate mostly in the hall and take as many smalls breaks as I needed. He also added that he is very proud of the behavior and determination of all the students this time, they don’t usually expect much from new students (because it’s so hard), and he was surprised. His words made me not to judge my own meditation, rather enjoy it.
I crossed off day 9 and awaited the finish.
Phase 3: It’s finally over
Finally, day 10 – Metta Day. In the morning, we were given instructions for Metta meditation, which is essentially sharing your peace and happiness with others. From 10 AM onwards, we could break the noble silence. I felt like I had forgotten to speak.
All of us had a weird bond with each other. We were essentially together all the time but didn’t speak a word. The human mind tends to make judgments based on physical appearances, and when you speak to the people, you realized how wrong you were.
“During the course, it always looked like everyone else sitting like a stone Buddha having an easy time while you are suffering like crazy. In the end, you realize how much everyone suffered. A metaphor for life really!”– my Melbourne housemate, also an old student
The discussions were incredibly interesting. Everyone was uplifted and in a great mood. In the beginning, it was all about sharing one’s experiences and struggles before the topics changed to real-life matters.
I was surprised to meet so many driven and like-minded people on the last day. Some of us exchanged numbers and decided to stay in touch. In fact, I met with a fellow meditator two weeks later, Kevin, who invited me to his house for lunch.
A chattering mind cannot meditate. We realized the importance of our silence when we went for a session that evening. At night, about a dozen of us went for a walk to the waterfall and were greeted by hundreds of glow-worms. We stood silent for a few minutes, and enjoyed the serenity, a magical moment!
Exhausted, we went to bed and prepped for the last discourse in the morning. S.N. Goenka bid us farewell, giving us tips and guidance to continue our practice. A common theme I heard in all the conversations was, “ I really enjoyed the 10 days but I’m also glad it’s over”. So was I, my friend, really glad.
Vipassana is not an escape from the daily trials and tribulations of life, it is, indeed, a way to deal with these trials and tribulations. It is an art of living. Days later after the course, I feel calmer, more grounded, and more in touch with myself.
At both the courses, I felt a lot might happen while I’m away and how much I will miss out on. I thought about countless emails that might need my attention, missed calls and messages from my friends, and just things happening all over the world. But the reality is far from imagined. Being “off-grid” for 11 days had no impact whatsoever on the happenings of the world. The world doesn’t fall apart while you’re not paying attention to it.
Today, nearly all of us suffer from anxiety, frustration, and discontent, and this was an opportunity to see what causes me anger and what makes me light up, and then eventually realizing this is all impermanent.
Gautama Buddha developed this meditation technique to train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving. These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question “What am I experiencing now?” rather than on “What would I rather be experiencing?” It is difficult to achieve this state of mind, but not impossible.
It’s a perfect digital detox, the food is great, and the course is very well structured. The strict timetable enforces discipline, and the evening discourses are just brilliant. One gets a lot of time to introspect there, and tons of unexpected revelations. And you also realize what values to you by what you miss the most 😉
If you’ve read this far, I highly recommend you give it a go. It’s one of the most challenging yet fulfilling things I’ve done in my life. Maybe it’s not for you, maybe it’ll do wonders for you, you’ll never know unless you try.
My only advice is to be compassionate to yourself. It’s easy to judge your progress and being on hard on yourself. Adjust your expectations, take more breaks if you need, and have fun in the process.
Remember, this is all about showing yourself you can do it, so the key isn’t to be perfect, but to simply improve. The author who writes one page a day has written a book after a year. The meditator who gets slightly better every week is a totally changed person a year later. I’m still a wretched meditator, but I’m better than I was 2 years ago and I’m hopeful about the future.
Thanks for reading!
Have you done Vipassana? How was your experience? Let me know in the comments. Drop me a line if you any questions about the course.
You can read more about Vipassana here or watch this video here.