I just finished meditating and feel the time is fitting to relate an experience I had at a Vipassana Meditation retreat in April of 2011. I find my experiences with Vipassana Meditation constructive for travelers in that: it can be difficult to feel rested on the road because planes, trains, and automobiles usually are not the comfiest places to sleep, meditating while sitting straight in a chair can make you feel rested as if you had slept. Traveling in new places can be stressful, and meditation cools you out so that you deal with stressful situations more calmly.
It is said that this is the type of meditation that Siddhartha Gautama (later called Buddha) used to reach enlightenment when he plopped down stubbornly beneath the Banyan tree and freed himself from suffering. He later taught the technique in India to others more than 2500 years ago. Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’ in ancient Sanskrit, the language of the Buddha. The idea behind this type of meditation is that through self-observation, one can get free of suffering, the stuff of daily life that keeps us from reaching real peace and real happiness. Today there are many centers that teach Vipassana Meditation around the world, and it just so happened that there was one not far from me when I decided to try it out.
Spiritual practices generally appeal to me and this one piqued my interest in particular when I heard that you are not allowed to talk for 10 days. In retrospect I think that was what initially drew me in. I like challenging myself and I enjoy undertaking things that are difficult. As I read more about it on the website, I felt that some outside guidance on how to meditate would be helpful as I had already tried meditation off and on, but never really had a clear idea of how to proceed. I had to sign up several weeks in advance so someone could review my wish to attend and make sure there was space for me as space was limited. I signed up for a bilingual English/Vietnamese session, and I read the requirements before finalizing my application. The precepts for attending were such:
1) To abstain from killing any being
2) To abstain from stealing
3) To abstain from all sexual activity
4) To abstain from telling lies (not being able to speak for 10 days eliminates this tendency, if you can’t speak, you can’t very well tell lies)
5) To abstain from all intoxicants
- I should also add that in the rules we were not allowed to have any stimulation such as reading material, music, and definitely no cell phones or gaming devices. The retreat is donation-based, at the end of the program you can give whatever amount you feel is appropriate.
The center that I went to was about a 40 minute drive to the southeast of Dallas. I was living in Austin at the time so it was about a 4 hour drive from there. Once I turned off the main highway, and started my winding journey through country back roads, what I was about to undertake became more real. I was apprehensive about being out of touch with the world for 10 days, but in the end I told myself, “what is 10 days out of your whole life?” When I drove up to the center, I registered in the main office and then pretty soon after the first day commenced.
There was a meditation hall, two separate buildings for female and male quarters, a smaller building that contained the kitchen/eating area, and a newly added building that was for private meditation. The meditation hall was quite spacious, with diming lights close to the ceiling to give off dull orange glow during meditation hours. Each person had a 3x3ft meditation cushion, arranged in rows from the front of the room to the back. Men and women were separated by a wider path in the center of the room. It had a raised platform in the front that was like a stage where the head of the center and his wife sat. The quarters where each person slept consisted of a 10x10ft rooms (each person got their own), with a small simple bed, one pillow, and one blanket per person. There was a communal shower, bathroom, and dining area. The newly added private meditation building had separate rooms for each person to use on their own time or when otherwise designated. The rooms in that building were arranged in a circular pattern with halls of meditation rooms centered around the middle of the building where I suspect there was a larger meditation room.
Outside the center was truly gorgeous. It is situated next to a farm, with a barbed-wire fence flanking the south side of the center’s boundary. Very healthy-looking free roaming cows could often be seen grazing there. There were a series of paths to the west of the meditation hall that led to a small wooded area that was very pleasant to walk on. There were many sweet smelling purple flowers that attracted big brightly colored Monarch Butterflies as well as traditional black and yellow striped bumble bees which I hadn’t seen since childhood. There were also squirrels, rabbits, and snakes that inhabited the woods where the path ran. The sun shone through the tall skinny trees and added a pleasant warm light to the little forest and made it seem so silent and serene. As I describe these woods, I am reminded that they may very well have been my favorite part about the retreat.
The meditation schedule each day was pretty packed. I woke up at about 4:00am to start meditating and lights out was at about 10:00. During waking hours there were several one or two hour meditation sessions, mostly in the main group meditation hall but a I remember a couple times a day it was optional to go to the meditation hall or stay inside our rooms to meditate. Between 4:00 and 6:00am was optional, and I tried to be diligent about this the first few days but I ended up using that time to sleep a little extra. All in all, I calculated that we all spent about 11 hours a day meditating. There were three meals a day, all vegetarian food. Breakfast and lunch were pretty substantial and we could choose from a wide array of different yummy foods. Dinner was not so much dinner as it was tea and fruits. I have a fast metabolism and I definitely lost some weight during the 10 days even though I tried to drink a few glasses of whole milk with each meal to make up for the decrease in calorie intake. One of my favorite parts of each day was watching the hour long discourse video made by S.N. Goenka, the head of all the centers around the world. He seemed to me to be a hearty, jolly man and I rather enjoyed his Hindi accent in English. I especially enjoyed his humor, which was lighthearted and his jokes were the cheesy kind of jokes that your grandfather might tell. After such an intense day I rather looked forward to getting to relax and listen to what he had to say about the theoretical, practical, and historical aspects of Vipassana Meditation.
As for the meditation itself, I won’t go too deep into details so as not to give away any of the techniques they taught us, but I will describe some of my own experiences during my time there. Mentally, it was the most challenging thing I had ever undertaken. My mind was like a wild animal in the beginning and it was so difficult to concentrate steadily on my breath without my mind being bombarded with nonsense. I saw rapid improvement though as you have so much meditation time in your schedule. It definitely felt like a crash course for meditation. By the third day my concentration was much better and around midday after finishing an hour of meditating I left the meditation hall feeling better than I ever have. I can’t remember ever feeling as blissful in my whole life, I felt so calm, so centered, so happy, I loved everyone around me, those not around me, even my enemies, and I felt an extraordinary elation that I could only describe as pure bliss. The feeling faded after the midday break when I retired to my room to nap a little. Over the next few days the complete opposite occurred. There were at least 2 times when after meditating I felt like I was going to have a panic attack or breakdown of some sort. They said this was normal because the type of meditation we were doing was like “surgery” for the mind, and that it caused “impurities” to rise to the surface of your psyche. I didn’t find not being able to talk, read or listen to music very difficult and I could actually see the absence of those things help me in my meditation. During the first couple days images of my phone or laptop screen would pop into my head, presumably because I was using them so habitually, but those thoughts and images soon ceased to come into my awareness and my concentration became proportionately better. I did break ‘noble silence’ a couple times accidentally when I blurted something out loud to myself whilst walking the trails in the wooded area behind the compound. And so it went, with 11 hours of meditation in a day there were a lot of ups and downs, some sessions I couldn’t focus at all and at other times I felt like I could cut diamonds with my focus.
On the final day, you are allowed to speak again, and it is really interesting to talk to the other people that were going along doing the same thing you were after 10 days of being inside your own head. Up until then we were all in our own little world not interacting or even acknowledging each other, and then boom, we were talking a million miles a minute about all sorts of topics. On that last day there was a noticeable difference within myself. I felt extremely clear and calm. Everyone else in the program had it on their faces also, everyone just looked…content. Before you leave you sign up for a few clean up duties and the option is open to leave a donation.
All in all I found the experience a positive one and would recommend anyone to try it out if interested. It is mentally challenging but you will get something out of it, although what that is could be different for everybody. I learned invaluable techniques for meditation, and I even met some very cool down to earth people in the process. You’d be amazed at how scary and refreshing taking 10 days away from the world can be.
You can find more information about Vipassana Meditation at: http://www.dhamma.org/